The Evolution of a Trigger
They were gnawed-down and greased like the nails of a mechanic. That was all I could see of the stranger as he flicked off the light switch. He was about my height, maybe a hundred fifty pounds. I glimpsed the patch of skin between his eyes. I heeded his despotic voice. His fingernails scraped the buds of my tongue, darted inside of me, made an unruly fist of my hair—a mass of tethers and strands.
My only image of the attack is a single hand. It was, I think, a left hand that tugged at the handkerchief around his face and flipped a switch that will never go back, can never be turned back on.
After he fled my home, I was preoccupied with hands. Mine was a small town, and I had a chance of running into my rapist without knowing the man in front of me. So I would concentrate, always, in every gas station, in every office or store, on fingernails.
Receiving cash back from the grocery store clerk.
The technician filling out my bill.
A father at my daughter’s school reaching for a lunchbox.
A fellow student writing answers on a test.
Purchasing an ice cream cone. Here you go, Miss.
“You should have had a gun.”
This is the first statement many loved ones offered me when I described my rape. Others, removing some of the sting, declared: “You need to get a gun.”
Both of the responses implied that my attack could have been thwarted if I’d had a gun. Tell me how I, a naked woman who was reclining in my bathwater, might have accessed a gun, how I might have unlocked it from a safe I kept out of my daughter’s reach, loaded the firearm, and pulled the trigger with my wet and tremulous finger. Tell me why I did not use the single tool I had, my cell phone, which I had placed near the bathroom sink and didn’t touch.
“You should have had a gun.” But I hear: You could have stopped him. I hear: You shouldn’t have allowed yourself to be raped.
Perhaps the suggestion has nothing to do with me. Perhaps they are really saying: This will not happen to me. I will be prepared. And, in hoisting that hypothetical gun, they feel they are made safe from the appalling vulnerability of living.
Weeks after I was raped, my daughter and I left for California to stay with my father for a month. I had grown up visiting him during summers and the occasional Christmas, so we didn’t know much about being a father and daughter. But his was the home I had left.
Most nights, I coaxed myself into bed early, even before sunset, so I wouldn’t suffer the faint sounds of a quiet house, wondering if the intruder had somehow known where I had taken sanctuary, if he had followed me across the country and was waiting outside my window for me to fall asleep. I would usually tuck my daughter into bed in the room we shared there, and, about an hour later, I’d follow her. That night was different. Stella hadn’t fallen asleep as easily as she typically did, and when I tried turning in, she made a game of keeping me awake. She poked at my eyelids, blurted “mama” in my ear, stuck her chubby fingers in my nose, tried opening my mouth, and babbled loudly to her teddy bear.
“I’m up!” I surrendered. I walked into my father’s living room, grabbed a few of her books— the long ones we seldom finish without skipping parts—and decided to read her into submission. After many stories, she was out, her soft belly a rising and falling of rest. By this time of night, my dad was asleep in his room. I had lost the safety of knowing he was roving around the house, making soft thumps and clamors, warding off strangers.
The silence of the house was now animate. Each flick of the clock hand. The groans of the wooden bed beneath me. Air conditioning clacking on then whirring through the vents.
A child myself, I tried waking Stella up again and pleading for company. I lifted her arm and let it fall. I attempted to entice her resting mind with words like “ice cream” and “swimming pool,” but she was sleeping the sound sleep of a fearless infant, free from what the dark meant to me. I watched her pupils amble on beneath her eyelids, dreaming. I would not sleep that sleep. I knew I would spend the whole eight hours or so glaringly awake, sweating, crying, and covering my daughter’s mouth or trying to silence the sigh of my own lungs in order to hear the night more sharply, waiting for him to appear in a corner or a window.
With sudden urgency, I scooped Stella into my chest and stamped down the hallway toward my father’s room. I turned the handle and burst in, a current of relief rolling through me as I entered.
“Dad. Hey, Dad, wake up,” I said impatiently. “Can we sleep with you?” The furrows in his forehead awoke first and then his eyes followed.
“What? Honey, in my bed?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s weird. Dad, please. Can we sleep in here?” I needed, more than anything I could name at the moment, to be a child, his child. He took in a drowsy breath and blew it out.
“Of course you can.”
At twenty-one years old, I felt my way around the corners of the bed frame to the other side of my dad’s king bed. I leaned my still-sleeping daughter into the middle of the mattress and let the white sheet collapse slowly over her little mound of body. I crept in close behind her, curled my stomach around her back and counted every beat within me as my pulse decelerated, breath by breath, until I was asleep.
