Rebecca was blonde and chubby, in a ‘terribly cute’ way. I can see her, even now, in my mind’s eye: her bright shiny face with those glowing eyes, and that unmistakable air of bravado. We were all sitting around a table taking hits from a bong, the way we did that freshman year. “Hitchhiking is faster and cheaper than the bus,” she was saying. “And I can always psyche out if the driver is gay with my method of staring straight into her eyes.” Everyone was laughing and talking at the same time. I was too mesmerized by Rebecca to be very engaged in the conversation. But I remembered her fearlessness, later.
The next semester I took a class on Virginia Woolf, and Rebecca was in the class, too. As I walked towards her, my inner voice was screeching, ‘What are you doing?’ But I plopped down next to her like she was a magnet, and I was drawn into her field of magnetism.
When the professor invited the class to her Halloween party, Rebecca turned towards me and suggested we go together. “You can be Virginia,” she grinned, staring straight into my eyes. Was she psyching out whether I was gay?
I was dumbstruck. I honestly couldn’t find my voice. All I could do was stare. I only barely nodded my head.
“Good. You look the part, Lizzie,” Rebecca said. “I’ll be Leonard.”
Then, she invited me to her dorm room. We started trying on clothes and experimenting with different costumes. Nothing seemed quite right, so we decided to go to a used clothing store. By that point I had calmed down and was ready to enjoy myself. I found a cigarette holder and a slinky dress that could have been worn in the nineteen- twenties.
“That’s perfect for your long, slender body. And, exactly the kind of thing Virginia would have worn,” said Rebecca.
That was the moment I knew Rebecca was flirting with me. A shiver of desire coursed through my veins.
“All we have to do is put your curly hair inside a hat,” she added. “And I have just the one.”
“I love the hat, Rebecca, but I’m not going to hide my curly hair. I’m proud of being Jewish,” I exclaimed. “Besides, didn’t you know Virginia was Jewish?”
“Ha-ha. Point taken,” said Rebecca, her eyes digging into mine.
Next, she found a man’s suit that was only a little bit big for her. And, it all added up to less than forty dollars!
One thing led to another that Halloween night, and yes, I went to bed with Rebecca. It was my first time with a woman. I told a couple of friends and they said, “Of course, we saw it coming.” After that, I was ‘out’ as a lesbian.
Before long Rebecca and I began planning a trip to Mexico for summer break. Rebecca had inherited an old Volvo, so we decided to drive down the coast and camp to save money. If it rained, we could sleep in the car. We were lucky, we agreed, that we both spoke some Spanish, although Rebecca’s Spanish was better than mine.
During the first week it was just as we had planned, idyllic. Every day we drove along the coastline, gazing at the long stretches of soft golden sand and pristine beaches, without a cloud in sight. Even when we ran out of gas, it was an adventure. We pushed the car to the side of the road and when it rolled backwards, Rebecca laughed and caught it herself. I loved her exuberant confidence. Next, she grabbed my hand, stuck out her thumb and a truck stopped, right away. We climbed in the back, filled up a can with gasoline and the driver even took us back to our car.
In the afternoons we would park near the beach, strip down to our bathing suits and run straight into the ocean. It was unbelievably warm and we stayed in the water for hours, happy to be together. At night, we caressed each other softly and grabbed each other passionately, content to fall asleep in each other’s arms.
One night we were woken up by the sound of our tent being unzipped. A cold wind blew through the tent as two men climbed inside and ripped our sleeping bag open. They stunk of liquor. The man on top of me pinned down my body with his arms and a leg. I kept pulling away and hitting and kicking him, but he seemed impervious. We were both fighting and screaming, but they were stronger than us. When they were done, they, got the hell out of there, as the larger one put it.
Rebecca jumped to her feet right away, “Let’s go,” she said. Then she stopped and hugged me tight, “We’ll be okay,” she said, tenderly. “But let’s hurry. I want to get going,” She grabbed her clothes in a cramped, mechanical way, so unlike her usual vivaciousness.
I was shaking so hard I could barely find the armholes of my sweatshirt.
We quickly made our way up to the car.
In the beginning I was the one who was crying, and she was the one who was keeping it together. We fell easily into those roles, those opposite ends of the spectrum. And it was just as natural, later on, when we switched ends.
“Let’s make a report to the police,” I said, hoping they would arrest those men if we went right away.
“Okay,” she agreed, but she looked at me, and sighed.
We spoke with two policemen. “Why were you sleeping on the beach? That isn’t safe,” one said, sharply.
“Gringas,” said the other policeman,” “Don’t you know how men are?”
“They raped us. All men aren’t like that. They were breaking the law,” said Rebecca.
“Sure,” said the first policeman. “But girls shouldn’t sleep on the beach alone.”
“That isn’t the point. They’re dangerous. You have to find them,” she insisted.
“This country is not like your country,” he added.
I couldn’t believe how cavalier they were being. One of them had a picture of his daughter on his desk, and he still didn’t get it.
