By Loren Kleinman
It’s been 13 years, or 156 months, or 676 weeks since Saheed forced me into an empty bathroom at a Boston nightclub. It was a Friday night, I was 23, and he pressed my face against the wall. I heard the sound of the dripping sink and the buzz from the broken vanity lights. In that moment, I felt the sun leaving the continent, the darkness falling like a rose from my mouth.
“It’s your lucky night,” he said. “I like girls with short hair.”
I wonder if he thinks about me. I’ve thought about him.
“Give it to her,” some guys yelled from outside the men’s stall.
“Help,” I called out to them over his spiced cologne.
“God, I love you,” he said. “You’re so beautiful.”
With my palms flattened against the stall, I closed my eyes, and counted every thump of my heart and every one of his breaths.
Saheed was over 6 feet tall and dressed in all black. He managed the front door of the club. When he’d lifted the velvet rope for me, earlier that night, his eyes followed me as I balanced in my wedges across the marble entry. Inside, my gay best friend David and I ordered a dozen oysters and drank Manhattans. We lived in New Jersey, and this was our first trip away together. We pretended to be successful city people: I had my own gallery, and he was an actor starring in Martin Scorsese’s new film.
As we tried to look sophisticated over our chilled drinks, David pointed to Saheed. “He’s hot. You should talk to him. You’re single now.”
I sipped my Manhattan. “I’m not single.”
“Well that guy that you think is your boyfriend is a cheating loser,” David sighed. “Aren’t you here so you can meet someone else?”
Already tipsy going on drunk, I closed my eyes.
“Maybe.” I swallowed the rest of my Manhattan.
I saw Saheed from across the bar. When he saw me looking at him, he met my gaze. There was no way to know then that I’d never forget his brown doe eyes, or the coarse, dry skin on his right hand, the hand he used to pin me against the stall. Each time I wrap a fuzzy scarf around my neck, I feel that hand against my skin. Nor did I know that from that moment on, whenever I’d see the number three, I’d remember he was the third man who’d been inside me, the only one I never invited.
“I’m Saheed,” he said an hour before, extending his hand for a shake. I refused. Still confident, Saheed asked, “Can I buy you another?” He pointed at my Manhattan.
“No,” I said. “I’m with someone. I have a boyfriend.”
“It’s just a drink,” he said. “No strings.” He threw his hands up.
“OK,” I conceded.
While David flirted with attractive men, Saheed asked for my name, and where I was from. He told me he was 36, from Turkey on a work visa. He wanted to be a lawyer. “It’s temporary,” he said of his nightclub gig. “To save money.”
“Your boyfriend is a lucky man,” he added. “I wish I had a woman like you.”
“You just met me,” I said.
“I can tell,” he said. “You are special woman. Very pretty. I’d like to have you.”
“Well you can’t,” I said, starting to slur my words. “I’m taken.”
Saheed ordered me another Manhattan. I drank as if it were a shot. David had warned me about these cocktails: Three are too many, two are just right. In my attempt to forget my broken heart, I was on my fourth, and I just felt the ache more. Over the club’s bass, Saheed’s breath warmed my neck. Unsteady in my chair, he held my arm and helped me as I started to stand up.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Let me help you,” he said.
“No. I want to go by myself,” I said, pushing him away. “I need to find David.”
I texted David: Where are you?
I felt alone and drunk. Saheed followed me to the bathroom.
Minutes later David texted back: At another club. Be back later. X
Before I could text back, Saheed put his hand on my shoulder. “Let me get you to the ladies’ room.”
Every sign pointed to Saheed liking me, so why shouldn’t I accept his help? I reasoned. So I gave in, letting the weight of my body lean into him. He held my hand and guided me to the bathroom. As he made eye contact, I reciprocated, as if to say thank you for watching out for me in my evening of drunken vacancy.
He steered me through the crowd of dancers, drinkers, and couples having impromptu make-out sessions under the yellow lights. We passed the bobbing head of the DJ, his records in a box next to his tapping foot. Crushed plastic cups, limes, and cigarette butts littered the floor.
Saheed opened the door to a handicap stall in what I assumed was the women’s bathroom and walked me inside.
