A small Alaska-raised girl grew up on bible passages and learning that she would never be good enough. Teenage years brought questions, questions brought slaps in the face, and she rebelled. She rebelled so loud the whole town heard, and one by one, they all turned their backs on her. Standing on her parents’ front porch with nothing but the keys to her shitty car, a home-schooled education, and a fear of abandonment that threatened to swallow her whole, she took a timid step. It should have been a bigger step – she landed only 10 hours north in Fairbanks.
To escape her small childhood, she tried big things – she chose a complicated degree, Computer Science. She pretended to be brilliant and stacked her first semester with Calculus, Physics, and Chemistry. She showed up to the Skarland Hall dorm elections in a crop top and yoga pants and won the treasurer spot with a two-minute speech. She became captain of a water polo team and joined a sorority and danced with hockey players on top of the Lola Tilly Commons. Then, she found the guy.
She saw his bright red hair and his crooked grin and thought, that’s him. His presence was overwhelming. He’s got the whole room wrapped around his finger. He’s the last piece of this bigger-than-Kenai puzzle she’s building. Flouncing up in a tiny blue skirt and a white belly-baring shirt, she stuck out her hand. He and his sidekick were stunned, open mouths and everything. “Nice to meet you,” and back to dancing with the hockey players. 19 may be young, but she knew a thing or two.
He managed to close his gaping mouth two days later in the Natural Sciences building and played hard-to-get right back. She was hooked. It was easy, at first. He adored her, he wanted all of her, and she won that game of love she lost at home. He came with a ready-made community – take that, small town – she was once again surrounded by friends, by love. He taught her things, showed her things, demanded things. Pull my nipples during sex, easy enough. Let me take pictures of you, well…okay. Don’t tell my friends you were raised Jehovah’s Witness, sure thing. The demands grew, and so did her fear of him leaving. Don’t wear those pants, they’re too sexy. Don’t eat that bagel with cream cheese, you’ll gain weight. Don’t be friends with them, I don’t trust them. Don’t go to this party, I don’t trust you. After two semesters, she was tucked away in a box as small as the one she’d so loudly escaped just months before. Then, summer.
She was free, again. She stretched her arms in the salty hometown sunshine and welcomed the space. Sixteen hours a day in a salmon processing plant for three months. Covered in slime, shooting fish hearts at cannery crushes, sharing beers in the boneyard behind the plant after work. She was happy, again. Her coworkers looked at her like she was someone. They listened to her words. They laughed at her jokes. They appreciated her, bagels and cream cheese and all. She remembered she was valuable and she could be loved. And she threw her carefully put together puzzle in the air and scattered the pieces. But there was one loud, angry piece that landed right on top of her, heavy as a heartbreak.
Sophomore year in college. Senior RA, loaded with math classes. Back to seeing him, every day. Bone by bone, he broke her. First, he shattered her friendships. A cheat, a slut, a liar, he proclaimed. Just like home, she saw their rigid backs and nothing else. He hacked her emails, he wanted to know if she had other lovers. He ransacked her room with the help of her co-RA, no longer a friend. He let loose his loyal posse on her. She’d find spit in her hair after being stalked through lower campus. She’d make it home to her dorm phone ringing off the hook – hearing “I fucking hate you” or some angry song, sometimes it was only whispers of violent, disgusting things. Sometimes, he answered with his voice, badgering her to admit what a slut she was, what a whore. She’d sob and cry and not know how to hang up, and then she’d hear his friends all laughing in the background. The friends who used to be hers.
One call, she wished for years, she wishes still, she’d never answered. “Just come on up here, I want to talk one more time before we’re done for good. I promise I’ll leave you alone after this.” He shut the door and shoved her to her knees. “You’ll want to be drunk for this,” as he poured vodka down her throat, jaws pried apart. He cried, during. She suffered. Scared. Can’t move. Get out of here. Just wait until he’s asleep. Just wait. It’ll be over soon. She saw his eyes closed, tear stains on his face, breathing even, and she slipped out. His roommate was in the hallway; disgust followed her as she flew out the door.
She had a lover after that. She had a good man and tore him apart. And another, and another. Too many for two hands, four hands, six hands. She barely survived college. Resilient, her therapist later called her. Living while you’re burning alive inside, that’s what she called it. The university didn’t believe her and took away her water polo. Her roommate didn’t believe her, and she lost the sorority. She was back on that front porch – shitty car, a half-assed education and that fear of abandonment-turned-monster living inside her.
He spoke to her twice more before college was over. Once, in an email, he told her he gave her AIDs. She tried to drive her car into a tree, that night. On the curved part of the road right before the student apartments, where he raped her. She imagined herself smashed, dead, done. No more pain, no more shame. She survived the urge. Resilience. The last time, he showed up at her dorm door. She shook, terrified, how do I get him out? How do I survive? “I’m sending naked photos of you to everyone you know – your dad, your family, your old church. But…we both have AIDs now. We could just be together, who else would want us? We can move away together.”
Yes, she said. Yes, of course. Just get the fuck out. He left, pleased with himself. She collapsed on the floor, in mortified tears and relief that he was gone. Resilience. Just survive. Two quick knocks, and him again. His eyes were red hot, the pleasure gone. “You were just trying to appease me. To get me out of here. Someday, when you think your life is back to normal, and you have friends and you’re loved and you’re happy, I’m going to come back and destroy you.” She slammed the door with the last shred of her resilience.
It was years of looking over her shoulder on the street, alerting the police when she thought he might be near, full-on panicking at the sight of red, curly hair. It was a long battle to find her love and self-worth, to piece together her confidence. She tested HIV negative several times. She stopped destroying men and friendships, eventually. She went through therapy, lots of it. She writes out her stories and it helps, mostly. But she tells her story, and it hurts, and that’s all it’ll ever be.