'Sarah,' a Short Story by Victoria Freisner
A woman opens up to her therapist about the time her boyfriend raped her.
All photographs by Caroline Tompkins
This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.
When she first told her therapist about the rape, Sarah couldn’t stop laughing. It wasn’t that she couldn’t take it seriously. She just didn’t want her therapist to feel uncomfortable.
“I’m so sorry,” she kept telling Dr. Gramm between nervous laughs.
Dr. Gramm cleared her throat and nodded her head gently, her face passive as she waited for Sarah to continue.
“Anytime I’ve tried to sleep next to someone for the past three years, I can’t,” Sarah admitted once she calmed down. “It makes my skin crawl. My body goes from hot to cold. I physically can’t sleep. I feel like I can never be close to anyone again. So I don’t even want to try anymore.”
The restless combativeness, the vulnerability, the anger that she couldn’t handle all left her feeling manic and emotionally exhausted. She wanted to peel off her skin like a cheap dress she never really liked anyway.
“Have you ever tried to write about your experience?” Dr. Gramm asked.
Sarah pretended that her pause was to choose her words carefully, but she was weighing how honest she could handle being. She could barely keep up with paying the balance of the credit card she used for these sessions. She was so tired of feeling crazy, like everything was her fault. She was even sober this session, so she thought that they could make some real progress.
“I can’t make it funny enough,” Sarah said. “It’s obviously fucked up, and it really changed me—but if I’m gonna write something about it, I need to be able to laugh about it, too.”
It was barely noticeable when Dr. Gramm’s eyes widened before she wrote something down in Sarah’s file.
† † †
She was 19 and freshly dropped out of state school. She would overeat to avoid feeling. She would overeat to punish herself for overeating. Then she would get depressed and go as long as possible without eating, trying to fend off her hunger by drinking Diet Coke and squeezing a line of mustard on her index finger every few hours.
When Alec started paying attention to her during a basement show at their friend Pat’s house, it was far too easy to believe that it was because there was something secretly special about her. And there was—she was probably the only girl who could look at him, a 5'6", unemployed 18-year-old with greasy blond hair and no regard for basic hygiene, and think that the best course of action was to put his stale balls in her mouth.
They dated for just over a year, although “dating” seems like too glossy of a word to describe hanging out in his dad’s basement and pretending to like anime as much as he did. At 19, dating is basically just scraping together loose change in order to afford a hot dog and fountain soda from QuikTrip between lots of bad sex. Wanting to be the cool girl, Sarah played along, although eventually she just had him fuck her from behind so she could watch Squidbillies on Netflix until he was finished. It was such a dumb premise for a show: animated hillbilly squids. Sarah loved it.
“God almighty, we ask you to bless this feast what lie before us,” Early Cuyler, Squidbillies’ patriarch, was praying on the screen of her clunky white MacBook while Alec clumsily fumbled around behind her. “Please allow these spent lottery tickets with their silvery, scratchery seasonings to nourish our bodies as they were unable to do the same to our wallets…”
Alec’s parents had given him their old queen-size mattress, which he kept on the floor in the corner of his basement bedroom. He rarely changed the sheets and let the dirty beige jersey blend uncurl from the edges of the bed, revealing the hideous green and magenta floral pattern of the mattress underneath. Alec and his friends had inscribed on the wall years’ worth of teenage boy humor in multicolored permanent markers, notes like i fingerbanged jordan in this basement 2/13/2011 and 69 written at least a dozen times.
“Lord, thank ya for the untimely frost you sent what claimed our pointless bananner orchards,” Early continued. Sarah threw in a fake moan every few thrusts. Even when she was feeling lazy, she needed people to like her. “Oh, I was a fool to plant my ’nanners on a mountain, you made sure of that. In short, thanks for nothin’.”
Sarah laughed so hard while Alec was still inside her that she almost rolled off the mattress onto the piles of dirty clothes and empty pizza boxes that were always on his floor. Their whirlwind basement-fucking romance awarded her three UTIs, one kidney infection, and zero orgasms over the course of 14 months. But she was a depressed teenager, and someone was finally paying attention to her.
† † †
The rape happened exactly one week before Halloween. She could always remember, because Alec dumped her on Halloween. Perhaps most insultingly, he didn’t even dump her because of what he had done to her seven days earlier.
