Saturday, July 15, 2006

A story and a volume of Auden


"I was raped at the store last night," she said. Her face told me nothing.

This killed the conversation. We were in a crowded, lively and otherwise cheerful pub in Toronto on a hot Friday night in the summer of 1989. Angela held on to her scotch on the rocks and didn't say anything else. The pub noise rolled around us.

I was acutely aware that there was little to say after "I was raped."

"Are you okay?" was stupid, since she clearly wasn't.

"What happened?" was worse. I knew what had happened and the rest was a matter of details that she wouldn't want to think about twice.

I finally said "Do you want to talk about this?"

She took a long moment with that same blank face and gasped. I reached over the table to hold her hand - because she obviously was about to start crying - and watched her hang her head for a few seconds before lifting it in an oversized smile, laughing. Enthusiastically.

She slapped my hand, took her scotch and said, "You should have seen your face just then!"

People don't joke about this was the first thing that came mind, followed shortly by And yet, here we are.

The conversation (according to her at least) was no longer about being raped after hours at the shop, but was just something to laugh about. The couple a few tables away was also laughing, talking about the kickboxing scene in Say Anything (playing down the road) where John Cusak gets it in the nose. If they heard us, Angela might have been laughing about the same topic for all they knew.

Angela sipped her scotch and gave me a look along the lines of Now what are you going to do about it? combined with something stuck behind it (not 'hidden' - hiding is a voluntary act). Something bruised or not functioning properly.

I liked Angela. We had been keeping company for around a month, pointedly not dating or doing much else than seeing movies and drinking coffee. She was beautiful and difficult and smart. She loved to argue and occasionally enjoyed kissing me  in quiet corners and parks on slow evenings. She worked hard on the tough-girl routine but took down a few layers of defense around me.

I don't know why. I was 20 years old and cute, it might have been a factor. Or maybe I sparred well enough to let her know I wasn't intimidated. I actually was intimidated. I was also amused.

Maybe she thought I was easily led. This last exchange introduced the possibility that everything about Angela - the highs and lows - amounted to some kind of game on her part. I was raped is one hell of a chess move.

I had a few seconds to think about this, and finally offered the largest grin I could manage. I think I said something like That's a good one. And, sincerely Ange, this is simply too much fun for me.

I stood up and watched her face for something other than chip-on-the-shoulder amusement. All I got was the fixed, patient smile that politicians use in a debate while radiating the fact that their opponent isn't worth worrying about and the only response is to smile politely and pat their hand gently when they try to say something important.

I dropped two twenty dollar bills on the table and said something like You stay here and live it up. On me. Use the change for cab fare. I am just not the kind of person to take this kind of fun. Have a great evening, Ange.

And I left. Quickly. To hell with all that.

I was a few blocks away before stopping dead in my tracks, realizing that she hadn't actually said, in so many words, that the rape didn't occur. She laughed at my response and I assumed it was all a joke.

So - still in view of the pub - I was in the unique position of having stormed out on a woman who made a horribly inappropriate joke about rape. Or I'd just deserted a rape victim who didn't know how to cope.

I didn't move.  I saw her leave the pub and head over to me (a bit quickly - my departure had obviously not been in her script). She acted as if the scene at the restaurant had never happened (and suggested that I really needed to get a sense of humour). I don't remember much more about that evening. I didn't ask her outright what the hell she was trying to prove since I didn't think she'd answer and I eventually flagged down a cab and held the door open until she got in, handing more money to the driver to get her somewhere that didn't involve me. I went home feeling at once played and still deeply worried about Angela.

The friendship did not last long after that. Not a surprise. Seventeen years later, I still don't know exactly what happened to her. I have theories: none of the scenarios are pretty. It's possible that she lied about being raped to shock me. But as previously mentioned, people don't do that unless there's something wrong with them on a number of levels.

Its also possible that she was raped and denied it because she couldn't cope. This is more likely - it would be a hard thing to face, harder still to admit. Or maybe it's something awful and awkward  that didn't match the dictionary (or legal) definition of rape and the result twisted itself into something she couldn't deal with or discuss.

Knowing that Ange was a very private person (in her own words), names have been changed and details obscured. I'm not writing this out of spite or to embarrass her or to put myself above anybody else's level of maturity, especially not when I was 20 years old.

