On Letting Go
Updated: Feb 20
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
Photo by Kensie Wallner
The person who sexually assaulted me four and a half years ago has recently resurfaced in my life.
The first time I saw him since leaving the school we went to together in 2015 was at a party that was eerily similar to the one we were both at the night of The Incident™️.
The Incident™️ happened in mid-December 2014. I was eighteen. A college freshman. It was an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. I didn't own any at the time so I had borrowed one from a girl in my dorm. It was itchy, warm, and featured a sequined Santa Clause across the front. She had made it clear – in a manner that was joking but clearly not actually all in jest – that if I lost it or spilled on it, our friendship was over. I remember, about halfway through the party, wanting desperately to take it off but knowing I couldn't because:
1. I wasn't wearing anything but a bra underneath and
2. Our friendship rode on my unimpeachable care of that sweater.
It was hosted at a mutual friend's townhouse adjacent to campus. Open the front door, go up a staircase and you're in the living room. Vaulted popcorn ceilings. Cabinets with no hardware and a bland finish. We have all been in a carbon copy of this townhouse. I was standing in the hallway to the bathroom and he approached me. We knew each other from classes and our shared major. We were friends. He nodded towards the ceiling where a piece of duct tape held up a bough of mistletoe. I don't remember what he said but the gist was clear. I remember turning him down, giving him an excuse about my boyfriend being there; it was inappropriate. And it was true. My boyfriend was there. It was inappropriate. But the reason I should have used was that I just plain did not want to.
My boyfriend left the party before I did. At some point in the party, it was agreed upon that me and this person would walk back to the dorms together. I remember arriving at his building and needing to go to the bathroom SO BADLY. I remember going inside. I remember using the bathroom. I don't remember much else.
I woke up next to him wearing a t-shirt I didn't recognize. I panicked. Where was the Santa Sweater? I was consumed with my search for the sweater for what felt like a really long time. I’m sure, in reality, it was less than a minute. I found it on the floor, near my coat.
I think I played Sudoku on my phone on my walk back to my dorm. I didn’t really realize anything was wrong until I had slept a few more hours and woke up a tad more sober. I went to the bathroom to brush the fuzz off of my teeth and found marks all over my neck and collar bone. Baby’s first hickeys. I realized that something had happened and felt my heart drop into my bladder.
It wasn’t a sense of violation or that I had been hurt in some way I felt in the dorm bathroom when I saw those hickeys and my smudged makeup. It was guilt. I thought I had done something terrible. I thought I had cheated on my boyfriend. I went about my business for a couple of hours, doing laundry, having a mental breakdown about whether or not to tell him and what to say because I didn’t actually know what happened. But the guilt kept eating at me.
I asked my boyfriend to go on a walk with me. It was unseasonably warm for December in Moorhead. We walked around campus and I garnered the courage to tell him that something had happened between me and this person. I believe I used the words “We kissed. I don’t really remember much else.” And, oh boy, was my boyfriend pissed. He thought it was a betrayal. He was hurt and sad and heartbroken and wanted to confront this guy (I think he did, actually). But he blamed me. And I don’t fault him for that. Because I didn’t give him a reason not to.
But the thing is, I don’t remember us kissing. I don’t remember being an active participant in any of it.
I didn’t realize until a long while later (and a good deal of depression and subsequent counseling) that what had happened to me should absolutely be considered assault. I was far too drunk to consent. Eventually, I unfriended him on Facebook, transferred schools (in part to not see him anymore, in part to have a fresh start after a long bout of poor mental health and poor grades, and in part to be in a better program for what I was studying), and stopped thinking about him. And then I graduated and moved home to Minneapolis. And got into my first professional show! And got invited to a cast party!
The party was being held at a townhouse in the suburbs. I had been there before to hang out with the host after rehearsal one time. I had my mom drive me to the party because I’m a child and I didn’t want to pay for a Lyft both ways and I wanted to drink (don’t drink and drive, kids) and when we pulled up in the cul-de-sac in front of the house, my heart dropped into my bladder again. There he was, crossing the street in front of my mom’s car.
My mom asked me what was wrong (because I probably looked like I was gonna hurl) and I told her I was fine (you know, like a liar) and went into the party. And all of a sudden I was back in December 2014 at that Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. Open the front door, go up a staircase and you’re in the living room. Vaulted popcorn ceilings. Cabinets with no hardware and a bland finish. And there he is, standing next to my friends from the show, laughing about something that was said before I came in. And my friend introduces me to him in the round of introductions that happens shortly after I arrive and I say “Yeah, I know. We went to school together for a few years.” And he says “Oh, shit. Natalie? I didn’t even recognize you.”
I didn’t drink much at that party. I left earlier than I wanted to and was shaken up for a day or two afterwards. And then, miracle of miracles (and product of all that counseling I mentioned earlier), I did my best to let that shit go.
And then, one night, at the show, there he was again. In the front row. Laughing at all the feminist jokes. Cheering anytime there were references to women breaking stereotypes. Generally exhibiting behaviors one would not expect of someone who assaults people. And it sucked. And it took me out of my performance. I wish I could say I was just as professional and just as “in it” as every other night but I don’t think I was. I was distracted.
I started writing this piece during intermission of that show. I spent a lot of time that night thinking about what my options were. I could ask the stage manager to have him removed during intermission. I probably could’ve even had it done earlier. The theatre community does not look kindly on sexual assault and I trust that the cast and crew of this show would have come to my defense swiftly. I thought about that at the party at my cast mate’s house, too. I could have pulled the host aside and told him the SparkNotes version of this story and I’m certain this person would’ve been firmly but politely been asked to leave. Arguably, I could probably make it just as tough for this guy to be respected in this town as he made it for me to exist my freshman year. But I think the statute of limitations on a night I can’t remember has probably run out.
It is also worth noting that "The Rules" about consent and drunkenness and sex were different back then. It has only been in the last few years that the discussion about not having sex with people who are not conscious or sober enough to consent (and what that looks like) has become commonplace. When I was a freshman in college, the vernacular about that particular topic was still new and the moral line not quite as obvious as it is now.
I think it goes without saying (and yet I’m saying it anyway), that it is difficult to balance the desire to “let that shit go” with the desire to exact revenge, especially when “that shit” is still causing aftershocks in your life. I think part of the reason that one night that I can’t quite remember still affects me with such gravity to this day is because I spent so long thinking it was my fault and not talking about it. I felt tremendous guilt and a ton of other stuff I didn’t have words for at the time (again, folks, I gotta tell ya, go to counseling) like defenselessness, unimportance, and betrayal and kept all of it inside. That shit ferments.
I still don’t know what happened that night. I really could only find out from one person and I don’t know how reliable a narrator he is. He Facebook messaged me a few years back, before I transferred schools, asking to talk, wanting to “set the record straight.” I declined the message request. After I saw him at the show, seeming like a much more feminist, adult person, I talked to a friend about it and they asked me if talking to him, saying my piece, and getting an apology would make me feel better. And I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a way to feel better about it. I spent so much time wishing it hadn’t happened. Wishing I hadn’t had so much to drink. Wishing I had gone home when my boyfriend had left the party. Wishing I hadn’t had to pee. But the wishing doesn’t change it. And I don’t know if an apology would either.
My senior project was on womanhood and a lot of it centered on abuse. I took a bunch of interviews with women who had experienced some type of assault or abuse in their lives and developed a show about it. Super cheerful stuff. I had a set of questions I asked but I didn’t ask if an apology would’ve made a difference. I want to do the project again, with a more diverse sample set. When I do, I think this will be the final question: “What do you do to let it go?”