He dumped her because she was a bitch.
He had slept with someone else, an ex-girlfriend, six months into the relationship. Rather than breaking up with him, Sarah responded by spending the second half of their relationship being as drunk and mean as possible.
Once, at a house show, she chugged a six-pack of Mickey’s and yelled at Alec in the street until he cried, eventually throwing up on top of, not in, the plastic grocery bag a sympathetic fellow drunk girl had brought her.
“You’re an angel,” Sarah told her with her best, brightest, most people-pleasing smile as vomit dribbled down her chin into the puddle in her lap. “Thank you sooo much.”
She pulled out her phone to add the girl on Facebook.
There were dozens of other nights like this. Sarah would get wasted and yell at Alec until they both cried, repenting and promising that they loved each other. But in her gut Sarah knew that it was the idea that someone was in love with her, not Alec himself, that she loved.
Dr. Gramm’s office was on the second floor of a standard brick building, separated from a gas station by a faded wooden fence. All Sarah had to do to get there from her apartment was make a right turn, then a left turn, and follow the same street for 43 blocks. She appreciated this route when she accidentally got tipsy while killing time before her usual 6 PM appointment.
Today, though, her session was at 11 AM. Sober, the harsh July sun crashing through the large rectangular windows in Dr. Gramm’s office, she felt exposed and vulnerable, even more than usual. Sarah picked lint and cat hair off of her shiny black workout pants. She had run a lint roller over her legs before she left the apartment, wanting to impress Dr. Gramm even in sweatpants. But no matter what she did, she would still look like an unkempt mess, a loser who couldn’t make herself presentable. Her therapist, as always, looked like the kind of woman Sarah secretly hoped she still had time to grow into.
Dr. Gramm was in her late 30s and kept her blond hair long and slightly curled at the ends. Her square tortoiseshell glasses framed her round, empathetic face and light gray eyes. Today she was wearing a white tuxedo collar shirt with short sleeves, high-waisted jeans, and pale pink suede ballet flats that were slightly pointed at the toes. Sarah made a note in her head to look for a similar shirt.
Dr. Gramm fit in perfectly with her bright, calming office. The walls were painted white and on them hung three abstract, navy-blue prints in light wooden frames. Dr. Gramm sat on a plush white chair angled toward the matching white couch Sarah was sitting on. To her left was a wall-to-wall bookshelf that was nearly full—Louise Hay, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Sarah kept a running list in her notebook of the books Dr. Gramm recommended to her. Atmospheric music was always playing in her waiting room, which offered copies of Psychology Today and a Buddha Board that Sarah was always afraid to draw on. Adjacent to the waiting room was a second room in which Dr. Gramm offered guided meditation and yoga sessions that Sarah wished she could afford.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” Dr. Gramm was saying. “I know you keep saying that you’re over it, but I really think we should explore.”
Sarah found herself thinking of what she would say next instead of listening to Dr. Gramm. Her anxiety put her on the defensive, and she wanted Dr. Gramm to know that she didn’t have a problem with Alec’s current girlfriend, though in the past, before he and Bailey started dating, Sarah had described Bailey’s greatest achievement in life as “wearing a swimsuit as a top to a rave.” She had internalized so much guilt and shame over what Alec did to her that she couldn’t deal with the added embarrassment of looking like a jealous ex-girlfriend. She questioned herself, all the time, if it really counted since she had been passed out. At first, she told herself that she was just being dramatic—that worse things happened to other people all the time. But the anger and fear she tried to push deep within her had hardened like a metamorphic rock, formed by heat and pressure, until she could no longer ignore it.
† † †
The only part she could remember was when he shook her awake after, mumbling about how she needed to pee so she wouldn’t get another UTI. She kept asking him why until she finally began to understand what happened. She had passed out on her dirty twin mattress after a night of chugging some red variation of Yellow Tail, another Friday spent bored and angry.
She told Alec earlier that night that she was going to close her eyes for just a second before lying down on the floor of a friend’s apartment. The beige carpet was surprisingly comfortable despite being half cat hair. It had been something closer to white before Seth, his girlfriend, and their four cats moved in, but she was too drunk for the smell to bother her. She could maybe remember Alec driving her car home, her in the passenger seat, rallying to half-awake every so often to pretend like she wasn’t completely fucked up. Somehow, she got from the car to her bed, but she had blacked out by then.
