One minute I was being raped in a public bathroom and the next it was Thursday morning. Sunlight streamed through a slit in the curtains, and I kicked off the covers and stretched. It’s bizarre how normal that felt.
It was the casual way in which I woke up from a rape dream that set me in a mood for the day: a combination of detachment and hyper-awareness, and curiosity great enough to squash the sense of panic that should come from something Freud made a career of.
I made coffee. What else is there to do when you’re trying to remember details? The face, was it familiar? The bathroom, was it like any I’d been in recently? I snapped back to the Italian espresso maker I held, dismembered, over the sink. I hadn’t even ground the coffee yet. First things first.
I spooned beans into the burr grinder and watched them disappear. When I tapped the side of the basket to level the chocolate-brown mound of morning crack, I felt his hand close over my mouth for a moment. It was the last tactile memory of a dream that would release its talons just as I poured fresh water into the reservoir and screwed the contraption shut. I placed it on the burner and watched the flame creep up the sides. I remembered how, a long time ago, a priest told me he learned to meditate by staring at a flickering candle.
What bothered me most, once I sat at the counter with my almond-milk latte and stared at the wall, was how I hadn’t resisted.
In my dream I’d been walking into a public bathroom with a glance over my shoulder at the presence I felt behind me, just in time to see him follow me in, put his hand over my mouth, and push me into a stall. The actual sex part of the dream was vague, but I remembered complying, choosing to be coy rather than combative. He pulled my shorts down and pushed me against the wall. I may have moaned because he placed his hand back over my mouth. I remembered thanking him when he asked me to. Thanking him.
I recalled over cold coffee dregs how undramatic my escape had been. A woman had walked in with her two girls, and I’d pulled my shorts up and run out the door, more like a woman who’d been caught fooling around in an airplane bathroom than a rape victim. This is what lingered with me the longest: a shy exit from a bathroom that still had a rapist in it. All day, as I walked to an appointment uptown, as I shopped for groceries, as I people-watched in a coffee shop in the afternoon instead of working — all day I wondered why dream-me wasn’t more upset.
Was dream-me not infuriated by rape? Could dream-me shrug off something that, today more than ever, qualifies as an unforgivable assault on a human being’s dignity?
“Oh honey, it’s bad enough you had the actual dream,” my best friend, an actual rape survivor, told me on the phone. “Don’t beat yourself up all day for something that your brain manufactured while you were unconscious.” He was right, of course, and yet I couldn’t resist analyzing why the dream unfolded the way it did, and what that meant about me.
I haven’t ever been raped, but I did clock a Spaniard in the jaw when I was 17. We’d been making out on his couch and he’d gradually wrapped both of his hands around my throat. He was so sexy and I was so hormonal that I didn’t notice until I was gasping for air. When I rasped out a weak “stttooopp” his eyes twinkled, and he tightened his grip. That’s when the adrenaline pooled in my right hand, which wrestled itself free of the couch cushions and hit him so hard that when I grabbed my things and flew out of his third-story walkup into the crisp evening, I plunged my fist into a snow bank before putting on my boots and running to the train.
I thought about this when I finally left the coffee shop and saw a toddler waddle down the street with her little fingers wrapped around her father’s index. I wondered how often, once she let go of him, other men would forcibly squeeze other parts of her. I wondered how she would react. How compliant she would be. When, exactly, she would learn to look over her shoulder as she walked this same block late at night.
It was only a few weeks earlier that I’d been discussing dreams over dinner with my psychiatrist friend. She’d explained to me what, from a neurobiological point of view, our brains do at night as we sleep. I couldn’t remember the specifics of the science but what I did remember was her metaphor — the brain putting away the day’s memories into an infinite series of drawers.
Petting a stranger’s dog on the street might, as I slept that night, open up the warm-and-fuzzy-childhood-memories drawer, because it was the same breed of dog as the one my grandmother had, and she made the best lemon meringue pie in the world. If the stranger’s dog reminded me of the scary dog I used to walk by on the way to school, the one I was convinced would someday plow through the old wooden fence and eat me alive, then it might open the picket-fence drawer. It might also open the ex-boyfriend drawer because he and I fought constantly about getting a dog.
Therefore, she explained, my brain might turn petting a new dog into a dream about my ex-boyfriend building a fence while my dead grandmother feeds him pie.
This is what was going through my mind on the meandering walk home that Thursday night. At one point I stopped in front of a West Elm and stared at a dresser-drawer in the window. I wondered how many drawers were in my head. If I had a drawer specifically for fences. How many dogs were in the ex-boyfriend drawer. It was exhausting.
I knew there was a drawer for threatening men. I knew that every woman had one, and had to open it far too often. I decided on a hot bath. I bought a bottle of red at the French market around the corner and headed home.
“Hey! How’s the shower draining, ok?”
The voice came from behind me in the mail room but I recognized the new super, with his drawn-out delivery. Heeeeey. Okaaaaay.
He’d been in my apartment the day before, fixing a leak in the bathtub faucet that had been driving me crazy. It was the third time in the two or so months since he’d been hired that something in my unit had required attention. I tried to work while he dismantled the faucet and changed o-rings. “Come and see this!” he’d holler, and I’d get up from my desk and look at him, sitting on the edge of my bathtub, holding rusty, wet pieces of plumbing.
He would explain to me what the problem was and what he was doing, as if I cared. The second time he did this, just as my eyes started to glaze over he asked if I’d just started lifting weights.
“Oh, I see you in the gym a lot, that’s all,” he replied.
I lift weights three or four days a week but I’d never seen him in the downstairs gym. Then it dawned on me that he could see all the common areas from the security footage in his office.
“I used to compete, bodybuilding.” He took out his phone to show me a picture of himself, ten years younger and even meatier than he was now, sitting on the edge of my tub with his refrigerator-wide shoulders.
“Oh, ok. Let me know if you need me again.” I backed out and returned to my desk.
When he finished he came out of the bathroom and asked me to take a look, to confirm everything was ok. “Just turn the faucet on and check, make sure it’s all good before I go.”
I walked into my bathroom with him close behind me. I turned the faucet on, watched the water gush out. The crack above the faucet where a little seep had turned into a spurt was caulked. All was as it should be.
I turned to exit but he was blocking the door.
“Looks good.” I raised an eyebrow, the adrenaline pooling in my right hand again.
He moved forward and snatched a dirty rag from the counter.
Then he turned around, grabbed his tools, and headed for the door.
Back in the mail room, in the present moment, I answered him.
“Shower’s working fine, thanks!”
A few minutes later, when I sank into a salt-filled hot bath with my Beaujolais, I cried a little over my drawers. I realized that perhaps dream-me wasn’t infuriated by my dream-rape because the real threat that had opened that drawer in my sleep had never materialized. Still, I resented the existence of a rape drawer.
I resolved to buy a kettlebell, or maybe renew my gym membership.