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Personal Essays

Big Blue Nights

After a rape, the world is remade. A story of violence, true love, cars, defeat, madness, the road from New York to Lexington, and the religion that is college basketball. Victory has many faces—some of them just happen to be painted.

Amanda Burnham, Grid Paln, 2011. Courtesy of Dorsch Gallery.

Earlier this spring, stranded in Chicago for work, I experienced a jock’s dilemma: My team was playing in the college basketball finals and I needed to find a bar to watch it all go down. If I chose wisely, and if we won, I’d float down Michigan Avenue on a sea of fellow Kentucky-blue fans. If we lost, I wanted a quick exit and anything but a repeat of last year, when a pack of Connecticut boosters drove me to the streets in tears. So I chose a hotel bar and prayed for a benign international crowd.

In case you missed it, we won—Kentucky, 67; Kansas, 59. And there I was with a double rainbow on my face, surrounded by a bunch of suits stirring their gimlets. But who cared because the moment was all mine, and I invited it in. The wait was over, the bad luck spent.

Because for so long, the Ides of March were never about basketball.

 

In New York City, in March of 2003, I was raped in my apartment by a repeat offender in the neighborhood where I could afford to rent. He said he’d seen me around; he said he wanted to impregnate me and take me back to Puerto Rico. I was 23.

It was a Thursday, a day after the Iraq invasion. It was a Thursday and then, at the bar, it was Friday and I wanted to go home. God yes I was drunk, and walked from the cab to my apartment in the fawn Adidas sneakers my mother bought me when she came to visit Ground Zero. I gave her the tour in those shoes, with the borrowed pride that was going around back then, and argued that New York was the only place to live.

I locked the door once, then twice. My lungs, flattened for hours, burst to life. My face fell to the floor like a vase.

I’d been this close: key out, key in, door pushed, and then, behind my right shoulder, he was there.

Surprise attack. Shock and awe. Running start defensive: My patriotism failed, my full-length mirror shattered.

And afterward, I hadn’t expected he wouldn’t immediately leave. Where was the chloroform? Where was the getaway? He shed his urgency like the condom he didn’t use, and I was left with him: casually curious, strolling the apartment like this was the real appraisal. Where’s your stuff? Valuables, as in, your value has been collected and now dangles cheaply from my neck. That’s what did it, what turned me Shelley Duvall-nuts: the horror that it wasn’t over, like waking up mid-surgery, doctors up to their elbows. He’d taken what he wanted and now he wanted more. It was maddening, and there was no time to suffer the insult that he was, still, unsatisfied.

I told him I was his, we’d go to Puerto Rico, I’d have his child, I hated it here, wouldn’t he take me, wouldn’t he meet me on the street corner tomorrow at seven o’clock, wouldn’t he promise, please? And who knows what went through his head as I cranked all this out standing in my kitchen, completely naked, overhead lights blazing so that if you looked up at my window from the street, you might think I’d stumbled from a nightmare to boil water for a cup of tea.

Amazingly, this is what the detectives actually asked: So what’d you do afterward? Did you watch television? Did you make him tea?

They asked me if I made him tea.

I get it; they were trying to account for time, matching my story against the one they’d get from him when the DNA they spooned out of me came wagging back his name. Innocent until guilty, et cetera, and I had all the ammo either way.

I’d been up 24 hours, and felt my race like a fresh skin that had been laid over me. Little blonde thing like you, the cop at the hospital said, referring to his daughter. Clinical pity from the Asian doctor who tweezed between my legs and swapped my underwear for a giant, sexless uni-garment. And now this: the theory of a night of mutual fun.

“I’m sorry,” I told my detectives, who were black, “but I’ve only ever dated white guys.” But in what world was this my best defense? I imagined a grim line of ex-lovers dragged in to testify that yes, they were white, pasty, practically anemic, the furthest you could get from my imaginary lovers of color.

But there was another imaginary lover, and he was my roommate.

We’d just graduated from the same small college outside New York. I met him during the fall of our junior year, a time in my life marked by vodka and pleather. His name was David, and my friends who lived with him warned that he rarely left his room. Oh, really, I thought, and was soon a fixture on his lawn, in his kitchen, his living room, obstructing pathways wherever I could. Slowly, he started showing up, filling entire doorways as he walked into rooms, and soon there was no one else. Once, he showed up at the place where I waitressed, on his way to check out some protest and the girl who went along with it. I poured his coffee and ignored him, as if I knew I should cling to these last precious frames of my advantage. Folding napkins at the bar, I watched myself in the old, beveled mirrors and wondered what I was up against.

A few months later, in the dark, he reached for my hand during a screening of Personal Best. Within weeks I was sobbing into the trunk of an elm at 3 a.m., ejected from his bed, where I had strewn myself hoping for the very thing he explained, with the strange heaviness of young men, he wasn’t ready to give me.

In the bathroom, I looked for myself in the mirror, to see what had happened and what was left. The mirror was inches away, but I wasn’t in it.