This is about trying figuring out exactly why it stirs up dust seventeen years after the fact. It's been spurred on by a brief meeting with Angela in a public place where we were both surprised to see one another and there was no connection other than 'You're in my way, I need that box of Rasin Bran' (we were in a supermarket). Nothing was discussed other than basic pleasantries. Seventeen years is a long time, events notwithstanding.

And none of this constitutes 'closure' because a) it was a story that I witnessed, rather than lived through, and b) I have always hated the concept of 'closure' as it's been presented to me. It's always felt like a parting shot disguised as a mutual understanding.  If you say“This is me, take it or leave it, you know where the door is,” you waive the right to call them back once the door has been shut and you're left alone.

Ranting aside, there are a lot of provisos in this story, a lot of edges left undefined. I knew Angela was hurt. I didn't think she was lying. I knew that I didn't have the full story.
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The legalities can be taken care of first. I was working for the Metro Toronto Police that summer as a sort of public relations representative (I went to seniors homes and discussed police programs). A few days after Angela's scene at the pub, I gathered all the information I could find about rape crisis centres and sexual assault counselling, packed it all in a brown manila envelope and left it with Angela's roomate. Angela wasn't home or wasn't speaking to me. I'm not sure if I was speaking to her at that time, but as stated earlier, I was worried. She was either in deep psychological trouble or had just pulled one of the worst jokes imaginable.

Leap backwards, to the evening of her story at the pub, hours after I'd put her in a cab and sulked home. She called me at 3am with the same 'nothing wrong here' demeanour. In public, I'd held my tongue. On the phone, I must have said something along the lines of I think I escaped from this insanity a few hours ago. Why do you think I want to talk to you now?

Nothing happened, she said, it was a joke. You know that. It was a joke. Nothing really happened.

The word 'really' in the above exchange wasn't dropped with any subtlety. I took the bait and said Are you okay?

Ten minutes of small talk followed as she avoided the question. She finally said If that...if something did happen...I wouldn't be able to talk about it. I'd ignore it.

I knew that I was more worried than angry. I said If something like that did happen, I know there are places you can call.
It didn't happen, she said unconvincingly. Or she was a great actress and the joke was still happening. But let's say it one more time, people don't joke about these things.

She finally hung up. I fell asleep to a skipping CD, an arrangement of Pie Jesu which played all night long through thin, worried dreams:

Pie Jesu
Qui tollis peccata mundi
Dona eis requiem
Agnus Dei
Dona eis requiem sempiternam

Merciful Jesus
Who takes away the sins of the world
Grant them rest
Lamb of God
Grant them everlasting rest

Far too ecclesiastical for the situation. But the lack of sleep and worry kept it in my brain for days.
__________________________________

A few weeks before the pub incident, she and I had gone to a movie. It was something generic enough that I can't remember the title, plot, or any of the cast. I remember that somebody died in it - a long and drawn out Hollywood hospital scene - and Angela mentioned how it upset her as we walked back to my car. She told me about a family member who had been ill when she was younger, and how she'd almost been jealous that this relative was surrounded by people who loved and supported them. She hated that jealousy, but at the time she thought that maybe if she had been sick as well, somebody might have loved her as much.

It came out ironically, a touch bitter, tongue firmly in cheek. Until the detachment ended and she sat down quietly in the street (surprising the Saturday night crowd) and started to cry. Almost. Tears rolling down her cheeks but not sobbing.

It wasn't as theatrical as it sounds. She simply sat down and I could stay or go as I wished. No apology, no explanation. I kneeled behind her for a moment and put my arms around her, waiting for a sharp elbow or some words to shake me off. It didn't happen. She finally put her hand on mine, tears still falling, and quietly said I hate you Michael.

I said Yeah, I know, and held her close. We stayed there for a long time holding hands and not talking, Angela decidedly not crying as I dried the tears from her cheeks. I drove her home and did not mention it again.

I didn't understand why this happened, but I didn't think she was faking it at the time. There are far more subtle ways to evoke sympathy or even to pitch a fit. I couldn't imagine that she was playing some kind of game at the time - I didn't know why she would want to, or what it would have accomplished.
__________________________________

Leap forward. Around a week after I left her the pamphlets (and after a few tight phonecalls), she finally told me that she had not been raped, full stop. There had been a 'situation' that had been threatening and scary, and the person behind that 'situation' had been taken care of. So a nice person like me didn't have to worry (her words). And I still needed a sense of humour. Did I want to meet her at Fran's for coffee?

