ENOUGH: The Face of Zero

By

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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The Face of Zero
Marisa Trettel

The beachfront city where I attended my freshman year of college is home to approximately 95,500 people and lies at the very foot of the state of North Carolina. It balances delicately like an acrobat on the tightrope between what is commonly known as the South and the Deep South.

The questions I asked on my college tour the day I arrived there were not at all significant to the experience I would later have. I’d asked about the average shower stall-to-student ratio in the freshman dormitories and which dorms had carpeting—concerned for my always-cold feet when I should have been concerned for my life.

It’s possible that even the right questions wouldn’t have made a difference or kept me away.

I should have asked about numbers. Back then, I didn’t see statistics as anything but meaningless, faceless data. Now I cannot help but see every number as a face, a story, an understanding that waits silently to be discovered. I know now that they have heartbeats and fingernails and tear ducts, just like you and me.

In 2006, the city’s police department reported sixty-two cases of forcible rape. That same year, the college I attended released an end-of-year crime report documenting a total of thirty-seven burglaries, seven counts of motor vehicle theft, three counts of arson, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of robbery. The many incidences of drug possession, distribution, and smuggling that I had become acutely accustomed to witnessing were not listed, though there was one more number in this set: “Forcible Sex Offenses (Including Forcible Rape) On Campus: 3.”

When I look at a “3” I see a broken “8.” The pure, interconnected, immortal number of eight that has been shattered. Violated. Damaged. Broken. It is missing a whole part of itself. Yet the three also forms lips, slightly open, the dampness of a whisper lingering in orb-like droplets along its edges, or a heart lying defeated, on its side. But it can also become the strained lines of a lioness’s jaw, clenched with teeth bared while a roar brews deep beneath.

The number three was startling to me, ironically, for three reasons. First, because it seemed like a rather ordinary number for such a crime report, something you would find at most universities. In other words, not very high. Second, because a number that low, that inaccurate, shouldn’t be so ordinary, at universities or anywhere else. And third, because it meant that I had been present for each and every one of the rape cases the school was willing to report. The three is no longer lips, or a heart, or a lioness to me. It is memories—memories of what I witnessed, what I heard, what I lived through. It is powerlessness. It is rage.

The first fragment of three is the barely discernible yelp of a girl at 9 p.m. on February 28, 2006, and then her shrieking, “HELP ME! Someone! Please…” Her chilling screams still echo within me when I find myself walking alone as the edges of night unfold. I saw her face: an eighteen-year-old-girl pinned to a well-lit sidewalk as a man’s muscular arms held her violently beneath his heavy torso. The clenching lines of shock on her forehead, the steady, trickling stream of blood down her cheek, the shaking muscles of adrenaline, fear, and struggle. My memory holds the colliding images of horror and agony, but also relief, when a second girl materialized, running, grabbing, lifting the helpless from the ground, and growling, audibly, “Run.” Her rescue was the most horrifyingly beautiful thing I have ever seen. Yet her rapist disappeared into forest of longleaf pine trees stretching for miles behind our dormitory, gone, along with the responsibility for her grief.

The second fragment of three is a story I heard after the fact: a seventeen-year-old victim of gang rape in the dorm across the street. The imagined horror of her ordeal was all there was to explain the red flashing lights and wailing sirens, the navy blue uniforms that came to take her tiny form away that night. I never saw those fragile eyes again. I was never told if she made it out of her nightmare alive or, if nothing else, still breathing. What I do know is that the five men who raped her that night fled campus and were never found, though I often wonder if anyone ever truly looked for them.

The third fragment of three is the face of the silently graceful girl who lived a floor above me. I heard her heavy, labored footsteps as she stomped her way about the hallways as the sun was rising, alone. I saw the milky glaze of her eyeballs, the unnatural imbalance of her hips, and her look of sheer confusion when I found her, asked her where her shirt was, what room she lived in, and led her to her wide-open bedroom door. I asked her why she was wandering the halls half-naked, if she had been drinking, if she was okay. Fear devoured her pupils in the moment right before destructive realization. Another man walked away unnoticed.

Three is the number of rapes I had witnessed within a few months’ time. Three is no longer a number, to me. It is an outrage. Three is the endless curve of question marks colliding, its empty spaces of silence leaving us without answers. Three is a number that will always be a reminder. But, three is a number that is not mine. My story did not take place on campus. Instead, it was a freakish sideshow to this circus’ main events. It fell within a separate category on the police report: “Off Campus Crime.”

