"Nobody wants to talk about rape if it hasn’t happened to them." From today's story, "The Clothes I Was Wearing" by Sandy Barnett Ebner, one of the bravest and most harrowing accounts of rape I have ever read.
The Clothes I Was Wearing
by Sandy Barnett Ebner
October 31, 1976
It was just after two in the morning when I finally stepped outside the bar and paused to light a cigarette. Exhausted, I leaned against the wall next to the heavy oak door and smoked, watching the people I’d served drinks to for the last eight hours stumble past. It was Halloween, and everyone walking by was in costume, none of them elaborate or very creative: a gorilla mask worn with a flannel shirt and torn Levis, a skeleton crudely painted onto a pair of black long johns. What a waste of a holiday, I thought.
I was just 19 years old, barely old enough to legally serve drinks in the state of Louisiana. Tonight had been raucous and chaotic, the crowd fueled by alcohol and the opportunity to escape their day-to-day-lives through anonymity. Last call, when it finally came, was a blessed relief.
The night air was stale. The stink of alcohol and cigarette smoke clung to my clothes, and I could still hear the faint sounds of Willie Nelson on the jukebox inside the bar. I knew that it would be hours before I could sleep.
I ground my cigarette out in the gravel and walked towards the highway, where I hoped to catch a ride. I was meeting some friends on the other side of the parish line. In Louisiana, each parish, or county, has different liquor laws, and although the bars here in town were closed now, the one where I was going would be open for several hours.
Everything was quiet as I walked past the small shops and restaurants that lined the downtown strip: the Po-boy place where I sometimes ate dinner before work, the head shop where I bought my rolling papers, the tiny A & P market. The drugstore on the corner was dark except for a small light over the pharmacy counter.
When I reached the highway I stood on the corner under the streetlight. It was a two-lane road, and at this time of night there wasn’t much traffic. I watched the eyes of the drivers as they passed, hoping one of them would stop. In my hurry to leave work I’d forgotten my jacket and it was too late to go back for it now. A car filled with Halloween revelers passed and honked but didn’t slow down. I blew on my hands to warm them and lit another cigarette. No one stopped, and as time went on fewer and fewer cars drove by. For a moment I wondered if I should give up and go home. But just then a car pulled up to the curb and the moment was gone.
There were two men inside the car. They weren’t much older than I was. The rear end of the car was jacked up and the engine was loud. I yelled over the noise to tell them where I was going.
“Club 190.” I said. “Can you take me there?”
The man in the passenger seat got out of the car and stood holding the door open so that I could get in. At that moment I made a choice. I climbed in and sat next to the driver, scooting over so there would be room for the three of us. The man outside got back in and closed the car door. It was dark and I didn’t look closely at either of them.
“Thanks for picking me up.” I said.
The inside of the car was warm, and I was glad to be out of the cold. It was about fifteen miles to the bar where my friends were, so I settled in and tried to get comfortable.
As soon as we left the city limits we were instantly in what still seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere, although we were less than a mile from the middle of town. Even after living here for months I still wasn’t accustomed to the vast expanses of dark open space. I’d grown up in California, and was used to streetlights and people everywhere, at all times of the day and night: gas stations, fast-food restaurants, 24-hour markets. Here the towns were miles apart, with nothing in between but the occasional house, and seemingly endless miles of pine trees. In the light from the car’s headlights, the trees passed by in a blur.
The town itself was a beautiful little college town in the southeastern part of the state, not far from New Orleans in one direction and Baton Rouge in the other. I had moved here to attend the local university, where both of my parents had graduated. The weather was horribly hot and humid during the summer months, but the rest of the year wasn’t too bad. I had friends here and had settled into a nice life. Louisiana was so very different. The food, the architecture, the local dialect; everything here was exactly what California wasn’t. And for a while at least, that was a good thing. There were a lot of bars in town, and a lot of churches. My parents were married in one of them, a small brick church with a white steeple, surrounded by huge oak trees draped in Spanish moss, that I walked past every day on my way to work.
