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Between the Ghosts and Me

(CW: Sexual assault, abuse)

Before the pandemic, I went on three dates with a guy. He was nice, charming, funny, and I very much wanted to like him. Our final date was at this bar right across the street from a cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. He was a bartender, so he tried to impress me with his liquor knowledge, disappointed that I just ordered a well vodka-cran. A lot was riding on this date. It was date three and he had yet to kiss me (as a proud feminist, I am also willing to admit my flaws and say that I never make the first move). He was great in every way, but I couldn’t decide if he was somebody I wanted to sleep with or not, so he needed to kiss me.

We talked for hours until we were the only ones left in the bar. One of our final conversations before we left was an eerie prediction he had that humanity would die out because of a global pandemic. I laughed it off, not realizing that a couple of months later he would be somewhat right.

We left and he walked me to my car, parked right next to the Colonial Park Cemetery on Abercorn street.

During the day, the cemetery was bright, peaceful, and warm. At night, it was eerie, empty, and cold. It was haunted, as most places in Savannah are, and it is part of the reason I now believe in ghosts.

The cemetery was home to Union soldiers during the Civil War and is now a tourist destination. No confederates are buried here, which makes it unique from so many other graveyards in the south. I like to think the ghosts there are friendly.

I put my jacket in the passenger side of my car and turned to say goodbye, and that was when he kissed me. He was abrasive, used too much tongue, and thought it was funny when I would pull away when people walked by us. We were awkward, but I’m beginning to think that I’m always awkward with first kisses.

We kissed for a couple of hours. I would pull away every now and then, with a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was being watched. To this day, I’m convinced it was the ghosts.

The longer we kissed, the more his hands wandered. I was hyper-aware of him touching my breasts and my butt and the small of my back. I wasn’t in the moment. I was analyzing every touch, every movement. I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I didn’t stop kissing him either.

We finally said goodbye at 2am. I watched him walk away, and I climbed into my car and cried.

We didn’t see each other again.

Art by Maddy Sutka

It’s been close to two years since that happened, and I tell it as a funny story. It’s rehearsed. The ghosts saw me get groped. I cried in my car. Isn’t it hilarious? Anything can be a joke in the right light.

Since the beginning of Blossom, I told myself I would tell this story. It would be a light article for October – a funny ghost story. But the more I thought about this date, and the more I analyzed my behavior, I realized it wasn’t really funny (although I’ll keep telling it as such to friends).

I joke that I cried because I must have been having a manic episode, but I’ve never really had a manic episode. In reality, I was hurting.

A year before this date, I cried on Abercorn Street, right across from the cemetery.

I used to park next to the cemetery when I visited my boyfriend. Always on Abercorn Street, except for Tuesday mornings when the street sweepers came through.

I used to Uber to his apartment. We often smoked or drank or stayed up until 4am having sex. Most nights I stayed over, some nights I Ubered back. I only started driving when he accused me of Ubering so I would have to spend the night. After that day, I always made sure I had a car. I wanted an easy form of escape.

He would still ask me to spend the night more often than not. I would double, triple, quadruple-check that was what he wanted. He would say “yes” and then be mad at me the next day for staying over. Sometimes I didn’t spend the night. I would get in my car on Abercorn Street, next to the cemetery. Some nights I peeled away from the graveyard as fast as possible. Some nights I sat until I sobered up. Sometimes I put on music or cried in my car, convincing myself I was happy.

There wasn’t much that was good about us. I see that now but didn’t see it then.

I cried in the street with him because we were drunk and said to me as we left a party, “I’ve never dated someone who has been sexually assaulted.”

I immediately burst into tears. It was the first time anyone had used the words “sexual assault” to describe me. It was a label I didn’t want. I still don’t want this label. I don’t want to be a statistic, and yet, here I am. I am part of the 1 in 6 women who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

He was the first person I told about the assault. I had to. He needed to know why I cried if I needed him to slow down. Why I had panic attacks. Why I felt so… broken.

I cried on Abercorn street at 3am. He cried too, but because he felt guilty for how bad he was treating me. For some reason, I apologized to him.

Part of me thinks I picked up that trait from the guy before him.

I hate the word “survivor.”

I don’t feel like one. I never felt like my life was in danger. A lot of the time I was a willing participant. I minimized the pain, told him it was okay, made sure his feelings were protected while I didn’t value my own.

I still don’t believe that he is a bad person. I struggle to see myself in the role of victim. Surely if he knew he was hurting me he wouldn’t have done all that he did, right? But then I’m reminded that he didn’t stop, even when I asked him to or said no. Sometimes he laughed. That was the scariest. He was a sadist – he seemed to like it when I cried. He brushed it all off as kink. Bruising, welts, marks on my wrists, tear-stained makeup. They were his trophies.

He would send me photos from porn. Graphic photos of girls with black and blue thighs, legs, and butts and say “I want to do this to you.” For some reason, I would still go back.