I scroll down the page of statistics, and there it is: “Criminal Offenses – Non Campus. Forcible Sex Offenses (Including Forcible Rape): 0.”

Zero is my mouth gapping with shock. Zero is my vagina forcibly opened. Zero is an expanding universe of invisibilities. Zero is an eye opened wide. Zero is a void that no one notices. Zero is the black hole of police reports never looked at. Zero, is a feeling of both emptiness and rage. Zero is a story erased. Zero is the number of people who came to my aid. Zero is the number of people who were punished for this crime. Zero, it not a beginning, and so it does not have an end. Zero is what they have tried to make me. Zero is a number that has no face, no name, and no voice.

But I do.

 

My fragments don’t fit together, only hover in the close context of time, one single life-changing night.

1. “Would you like something to drink?” a woman, a stranger, asked enthusiastically from the kitchen. I was sitting in a large living room at a friend of a friend’s house, staring out the window at a small wooden bird house that swung daintily from a tree branch in the front yard. I always felt awkward asking things of those I was not well acquainted with, and on top of that I felt childish asking for apple juice, but I did anyway. Thankfully, she obliged me without comment. There were about ten of us sitting in a semicircle of heavily worn, beige couches. Actually, the whole room was beige—a color I usually associated with cleanliness, though in this particular case it had a feel of grit and grime to it, as if the owner hadn’t vacuumed in a year.

I had found myself there after opting to leave the beach where my friends and I had spent the morning to instead hang out with Patrick, the male friend I had recently begun “sort of” dating. I didn’t know anyone there except for him but I didn’t really care. It was escape I needed, not company.

I sat on the couch opposite Patrick, drifting in and out of consciousness, out of reality and memory, for most of the evening. I had the vague knowledge that everyone around me was watching cartoons, talking about Bonnaroo, talking about writing, talking about graduate school, talking about Van Gogh, talking about soup. That’s when James walked in. He made a silent entrance through a door that I hadn’t even realized existed and walked with the lightest of footsteps to stand directly behind the couch I was partially occupying. I could feel his presence behind me before I could even hear his voice through the buzzing of the room around us, as if gravity had shifted and my internal organs were suddenly being thrashed backwards, towards him, to collide into my spinal cord in quick bursts of pain. But before I could turn my head to see who he was, what he was, something made a forceful impact with my shoulder and sent shooting panic through my body like electricity. He had punched me. Hard. And for no reason at all. The synapses in my brain exploded into rhythmic signals of fury as I whipped my head around to lock eyes with a man that couldn’t have looked prouder of himself. But to my surprise, he did nothing, had no reaction whatsoever to my blatant anger. Just met my glare with a smile, walked with a proud swagger around the edge of the couch and plopped himself down as close to me as he could possibly get, without so much as asking my name. I shot Patrick a silent look that said, “What the hell? Do something about this guy,” but I received only a halfhearted shrug in return.

2. “KEEP BREATHING” Patrick shouted frantically. “KEEP BREATHING, KEEP BREATHING, KEEP BREATHING.” I was lying on a puffy leather couch, staring up at the slightly deteriorating tile ceiling. There were dogs barking in the background and the disembodied sounds of television characters screaming. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I am breathing, you fucking idiot. In out in out in out… see? Leave me the hell alone, Patrick. I assumed he was on a large amount of one drug or another so I didn’t even bother to respond. “MARISA. YOU NEED TO STAY WITH ME. COME. ON. BREATHE WITH ME. …girl?” He started mimicking how humans are supposed to breathe, overly emphasizing his intake of air with a large sucking noise. I became more and more irritated with him as the demonstration continued, keeping my eyes firmly shut. But the next sound I heard was not of his departing footsteps finally grown tired of his game, it was the shrill, blood curdling screams of terror, the rhythmic slaps of flesh feverishly striking flesh, and the sickening crunch of grinding bones as my limp lower jaw detached slightly from my face.

