Marian Crotty | Fiction
Betsy has a feeling she’ll get a call in the night, but it’s still disorienting when it happens. Four in the morning, pitch black. She had a glass of chardonnay last night, too, which has left her foggy-headed. You aren’t supposed to drink when you’re on call, but she had her neighborhood anti-racism meeting on Zoom and needed wine to tolerate Jill, the high-strung, condescending woman who leads the group. Plus, she’s seventy-three years old. If she wants a glass of wine, she’s not going to ask permission.
“There’s a SAFE call,” the voice on the line says. “Can you take it?”
SAFE stands for something—she can’t remember what exactly—but it means someone’s been raped, and she will go to the hospital to give them clean underwear and run interference.
“Okay, yes,” she says. “I’m on my way.”
On her first calls after she completed training, she used to rush out the door, but now she knows better. She takes a moment to brush her teeth, make coffee and a sandwich, find an extra sweater.
Outside the air has the slight chill of early fall, and the neighborhood is nearly silent but bright. Long shafts of silvery light sweep down from the streetlights and clouds of artificial white light hang over each stoop, one after another on every rowhouse. Lighting up your whole yard while you sleep was an actual suggestion printed in the neighborhood newsletter to prevent crime, which, as far as she can tell, is pretty much nonexistent. The neighborhood is solidly middle-class these days, filled with anxious strivers—all of these professors and lawyers crowded into their redbrick rowhouses for the local elementary school, then outfitting their 1,200 square feet with open-concept kitchens and finished basements, big decks and flowerbeds of tiny manicured rose bushes. A culture of fear and surveillance is what someone in the anti-racism group said in the Zoom meeting a few weeks ago about the so-called Citizens on Patrol, but when she said this applied to the local obsession with flood lights, Jill acted like she was senile. “The lights are to see at night, Betsy,” she said. “I think that’s pretty standard.”
The drive to the hospital is just over a mile and through residential streets so quiet she can drive as cautiously as she likes. She passes a soccer field, a bus stop, a giant industrial cube of a building that belongs to the university. She likes spying on the world this way, having a reason to be awake at these odd hours, the sense that she’s doing something both secret and important.
Zaid has not asked her to quit volunteering, but he worries about her being out alone at night and in a hospital in the midst of a pandemic and so she is considering it. She is under no illusions that she is irreplaceable or even particularly good at this work. Other than being reliable, her strengths are just that she is willing to talk back to the police, and, because she was once a language arts teacher, she is good at the paperwork. She helps the women put their stories in order, gets them to include the details that will mean something to a prosecutor. He restrained me will become He held down my arms and left a bruise on both wrists. He threatened me will become He said, he’d punch me in my “fucking ugly face.” Both at the hospital and at the courthouse, where she helps with the paperwork for protective orders, the women fixate on the wrong details—the personal betrayal instead of the crime. He gave away our microwave just to piss me off a woman once told her at the courthouse but nearly forgot to mention the time this boyfriend had tried to drown her in a bathtub. If she quits, she’ll miss it, but she would gladly give up a lot of things for Zaid.
Zaid is her son Andrew’s ex-husband, an engineer who lives in Raleigh with his new husband and their children and who keeps in touch with Betsy even though her own son doesn’t speak to her. They separated eight years ago, around the time Andrew stopped coming home for Christmas but a couple years before he cut her out of his life completely. Then, a few years ago, she had an abnormal mammogram and, in a moment of loneliness and terror, wrote a vague Facebook post asking for prayers, and Zaid called to wish her well.
“I wasn’t sure if it was okay to call you,” he said on her voicemail. “But, you’re family. I think about you a lot, in fact, and I hope you’ve been okay.”
She had been so shocked by his message—frankly, she was surprised he was still her Facebook friend—that it had taken her nearly a month to call him back, but then they’d talked for over an hour. He told her about his new job procuring chemicals for a steel company in Raleigh, the two brothers he and his new husband adopted from foster care. He didn’t say, though she suspects it’s true, that this version of his life is the real one, that all of those years with Andrew were simply a tense and unpleasant false start.
