One night, almost a decade ago, I came back from a blackout drunk to find that I was somehow already running. I was shoeless and jogging down a city sidewalk with my jeans turned inside out. My thinking in the moment was, obviously, not very clear; when I ran into some cops a moment later, I did a poor job of explaining why I was wild-eyed and barefoot on dirty city pavement at four in the morning. I remember them being more combative than helpful, though that might be a spin my brain has put on it in the years since. All I remember for sure is telling them, "I'm just trying to get home. Will you please let me go home?"
Eventually they did let me go home, where I immediately went to bed for a few hours of jagged, drunk sleep. I then waited another year before I told anyone that I had been raped. I spent most of that year convincing myself that it was an OK thing to talk about; when I woke up the morning after my rape, I knew something bad had happened, but I wasn't sure how much of it was my fault, and how ashamed I should be of all the steps that had led up to it: wearing a sexy top, stopping in a bar alone for a nightcap.
In the days that followed, it felt like there was only one thing I could do: take all the evidence that that night had occurred and make sure I never had to see it ever again, so that I wouldn't have to do the draining mental calculus of whether this had been my fault every time I opened my closet or bureau.
The shoes, bra, and underpants were already taken care of — I realized in the morning that they'd been left at the guy's house, as I crawled out the door on my hands and knees, saying that I "needed to go" (he told me this over text the next day, like it was an inside joke, some kind of goofy game we'd played together). The shoes held some good memories — I'd worn them while backpacking around Austria earlier in the summer — and they'd cost $60, an amount of money that boggled my mind at the time. But I knew I couldn't ever see them again.
The jeans were a little trickier — they were the only pair I had. But I threw them in the dumpster behind my building anyway; it was the peak of the summer, and I knew that I could just wear dresses until pay day came and I could buy some new ones.
There remained only the question of my shirt. I'd bought the shirt specially online — it was a tank top with an open back, cut to show off my then-new first tattoo. I'd thought the shirt was sexy and tough when I got it, qualities I had hoped to develop in my generally gawky, dorky self. A lot of my clothes were like that then — clothes that seemed cooler than the person who wore them, clothes bought for the woman I thought I could be if I were only as carefree and thick-skinned as I was in my daydreams. I viewed the shirt as my gateway to a new life where I had tons of tattoos and an insouciant, devil-may-care quality to me. My shirts didn't even have backs! I was an outlaw! After the shirt arrived in the mail, I kept it spread out on my desk for weeks, awaiting the night when it felt like the exact right moment to start living my new life.
That my first night as a tattoo'd badass had ended in a sexual assault did not necessarily augur well for this new life phase, I thought. But unlike the rest of the clothes that I so easily discarded, I couldn't throw this shirt away. Before it became the shirt I was raped in, it was the shirt I had wanted my personality to grow into. I'd spent so long imagining it in my closet and my life, my first step into a world where I could finally like the person I was. Yet I couldn't imagine going back to wearing it; it would feel like wearing a crime scene against my skin, I thought. So I washed it, and I put it in a drawer.
And when I moved apartments, a year or so later — primarily because my sexual assault had happened in an apartment one block away from my own — I put it in a new drawer. Not the same drawer with the rest of my shirts, mind you; the thought of fishing around for something to wear in the pre-caffeinated haze of the early morning, and pulling it out by accident, terrified me. I also kept it separate for less practical reasons: I imagined that if I left it mixed with my other shirts, it would taint them, like some kind of toxic moral mold. I feared it would somehow turn all of my clothes from representations of a dreamy, distant future into symbols of a present shot through with bad decisions and thwarted hopes, simply through osmosis.
But I still couldn't throw it out. So I kept it in a drawer full of papers, where it couldn't contaminate any of the things I actually put on my body. While it waited in limbo in that drawer, in my mind, it began to become a totem; it had now transformed into The Shirt.
That was just in my mind, of course; I never said it out loud. In fact, even though I eventually started telling my friends what had happened, I never told anyone that I saved The Shirt. I thought people would be disgusted with me; I was actually a little disgusted with myself. At the time, I had never heard of anyone saving the clothes they had been assaulted in, and I thought I was weird and creepy for doing it. I thought I should have given it to the police or thrown it out; hanging on to it seemed like keeping a bloody tissue or used condom.
I thought I was even weirder because I wasn't saving it as evidence or anything; more than anything, I saved The Shirt because I wanted there to be a day when it went back to just being a cute top. I wanted it to be normal again, something I could touch and hold and wear on a Saturday night when I just wanted to feel pretty.
