1. The Assault

It never happened. Do you hear me? Say ‘Yes, Ryan'!

The Assault

It was the pre-game pep talk. But I was by myself, so I had to close my eyes and imagine the whole thing. In my mind, I was the coach and the players. 

The denim that covered my legs, almost silk after two years of wearing them five, six, maybe seven days a week, showed white fibers weaving through deep navy blue, taut against my thighs. Just below my knees though, they dropped into bell-bottoms, landing a few inches from the floor, enough to show the black, steel-toed shipboard boots that were reflecting the edges of my face because of the light hanging low above my head.

I was in the locker room at the schoolhouse, sitting on a bench that was like most others, hard and cold. Arms resting on my legs, back straight, coffee cup warming my hands. It could have been any other Monday, but it wasn’t. This was the first time I realized that I had to be the hero of the story; that no one was going to save me. Not my mom, not my sisters, not my grandfather, and not my friends. I was twenty-three years and three months old.

Ten minutes before the start of class, I strutted to their room. As I walked to the front of the classroom, I made eye contact with one of the three boys that were already in their seats.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Waiting until all of you are here,” I answered.

My voice shocked me like it wasn’t mine at all. It was deeper. Powerful.

“Why?” he smirked. 

I didn’t answer him but held his gaze. He shrank in his seat, hunching over, shoulders falling. I’d never seen one of them so vulnerable.

I wondered if he remembered me because I didn’t remember him. I barely recognized any of them. I only knew that this was the class of boys that were at the party. The ones that saw what was happening. The ones that chose to do nothing.

A few more walked in through the door at the back of the classroom. All of them matching me, US Navy on patches above their hearts. More and more entered the room. Boisterous stories of the weekend turned to silence as they noticed me. When they all filled their seats, I stood like Superman in front of them.

“Listen up! I know what you saw, and if I hear that you’re talking about it, I’ll find you and I’ll make you sorry. Got it?”

Wide-eyed, necks wrenched back in their chairs, a few nodded.

“It never happened. Do you hear me? Say ‘Yes, Ryan!’”

“Yes, Ryan,” they all said in unison in their gritty response voices like the well-trained, smart sailors that they were.

“Good. Have a great day.”

I walked out of the room, around the corner into my class, greeted my classmates, sat down at my usual desk, and locked the memory of that Saturday night in a box, deep down inside of me.

Close up of antique, wooden box with lock.

In that dark box, it’s Saturday night, and I’ve had too much to drink. Way too much. There are brief moments of consciousness between long dark phases of time, and the moments that I manage to grab onto I spend trying to make sense of what may or may not have happened a few moments before. Everything is happening in shattered pieces: I’m in a bedroom I’ve never been in on a bed I do not know. I’m struggling to breathe from crying. I’m confused and lifeless. I’m a clouded mind in a body that’s being touched and pulled and turned around and pulled again into whatever they want. I’m cold and I have no idea how I got here.

In a flash I see them at the end of the bed in front of me, moving around as if they are about to give a work presentation they haven't prepared for. They seem bigger than they really are, and they’re trying to outdo each other. They aren’t looking at my face. I am a stranger in my own body, watching two of my closest friends take advantage of me. I can’t do anything. I can’t say anything. They have all of the power. I black out again.

Black space with small clusters of stars with varying illumination.

Almost two years prior, in August of 1999, I’d enlisted in the United States Navy, a lifelong dream. After finishing some college and exploring multiple jobs that felt pointless, I joined when I was twenty-one so I could drink in ports. I was so glad I waited. After a childhood spent listening to my grandfather’s sea stories, I knew about the hard-drinking culture. Building tolerance before I joined was a smart move. When I drank, I was normally in control.

After boot camp and technical school in Great Lakes, Illinois, I moved to Virginia to begin specialized training. I was the only girl in a class of twelve boys. It worked well for me since I thrived in competitive environments. Computer networking was way more technical than anything I’d ever studied before, so I had to work that much harder to prove myself. When all was said and done, the Navy would spend upwards of $200,000 training me to maintain and operate the computers that make all of the weapons systems work onboard billion-dollar Arleigh-Burke Class Aegis Destroyers.

The training base was in the most northeastern corner of the state, just across the Potomac River from Maryland. To say it was charming is to understate its charm. It reminded me of my home up north in the Pinelands of South Jersey. It was surrounded by tall trees and water, had crisp autumn nights and lots of wildlife. But the fact that it wasn’t home made me feel grown-up, even though I was far from it.