These days, he calls her regularly and hosts her in Raleigh over the holidays and kids’ summer vacations, where she is always surprised by his cluttered house of LEGO sets and IKEA units, how different it is from the stylish high-rise condo of amoeba-shaped coffee tables and Italian sectionals that he shared with Andrew. He’s different, too, sillier and more openly affectionate—a man who makes Mickey Mouse pancakes, chases the kids with Nerf guns, reaches for his husband’s hand at the
dinner table—but around him, she is cautious. Because she doesn’t understand his generosity, it’s hard to trust it.
At first, she suspected he’d reached out to her to punish Andrew, but when she asked what he thought of the two of them staying in touch, he seemed embarrassed. “I don’t talk to Andrew,” he said gently. “I wouldn’t know how to reach him if I tried.” She now thinks his kindness has something to do with his culture—he was born in Pakistan and moved to the States in middle school—and with his parents, who have maintained a relationship by pretending he is not gay. Or possibly, like her, he is just lonely.
The one tricky part of the drive is right before the hospital when the road widens and curves at the same time and suddenly becomes six lanes instead of four. Past the curve, there’s a stoplight and then a median that appears out of nowhere, and it’s nearly impossible in the dark to stay in the correct lane. She slows down for the turn, and then there’s a car behind her, beeping for a long angry time.
Alright, Dale Earnhardt! she says out loud. WHAT is your problem?
The car, an older white Honda Accord, swerves around her and takes a left into the main entrance of the hospital, stops at the ticket counter and then speeds off. She imagines a medical emergency or that the driver might be a sleep-deprived nurse, so tries to “send them goodwill” as the Pilates woman at the YMCA used to say — but the flare of anger stays in her chest. You’re not usually wrong her therapist had once told her it’s the size and duration of your reactions. But how to make that pulse of rage go away? How to hear an insult without adding it to the collection of small hurts you’ll carry around forever?
She parks in the big parking deck with everybody else—no discount just for being a volunteer—and she goes through the automatic doors to the front desk, where a slight Black woman in pink scrubs and a burgundy wig checks her ID and then pushes a button to make heavy metal doors swing open. At the nurse’s station, nestled at the end of a fluorescent bleach-soaked hallway, a beefy-looking redheaded man has a landline to his ear and manila folder open on the desk in front of him. When she identifies herself, he points to a plastic chair in the hallway.
“She’s getting her exam?”
He shakes his head without making eye contact. “Not here yet.”
He means the SAFE nurse who is trained to collect evidence without retraumatizing anyone.
“It shouldn’t be long,” he says and points again to the chair.
She expects him to say more, but he goes back to his paperwork and she thinks, as she often does, how much people reveal about themselves when they talk to old people. Anti-racist Jill, for instance, interrupts her in a high-pitched irritated voice at every Zoom meeting; but then there is that attractive young couple in the group, Maddie and Austin, who will stop a vote to ask what she and the other old lady think. “I’d like to hear from some of the longer-term residents,” Austin will say. “Betsy, Catherine, can you speak to the history on this issue?” Often, she doesn’t have much to add, but just hearing his young, earnest voice acknowledge them in that way shoots a surge of joy through her whole body.
She moves the plastic chair away from a heating vent and sits down across from the closed door with its plastic flag flipped forward to indicate it’s in use. The exam rooms are always the same—thirteen and sixteen, two private rooms with bathrooms used only for these cases and tucked away from the rest of the patients—so that survivors, this is what they are told to call the women, can’t be harassed by their assailants.
“That happens?” she asked in the training. She imagined a rapist running through the hallways, ripping open exam curtains, and it felt like the plot of a bad movie.
The leader of the training shrugged. “A lot of bad things happen. In this line of work, there aren’t a lot of surprises.”
