The first time someone called me “girlfriend girl,” I was in the reading room of a very plush apartment, and sunshine squirted directly into my brain.
“I don’t call you that to insult you,” Nina clarified, right after she said it. “Just seems like you always have to have a boyfriend. Some people are more committal than others.”
Memoirs of a Geisha glared up at me from where it lay open, flat-backed on the ornate wooden desk. Our host was a professor and mentor of Nina’s whom I didn’t know well but who had graciously invited us to use her library during the hottest day of the year. She had explained while situating us that the desk was imported from Bourg-en-Bresse, “very valuable.”
I had been reading the same sentence of Memoirs of a Geisha over and over, unable to move past it, obsessed with tugging my turtleneck collar away from my throat like it would give me some relief from the heat.
Nina’s foot nudged mine under the table. “Are you mad?” she whispered. “I didn’t think you’d take that comment personally.”
I rubbed the pages of Memoirs between my thumb and forefinger and responded, “No.”
* * *
The first time someone called me “girlfriend girl,” I was in the reading room of a very plush apartment, and I had a scratch in the depths of my throat. I could visualize it although I could not see it, especially against the shadowy corners of the library. Red splotches, thorned roses, growing to the back of my tongue. Our host had provided us with green tea, a rare varietal and “very valuable.” Taking a sip soothed the itch only for a moment. I remembered the way my throat swelled and burned when it woke me up that morning, the way I tried to yelp for fear it might be collapsing, but no sound came. At least the prickling had simmered down, become tolerable, since then.
I knew Nina didn’t mean to offend me. We had been friends half a lifetime, and she had watched me shimmy out of one relationship and into another for my entire adolescence. I didn’t take any pride in this. I didn’t like having it pointed out by my friends. I didn’t want to be seen as someone dependent; some kind of broken milk snail always on the hunt for a new shell.
In my pocket, my phone vibrated with a call from my most recent boyfriend, my latest shell. When I ignored it, he left yet another voicemail to check in on how I felt.
In need of a distraction, I bent over Memoirs of a Geisha. The dusty thudding in my head made the words on the page beat like a pulse. I landed on the same sentence; read it again and again and again. I wondered if this precious type of green tea had headache-healing properties.
* * *
The first time someone called me “girlfriend girl,” I was in the reading room of a very plush apartment, and I was wearing a turtleneck on the hottest day of the year. When I got dressed to meet Nina at her wealthy mentor’s brownstone, I recognized the turtleneck as the only acceptable option in my closet. Scratches popped out of my neck in an angry, red trellis; all of the places I had grabbed, ripped, choked myself in panic when I woke up and felt like my throat would close. I didn’t want to alarm Nina or our host with my claw marks. As I folded the turtleneck down to my collarbone, I used my foot to scoot a pill that had escaped from the pile in the bathroom back under the door.
My boyfriend had seen the pile of pills but hadn’t picked them up. He looked at it like a landmine that might burst if he tried to clear it away. He told me in a very sullen voice as I cuffed the turtleneck sleeves that my pill problem had started to scare him, that my bad reaction was only the beginning if I didn’t find a better or more holistic solution to anxiety attacks. I flattened my palm against the turtleneck as he spoke and could feel the heat from the scratches. My mouthwash still sat, uncapped, on the bedside table since I’d taken a swig after throwing up. I refused to open the curtains and let the sun amplify my raging headache, so the shadows cut his face at odd angles while he talked.
That afternoon Nina sat across the table from me and read The Argonauts at my recommendation. She took notes in the margins with a large ballpoint pen our host had leant her. The pen had been a gift from her husband’s trip to Cairo, “very extravagant.” The Argonauts waxes on about identity and womanhood. I always recommend it to strong, self-assured people like Nina. She would never be called “girlfriend girl,” or tether her identity to a man.
The sentence in Memoirs of a Geisha, the one I couldn’t get past, began to frustrate me. I couldn’t move beyond that sentence; I couldn’t move beyond Nina’s comment. The marks made by my fingernails threatened to crawl past my turtleneck and into the sun.
* * *
The first time someone called me “girlfriend girl,” I was in the library of a very plush apartment, vaguely aware that the night before, I had been at a party in Williamsburg. I remember being very drunk and noticing how things stuck together. Sweat to the overhead lights, purple liquor to the countertops, someone’s hips to someone else’s hips on the makeshift dance floor, and people who had gone to high school together in clumps. Though I had moved to New York City, over two hundred miles from my hometown, we tended to orbit each other. I’d see old friends at concerts, old rivals at the Yankees game, and every once in a while I’d end up at some party that served as a catchall for Northern Virginia kids. We stuck together, whether we meant to or not.
When my rapist walked into the room, he noticed me before I noticed him. I had once known him as my first love, my high school sweetheart, with whom I’d shared four years. Now, whenever he lurks into my waking thoughts, I refer to him by what he is: my rapist. It has been a long time since I acknowledged him by name.
When I saw him bracketed by the doorframe, I slammed my hand down on the nearest table to brace myself. How long has he been standing there? I wondered. How long has he been watching me? It made some kind of sick sense that he noticed me first, because when we were together, he had an unnerving habit of leaning over me, falling into step just behind. His breath warmed my neck and his presence turned my spine into goose flesh. He claimed to walk behind me as a safety measure—he just wanted to “watch my back.” He trailed me in parking lots, libraries, cafes. It bothered me, even then, that I knew he wasn’t protecting me; it was just a constant reminder of how much bigger, taller, and more menacing he was compared to me.
