Friday, January 6, 2012

Branded, Part 1

I wrote a series of posts a couple of years about being the object of sexual assault, in my early twenties. (They can all be found under the Department of Bad Encounters tag, from the last week of July, 2010.) It was not an easy bunch of entries to write.

What I haven’t written about, I don’t think, was the flip side of that situation, in which I went through three of my college years saddled with a reputation I didn’t deserve. Of the two incidents, this one’s even more uncomfortable for me to write about. At least in my assault, there was guidance afterward to help me deal with as best I could. Not the greatest guidance, to be sure, but at least I knew the steps to take: counseling, reading, mending.

With this earlier low-tide event of my life, I didn’t have a clue of how to deal with what happened. There weren’t any websites or books to navigate one through the aftermath of being branded as a rapist.

The college I attended in Virginia was small and rather compact, although it seemed to take distressingly long to run from my cozy freshman dorm near the college gates to the one class I always seemed to have at eight in the morning at the campus’ far end. Because there weren’t enough dorm rooms to go around, the administration didn’t guarantee housing to every undergraduate. All of us who wanted to live on campus had to queue up every year for the school’s housing lottery, which was a lot like the Shirley Jackson short story “The Lottery” except that almost everyone in the sophomore class got pummeled with heavy masonry at the end.

The next year’s seniors drew the lowest, choicest lottery numbers first. They got to sign up for the best dorms on campus—the ones with air conditioning, or the choice spots near the campus’ center, or the new suite-like apartments that had been built the year before. Aspiring juniors got the second tier of numbers; they overflowed into the hot dorms with poor air circulation, the dorms in the middle of nowhere, or the dorms rumored to be overflowing with roaches. (I know, nice, right?)

Finally those poor sods straggling through the last month of their freshman year got to pick. A few of them got whatever spots at which the juniors had found wanting and turned up their noses, but most either had to find their own accommodations off-campus for the year, or else resign themselves to the trek to the overflow dorms a couple of miles away from the campus’ far edge. Accessing those required either owning a car, loving walking long distances, or scheduling half-hour bus trips up and down a busy tourist road.

These remote dorms were rumored to be absolute hellholes. They weren’t, as I found out my senior year when I moved into one of them. They were peaceful, quiet, and I had my own single, which I loved. But I didn’t know any better at that point, so at the end of my freshman year I began looking for an alternative.

The only sure-fire way to remove oneself from the lottery system altogether and to guarantee oneself campus housing during one’s sophomore year was either to join a fraternity or sorority, or to sign up for what they called ‘special interest housing.’ I hadn’t rushed and didn’t have any interest in doing so. The special interest houses were mostly for the more common foreign languages, and were intended to be immersive environments in which only French or Italian or whatever the language in question was supposed to be. I was half-considering the Spanish House, since I at that point still spoke passable EspaƱol if the listener were prepared to excuse me for addressing him exclusively in the present tense, and enjoyed a lot of questions about where the biblioteca might be.

Then I heard that the university, inspired I think by the movie Fame, had decided to start a house for the creative arts. That seemed more like a fit for me. For the life of me, I cannot think for what particular art I declared an expertise—I hadn’t started on my career path yet, or really discovered any talent in that area. I played piano, though, and I acted (badly) in plays and was thinking about declaring theater as my second major, and that was enough for the people putting the house together. My application was accepted, and I drew a great sigh of relief that I’d still be on campus the following year.

Right near the end of my freshman year, the forty kids who’d been accepted into the arts house answered a summons to attend an organizational meeting. We met our RAs for the next year, a married couple who were deemed ideal for the job because they made their own hippie-dippy candles. There was a lot of talk that evening about the first-year goals for the house, and plans for some kind of dorm-wide showcase of resident talents, but the real purpose for the evening was for us to pick our roommates for the following year. It was a simple process. The twenty boys needed to form into pairs for the ten rooms. Same for the twenty girls, they told us. Go.

Well. I didn’t know any of the other boys. I knew one by reputation—he was the biggest asshole in the theater department who’d gotten so much praise after he’d been cast as a new freshman as the lead in Hamlet that I knew for sure that if I got stuck with the fatuous bastard, I’d have to spend the entire semester listening to him declaim Hamlet into the mirror, shirtless, as he carefully examined his pretty face for blemishes. (As it turned out, if I’d thought to add ‘and would get rip-roaring drunk on Saturday nights, climb out the window and stand on the dorm room to yell King Lear to the moon,’ I would’ve been right on the money.) A lot of the other guys intimidated me in one way or another. They were either too handsome—which scared me at the time, as I didn’t want people thinking I was gay for a good-looking roommate—or too popular-looking. A good number of the people seemed to know each other already, and were drifting off into pairs.

