This work first appeared in Yemassee 23.1.
You move to Missoula, Montana without knowing the story. Maybe you should have read the newspapers. Allegedly, a female student at the University, probably about your age, just shy of 26, was raped by the star quarterback of the Grizzlies football team two years ago. The trial ended last spring, and the quarterback was acquitted. He is starring on the football team again. You Google the Missoulian article at your new job at the university and there is a picture of the quarterback crying and he looks like Lucille Ball. The Dean calls the quarterback “a really good guy.” When your officemates explain the case to you, you sense exhaustion and a touch of sanctimoniousness. Donna says that the girl who accused the quarterback was, like, stalking him.
Donna is the receptionist. She has pictures on her desk of her son who is in the Army. He is fat. Her daughter has a name that sounds like a donut company, like Sara Lee but more precious. Donna paints her nails “Griz” colors: maroon with silver glitter. She carries a Glock in her purse. She talks about her church where she sings in the choir. You think she must be a good Christian woman because she lends you her truck to help you move out of your shitty apartment.
The Man at the Coffee Shop
Missoula is mostly white and straight, but you do spot one queer person. This man comes into your favorite coffee shop wearing a beanie and a sweatshirt, skin-tight leather pants and six-inch platform boots. When he orders his drip coffee, you find yourself thinking that he doesn’t sound gay. He reminds you of a paper doll, or those magnets of Venus de Milo that were so popular in the 90s, the ones you could put magnet clothes on, arranging the magnets so that she wore a motorcycle jacket and black panties the size of a fingernail.
Lock Your Doors
On a bright, cold February morning, your building goes into lockdown. A man with a gun may or may not be on campus. You sit in the dark in your computer chair with the doors locked and try not to look at anyone in the office. Elementary schools are being let out early. Your favorite coworker is weeping quietly because her husband works at a bank and isn’t answering his phone. You know you’re not allowed to say it but that everyone is thinking it: “This is how I’ll die.”
When you’ve been in Missoula for eight months, you fall in love with someone who isn’t your boyfriend. Your boyfriend is great, only you don’t really love the same music, he lives in Chicago, and he’s likely moving to Japan. You start hanging out with a fiction writer from Tennessee with Rolling Stones albums framed all over his bedroom wall. You play in a band together. He gets drunk at a red-lit dive bar and follows you across the Higgins Bridge to tell you he’s in love with you. He follows you to your apartment and you kick him out. You hope that he will not remember this, but he does, and he says it again the next day.
Your boyfriend senses there’s another man and flies in to Missoula to surprise you at a bar after class. He comes up behind you. You break up before he leaves.
A man comes up behind you on the Higgins Bridge and puts you in a chokehold. You think it is someone you know playing a trick. Maybe it is your ex-boyfriend, surprising you again. It is not him. The Tennessean is out of town. Not him, either. It is a homeless man. You smell this man’s sweat. You look up at the stars as he pulls you backward and everything seems to go brown. This is what dying is, you think. You piss yourself. The man pulls you down and you claw at his freckled elbows and gulp enough oxygen to scream. People chase after him, mostly men. The women stay with you, in your dark puddle of piss. Two boys playing football in the park underneath the bridge see the man running and one of them chucks the football at his head, knocking him to the ground. Go Griz.
The day after you are attacked, your Tennessean comes back from Seattle, where he was picking up his dad and brother for a visit. You don’t talk about what happened—not much, anyway. Your worst fear is that you might make them uncomfortable, so you make jokes, help them finish the wine.
You go with them to the bison range. Bison are what the word “beast” looks like, ogres with dusty black hides, slanted backs bulging above their horned heads, watching people watching them from their Toyota Tacomas, iPhones raised. You can see how these beasts look harmless. Pettable, even. They still have those sweet animal eyes. But the signs tell you to stay in your car, and you do.
On the way home your Tennessean keeps one hand on your knee, the other on the wheel. You want to stay in the car forever. You cannot feel safe in the world, knowing there is even one person who has a mind to hurt you. You’re mourning who you were before yesterday.
A week after your attack, you visit your best friend who is working at a ranch in Big Sky. Your Tennessean lets you borrow his Jeep and you and some friends make the four-hour drive, listening to Fleetwood Mac, curling around mountains on I-90, and counting the white crosses like a hand on a clock.
When you get there, you feel that you might have a panic attack under so much sky. It’s not that much sky, really. The red mountains crowd you in their valleys. You should feel safe. But it’s not the mountains either—it’s the men. They shouldn’t remind you of the man who choked you, but they do. They are white. Their faces are hidden under hat brims. They sit on their horses and look down at you. You drink some wine. Someone finds a bunk full of cowboy hats and you take goofy pictures with your phone. You go to bed early and listen to the horses grazing the grass outside your cabin, spooking you with their grunting. In the morning, you wake up to the sound of their hooves drumming the ground and the distant whoops and whistles of wranglers.