“Let me help,” he said. “Your jeans.”
“Can you just wait outside the door?”
As I turned my back to vomit, he wrapped his arm around my waist, pushed me against the stall, and whispered, “I’m doing this because I love you.”
I pushed back, tossing him off. I turned towards him. “Let me out,” I said.
“Come on, relax,” he said.
As I reached for the door, he grabbed me and pinioned my body hard against the wall. He forced his foot between my legs, spreading my feet apart. Unable to fight him off, I closed my eyes, and let him finish.
I remained bent over while he zipped his pants. My underwear, like a rubber band, felt tight around my thighs. I heard my phone beep, and dug into my purse.
“Who is that?” Saheed asked.
“It’s David,” I said, my eyes watering. “He’s waiting for me outside.”
Before I could text my answer, he took my arm, and walked me out of the club to meet David.
After David and I returned to New York, I had a nightmare that I was alone in that bathroom stall. All I could see in the space between the stall door and the floor were Saheed’s bare feet. He didn’t move, just waited for me to come out. I called for help, but no one heard. Through a gap in the door was my doctor’s face. He was yelling and holding a vaginal clamp.
Six months later, outside a bar in the East Village, David and I shared a cigarette. I’d been holding Saheed inside of me, keeping his name hidden behind my lips. But that night, under the green, glowing bar sign, blowing smoke rings into the air, I asked, “Do you remember that guy in Boston, Saheed?”
David nodded as he reached for the cigarette.
“He took me to the bathroom after you left the club,” I said, tearing up. “I tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t let me go.”
“Why did you let him take you there?” David shouted.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was messed up. I couldn’t fight him off.”
David pulled me to his chest. “I wish I could forget him,” I said, sobbing onto his shirt.
“You will,” David said.
This acknowledgement was enough for me. We never spoke about Saheed again. The next time I talked about him was about a year later in therapy where I learned how to work through my grief as well as identify triggers such as the anniversary. But I also had to say his name, which proved salient to the healing process. Saying his name meant I could retaliate against the boundary suffering had imposed on me. Saying his name meant freedom.
Eight years after Saheed, I met Joe, a tall, muscular Navy veteran. We were friends for a few years before it turned romantic.
“I need to talk to you,” he texted one cool evening in May.
Hours later inside my apartment, he and I danced to Van Morrison, our bare feet against the cool, wood floor, and made love through the night. In the morning we prepared Chinese food with my new wok.
On our second anniversary of dating, about two years later, I told Joe about Saheed. I spoke of my trip to Boston, the night I let him take advantage of me, and how I was trying to forgive myself for not stopping him. Joe listened without interruption.
“I love you,” he said, tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear.
That night, Saheed started to become fainter and fainter, a ghost. I still sometimes count the days, the weeks, the months, since Boston, but I can’t quite summon the smell of Saheed’s cologne anymore, and sometimes when I put on a scratchy scarf, it’s just a scratchy scarf.
What is becoming clearer and more distinct to me, though, is how much I adore Joe. Today, we own a house, have a Chihuahua mix named Brutus, and are baby planning.
And while the number three has often come to represent Saheed, it also stands for the number of roses Joe and I planted in our garden. The roses we watched grow together, growing stronger regardless of darkness or drought.
In the book Lucky, Alice Sebold wrote: “Since then I’ve always thought that under rape in the dictionary it should tell the truth. It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything.” Saheed indeed inhabited my past, but he did not destroy my future.
Loren Kleinman has been writing about trauma, body image, and identity for more than 13 years. She is the author of the memoir The Woman With a Million Hearts and co-editor with Amye Archer of My Body, My Words, an acclaimed book of essays about body image. She and Archer are completing their second book together, a collection of essays from survivors of school shootings called If I Don’t Make It, I Love You. Her nonfiction has appeared in Ms., The New York Times, Bust, Ploughshares, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Romper, Seventeen Magazine, and more. Loren is also an award-winning poet who has published four collections including Flamenco Sketches and The Dark Cave Between My Ribs, as well as a novel, This Way to Forever. For more about her work, visit lorenkleinman.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.