When I was sixteen, my father took me and my high school boyfriend to shoot rifles in the mountains. We shot at white squares of paper with red concentric circles. I have two pictures of myself from that day. In one, I’m lying down, pressed against the clay, aiming the gun. My eye is cocked and focused through the little hole aligned with my target. Looking through the scope, I felt more powerful than I was. Aiming a gun makes you feel like you are looking up at the sun and pinching your fingers around it—like at any moment you could squeeze and it would certainly pop. Through the scope of a gun, the point of view is imperious, skewed. It is as if everything is a trivial and vulnerable target in the crosshairs.
In the other photo, I’m standing with the gun hoisted in my arms. I’ve got a firm grip and a sly smile. I appear to be in control as if I’d have a western alias. Wily Whitney, maybe. Though my body was close-up and commanding in the photo, my aviator shades reflected the vast panoramic of California mountains, which demonstrated in one snapshot how big and small a person can be at once.
That day, I shot for the sake of shooting. I pulled the trigger to make holes in the paper, and I hoped most of them would end up in the red-hot center. I remember the gravel scratching against my stomach, how rough and dangerous I could become for a moment. I remember being pretty good at hitting the center. I remember shaking pebbles from my blue jeans.
There is something about being good with a gun that makes your father proud—makes him want to hang your hole-y target in his square and tidy office. “My daughter,” he would tell his co-workers, “is good with a gun.”
There is something about being good with a gun that makes your boyfriend want to do you right there on the mountain clay—grind against your body in a cloud of vermilion dust. “My girlfriend,” he would tell his friends, “is good with a gun.”
Hearing stories of survivors.
We closed the coffee shop after a late night, just the two of us, and we started sharing stories. After telling my friend Stephanie about my attack, she shared her mother’s past with me. Before Stephanie was born, her mother had been at a laundromat late one evening when several men rushed in behind her and attacked her. They stabbed her several times in the face, neck, and chest, and gang-raped her on the floor as the washers and dryers shook around them, the cold fluorescents flickering overhead. Critically injured, she crawled to a pay phone to call the police and left the receiver dangling. She lay on the street until the ambulance arrived.
My fists turned to rocks. I couldn’t keep up with my want for air. The tingle of tunnel vision narrowed in from my ears and prickled toward my temples. My pupils. Stephanie gripped my clammy hands, leaned closer, and continued. My body relaxed to her touch.
Her composure cracked like a stiff shell, and she started to cry. She recounted a memory of when she was seven or eight, before she knew what her mother had experienced in college. In this memory, her mom was doing dishes at the sink. Stephanie planned to sneak up behind her and grab her for a thrill, the way children do. Just as she gripped her mother’s waist, her mother began shrieking and elbowed Stephanie’s face hard enough to hurl her to the tile floor. Her mother grabbed the largest knife from the turbid sink water and turned around ready to lunge at Stephanie’s small body. When she saw her daughter in front of her, her knees buckled and she fell to the ground gasping for breath—a panic attack. After being knocked to the floor, Stephanie dialed 911 for her mother.
On the sticky linoleum of our workplace floor, as we shook and sweated and wept together as one throbbing body, I found comfort in separating my experience from her mother’s. I decided her crime was worse than mine. I determined her attack was more severe so I wouldn’t have to consider the consequences of my own. The distance, I felt, made me safe.
Movements in the dark.
At the steakhouse where I worked after the attack, we were required to walk out to our cars at night with another employee. There had been some break-ins in the parking lots, and servers are known to carry cash. After my shift, I waited for another guy to clock out, and we walked to our cars. Employee parking was three dark parking lots back, behind a hotel. We were just entering the third and murkiest lot when a swift figure darted toward us from behind a long white van and barked.
“Give me all your money!”
I hit the ground. I covered my ears and shrieked. I felt a man shaking me, the hands strong and persistent. Screaming, eyes closed, I covered my head and rocked back and forth on the pavement. Then two men were shaking me.
“Shit! Oh my god, Whitney! Shit, it’s me, I’m so sorry! Are you okay? Whitney? Please stop. You’re scaring me. Please answer me.” He was a chef from our kitchen. He was joking, just trying to give the other guy, a close friend of his, a scare. My body took minutes to catch up to real time and recognize what had happened.