“I’m like a white trash Martha Stewart,” she bragged to Alec after assembling her makeshift bed. Six months later, when she moved out of the house and into her own apartment, she gladly threw the crates into a dumpster. She used her tax return that year to buy a full-size bed and real box spring.
“Mom and I are so proud of you for being responsible,” her dad told her when he brought the new bed over in his truck. Within days, Sarah had drunkenly vomited on her magical new mattress. But still. It was hers, and didn’t bear any of Alec’s residual DNA.
† † †
“For a while, you know, after it happened, I tried to throw myself into having lots of sex,” Sarah said, fidgeting on the couch.
“Why do you think you did that?” Dr. Gramm asked.
Sarah stared at the wall above the therapist’s head while she thought about it.
“I think it was for a lot of reasons,” she said. “I think I wanted to get over my fear by throwing myself into these situations. But I also think I wanted to hurt myself by doing things I didn’t want to, too. Like poking at a bruise just to feel it hurt. And I always loved the attention, of course. And, um, for a while… for a while, I mean, I really got a sick pleasure from sleeping with Alec’s friends.”
Dr. Gramm nodded slowly, processing what Sarah said. The two women kept eye contact until Sarah broke the gaze to take a sip of the sparkling water that had gone flat and warm in her hands.
A few weeks after Alec dumped her, Sarah went home with a line cook from her job just to see what it felt like. Drew’s chest tattoo—a shakily drawn owl perched atop a grandfather clock—repulsed her, but the attention he paid to her was too good to pass up. She accidentally spilled an almost-full beer on his laptop, which probably would have pissed off anyone who didn’t think they were about to be fucked by a 19-year-old. He had the body of a 37-year-old father of three but the sense of entitlement of a 23-year-old frat boy. Sarah knew she couldn’t go through with it even before he peeled off his too-tight gray v-neck.
“It’s going to be really hard not to fuck you,” Drew whispered from underneath his musty comforter as she lay on top of it. His attempt to put on any sort of a seductive voice made her feel sad and cheap.
“No, it’s not, because I said no,” she told him before he gave up and fell asleep. She lay awake in his bed, still wearing her jeans and shoes as a last line of defense. When the sun rose, she slipped out of the house and never talked to him again.
† † †
“So a little bit after the line cook, I fucked Alec’s friend Ben,” Sarah told Dr. Gramm. “Sorry. Slept with Alec’s friend Ben.”
His futon had been borderline biohazardous. They had spent the afternoon drinking Miller High Life, which tasted to Sarah like someone had peed in a can of flat soda water. It was free, and Ben obviously took pride in sharing with her, so she downed five. Maybe six. There was some Jim Beam, too. Some of Ben’s friends had been there in the early afternoon, including Jack, who would later spend two months chatting her up only to ghost her after she finally let him finger-fuck her while they watched Independence Day, sprawled on the gaudy blue and yellow floral couch she had found on the curb and hauled up three flights of stairs to her apartment . Sometimes if she thought about where the couch had been before, she could feel a phantom itch. But it was comfy, and owning a couch felt like an accomplishment.
“He would have been the funniest person I knew if his singular goal wasn’t to be so fucked up that he forgot the last 24 years of his life,” Sarah said. “He had this adopted golden retriever, Summer—she was so great. She was the only good part of his life.”
Summer’s separation anxiety was so bad that while Ben was at his job as a forklift operator, she would chew her nails short and ragged. When it was warm, the three of them would crawl out of a window onto Ben’s roof. Ben and Sarah would drink and talk late into the night, unless he fed her mystery uppers, in which case they just wouldn’t sleep.
“What I’m hearing is that you two seemed to care for each other in some way,” Dr. Gramm ventured.
“Maybe,” Sarah said. “I don’t know. I think we were good as friends, but we were both just really fucked up. The last time we hung out, he got so drunk that he told me he would date me if he was capable of dating anyone.”
“So then what happened?” Dr. Gramm asked.
“I told him I would never fucking date him,” Sarah said. “I think it really hurt his feelings. I couldn’t handle hearing what he said, or like, the idea of it. I just panicked and overcompensated by being too mean. We didn’t hang out anymore after that. I could actually sleep next to him, and it just made me want to sabotage everything. I didn’t want to get invested in someone only for him to do something like Alec did.”
