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The Glass Wall :
Leslie Dillon knotted her coat at the waist as she hurried from her car and into the YWCA to get out of the Minnesota deep freeze. Once in the door, she snatched a deep breath of warm air and blew it out with a heavy sigh. Glenda, the pleasant desk person who greeted her three times a week, spoke her name and asked if she would like coffee. Leslie nodded that she would and smiled at the thought of what Glenda must think of her. In the six weeks that she had been coming to the Y, she had never even changed clothes at the gym, let alone exercised there.
Her intentions to run the treadmill or walk the track had fallen by the wayside on that very first day when Leslie discovered the racquetball court. She had been wandering through the facility and had heard the sounds of grunting women with racquets hitting a blue ball against the front wall of an enclosed court. One of the side walls of the well-lit box was made of thick glass, and there were bleachers nearby shrouded in darkness. Leslie slowed, first to listen then to watch the women strategically position the ball in various places around the court to catch their opponent off guard.
Whether it was the certainty with which the women played or the darkness beyond the glass wall at the top of the bleachers, Leslie found the scene curious and comforting. She stood indecisively between the court and the bleachers. She could move forward past the players or climb up onto the wooden benches. Choosing the top of the stands, she climbed to the top of the stands. The court noises resonated like echoing thunder and rumbled in her chest. As she observed the explosive sounds from her position behind the glass wall, Leslie felt a moment of peace. It was a feeling she had not been able to embrace since before the day—THAT day—when her life had instantly become a mere line drawing of her once three-dimensional existence.
From her perch, she had heard the players discuss their next game date and knew that she would again come to sit behind the glass wall and watch their match unfold. She decided to come back to this odd place of peace and somehow resurrect her now-devastated life. She was determined to find a space here that matched her pain; she would solve the puzzle she had become. She had existed once. And she had been fearless. Don’t forget fearless, she thought.
When she sat in the inky black isolation, she could remember without tearing at her clothing for breath or screaming without pause for life. In this safe and enveloping cocoon of glass and wood, she could place her trembling fingers around the artery of memory that plagued her and from there, decide what to keep, what to throw away. Watching the strength of these opponents reminded Leslie that there was life, perhaps even life worth living, after being raped.
Until the very moment that she settled herself onto the top bench for the first time, she had not allowed herself to think about living or about dying. She had not given one iota of herself over to the terror and disgust that came with the memory of the knife against her temple or the man's penis ripping its passage between her legs. To survive, Leslie had successfully separated her stable and contented lesbian life from the single horrific act that threatened her existence. She now kept her mind and body occupied with an eclectic array of ‘busy-ness.’ She did everything—anything—but speak.
She found odd outlets of behavior in which to pour her terrifying energy. She cleared her throat incessantly and developed a tic that caused her to duck her head; her once-ambling walk took on a darting, zigzagged gait, as she looked first over one shoulder then the other. At night, she paced and read and stared toward the now-empty side of the bed where her lover had once slept. She showered three times daily and scrubbed at the red and raw patches of broken skin on the inside of her thighs until she bled. She had not even glanced in a mirror since hours before the rape.
She somehow knew that as long as she refused to speak of the atrocity, then she would not crack wide open—that it had not happened—and she could cling to an unnamed source of resilience. Not uttering the words meant that she, not her rapist, would choose her fate. And Leslie could face the damages of her silent, self-imposed choice. It was the uncontrollable noise that she could not endure; the sounds of human betrayal that rang in her memory, waiting to escape from her lips and steal her breath.
On racquetball days, she sat and concentrated on each of the players’ strategy. She knew that they were unaware of her existence at the top of the bleachers and that knowledge bolstered and shielded her somehow. It gave her room to reflect on the memories of her wholeness. The tiniest of incidents might send her flying back toward a safer and more solid patch of her past life. For instance, it occurred to her on one of those early mornings that there was something fragile and sweet about the way one of the players said the word ‘point.’ It reminded Leslie of the first girl she had ever kissed. As the past broke the surface, she fluttered her eyes shut, lashes to lids, and wandered into the memory of the toothy, moist-mouthed teenager who had waited with lips slightly parted. She remembered the kiss, watching it over and over again, as she roamed the black screen behind her eyelids for every trace of that first tryst. She bargained for another moment before she transported herself back into the gym. Then, eyes pried open, she again kept her unspoken story weighted onto her shoulders as it re-ignited the aching in her bones and chest.
