“So,” said Foster, folding back the front page on her crisp yellow legal pad. It looked like she’d just pulled it out of a cellophane package that morning, or maybe even that hour. Maybe before Cecily walked into the office, Foster was wrestling with the wrapping and birthing the legal pad. The imagined sound of plastic crinkling made Cecily nauseous.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Foster finished.
Cecily worked at a fray in the knee of her tights with her paint-chipped fingernails. “I don’t really have anything to say.” There was a bird chirping in the tree outside of Foster’s office window. Cecily tried to find it amidst the clutter of leaves and branches.
“You’re not alone. You can talk to me, Cecilia.”
“It’s…” Cecily tried to swallow, but there was no moisture in her mouth to soothe the scratching in her throat. “It’s Cecily.”
“Oh,” Foster said, glancing quickly at a folder on her desk. Cecily wondered how many similar folders there were in the black filing cabinets that lined one wall of the room. And that file, probably created sometime earlier today, would go amidst the others as soon as she left this room. She was just another name in those drawers.
“I told you. Nothing happened, Dr. Foster.” The bird was on the third branch from the top, surrounded by green leaves. Cecily wondered how it would feel to climb out of the office window, grab onto that branch, and sheath herself in greenery. She could feel the chlorophyll-tinted sun on her shoulders already, just like she did when she sat beneath the huge oak in her backyard at home.
Foster made a low sound deep in her throat. “You don’t have to defend them. The people that did this to you.”
She was clearly supposed to say something here. The fray on her knee was almost a hole now. Glancing down, Cecily saw a small patch of her skin through the strained threads. The edge of a bruise lined one side of the fray.
“Cecily, you’re not alone. A quarter of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted at some point during their collegiate career.”
A quarter. A fraction, but also the scent of metal, the ridges that ran along the side, George Washington’s silver face. Cecily had an image of gumball machines on hot summer days and those mechanical animal-shaped rides that used to be in front of the mall. One quarter for two minutes. The feel of the metal in her palm, edges digging in when she clutched it tightly so that she wouldn’t lose it.
It was also the scent of metal on his hand when he’d pressed it to her mouth, the feel of his breath on her neck, the tinny dryness of her mouth when she asked for water, the rugged sound of his voice when he whispered, “Fuck, Cee, you’re – “
Outside, the bird chirped. Cecily wanted to fly away.
“I wasn’t sexually assaulted,” Cecily said. “I don’t even know why I’m here. Don’t I have to, like, register for these sorts of sessions?”
“You were recommended anonymously,” Foster said. She had a soft, soothing voice, like Cecily’s mother. She sounded like a creek bubbling over familiar rocks or the whisper of wind through trees. Cecily wondered if Foster had a daughter. The only picture in Foster’s office was an oil painting of Venice. “One of your friends was concerned about you, and requested that we contact you.”
Cecily raked through her brain for anyone that could’ve done this to her. Her roommate, Josie, was out – she’d been at her brother’s last weekend. The group of girls she’d gone out with – four from her floor freshman year and six of their friends – was too large and varied to narrow it down to a single snitch.
“Well, what did they say? This… anonymous person.”
Foster shuffled uncomfortably. “I’m really not supposed to say – “
“And I don’t know why I’m here.” Cecily crossed her arms. She watched the corner of Foster’s mouth tick downwards. “So I’d like to leave.”
“I’m not going to strongarm you into talking about something you don’t want to.” Foster’s voice had an edge to it now. “It was anonymously reported that you may have had an act of sexual violence committed against you. We are merely checking in to make sure you’re safe.”
Safe. It was a strange word. It reminded Cecily of her bedroom at home, her thick downy sheets, the scent of her mother’s favorite laundry detergent and the lemony antiseptic smell of furniture cleaner. It didn’t draw up images of her apartment at school with its faulty locks and clinical emptiness.
“I’m fine,” Cecily said. “I… I don’t know who talked to you, but I’m fine. It was just a regular party and, well, yeah. I don’t know… I’m fine.”
Fine was the sound of his door hitting the wall, the press of his hands against her waist, the urgency of his mouth on hers. Fine was that broken spring of the mattress digging into her back and the bruises on her hips the next morning and the taste of acid in her mouth after she swallowed the Plan B tablet.
“I’m fine,” Cecily repeated.
She’d said the same thing, over and over again, to her mother when she’d called on Sunday morning. Like her mother, Foster didn’t believe her.
