Accidents Will Happen
One of my favorite things to do - when I need a distraction, when I miss someone or something, or when I’m just bored - is scroll through old Instagram posts. It sounds less like a waste of time (which, to be clear, it is) when you consider that it’s the millennial evolution of looking at photo albums, a classic sad person activity. Is the present not doing it for you? Visit the past. Easy enough.
On my own feed, there is a picture that always stops me. Dated January 23, 2014 and captioned “ready for battle”, it’s of the top half of my face. I’m wearing my favorite knit hat, a brightly colored striped thing with a pom-pom that my grandmother gave me for Christmas when I was in middle school, with a green scarf that makes my green eyes pop covering my nose and mouth. I am about to face Boston winter on the way to a bar where I will meet my grad school classmates. I am knocking over the first domino in a chain that ends with me on my bedroom floor with blood on my pillow and no idea how I got there.
Three months later, I'm sitting in the waiting room of the Commonwealth Avenue Planned Parenthood, feeling very much like I shouldn’t be there. All I did was drink too much and make a mistake. I looked around at the faces of my waiting room-mates and saw stories far more interesting, far more worthy than mine. It’s a Wednesday, an abortion day at the clinic, and we all had to go through the gauntlet of mostly male protesters outside. At the time, Massachusetts’ buffer zone law was still in effect, so at the very least it was a pretty chill gauntlet. I don’t remember what they said so much as I remember their long, pale faces and the flowers in the tiny hands of the children they brought as props.
My first trip to the clinic had been on January 24. I wanted a burger to help chip away at the unusual, angry hangover I had, and I decided to round out my first and only meal of the day with a side of Plan B. Just to get to the pickup window in the lobby, you walk through bulletproof glass doors and a metal detector. When I came back in April and went deeper into the building, I had to clear two more metal detectors and an armed security guard. I was taken aback that Boston - a city so deep blue that there is literally a cafe called Blue State Coffee a couple of blocks down from this Planned Parenthood - needed Dixie-level protection from those who mean to do harm, but as I have learned, being a woman in America is nothing if not a series of surprises that only get shittier as you move through time and space.
One of my classmates and I had not wanted the night to end, so when the rest of our all-girl group went home, we headed to a bar that was around the corner from my apartment. I’m not sure what compelled me to spend any length of time with her. We had absolutely nothing in common, and aside from that, she was a jerk. But those things don't matter, I suppose, when you’re trying to get lit AF. We did some tequila shots, then she disappeared into a corner with a dirtbag-looking fellow. I went over to an empty table and posted on my Tumblr about how it was odd that I’d consumed a small river’s worth of tequila and still felt completely fine. At about the same time as I was parsing out how risky it would be to walk home alone at that time of night, she and her dirtbag came over to my table with another guy.
I have never been able to say with absolute certainty what happened, but here is what I do know. He was cute. Exactly my type, honestly. He had dark hair, sad eyes, and a look on his face like he’d far sooner have been doing anything else but hanging out at a college dive bar. As for me, I was neck deep in an eating disorder that made me about twice the size I’d been two years prior, a few weeks out from having my heart completely broken by someone I’d nursed a crush on since the Clinton Administration, and feeling a need for positive male attention so intense it bordered on violent. (That last thing is not a fault in myself, but in my stars - I'm a Scorpio.)
He offered me a PBR that had already been opened. We talked for a bit, and I started feeling strange. It wasn't like blacking out. This was more of a rolling brownout, coming in fuzzy waves that hit me fast and kept getting bigger. He walked back to my apartment with me, and I told him he would not be coming in. He did anyway. I kept saying I didn’t want to. We did anyway. I played along as much the waves would let me. It turns out that the main feature of my autopilot is politeness. My parents would be so proud. It only lasted a little while before he pulled himself together and left. The only thing I remember after that is waking up with an awful pain in my groin that I was not immediately able to recognize as a full bladder. I managed not to piss myself, though, so score one for me.