The training had been eight hours a day for five days, led by a series of overworked social workers at the women’s shelter in a small conference room where a picture hung of a former resident who’d been shot in the head by her ex-husband, handwritten tributes from the other residents scrawled on the matting under the frame. That week has stayed sharp in her mind the way everything from that spring does. Andrew had just cut off contact completely, and although it wasn’t a total surprise, she had found herself so stunned and grief-stricken, she’d wound up in therapy. How did it come to this? she’d cry in the woman’s office, going over the same events and conversations, trying to make them add up to a life without her son. How could it be that the little boy who had followed her around their house “helping” her dust and mop and bake banana bread, who’d woken her up each morning by putting his nose against her nose, had grown up into a man who hated her?
“You’re so stubborn,” he’d told her once, back when his anger had seemed temporary. “It’s like you’re incapable of ever admitting you were wrong.”
He’d never forgiven her for cheating on his decent if self-involved father, but his biggest grudge involved a Johns Hopkins student named Sean Bursten who he’d been sleeping with when he was sixteen. As soon as she’d found out about Sean, she’d located his parents in the phone book and asked for their help ending the relationship. This, according to Andrew, had set in motion a series of tragic events that began with the parents’ refusal to continue paying for college and ended with the boy’s suicide a year later.
“You outed him to his homophobic parents,” Andrew had complained, years after the fact. “He’s basically dead because of you.” He had just finished his first semester at Duke and come home for Christmas filled with a righteous anger that he’d never expressed before.
“You were sixteen and he was twenty.”
He stared at her blankly.
“But are you sorry? Do you regret what you did?”
She hesitated. She had felt so blindsided by the whole situation that she hadn’t been thinking clearly. There had been the age difference, the secret meetings, and yes, the fact that Andrew was gay, which at the time had felt like proof that he was a stranger to her. And yet—she had also genuinely been worried for his safety, and what was it exactly, that she was supposed to do?
“I regret what happened, obviously—”
Then he was walking away from her, slamming each door he passed on his way to his bedroom, and that was the last time they’d spoken about Sean.
The therapist was the one who suggested she volunteer and when she’d shown up to that first training, she’d been resistant. She was not a do-gooder kind of person, and she didn’t see how pretending to be would help. There had been about a half dozen participants, including an EMT from western Maryland who’d said her coworker had joked that if you went to a training at a women’s shelter, the other participants would all be lesbians.
“My son is gay,” Betsy said automatically and then seeing the woman’s face immediately regretted it. She hadn’t meant to scold anyone; she’d just wanted an excuse to talk about Andrew, which made him feel close to her even though he wasn’t.
“My partner is an idiot,” the EMT said. “That was the only point I was trying to make.”
When the door to room thirteen opens, she’s expecting a medical staff person to emerge, but it’s two police officers—a no-nonsense woman in her thirties with an auburn bob who Betsy has worked with before (fine, if humorless) and a short athletic blonde guy who looks like he’s about twelve. Usually they get here after Betsy, and if not, they are supposed to wait for her unless the survivor tells them not to.
“Excuse me, I’m the advocate,” she says and stands up. “Did somebody tell her she can have an advocate before you asked her questions?”
She says this nicely, but the male cop flushes. In addition to their uniforms, they are wearing masks and plastic eye coverings that look like snorkeling goggles, and his has left red indentations across his face and forehead.
“She knows,” the female cop says. “She didn’t have much to say to us anyway.”
“She had them call it in,” the male cop says. “But now she doesn’t want to cooperate.”
He says this without any apparent anger, but Betsy bristles. Why should this woman have any obligation to him at all?
“This was a really bad one,” the female cop says, voice low, a look on her face of a person who’s been told to show compassion. “Unknown assailant, lots of violence. It would be good if she can help us catch him.”
Helping the police is not Betsy’s role here, and, frankly, not exactly a major goal in her life generally, but if you don’t help them, they make things worse for everyone. In the situations in which a woman has chosen not to report, it has more often than not been a reaction to their insensitivity. “They act like I’m the criminal,” one woman had told her and then she’d left before she had an exam.
“I hear you,” Betsy tells the police officers. “I’ll do what I can to help.”
