Not a Victim

I recently had the pleasure of being part of an event with Equilibrium Booking that benefited an organization called VIBS, or Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk. Local bands, vendors, and artists such as myself came together in order to provide an environment that was not only fun, but safe and free of judgment. We were able to raise money, have raffles, network, and enjoy each other’s company and express ourselves without barriers. Each vendor table – each musician – was their own entity; each person a color that, when put together, created an incredible, bright piece of art on an otherwise very rainy January evening.

It was serendipitous that we held our event on the same day as the annual Women’s March; I even had a friend who attended the march in New York City come to our “As We Are” show. Both floors of the venue were beaming with talent and the food truck outside encouraged many of us to brave the freezing rain for snacks in between sets. I was fixated on the stage as powerful front-women threw their bodies and voices around without any reservations, each one in her own bubble of expression, each one at the helm of her own existence. I watched artists paint and read astrology and laugh without a care in the world. All the mingling and association was liberating in a world where this type of environment is generally approached with caution.

The bittersweet aspect to our As We Are campaign is that it was designed to create awareness and provide a healthy environment for victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse, as well as domestic violence. It is a hard truth that in our world, men and women are ruthlessly subjected to both mental and physical tortures by people that they – more often than not – trust. They are made to be strangers within their own bodies, they are twisted by the manipulations of a less-than human who takes pleasure in and gains their power from holding innocent people under thumb.

Due to the lightheartedness of the event, I did not speak to the crowd, understandably eager to hear the next band, to dance, and to have fun. When I brought the idea of this event to Jackie and Guistina of EQ, though, all I had in mind was the idea of helping others feel less alone, after being subjected to sexual assault myself and feeling like I didn’t know who I was for quite some time.

My first off-campus freshman party ended in me fighting a man off of me on a cold February night while he tried to keep me pinned to the hood of a car and rip my sweatshirt over my head to obstruct my vision. Yes, I willingly kissed him. Why? Because I was a college freshman. Yes, I did tell him that I didn’t want to have sex with him. Yes, I did tell him I wouldn’t get into a car with him. Yes, I was frozen inside of my own skin trying to rationalize why this man I didn’t know was treating my body with the same comfort and acquaintance as I had with myself. I wondered why he thought his hand belonged in my pants without thinking he needed to ask my permission. I wondered why I couldn’t move.

My survival of sexual assault happened when I snapped. When he tried to pull my sweatshirt over my head and – I swear – the anger of my dead grandmothers, my rugby team, my ten-plus years of jiu jitsu threw him as far away from me as possible with enough explosiveness to scare him and make him throw his hands up – his white flag. I found my friend, got a ride home, and found more friends to cry to and to try and understand what just happened to me. Was I wrong? Was I going to be alright? I survived. I was breathing; my heart was just about jumping out of my chest. My friends would believe me, right?

No one tells you that the easiest part of surviving sexual assault is the actual act of surviving it. No one prepares you for the mental and emotional trauma. No one warns you of the friends who sympathize with your assailant because you “looked like a whore” or you were being a tease. No one prepares you for the loss of self that oftentimes follows a horrible event like this, where suddenly you don’t even know what you like anymore because you know your own body far less than you originally thought.

And then I found myself, almost ten years to the day, standing among 100 or so people, each in a happy aura of expression and acceptance. People ran around in bliss, and no one was required to outwardly say they were a victim, or a survivor – just there for support and love. In that space, among art, friends, my boyfriend, and a good beer, I realized how good I am at surviving, how much I wish that for anyone subjected to assault or violence from a stranger or otherwise to feel proud of survival. I want those people to thrive and live how they deserve. I am grateful to EQ Booking, to the bands, to the environment, and to organizations like VIBS who understand it doesn’t stop with just surviving, but it’s possible to be yourself again – and even better.

The First Summer I Remember

My childhood was spent in a cape house on Goose Creek in Southold. I lived under the barnacle-covered dock, in the trees, on the sandbars, and in a boat cabin. I was a sailor, a pirate, and an explorer. My imagination was my reality, where time did not exist – it was home. The neighborhood children would roam the quiet side streets, barefoot and wild, picking stones from their toes and walking across each other’s yards. Sometimes we would converge for nighttime games, other nights were spent in solitude in a confessional with nature. Our bodies smelled of salt and fire as our memories struggled to hold on in between the cracks of our skin. We showered outside under the oak trees and dried in the sun, laid out in our bathing suits, only to return to the creek hours later.

One day, I left my creek, my home, salt clinging to my neck as I closed the gate doors one last time. Chipped white paint and rusted hinges, caressed year after year by salted air, clung to the sleeve of my shirt saying, “Don’t go yet.” I shut the flood lights and stared over the dock and saw myself on the water’s edge. I saw my mother, her spirit left behind to guard the kingdom. I wanted to mourn, but instead felt myself smile. I felt warm. Decades under that same summer sky, endless memories, yet in that moment, I recalled my first.