The men in the car didn’t seem to want to talk, which was fine with me; I’d listened to people talking and yelling for drinks all night. So I chattered on about nothing in particular, oblivious to the fact that these men were much too quiet. After awhile I got tired of talking to myself and just listened to the radio. “Monster Mash” was playing, a song I’d suffered through countless times tonight already, when suddenly the car slowed and the driver made a left turn off the highway. Surprised, I turned to look at him.
“This is the wrong way. You just need to keep going straight.”
“We know a shortcut,” he said.
I thought about that for a second. I knew the area well enough to know there was no shortcut; it was straight highway all the way. Then, we turned left again.
“What are you doing? I told you this was the wrong way.”
This time he didn’t reply. After a moment we turned left once more, into a clearing set back into the woods. Now, I was frightened. We sat with the engine idling. The clearing was small and surrounded by dense thickets of tall pines. It was completely hidden from the road, not the kind of place you would just stumble upon. These men had clearly been here before.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
Neither of them answered. The driver turned off the engine, plunging us into darkness. The tip of his cigarette glowed in the dark as he smoked. I listened to the ticking of the engine as it cooled. I looked back and forth at them in the silence, but they wouldn’t look back at me. Though I couldn’t see them clearly, I knew I’d never seen them before tonight. In small southern towns, bars are a way of life. I had never seen either of them in any of the ones I frequented. But there were bars in town I never entered, where the men seemed angry beneath the surface and viewed all strangers as enemies. Instinctively I knew that these men came from a place that I would never fit in, and would always have reason to fear. I was pinned between them. But that hardly mattered. There was nowhere to run even if I could, no one to hear my call for help.
How easily I gambled with my life then.
“You can’t do this,” I said, not yet knowing what ‘this’ was. “I know a lot of people. I have friends who’ll come after you.”
How naïve I was to threaten them. I told them I was having my period, that I had some kind of STD. Surely there was something I could say to convince them to let me go. When I realized that there wasn’t I began to cry. One of them told me to shut up then, that my crying was making him angry.
I did then what I suppose most people do when faced with the prospect of a terrifying unknown. I begged for my life.
“Please let me go.” I said. “I won’t tell anyone. Please, just let me go.”
They both sat very still, staring straight ahead. I couldn’t imagine why none of this was having any effect on them. I waited on young men every night from behind the protection of the bar. I served them Dixie beer and shots of cheap bourbon, told them dirty jokes and pretended to be their friend, calling on the bouncers for help if I ever felt any danger. I was used to being the one in control. It was part of my job. I tried to hold on to that control that was slipping away so quickly, which had, in fact, been gone the moment I’d gotten into the car. There were no bouncers here to help me now.
It was much later that I realized I had only seen their faces in profile. For a long time afterwards I wondered if that was so it would be harder to identify them later, should it come to that, or if they were simply steeling themselves for what they were about to do.
I have no memory of what happened when I got out of the car. I’m thankful now that I don’t. I imagine myself standing in the cold, taking off my clothes, shivering, amazed that just an hour before I had been pouring Jack Daniels into plastic cups.
They must have been sitting in the dark watching me. Did I try not to show them how frightened I was so that they wouldn’t get angrier? Did I hold my head down as I took off my clothes, and fold each piece before I put it on the ground? Did I stand in that clearing, naked and cold, my arms wrapped around my chest, thinking the same thought over and over again? I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home.
I don’t remember getting into the back seat. I remember only images from the inside of the car, none of them specific or fully formed, except for one. My head is resting against the rear passenger door and I am looking at myself from a distance. I am watching myself looking up, not at the roof of the car, but through it to the sky above, to where I must have instinctively been searching for some kind of solace.
At nineteen, I was very skinny, with long brown hair. I was stubborn and sarcastic, a façade I was sure would protect me from any problems that came my way, when I thought about it at all. I was wearing blue jeans and a worn-out pair of Keds that night, but it is the blouse I wore that I remember most. Cream colored, woven, like macramé, with a cotton string threaded through the holes in the weave that I tied beneath my breasts. It was something a young girl could get away with wearing. I threw it away a few days after that night because I couldn’t imagine ever wearing it again, but for some reason I have always associated that blouse with what those men took from me. To me it represented the loss of whatever innocence I had left.
I was years away from understanding the concept of post-traumatic stress, but in the weeks and months following that night, even I somehow knew that the mind does what it can to protect itself. My memory lapse is clearly defined, and corresponds almost exactly with the time I spent naked, with the time I was being raped.