I was convinced I’d be stuck with either the gross mouth-breathing guy with the worst case of acne I’d ever seen (or have seen since) or the fatuous actor, when my friend Laverna came over to make a suggestion. Laverna and I had gone through high school together. We hadn’t been close during those four years, but when we’d found ourselves the only freshmen from our high school class at the college, we’d gotten pretty close. She was pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the national African-American sororities. One of the other guys in the room was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the sorority’s brother fraternity. She didn’t know him, but she assured me that most of the A-Phi-A’s were decent guys, and suggested I ask him to room with me.

So I did. Edvig was the only black guy in the room, and didn’t seem to be overwhelmed with interest from any of the eighteen other white guys trying to pair up. I’d been the only white boy in my high school, so the race thing didn’t mean squat to me; I approached him with Laverna at my side, explained the connection between me and my high school friend, and suggested we be roomies. He agreed. We signed a piece of paper, and I didn’t see him again until the day we moved in together.

It wasn’t the best way to get a roommate, I’m just telling you now. I frankly would’ve been better off with either the actor or the pimpled geek (who ended up rooming together).

Edvig turned out to be . . . weird. That’s what everyone said when they met him. My parents thought he was weird. Everyone on the hall thought he was weird. Even Laverna, after she had a couple of conversations with him, came away and said, “I know it’s my fault he’s your roommate, but he’s a little on the odd side.”

There’s a certain stress doll—I don’t know what it’s called—but it’s basically a oblong shape with rounded edges, tiny eyes, a button nose, and little dish ears on the sides of its head. When you squeeze it hard, the eyes suddenly pop out of the head, the nose distends, and the ears swell up from the pressure. If you were to take one of those toys, dip it in a bucket of coal black paint, and then give it a good squeeze, that’s exactly what Edvig looked like.

He wasn’t attractive. He was all head, and big bulging eyes, and long schnozz, and radar ears. He didn’t walk so much as glide. J. Alexander from Top Model based his mannerisms on Edvig, I’m pretty sure; Edvig was fond of the tilted head, the raised eyebrow, the girl I’m gonna read you up and down look of disdain, and every other cheap and easy indicator that we’d today recognize as the mannerisms that white gay boys stole from African-American women, who’d long before appropriated them from their same-color gay brothers.

And yet he wasn’t gay. That’s what he said, anyway. Edvig could be seen dressed in a suit of cheap and shiny material every Sunday, clutching his Bible and railing against all kinds of sin, including fornication and homosexuality. He belonged to every religious organization on campus except for the Catholic Students Union and Hillel. He walked out of a dorm screening of some French art film—Diva, maybe?—because it had a brief glimpse of boobies.

That was the Edvig everyone knew, anyway. The Edvig I had to deal with behind closed doors was quite different.

Despite his holy roller image, Edvig was indeed gay. He first came onto me the second week of our sophomore year, when I woke up in my really tiny twin cot and discovered him pushing his way into bed with me. I was half-asleep and thoroughly confused and didn’t really realize what the hell was going on until I felt his erection, already wet-tipped and rock hard, poking against my backside. When I leapt up and asked him what the hell he was doing, Edvig burst into tears and told me it was all right if we had man-on-man sex, because he was in love with me.

Well. Flattering as that might’ve been coming from anyone else, the thought of sex with Edvig really grossed me out. I’m fairly ecumenical in my tastes, but at the time, my instinctive reaction to the thought of that particular act made my mouth pucker with distaste as if someone had shoved into it a lemon soaked in bitters.

I was pretty firm about the fact that I didn’t want to sleep with Edvig. I told him that I just wasn’t that way, and it was fine if he was, but it wasn’t going anywhere with me. It was a sorry strategy, but I didn’t really know better. At the time, when all of us gay boys were closeted and didn’t have any encouragement to come out, the strategy of, “I’m really not attracted to you, but thanks,” or even “I don’t think it’s smart for roommates to hook up” weren’t really in my vocabulary.