But pride is a stubborn root. I tried to be a good friend, and, like rejected lovers everywhere, fantasized this “friendship” was just a role he’d cast me in until the climate was safer. But of course it wasn’t that simple. I had to watch him fall for other people. Eventually, with the help of gin and Liz Phair, I detached enough to welcome hook-ups that were, at best, consolation. But the distance between us also allowed respect to grow. By the end of our senior year, we were closer than ever. At graduation, friends changed the subject when I announced we were moving to Brooklyn together. Thirteen hundred dollars a month; two bedrooms that couldn’t be farther apart.

He had an air conditioner and a girl who’d be crashing in his bed for the summer. I had a mattress my father drove from Michigan to deliver. I took the first job I was offered, waiting tables at a diner staffed by jaded Ukrainians. When business was slow, they’d give up and wave me away. Men left their numbers on checks and I’d date them, but I never brought them home. I was terrified of being caught in the act of moving on because that’s all it was: an act. At work, when I got ambitious and stacked too many plates on my arms, I’d get clucks and rounds of pohana ideya (погана ідея): bad idea. Nothing was truer. At night, alone in my room, I relied on the air conditioner to keep me from hearing whatever I was missing.

But on March 21, 2003, I wanted David to hear me. I didn’t know if he was in the apartment as it was happening, and so I was, for the record, vocal. If he was there, I wanted him to know something was wrong. I wanted him to hear sex being pulled out of me like deforestation. I wanted him to hear it and flee through the funny little back door by his room, the one we laughed at and never opened, never considering its use: Save yourself.

When it was over, after I’d begged the guy to remember our appointment on the corner, I locked the door like it was a casual act of housekeeping, like I wasn’t going immediately to the hospital, to the world, to tell everything, expecting to be believed.

I locked the door once, then twice. My lungs, flattened for hours, burst to life. My face fell to the floor like a vase. The clock restarted, everything ticking from scratch.

I went to David’s room. I called his name. The bed was unmade, the sheets a still life of churning sea. There could have been life in there, but there was not. I beat the comforter with both hands to be sure. He was safe. He wasn’t there. He’d never been there.

In the bathroom, I looked for myself in the mirror, to see what had happened and what was left. The mirror was inches away, but I wasn’t in it. Instead, I saw the face of something wild, headlights flashing through its skull until it remembers it will die, but not today.

 

My world blew wide open, everything reformed. David and I refused to stay in the apartment, and so we squatted with friends for weeks. He sat by my side in the backseat of the patrol car as we drove to the street corner where my rapist never showed. He fought with the detective when he wasn’t allowed to join me in the squad van. He let me scream and cry and feel sorry for myself. He let me give him a terrible haircut with a ridiculous “wing” in the front. The first time I ever laughed again was over that wing, and the time some hip lesbians stopped him on the street to admire it. He looked unstable, but it was priceless; he was there.

You can never just stay. Reinvention through perseverance is a cute idea, but the only way to start over is to get the hell out of town.

Of course, it couldn’t go on forever. I got a new job. David had another life and she’d been patient; the girl from the summer was now his girlfriend, and they were starting over, moving in together. I practiced saying goodbye in doses, but nothing prepared me for the first night I spent alone: punching my thighs on a borrowed bunk bed, listening to Smashing Pumpkins on repeat. “And our lives are forever changed.”

The night before the indictment, some friends took me to the Turkey’s Nest for chaperoned drinks. It was a Monday, but I was killing it. By the time David showed up I was sobbing, this time with anger I felt righteous enough to direct at him. Now that I was functional, he was off the hook. Just leave me the hell alone. He didn’t deserve it, but he sat through the performance and then put me in a cab.

On the stand I wore a purple cardigan, glasses, and a pair of black pants I’d worn to job interviews. If my body had a shape, it could not be discerned. I faced the slouched jurors, but looked past their heads at the wall. I didn’t care that this was how justice worked. I hated them for watching me, and for the chatter I’d become the next day when their coworkers would ask, Anything interesting?

I had said I wouldn’t cry but I did, as easily as a bell that is struck. I glared at the stenographer like she had the power to take back my words and why wouldn’t she.

The jury reached a quick indictment, and I tried to block out the possibility of an actual trial, the kind of probe that seemed worse than the crime itself—the entirety of my louche behavior held up for inspection, all building toward the rationale that persisted in my mind once the pageantry of victimhood faded: You deserved it.

Life kept going. David and I nodded at parties, but we never really spoke. He was busy giving domestic life in Brooklyn another shot. I’d moved into Manhattan, where I found a boyfriend to whom my rape was just another detail of my past. If I couldn’t disappear, I wanted to be loved beyond recognition. But things fell apart the next summer, when David announced he was moving home to Kentucky, leaving everything behind—the career that was now his job, the girlfriend who was now his ex, whatever claimed him or failed to. People thought he was joking, but I was already in on it. He was doing what I should have done in the first place. You can never just stay. Reinvention through perseverance is a cute idea, but the only way to start over is to get the hell out of town. So when he asked me to visit, I said yes. I kept saying yes. Six months later, I was the one leaving everything behind, and moved to Lexington as his girlfriend.

 

In Kentucky, basketball is practically a crop, each year straining against variance to be as sweet as tradition.