I don’t remember putting my clothes on again, but I remember looking at my purse, still on the floor of the car where I’d left it. I still have my purse, I thought. Why would such a thing matter? Neither of them had spoken yet, and we sat in silence. I wanted a cigarette badly but was afraid to ask for one or to reach for my purse. Finally the driver said, “You’re not going to tell anyone about this, are you?”
For a moment I thought I might be losing my mind. I’d already told them I had friends who would come after them. Now they were asking me if I was going to tell anyone. Nothing was making any sense. I only knew that I wanted to be anywhere other than where I was, somewhere far away from these men, from this car.
“No,” I finally whispered. “No, I won’t tell anyone.”
The driver started the car then, and backed the car out of the clearing. He drove a few hundred feet, and once again stopped the car. The man on the passenger side got out. I heard him walk to the back of the car and open the trunk. Why have we stopped? I thought. Are they going to kill me now? I knew they had guns, not because I’d actually seen one, but because I’d seen the gun culture so prevalent in the South. Every local male I knew had one. My boyfriends slept with them under their pillows. More than once I’d reached out in the middle of the night and felt cold steel, and I wondered, what on earth do they need protection from?
I thought about my family then, but desperately tried not to. What was happening to me was so outside the realm of what I’d ever thought possible that my mind refused to accept it. I believe now that if they had killed me, my sisters, and my mother and father, would have been there with me. But at the one time in my life I most needed to, I tried not to think of the people I loved, because if I did I knew I might start to scream.
I didn’t know what the man behind the car was doing. There was absolutely no sound. The driver sat next to me, silently smoking. It was as if they were waiting for something. Were they trying to work up the courage to kill me? Had they stopped the car for a lost pack of cigarettes, or for a jacket left in the trunk? I will never know the answer to these questions because, unbelievably, they let me go.
The man outside the car eventually got back inside. The two men hadn’t said a word to each other. We drove back to the highway, and the man driving pulled over and told me to get out.
“If you say anything about this, we’ll come after you,” he said.
How utterly surreal it was to hear him say that. Of course I was going to say something. I was going to tell everyone I knew if I got out of the situation alive, or so I thought then. As they drove away I watched the taillights until they disappeared. Neither one of these men had even once looked me in the face. I felt, for the first and only time in my life, what it means to actually feel less than human.
As they drove away I stood on the side of the road, shaking with fear. Finally I could cry. I stood in the dark and cried for a long time, eventually starting to walk in the direction of the bar where, I hoped, my friends were. There was no shoulder on the side of the road to speak of, just a thin strip of gravel. The ditch next to the road was too wide for me to jump across and on the other side there were only acres and acres of pine trees.
There was barely enough moonlight to allow me to see. The only sounds were my footsteps on the gravel and the sound of my breathing. I didn’t know if they would change their minds and come back for me, and if they did, what I would do. I could tell when a car was coming up behind me from a long distance away, the headlights reflected on the yellow mile markers by the side of the road. Each time a car passed I began to panic, somehow keeping my eyes straight ahead and focused on the road in front of me. There was nothing to do except keep walking. There was no place to stop, nowhere to ask for help. All there was, in front of me and behind me, was the dark.
Eventually I saw the lights of the bar in the distance. I don’t know how many miles I had walked. It felt like I’d been walking for hours, and, once I saw the lights up ahead, it still seemed to take forever to get there. When I finally crossed the highway to the parking lot, I saw a few cars that I recognized. Thankfully, my friends were still there.
The door to the bar was locked, but through the window I could see a bartender inside cleaning up. He looked up when I knocked.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” he said, when he came over to open the door.
“I know. I’m just looking for someone.”
The lights were turned all the way up, illuminating the remnants of a party similar to the one I’d worked a few hours before. Orange and black streamers were everywhere, hanging from the ceiling and trampled underfoot. Discarded party masks were everywhere, vampires, witches, ghosts. Carved pumpkins with leering faces and melted pools of white wax sat on the bar next to half empty glasses, plastic go-cups, and overflowing ashtrays. I picked my way through the mess towards the back room, where I found my friends still nursing their last drinks and watching the band pack up their equipment.
