Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language, violence, and mature content.
TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT
“I can’t believe you’re thirty. We’re getting old!” Beth cries.
“It’ll be you next!” shouts the birthday girl from across the table.
Beth frowns deeply and mock cries into her hands.
I’m five years younger than the both of them but I keep quiet. It seems that as soon as you pass twenty-five, you’re basically thirty.
Our party is the biggest in the restaurant- eight rowdy women surrounding a long table at the back of the room. Families and dates keep turning their heads in our direction, rolling their eyes and sucking their teeth. I feel heat rise on my cheeks and I send them pleading looks whenever our eyes meet like I am not a part of the issue.
I’m squashed between Samantha and Abby. They’re both Jen’s work friends. I don’t really know them. As soon as I sat down I regretted my seating decision. Jen is at the head of the table, too far from me for her to even catch my discomfort. Or maybe she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s having too much fun. This is her thirtieth; after all, she shouldn’t have to worry about me today. I’ll be fine. I can be fine. I just need to make it through the night.
I take a sip of my glass of wine, knocking my elbow against Samantha’s as I do. She doesn’t notice. It’s like I’m not even here. There’s a phone being passed around the table of a girl’s holiday I wasn’t invited to. Jen had told me it was nothing personal, they just thought I would feel left out because I didn’t work with them but I knew the truth. I’m not as fun as I used to be. But that’s not my fault.
The phone reaches me and there’s a picture of Jen, Samantha, Beth, Abby and Georgie on a beach somewhere in Spain drinking margaritas in their bikinis. They all look so happy it makes a lump swell in my throat. I remember nights like that. I remember when Jen and I went to Barcelona. Just the two of us because we were all each other needed. One night we didn’t even leave the hotel bar, we were laughing and drinking so much we had forgotten our plan to go out and find somewhere new.
But that was all before.
I manage a smile and look around the table.
“Looks like you had a great time,” I say, knowing no one is listening. Samantha takes the phone and starts talking about a barman that had hit on her that night, turning to block me from even pretending to be involved in the conversation. I crane my neck to look around her, smiling and laughing when they do but I quickly give up.
I can feel my heartbeat in my ears and the pressure of tears hits the backs of my eyes. My skin feels itchy. I can’t breathe right. The toilets are all the way on the other side of the restaurant and our chairs and crammed so close together I am going to cause a fuss if I try to leave.
But I am not going to cry in front of these girls. Not after I promised Jen I would be fine. Not after telling her I’ll be okay for her big day. That I will manage. That I will enjoy myself.
“Excuse me,” I say to Abby. She’s deep in conversation with Georgie, her wine glass sloshing as she laughs hysterically. “Excuse me.”
My cheeks are burning. My heart is pounding so fast it hurts. I jerk my chair back, taking one of Abby’s chair legs with me. Her head snaps to me, curls slapping me in the face. Her expression is one of complete contempt, before she rights herself and smiles politely.
“Sorry, I just need the toilet.”
“Oh, sorry!” she apologises overdramatically to make up for scowling at me. This just brings more attention to us.
I manage to get free, my boots knocking against the bag containing a bottle of champagne I was supposed to give to Jen but I had seated myself before she had come and I hadn’t built the courage to go over and give it to her.
The bar runs across the length of the restaurant and I have to pass a group of men huddled around the stools to get to the toilets. I pause behind my chair, gripping the back of it. There are six of them. They’re being just as rowdy as us but they seem to be getting none of the dirty looks. I can’t tell if there is a gap behind them or I’m going to have to squeeze my way through the pack. But I’m already on my feet now. The girls are already giving me weird looks. My eyes flicker to Jen. She’s looking at me, eyebrow lifted in concern. I show her a smile I hope doesn’t look too forced and push myself from the chair and in the direction of the men.
There isn’t space behind them. I want the world to split open and swallow me whole. Should I turn back to the table? But I can’t not go to the toilet now. I’d look like a weirdo. They already think I’m weird enough.
“Sorry, love, do you need to get past?” one of the men says, noticing me standing awkwardly beside him.
“Yes, thank you,” I reply, head bent so I don’t have to look him in the eyes.
He moves aside but not far enough. I bite down on my tongue and slip through the bodies. Their backs and chests press against me. The bare skin of my arms prickles at the feel of their clothing. The mixture of their aftershaves assaults my nose and makes my eyes sting. One of them calls to the other, a deep baritone right down my ear. Revulsion sends me dizzy. The other man answers and I freeze.
I know that voice.
I’d know it anywhere.
I hear it every night.
My knees buckle and I almost collapse when I break free of the throng.
One of the men grabs my elbow to support me and a tear breaks free. Please don’t be him. Please don’t be him. I manage a smile in his direction, hoping my hair is covering my eyes. I can’t look. To know he’s touched me again. I can’t. He lets me go and my skin feels like it’s on fire. A sob jumps from my lips and I run, my heels clacking too loud across the floor.