In the training materials, they were told that violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, but the truth is there are patterns. Almost all of the survivors are women, usually under forty; the assailants are typically men these women know. Contrary to what Betsy had suspected, the women are not usually college students but tend, in fact, to be from worlds she never really imagined. They live in cars or homeless shelters or apartments shared with many other immigrants or in a house that belongs to a family member and is filled with multiple generations. They wash dishes, cook in cafeterias, clean airplanes in the middle of the night. They’ve been raped in drug houses, their own bedrooms, an ex-boyfriend’s couch, a patch of littered grass behind a Safeway. Hearing their stories fills Betsy with a sense of astonishment that this is what the world is like, that these women have survived it. She is relieved when someone arrives from a life in which this horrible thing seems to be an anomaly.
The woman in the exam room has limp dyed-yellow hair that’s dark at the roots, a delicate gold necklace around her neck, a cupid’s arrow tattoo on her wrist. She’s wearing a faded blue and white hospital gown and has bruises blooming on her face and neck and collarbone, a gash on her face that’s being held together with tape. She looks like someone who’s barely survived a major car accident.
“I’m Betsy,” she says. “The advocate from the women’s shelter.”
She adjusts a blue surgical mask that likely covers more damage. “I think the police are pissed at me.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she says. “Now what’s your name?”
“Lenna. Lenora really, but everyone calls me Lenna.”
With the exception of her quick-moving brown eyes, she seems exceptionally calm.
“Okay Lenna. First question, do you want the police to be here?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s okay. Take your time.”
Betsy takes out two Ziploc bags—one that contains soap and other personal care products (to be used after the exam) and another filled with snacks. The idea is not just to provide what is needed but to give a person who has been violated the chance to choose for herself. M&Ms or crackers? Gatorade or water?
“I’m not hungry, but I’d take some deodorant,” she says. “I smell like shit.”
She gives a half smile and then frowns. “Sorry.”
“You can say shit,” Betsy says and hands her a squat travel-size stick of Secret. “Say whatever you like.”
She tells Lenna that the nurse will arrive soon to give her Plan B and other prophylactics, and if she wants, will do an exam to collect evidence and document injuries. She has a year to report and can have the evidence collected anonymously if she hasn’t decided what she wants to do.
“Can’t I stay anonymous and have the police still go look for the guy?”
Betsy hesitates. Theoretically, this would be possible, but she’s never seen it happen. A lot of times even when the women do report, the cases get dropped.
“I don’t even live here really,” Lenna says. “I can’t see myself coming back for a trial.”
“A lot of cases don’t go to trial,” Betsy says. “But I understand. Whatever you decide is okay.”
Betsy has about five pages of paperwork to complete for the women’s shelter, which will be used to compile data and to follow up with Lenna. She skips the questions about the assault but asks for the demographic information, which reveals that she is twenty-three and has been living in her parents’ house in Lutherville, a conservative middle-class suburb of strip malls and subdivisions on the other side of the highway, where she argues with her parents about politics and applies for jobs she doesn’t really want. In her life before the pandemic, she was a waitress and dancer in New York.
“I was in a few musicals,” she says. “Things had actually been going pretty good.”
Betsy recalculates this girl’s look not as White working class but as twenty-something artist. She had thought, because this had been the case with another woman, that dancer had been a euphemism for stripper.
“You must be good.”
She shrugs and then seems to reconsider. “Yeah, I guess so.”
She’s willing to share a cellphone number but not an address since she’s not planning to tell her parents.
Betsy hesitates. “That’s fine,” she says, though she’s not sure Lenna has thought this through. If she goes home with a face like that, she’ll have to have a story.
“They’re not scared of the virus. They don’t wear masks,” Lenna says. “I told them I was going to the movies with friends tonight, and they thought this was fine.”
Betsy nods. “My neighbor had a birthday party for herself, and I watched about two dozen people go into that house without masks. It’s terrifying.”
“They’re crazy,” Lenna says. “They never used to be like that.”
Betsy feels herself wanting to follow this tangent, but the nurse will be here any minute, and she needs to keep them on track.
“So, you weren’t at the movies?”