I had been screaming on the asphalt of the parking lot, and several people from the hotel had come outside and were surrounding us. Someone had called the police. Two men from the crowd had pried my coworkers off of me, thinking they were attacking me. After opening my eyes, it took me awhile to choke out a voice between my pleas for air to tell the swarm of strangers that I was okay, to explain that the two men shaking me weren’t assaulting me—that it was someone else, long before, still here. Still somehow hovering behind me, waiting to close his hands around my neck.
“I’m sorry,” I told the crowd encircling us.
“I’m sorry,” I told my coworkers. “I am so sorry.”
One winter, when Stella was eight, she and I drove from New Mexico to our home in Colorado in the middle of a whiteout. The truck precariously hugged the bends of mountain roads as snow blinded us. I was striving to see even four feet in front of me. I was too afraid of the night to pull over and sleep. We began to make out a large, shadowy form on the side of the road lit from behind by headlights and blurred by the snow.
“What’s that?” Stella asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded, squinting my eyes to make out the bulky figure. “A deer? It looks like a buck? I think I see antlers.”
“Aw, I hope it’s okay,” she said, her voice tinged with her usual concern for animals, her eyes searching the snow. Then we saw two figures next to the buck. The buck was kneeling, writhing. I had never seen a buck in this position. A car must have hit him in the storm. We saw the shadow of a gun appear in one man’s arms.
“No!” she blurted. I reached a hand to her shoulder. The gun was raised. We watched as the backlit head, antlers, and body lifted in pain, the animal’s mouth agape. He struggled before he surrendered to the long grass. The thunder of the bullet rumbled into our truck—a single throb, a dying pulse. My body trembled with the shot. The thud threatened to undo me, but I could not allow myself to become undone. I looked to her. Stella’s face was pale.
“They did it so the buck wouldn’t hurt, honey.” I felt I must explain, my limbs tingling from the sound of the shot, threatening to go numb, threatening to turn useless. “He had been hit and was suffering.”
“I’m going to be sick,” she said, so I rummaged around for a snack bag we emptied miles back, and I brought it to her hands.
Her stomach convulsed. She filled the bag with vomit. The whites of her eyes rolled red as her mouth relinquished her stomach to the bag. I gave my body to her body. I fought my panic attack by rubbing her back and smoothing her curly hair, by breathing rhythmically as if I was once again giving birth.
I go back to the memory of that room often, but I do not bring a gun. Instead, I dislodge the heavy lid of the porcelain toilet and brace myself behind the door, ready to fracture his skull. I break the plastic bar of the towel rack and use the two jagged halves as shivs to gouge his eyes.
But, no. When you are the woman in the bathtub, there is no such thing as revision, no second chance. Hindsight does not exist.
I met Chris, my husband, two months after the attack. I was twenty-one. He was a gentle sociology major who had long, wild hair, played the guitar, and took a gender studies class with me. He hadn’t shot a gun since his early teens, but seven years into our relationship, Chris was called on to organize a family bachelor party. He decided on a day of shooting clay pigeons. The thought of Chris shooting at a flying lump of clay didn’t bother me. The experience sounded more like miniature golf than something that might involve a firearm. I was enthusiastic, even, about the chance for his family to bond over this. I made invitations for the party myself, copied and pasted the clipart I found of a rifle above the what, where, when, RSVP.
One night before the bachelor party, Chris came in, rifle first, through the door of our home with a gun. My mouth dropped in the way it might if he had brought a naked woman home to sleep with. I didn’t realize this then, but I hadn’t been in the presence of a gun since I was raped beneath the weight of one.
“Chris,” I said. “What the hell?”
“It’s my dad’s. You know, for Kyle’s party? Dad’s going to be out of town, so he loaned me this ahead of time.” I knew guns were guns to Chris: they were the tools with which his family hunted—they put meat on the table and trophies on the walls. They were sustenance, protection, and power. He had never been on the other side of the barrel. Chris was practiced with one end of the gun, and I was practiced with the other.
My body registered the gun as a threat. I didn’t say this. I was embarrassed, as I always am, about what has damned me. I was normal before—I scraped my stomach on the gravel and could have writhed in pleasure atop the clay. I begged myself to recall the girl behind the barrel, but she was gone. I did not have the energy to remind Chris, again, that I am a victim. He knew this well. Sometimes I asked him to stand by the door as I bent over the sink to wash my face. Sometimes I asked him to check the sliding glass door a fifth and sixth time in the night. He said “Yes” every single time for all our years. How many times will it take to heal?