“I can understand that,” Dr. Gramm said non-committedly. She uncrossed her legs and adjusted the bottom of her shirt.
“But I realized I really couldn’t keep doing it anymore after Mitchell,” Sarah said softly. “Sleeping next to anyone, I mean.”
“Tell me about Mitchell,” Dr. Gramm prompted. Sarah sighed.
He was a friend and former roommate of Alec’s. He and Sarah met when the two young men lived together at a giant, filthy punk house, until Alec couldn’t afford even that cheap rent and moved back into his dad’s basement. Mitchell had the most beautiful brown curls that he kept past his shoulders, but when he smiled, there was a rotting black gap between his front teeth. When a co-worker rejected her drunken advances at a housewarming party, Sarah had kissed Mitchell with a closed mouth and asked him to sleep over with a forwardness she would later regret when she climbed back into bed after a wave of 3 AM Adderall shits and Mitchell started dry-humping her ass in his sleep. He wore nothing but his tighty whiteys, and she hated him for it. She hated herself more, because she had asked him to sleep in her bed, but something about the way that he moved his body against hers while he slept, not even aware of what he was doing, filled her with a rage that she couldn’t quite understand.
† † †
“I just felt like I deserved it all,” Sarah said.
“Why do you think you felt that way?” Dr. Gramm asked.
“Like it was all my fault, for being drunk, and for being too mean,” Sarah said. “I know the idea of the perfect victim or whatever is bullshit. But it feels different when it’s you. And when it happened, I had this roommate, Chris. He was really good friends with Alec.”
Dr. Gramm nodded for Sarah to continue.
“On my 20th birthday, I got drunk,” Sarah said. “Really drunk. And I put out a cigarette on Seth.”
“You put out a cigarette on someone?” Dr. Gramm interrupted.
“Yeah, but the thing is, he ended up being a total creep,” Sarah said. “He attacked a friend a few weeks later. I know that it sounds, like, really fucked up, but now I wish I had put out two cigarettes on him. But anyway, I was just so upset, surrounded by Alec’s friends, and I couldn’t take it. And then Seth starts trying to hit on me, so I put a cigarette out on him.”
Dr. Gramm frowned slightly, scribbling in Sarah’s file.
“So I get home that night, and Chris is there,” Sarah continued. “And he’s mad at me, obviously, because I was being psycho, and I put out a cigarette on his friend. And we, we just started screaming at each other, and he punched a wall, right next to my head. And I just lost it. I kept yelling at him, again and again, to just punch me in the face. Like if I was really so horrible that I deserved it, that I deserved to feel the way that I felt, then he should just punch me in the fucking face because it was what we both wanted. And I brought up Alec, and how angry I was, and Chris was one of the few people who knew, and he just told me that, yeah, he shouldn’t have raped me, but I was a bitch. So, basically, that I did deserve it.”
Dr. Gramm slowly closed Sarah’s file.
“Oh, wow,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Sarah, I’m going to have to push back against that. What happened to you was not your fault, and someone violated you. But you know that you can have boundaries, right? Say that you were to start seeing someone. You’re allowed to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had some bad experiences with this in the past, and I either need you to respect the boundaries that I’m putting up, or I can’t continue to do this.’”
Sarah nodded slowly, trying to process what Dr. Gramm was saying. She heard it, and she knew it was true for other people, but it was difficult to accept that it could be true for her.
“It’s just hard,” she said. “I still have all this anger toward him, but it’s like I’m also making excuses for him. I’ve never even tried to talk to him about it.”
“Do you think he needs to be a part of your healing process?” Dr. Gramm asked.
“No,” Sarah responded. “I don’t think he deserves that.”
Dr. Gramm nodded. She adjusted her glasses and settled back in her chair, watching Sarah.
Sarah met her eyes and smiled.
She paid for the session and walked through the office’s gray-tinted glass door. The sun resonated off the blacktop, and Sarah smiled at a woman who walked past her in the parking lot, certain that the woman could just tell by looking at her that she was crazy. The vulnerability she tried to embrace ten minutes ago now felt sickening. She’d have to mention that to Dr. Gramm next session. Her mouth watered at the thought of the cheap bottle of wine she would buy at the gas station next to the office, how she would spend the whole drive home thinking about the first sip. She would drink the bottle alone in her apartment and sleep the afternoon away.