She remembered incidentals such as the kiss and avoided the obvious memory of the assault. It was in this tender and tenuous tangle that she learned to lie to her own soul for the sake of what little sanity she had left. This precarious method of deception was meant to evade the monsters of her memory. In truth, Leslie did not know what was real anymore. She only knew that she must get into the gymnasium and climb the steps to her lofty post, to the place where she ordered her silence to protect and serve her until she could find or create a voice she recognized. She also thought about things while she folded herself onto the top bleacher. She thought about the handwritten note she mailed to her employer and about the friends who had finally stopped trying to reach her. She noticed how little she cared about those once-important things that were now only thoughts in her head.
Then, there were times when she thought about her lover…ex-lover, Catherine.
Catherine had gone to Seattle because Leslie's voice, unfamiliar and fractured, swore upon all that was holy that she did not love her any more. She had dialed the number and after several rings, Catherine answered. Two hours after a man's penis penetrated her for the first time in her life, a strained and disoriented Leslie spoke into the phone and told her partner that she would not be home.
“What are you talking about, Lee?”
There was a time when Leslie loved to hear her name shortened by her lover. It was an intimacy unshared by any other, and it caused a loving bond to form each time she said it. However, this time, Catherine's voice reminded her that the world's collective heart was still beating and Leslie would not take part in any such absurdity.
“Catherine, you have to get out of the…out of my…house. Now. I mean it. It's over. We're over. I hate it, I can't stand the thought of …” With a voice beyond her own recognition, Leslie panted and puked the most tyrannical rage toward the woman she loved until Catherine dropped her defense and cracked into slivers of pain.
Although the tremors in her own voice betrayed her words, Catherine spoke carefully and deliberately.
“I know that you love me, Leslie, and I know you don’t want to hurt me. Please tell me what’s wrong.”
There was a pause as the wind howled through the telephone booth. Leslie leaned on the short counter next to the phone book and wondered if she might faint. She squeezed her eyes shut until the tiny space righted itself and then spoke the last words she ever intended to utter.
“There is someone else, Cat. From now on, there always will be.”
As Catherine heaved the stale air from her stomach into the phone receiver, Leslie felt the desecration of semen and blood run down the calves of her legs. She gently caressed the mouth of the phone with her fingertips before placing it into its cradle. The whistling gale that hammered into the booth whipped Leslie’s hair across her face as she stared at the disconnected receiver now back in its proper place.
For Leslie, the end of life was nothing more than a mad and howling wind.
Whack! The racquetball smacked against the side wall and one of the women, Kelly, dove toward it, tumbling onto the court. She screamed, “Good God, you’re amazing! How can you be that strong?”
The other player, Rachel, smiled and replied, “Keeping company with the right women, I guess.”
The two exchanged a glance that caused Leslie to question whether or not they were lovers. No, she thought, they’re friends who have lovers at home.
Rachel was tall and lean with a muscular frame and easy gait. Her opponent, Kelly, was about the same height but heavier and wider. With her long black ponytail flying, Kelly had more talent for the game than her physical body portrayed. She was quick and relentless with her corner shots. Rachel, on the other hand, had a softer touch with the racquet; more finesse and less strength. Together, they had developed a complex game of strategy that benefited both of them each time they played. At times, they were oddly interchangeable—probably from years of playing the sport together—and seemed to enjoy one another’s company. Leslie thought about the sounds of their voices and the genuine comfort she felt while listening to the banter. Their lives and relationships were still in motion, much like the dark blue ball that recklessly spun between them.
Her life, on the other hand, was a broken record playing her insanity over and over again. After six weeks of silent terror, Leslie could no longer imagine hearing the sound of her own voice. She thought of answering the phone every time it rang but knew if she did, the masquerade would be over and the truth would split her in two. She would not allow herself the luxury of screaming out the horrific moments that now defined the edge to which she stood so close.
The panic attacked her daily and sent her wild heart beating into her wordless throat. When it seized her, Leslie clung to the sole thread of her salvation, the women on the court. She relied on them to play the game, hit the ball, win the point, and balance the pain. They became her eyes and ears, hands and skin. She existed only to watch them and, in turn, they kept her alive with their strength and stamina. Her connection to the court warriors was ethereal and it sustained her on those days when she didn’t see them. She could imagine them, muscles taut and ready, waiting to pounce on the next person who might hurt her. Always expecting the unthinkable, they shielded her while she floundered and fled from her senses. They walked beside and behind her, they cleared the path in front of her, and they lay next to her while she made unsuccessful attempts to sleep.