They glanced at each other, knowingly, and shrugged. “We have your contact information. We’ll let you know if we find anything.”
“Wait! You haven’t asked us for a description of them,” I protested.
“We know all we need to know,” said the first policeman. “We have to go back to work,” he added, getting to his feet and holding the door open.
“But this isn’t right,” I tried, again.
Rebecca moved closer to me. “I don’t think we should waste our time, Lizzie,” she whispered. “They aren’t listening to us. Let’s get out of here.”
I nodded, following her out the door with heavy limbs.
After that, we went to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. As I walked inside, I couldn’t look at the people, particularly the men. Their eyes were glowing too intensely and the way they were looking at us seemed menacing. I took Rebecca’s hand and pulled her straight into the bathroom to wash up. She leaned against the inside of the bathroom door and pulled me close to her. We’ll get through this,” she reassured me, stroking my hair.
I exhaled for what seemed like the first time in hours. I started to wrap my arms around her, but she pulled away.
“I…I can’t,” Rebecca gasped for breath.
A couple of minutes later, she kissed me. It lasted for a second–one precious second–then someone was pushing against the door, and we jumped away from each other. It was hitting me in a way it never had before: Being “out” was dangerous.
We found a table and ordered the same food we always did. Eggs for Rebecca. Granola for me. Both of us pushed the food around, barely taking a bite.
“What was it that policeman said exactly, ‘You should know about men?’ Was that it?” I asked
“Something like that,” Rebecca said. “But there’s a subtext. I think they’re implying that when some men see lesbians, it makes them mad and want to rape us.”
“That’s much worse,” I said, “Now, I understand even more why you didn’t want me to argue with them.”
“Right,” Rebecca continued. “And actually, I’m not sure it matters if it’s women friends traveling together and having fun or women traveling together as lovers,” she said, vehemently. “I think some men get angry when women pay attention to each other, instead of them,” she said. “Not that all men are rapists,” she added.
“Of course not. But I wish I could put those policemen in handcuffs. They aren’t even trying to handcuff the rapists!” I exclaimed.
Rebecca grimaced and then shrugged and looked down. We were silent for several minutes and then we decided to drive down the coast and look for a safe place to stay. We didn’t say it out loud, but it felt like we had no time to lose.
At the first motel, I thought the doors were too flimsy. “Couldn’t a strong man break this down by just throwing himself against it?” I asked Rebecca.
“Good point,” she agreed.
At the second motel, Rebecca pointed to the push button lock and flimsy chain. “That would be easy for someone to jiggle open. You could use a knife or a crowbar to slip in the crack between the door and the doorframe,” she declared. “I bet they tell you how to do it online.”
“Why don’t we drive inland and find a more upscale hotel,” I suggested. “Those places usually have a security guard, a check-in desk and lots of people around. We could ask for a room at the top. On the tenth floor, maybe.”
Rebecca sighed and a few tears trickled down her face. “Let’s do it,” she said.
A week later, when the police still hadn’t contacted us, Rebecca called the station. When, she hung up, she said, “Of course they haven’t found them.”
“Do you think those men saw us laughing and having fun together?” I asked her.
She shrugged and I didn’t say any more. We continued driving down the coast staying in the safest hotels, but Rebecca said less and less or spoke only in monosyllables. She wasn’t sleeping well, either. She would wake-up in the middle of the night, yelling, “Leave me alone! Get away.” I had to get an extra blanket and sleep on the floor.
In the morning she would wrap her arms around me and apologize, but it would happen again, the next night. I didn’t know what to do. I was running out of ways to comfort her. One morning, almost two weeks after what happened, I kissed her and asked, “Is there somewhere you’d feel safer?”
“Take me home to my mother,” she pleaded.
“Of course,” I said. The next day, we drove to San Diego, parked the car and booked the first flight. Rebecca called her parents–they lived in a suburb outside of New York City–and told them our arrival time.
On the plane, Rebecca talked about growing up in her family. “I felt so loved by my mother,” she confided. “She was the one I went to when I needed comforting. And she also wanted me to have fun. One Halloween when I was about eight, she let me stay up late, after trick-or-treating, even though it was a school night. I wanted so badly to count all of my candy. And eat it, too,” Rebecca giggled.
“Your mom sounds great.” I was so relieved.
Rebecca also told me she hadn’t come out to her parents. “At first, we should sleep in separate beds, but we can still sleep in the same room,” she said, with an embarrassed laugh.
“I haven’t come out to my parents, either,” I replied, “In fact, I don’t want to,” I added.” We both laughed. It felt like a precious moment of levity.
It didn’t last. First, her parents didn’t pick us up at the airport. And when we arrived at their house in a taxi, they seemed a little stiff towards me. I was hoping they were just slow to warm up, but I could feel my body getting tighter.
On the first day, Rebecca wasn’t able to say anything about our trip to Mexico, but on the third day, she went into the den with both of her parents. I could hear her mother yelling, “What were you thinking? You put yourself in danger.” Her father was mostly silent. Rebecca was saying, “Shut up. Leave me alone,” and whimpering. I wanted to burst into the room. How could she blame her own daughter? And, when the door opened, they walked past me without saying a word.