Lenna shakes her head. She seems to want to continue but doesn’t and so they sit in the artificial light in silence. Outside the door, she hears the muted sounds of voices and carts being wheeled by.
“Whatever you were doing, it wasn’t your fault, you know. I don’t care if you were walking around naked.”
She has said these sentences so many times they have become a cliché, but the women often need to hear it. Even in a completely random attack, they blame themselves, which she suspects is a way for them to find a reason for why it all happened. If they know what they did wrong, they can make sure not to do it again.
“Worse,” Lenna says. “What I was doing was worse.”
Betsy stays quiet and does her best to radiate kindness, and eventually, seeing that Betsy is not going to fill the silence, Lenna starts talking.
“I have sex with this guy from Tinder.”
Betsy nods in what she hopes is a friendly way. “Okay.”
“Do you know about Tinder?”
She has to smile at this. “Yes.”
“Okay, so we have sex at night in a car or sometimes a park. You know, for airflow or whatever because of the virus. We’ve been meeting up since this summer, but I don’t even know him, really. We don’t, you know, talk.”
She seems embarrassed to say all of this, but Betsy doesn’t think it is so embarrassing. She has her own stories of car sex with Buddy Phillips, the sweaty, graying married civics teacher she was primarily drawn to simply because he stared at her breasts in faculty meetings. The affair itself was short-lived but clarifying—the last bit of proof she’d needed to know that her marriage was over. Since the divorce, she’s had her share of boyfriends and casual sex, a couple one-night-stands as recent as a decade ago that she knows would shock her friend Helen. To her, it seems almost miraculous that Lenna engineered these escapades while she was trapped at home with her nutty family.
“Good for you,” she says. “You managed to find some fun.”
Lenna gives her a confused look. “Yeah well, it didn’t exactly turn out so well.”
They pause for a moment to recover from Betsy’s misstep and then Lenna continues.
“We usually hooked up at this park—Meadowood. That’s where we were, everything the same as usual. The guy, Teddy, even walked me back to my car, and then I got gas across the street, and that’s when it happened.”
Betsy knows this park because it’s a stone’s throw from the medical center where her dermatologist’s office is located. Ball fields and playgrounds surrounded by a paved walking path. She knows the gas station, too, an Exxon with a tiny Circle K that’s always hiring. Because of the highway entrance and exit ramps, the area is well-lit and usually busy. It’s hard to imagine an attack taking place there, though she doesn’t doubt it. People, she has learned, do horrible things in plain sight every day.
“You were at the gas station?”
“No. That’s just where he saw me.”
At this point, her story is harder to follow because she keeps interrupting herself and putting events out of order, but the salient details are there—a skinny White man in a beat up Chevy, trashed with empty soda bottles. He had a gun and claimed he would shoot her if she didn’t hand over the keys. She thought he might be on drugs. There was a woman in a red Circle K polo behind the window, maybe twenty feet away, but her face was in a magazine the whole time, and when the man grabbed Lenna and pushed her inside the car, she couldn’t get the woman’s attention. A few cars passed, too, and maybe if she’d yelled, they would have stopped.
“I thought it was a carjacking,” she said. “I mean, he was calling me a slut and everything, but I thought he wanted my car, and so I just handed him the keys.”
“Okay, well, he had a gun.”
“I think he saw me with Teddy,” she said. “That’s what he acted like—like he’d see me do something bad.”
He got Lenna in the car, drove them back across the street to the park and forced her to walk with him to a trail by the creek. She did everything he asked, and then he kicked her in the face.
“That’s the part I don’t get,” she said, her voice cracking a little. “I gave him what he wanted and then he beat me up. He must hate women, right?”
Betsy reaches out her hand, and Lenna squeezes it.
Before too long, the SAFE nurse knocks on the door, a tall thin woman with a long gray ponytail and red glasses who has an air of quiet competence.
“You ready for me?” she says. “Thanks for waiting.”
Lenna looks alarmed. When Betsy asks if she needs a minute, she says yes.
The door closes and Lenna gives her a shy smile. “So if I do an exam, and it’s not just that asshole’s DNA, then what?”
