A therapist once told me that a hallmark of trauma is losing the ability to fantasize. The space where possibility was is now filled to the brim with disruptive and painful reality. She told me that when you've been raped — which I was, early in my life as a sexually active woman — your sense of a sensual self shrinks and often recedes.
And it's true. I had enjoyed a rich teenage life of dreams and desires, sitting in my bedroom writing what I called short stories but were actually florid and off-putting erotica. About camp counselors in the Catskills, or a rough but kind woodsman with a glass eye just waiting to be touched by someone who understood him. One story was about two teenagers on the run in the Italian countryside (one rich, one poor, natch). They made Bonnie and Clyde–style sex stops in the bathrooms of gas stations they had held up for cash, hurling each other around like backpacks.
After my assault, all I could imagine when I thought about sex was not being injured or, when I really didn't like myself, being very injured. That's all there was room for.
And I never got good at fantasizing again. I got good at performing: back arched, hair flying, assuming attitudes I thought were desirable to a partner who watched either porn or foreign films. I got good at making small, meaningless sounds. I got good at those sounds that made my partner think I was having ideas. But, whereas in every other area of my life I was exhausted by my own litany of ideas, sex left me blank and needy.
For a few years I had an on-again, off-again partner I valued mostly because he supplied the concepts I lacked. Quiet and morose in everyday life, in a sexual context he came alive with scenarios and maneuvers so complex that I was left with no job whatsoever except to consent. It didn't matter to me then that many of the fantasies he summoned mimicked the circumstances under which I'd been assaulted — lost drunk girl with questionable self-worth finds herself in the wrong set of hands — but I'd never told him what had happened to me, and he had never asked. I wondered whether I exuded something, a kind of flickering neon brokenness, and started to question whether in fact I'd been asking for this all along. But it felt so good to be engulfed, to disappear from myself, albeit briefly, that I stopped questioning.
After that ended, and during the dry spells when he disappeared, I was forced to return to the world of the living, and only once was I really caught red-handed in the lie that was my sexual persona.
At 22, I projected an almost-cartoonish level of self-actualization: "Hi, I'm Lena. I like awkward jokes, big gold earrings, and dresses meant for grandmas. I have the bearing of an '80s stand-up comedian and the heart of Annie Potts in Dangerous Minds. Please love me."
The aggressive totality of my image wore some guys down, made them laugh and shove me by the shoulder and say, "You little weirdo." Sometimes it made them kiss me in a bathroom just to see what I'd do, how far the fuck-it attitude went, which is how I ended up tripping down the West Side Highway with a beautiful James Dean look-alike, stopping every block to grind against a mailbox or drunkenly debate whether we should be in a cab. It was over 90 degrees and I had on bike shorts, which I told him were to prevent chafing, and he said, "You're somethin' else," and I thought, I'm somewhere else.
Back at my parents' house, he threw me down on the bed and slapped my ass once. I pulled the bike shorts off and turned onto my stomach. And then he lay down next to me, his breathing slow, and he kissed me very gently and looked me in the eyes. And I froze.