The training staff was made up of E-6 through E-8 active-duty members—supervisor or director level in the civilian world—who already had sea time under their belts: they were “salty.” The rest of the staff were once-retired government contractors who had served twenty to thirty years in the military, then remained in the specialized field on this super-secret-squirrel-teeny-tiny Navy base in the middle of nowhere because it felt like home to them too.

The dynamic at the training center—being the only girl in an elite program—fed my need for attention. Honestly, my whole Navy experience—until that Saturday night—had been great for my ego.

The boys in the training center were my favorite type; they were smart, and our bond was built on early morning runs and lots of time in the gym. Plus, we all loved the drab building at the back of the base. It looked like every other building, apart from the inside where its lack of fluorescent lighting, plus all of the chess boards, the dance floor, and the full bar, made it different. My class of thirteen—and nearly all of the other students and staff on base—were there most nights after class.

Close up of glass bottles of various liquor.

Sometimes I was the only girl in the bar, but I could handle my whiskey like the boys. And whenever things got weird—like when the boys were talking like vulgar boys—alcohol eased the awkwardness. This wasn’t new for me; I’d always used drinking to fit in, to feel comfortable in my own skin, to tolerate annoying situations or people I didn’t like. My father taught me this from a very young age, and the Navy supported it. In the Navy, beer and liquor flowed from everywhere. For all of us, hangovers were a normal part of life.

Two months into the year-long training, I heard whispers that student housing was full, and the Navy was going to start paying sailors to live out in town. My love of history led me thirty minutes away from base to Fredericksburg. Brimming with church steeples and nineteenth-century Victorian and brick homes, I found an apartment on Princess Anne Street.

Built onto a home that had been cannoned during the Civil War, my apartment had at some point in its life served as a hotel, then a bar. At five foot, three inches, I fit snugly within its dark, wood-lined walls. The stairs that led from the kitchenette to the bedroom were narrow and rickety yet felt like velvet after a long day. Train tracks ran behind the back fence, and the train’s horn woke me up just in time for my 4:30 a.m. runs through town. I loved everything about that place so much that I tattooed the address “511” onto my left wrist before I moved away. I told everyone who asked that it was my cell block number, unless I thought they’d rather hear the ghost story of the Civil War Union officer who reportedly haunted the place.

One evening, ten months before that awful night, I got home from school after a particularly long twelve-hour training day and found my stone sidewalk outlined in red, long-stemmed roses. Beyond the side courtyard, on the small step leading to my door, there was a note that read something like “I noticed you seemed a little down today. Wanted to make you smile.” It wasn’t signed.

I was so flattered that I didn’t care how wrong it was to submit to the advances of my teacher when I discovered they were from him the next day.

I knew Wil as well as you would know anyone you spent eight to twelve hours a day with. Apart from weeknights at the base bar, the thirteen of us had house parties on base on weekends. Most of us never had the full college and dorm experience because we joined the military right after high school. The Navy was that time for us.

Wil wasn’t handsome in a traditional way. Yes, he had tan skin that I could spend all summer trying to achieve and eyes that you could swim in, but he also had big ears that stuck out way beyond what was normal, and he was super quirky. But he was intelligent in a social and brainy way that I found attractive. Add in an hour round-trip drive, and the time it took to stand up each rose around the stones leading to my door, and the fairytale romantic part of me was sold.

Close up of long-stemmed dark red roses against a dark background.

A couple of weeks after the roses, he asked me to go with him to a casino night fundraiser for a cause that I don’t remember. You know, the kind where you use fake money at a fake casino. I put on my little black dress, the one that covered my arms, fell a couple of inches above my knee, and showed just a touch of my black lace bra, stepped into my tall black heels, and stood in front of the antique mirror in my bedroom. For the first time in my life, I knew what sexy felt like.

He picked me up after dark. When I opened the door, he stood there dressed in all black, quiet and straight-faced. Like that, he was hot. He escorted me to the passenger side of his new black SUV, opened the door, and held my hand to help me in. I’d dated older men in the past, but this felt different. I had respect for him in the Navy world that added to the grown-up feeling that I liked so much.

We drove an hour to the would-be casino. Our conversation was easy and fun and never forced. When we walked in, the vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers in the foyer made me wonder if they made ladders tall enough to clean that high. The hosts had transformed the main space of their home into the casino. The fact that anyone could fit that many poker and craps tables into one room was a lesson in economics and interior design. Wil led me through the room with his hand on my back and introduced me to every one of the way-too-good-looking, high-fashion guests as “beautiful Colleen.” It was the first time he referred to me by my first name.