No, I didn't. That comment about 'needing a sense of humour' tied it up. Any further engagement wasn't worth the effort. I didn't know if she needed a confidante (she'd mentioned that a few of her friends, all fiercely loyal types, had been let in on the story), or whether she was making things up as she went. I didn't know if meeting her was going to end up in another charming discussion about film and Norton's Poetry Anthology selections or whether she was going to drop another bombshell.

I was worried and pissed off, which is a hallmark of a response to a manipulator. But let’s get back to the not-putting-myself-above-anybody-else’s-maturity sentiment from the start of this piece. I did numerous dumb, juvenile and morally suspect things while in University. I’m not recounting them all here because…well, because. That said, I wasn't a manipulator. Was Angela? A cursory glance for a good definition of manipulative behaviour could take you someplace like Coping.org, where a few of the common characteristics are:

- Hide behind a 'mask' and let people see them in an acceptable way when in reality they are actually feeling or acting in an `unacceptable' way for these people.

- Involve everyone in their life's problems so that they do not have to face the problems alone.

- Make others feel guilty or responsible for actions or thoughts which are theirs alone.

Remind you of anyone?

But slapping this label on Angela is both wrong and unkind. Something terrible might have happened and she simply couldn’t explain it (how many layers of defense do you have to put up prevent even thinking about something?). Every meeting after her story ended in weird sarcasm and weirder aggression on her part. There weren't many - mostly coffee dates with mutual friends - and she was alternately needy and dismissive. I might have been a shoulder to cry on after a bad day, but that was past and (for whatever reasons), I wasn't something she wanted to return to. I could deal with that.

But leap backwards again, before the scene in the pub, before the tears that happened after the movie. Just the end of an evening of coffee and whiskey on ice, and Angela kissing me, unexpectedly, in the front seat of her car. After a few very long minutes she said You'd want me as a friend much more than a girlfriend, trust me on that.

You're probably right, I said. But you kissed me.

Yes I did, she said. And we went back to kissing.
__________________________________

At some point in all this, I had loaned her a big and expensive edition of WH Auden's collected works. As our conversations became weird and terse, I grew less and less interested in ever getting it back. I finally got a phone call (after around two weeks of radio silence) where she explained that both the book and she were with Antonia and Carla and DeJesus at The Big Bop, where they had decided to dance and drink and not worry about anything. And I was cordially invited.

Auden's great reading for The Big Bop. Why not keep it with my compliments, I said.

Ok, she said. But come down and just drink and dance. You don't even have to dance with me. Just come and not worry about anything.

I didn't go. If she was damaged, her friends had closed ranks around her and had helped. If she was manipulative, I didn't want to play. If she wanted to talk to me, (rather than simply a sounding board who wasn't Antonia or Carla), there were other ways to do it that didn't involve a tray of $2.00 shooters at The Big Bop. Wherever she wanted that to lead, I wasn't interested.

But I got the Auden back. It arrived at my doorstep in a manila envelope with a crazy quilt letter written at different angles on a brown paper bag. It won't be quoted here. But it explained a great deal. She was okay. She had talked to somebody who helped. She hadn't been raped but wasn't going to talk about the incident in any more detail. She had treated me badly because she didn't know what else to do.

She also said that she was sorry.

So. Assume that my 'closure' rant at the start of this piece should have a proviso - I regretted not going to The Big Bop to meet her. She might have explained the situation instead of her stream-of-consciouness mea culpa on a brown paper bag. It might have sounded like a confession or an apology or even an accusation - why hadn't I done more to help? It would have - whatever happened - closed the book then and there.

All of this took place over 3 months. It was messy then and was filed away by all involved and not mentioned. And over a box of Raisin Bran, there's little more than 'that happened' between us. But post-paper bag letter, for awhile at least, the clouds around it hung with me. I was still studying poetry and writing it (and don't worry, this ain't the forum to display it), and spent time writing a piece around the fallout.

99% of any pre-grad writing has long since been reduced to landfill, but I keep finding - losing - re-finding a stanza I wrote in those few months. That doesn't make it good or even valid poetry, it just means that at one point it was sincere.

I never got the opening to work. The ending always stayed the same:

If I had known
the wounds you had hidden
I would still want to heal you

I would still repeat your name
behind my eyes
in the early hours of morning.

(in a jaunty cockney accent) That's poetry, that is.

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