Editor’s Note: This piece discusses instances of sexual assault and sexual violence that may be triggering for some readers.
I traveled across country just before cell phones were widely available. My cousin in Baltimore had a cell phone, so my father instructed me to drive there from my house in New Jersey on the first leg of the trip to get it. The phone was the size of my current laptop and was wrapped in a leather bag.
“Call me every night or else I think you’ll have gotten raped,” my father said.
This was always on my father’s mind: me getting raped. Ultimatums were his way of protecting me. “If you don’t call me, I’ll call the police and tell them you stole my car.”
He wouldn’t help my friend and I open up our new tent in the backyard as a practice run before we hit the road because of this logic: if I help you open your tent and you go on your trip, you’ll get raped. It’s silly, isn’t it? To think that he could stop me from getting raped by keeping camping secrets from me? His only goal was to keep me as safe as possible. I think he secretly hoped we’d just give up and turn around.
My father didn’t know that I had already lost my virginity to someone who accepted “just get it over with” as consent. And how that same person crept his hands under my bra while I was dosed up with Tylenol Codeine after recovering from surgery. Or about that time in high school when I stopped four guys who had lured a drunk friend into a small bedroom at a party. Guys I knew. Guys I grew up with. And how I saw those guys, those boys, lift her shirt and feel their hands around her pants. “We’re just having fun,” they said as I jerked my friend’s hand, lifted her to stand and guided her out. “Party pooper,” they said.
We didn’t have anti-rape nail polish in 1992. Not that it would have made any difference. I wanted to explain to my father that it wasn’t strangers I was afraid of. It was the men that I knew.
After the night we spent in Baltimore retrieving the giant cell phone that hardly worked, we drove the curvaceous road of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was night when we got to the campsite in West Virginia and we couldn’t see a thing. Families camped together with stoves and flashlights. Inside our tent, my friend pulled out two jagged-edge hunting knives that her neighbor gave her “just in case we were attacked.” Not by bears. She hid the knives under her pillow and I prayed that we wouldn’t have to use them. We’ll never use them, I thought. Our tent walls flapped in the wind all night.
The next morning we practiced how to put up the tent correctly, hammering stakes into the ground. We drove off to Denny’s where we ordered egg white omelets and washed our faces in the bathroom sink with hand soap. Back on the road, we flipped through the free AAA TripTikx booklet with our highlighted route. We argued over Pearl Jam’s break-up anthem “Black” — was it “bitter hands” or “better half”? Tennessee is a long state and the highway stretched. Truckers peered down at us from their cabs in my little Honda Civic. They had nothing to look at but legs and interstate and I wished my friend hadn’t worn her super short bicycle shorts. “These truckers are staring at your thighs,” I said. She shrugged me off. We were driving 10-hour clips. Who cares what she wore, she said. She was comfortable. But I had my father’s voice in my head. No exposed thighs.
We cruised through the Great Smoky Mountains. Past Dollywood. Sped on Interstate 40 to Nashville. I took the wheel. Soon, a cop clocked me doing 90. “Where ya’ll goin?” he said, leaning his thick body in. His arms crossed in my window. Too friendly. Maybe it was a southern thing — I didn’t like him so close. The cop looked down at my friend in the passenger seat. Her inner thighs, exposed. I told him we’re going to Memphis. “Last time I knew, Memphis wasn’t goin’ anywhere.”
Pass me my ticket, Sir. Stop looking at my friend’s thighs, Sir. My heart pounded. Would he make us get out of the car? Would he search us for something, anything, just for a touch? A feel? This cop with his mustache reminded me of the stocky doctor I saw at 21 who said he couldn’t hear my heartbeat unless I took off my shirt and bra. Or the tailor who altered my prom dress in high school. I had to bring a guy friend with me for the second fitting to make sure the tailor didn’t cop a second feel.
I wasn’t going any faster than those truckers zooming past us. But we were two girls with Jersey plates. I grabbed the ticket, wanting to rage against the highway. Rage against my father and his bulky, broke cell phone. Rage at the truckers staring at us from their tall cabs. Just as we got back on 40, I chucked the ticket out the window. How could they track us? I’d never be back in Tennessee again.
Before we got to our motel in Memphis, we stopped at the Piggly Wiggly. That’s a supermarket. I was a sheltered girl from New Jersey. I knew Manhattan. I knew Boston. I knew Gristede’s. Shop Rite.
“We’re at the Piggly Wiggly, Dad,” I said when I called him.