We didn’t always use condoms, but I still asked him to pull out. He rarely did. When I told him that birth control isn’t 100% effective and getting an abortion in the south is hard, he said “If you get pregnant, then you’ll have to stay with me forever.” I still didn’t leave.

This period of my life was after I had gained weight. He told me that if years in the future I ended up losing the weight, even if we weren’t seeing each other anymore, I owed it to him to sleep with him one last time. I still sometimes feel like my body is a burden to my partners.

He refused to go down on me. Almost a year of seeing each other casually and he only did it once. He made it known he thought it was disgusting. To this day I don't let my partners go down on me.

The scars of this relationship are real. And, for the most part, I felt like I had consented to the abuse. If I said he hurt me or told him I needed a break, he knew how to make me feel guilty, how to get me to apologize and say it was fine. I don’t know if he even realized he was doing it. I don’t want to believe that he is a bad person, but maybe that is naive of me.

Even after all of that, I don’t think my abuser is a bad person.

We had good times too. When life was hard, he would listen. We went to movies and dinners. He desperately wanted us to be more than fuck buddies. I always declined.

Our timeline is messy. We saw each other for a year, but for six months of that, I was out of state for school. Living in Savannah gave me the space I needed, but I would still see him on breaks, and the distance made him eager to try new things.

I don’t remember much from the night it happened. He bought lime vodka – sweet enough it tasted like a mixed drink, even though it was much stronger. He poured me a large glass and told me to drink it. He poured himself half as much. If I stopped drinking, he would top off my glass and tell me to have more. I listened because I was drunk, and he was firm. Eventually, I don’t remember much else.

I woke up the next morning with a hangover in his bed. My shorts were gone, and I was confused. I think I asked him if we had sex, but I don’t really remember. What I do remember is him showing me a video he took. A video of me, pretty much passed out. I think I murmured something incoherent, but it’s hard to recall. He was having sex with me in this video. I told him I didn’t remember this happening, and I saw the color leave his face. He felt bad until I comforted him and told him it was okay... It wasn’t.

Even after all of that, I don’t think my rapist is a bad person.

I asked him to delete the video. I still don’t know if he did. I do know that I continued to see him for a few more months. Sex hurt every time, and I didn’t understand why. I now know, I was tense. My body knew something was wrong before my head did.

Even today, that night doesn’t always feel real. The POV of his camera feels like my memory. I can only recall what happened based on what he saw. It’s like an out-of-body experience. The memory of my assault is me watching it happen, and I can’t do anything about it.

A few weeks later, I found a folder on his phone filled with nude photos he had taken of me when I was asleep or changing. I stopped drinking around him.

I broke things off over text. He wanted me to come over and drink when I was home on break. I told him no, I didn’t want to get drunk and have sex. He made me feel bad about it.

Even after all of that, I don’t think he is a bad person.

I look back on how I acted on that third date. I think about why I kept kissing him even after I knew I wasn’t attracted to him. It’s something I actively have to work on in my relationships now. I struggle to ask partners to stop. I’m afraid of making them mad, even though I realize that most guys won’t be, and any guy I sleep with shouldn’t be.

Honesty is hard. Part of me wants to hide and not have sex because it brings up a lot of confusing feelings.

I haven’t had a panic attack during sex since my last relationship. But with every partner I get intimate with, it’s still a talk I need to have. Second or third dates are filled with heavy conversations because I need my partners to know the signs I show when I’m not okay. They need to know that I might sometimes push myself past my limits because I’m scared to say “no.” They need to know that if I cry, it isn’t necessarily their fault.

I hate bringing ghosts of past relationships to my current ones. I hate having to recall my triggers and traumas. I hate placing this stigma on myself. Most of all, I hate that I didn’t leave sooner.

Art by Maddy Sutka

I still blame myself a lot. I minimize what happened to me. I don’t like to label it. Sometimes when telling other people, I just say “I dated a not nice person” and leave it at that. I wonder if I could have done something to stop what happened. But it’s the past, and I can’t.

I still get anxious when I visit home and have to drive through his town. I worry if I go out to eat or go shopping I’ll see him. I don’t know if these fears will ever go away.

I had sex just the other day with a guy I’ve been seeing for a few weeks. He’s been really good about checking in with me. I appreciate that so much. He was able to tell something was wrong when I started spacing out, and I felt comfortable enough to ask to stop because I was starting to dissociate. That was big for me. It was the first time I was able to ask to stop without crying (not going to lie though, I almost did, but progress is progress).

I want to go back to Savannah. I want to visit Abercorn Street and the cemetery. Not as some weird form of torture but because I want to understand.

I broke down on that street twice in the span of a year. The ghosts in the cemetery saw me cry and kiss and get felt up, and I feel like I owe it to them to let them know I’m okay.

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