It has been weeks now and you are still having nightmares. One night you wake up and start to cry, and your Tennessean goes to his closet and brings out a shotgun that his dad gave him as a graduation gift. He tells you to hold it. You stop crying. You have the best sex of your life.
You schedule a meeting with the city prosecutor about a plea agreement. You tell the Tennessean to just drop you off—you’ll be fine alone. A Crime Victims’ Advocate named Erin meets you at City Hall. Women with bruised faces file out of the prosecutor’s office with their heads down. At the last minute, you decide you really do need the Tennessean to come too.
The prosecutor’s desk is messy. She works with a number of victims of domestic violence, she tells you, but she’s never seen a case like yours. When she tells you there’s a chance it will go to trial if your assailant doesn’t take your plea agreement, she hands you a box of tissues.
When you lived in Chicago, the street harassment was way funnier. One time you wore torn tights on the train and a man asked if you went to church. You said no. He said, “’Cause you sure is holy!”
A friend of yours in Missoula is walking by a bar when a man outside says to her, “That mace won’t save you.”
The Man in the Hat
You have been asked to volunteer at a fundraising auction. You buy a nice dress, one that shows a sliver of your midriff because every outfit that you loved in the movie Clueless is back in style again, and now that you are no longer twelve, you finally have the body to wear it. You buy heels, which maybe look—oh, let’s say it—skanky. The woman at the boutique says you look totally hot.
While getting ready for the auction that night, you send pictures to your friend who works in fashion in NYC. “Is this too slutty?” you ask him, posing with various shades of lipstick, putting your hair up, shaking it out. “Maybe ditch the lipstick,” he texts back. You smear the lipstick off with a tissue, leaving your lips a raw shade of red that has its own immodest implications. But really, it’s the heels that still bother you. As you’re walking out to your car, a man on a bike slows down and says, “Very nice…” Just in that horrible way.
The auctioneer, who usually works cattle auctions, wears a white cowboy hat the size of a bassinette. Your job is to show off the items and then walk over to the winner with a balloon. You’re holding up a bottle of wine when the auctioneer points to you and says, “You get to take all of this home—the wine, I mean!” The room goes silent and everyone is watching you. You give him the finger. Afterwards, your friends ask you if you are okay. You are fine. You are fine. You are fine. The Scotch tastes like a dirty chimney, but you drink it anyway. Someone comes up to the auctioneer afterward and says, “She sure showed you.” The auctioneer doesn’t get it. He didn’t see you flip him off.
All these rooms—the detectives’ office, the prosecutor’s, the counselors’—have a box of Kleenex, printed with flowers or leaves, or solid in neutral colors that match the walls. The detective calls you “an ideal witness,” but haven’t you been an ideal victim? Haven’t you reassured everybody? You are fine, you are fine, you are fine. You take a tissue.
A woman from your parents’ church has asked to publish an item about your assault in the church newsletter. This is strange, since the assault happened months ago and your parents already told the congregation about it. Then again, Jody is strange. She is the woman you used to call the “dishwasher Nazi” because she hovered over the dishwasher during coffee hour to make sure people were loading it right. She is the one who stalks new members around the pews to make sure they have nametags.
You write back to her and ask if she would like to include a link to an article you wrote about the experience. She does, but in her item she writes that you were walking home from work. She explains that if she were to tell the truth, that you were walking home from a bar, “older members of the church might think you were asking for it.”
Bizarre. Doesn’t Jody care that there was an obvious discrepancy between her story and the linked article? Does she think people wouldn’t click on the link? You do the right thing and send her an email about slut-shaming, victim-blaming, all the things you had been tired of talking about even before someone tried to strangle you.
Your email upsets Jody. She leaves a message on your parents’ phone to ask if she can still print the item—with the same inaccuracies. She emails you too. Your fingers tremble as you type. “If you’re more concerned with how other people perceive my story than with getting the facts right, please don’t print the story at all.” You still feel that you‘ve lost.
The day Donna starts a sentence with the words, “Say what you will about Hitler,” you decide it is time to quit your job. You have a meeting with your boss in her office. You use your assault as an excuse. You say you just don’t have the energy for it all anymore, and you’ll be working on your thesis soon. She understands. When you leave her office you run into Donna, who squeals and tells you what a cute outfit you have on, in a way that makes it clear that she was just talking about you behind your back. Donna is the worst.
The Man and His Book
Jon Krakauer announces that his book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, is coming out the month you graduate. The town is outraged—not by the book—but by the title. On his Facebook page, someone writes, “I hate to see a lovely town’s reputation get destroyed.” People ask you what you think of the title. You’re afraid to tell them that the lovely town deserves it.