What followed was a fairly long couple of months of harassment. Between class and piano practice and the theater department I wasn’t in my room much. Partly it was because I dreaded returning to my room after dark. Edvig would be there, waiting for me. Once I was in the room, he’d lie there naked on his bed, where he’d masturbate loudly. He coated his dick with Vaseline so that it made the maximum amount of noise as he glided his hand back and forth over it—and it was a pretty sizable piece of meat, I’ll grant him that. While I tried to read, or sleep, all I’d hear was the slow and sloppy sound of his jacking, punctuated by tiny moans and come-hither whimpers that were supposed to indicate sexual temptation, but which actually sounded more like a dog with a stomachache.

What really added to my distaste of the shameless proceedings—and yes, I know you’re thinking, Say what, there, toilet whore?—was that Edvig smelled bad. He wore a lot of cheap cologne, but it never quite covered the dirty-laundry hamper odor that all undergraduate boys seemed to have in that decade, and it certainly didn’t hide the stink of smegma. Edvig was uncut and I’m guessing didn’t clean his foreskin very well. Whenever he’d masturbate, the rich, earthy smell of his dick cheese would permeate the room. It made my stomach turn.

I didn’t really have a lot of coping strategies at the time. I was young. Homosexuality was a scary subject, then. I’d had a lot of gay sex, but I’d had zero experience in being open about my sexuality. I didn’t know how to cope with other gay guys, except to spread my legs for them. All the people I’d fucked around with in my youth had been sex-crazed adults—not fucked-up youth. The weirdness with Edvig was less sexual than social, despite the masturbation and the clumsy passes. He wanted me to be something for him that I wasn’t, and I didn’t know how to keep saying no. I didn’t want to confront him and demand he stop, in a direct manner. I had no experience in that kind of thing. I honestly didn’t know how.

So I’d ignore him. We didn’t talk. I’d lie there in bed and pretend to snore while secretly I was fuming at the sex noises and the smell. Or I’d try to come back to the dorm room at one or two in the morning in the hope that he’d be asleep—though he’d wake up and start trying to entice me over with his self-ministrations.

I thought I hit on a good approach one night when Edvig started with the Vaseline, when I flounced out of bed, flipped on the lights to full, pulled open the door so hard that it bounced against the wall, then called down the hall, “Hey, anyone want to go for pizza?” I got a vicious schadenfreude from listening to him scramble to put on some clothing before anyone happened to walk by and see him. It was this strategy that seemed to work best. Each time I did it, he’d stop with his freakish attempts at seduction for a few days.

After the third or fourth time, he broke our mutually-determined silence and declared to me that he’d requested a room transfer. Inwardly, I leapt up and down at the news. It was about fucking time I was going to have this freak out of my life. My heart jumped up in the air, kicked its heels, and did a Snoopy dance as he made the announcement, his big saucer eyes mournful.

I should’ve said something conciliatory, maybe, like I’m sorry to hear that. Or, I wish you luck. Instead, I smirked and asked, “So how soon are you going?” On learning it would within two days, I all but skipped out of the door and down the yellow brick road to tell my friends the Wicked Witch was dead.

I shouldn’t have been so gleeful. I’m not sure if it was the cause of what was to come, or even if it was really visible in anything but my memory, but I definitely shouldn’t have smirked.. Because what I didn’t know was exactly how Edvig would take his revenge on me before he left, and how very badly he would mess up the rest of my college years.


  1. Oh, sweet man, I am terribly sorry that this happened to you. I want to go back in time and give the younger you a big hug. And maybe give Edvig a nice punch in the jaw. And I really hope you don't take any of the blame for this situation onto yourself, because this guy was clearly messed up and you really did nothing wrong. He saw how amazing you are and wanted to tear you down to make himself feel better, and I hate it when people do that.


  2. "I leapt up and down at the news"
    "My heart jumped up in the air, kicked its heels, and did a Snoopy dance"

    I did those exact things the time I saw my neighbor with a 'For Sale' sign in front of their

  3. I have a very acute sense of smell...I don't know how you managed because I'd probably be in the corner throwing up. I'm a little OCD about hygeine.

  4. Looking forward to reading the following parts. High School and College years are so awkward for so many; I don't have a clue on what I would have done.

  5. Thanks, Rob. You're willingness to share is phenomenal, and I appreciate the gift. I realize it's been a long time, and clearly you've succeeded in getting past it, but hope it gets a little easier every day.

  6. It was funny when you mentioned the lottery. It is still active at the school, or was at least up to 7 years ago. My daughter had to move off campus for her sophomore year, but was able to get one of those central special shared units in her senior year with her friends.