“It’s a gun,” I told him as if he doesn’t know. “Where do you think you’re going to put it?”
“Away,” he said. “High up in our closet.”
“I have never had a gun in my house. Can’t you put it in the back of your car?”
“Someone could see it through the window and steal it—it’s just for the party—it’s not even mine!” he defended. “It’ll be out of reach. I’ll give it back on Saturday, I promise.”
I boiled with envy. I wanted his ease, his cavalier grip on the shaft. I envied every person who had not bargained for his life beneath a barrel.
“I don’t want to see it.” I hovered in the corner of the kitchen looking away from the rifle as it passed. As I stood near the stove waiting for it to disappear from sight, I counted his steps. I attempted to measure the space between our closet and my daughter’s room upstairs, where she was sleeping. While Chris was busy storing the rifle in the closet, I sprinted to Stella’s room. She was safe, I discovered, as she always is when I frantically check on her sleeping body. She was breathing and untouched. I slipped beneath her comforter, the warmth passing from her back to my torso, and I watched her sleep until my breath adjusted to hers.
A shot rings out and my skin stings in anticipation. A bullet has already been promised to my body, and a body does not disremember a promise. I continue to wait for that bullet to find my skin.
A shot rings out and I am reminded of what I survived. The gunshot I hear, I know, is not for me. My ears cannot warn me of the bullet that will kill me. Bullets travel faster than sound.
The attacker had a handgun. I never saw it—he cut the lights. He told me he had one, that he would use it if he had to. He convinced me he would kill me, that his friend would put a hole in my daughter in the next room if I screamed one more time, if I didn’t shut the fuck up. If I told, he would find us. He would be watching.
For more than a year after that night, I was sure the threat of a gun was only something he used to silence me, just words, no trigger, like the person who points a finger in his pocket to hold up a convenient store. But both of the other women he attacked saw the gun. One woman was forced to suffer the metal barrel inside of her. Years after he was caught, I would wake up thinking I could feel the barrel pressing into my stomach.
Or I would be swinging my daughter in the park, entirely captured by the movement of her candid laugh, how her ringlet curls sprung and recoiled in the late morning sunlight, and I would be stricken with an image of what each of us would look like narrowed in the crosshairs of a gun. I would imagine the rapist aiming—planning to catch us when we least expected it. Then I would imagine us shot, the panicked ring of onlookers forming around us. Mothers and daughters just like us, only luckier. They would be horrified. They would not be expecting it.
I do not allow myself moments without anticipation. I was a click away from dying naked in my apartment. Two clicks, and my daughter would have joined me. I return time and time again to that darkened floor, to the decision to relinquish this body as a trade to keep our two small lives, to keep his finger from the trigger. A simple lever. An easy slip.
Power outages. A complete loss of sight. A blackout.
The man who raped me had lived in my apartment complex, down the street and around the corner from my unit in the same floor plan. He knew the layout of my apartment, the placement of the contents in my fuse box.
He watched me, as he had been for at least a week, through the half-inch gap beneath my vertical blinds, and he waited for me to enter the bathroom. Check. After it was clear that I was bathing, he lifted my locked sliding glass door from the track and listened for the running water. Check. He entered my home and went straight for the fuse box. He flipped every fuse with the exception of my bathroom, where I was bathing. Check. He did not want to take the chance of me spying his face, his physical appearance, if I escaped the room where I was held captive.
Seconds after the man escaped, my left hand lifted my panicked daughter into my arms and my right hand searched the light switches in my house for power. I needed just enough light to find something to cover my naked body and run. The rooms were black—even our Christmas tree, the warm glow that lit our home all through the night those few weeks, was invisible in the darkest corner of the living room. My vertical blinds stirred from the open door behind them, where the attacker had entered and only this minute broke away into the night, where the air was as black as my home.
As I fled with Stella through the door on the opposite side of the room, I covered my torso with the only material I could find in the dark—my daughter’s small, pink, infant-sized towel embroidered with a flower.
Because I didn’t see the gun, the attacker was not charged for using one during his attack. The exact language in the conviction was as follows:
794.011(5) Commits Sexual Battery; Victim 12 Or Older And In Process Uses Physical Force Not Likely To Cause Serious Personal Injury
The man was not likely to cause serious personal injury while he was punching, choking, and threatening to put another hole in my body and in my child.