3. “I’m taking you to the hospital,” Patrick growled sternly. I was outside on a porch. It may have been raining but it was dark so I couldn’t tell, though that’s how it smelled—sweet and light, but with a hint of something awful; the sour smell of worms emerging from the soil in large masses to lie lifelessly on the sidewalks. I saw myself as a three-year-old, crying. I didn’t know what a hospital was or why I had to go there, but I somehow knew that it meant doctors, and that doctors meant needles. There was nothing in this world I was more afraid of than needles. “No! Please! No! Don’t take me to the hospital!” I shouted. “I’m fine! Just take me home! It’s my bedtime! My mom will be mad!” He picked me up to carry me inside as I started to cry harder, my lungs aching in my chest from the strain, my heart terrified of the needles in my future, my head angry that he wouldn’t listen.

4. I wake up in a bedroom. It’s dark. I’m shaking from the cold. There’s a boy whose name I do not know. I have seen him before but I can’t remember where. He’s touching me but I can’t feel it. It sounds as if I’m crying, but I feel no tears. I can see stars bursting in front of my retinas and the ceiling tiles above my head are bubbling and dripping like they are melting, or lava. As I turn my head to search for help time slows down drastically, events no longer happen fluidly but instead in chunks, a series of freeze-framed images with a long pause between each one. I think I am panicking. I think I need help. I need my eyes to catch up to my head. I need my reality to move faster. I need the ceiling to stop melting; I can finally feel it burning my skin. I can see the boy above me… The wall next to the boy… The picture hanging a little further down the wall… The window… The door… But it’s too late. There’s no one here to help me anymore. There is only darkness, and his hands.

5. “YOU HAVE TO TELL US WHAT YOU TOOK OR WE CAN’T HELP YOU. YOU HAVE TO TELL ME YOU’RE ON CRYSTAL METH OR YOU WILL DIE, MARISA.” A nurse was standing over me screaming furiously while another stood behind her, shocked. I was strapped to a bed in a very small, white room. My heart was panicked and racing as my eyes rolled in their sockets like fragile white marbles, out of focus until the moment they caught sight of something large and green in front of me. On me. On my chest. A demon. A demon that was breaking my rib cage under its weight, compressing my heart, puncturing my lungs, and strangling my throat. He’s telling me that he is going to take me to hell, soon. That I should give up now. Die.

I try desperately to scream but I can’t. I try to yell that I’m not on crystal meth, that I’m not on anything, and to help me, save me, anybody. That I was dying… or was it dead? But I couldn’t. Couldn’t say even a word, not even a whisper. Frantically, I started fighting against the restraints, trying to scream, trying to break free and run from this place, trying to escape this nightmare. I didn’t take anything! I wailed in my head, hoping the words would sneak out through my eye sockets. Help me! Please! SOMEONE! PLEASE. Help me, please, please, please.

6. I’m in his arms. He’s carrying me like I’m his newly wedded bride except my body is limp, blue, vomiting. He has strong arms but I can tell that he is shaking. He’s laying me down on the sidewalk. It’s cold. Nighttime. He’s pounding his fists on large glass doors. He’s yelling for someone to help. There are red bursts of lights flashing above me like fireflies, but bigger. I think I might be sleeping. I think I might be dead. I shut my eyes to try and find out.

7. Blinding bright white light. Flash. A grenade of clotted blood splattering on the dashboard, coughed up from my lungs.

8. “Don’t move” he whispers. “You’ll like it, I promise…”

9. Two men screaming, then strange feel of fingers wiggling in my throat followed by me vomiting all over the front seat of a car.

10. I can hear him again. “You have to keep breathing! You have to try breathing! Please! Just try!” But this time he is crying.

11. “YOU HAVE TO STOP MOVING OR I CAN’T GET AN IV IN YOU.” I’m back in that bed, still strapped down, still convulsing, still without the ability to speak, but this time even more terrified. I don’t know where I am again. I feel like I’ve been in this bed before but I don’t know why. I don’t recognize this place. Who is Marisa? What the hell is happening? Let me go! Where is my mom? Please, someone, help me. I don’t know where I am.

There is a lady in a white uniform standing over me. She is holding a large needle and staring at me with sad, frightened eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says. “There’s nothing else I can do. This is going to hurt.” I watch as she brutally stabs the giant needle into my arm, while another woman holds my seizing body to the bed. I watch as the candy-apple-red oozes out from around the wide hole she has made. I watch the thick fluid being forced through a plastic tube into my now throbbing vein. I see all twenty of the deep purple bruises that littered the thin skin of my forearm, and my new cotton sundress ripped into pieces, lying limp and dead next to the bed. I see the disembodied feet kicking under the white hospital sheets, and my chest heaving as it frantically searches for air. I hear the heart monitor explode into a series of alarming beeps, and a voice scream for help. I see two men in hospital masks come running, and the skin of my arm turn as blue as the bruises that decorated it. I see a woman rip the sheets of the bed down to expose a vast forest of wires attached to my chest. But I do not feel anything. Nothing at all. It is getting very dark again, I think. I must be falling asleep.