Things got bad. Rebecca was talking and crying in her sleep and having flashbacks again; re-living the moments we were in the tent with our rapists or imagining that they were in our room. Each time, I woke her up and held her, telling her she was dreaming. If we were lucky, she would calm down and go back to sleep. But most nights she couldn’t sleep at all. Often, she insisted that we stay up and watch movies for the entire night, just waiting for daylight… in the same bed, now. We made up for it by sleeping until the afternoon the next day. Then, her mother walked into our room without knocking. She stopped and stared at us, lying there in each other’s arms. Her mouth was pursed, and her eyes were wide open. She drew back the curtains, saying, “Wake up, now. Time to get out of bed, girls,” in a thin, tight voice.
A few nights later, Rebecca got out of bed in the dark and whispered, “Hurry, we have to get out of here. They’re in the house.”
“No, honey,” I tried to convince her, “We’re with your family.”
“You’re not listening,” she yelled and ran into her parents’ bedroom. I could hear her screaming at them, “Call the police! They’re in the house.”
Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang. Rebecca’s mom and dad stood up together to answer the front door, ushering the two policemen into the kitchen and closing the doors behind them. Rebecca was pacing up and down. I hugged her, but she said, “No, I’m thinking,” and started pacing again.
They all came back into the living room and Rebecca’s parents gestured for everyone to sit down. “We want you to check into the hospital and see a psychiatrist,” Rebecca’s mother said, looking at Rebecca and then, me, and back at Rebecca, again.
“No, Mom, no. I’ll stop bothering you. I’m sorry.”
Her mother looked away. Rebecca turned towards me, silently imploring me to help her.
She’s so scared, I thought. I knew she wouldn’t feel safe in a hospital, especially if there were lots of strange men around. My heart was beating wildly. “Can’t we take her to a private doctor’s office so she can stay here at home?” I asked them.
Again, Rebecca turned towards her mother, and her father, too. They both looked away.
“The doctor I talked to said she needs to be evaluated in the hospital. This is a special hospital. I think they know best,” her mother insisted, avoiding my eyes.
I got up and hugged Rebecca. I didn’t know what else to do. She put her arms around me and held on tight, like she was refusing to let go. Then, she started crying, “No, no, please don’t leave me,” over and over.
Everything was happening so fast. For some reason one of the policemen grabbed her and put her in handcuffs. He wrapped his arms around Rebecca’s shoulders and pulled her and dragged her towards the ambulance. She threw me a desperate look.
I blew her a kiss as the policeman was putting her in the backseat. Her hands were still in the handcuffs, as if she was on her way to jail, now, not a hospital. I was furious, and terrified for her.
“Let’s take your car and follow her so we’ll be there when she gets to the hospital,” I said to her parents.
“I think it’s better this way,” said her mom.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “She’s all alone.”
“This is a family matter,” she said firmly. “It’s time for you to go home and find a boyfriend.”
I took a deep breath, trying to find the right words, “I won’t intrude,” I said, “but Rebecca will want me to visit her, so I’ll get a hotel room for a little while.”
Her mother nodded but the next day at the hospital, the nurse said, “Mr. and Mrs. Moore said only family members are allowed to visit.” My blood was boiling, but I didn’t cry or protest. I simply walked away.
Still, I wasn’t going to let them stop me from, at least, asking. The next morning, I called their house and asked how Rebecca was doing.
Her mom spoke to me curtly, “She is still in the hospital. They are observing her and trying out different medications.”
“Does she have a therapist?” I asked.
“She meets with her doctor every day,” she answered, “I am not supposed to ask her what she talks about.”
“Sure. Of course,” I said. “I’ll call again and check in with you.”
“I’d rather you didn’t. I think it will be better for Rebecca if you forget about her, get some help and go on with your life.”
Tears of fury filled my eyes, but I kept my voice steady, “You’re entitled to your opinion,” I said. “And I’m entitled to mine.”
“I see,” she said, and hung up the phone. And that was it. I wasn’t sure if I would ever come out to my parents.
I stuck around for a while, waiting to hear from Rebecca. I texted her every day, but I never got an answer. It reminded me of waiting to hear from the police in Mexico, but this time I was waiting alone in a hotel room. After two weeks, I decided to go back to school. I didn’t know what else to do.
Despite all of my worries, I found a few hours of peace on the airplane. It was almost a revelation to feel that kind of calm, again: Was it the safety I felt from intruders, on an airplane, the safety of being surrounded by strangers, the safety of being above the world with all of its dangers, protected by the distance, by being far up in the sky?
S. Berenstein (pen) is a fiction writer for half of the week and a psychologist for the other half. She has published her work in the California Council for the Arts Journal and Transforming Lives. Her flash fiction was listed under ‘Notable Stories’ in a Brilliant Flash Fiction contest. She is currently working on several short stories, a novel and her flash fiction.