Almost from the word go, I blamed myself. Even after the multi-day hangover. After another classmate told me that the girl I’d been with that night had told the rest of our class that the whole thing had been a joke to her, the dirtbag, and the guy who went home with me. After believing that getting an STD was what I deserved for accepting an open drink, especially since I'd been in a sorority at a large Southern university with a somewhat notorious rape problem and had run interference on a younger girl doing the same thing more than once. After keeping it from my mother, who knows so much about me that she’d rather I hid things from her like a normal daughter. I stopped going out or really even talking to the only 10 people I knew in Boston. No one wants to hang out with a desperate, squishy joke.
My appointment was early in the morning on a pretty April day; one of the few that month that was anything like my non-New Englander understanding of what spring is. I felt nothing. I’d flipped into self-preservation overdrive as a way of protecting myself from the laundry list of diagnoses I knew were inevitable. But before I left my apartment, I’d looked at the picture of me in my pom-pom hat, and I gave myself a full Two Minutes Hate. It’s weird to be able to pinpoint exactly when something went wrong, I thought. You asked for it. You did this to me. You fucked up so badly that I’m referring to myself in the second person. Who even does that? An idiot in a stupid hat is who.
I am sure my nurse could see it. My poker face is pretty good, but my eyes give me away. She pricked my finger for the rapid HIV test and I stared at the floor. I couldn’t look at her, or my finger, or the tube. This was going to be a long twenty minutes if I didn’t say something, I knew, so after a few more seconds of silence, I said everything. It spilled out of my mouth, all this poison I’d been allowing to build and spread and fester in the soft parts of me that get hit and stay down forever, making my face hot and my chest tighten. I let myself cry, and the tears came so hard that the collar of my shirt got wet.
She just listened.
When I could breathe again, she started asking questions.
After a while, she told me I had probably been drugged.
I had definitely been sexually assaulted, and I should not feel bad about calling it what it is.
My tests are all negative, just so I know.
And it’s not my fault.
The only thing that is unique to my experience is the details. I’m the millionth woman whose assault wasn’t so much being clubbed over the head and dragged by the hair into a cave but a progression of vague events that only lead to one conclusion. God knows I’m not the first to blame myself for something a man did to me. Hell, I doubt I was the only person my nurse had that conversation with that day. It could have happened to anyone you know, and if you know at least four women and the stats are correct, it has. Women’s health is a lot more than contraceptives and cancer screenings. It’s also talking us down from the ledge after our bodies become a punchline.
It’s easy to see Planned Parenthood and other clinics like it as the domain of underprivileged people with nowhere else to go. If you’re inclined to look down on those people, as ever more of our countrymen are, you’ll conjure up ways and reasons to look down on those who serve them. And while it’s true that these clinics are quite literally lifesavers for people who would otherwise be at the mercy of fate and our barge fire of a healthcare system, the full range of people who need them don’t fit neatly into that box. They are also for the daughters and sisters and wives of folks who'd shut it all down tomorrow if they could. Nice girls from nice families they know from the club, with fancy degrees from schools they went to, who they’re always so impressed with. Would they see these places differently if they could see that same nice girl in the waiting room, broken down and scared to death, wondering how I landed there?
Maybe it wouldn’t change anything. Maybe we’re too mired in All Things Bad for a familiar face on a thing you thought you hated to change minds the way it used to. I wish they could see my nurse at the Commonwealth Avenue Planned Parenthood and how she was a flash of light in darkness I have only just been able to name. She was the first person to tell me it wasn't my fault, and probably the only person who I’ve actually believed when they said so. People can and often do suck, I get it, but I do not understand wanting to take that comfort away from a person who couldn't need it more. Hate to break it to you, but you love someone who was ready for battle once too.
Natalie Tyson is a contributor to A Is For. Natalie lives in Virginia, where she writes stuff, bakes stuff, and drinks a truly remarkable amount of seltzer water. You can't find her on any social media - it terrifies her - but she's glad you asked. She accepts tips.