12. I am being carried in a man’s arms again, but I think it is a different man this time. Reality has finally turned back to fluid motion, and I feel slightly relieved. I feel strange, though, and cannot feel this man’s arms beneath me. It is dark, but I can still see enough to recognize this place. My dorm. My hall. My room. My bed. My ceiling. My pillow. My lamp. He tells me that I am okay now, that I should close my eyes. Go to sleep. Rest.

13. I woke the next morning to the horror of reality in an uncomprehending daze. The hospital bracelet on my wrist, the piecing together of disjointed memories and hallucinations, the voicemail from my crying mother. I still could not feel any part of my own body. A police officer then came to the door asking for me, and led me down the hallway to a room where he explained what had happened. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t numb to just physical touch, but emotion as well. I felt only emptiness when he used the words “rape” and “GHB.”

Later, I saw the hospital documents that read, “overdose,” “no pulse” and “seizures.” I learned that Patrick had been the one to bring me to the hospital and file a police report, but was now avoiding the police officer’s calls. He was now seemingly helping the others who were present to cover up the truth of what had happened to me that night. I felt nothing and understood nothing. I felt as though the words couldn’t be real, that my memories couldn’t be trusted. The molting ceiling tiles, the demons, the three-year-old me… all figments of my imagination, hallucinations. So I could not trust his words either, because I could not even trust that he was really even there.

 

It still haunts me. Still. One year, three days, and nineteen hours later. It still hides silently in door hinges, lurks eerily in the microscopic space between wallpaper and wall, blinks its dead eyes at me from behind photographs, scampers down my hallways at night. It still lives in the creases of folded papers, but has now, somehow, escaped. It has found its way back to me. To slip itself into my boiling cups of coffee, into the shoe laces that tie down my feet, into the tiny particles of whispering, menacing winds that surround me as I walk home alone in the wee hours of night. I’ve been waiting all this time for it to die, I think, but can something so dead ever become deceased?

I walked out of that clouded, disjointed, incoherent night into the days of a different but similarly disorienting haze. I would not react how anyone, including myself, had expected. I would not stay in bed buried under blankets for days at a time. I would not cry. I would not hide from speaking of it nor would I start hating or fearing men. I still can’t decide if truly believing I was completely okay afterwards was what hurt me or saved me the most. I stayed at school one whole month without receiving any sort of counseling, without one single visit from my parents. I would handle all the police procedures, documents, and interviews alone. I would tell all of my friends and professors about what had happened, explain that it was why I was no longer attending classes, no longer turning in homework, no longer worrying about studying for tests, and no longer caring if I failed. That I just plainly did not care about anything anymore. I would rather be at the beach reading a book, or doing basically anything at all that didn’t require me to inhabit an actual, physical form. But despite all the talking, I would go one whole month without truly having a conversation about my experience, or really anything at all.

All I knew were the basic facts, and that was all I needed to know. All I wanted to know. Knowing any more than that would only add weight to my already deepening cesspit of questions, all of which, I knew, would forever go unanswered. I knew only five things for certain: I knew that I had been given a highly potent mixture of GHB and barbiturates; both invisible to the eye, silent to the tongue, deceitful to the nose, but menacing to the brain. I knew that there were two explanations for my reaction to it: either they had not realized or taken into account my tiny, hundred-pound frame, or they had realized and knew that, though the drug would render me helpless for a few hours, it would not silence me forever. But intentions aside, the third thing I knew was that the sheer amount of substances they administered sent every single system of my body into a furious, unrelenting tailspin. And I knew that I went through the effects of a complete overdose, the methodical shutting down of every organ so suddenly they could not even fight back. I had thrashed and screamed and vomited. Rained down heavy streaks of blood from my mouth, collapsed into violent seizures; I had turned blue, and then there was nothing. I knew that I had raced that stern and dominate doctoral voice announcing my legal time of death, and I knew that I had only won by a fraction of a second.

And, I knew in that very moment, that I had been date-rape drugged in a motherfucking glass of apple juice and had died. Dead. In a room of no more than ten people. When I had always been so careful. But that didn’t matter, would never matter anymore.

