The eighty-four days I spent in a relationship with my rapist were days filled with music. We met in a nightclub, Schoolboy Q pulsing around us as he held my waist and I yelled my name into his ear. After our first date, I let an awards show replay in the background as I squealed into the phone with a friend. Earlier that evening, he kissed me deeply as he dropped me off at my car. “I shouldn’t let you leave,” he whispered before parting my lips with his tongue. I recounted these details as Beyoncé belted “Drunk in Love” in a performance taped only a few weeks after her self-titled album’s release, when the world was abuzz with her fuller, post-baby body, her unapologetically sex-positive lyrics. My rapist made me feel the way Beyoncé looked on that stage, her heavy thighs peeking through glittery fishnets as she reclined backward on a chair with the microphone so close to her lips, she could have licked it.
One night, my rapist asked if I’d heard of Gregory Porter. “There’s a song of his that reminds me of you,” he said, and that was the first time I heard “Be Good (Lion’s Song).” It’s about a couple, except the man is a lion, and the woman has trapped him in a cage because he can’t be trusted to roam freely. In the first verse, when they meet, the lion is brushing his mane; by the second, he has trimmed his claws and cut his hair, and the woman has already told him that lions are meant to be caged; if they’re left to walk around, “they might just bite.” The woman’s name is Be Good, a phrase she also repeats to him, though it is he who sings that refrain to us. He is both her amanuensis and her accuser. “Does she know what she does / when she dances around my cage?” he asks again and again, each time more plaintive than the last.
My rapist compared me to Be Good because the tenor of our relationship had changed. I had become a difficult woman where I had been so simple before, wanting only his body—nothing more. We had a lot of sex, and my rapist had few inhibitions and even less predictability. In one moment, he could be gentle, almost tearful. In another, rough, commanding, and I liked it. I’d spent much of my life doing the things I believed people expected me to do. Sometimes, I was successful in pleasing them. Other times, I failed miserably, and I thought of those failures constantly. It was nice to let someone else be responsible for making decisions.
But we were a few months into it, and I had grown tired. My body was always sticky with him, my stomach churning from whatever we drank the night before, and we drank often. I was growing increasingly paranoid about our relationship. Where was its substance? Did he really know me? Once, during a conversation about marriage, I asked him a series of questions, things I already knew about him: my mother’s and my siblings’ names, my majors in college. He couldn’t answer. Those things weren’t important. We loved each other.
But what did we really have in common? We were both prone to sadness, but we treated our sadnesses differently. His made him angry; the corners of his eyes would sizzle with tears. “Can I hug you?” I would ask. “Do I look like I need one?” he would retort. When I was sad, I played music and sat quietly in dark rooms. I once played Florence and the Machine’s “Breaking Down” for him. “This is what my depression feels like,” I explained, “a monster that creeps into my brain while I’m sleeping.” “Aw! I’m sooooo depressed!” he screeched, clutching his chest, his voice high-pitched to mimic mine. I recoiled, shocked that someone who could hold such sadness could also mock it.
Months before I met my rapist, I had taken a vow of celibacy, a thing I’ve done many times in my adult life. It’s a throwback to the Christian purity contracts of my childhood, the promise to stay chaste until marriage. Something with my rapist was feeling off-kilter, and perhaps returning to my vow would be the answer. In hindsight, I understand it might have looked like an erratic, inconsiderate decision, but it was my right. My rapist didn’t think so. “You tricked me!” he roared. “You’ve seduced me and now you’re trying to flip things around to control me.” He would laugh, shaking his head. I was no better than Be Good, but I shrugged it off. No one had ever loved me enough to sing about me. I had my suspicions that no one had ever loved me at all. This is what I was trying to disprove. Maybe, if we slowed down, I could see things more clearly.
Cathy Caruth calls trauma “the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in an attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available.” And the truth is more than a combination of facts, of what we know happened. It’s also the lost experiences, “what remains unknown in our actions and our language.” When my rapist raped me, I didn’t know it. It was a Sunday, though I have blocked out most of the day. I can’t remember if I went to church, but I can remember having a potluck dinner with friends. There would have been laughter, maybe even raucous conversations about partners. There was wine, which I drank, and even more when I got home, where I turned out all the lights before texting him. I hadn’t held my ground after saying I wanted to dial things back, and I didn’t want to see myself doing what I was about to do: break the promise I had made to myself.
The first time we had sex that night was consensual and, afterward, I thought we were done. He was leaving, and I was sprawled on the bed, drifting into a stupor. I heard him take his keys from the nightstand and then put them down. I saw the blur of his red shirt, dimly illuminated by the glow of streetlights seeping through the blinds. I remember the heave and cry of the bedsprings, the heaviness of his body. I remember being unable to move, though no one was holding me down. I don’t remember how it began, or how it ended—only the weight of him, then his absence. I woke up sore the next day, and there was an unopened condom on my nightstand. When I asked my rapist about it, he said, “I left it there on purpose, to remind you how connected we are to each other. I was trying to fuck you into submission.” It would take months—years—to understand what that meant, and that there are costs for both remembering and not remembering, even though both are strategies for survival.
I’m not sure why, years later, I pulled up the video for “Be Good” on YouTube; although, if I’m being honest with myself, I wanted to hear the song again, and pore over the images associated with it. Doing that would be the closest thing to seeing my rapist, a desire that felt deeply unsettling, but in a way that felt manageable. At any time I could close the window and Gregory Porter would disappear. At any time, I could remind myself that Gregory Porter is not my rapist, just someone who sings beautifully.
