Two days after it happened, my best friend told me she was eighty percent sure she was drugged and raped at her hostel in Panama.
We both willed her to be wrong, but there was the blood in her underwear, the sick feeling in her head the morning after a night she couldn’t remember, the slow piecing together of half-memories. There was the fear, bone-deep, that overwhelmed her when she locked eyes with a man who resembled one of her rapists. Her instinct told her that her body had been violated. We both trusted it, because this wasn’t the first time.
I met Vanessa in first grade and hated her instantly, hated her purple glasses and her ponytail and what I perceived as too much confidence for a dork whose favorite color was ugly olive green. Mostly, I hated that she was new. Mostly, I hated change. For the first couple of weeks I glared at her across Mrs. Witmer’s classroom.
Soon the September birthdays came. Mrs. Witmer posted a construction paper tree on our classroom bulletin board, each of the falling leaves containing a name and birthday in Sharpie. My leaf was next to Vanessa’s; both contained the same date.
Once Vanessa and I realized we were long-lost twins, I demoted my then-first-best-friend Carly to second-best-friend. I had to. From then on, Vanessa would reign. Together Vanessa and I explored the creek in my backyard, invented colleges and husbands and dream jobs, drank entire Dixie Cups of Hershey’s Syrup. When I earned enough of Mrs. Witmer’s “class cash,” I got to invite a friend to eat lunch privately with me in the classroom bean bag chairs. I always chose Vanessa.
Early on in our friendship, I was warned about Vanessa’s father. Mom and Dad were anxious about dropping me off at her house and told me to call them if I ever saw him. At age seven, all I knew was that he couldn’t sleep there anymore because he did something bad. He wasn’t allowed to see Vanessa alone or meet her friends. Not yet old enough to understand terms like sexual predator, registered sex offender, pedophile, I imagined things he might have done: instigated a fight, stolen some money—maybe even killed someone. I imagined he was tall and burly, with green eyes like Vanessa’s, but with more danger lurking behind them.
I learned from Mom that other members of the PTA kept their daughters from Vanessa, wouldn’t let them play at her house. They whispered about her father’s crime—the one I couldn’t fathom. How could her mother stay married to that monster, after what he did? The only thing I found strange about Vanessa’s house was their pantry. Vanessa’s mom served raw carrots as snacks and always seemed to have seaweed on the stove. In the mornings after a sleepover, we ate plain Cheerios with skim milk. We brushed our teeth with those Dixie Cups of Hershey’s Syrup at mine.
When we talked about her dad, it was always casual, nonchalant. He lived in a house somewhere, worked with computers. She saw him every other week or so and said we could even arrange lunch at Souper!Salad! so I could meet him, as long as we followed the rules. Lunch seemed reasonable. Rules seemed reasonable. When I suggested it to my parents, they were horrified. Why would we ever want to meet that man?
By fifth grade I was starting to make sense of it all, starting to understand what happened between men and women and what shouldn’t happen between fathers and daughters. I remember the day I came home from school, walked into the kitchen where Mom was, and proudly told her I had learned the word penis. She told me not to say it again. I never asked Mom or Dad to explain to me what had happened to Vanessa, or what it had to do with that word I wasn’t supposed to say again. I was aware that they knew more than I did, but I knew enough.
Vanessa’s father’s criminal record tells the story I was never explicitly given: when Vanessa was two, he was arrested on two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. He plead guilty to both without a lawyer. In Texas, assault against a child victim is a first-degree felony. Minimum recommended sentencing is nine years’ imprisonment; maximum is 99 years. Vanessa’s father was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and a fine of $5,000.
Over the years our classmates found out about her trauma, and even if they didn’t quite understand the biology of it, they understood that it was sexual, that her abuser was her father. It was middle school, and by seventh grade us girls were starting to get mean, resentful, jealous. Other girls didn’t like Vanessa because she was competition—boys started to pursue her almost as soon as they stopped fearing cooties. Somehow Vanessa angered our close friend Anna one day, resulting in a resentful MySpace bulletin along these lines: WELL, nessa, at least my daddy doesnt touch me……….
That was the end of Vanessa and Anna’s friendship, and it should’ve been the end of my friendship with Anna. It wasn’t, because I did not yet see Vanessa as vulnerable or me as someone who should try to protect her. Vanessa asked me if I had seen Anna’s post. I told her I had. But I did nothing to deflect our classmates’ cruel curiosity; I may have even encouraged it. I casually confirmed the subsequent rumors and allowed news about her abuse to spread. I wasn’t spiteful, I was terrified, and overcome with speechlessness when the subject surfaced.
“Yeah, it’s true,” I’d answer my classmates when they asked about Vanessa’s father, because it was true, and I couldn’t figure out what else to say.
We became teenagers, shared beds and showers and eyeliner. Vanessa grew into bras and boyfriends, and I tried to follow, always a couple of steps behind. She vented to me on occasion about her father. She resented him, the ramifications of his crime beginning to rear their ugly heads as her body matured and felt less and less like hers. Vanessa vowed she would never forgive him. She was sure of that. When he came over to visit, she’d sit far away and speak as little as possible.