I manage to get to the toilets and they’re thankfully empty. I lock myself in a cubicle and drop onto the toilet. Another sob rips from me and I can’t contain my tears anymore. My temples are pounding. I feel sick. I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home.
I rub my eyes with the backs of my hands and they come away black with mascara. My face must look a mess. And I know how I look when I cry. My skin goes all red and blotchy. There is no going back from this.
My phone is in my bag at the table. I can’t even message Jen to tell her I have to leave. Not that she would even hear her phone if she did. And I also need my purse and keys to get home. Which are in my bag. What the hell am I supposed to do now?
I have to go back but I can’t. He’s out there.
Why? Why tonight? Why here? It’s been months. Seven months, to be precise. A month of me not able to leave the house. Five months of me only leaving the house for work and therapy. And this month… this month I thought I was getting better. This month I thought I could start again.
But I can’t. I can never go back to how I was before that night. I’m still there in that room. The smell of sweat and weed thick in the air. The collection of empty vodka bottles on the windowsill. The sound of men laughing through the walls.
I never really left that place.
I don’t know how long I’ve been in the cubicle but probably long enough to be suspicious. Or maybe they haven’t even realised I left. But I can’t stay in here all night. I need to get my bag and I need to get home. I want to call my mum. I want to cry down the phone.
I wipe my eyes with a lump of toilet roll and smooth down my top. My reflection stares back at me when I open the door and I cringe. My mascara has been smeared up my temples and there are red, puffy bags under my eyes.
Water can only do so much but I attempt to wipe as much of my eye make-up off as I can.
Sudden anger burns deep inside that I am still alone in the toilets. Isn’t Jen wondering where I am? Why hasn’t she come to check on me? Why am I crying alone in the bathroom?
Because you’re a mess. Because you’re broken. He broke you.
Controlling my breathing, I smooth down my hair as I count to twenty. Count to twenty and he won’t be out that door. Count to twenty and I can have a good night tonight. Count to twenty and I can just be one of the girls. Count to twenty and I can be normal. I can be okay.
My face is still a little puffy but the lights are dimmer outside so maybe they will be forgiving.
When I’m back outside, the first thing I notice is that the men are still there. And now I can see him. I can see him there on the stool by the bar laughing and joking with his friends like he is human and not a monster. Not the thing that haunts my nightmares. Not the thing that makes it impossible for me to hug my own dad.
I don’t recognise the others. They weren’t there that night. But I hate them all the same.
And I have to walk past him. There’s no other way.
He doesn’t notice me approach but when I linger behind his friend he turns and his eyes find mine. His eyes. Dark brown. Hypnotically brown. Long eyelashes. Handsome. He smacks his friend. My mouth goes instantly dry.
His friend slides aside and bows, allowing me to pass. It’s still a squeeze and hot beer breaths attack my face. One of the men studies me and I know he knows I’ve been crying. But he doesn’t say anything. He just nods politely and steps out of the way.
I wonder if he knows. I wonder if he knows what his friend is capable of. I wonder if he’s done the same.
The girls don’t say anything when I return. They just wriggle in their chairs so I can slip in back between them like nothing has even happened. That I hadn’t even left. That I hadn’t just been crying in the toilets alone wishing I was somewhere I felt safe, even though that isn’t anywhere anymore.
Our desserts come and I’m given the wrong one. I asked for a brownie but I’ve been given cheesecake. I wait for one of the girls to say hers is wrong but no one speaks up so I eat the cheesecake anyway.
He’s still there at the bar. I can see him in my peripheral vision. I don’t want to look but I can’t help it. It’s like looking at a car crash. I know I shouldn’t. I’m just torturing myself. But just seeing that he is here, he’s real, and he’s just living his life… Another surge of anger rips through me and my grip on my fork tightens. I’m not sad anymore. My eyes are dry. No, I’m not sad. I am furious.
This man is just out with his friends drinking and having a great time and here I am, too afraid to even give my best friend her birthday champagne because I can’t stand people looking at me. Because I can’t stand attention. Because I can’t stand being a person anymore.
I’m not me anymore. I can’t be mad at Jen for being drawn towards the other girls. But she had been there that night. She had told me I needed to get out more and take more risks. She was the one who said he was hot and I should have some fun. She was the one who stayed with me in the month after when I lived in pyjamas and rotated between crying hysterically and laughing until my stomach hurt. But I didn’t get better after a month, and she had her own things to deal with. It didn’t happen to her, she could still have fun. So she did. Without me.
I don’t blame her for carrying on with her life, but that doesn’t make being left out in the cold feel any better.
My eyes find him again. He’s on his feet, hugging and slapping his friends hard on their backs. My heart thuds. He’s leaving. He steps out of the throng, making a show of waving and heads to the door. Alone.