When she thought of the racquetball women, Leslie believed that she might survive. Then she would remember the horrific days just after the assault before she had discovered her protectors. One of those days etched in her memory was the day Catherine had left. After their phone booth conversation, Leslie sat in her car a few blocks from their home and waited to watch her lover leave. Eyes wide and gripping the wheel, she clenched her teeth until she thought they would break as she saw the beautiful woman she cherished put her suitcases into the trunk, 26 hours after the call.
Almost gone. Almost gone. Alllmmmossstt…gonnnnne. Leslie had mentally chanted the words in a sing-song pattern until the sound of her song drowned out the fury of the man-noises in her head.
Shut up, bitch, and lay…almost go…do what I tell…ne, almost gone… you fuckin’ whore…almost gone, almost…so tight piece of pussssssssy… almost gone, almost, gone, almost gone…I’m gonna cum… almost, almost, almost, gone, gone, gone.
She saw her lover drive away from the curb, and then Leslie lay across the front seat of her car in a fetal position. She studied her legs, scratched and bruised, scabs forming on each knee, and reasoned if she could die at that moment, she wouldn’t have to enter the empty house. With nothing but the sound of the droning car in her ears and the face of her rapist in her head, the shame in Leslie’s chest planted itself into the deepest fiber of lung and refused to go. It was these cruel shards of reality that caused her to careen into the unfamiliar abyss. She was insane, and there was no one to tell. She would rather die than tell.
Get up, she thought, get up and go home, where you will be safe.
Leslie, like most people drowning in madness, did have lucid moments over those first few homebound days. She wrote to her boss and said she had accepted another position, apologizing for her abrupt departure. She put a note on her door saying she had gone to visit friends out of town. But, inevitably, after finishing an apparently ordinary task, she again descended into hell. There was no safety in her home or in her thoughts; no reprieve from the endless, mind-snapping, terror-stricken words and feelings that plagued her.
She refused to turn on a light or go near the locked windows or doors. At night, the most unimaginable noises came and confused her.
Were the noises outside? Was HE outside? IS HE IN THE HOUSE?
She mostly sat straight up in bed, phone in her lap, and wondered how she would speak if she had to call 911. What would she say? Could she scream? Would that alone bring them to find her clutching at her own throat to stop the shrieking? Could? Would? With these open-ended questions adding to her madness and no voice to stop the insanity, Leslie knew she was going to die. Her rapist’s voice spoke that truth to her again and again.
Then, on the morning of the fifth day, she dozed. It was only 30 minutes or so, but when she woke, startled, she knew she had to get out of the house. She showered and scrubbed, pretending to be late for work, and grabbed her keys. She had discovered that if she hurried, life felt more manageable somehow. As Leslie ran out the door and into the almost sunlit morning, she thought about what might seem conventional to do, like other people; other women who had not been awake for over 100 hours.
Exercise? Yes, they exercise, she reasoned.
She looked at her still-bruised and swollen legs and a memory choked its way up toward her consciousness.
No, she thought, I will not run outdoors. Not ever again.
She rummaged through the glove compartment and found the YWCA card she had not used since it opened over a year ago.
The Y was a mile or so away but, as she double-checked the locks on her car doors, it never occurred to her to take a change of clothes. She had a mission. She was going to exercise.
Now, several weeks later, Leslie had made a secret nest for herself in the rafters of the racquetball courts, and no one knew how or where to find her. She justified her actions by telling herself that she was going to outlive the terror and shame. Her silence kept her hidden in grief and insanity. Incredibly, Leslie began to think that her life was going well.
Whatever Leslie believed about her existence, she was not any match for what fate and nature were about to bring. It was a clear morning when she entered the gym, took her coffee from Glenda, and headed for the court.
Play was already in progress as she rounded the corner of the hall, and the players were focused entirely on the spinning ball. A slight and undefined recognition tickled the back of Leslie's brain and tugged at her senses, causing her to stop in front of the glass wall. She stared at the court as she strained to identify the sights and sounds of what she saw. Something was different and it scared her. What was it?
Never mind it, she thought, just get up the stairs where it is safe.
Leslie turned to climb the bleachers and heard her player, Kelly, speak words that she suddenly realized she had taken in at least a hundred times in the last several weeks.
“Good God, you’re amazing! How can you be that strong?” The other player, Rachel, smiled and replied, “Keeping company with the right women, I guess.”