“Where’ve you been? We were starting to worry!” They were flushed and happy, drunk from a long night of partying. So instead of the truth, I told them I’d stayed after hours to play pool and had lost track of time. One of them handed me a drink they’d ordered for me at last call and I went to find the bathroom. I splashed water on my face and dragged a brush through my hair. I went into one of the stalls and locked the door. I sat for a long time, my hands shaking, holding my drink, the ice now melting in the glass.
At the time, I lived by myself in a small wooden house next to the railroad tracks. The trains that came by during the night carried mostly freight. The passenger trains passed through on the other side of town, on the tail end of the City of New Orleans line, the train my friends and I took into the city every year to celebrate Mardi Gras. The house sat between two cross streets, forty feet from the tracks, at the exact spot where the train’s engineer unleashed a whistle heard for miles. Whenever a train came through, the house shook madly, rattling everything in it.
For months afterwards, with only my anger to keep me company, I lay awake in this house by the tracks. I stared out my bedroom window, watching the trains as they passed, fantasizing how I would kill the two men who had raped me. I would burn their houses to the ground, or shoot them as they left for work in the morning. “Why me?” I would ask them before they died. “Why did you do this to me?”
I never went to the police. I was a young girl in a small town in Louisiana, and the men who raped me were locals. My father had been born and raised in another small town not far from here, and several generations of Louisianans were my own flesh and blood. But if you weren’t raised in the South you were an outsider. I may have been stupid enough to get into a car with two strange men in the middle of the night, but I was smart enough to know that the police wouldn’t arrest those men, not then, or ever.
A few days after the rape, my two sisters and I were sitting at a small table in one of the local bars. They also lived in town and we saw each other often. The bar was dark and quiet, a place people came to drink, not to socialize. We sipped our drinks and made small talk, but I knew they were wondering why I had asked them there in the middle of the day. I was nervous and scared, even with the two people I trusted more than anyone. I stared at the table, fidgeting, fingering my cocktail napkin.
“Something happened to me,” I said. They both became very still, as if somehow they knew what I was going to say. It was the first time I had tried to say the words out loud and I was having trouble speaking.
“I was raped,” I finally said. They froze, as they tried to process what I was telling them. Then they both began to cry.
If I had known how much pain it would cause them I would never have told them. One of them told me recently that hearing about my rape affected how she viewed men for years afterwards. My other sister can barely discuss it still, even after thirty years. I can lock it away, but they are left only with their imaginations. I never told my parents. My father is gone now, and my mother still doesn’t know. She would be devastated by the thought of one of her daughters going through such a thing and I will always protect her from that. But these were my sisters. As they held me and cried, I grabbed onto the lifeline they offered: the unspoken words that told me I was loved, and that none of this was my fault.
When I was a child, my father used to sit me on his shoulders, and from up there the world seemed a very safe place. And back then it was a safe place. My sisters and I were raised in a middle class family with two parents that loved us unconditionally, shielding us from the dangers of the outside world through a dependable routine of Tuesday night meatloaf, homework, and church on Sunday. And while I lived an idyllic childhood reserved only for the very lucky, at the same time it was also a childhood that could in no way prepare me for what happened that Halloween night in October 1976. At the same time, it was precisely the kind of childhood that would sustain me in the years that followed, providing a lifeline for me when I lost my way, giving me something to hold on to when I did not know where to turn.
In the first few months after the rape, my thoughts towards these two men remained unyielding. For me, there was no reason or compromise. They deserve to die, I thought. I will make them suffer. I never considered the consequences of killing two men, possibly because somehow I knew that this was some sort of defense mechanism, a survival tactic. Still, I reacted in the only way I knew how. I didn’t seek any help from anyone, and didn’t recognize that I needed it.
When I reached out, for sympathy or for some kind of human connection, people rarely reacted the way I thought they would. I don’t know what I expected them to say, but I was usually angered or hurt by their reaction, or lack of one. Looking back, I know my friends would never have purposely hurt me. But I couldn’t see that then. What seemed like indifference was probably a simple inability to react to an abstract concept. Nobody wants to talk about rape if it hasn’t happened to them. Before long I stopped reaching out at all.