This is it.
This needs to be over. I am sick of being this pathetic mess that people don’t want to be around. I want to be me again. He took that from me. I am going to take it back.
I jerk my chair back. Again, Abby sends me daggers but I don’t care. I put on my jacket and slide my bag strap over my shoulder. Maybe Jen notices me leaving but I don’t look back. I can’t have her stalling me. I grab the champagne bag and head for the door and out into the night.
He’s a few paces ahead of me, swaying a little. It’s dark out, just past eleven. It’s cold. Not unbearable so but I’m glad I’m wearing jeans. Streetlamps give everything a sepia glow. He’s heading towards the bus station. The anger inside ferments into something vicious and intense.
He heads down the steps. I follow. He must hear my boots but he doesn’t look back. He doesn’t have to. He’s safe out here alone at night, isn’t he?
I take the bottle from the bag, leaving the bag to float off into the bushes.
It’s deserted down here. Fluorescent lights flicker in the terminals and I think he’s heading into one but instead, he heads around the back, pulling a joint from his pocket.
I hurry my steps and he’s reaching for his lighter when my bottle smashes over his head and he drops to the tarmac in a heavy heap, like his bones have suddenly turned to mush. There are shards of glass everywhere and my front is soaked with champagne. He’s soaked, too. His head clattered against the back of the terminal and now his neck is at an awkward angle. Dark blood leaks from his scalp.
Is he dead?
In the back of my mind I know I should be worried if I killed him. But I’m not. A sudden calm washes over me as I stare down at him, crumbled and looking like a big heap of nothing. This man. This man ruined my life? This man? No. Not anymore.
I grab his hair and he inhales sharply.
So, not dead, then.
He blinks rapidly. Blood leaks into his eyes. He’s gasping, trying to focus on me.
“Wha- Wha?” He tries to push himself up but his elbows buckle.
“Remember me?” I ask. My voice sounds alien in my ears. There’s power in it that I have never heard before.
He continues to blubber.
“Seven months ago you hit on me in a club. We danced. We had a good time. You asked if I wanted to go back to yours. I said yes.” I crouch in front of him. He’s looking around, his hands trying to find purchase but he’s slicing his palms open on the broken glass. “You said you lived close. We were walking for a while. I changed my mind. I wanted to get a taxi home but my phone was dead. You said yours was, too.” His eyes find mine. He’s blinking, and there’s something close to recognition there. “I wanted to head to the main road to flag down a taxi but you said your place was closer and I could charge my phone.”
He looks down at his cut up palm blearily.
“We get to yours and your place is full of guys. You try to get me to carry on the night and drink with them. I didn’t want to so you took me to your room to get away and to find your charger.”
Tears are in his eyes now. They mix with the blood running down his face. I can smell it.
I grab his collar and pull him up so his back is against the back of the bus terminal. He whimpers.
“Do you remember what happened next?”
He shakes his head and gasps a thick, wet sob. “I’m sorry!”
“Sorry?” I tilt my head. “What are you sorry for?”
I slam him against the glass. “What are you sorry for? What did you do that night?”
“Get off me, psycho!”
“Get off you? You didn’t when I screamed that so why should I treat you any different?”
He thrashes underneath me. In the corner of my eye, I see a big piece of the bottle glinting at me. I grab it, feeling the cold pain of it slicing into my palm but it’s like my body rejects it, knowing I have more important things to focus on.
“Do you remember what you did?” I’m shaking with fury now. He trembles beneath me. “Do you remember what you said afterwards? Why are you crying? Don’t act like you didn’t enjoy it.” I mimic. The words have played on a loop ever since. I hook the tip of the shard of glass into the corner of his mouth. He cries out. The glass bites and fresh blood oozes down his lips. “Stop crying. You look ugly when you cry. I like your smile. You have a nice smile. You should smile more.” As easy as a knife through butter, I slice the glass up his cheek. He screams and convulses, his knee jamming into my side. Blood covers my hand instantly. I throw the bloody glass away and stand. He collapses to his side on the ground, clutching his ruined face.
“You fucking bitch! What the fuck!” His voice is slurred now. He cries even more.
“I was drunk that night, so they said what you did was okay. That’s why you’re still out living your life.” I wipe my nose on my sleeve. I didn’t realise I was crying. “I’ve had wine tonight and you’ve been drinking too, right? Let’s see if I can use that as an excuse for what I’ve done to you.”
I leave, and manage to get as far as the steps before my knees give out and I drop to the concrete. Sobs break from somewhere deep inside and I’m shaking so much I can’t catch my breath.
My hand is covered with blood. His blood. But when I look at it, it’s not his. It’s mine. Mine from that night.
Because I’m still stuck in that fucking room.
I know this is a very serious issue and I want to spread awareness. Please pick this to pieces. I want it to be as good and impactful as I can make it.