After months of not hearing from her, the prosecutor calls you and leaves a message, saying that you need to come up with a plea agreement with her to submit to the defense. The only days she gives you to meet are days that you work, and every time you call her, she is not in the office. By Friday, you still haven’t heard from her. She calls later that evening to say that she had to turn in a plea agreement that day, and because she couldn’t get hold of you, she turned it in without your input. But she is confident that it is what you wanted: the assailant would get a Sexual Offender Evaluation, and based on his score, would draw a certain amount of jail time. Any score above two would be a 30-year sentence, with a 15-year suspension. It isn’t until later in the conversation that you realize what that means. It does not mean that the assailant would be in jail for 30 years and then spend 15 years on probation. It means he will be in jail for 15 years and then out of jail for 15 years with a parole officer and AA meetings to make sure he stays out of trouble. In theory.
It doesn’t really hit you until later, when you have a panic attack in your favorite restaurant, crippled in your seat by the fuzz in your head, the sound of chaos in the room, by the weight of what you just agreed to, whether you were ready to do it or not.
The prosecutor talks to you as if she can’t believe you thought he would get thirty years in prison. What fantasy world do you live in? Even after she tells you that the plea isn’t reversible once the defendant agrees to it, you think you might be able to change the judge’s mind. You feel more optimistic knowing the judge is also a woman, even though you’ve learned in the last year that women can hurt you too.
The day you turn 27, the Tennessean takes you out to brunch. The only thing you know about being 27, you tell him, is that people die then. James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, you forget the rest. A palm reader told you once that your lifeline was short, and you can’t help but think.
Afterward you get a manicure with your girlfriends and tell them about the job offer you got in D.C., the place where you grew up. Is the Tennessean coming with you? No doubt, you tell them.
Later that afternoon, you and the Tennessean go for a hike. The beginning of the trail is icy, but then the ground gets soft with pine needles. It is the best kind of quiet.
A parole officer has asked you to write a “Victim Impact Statement” to the judge for your assailant’s sentencing. You are not really a victim now—technically, you are a witness to the crime. Still, this is your chance. You write it in order to beg the judge for a stronger sentence. You explain that the assailant accepted a plea agreement that you didn’t really consent to in the first place. You tell the judge that you think your assailant is capable of murder. You tell her you felt it through his hands. You even write, “I hope you haven’t had the experience of feeling your life end by another man’s hands,” before deleting it. You write the same sentence again. Delete it. It feels too dramatic, or not dramatic enough. There is no appropriate amount of jail time. There is no reasoning with the forces that made you write this letter. But you practically bleed on the page, hoping that someone, anyone, will hear you, will understand you exactly.
The parole officer encourages you to show up to the sentencing to make your statement in person. “Sometimes,” she says, “seeing the victim face-to-face can be more powerful.” They might want more blood.
You don’t go to the sentencing, though, because you know you will have another panic attack. The prosecutor calls you afterward to tell you how well it went: the assailant got 30 years, 15 years suspended. The assailant’s other victim, the runner on the Kim Williams trail, did an amazing job with her statement to the judge, had the room “just riveted.” You can’t help but feel that the prosecutor sees the other victim as the better daughter, the one who can play piano for her parents’ dinner guests while the other daughter sulks in her room.
“She would just love to talk with you,” the prosecutor says. Probably to gloat, you think, but you write down her number on your hand. Later, you let it rinse off in the shower.
The week after your assailant is sentenced, you walk down the stairs of your apartment building and your neighbor below you pounds on the wall on the other side of the staircase, as if to respond to your footsteps. It doesn’t sound like a hand, but like some blunt object. The next morning, your neighbors upstairs tell you that after you left, the Pounder came up the stairs and pounded on your door for at least five minutes. You are afraid to go home. When you do, you see your downstairs neighbors standing on their porch; you call out to them and walk over. When you were a kid, you would practice tongue twisters before talking to a group of people: toy boat, toy boat, toy boat. It always comes out as boys toys, boys toys, boys toys. Your stomach churns. You are brave, you tell yourself. You are brave. You are brave. You are brave. Boys toys, boys toys, boys toys. The man looks scared. He tells you he wasn’t doing the pounding. He thought it was you. He leans against a tree and you can see he is clawing at the bark with his fingernails. The chips fall at his feet. He scratches his neck. He looks into the sun, recoils, and puts on his sunglasses. You can no longer see his enlarged pupils. His skin is yellow. By the end of the conversation, his story has changed. He tells you he didn’t hear the pounding at all. “I guess I must have slept right through it,” he says.
You’re getting nightmares again. One night you wake up screaming. You could have sworn you heard someone banging the window next to your bed. In the twilight of sleep, it looks like water is trickling through a crack in the panes, like an aquarium.
You feel you do not live here anymore. He lives here. He is a composite of your downstairs neighbor and your assailant, both beasts with goatish devil beards. The man you imagine banging down your doorhas a beard like your assailant’s, but his yellow skin and icy frightened eyes are your neighbor’s. Everything looks like a collage.