It has been many years since that night. I still don’t know who those men were. I don’t know why they let me go. I don’t know if they raped other women, which I now think about often. All I know is that I survived. But I did not survive unscathed. I was angry for a very long time, a toxic anger that is not always outwardly visible. I turned to self-medication, to drugs and alcohol, to help me forget, which worked amazingly well for a long time until, not surprisingly, they became the problem rather than the solution.
As the years passed, my anger became less acute. My thoughts of revenge eventually disappeared. What stopped me from acting on these fantasies was the possibility that those men, as hard as it was for me to believe, might have wives, children. And I probably just got tired of thinking about death.
I know now that there are layers of memory, that you can choose which ones to peel back and examine. When it comes to certain events in your life, you can live only on the surface, never looking at what lies underneath, and that is exactly what I did: I internalized, buried, and denied the existence of my rape for over thirty years.
In December of 2007, I left my hotel in New Orleans and began the 60-mile drive to the town where I had been raped. As I drove, I struggled with my thoughts. Why am I so afraid? There’s nothing there that can hurt me now. I passed through the French Quarter, and the neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. I’d been away from this small town for thirty years, and now I was going back, to search for a place I had hoped to never see again.
Thirty feet below the interstate, cypress trees stretched to the horizon. Herons perched on pine trees kept watch over the wetlands below, and pirogues, the small, flat fishing boats scattered throughout the bayous, were steered by fishermen a world away from my car high above them. Louisiana possessed a strange beauty that, for me, was unlike any other place on earth. This was still a place I considered my second home.
Home. The word had never held any real significance for me until after the rape. For me it would never again simply refer to a place. The concept of home became a state of mind, a feeling of safety, of trust, and the freedom to let my guard down without fear. It would be a very long time before I understood how difficult home is to find once you’ve lost it.
When I reached my exit, I turned off the interstate and drove through the small town I had once known so well. I passed the bank where I had opened my first checking account, the Laundromat where I spent every Sunday morning during college, with handfuls of quarters and ripped-up paperback novels. The bars on every corner didn’t look like they had changed much, the buildings or, I imagined, many of the men who drank there. I passed the corner where I had stood hitchhiking so many years before.
I kept driving, on past the city limits. The town itself had looked much the same, but out here nothing looked familiar. There were subdivisions that hadn’t been here before, new construction, unfamiliar landmarks.
After a few miles I saw a road up ahead that looked familiar. I slowed the car and turned left. Suddenly the air seemed heavier, and I had to fight the urge to flee. Thick stands of pine trees lined the road on both sides. There were houses here and there that I didn’t remember from before. I tried to guess their age. Were they here thirty years ago? There had been no houses on the roads I remembered from all those years ago. As I drove I forced myself to look to the left, for the narrow road that would lead to the clearing in the woods.
Over and over again I turned off the main highway, down each road that seemed familiar, but eventually they all started to look the same. None of them matched my memory of that night. Eventually I realized that it didn’t matter if I found the clearing, that maybe it was better if I didn’t. I had been so sure that if I saw it again I would finally begin to heal. But healing, it seems, can’t be orchestrated or planned.
If there is anything positive about surviving a sexual attack, aside from survival itself, it is the knowledge that the concept of choice is something never to be taken for granted. These men took away my freedom to choose, if only for one night. In hindsight, I know that they were just boys. But they were boys who committed a horrible crime. They drove me into the woods in the middle of the night, calmly listened to me as I begged for my life, raped me, then left me like garbage on the side of the road.
How do you forgive an unforgivable crime? I don’t know. Maybe you can’t. For me, the key to healing has been acceptance, acceptance that this did happen and there is nothing I can do to change it. With that acceptance also came the knowledge that my life is no longer defined by that one night. Forgiveness, so far at least, has not been a requirement for healing. And while I know that someday it’s possible I will learn to forgive, for now I choose not to.
* * * * *
"The Clothes I Was Wearing" was first published by Connotation Press, and was both a finalist in 2012 and a 2015 Anonymous Angel Prize of the Glass Woman Prize.
Sandy Barnett Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, The ReviewReview, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature,Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is a contributing writer to Change Seven and previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review). She is working on her first novel, and a collection of essays.