In the video for “Be Good,” a woman dances alone, oblivious to her love interest: a somber, dark-suited man with a neat side-part razored into his low-cut kinks. He’s accompanied by a Cupid-in-training, a girl who unsuccessfully tries to make the woman notice her admirer. First, the girl tries painting on the man’s smile: she literally gives him head gear attached to a binder, with sketches of characters in various states of joy, then grief. Next, she offers a cardboard boom box that he plays beneath the woman’s window, but the woman remains blissfully unaware. She dances away, and it isn’t until the man cuts into her dance and offers his hand that she even acknowledges his existence. Instantly, she falls into his arms, and lets him lead in a courtyard surrounded by other dancing couples. Young men in stylish sunglasses and old men in Kangol hats dip the women, whose large Afros tilt toward the cobblestones as they laugh. Everyone in the video is beautiful. Everyone in the video is Black.
The couples make me think of the life my rapist and I dreamt of building. He owned a home, but he hated its size and the work he imagined it would need to accommodate a growing family. So he pored over models of geodesic houses, those cheaply built structures that can be as small or as large as you want, but don’t always last. Behind those hastily assembled walls, we could have been one of those couples from the video, my rapist leading the dance as the lion swears he has trimmed his claws and cut his mane. We could have been neat Black. Respectable Black. Safe Black.
One night, my rapist and I were pulled over on our way home from an art exhibition where we’d drunk wine and marveled at Rockwell paintings of integrated neighborhoods. What I hadn’t seen when the officer asked for his driver’s license was that my rapist had first shown the badge he used to enter the building where he worked as a public health official. The officer believed my rapist’s excuse about still getting accustomed to his new car and let him go with a warning to turn his lights on next time. Later, we drank rum milkshakes and drafted a description of a robbery suspect, like the hyperbolically vague ones I often received by email from campus police at the university where I worked. Light to dark-skinned male, between the ages of 18 and 65. Short hair, but might possibly have dreadlocks. Anywhere from 5’0 to 6’5” feet tall. We shook our heads at the absurdity. “But I wasn’t worried tonight,” my rapist reassured me, “once the cop knew what I was.” He was enamored with the kind of respectability that gave him a pass, that made him safer to do whatever he wanted in a world where so few Black people could, including the women he dated.
I think of what I missed in his exchange with the officer, but also what my rapist might have missed with me. Everyone keeps telling me rape is about power, and I wonder what power my rapist thought he could gain by raping me. In another life, I was the card he would have slipped the world: a wife with advanced degrees sitting in the passenger seat of the nice car he would drive to our round house, where we would listen to our vintage-voiced music and secretly make jokes about racism. The frames of geodesic houses look like intricate cages, and I wonder what he was trying to lock himself in while also feeling safe. And yet even that rationale feels like an act of mercy I don’t think he deserves.
In her lyrical history of colonial Antigua, A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid writes: “There’s a world of something in this, but I can’t go into it right now.” This is how I feel when I think about rape and power, because, as with any story of systemic violence, I no longer have all the details. I am struggling to grasp the full scope of the narrative even though I understand such is sometimes unbearable. Several days ago, I read an article about the rape and murder of Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, and how proudly her killer recounted his reasons and methods for killing her. Halfway through, my brain started scrambling for an explanation. How could someone who spent the last days of her young life fighting for justice for Black people suffer so much violence? Maybe it’s a conspiracy, a cover-up, I reasoned. Maybe the police have, for some reason, fabricated this, and these details are actually false. But I know there are other stories like hers. And the details in those stories are the truth. My disbelief is the cage my brain has built for my own survival, which has also trapped me into straining to make sense of what I can’t. In the case of my own experience, I also have to direct myself away from logic for several reasons; first, because what has been lost to my memory in the aftermath of trauma prevents me from having all the details. But also, and this is difficult to say: when I think too intently about what romantic dream of communal solidarity is lost to me as a Black woman who knows that my body is unsafe even in the midst of a world on fire—presumably for the sake of my safety—I lose all hope, and I need hope to heal. There’s a world of something in this that I will one day get into, but I can’t get into it right now.
I wrote this essay thinking I could do one of the few things I’m good at, and make peace with my rape and my rapist for once and for all. Gregory Porter did that with his absent father. Before he made jazz albums, Porter wrote a musical about his life, and it included an apology from his dad. “Once I performed it on stage,” he said, “I actually released that bitterness that I had towards him.” I wish I could do that. I wish it was that easy: me looking to Gregory Porter as an exemplar who can lead me out of this, and who conveniently reminds me of the person who hurt me most. It would be like closing a gap, making a perfect circle. But I can’t hear “Lion’s Song” without thinking of my rape, and I can’t hear Porter’s voice without thinking of my rapist. And I’m still trying to understand the logic of rape itself, even though I know there isn’t one, other than the fact that, if my rapist hasn’t gotten help, he has already done this to someone else. On average, most rapists offend seven to eleven times before they’re caught. And, as in the case of Toyin Salau, rape victims are often victimized multiple times. So, somewhere, my rapist may be telling another woman she is Be Good, and she thinks she has power, that she is in a safe place with him in his cage. But she’s not. Even if this has happened to her before, she has no idea what might ultimately transpire.
Destiny O. Birdsong’s writing has appeared in African American Review, Indiana Review, and The Adroit Journal, among other publications. She has received the Academy of American Poets Prize and the Richard G. Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review. Her debut collection of poems, Negotiations, will be published in October by Tin House Books.