“It’s fine,” she says. “You’ll just have to call the Tinder guy so they can eliminate him.”
Lenna’s eyes dart across the room and then land on the ceiling. “I really do not know him. I wasn’t exaggerating. If I saw him during the day, I might not recognize him.”
Betsy assures her that she doesn’t have to see him or be the one to call and, although she doesn’t make eye contact, Lenna begins to nod.
“I don’t mind seeing him. I just don’t want to have to tell him what happened.”
“Give me his number. I’ll call him.”
Betsy offers to stay with Lenna for the exam and is relieved when she says no. It’s one thing to hear the story of the assault and another to see the fluids glowing under the blacklight, watch the woman’s body turn into a crime scene. Back in the hallway, she calls the number Lenna gave her and leaves a message for Teddy to come to the hospital. Then, she zips up her jacket and goes back outside so that she can get some clothes from the collection of SAFE bags she keeps in her trunk now that she has an estimate of Lenna’s size. The sky has softened into a deep blue, and she hears the early commuters whipping around the beltway. She crosses at the walkway and walks to the redbrick parking garage, takes the stairs up to the second floor. Although it’s just a little cold, she starts the car so that she can turn on the seat warmers and heat. The exam will take at least thirty minutes and so she allows herself to eat her sandwich and goldfish crackers, drink some water. Now that she’s alone, she feels her fatigue and can sense the beginning of a headache pulsing behind her eyes.
She’s worried about Lenna—more so than she usually worries. When she asked if there was someone she could call for support, she had immediately said no, and Betsy had pitied her even though she wouldn’t have a good answer herself. Her closest friend, Helen, doesn’t drive at night; her friend Margaret has a husband with dementia to care for; and everyone else is the kind of friend she used to have coffee with occasionally. But Lenna is too young to have such little support. When Betsy said she’d have to tell her parents something, she said she would tell them she’d been mugged.
“I look like I was mugged; I feel like I was mugged,” she said proudly. “They’ll blame me, obviously, but it won’t be nearly as bad as if I tell them the truth.”
It was hard for her to imagine how these awful, conspiracy-believing parents had raised Lenna, but who knew what Andrew’s friends—did he have friends these days?—made of Betsy. When she had last seen him six years ago in Charlotte, she’d been struck by how unhappy, almost dour he seemed. He complained about the traffic, the contractors installing his new custom cabinetry in his kitchen, the religious climate that permeated southern cities. He had seemed happy only for a brief moment when he’d shown her the new window office at his law firm that he’d earned by making equity partner, and when she had not seemed appropriately impressed by his view of the city’s skyline, this had irked him, too.
During her entire visit, he asked her no questions at all about herself. She’d purchased a plane ticket, rented a car, paid for a hotel room and then she’d barely seen him. There had been the trip to his office followed by one dinner at a bar so loud she couldn’t hear him talk and a breakfast at her hotel, most of which he’d spent cursing his phone. When she’d said, very politely, she thought, that his job obviously did not make him happy and that there was more to life than money, he’d told her he’d spent years trying to make her proud of him but that now he was officially giving up.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Andrew,” she told him. “I really don’t.”
“Of course not,” he said. “You never do.”
Then he gave her a look of total disgust, put on his stylish black overcoat, and left. When she called him, he texted to say they could talk once they’d both cooled down, but they never did. Her messages and calls went unanswered for months and eventually when she called her ex-husband to make sure Andrew was okay, he explained that her son was “taking a break.”
“A break from me?” she said. “Why?”
He paused for a long time and breathed too loudly into her ear. Probably he was pacing. He hated disagreement, hated involving himself in anything that looked like conflict.
“I don’t know what to tell you Betsy,” he said. “You’re going to have to work this out with him directly.”
About a year after he stopped speaking to her, Andrew transferred to his firm’s Los Angeles office (a fact she learned only by googling him), and though he is always on her mind—even more so during the pandemic—she now has no idea where to picture him.