(5) A person who commits sexual battery upon a person 12 years of age or older, without that person’s consent, and in the process thereof does not use physical force and violence likely to cause serious personal injury commits a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, s. 775.084, or s. 794.0115.
(g) ‘Serious personal injury’ means great bodily harm or pain, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement.
Chris and I and our two children moved to Colorado. We were tucked into the backwoods of the foothills, and our home sat on the peak of a long dirt road that wound up the mountain. At first, this comforted me. I lived exactly one thousand, nine hundred and fourteen miles away from where I was raped. My name had changed. I lived at least one thousand, five hundred miles away from the penitentiary in which my rapist was detained, though the public website would not tell me exactly where. Is this for his protection?
Within a month of our move, just after I had fallen asleep: a gunshot.
The blast ruptured from the farthest corner of our dark and wooded lot. Inside, our home broke into shards of panic. I sprinted to my children across the hallway and carried them, both at once, into our bedroom. Chris reached for the gun his father had given him for mountain lions and bears and cautiously pulled it from the closet.
The phone rang, but the call dropped after Chris heard panicked speech, too broken up to decipher. Chris tried calling our neighbor back but the call did not go through. He returned his attention to the gun, to removing the rifle from the camouflage cover, and he tossed me his phone.
“Try calling Greg.”
I dialed. No sound. I huddled with my children on our bed beneath the highest window.
“I see someone,” Chris said, his voice low, “in the driveway.” Tears gushed from my eyes. Chris removed the gun from its cover. He attempted to chamber the shell as I reached for my phone. No service.
“I can’t get the… fuck!” he grunted.
“What? You can’t get the what?”
“It won’t load.”
“The gun? What do you mean?”
“The ejection port keeps… fuck!” Chris slung the gun into the case and stood guard near the window facing our driveway. We heard a man’s voice shouting from outside the window.
“Chris! Are you guys okay?” Greg called out from the driveway. “I couldn’t get service. Did you hear the shot?”
Chris and Greg searched the yard while I watched from the bedroom, shaking, our children asleep on my lap. I listened, carefully, to their lungs, their mouths. We slept with the lights on, the four of us in one bed, not knowing the source of the shot.
The following night, we experienced a countywide power outage. The air in our home became impermeable. As the darkness surrounded us, as it fell on my family like a cloak, my skin dissolved. I became darkness. A blackout, embodied.
After the blackout, I lost thirty of my one hundred thirty pounds, more than twenty-three percent of my person. I slept with the lights on. I stopped breastfeeding my son and picked up the ferocious drinking problem I had dropped two years before. I nightly drowned myself to sleep.
Handfuls of hair fell to my ankles during each shower and tangled between my toes. I rolled them into knots and shoved them into the bottom of the bathroom waste bin, under the balls of tissue and toilet paper rolls, where secrets are kept.
Imagine the sound is not a fan droning slightly off axis. Not a neighbor closing her door in the apartment adjacent to yours. Not your dog settling into his last position with a soft groan before sleep. When a sound becomes an intruder, it remains an intruder—a person poised to kick down your door and break into your body.
In a silent home, I tiptoe in the kitchen as I prepare breakfast. I’m up too early again, after having gone to sleep too late again, and everyone is asleep. When I hear a noise, I talk myself down. I try, as I always do, to rationalize the sound, pinpoint the origin—the toilet running, the refrigerator cooling. No, I will not be raped again.
Then behind me someone appears. I turn and see a shadow lunge at me in the dark and expel a screech. It is my daughter. I know this, but I do not know this. I exist in double. There is the me who knows this outline must be someone I know, a smallish person, my daughter, the one I used my body to protect, my first true and primal love. Then, there is the me who lives perpetually in front of a barrel, who knows strangers come too quickly in the night, knows that I must thrust my hands wildly into the dark.
I grab her by the shoulders, taking her from the ground with my grip. Tears are already boiling in my eyes, and my mouth is hot with spit. I shake her body, too hard, my nose an inch from hers. I feel her flesh under my fingernails.
I cannot undo this.
“Don’t you ever, ever do that again, do you hear me?” I am sobbing in her face, teeth clenched, snot and dribble stringing from my lip. Her toes are barely touching the ground. I release her.
“You understand, Stella? Answer me. Answer me!”
The sun is making its first attempt to rise through the blinds and cut the dark. Stella’s wide eyes still dilate. Her black pupils swell and overtake the brown. She looks at me like a wounded animal, like a deer the moment it is shot.
–Whitney Egstad (from The Rumpus)