We played some games, socialized a bit, drank a couple of glasses of wine, laughed, danced, then left. He drove me home and walked me to the door. I invited him in. I had a buzz, but more than that I liked his company and liked where the night had been and where I wanted it to go. Any man with as much swag as he had that night had to be good in bed. I poured us both a Jameson neat and led him upstairs to my bedroom.

In class the next morning, I had no reason to think that our night together had had any effect on our professional relationship. He was like he always was, radiating charm in a way that made every interaction he had with everyone, male or female, seem like preferential treatment.  Since I had no desire to continue seeing him personally outside of work, it took the pressure off of me, and I felt safe with our secret. Trusting him made me like him and respect him more. So imagine my surprise when I saw him at the end of the bed doing this to me.

Close up image of storm clouds.

Stop! Please stop! 

Nothing comes out.

I’m completely numb and exhausted from trying to understand what’s happening to me. There’s a pastel landscape on the wall behind them that’s distracting me. It’s keeping me from learning too much about them. In a flash, I realize this and force my gaze lower to the other guy. There he is. Tim, my boyfriend. We make eye contact long enough for him to know that I’m bawling before things go dark.

Black space with small clusters of stars with varying illumination.

The first time I ever saw Tim, I noticed his eyes. They were hazel like sunshine and took up half of his face. He was built like a linebacker and brilliant, and our all-night conversations around my fire pit with whiskey and cigarettes became a favorite pastime. He made me laugh and he made me think and he made me feel very, very pretty, and very, very wanted. We started dating sometime around the sixth month into the training year, and we spent day and night and day together. To me, we were practically married.

Tim was one of the twelve boys in my class. With the success of each challenging week, our class grew closer, and my trust for all of them grew stronger. We were like family; we didn’t choose each other, but we leaned on each other in a way that I hadn’t felt from anyone that wasn’t my blood. By late spring, we were picking orders—assignments that determined where our Navy lives would take us. Our typical weekend get-togethers turned into giant house parties, like it was finals week before college graduation. Instead of just the thirteen of us, these parties involved multiple classes of students and even more drinking.

One Saturday night, I found myself at a party at a new house with mostly new people. I didn’t know anyone but Wil and Tim.

Close up image of storm clouds.

We are in a living room watching a baseball game. I’m drinking like I always do, shots of Jameson. Lots of them. I chase them all with beer, and when the beer gets too warm, I have a fresh one. It’s the endless fountain that’s fueled countless nights, and there is nothing different about this one.

I am sitting on Tim’s lap, and he is sitting on a folding chair to the right of the big screen TV a bit behind the couch. He starts to kiss me. I love kissing him. His lips are thick and soft, and he uses exactly the right amount of them in exactly the right way. I always lose reality when we kiss. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the guys on the couch. I’ve seen them around school, but I don’t consider them my brothers like the other twelve. A few of them are watching us.

Shame fills me in a wash; I push back in Tim’s arms and motion to the guys on the couch with my eyes. I start to turn myself around toward the TV so I can watch the game, but I am stuck. Tim helps to turn me around. Then, he grabs my head and pulls it sideways and back to his mouth to kiss me again. I melt into him. I feel his hands move up my shirt from behind.

What the hell are you doing?

The words don’t come out. I freeze, heart racing. Then, all of time gets sucked into a vacuum that is pulling away from me faster than I can see. My world turns black.

When I come to, Tim lifts me off of his lap and sets me down on the chair facing him. My legs dangle toward the ground with no life in them to hold me up even if I could reach it. He is in front of me on his knees, looking into my eyes like he’s done a million times before. That’s all that I see, so I feel safe again. I go dark, but I feel him grab me the way he knows that I like it when we’re alone. But we’re not alone.

I hear Wil’s voice behind me. He’s whispering to Tim. Shame floods me again. It’s chilling, whole-body pins and needles. It’s a powerful hurt, and I can’t do anything to stop it.  

What are you doing? They can see us. What are you doing?!? Stop!! Please stop! 

Nothing comes out.

My brain catches up to that moment too many moments in the future, and by the time it does, I am above myself on the bed, watching them.

I feel someone holding my right hand. I turn and see him too close to my face.

Who in the?