“Don’t make fun of things you don’t know. Be careful. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
In Memphis, we pulled into the motel parking lot with our bag of canned vegetables from the Piggly Wiggly. I brought the shopping bag over to our motel door and went back for my friend. She stood there next to the car. Her face looked like it was going to collapse. Her hands shook. I didn’t understand. Maybe it was the heat. Or all that driving. Staring too long at the yellow line dividers.
I don’t need to tell you this part of the story for you to know that something happened. That something happened to my friend that involved a man. That’s her story, and it’s not my place to tell it. But you knew that this part of the story was coming. You knew that I was going to say … and this man did THIS. Because these stories where Dads warn you are like horror films where the phone rings. Or at least that’s what my father wanted me to believe.
I thought about all the men we passed from here to Memphis. The miles of Tennessee license plates. The men in the campground in the Smoky Mountains. All those families watching our flailing tent and no one helped us. The cop who folded his elbows on the inside of the window like he owned my Civic. The truckers and their crooked smiles. My father’s warnings of rape. The hunting knives that my friend’s male neighbor gave her.
When you’re young you learn that men want something from you. And you can tell me that I’m anti-male, or that I’m male-bashing, or that I sing misandry songs all day long. But this is what happens to us. We do so much to prevent rape. All the time.
Even my over-protective father. He wanted to collect my freedom. He wanted me to be afraid. Everyone is going to hurt you. Scratch that. Every man is going to hurt you. This was a message from a grown man.
I put my arm around my friend. She cried and we walked into the hotel room. I told a maid in the stairwell what happened. The maid shrugged. It’s possible she didn’t speak English — or it was possible she wasn’t surprised. I don’t know why we didn’t go to the police. I locked the door behind us. I switched on the TV. Get it all back to normal. I couldn’t wait to get out of Memphis and we hadn’t even gotten to Graceland yet. I opened a can of mixed veggies for her, drained out the water. Shook it with Newman’s Italian Dressing and handed it to my friend with a plastic fork.
I called my mother from the hotel room, staring out the window at the parking lot. I babbled about the ticket I got in Tennessee. “You better be careful,” she said. “You can’t drive 90 on these highways, you’ll get killed.” I couldn’t tell her about the man in the motel parking lot. How the cop stared too long. My father would say I told you so and send out a police search.
* * *
Twenty years later. My cousin just graduated from college and she’s in Southeast Asia for five months. Because she’s amazing and beautiful and courageous and she wants to breathe in life. She’s got her Instagram account filled to the max with her colorful photos and I’d like them 15 times if I could.
Would much have changed if I was able to text my father from my tiny iPhone and given him a nightly check-in so he could sleep without worry? It wouldn’t take away from the burden. From my burden. Protect yourself. Prevent this situation. It’s entirely up to you.
* * *
We cuddled in bed that night in Memphis under the white starchy sheets. The next morning, on line at Elvis’s house, everything felt better because at least, in Graceland, there are no surprises. Ghosts of creepy men, yes, but we were already primed for that. Elvis’s vinyl yellow stools in his kitchen reminded me of my home in the 1970s with the yellow and silver wallpaper. Graceland is like petrified wood. A relic. Nothing ever changes. So we laughed at the low-hanging crystal chandelier. Imagined Elvis strutting down the steps singing “Love Me Tender.” Elvis is buried in his own backyard. With his brother and mother and grandmother.
Ahead was Oklahoma City where my friend, a photographer, wanted to shoot at the Stockyard. Two vegetarians walked a creaky bridge over miles of cattle. In New Mexico we camped at a primitive site next to the Rio Grande where people hot air-ballooned at sunrise. The Tetons. Montana. San Francisco, we met up with friends. We hiked the Badlands. We gazed at the unfinished sculpture of Crazy Horse carved into a mountain in South Dakota.
Mostly, the cell phone didn’t work. I typically called my dad every night collect from a pay phone. In Las Vegas, we got reception. “The only thing I hate about camping is how rocks poke into your skin through the sleeping bag. I have bruises everywhere.”
He paused for a minute. “You didn’t buy camping mats?”
“What are camping mats?”
“They’re these things, like soft things —”
Later in the trip, at Crater Lake, Oregon, my friend would take a picture of us in black and white. The two of us would stand tall in flannel shirts and jeans, guarding our strong, sturdy tent. The tent didn’t stay up long — a bear eventually sniffed out our campsite and we ran, screaming to a nearby bathroom. An hour later, a thunderstorm filled with hail tore down and we slept in the car, listening to it pelt the windows for hours.
I had never felt more safe.