I was two years old, with knotted gypsy hair and doe eyes that were guarded by long eyelashes and the nape of my mother’s neck. My skin was coated in salt and oils from the Mother creek and my mother’s hands. The first smell I ever remembered was coconut. My brother played as I sat in the grass of an infinite lawn. Cool green blades dusted me off while the sun left marks on my face. My eyes grew heavy. I crawled to my mother who lay in a chair, palms to the sun. Her legs were thin and long and rough, and smelled of coconuts. I wedged myself between her legs and rested my head on the belly that once held me, and sleep took me.

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We were salty children. We were raised at the shore, feet soaked in brine; our mother taught us to trust the minnows that cleaned our toes while we squirmed and giggled. We built empires of sand and dried reeds that housed defiant crabs. We were the crabs. The water’s edge was our kingdom.

The creek was the cure-all. If we were cut, bruised, or sad, Nana would send us “into the drink” to marinade and heal. “It’s good for you,” she’d happily insist, although she never joined us. We would disappear under the dark water and come back up like bufflehead ducks while she watched from land. Loons would perch on dock pilings around us, contrasted black against the summer sun, water-soaked wings outstretched in patience. I saw Nana once dip into the creek, old and regal, as she appeared to wash the years off her soul, only to come back old and regal – and pure. She became sick, and the creek called, but she never did go back in. We missed her on the summer days to follow, when the sun faded and the humidity broke as if God himself took the cover off us. We sat on the shore, examined our scarred feet that lay infinitely beyond us, leathery from the sun; the sand seemed to grow over our bodies and made our skin our own homes.

At night we rested on the dock and watched the moon jellies glide underneath the water’s surface like Hades’ souls, aimless and uncontrolled. The delicate blue lights of the jellyfish mirrored the stars that hung above us, closer than usual over our creek. They illuminated our eyes, and we lay still on the dock as to not wake up Time. He sat behind the treeline for us, and he always came back around with a torch and baked the salt into our shoulders, left his mark on our faces and put knots in our hair.

 

Good morning, Mom

20160105_072602 I woke up at 4 AM like a shot. The February wind beat on my window, and I could feel the cold at the back of my neck, which prompted me to sink further under my blankets. It rained the night before, the temperature dropped and the unforgiving Long Island winter called to remind me that, even after five years, I still wake up missing my mom. My eyes slowly adjusted to the room, the moon lit one corner, and my dog stirred while I turned over on my side and checked the weather to see sunny and cold, a favorite of mine. A yin and yang of sensation that I always looked forward to; a balance of beauty and bitterness.

Sunrise wasn’t for another three hours, and now that my mind was on, I threw on my clothes and made coffee. The winter woke me up more than my drink. There was something that comforted me about a dark house, lit up only by the sound of wind and my own thoughts. I thought of my mother the night before, I thought of the pain, and the memory of her face the day she died. It did not look like her. She wasn’t smiling, her hair wasn’t done, she was gaunt and tired and done with this world – her light gone off to somewhere else. I couldn’t remember it actually leaving, I just remembered the day it was no longer there. I remembered the long painful journey, endless days, and her last breaths and how bittersweet of a release they were to her and I – how I felt the silence between us, the devastation of death coupled with the final acquittal of her soul. It was 5:30. I looked down at my dog, who looked up at me, ready for command of the day. I fitted him his sweater, and headed for Montauk.

With my insides wrapped up in hot coffee, and my shih tzu wrapped up in blankets, we embarked through the darkness, destination eastward. The moon dropped beyond the pines as the stars showed themselves, if only for a moment, as the sun prepared to make its debut. I took comfort knowing that I would reach it once I reached the end. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had no need to rush. I belonged to the schedule of no one, I only belonged to that morning’s sunrise. Everything was cold and baron and quiet, except for the wind, which breathed through empty trees and stirred litter and leaves over quiet weekday streets. My dog rested his head on the cup holder and slept, unaware of my mission, unaware of my impassioned memories.

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Montauk was empty. The wind was violent and unforgiving as it raged across the baron parking lot and the outside temperature read negative six. I shouldn’t, I thought. This is a terrible idea – I’m the only one here. I could see the morning glow beyond the lighthouse, the water crashing against the jetty rocks, coated in ice and mist. There was a fog in the far distance and a tower of clouds with a halo of pink and orange, gulls flew defiantly against the bitter February wind. I left my dog in the car with the heat on and made my way down the steps towards the beach. As I came around brush cover, a gust of wind caught the inside of my hood and shocked my senses as my whole body went cold. I pushed my way towards the water’s edge, cursing the wind and the gulls and the drive and then, without warning, my anger was silenced as I looked beyond the cloud cover at the sudden manifestation that was the sun.

I watched it rise so bold and gently up higher and higher into the morning sky, warming my spirit while the wind battered my face. It climbed over the mist and quieted the last breaths of night. My mind was stilled. I couldn’t remember the evening or when my world became light; it just was. I stood stoically against the wind as the closest thing to my mother’s love illuminated the horizon and bid me “good morning.”