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I am 27, and sometimes, when the conversation turns to sex, my mind leaves the room. The others don’t tend to notice that I’m not there in the rehearsal room, or the train carriage, or the pub. I am in your flat.

I am 27, and it is five years to the day since we met. It is five years to the day since the English Speaking Happy Hour in Bar Fuoricorso, five years to the day since you switched from English to your soft, lazy Venetian and got me hooked on your speaking voice. Five years since you whispered, facciamo due passi?, since you picked me up like a baby and carried me up two flights of stairs, since we drank grappa out of brightly coloured coffee cups and danced round the room and lay in your bed, singing until 5am.

I am 27, and the last time I spent the night with a man I like, and we held each other tight, I had a panic attack.

If you knew any of this, you would be shocked. In your mind, you are charming, seductive, maybe even loving. Our relationship was a triviality, a few months of good food and poetry and films and lots of sex. Nothing you can do would ever inflict this level of damage on a girl. Last time you wrote to me, you said you wanted us to be in touch again, “like old friends”; no anger, no possessiveness, no jealousy. Nothing that would mark you out as a typical abuser. And this is why, five years on, you still have such a hold on me.

You did nothing wrong. You knowingly took my first time, so to compensate for the emotional attachment that I would inevitably feel, you told me you were one of the bad ones — that you didn’t know how many times we’d see each other again, maybe one, two, three, maybe even four. I prepared myself to deal with the psychological fallout of never seeing you again, so every time there was a next time, I was grateful. Sex with you was painful, but that was because I was a beginner, and then because I was lucky enough to be with someone well-endowed and with everlasting stamina, and then just because. Why are you upset? Don’t be scared. I’m just taking you. The deep bruises on my arms and breasts were proof of your prowess, as was the fact that I could feel you inside me even when you weren’t there; internal damage didn’t cross either of our minds. Faced with such an impressive partner, what could I do in bed except shout, “Yes, take me, harder, faster”? Isn’t that what sexually empowered women do? It’s not rape if she says yes; how were you to know I didn’t mean it?

I was the guilty one. I always knew I was, but I made it explicit the day that I took your words to the letter, imagining that if you didn’t think we’d be seeing each other for very long, I was within my rights to leave you for someone else. I was the guilty one, for not realising how attached you had become to me, that you had perhaps even fallen in love with me. He was stable, attentive, romantic to a fault; I broke your heart by dating him, and almost suffocated my own. I missed you like mad. He didn’t have a hope of matching your intellect, your quick-witted conversation, your multilingualism. He didn’t “get” me like you did. It was only a matter of time before you and I started seeing each other again — platonically, at my request — and only a matter of time before a platonic dinner date became something else entirely, an unintended tête-à-tête in your flat. I had broken your heart, so when you leant me up against the kitchen counter and held my chin so that I woud have no choice but to kiss you, it was so that you could recoup some of the affection that you had lost. When you asked me to stay, I knew sleeping with you was the least I could do to make things up to you. When I got too dizzy and faint to have sex — it was 30oC inside, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the internal damage was wreaking havoc with my kidneys — you were genuinely upset when I admitted I’d been doing it “for you," as you’d never want to coerce me. Lo facevi per accontentarmi. You were only doing it to keep me happy. I have never known what to do with that information; every other time, did you believe that I was freely consenting? And if you honestly did, is the emotional fallout of this relationship my responsibility alone, since you did nothing wrong?

Five years have passed since we met; only three and a half since I found an email in my inbox calmly stating we were no longer together. A long time for the realisation to trickle down into my mind that not everything we did was consensual, and yet somehow not long enough. I am still as confused as when I was with you. I still don’t understand whether I have been manipulated, or abused, or whether I am still smarting from the loss, and have created a wall of blame to hide behind. If I talk to you with both biting sarcasm and empathy, it’s because I feel them simultaneously, and don’t know which to trust.

What I do know is that I find relationships infinitely harder since you came into my life. There is rarely a day when I don’t see your face in my mind’s eye, or feel your hands on me, or hear the smirk in your voice as you persuade me that I do really want to do those things. Every sexual situation threatens a possible repeat of what sex felt like with you; whether I consented or not, or whether or not either of us believed I had, sex with you was a nightmareish perversion of what an act of love should be. The physical motions were the same, but by being inside me you sucked all the life out of me. You left me with the knowledge that no matter how accomplished I was in study and career, how fulfilling my friendships were, how much zest for life I had, you could make your way into my body and leave nothing but a black hole in your wake, and none of my strength would mean a thing.

I am 27, and five years have passed since we met. I’m writing to you to mark the occasion.

I am 27, and after five years, I wish I could be one of those wonderful, strong women who call out in solidarity to other victims of abuse, who reassure them that it wasn’t their fault, that they have healed and others can too. Or simply that writing can bring catharsis, or that strange beast known as “closure." Neither of those apply here. You may or may not have been an abuser; I may or may not be reacting oversensitively; I may or may not be still in love with you. There can be no closure when nobody knows which chapter is being closed. Five years on, I still don’t understand what you did to me; I don’t understand why I see your ghost behind my eyes after a tiring day, when all you see is a harmless old flame, if you even think of me at all. Because of that, all I can offer to others in pain is the understanding that healing can be as unpredictable and ambiguous as the relationship was. It is no more clear-cut than what happened in your bed. And who knows — maybe that’s OK.

Photo: Unsplash/Pixabay

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