It’s Your Call
You call the police about your neighbors, who you are almost certain are drug dealers: people come and go out of their apartment, their shades are always drawn, and their Subaru has tinted windows. The woman who answers your call makes you feel you should hurry up with your story. As you talk, you hear her talking to someone else in the room. It is 5 p.m. on a Sunday—is she actually that busy? She transfers your call. You leave a message for someone, trying to tell your story as quickly as possible because the receptionist told you to leave a brief message. You rush through it. You’re pretty sure you mispronounced your own name. You try to imagine what it would be like to receive a message like that first thing on a Monday morning and decide that you wouldn’t call the person back.
The Nail in the Coffin
You hate everything. You hate white men. You hate football. You hate Scott Walker, you hate that knuckle-dragging Idaho representative who suggested that women could swallow cameras to get gynecological exams. You hate the men who came up with the hashtag #notallmen. You even hate the women who came up with the hashtag #yesallwomen. Actually, you just hate hashtags. You hate the people who work at your favorite café because you found out that they’re all ex-convicts and you hate that you hate that. One employee makes your sandwich extra big and you wonder if he wants something from you.
Walking down the street, you realize you hate homeless men, too. Even the harmless ones who just want to crack jokes with you outside a bar, the ones who puke innocently into bushes. Liberal, progressive, empathetic you: you hate the homeless shelter that housed the man who hurt you. You hate the landlord who houses the man who may hurt you. All the men you see on the street look unpredictable. You want to tell your female friends that they are not safe. You hate how safe they seem.
Open Carry II
Your dad leaves you a message and tells you to buy a baseball bat to keep in your apartment in case the neighbors come back. You remember Donna and her Glock. You imagine holding a gun, the cold weight of it between two steady hands. You imagine firing it into your neighbor’s skull. You imagine yourself as a cowboy boot-wearing, Glock-carrying, beer-drinking kind of gal, the kind men want to buy shots for. A few months before, a news reporter interviewed you about the Open Carry Law on the University’s campus, and you realize now what an alarmist liberal you must have sounded like. You are exactly the kind of person he would come after. You have spent the last year defending yourself against him, and now you have to defend yourself from you.
You’re staying at a friend’s house outside of town until you feel safe again in your own apartment. You and the Tennessean leave at night, careful not to make too much noise coming down the stairs, and drive down the dirt road to the green house with all the lights turned on. The mountains are black with swirling moonlit clouds behind them. The moon is waning, smaller by a fingernail than the full moon the night before. Full moons always give you insomnia. That night you drink whisky and soda and listen to country music. The whisky makes you smiley and sleepy. It is not even midnight when you turn in. This room feels safe, even if it is not your own. The bed in the guest room feels like a giant marshmallow. You start to read your book, then fall asleep with the light on.
When you wake up, you feel like a new person. You stand in the kitchen and let the sunlight warm your back. You put maple syrup in your coffee because your host does not have sugar. You drink it by the window and watch snowmelt trickle down the roof. Winter didn’t seem that long. Soon you will be moving with your Tennessean, back East, where it is still winter. Washington, D.C., where you grew up, known as the Crack Capital in the nineties, then the Murder Capital. It’s where men say, “Hey, baby, can I talk to you?” and “Hey, white girl, you got a fat ass!” Go-go music thunders in the streets. The sirens never sound very far away. There are dangerous white men there too, but in Washington, they wear suits.
The week before spring break, three students die in unrelated incidents. A law school student dies of an undisclosed illness. The next day, a freshman straps a plastic bag to his head and asphyxiates himself; his roommate finds him stiff and blue. Early Sunday morning, a football player accidentally shoots himself in the stomach at a party. His name was Kole.
This is probably what happens when people get used to guns. A person who grew up with guns will start thinking it’s like some kind of flashlight and forget the safety’s off and forget it’s loaded and get drunk and fiddle with the trigger and then bam. Boys toys, boys toys, boys toys. Folks around town start taping the number 92, Kole’s jersey number, on all the storefront windows. His dad was a UPS driver. He drives the same route downtown with the number 92 surrounding him, like a ball that’s stuck in a roulette wheel.
A Man on the Bridge
It is spring, finally, and you are moving out of your apartment for good, scrubbing every inch of crown molding, when your friend texts you about a man on the bridge. He’s carrying a sign that says, “MEN WHO ATTACK WOMEN ON THIS BRIDGE ARE COWARDS.” When you go to see him yourself, he is gone. You will never know who he is or what he looks like. You will never know why. Why hope is budding now that you’re leaving.
Caitlin MacDougall was born in Washington, D.C. and graduated with an MFA in nonfiction from The University of Montana in 2015. Her essays can be found on Hello Giggles and The Billfold.