Kentucky is a basketball state. Lexington is its sparkling central nervous system. I was from Michigan, home of the Fab Five, but that was no preparation for Big Blue Nation. In Kentucky, basketball is practically a crop, each year straining against variance to be as sweet as tradition.

It is the strangest intimacy to move to your loved one’s hometown. It’s like simultaneously crawling inside a photo album and then opening it up and finding yourself missing. And then it’s detective work, too, even when you want to relax and try out calling it home. Because the whole place is ringing with secrets, discarded selves your lover tried on and outgrew, a fate you can’t help reminding yourself to avoid.

At last, he was my boyfriend. So what if we lived in the attic of a house with five roommates? We were 25. His friends accepted me as another detail of his rebellion, and the awkwardness of my arrival was toasted away at the happy-hour bars where we lived.

Basketball was a way for me to fit in, and I studied it in game and culture. I developed skills at beer pong and gave pet names to the flashiest players, happy to cheer for a team coached by a man named Tubby. I second-guessed the refs and fretted over fouls. And when David and I couldn’t talk about the future, or what, exactly, I’d expected would happen for me in Kentucky, at least we could compare our brackets.

This was 2005 and the team had legs. There was Rajon Rondo, who’d later sign with the Celtics. There was Patrick Sparks, our own personal Eminem, and Chuck Hayes, who once posed for a photograph while I held a backdrop behind him; we joked he was my phantom brother. Later that season, he would be accused of raping someone on campus. In my throat, I formed the words—not Chuck! The fans scoffed; Chuck was golden, and the chorus was immediate, innocent until proven—I knew it too well, but I’d never been on this side, standing in the court of a man as chants of perpetrator rose behind him. It was gossip the way rape always is—the excited, what-a-shame whispers about the theories and charges, everyone waiting for the accuser to emerge and entertain us with her shame. 

Finally, it was March. The Tournament. For me, two years after the rape, it was also anniversary time. Why call it an anniversary? A question I’d learn to field. Fair enough; I’d never understood the phenomenon until it was mine, the grim allure of a calendar day, how it loomed with such halogen power, lighting the past. The first warm wind of the year, and I was there again.

Three months into my new Kentucky life, just before the Sweet Sixteen, I got the call. It was the Assistant DA, from her cubicle, with news: There’d be no trial. He’d taken the plea in exchange for 10 years. Silence. I’ve always had bold feelings about prison—meaning, I’m against it. Not that I’m a molten liberal, just that I think punishment deserves a little Old Testament symmetry, or at least creativity. In college, I taught poetry to prison inmates. But I couldn’t find any explanation good enough, any poetry at all in his eyes as I imagined my rapist in a cell, paying for his foul, personal and flagrant.

Basketball didn’t care. Kentucky was happy to have my conviction, was impressed by my rancor toward Florida. I redefined myself in an NCAA dialectic of cheers and snarls. I didn’t have to hate men; I could hate West Virginia. I was finding a voice I could use, connecting with people over scoreboards instead of turning into steel wool when people asked me, How was your time in New York?

End of March. We made it to the Elite Eight: Michigan State vs. Kentucky. (Not that I wanted my new Wildcat loyalty to get back to East Lansing, in my home state, where they burn Deloreans in the street.) It happened upstairs, after the Spartans forced us into double overtime. The oldest story—we were ahead and then we weren’t. I stiffened with denial. It couldn’t be happening. These Cats were my vengeance. But they lost anyway, 94-88.

The town was disconsolate, hungover, mean. But they’d been through this before and would again. I was an outsider with undeveloped patience and weak immunity. I couldn’t imagine switching allegiances to some faceless hobby like football. Sans basketball, the message to my life was clear: not us, not now.

Lexington wasn’t home, and my relationship wasn’t strong enough to survive that fact. Chuck Hayes must have felt my pain. The police dropped the case against him, but the draft skipped over him that year, and he headed west to wait it out in the D-League. I wasn’t far behind. I drove to California in a tin-can Kia with everything I owned.

 

Seven seasons played and gone, I’m back in Brooklyn because cycles are all I know. This spring, those friends who’ve known me long enough told me congratulations because they heard Kentucky won. And they say it again, because yeah, it’s true: David came back, or I did, depends on the detective, but none of that matters because this time I’m wearing his engagement ring. Blue sapphire, white diamonds. Kentucky colors; my championship ring.

I’m wearing it as I bike down the avenues we’ve known, carrying beer and laundry, dividing bills out loud. I’m wearing it as I ride out farther, past the place we used to live, the place where it happened—except it’s someone’s little home again, a breeze coming through the second-floor window where I used to smoke and dare my life to come and get me, by force, ineluctably. The front door has nothing to say for itself, and I move myself along like a cop.

Sometimes I think about him, in prison, and wonder if he ever played basketball—sweating in some Puerto Rican park with his friends, stealing the ball without even trying. And if he’s a Kentucky fan, too, then maybe the look on our faces this year was the same as we considered the outrageous proof that the spell had been broken.

Becky Hayes lives in New York. More by Becky Hayes