Back in the emergency room, the woman in the red wig has been replaced by an older woman who hasn’t heard of a SAFE call and needs to check with someone before she’ll buzz her in. When she finally reaches the hallway by the exam room, the door is shut, and the cops are standing beside the counter at the nurse’s station.
“Is the nurse still in there?”
The male cop nods. “She’s doing a rape kit, thank God. She says we can talk to her afterwards.”
Betsy’s job is simply to support Lenna, and she’s a little surprised at how relieved she feels. Intellectually she knows that every case is bad, that every perpetrator has a good chance of being a repeat offender, but the amount of violence toward Lenna seems pathological.
“It’s a strong case,” the female cop says. “We’re going to get this guy and lock him up.”
The nurse opens the door looking for fresh clothes, and Betsy hands over the Ziploc bag marked with an S for size small. When the nurse comes out a few minutes later, she’s carrying a plastic bag of clothing and the small white box with the black lettering that says Sexual Assault Evidence Kit. The cops turn toward the exam room, but the nurse puts up her hand.
“She’s asking for the advocate,” she says. “She wants to speak to her alone.”
Betsy nods at the female cop and then opens the door, holding the weight of it with her palm so it doesn’t slam. Lenna is now wearing a baggy pair of gray sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt from the Catholic Charities of Maryland, and her hair has been pulled up into a loop on top of her head. She seems more relaxed, which Betsy realizes is probably just the anxiety meds the nurse gave her kicking in.
“I can’t do it,” she says. “I changed my mind.”
She knows what Lenna means but asks her to clarify.
“I’m not going to report,” she says. “I can’t.”
“Did something happen?”
She shakes her head. “The exam was too much. I just can’t.”
She sits beside Lenna and touches her arm. “Okay, honey. Let’s just sit still for one minute.”
They sit for a long stretch without speaking before Betsy goes through all of the options again. She explains that she and the SAFE nurse will be right there when she talks to the police; she tells Lenna that she can stop the questioning at any time. But Lenna doesn’t budge.
“I’m sorry,” she says, finally, and Betsy knows she has to back off.
“The police are going to think I’m crazy, won’t they?”
Lenna is right about the police, but Betsy keeps her face neutral. “They just think you have a strong case. That’s all.”
Lenna closes her eyes. “I might talk to them later,” she says. “I just can’t do it right now.”
“Should I tell them to go?”
“Are you sure?” she says. “Do you want to give them any information at all?”
She shakes her head. “I can’t.”
From the standpoint of the women’s shelter, success is measured by how well you advocate for the survivor but sending the police away still feels like a massive failure. Time will be lost, evidence, possibly, will not be collected. Even if Lenna reports tomorrow, the surveillance video at the gas station might already have been deleted.
In the hallway, the police officers seem blindsided.
“We’re almost certainly looking at a repeat offender,” the female cop says. “If she reports, she can save other women.”
“She’s been through a lot tonight,” Betsy says. “I wouldn’t rule it out that she calls you tomorrow.”
The female cop shakes her head and turns toward the exam room. “We need to talk now. I’d like to give her one more chance to do the right thing.”
The male cop nods. “If it’s better with a woman, I’ll stay out here.”
“The answer is no,” Betsy says. “She’s not confused. She knows what she’s saying.”
A flash of anger passes over the female cop’s face and they stare at each other for what feels like a long time.
“This is really unfortunate,” the cop finally says. “This guy is just going to rape someone else.”
Back in the exam room, Betsy finishes the paperwork while Lenna closes her eyes. After about twenty minutes, the SAFE nurse knocks on the door.
“There’s a young man here named Teddy,” she says. “He wants to know if he can see you.”
Betsy looks to Lenna who shrugs. “Just warn him about my face.”
She isn’t sure who she was expecting, exactly, but this young man does not seem like the type of person who rendezvous with near strangers in parking lots. He’s probably about Lenna’s age, but seems younger—tall and a little chubby with floppy brown hair peeking out of a faded Oriole’s hat, narrow-ankled sweatpants, plastic slides, long arms and bad posture. He reminds her of a golden retriever puppy whose feet and limbs are out of proportion to his body.