I don’t know his name. What I do know is that he is the teacher of the class of boys watching the game.

“I’m going to pray for you.” he says. 

What are you talking about? 

But nothing comes out.

“I’m going to pray for you.” 

What in the world are you talking about? Why do you need to pray for me? 

Still nothing.

The creepiness of his words shakes me awake, and I feel my face drenched with tears.

“I’ll pray for you.” 

I sob. I gasp for air. I turn away from him and see them again.

Oh my God, what the fuck! Why can’t I do anything to stop this? Why isn’t this guy doing anything to stop this? I look back to my side where he is sitting. He isn’t talking, and he definitely isn’t praying. He’s watching. He isn’t not enjoying it. He’s still holding my hand while they take turns using my body for whatever pleases them in what feels like some sort of sick competition. Then, only darkness.

Black space with small clusters of stars with varying illumination.

I woke up alone with my clothes on, on top of the blankets, still drunk and on my way to the mother of all hangovers.

I wanted to leave. But what if they were still there? I didn’t want to see them. I wondered if I should climb out the window. I was too sick to protect myself and too tired to fend off embarrassment. Instead of leaving, I sat on the bed wiping smudged mascara from my face onto the palm of my hand for a few minutes, trying to put the pieces together. My stomach felt like I ate bad chicken. The room spun. I lay back down, wrapped myself in the Navy-issued, base-housing, scratchy quilt, and passed out.

I opened my eyes to a sliver of late spring sun peeking through the gray of the sky between the mini blinds. For a second, I didn’t know where I was. Then, I remembered. The poison in my stomach worsened. I found some water on the nightstand next to me and wondered if they felt redeemed for putting it there. I’d never felt so lonely. So disrespected. So angry. So confused. I had to get out of there. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, found my shoes, shoved my toes in, walked to the door, and twisted the knob.

A smell like Bourbon Street on a hot New Orleans summer morning hit me before I saw them sleeping all over the sofa and the floor, covered in beer cans and ashtrays and socks and Solo cups. Like a frat party at an all-male university.

A smell like Bourbon Street on a hot New Orleans summer morning hit me before I saw them sleeping all over the sofa and the floor, covered in beer cans and ashtrays and socks and Solo cups. Like a frat party at an all-male university.

I ran. But not fast enough to miss Wil and Tim next to each other on the floor. 

I saw red.

I’m going to call the cops, I thought.

No. I need a kitchen knife to cut off their dicks.

I took a deep breath, partly to stop the vomit, partly to stop the string of violent thoughts. 

Then, it all became clear:

I trust these boys one hundred percent, I told myself.

I like sex. I like sex a lot. Maybe they thought it was okay with me.

I mean, I’d been with both of them before, right?

Maybe they were so drunk they didn’t see me crying.

I was the one who drank myself stupid.

No one forced me to do that.

This was completely my fault.

And just like that, I felt better. Stronger. Powerful. Chin up, I walked out the front door, not caring who I woke up. Walking to the front gate, I noticed the thick, sweet springtime air and breathed the night before deep, deep, deep into my past.

Monday started like any other: an early morning run, ibuprofen, a Wawa breakfast sandwich, and an extra-extra-large coffee. But when I walked up the stairs to my bedroom and stood in my doorway, sipping my coffee, the room looked smaller. Like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole smaller. Sun hit the air, turning it into glitter. Outside, the chime of a thousand church bells bounced around and into my window.

I set my coffee cup on top of the century-old dresser, put on a fresh white T-shirt, and took my uniform out of its plastic. I put on my dungaree pants, no big deal. But when the cotton of my shirt hit my hand on its way into the sleeve, chills exploded up my spine. I arched my back to keep them from taking over, buttoned up in the mirror, and admired the US Navy above my heart.

On the drive to work, the fields along the long straight farm road were covered in the same glitter that I saw in my bedroom. The colonial mansion and horses that I always dreamed were mine felt a little closer to possible. Like I filled the crack in a cracked world, and everything from then on would be better somehow.

I turned onto the winding Route 218 through the woods. The branches on the trees seemed to hang higher than usual above my little red Dodge Dakota. I opened the windows and slowed down to sink into the final moments under the gateway of oaks before I faced them.

I parked in my usual spot and slammed the truck door for the last time as a victim.

I had to say something. I had to do something. I had to make the world match the hero I had to become inside.

So, I walked into the building, confronted the boys from the party, and didn’t talk about it again for twenty years.