“Can you tell me what happened at the party?”
She couldn’t remember who she was anymore, let alone what happened at the party.
“Regular party stuff, I guess. I went with friends. We drank too much. I wasn’t, like, drugged or anything, if that’s what you mean.”
Foster tapped her pen twice on her legal pad. Cecily watched the curve of her fingers around the pen. She was left-handed. Rings glinted on her fingers, sparkling in the light. Cecily wondered how old Foster was. There were minimal lines around her dark eyes, and her hair wasn’t graying. She was in that shifty, non-descript mid-thirties to forties range.
“At the party, did anyone make you feel uncomfortable? Touch you in any way you didn’t appreciate, or grab you inappropriately?”
His hands on her hips, chest to her back, the abrasive feeling of his stubble on her temple, carving a path to her neck. Her asking for water and him saying, “Do you want to come upstairs?” And all Cecily could think was, There’s water upstairs. I can find some water and sit on the couch, and then I can go home. In the mirror in the hall, she caught a glimpse of her sweat-curled hair and smudged mascara. He grabbed her hand and led her up from the basement, past the kitchen, and up the stairs again. On the top step, he kissed her against the wall of the hallway.
“Not really,” Cecily said. You were drunk. You led him on. You put yourself in that situation. You went upstairs with him. Deep down, you knew what he meant. Cecily’s voice cracked anyways when she said again, “No.” Traitorous tears pricked at her eyes and the dryness of her mouth was replaced with a thick, choking lump in her throat.
Foster held out a box of tissues. “This is a safe space,” she said.
Safe. Safe like home, like Pennsylvania, with dappled green sunlight and her mother. Not Massachusetts safe, where Cecily’s mind was full of sweaty frat houses and the memory of his skin.
Cecily wanted a glass of water.
Foster set the legal pad down and put the tissue box on top of it. She leaned forward, pressing her forearms to her thighs, and spoke in an entirely different voice. It was urgent and pleading.
“Cecily, we know something happened to you. You don’t have to keep it all inside. If you need to talk about it… if you want to talk about it, we’re here. Even if you were drunk, even if you didn’t know what was happening. If you didn’t say yes, you didn’t consent. You don’t need to feel guilty. Whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault. Do you understand me? It wasn’t your fault.”
“I…” Cecily was out of words. Images flooded her mind: the pile of dirty clothes in the corner of his room, the cup-cluttered nightstand, the thin sunlight that filtered past the edges of his blackout-curtained window the next morning.
Everything around her was spinning and jumbling and all she could think was, I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say anything.
“Did somebody hurt you?” Foster asked.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I didn’t say anything.
And he hadn’t cared. He hadn’t asked. His door slammed into the wall and they stumbled inside. She remembered that her feet hurt, so she’d tripped out of her shoes, and the light disappeared as he shut the door.
“I want –“ she’d said, but before she could finish water, his mouth was on hers again and she was being pressed back farther, until her knees hit the edge of the mattress and she fell back onto the bed.
No was his hands tugging on the waist of her skirt and the hem of her tank top. No was the snapping sound of her strap as it tore away from her shirt. No was the stickiness of her blood in her mouth when she’d bit her cheek when… when…
No was there in her inability to walk straight, the fuzziness of her speech, the redness in her eyes. It was there, clear as could be, a denial. And all he’d seen was yes.
Cecily sucked in a breath. The midday sunlight was diminishing, clouded over by fast-moving storm clouds. Outside, the bird chirped. Students talked and laughed on the quad below, hurrying to get inside before the storm came. At her apartment, Josie was probably making dinner or taking a nap or acting absurdly normal. Mom was probably leaving the office by this point, switching out her stilettos for more sensible flats to drive in. He was probably with his roommates or his brothers or fucking another girl in the same bed that she’d been in against her will only a few days ago.
And Cecily was here, in this office, as Foster moved her chair to take her hand. And there was this: a cup of water in her hand, the word “No,” on her lips, a tissue balled in her fist. The sound of her mother’s voice as she called her from Foster’s office. Outside, the leaves on the trees rustled as the first drops fell.
An hour later, Cecily walked out of the office and knotted her hands in the whorls of tree bark. Rain splattered on the shoulders of her gray sweater. Besides the rain, the campus was quiet. The bark under her hands and the rain soaking her skin felt like safety.