sexual assault

[FIRST PERSON] When summer is truly over

Hiraya Etereo
[FIRST PERSON] When summer is truly over
'The rapist is just out there, among us. I don’t know when I will ever truly feel safe again.'

Trigger warning: the following piece features sexual assault.

This year, the changing of the seasons felt a bit too abrupt. PAGASA usually declares the start of the rainy season on a June day, but since late April our afternoons and evenings have been awfully damp and gloomy.

The country’s dry spell in the first six months has always been my favorite time of the year. Summer is the time of mangoes, panagbenga, and cicadas. It is the time when nature is most loud and colorful, with insect songs and fire trees in full bloom. It is the time when the air is sweet with honeybees and ripe fruits. It’s bright and hot, and there is never a better time to be alive.

But the thunderstorms creep closely behind.

Years ago, one rainy summer, I was raped.

It happened so long ago, but snippets of the scene continue to haunt me. I sometimes like to think that I was never in that place. The event replays in my head in third-person, like I was witnessing it unfold as CCTV footage in the corner. That wasn’t me over there. That didn’t happen to me. It’s just a scene from someone else’s horror movie. But denial never erased that from my history. 

It was only about a week after the incident when I told my family about it. I didn’t rehearse what I would say because I didn’t intend to tell a soul about what happened to me. I planned to take it with me to the grave. But I somehow managed to find myself in front of my mother, in a moment I would later regret. I tried to describe to her what had happened, in between sobs, in incoherent sentences. My mother, in panic, summed it up for me. “Na-rape ka!” It wasn’t a question.

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The summer heat blurred the events that followed. We went to the local police, who had a literal Women and Children Protection Desk. A deadpan policewoman asked me to narrate the brutal details, which she said she needed for the blotter. When I finished, she looked up from her monitor and asked, blankly, “Magkakaso kayo?”

I don’t remember answering, but soon I found myself in various uncomfortable situations. A doctor checked me below and I screamed louder than a woman in labor. A lawyer asked me to retell my story several times, forwards and backwards. Anonymous texters would send me threats and seemingly innocuous messages like, “Mag ingat ka sa pag-uwi mamaya.”

My life began to fall apart. I quit my job because I was no longer in the mental shape to function. I developed a fear of the outdoors. I lost the ability to hold a spoon and feed myself. I lost months’ worth of sleep. I had to cut off my friends, because the notification panel in my phone terrified me. I became this pathetic excuse for a human being, weeping uncontrollably at irregular intervals. My family distanced themselves from me, because they didn’t know how to be around me.

The only person who talked to me was my mother, but she was never gentle nor comforting. She took it as her personal mission to try to fix me with duct tape, narrating success stories of rape victims that she just made up. “’Yung iba, mas malala pa nangyayari sa kanila, pero nagiging successful sila sa buhay.” When that didn’t work, she would use the divine in an attempt to turn the situation around. “Baka sign iyan ni God na maging women’s rights advocate ka.” And when all else failed, she would make me feel ashamed. “’Di pwede ‘yung iyak nang iyak. Sign of weakness na iyan.”

I would always feel sore and invisible after our “sessions.”

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It was only after 10 months when the court invited me to testify for the case. By then, my savings were long gone, and I was still, surprisingly, and unfortunately, too alive. What came as a surprise to me the most, though, was my mother. After months of the invalidating pep talk, she and my father cornered me in my room, a week before the hearing, and told me that I should drop the case. She pointed out that I had no more money to possibly pay for all the expenses needed for the judicial process. This was true, and she had more tricks up her sleeve. She said that I was too young to be involved in a court case. That I was weak and wouldn’t stop crying. That I should forgive the rapist because God said so. I looked at my father to try to convince him to argue some sense into her. He didn’t say anything; he avoided my eyes.

As a last resort, I did something previously unthinkable. I talked back to my mother. “Akala ko ba lalaban tayo?” That didn’t help. She only insisted that I would be the “real” winner if I would let go of the hatred in my heart and become successful in life, whatever that meant. I roared at the absurdity of her logic and her sudden change in allegiance. We exchanged long tirades, but she had the last say when she told me, “Alam mo, kasalanan mo naman ‘yung nangyari sa ’yo eh.

I don’t remember responding to this, but somehow years have passed since then.

Over several summers, I managed to pick myself out of the rut, get a job, and reconnect with friends. I haven’t told anyone outside my family about what happened, or why I disappeared for almost two years. The people who do know never mention it, to the point where I question if it even happened at all.

However, denial, like the thunderstorms, creeps in even in the clearest of summer nights. I learned that certain colors of t-shirts would make me panic. I became highly suspicious of males who behaved in a particular manner. Text messages from unregistered numbers and “message request” chats on Messenger made my heart stop.

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But the triggers, I find, are the easier part of moving on. They are tangible and identifiable. Once I was able to identify them, I could anticipate and avoid them. And when I couldn’t help but be confronted by the triggers, I could always run to the nearest restroom to hide and cry.

The harder part of genuine healing is accepting the nebulous, the unresolved. The rapist is just out there, among us. I don’t know when I will ever truly feel safe again. I don’t know if my dreams at night will ever be free from references to that horrible memory.

But what is most difficult for me is spending my waking life with a family where everybody seemingly agreed to pretend that it never happened. I never got closure with my mother. I didn’t dare seek it. I am afraid to be told, again, that it was all my fault.

Despite all this, summertime remains to be my most favorite part of the year. And the turning of seasons reminds me that I’ve survived another one of nature’s inevitable cycles. It can’t be bright and hot all year, after all. The thunderstorms betray the idyllic orange summer. –

Hiraya Etereo is a pseudonym.

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