Leslie turned back toward the court and watched Kelly dive again toward the ball.
“Good God, you’re amazing! How can you be that strong?”
Leslie held her breath.
Rachel again smiled and said, “Keeping company with the right women, I guess.”
Stumbling toward the glass wall, Leslie searched the women on the court for some change from the last time she had seen them and today. Again, Kelly dove.
“Good God, you’re amazing! How can you be that strong?” Rachel smiled. “Keeping company with the right women, I guess.”
A cold chill of awareness shot down her spine and her limbs shook.
Rachel and Kelly always wore the same clothing.
“Good God, you’re amazing! How can you be that strong? “
Leslie pressed into the wall to keep from falling and began to beat on the glass with her fists to gain the attention of her protectors.
“Keeping company with the right women, I guess.”
The visions on the court slipped from her eyes and her mind flooded with memories of her attacker. Tendrils of terror wrapped around her legs and arms. She flailed herself harder and faster against the glass wall.
The women, now faceless, turned toward Leslie and stood motionless while she stared into them, pounding her flesh and pulling her hair. A scream, raw and desperate, soaked into the corners of the court and over the bleachers as Leslie careened into the glass and broke her nose. Again and again, she banged her head and shoulders toward the players, attempting to reach her only sanctuary of sanity. She clamped her eyelids shut and covered her ears to stop the brutal assault of sound that entered into her. Urine ran down her legs, and an insidious throbbing persisted between them; still, the scream continued.
Finally, Leslie slid down the wall and onto her knees, blood trailing her to the floor, as she realized the scream was from her own throat. She stopped her wounded screams, and, for the first time since she could remember, she began to cry.
Eyes shut, bloody and bruised, alone and broken, Leslie Dillon had found her voice.
She rocked and wept with swollen fists balled into her eyes. Her guardians—the women on this court—had been her sanity, and the truth was that they didn’t really exist. After several shaky breaths, Leslie found the strength she needed to face that truth. She dropped her fists from her face and opened her eyes. Staring straight into reality, Leslie clearly saw that the racquetball court was empty and dark.
She blinked and stared again to be certain. Even as her body shook in confusion, her mind began to clear a path of acceptance. Breathe deep, she thought, and let it come. She stood, still shaking, while the blood from her nose ran down her shirt and chest. She gazed into the quiet court and cried softly until she felt a hand on her shoulder. Startled, Leslie turned toward the touch and her eyes fell onto the face of the woman she had watched leave their home just weeks earlier.
Leslie wrestled with her demon memories as she looked for signs of forgiveness on Catherine's face.
God forgive me, I can't tell her, she thought, I can't even speak.
Then she remembered the words of her warriors. “Good God, you're amazing! How can you be that strong?”
She realized that they had been speaking those words of encouragement to her. The women wanted Leslie to know that she was full of an amazing strength. They wanted her to recognize their echoing voices as a part of her and, having heard them, know that she would live again.
Relief washed over her as tears streamed down her face while she focused on her lover's eyes. Her body continued to shake and she wondered how Catherine had found her and what she must think. Say something, she coaxed herself, say anything to let her know that you're here now, that you love her, that you're sorry. Leslie willed her mouth to form the words but the only sounds that came were sobs of suffering being released.
Finally, Catherine quietly spoke. “May I touch your face, Lee?”
These words brought another wave of tears from Leslie as she slowly nodded and then waited for Catherine's hands to soothe her. As Catherine reached for Leslie, she softly cried at the sight of this woman she loved so deeply. As she held her face and stroked her hair, she again spoke. “Can you tell me?”
Leslie visibly relaxed as Catherine caressed her skin and she again listened for her voice. The echoes of the women on the court played in her head as she met her partner's gaze.
“Catherine, I was raped.”
Leslie watched the startled look on Catherine's face come and go as she struggled to tell the story for the first time as it happened. She did not take her eyes from her even when the intensity of Catherine's tears matched her own. After she had spoken the last words of the memory, both women stood motionless, drenched in the sad and simple truth.
Finally, Catherine opened her mouth to speak and Leslie heard the most amazing and comforting words that perhaps she had ever heard in her life.
“Good God, you're amazing! How can you be that strong?”
Leslie stared at her beautiful girlfriend and knew that she would spend a lifetime trying to explain just how much those words meant to her. Holding Catherine's hands tighter than she ever had, she replied, “Keeping company with the right women, I guess.”