Lenna adjusts her bed to a higher angle and sits up. “You came.”
“Anybody would come,” he says. “What happened is so shitty.”
Betsy sees him noting her injuries, making a conscious effort not to stare. To his credit, he doesn’t ask her to explain anything or force her to deal with his own feelings of guilt. Instead, he thanks her for calling him and pulls a rolling stool over to her bed.
“Here you go,” he says and hands her two paper bags from Trader Joes. “I brought you a bunch of random crap from my parents’ house.”
Lenna opens the first bag and takes out a stack of Elle magazines, which he says belong to his sister, a box of assorted party crackers, a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies, a giant sweatshirt with the name of a local college, a fleece blanket, a first aid kit, which makes them both laugh (“You know I’m in a hospital, right?”), and a board game called Mastermind.
“I’m waiting for stitches, I think,” Lenna tells him. “Or something. I don’t actually know what I’m waiting for, but I might be here a while.”
“I don’t care,” he says. “I’ll stay as long as you want me to.”
He digs to the bottom of the bag and pulls out an iPad, begins to list the shows that have been downloaded until she perks up at the name of a sitcom.
“I love The Office,” she says. “Me getting to watch this right now is the best news I’ve had all night.”
“Good,” he says. “Happy to deliver.”
Then she turns to Betsy and asks if she needs anything else, which she realizes is a request for her to leave. “You’re okay?”
Lenna nods. “I will be.”
Teddy adjusts the iPad case into a triangular stand and props it up on the cart hanging over the bed. He moves toward the stool, but Lenna scoots to the side of the hospital bed, and pats the space beside her. “Sit here?”
He crawls up beside her and they sit together, not cuddling, but close enough that their arms and bodies touch. They look uncertain but happy about it, like two young people at the beginning of a first date who believe it is going to go well.
“Thank you,” Lenna says to Betsy. “Seriously, you were a big help. Thanks.”
“Call if you need anything,” she says, though the number printed on the paperwork is for the women’s shelter.
Outside, the soft light of early morning slants down across the parking lot, where the next shift of nurses is beginning to arrive, and her fatigue settles over her body like a shade closing. She could fall asleep right now without trying, but she’s not ready to be alone. She takes the slightly longer route past anti-racist Jill’s neighborhood of stately old homes and towering oaks so that she can go through a Starbucks drive-through for an almond milk latte and then she’s back to her own neighborhood of rowhouses and narrow streets lined with closely parked cars. She drives to the playground in the center of the neighborhood, parks her car, and googles Andrew’s name, which produces the same results she’s seen before—articles in law magazines, his LinkedIn profile, the unsmiling corporate headshot on the law firm’s website. His work email is listed right there, and though she suspects he will not appreciate her intrusion into his professional life, she starts an email anyway. How did it come to this? is what she wants to say. Are you really never going to speak to me for the rest of my life? But she knows that what Andrew probably wants from her is an admission of guilt. It would be a small price to pay for him to speak to her again, but she also knows he’s wrong. It might comfort him to find a neat explanation for her divorce or Sean’s death or the rift between them, but she’s old enough to understand the limits of one person’s power—to see that the best and worst things that happen in a person’s life are never entirely in her control. She can’t fully accept the blame for Andrew’s feelings about her any more than she can give herself credit for Zaid’s.
She takes her coffee to a bench by the playground, where a young mother pushes a toddler in a baby swing, and watches the porch lights flicker off and the usual joggers and dog walkers begin their morning loops. She doesn’t recognize most of these people with their designer exercise outfits and cordless white headphones, but she has to admit a lot of them are friendly—not just waving at her but sometimes chatting at a distance, too, as if she is a person that, given the right circumstances, they might one day like to know. When she takes out her phone again, she states her position, lets Andrew decide what happens next. I’m here, she writes. If you ever want to be in touch, I’ll be ready.
Marian Crotty is the author of What Counts as Love, which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Sun, and The Best American Short Stories 2020. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at Loyola University Maryland and a contributing editor at The Common.