We were standing in her room one day in high school when she told me that her father had written her a letter—an apology, an attempt at explanation. He told her to open it when she was ready. She assured him she never would be. Opening her closet door, she showed me where she stashed it, still sealed, on the top shelf. This was the longest I’d ever spoken with her about her father, so I used the opportunity to ask a question I thought I wanted the answer to.
I was wondering about that word I had learned in fifth grade, about if it had fit, or if it had been fingers, or if anything had entered her at all. Vanessa had been two—what were the exact logistics of her rape? I hated myself for wondering, and cringed at every possible wording of my question. I tripped over my words as I tried to get them out. They were all wrong. I clumsily asked her if it had been “full-on” rape.
She knew what I was getting at. “Yeah,” she said definitively. “Yeah, it was.”
Why did I care about the logistics of my best friend’s rape? In some sick curious compassionate way, I think I wanted to get closer to it. Tear it apart from the inside to look at its ugly messy parts. I had never known what it was like to carry burdens or bear scars. I wanted to feel pain.
I asked Vanessa if she remembered. She said yes, but as if it were an out-of-body experience. When she played it back from her memory, she could see herself lying down, see him standing there. She watched as a third party, a ghost in the room. This is the strange and haunting perspective I’ve always had of Vanessa’s trauma: a silent bystander. I let it move past me. I cannot confront it because I am afraid of it, incapacitated by it.
I asked Vanessa how her mother found out. She had been changing Vanessa’s diaper sometime after.
“Daddy touched me there,” Vanessa had said.
“Daddy touched you where?”
When we deleted our MySpaces in favor of Tumblrs, Vanessa’s quickly became a hub for anonymous questions. I was ashamed to realize that I craved the same answers as our callous peers, the ones who had interrogated and humiliated her in years past.
Anonymous asked: When did you lose your virginity?
In 8th grade.
Anonymous asked: No I mean when was the first time a penis was inside your vagina?
When I was two. Are you happy?
I saw Vanessa’s father for the first and only time at our high school graduation. I had not expected to. I remember feeling compelled to keep my distance, to run, to call my parents, as I had been taught. I hugged Vanessa and her mom. He stood on the periphery, slim with gray hair. I think he smiled. He was older than I imagined and generally unremarkable. This was the man I had been taught to fear, the man who committed a disgusting crime I had spent over half of my life trying to understand, yet he looked like a man I’d see playing golf nondescriptly in the course beyond my backyard.
I did not introduce myself, but he knew me, and I knew him. He watched Vanessa’s mom take photos of us, and I wondered if she had been asked to smile and take photos with him earlier in the day. It was strange to see them all together like that, like a happy family, and I wanted to know how she had handled being near him. I know that however she handled it, she handled it alone, since I still hadn’t figured out how to gracefully navigate her trauma, or how to articulate my compassion.
I’m not sure I’ve learned.
Vanessa eventually left college and her long-term boyfriend, then saved for nearly two years to attend a yoga retreat and certification program on the beach in Panama. She was in her element there, and I lived vicariously through her Instagram posts. She went in the summer, wore long, flowing dresses, napped in hammocks, and put flowers in her hair. She drank watermelon juice and cocktails, practiced poses on sand, took showers outside. After two weeks of training, she became a certified yoga instructor. She backpacked across the rest of the country in celebration.
She spent three more days on the beach taking surf lessons, building bonfires, making friends. Then she traveled to a nearby town for hikes and waterfalls. On her first night in the hostel there she slept with a fellow traveler. On her second, she had new roommates, two German men. She took it easy that night, drank a canned strawberry margarita in bed. She got up to grab her book from her locker. When she returned, fatigue hit hard and fast; she fell unconscious.
The next morning the men were gone. Her memory of the previous night was hazy and disorienting; when had she fallen asleep? She was bleeding in her underwear, suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that she needed to leave. So she spent the afternoon on a bus, arriving in the next city five hours later.
On the street, she saw a man who resembled one of her roommates. A rush of fear, then recollection.
She remembered the two of them coming back into the room in the middle of the night, loud and laughing. German consonants ringing in her ears.
She remembered them knocking into her a few times, crowding the room with their clumsy bodies.
She remembered the canned strawberry margarita she had left momentarily.
She remembered seeing one of them naked, his silhouette against the light from the bathroom.
She remembered feeling scared and unsafe. She rolled over to face the other way.
That’s all she remembered. She put the pieces together.
I received her messages, a stack of green bubbles, at 9:43 pm on a hot summer Thursday. Oh god that’s horrifying, I texted back, because it was, and I had no other words.
I paced the length of my room, then called Mom, telling her quickly and urgently that Vanessa had been drugged and raped. Mom said oh dear and asked for the details, the logistics. I gave them to her. She asked if Vanessa had filed a report. I asked her what good that would do, especially in a foreign country, especially two days after the assault. I said I didn’t know what to do. I said it wasn’t fair. I said I didn’t know how to make it better. I said something along the lines of “she doesn’t need this”—as if any woman ever needs rape.