He used this advantage to keep me close, make me feel small. He was always using honeyed words and light touches to convince me that I needed him because there were certain things I couldn’t understand. I think he liked me most when I took shape under his influence. When I seemed teachable and submissive. When I was completely and irrepressibly captivated, I think he could tell I’d be easy to rape.
Years later, I had become very good at camouflaging the details about my relationship to the rapist when he came up in conversation. “Who was your first boyfriend again? That musician guy, right?” my new boyfriend asked. I would tell him I didn’t remember much about it; after all, I was so young. “Where is that guy you went to prom with, Elizabeth?” Nina queried, every once in a while. “You guys were together forever. Can’t believe you don’t keep up with him.” I told her with a coy smirk that I moved onto “bigger” men, and she always ate it up.
It’s not that the memories of my rapist are too painful to uproot and regurgitate. After years of therapy, I’d learned to recite the story of our relationship without much emotion or color. I could rattle on about my distant high school boyfriend, the one that made me believe I had to use my body to earn love, without so much as choking up. But I still couldn’t talk about my rapist, because I still couldn’t justify the three years I’d allowed him to twist me up, pull my strings, and use me. I didn’t have any excuse for stomaching his abuse, aside from being young, stupid, and terrified of being alone.
When I turned around at the party in Williamsburg to see him standing there, the temperature became oppressive. Sweat puddled at the nape of my neck and in the webs of my fingers. The weather had forecast a heat wave, and everyone in the room dripped. Even him. I made eye contact with my rapist. He didn’t frown, or smile, he didn’t even blink. I recognized that lifeless expression, the half-lid over his eyes, from our time together years prior. The look he always gave me when I messed up, but didn’t know what I’d done wrong.
“Why am I mad at you?” he would ask, squeezing his knuckles together. “Surely, you have to know what you did to disappoint me. Why else would I be so concerned right now?”
When I couldn’t provide an answer, the look of blank disappointment. I locked eyes with him at the party, and all of the distance I had put between myself and our relationship, myself and the way he exploited my youthful obsession with him, myself and the rape, evaporated. My head bowed before I could stop it, and I was that same small little girl that let him loom over me at the library.
I didn’t realize that I had started holding my breath until my rapist put down his cup and left.
When I made it back to my apartment, I excavated the anxiety pills that my boyfriend had hidden in the freezer. I had always known where they were. I took them one at a time, sitting on the couch, trapped beneath my own memories. I took a pill to the thought of my rapist’s sandpaper hands, shaking against my body. I took a pill when I remembered that he must have felt me squirm, protest, stiffen. He had to have felt it, and ignored it still. I took another to the way his breath moistened on me when things got heavy. Drool was a crude word, and not precisely right, but the best I could come up with when I thought of him, salivating on top of me. Part of me wished I had just drowned back then, so that I didn’t have to sit there on my couch in New York five years later and suffer with the same feelings.
The pills did their job, mopping up the adrenaline and anxiety that wreaked havoc on my body whenever I think about him. As I fell asleep with my neck crooked against the arm of my loveseat, I thought of the way he used to tell me women were only as good as the number of men that liked them back. He thought I was a better person than Sara because boys thought she had a plain face, and she didn’t get much attention. He thought I could be more like Melissa; she had a certain way of smacking her gum that reminded boys of getting head. Three of our classmates aimed to take her to prom that year.
“Melissa is more fun than you,” he told me once, mid-argument. But he meant, Melissa had larger breasts. Melissa got drunk off fewer wine coolers. Melissa was worth more because she had three prom-posals in comparison to my one. We were reclined, parallel, in the front seat at the drive-in theater. We argued everywhere, so this made sense. I don’t remember what started the squabble in the first place, but I remember swallowing a huge gob of Oreo milkshake because I thought a brain freeze would keep me from crying. I remember believing him, because I hung on every word he said. I remember being too young to know any better. I let him feel my boobs during the best part of the movie because I thought that’s what Melissa would have done—like that was how she got three cute prom dates.
I know now that my rapist created the person that Nina calls “girlfriend girl.” He plucked me from fifteen-year-old innocence, and through years of manipulation, belittling, and rape, he frankensteined me into something weak and spineless. Something that equated her value to a man. Something that had learned, early on, and painfully, that if men didn’t love her, she meant less.
* * *
The first time someone called me “girlfriend girl,” I was in the library of a very plush apartment, reading Memoirs of Geisha. It was the morning after seeing my rapist at a party, and the hottest day of the year.
Our host brought water with spherical ice cubes bouncing in it, and insisted that we notice the way the pitcher caught the midday glare. It was Baccarat, she said, very expensive. The water cooled my raw throat as I funneled it down. Below me, the sentence I couldn’t overcome in Memoirs read: “when a stone is dropped into a pond, the water continues quivering even after the stone has sunk to the bottom.”
Elizabeth Kirkhorn is a writer and essayist living in Manhattan. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA in Writing and currently lends her voice to an Editor role at Dotdash Meredith, as well as freelancing across women’s health and sexuality outlets. She is also the number one consumer of Lean Cuisine’s Vermont white cheddar macaroni.