CONTENT WARNING: This essay contains detailed references to sexual assault, which can be triggering.

I don’t think about Zack often. It’s hard to think about someone you can barely remember.

I choose not to think about what he did to me. Thinking about it awakens the anxiety and anger I’d prefer to have remained dormant.

But three years have passed since it all happened. And I’d like to revisit Zack and what he did to me. I think it may do some good.

I met Zack off Grindr. There wasn’t anything particularly special about him. I’d doubt he would have made an impression in any other circumstance.

He was tall and skinny. His smile was pretty despite being crooked. And I can recall that his tone of voice made everything he said sound sarcastic. But he seemed like a good guy, the kind of guy I could trust with my body.

I wonder if Zack thought what he did was just a creative solution. “Connor can’t breathe through the pain while he’s awake, but maybe he can while he’s asleep.” Maybe he thought my body would be more receptive to his touch if my mind were out of the equation.

Maybe he thought the only response I could have had to his forced entry was a pleasant surprise, not debilitating terror.

The encounter lasted minutes, but it felt like hours. I spent it staring at his bedroom wall, holding onto the arm he had wrapped tightly around me as he pushed and pulled. I did my best to breathe through the pain he was inflicting, the pain I thought I had agreed to when I showed up drunk on his doorstep at 10 PM. Sometimes I wish I could have just slept through it.

He stopped when I asked him to. But I didn’t ask until the pain was too much to take. I wonder how long I would have let it go on if it hadn’t hurt so much.

We went to bed once it was over. Zack slept like a baby, clutching me like I was his childhood teddy bear. 

I didn’t sleep at all.

I left before he awoke. He texted me later to say how much fun he had. He asked when we could do it again.

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. I knew what had happened was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I needed to save the little mental energy I had to protect the reality of my situation. I couldn’t allow Zack to discredit the brutal truth I needed to accept. 

My radio silence angered him. He reached out multiple times to lambast me for leading him on. For showing my true colors. For “using” him as every other guy had.

He walked away, feeling angry and rejected—feelings that probably faded within a few hours. And I stayed behind, forever tethered to our night together.

I blamed myself for what happened. Despite what I told others.

I told myself that showing up on his doorstep after drinking was reckless. Not stopping him the moment he started was cowardly. Believing my body was deserving of respect was stupid.

I didn’t think I deserved to say someone had raped me. I felt I was co-opting a tragic narrative to make myself seem complicated and vulnerable. I was disrespecting the “real” victims of rape. In my mind, my response to what happened was further proof that I was emotionally unstable, dramatic, and attention-seeking. I somehow deserved what had happened to me.

I cried for a long while after. I sobbed in my room and in the shower. On my evening walks through Boston Common. In the work bathroom when I was too exhausted to hide how broken I was feeling.

I had panic attacks for months. I avoided physical contact with men for close to a year, and even then, I’d shut down any time one touched me. Every romantic relationship I pursued crumbled the moment things turned physical. 

It took time to convince myself I wasn’t forever broken. But thanks to therapy and the support of family and friends, I was able to find my footing. I was able to accept that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t a reflection of who I am or what I’m worth. 

I finally started to show myself the grace and compassion I had only ever shown to others. And I decided to take my pain and use it as fuel for good.

I tried to look up Zack on Facebook recently. I couldn’t find him. I’m not sure why I thought I’d be able to. I didn’t know his last name or phone number. Any records of our conversations were long gone.

He was a ghost. That’s what I had wanted him to be back in 2017 when I decided to erase every trace of him.

I think I went searching for Zack because I wanted to know where he ended up. I wanted to see if the universe allowed him to live a happy life despite everything he had done.

But I don’t believe in karma. I don’t think the universe will punish Zack for what he’s done. I doubt anyone is watching over us and keeping track of all the things we’ve done—good or bad. That’s why we need to hold ourselves accountable. We have to choose to be good even when there are no divine consequences for being bad.

Zack might have a great life now. He might have a dream job. He might have a cute boyfriend, one he clutches like a teddy bear when he’s sleeping. Maybe he broke every limb in a mountain climbing accident. Or perhaps he made the error of hurting someone else. If he did, I hope that person could confront him in the way I couldn’t. And if they couldn’t, I hope they can one day find inner peace as I have.

It’s hard to fathom how much we can hurt other people without realizing it. It’s hard to accept we can be capable of such unknowable cruelty. That a one night stand to us can be a traumatic encounter for another.

That’s why we have to be as kind as possible to each other. Because it isn’t enough to not be cruel. We have to be good. It isn’t enough to stop when asked. We have to confirm it’s okay even to start.

My search for Zack was upsetting. It made me feel anxious and afraid, even from the safety of my bed. But my experience looking for him made me think about my trauma in a way I wanted to share.

I see my trauma as a tiny creative, one I don’t always get along with. My job is to care for this creature— to feed and care for him. I didn’t ask for this job, but I don’t have any say in the matter.

No one can see how I treat this creature. I can do whatever I please to him. I can keep him locked up. I can nurture or starve him, or let him run wild. I can bully or agitate him for my entertainment. Or I can show him kindness. I can welcome him into my heart and find comfort in knowing he’ll always be there to keep me company.

I didn’t ask for this creature. I didn’t want him. But now that he’s here, I’m going to take care of us both. I’m going to show him kindness even if I don’t have to. I hope he does the same in return.