They say that when you are about to die you see the faces of all the people who love you—a last comfort before your departure. If only it were true. No, all I saw was my pale, silky blue formation of flesh—no movement, no sound, no breath. What I felt was not the soothing warmth of white glowing light, but the violent shredding of flesh and atomic matter that comes with the realization that you are losing every single person you have ever loved. Without even being able to remember their names, I could feel the devastating absence of their touch.

GHB is short for gamma hydroxybutyrate or gamma hydroxybutyric acid, and is a powerful hallucinogenic street drug, which used in small amounts can have a similar effect to that of a “roofie.” It is composed of gamma butyrolactone (GBL) and sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Basically, this means it is made from degreasing solvent or floor and paint stripper mixed with drain cleaner. It can come in many different forms, but the most common is an odorless, clear liquid that looks just like water and is often carried in a clear plastic water or bottles—each bottle containing several doses of the drug. GHB is usually ingested in a liquid mixture, most commonly mixed with alcohol, though any liquid would do the trick. At lower doses the drug causes drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, and visual disturbances. At higher doses, unconsciousness, seizures, severe respiratory depression, and coma. Overdoses usually require emergency room treatment, including intensive care for respiratory depression, cardiac arrest, and coma. GHB tends to cause rapid unconsciousness at doses above 3500 mg, with single doses over 7000 mg often causing life-threatening respiratory depression, and higher doses still can induce bradycardia (a resting heart rate of under sixty beats per minute) and consequent heart failure.

GHB is used in the commission of sexual assaults because it renders the victim incapable of resisting, and causes memory problems that could complicate case prosecution.

It would be three days until I regained feeling in my body. Three days until a comforting embrace could penetrate my cells far enough to reach a single, struggling nerve. Three days before the terrifying sensation of knowing that someone was wrapped tightly around me yet could not be felt would leave me.

A few days after the event, I would learn that the hospital I was taken to that night did not even administer a rape check on me, as these things are not to be spoken about in the South, not to be recognized as actually existing there. It wouldn’t have to be a truth if they didn’t let it be, and so they denied me my one chance of definitive evidence. The police would stop calling back after a few weeks’ time and my attacker would walk free to join the other ninety-four percent of rapists who will never even see, even for a single day, the concrete cell blocks of their sins. With all hope, all faith, lost, I would continue on in my haze, my wandering, and drown the part of me that cared in my own deep, Southern sea. I would finally return home one month later, and begin at my mother’s urging the therapy I thought I did not need.

On the first visit to the therapist, I would tell every last detail of my story to the woman nodding in front of me with a blank face, without so much as a tear in my eye. The next visit she asked me to repeat the story to her again, and though I believed that to be a waste of my time, I did it. I can see myself now, telling her that story. My story. My eyes staring blankly, straight forward and unmoving, for a full forty-five minutes, but still not seeing a thing at all. My voice the muffled and cold vibrations of a chillingly void universe. I must have looked so strange to her, for though she knew that statues could not speak, there I was.

“You have post-traumatic stress disorder, Marisa. Do you know what that is?” she asked.

I didn’t understand what she was talking about, and so I sat in silence attempting to process the information she had just given me. I didn’t understand how in the world she could diagnose me with such a significant psychological issue when I had just proven to her so well that I was fine, that I could tell my story without becoming upset or depressed or angry or suicidal. But I also found that I could not afford her this explanation. Instead, a meek little answer of “What?” was all I could muster.

“You’re speaking as though this happened to someone else instead of to you. But it did happen to you, Marisa. It’s called ‘detachment’ when you feel nothing.”

I still didn’t understand.

“I don’t… what?” I stammered, confused and frantic.

And then, in a break of character, she sighed.

“I’m so sorry, Marisa. Your mother told me that you’ve been crying in your sleep every Sunday night since you returned home. Did you know that?” she asked. But I hadn’t. Didn’t. Couldn’t. I couldn’t have known that. The PTSD made sure of that much, at least.

It would take another three months for me to break down in her office. To fall to my knees choking for air as my eyes bled out the disease that my mouth could not. I would walk out her door that day covered from head to toe in the dusty gray film of grief that I had been suffocating in for too long. I would walk out her door that day no longer a victim, but a survivor; though I realize now that the act of surviving is much different than the act of living. Living means feeling safe, and that is an obstacle I may never overcome.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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