I asked Mom why this had happened to Vanessa, after what she’d already suffered.
Mom said, “Well…”
“She did choose to take this trip this way, you know—you run that risk when you travel alone and stay in hostels.”
I reminded Mom that I took a weekend trip alone last year and stayed in a stranger’s Airbnb, reminded her that I live in New York, a city where I walk home alone at night and let strangers drive me around. I reminded Mom that it could’ve just as easily been me.
“I guess so,” she said. “I’m just not totally surprised.”
I was livid. Vanessa was a woman who lived in the shadow of abuse, a woman who decided to travel alone, a woman who shared her body with men; these things made her the kind of woman one expected to be raped. Mom didn’t mean that, exactly, but she did mean this: it would have been a bigger tragedy if it had been me. I was livid at that, and at the fact that I could recognize the place where Mom was coming from. It was buried somewhere inside me, too. Somewhere that privileged my lack of scars, my monogamy, my fortuitously untroubled past.
In bed with my boyfriend that night, I wanted to say, Vanessa was raped, wanted to say, My best friend was raped. My best friend since first grade was raped for the second time in her life. How could that possibly happen?
I said nothing in fear of his response. “Well…”
Vanessa had five days left in Panama when she realized what had happened to her. From then on she only booked private rooms and spent most of her time in bed. She asked me if she was wasting the rest of her trip. I told her she needed to heal.
The last activity on her itinerary was visiting a baby sloth sanctuary. If a baby sloth falls from its tree, she told me, usually it is left on the ground to die. The mother can’t get down very quickly, and doesn’t care to, so the sanctuary rescues them. Tickets were $30. I asked Vanessa if it was worth it. She said yes. Their little brown bodies were wrapped in blankets, recovering at their own slow pace.
I saw Vanessa two weeks later during my visit home. I felt grown up because home was now a place I “visited.” I felt grown up because I stayed with Vanessa in her one-bedroom apartment that she paid for on her own. I felt grown up because we drank a bottle of wine and bought artisanal cheese and sliced it onto bread. I felt grown up but I wasn’t, because we had been together for hours and had not yet spoken face-to-face about her rape.
I did not ask her if she was okay or if her body was healing or if she still liked the taste of strawberry margaritas. I did not ask her if she felt bodies knocking into her at night or saw glimpses of a silhouette against the bathroom light. I did not tell her I was there for her. I didn’t want to make false promises.
At midnight Vanessa crept into bed; I laid down on the futon. We couldn’t see each other, but I imagined both of us were staring at the ceiling, reciting to ourselves things that needed to be said. Under the pressure of silence, guilt and obligation and shame rose to the surface.
“Vanessa?” I called to the wall between us.
“I just want you to know that when you told me what happened, it really affected me. For, like, three days I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do.”
I heard her exhale.
“I just feel so helpless. I want you to know I’m not ignoring it; it’s really affecting me. You know how I am—sometimes I just have a hard time talking about it.”
“Yeah,” she said.
Vanessa opened a case against the two men who had assaulted her. At best, they will have a note in their files. They will likely get questioned at international borders, but not detained. If another woman ever files charges against them for a similar act, Vanessa’s testimony can then be used in the court as evidence. It cannot be used for anything now. Vanessa’s assault will not be on their criminal records, and the men will not be charged for their crime.
Nearly one in five American women will become victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. I have to accept that Vanessa is among them. But this I cannot get over: lightning isn’t supposed to strike the same tree twice. Why hadn’t it struck me instead?
On the phone with Mom in the minutes after I learned Vanessa had been drugged and raped, I remember saying the same phrase over and over: “She didn’t do anything wrong.” I realize now that I was not pleading with Mom but with the cruelest parts of myself. As much as I have sympathized with my best friend, I have judged her. I criticized her decision to go to college when she wanted to become a yoga instructor, then I criticized her decision to drop out of college to become a yoga instructor. I disapproved of every man she slept with. I rolled my eyes when she told me she had contracted an STD, when she feared she was pregnant. Despite how close Vanessa’s trauma hit to home, I lived by the fact that trauma was something that she somehow deserved more than I did.
When Vanessa’s messages came in at 9:43 pm on that hot summer Thursday, a part of me said, “Well…” before saying, Oh god that’s horrifying. I was looking in a mirror, and I was terrified. If Vanessa hadn’t done anything wrong, if she hadn’t invited it, then it could’ve just as easily been me. That was the truth, and it was hard to stomach. I forced it down.
“She didn’t do anything wrong,” I told Mom, and myself.
“I get it,” Mom said. “She didn’t. You know Vanessa has always been like another daughter to us.”
But do you get it? I thought. She and I are twins.
Alyssa Matesic works in editorial at Penguin Random House. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from New York University with a degree in English and American Literature and a minor in Creative Nonfiction. After serving as Editor-in-Chief of West 10th for two years, she co-founded the prose journal Pigeon Pages.