The Shirt laid there for years, until the night I finally fished it out and put it on, in 2012. The only reason I finally got the guts together to wear it was because I was, well, attending a Fiona Apple concert. Apple is, first and foremost, a musical genius; she's also been very open about her status as a survivor of sexual assault. At first, I was wary about my focusing so intensely on the fact that she had spoken openly about her own assault. The way it comes up almost immediately in this 1998 Rolling Stone profile of the singer-songwriter, for example, is pretty infuriating. Apple is a musician, not an activist, and I felt like I was being accidentally disrespectful by wearing it and deciding that her concert would be the site of some kind of strange healing witchcraft, like I was making her music take second place to my own needs.
But the truth is that Fiona Apple is the person who taught me that sexual assaults don't have the power to ruin you. When I was a teenager in the '90s, and Apple (who was only a handful of years older than me) released her first album, Tidal, and became a star, she was the first woman I had ever heard of who was creative, accomplished, and open about being a sexual assault survivor. I had been raised to believe that rape was worse than murder — which was perhaps an understandable sentiment when people used it to judge a rapist, but not so helpful for those who had survived. Did that reasoning mean that people who had been raped were merely half-alive? I didn't know the one-in-five-women-will-be-assaulted stat yet; all I knew was the shattered women I saw on made-for-TV movies, the older women in my life whom I overheard saying they'd commit suicide if they were raped. I wondered if rape survivors were doomed to spend the rest of their lives wandering around, like ghosts who just hadn't bothered to die.
And then I read about Fiona Apple, and I knew it wasn't true. I didn't and don't know the details of her mind or her day-to-day life, of course; but I knew that years after she had been assaulted as a young teenager, she wrote and recorded this album that my friends and I spent the summer of 1997 moodily singing along to in our cars and bedrooms. It hadn't ruined her. It hadn't ended her.
And it hadn't ended me. By the time I went that Fiona Apple concert, I was 30 years old, in love with the man who would become my husband, and in the earliest days of what would become my writing career. But it felt like there was a blockage, still; something that made me feel like it couldn't possibly be this easy to get the things I wanted. I wondered if The Shirt had anything to do with it, if it was something that I had held on to because it needed to be exorcised.
So I put The Shirt on, not telling anyone else about it. As the night went on, I wandered away from my friends, until I was in a small crowd of solo women who had gathered at the lip of the tiny outdoor stage. I looked around, and wondered. We had all drawn closer and closer over the course of the night, drifting so slowly from our assigned seats that we could maybe make it seem like we had ended up here by accident if security asked us to move.
But no one had stopped us and here we were, listening to the music, but also aware of each other in a way that wasn't familiar to me. It wasn't the usual emotional communion of an intense concert; people cried but no one hugged, as far as I could see. It felt like we were up there, alone together, standing uncomfortably in the muggy summer heat because we were trying to figure something out. I wondered if anyone else in this crowd was wearing their Shirt. When I got home, I felt like I had crossed some line, and put The Shirt back in its drawer without even washing it.
Earlier this spring, I'd begun to wonder if this was the year I'd finally wear The Shirt again, and why exactly I was so desperate to wear it, anyway. This time around, my pondering of The Shirt happened to coincide with reading an article about photographer Katherine Cambareri, who photographs the clothing sexual assault survivors wore the night of their assault.
The photos showed every kind of clothing — gym shorts, sneakers — but as I flicked through them, I stopped at the blouses. They were cute. I could imagine slipping them on, turning on some music, doing my makeup before I went out. Like most going-out clothes, they were hopeful.
They were like The Shirt. The Shirt wasn't, I realized, a "slutty" shirt, as I'd long feared; it wasn't some kind of proof that I'd had a hand in what happened to me. It was a hopeful shirt. I had tucked into it not just my hopes for the night, but my hopes for a future that might spiral out from the night, as I had with every going-out dress or shirt I've ever owned. I hoped I'd grow into a person who felt comfortable in it.
Not all hopes pan out; my hopes for that night certainly didn't. But some hopes do. I didn't grow into the exact kind of woman I imagined when I bought that top; but I think I grew up into someone that the girl I was then would have been proud of, maybe even would have aspired to be like (if she'd even known it was an option). My assault changed me, but it didn't end up defining me in the way I had feared. It didn't change me so badly, so deeply that I couldn't become the woman I had always hoped would wear that Shirt.
I dug the Shirt out again, finally, to take the photos that accompany this article. I felt like I was smuggling a bomb into work, at first. I wanted to keep people away from it. I asked a coworker to help take a picture of me in it and then immediately changed my mind; I worried that it had a negative forcefield that would suck in anyone unwary enough to get close to it.
But when I started trying to take a selfie in it, I thought, for the first time: my god, this is not a very flattering shirt. Removed from all context, my photos simply looked like a woman in her thirties, gritting her teeth through wearing a top that a much younger friend had picked out. It wasn't right for the actual woman I had become. If nothing had happened that first night I wore this shirt, it would have been lost in the shuffle of apartment moves or clothing loans, or simply tossed out to Goodwill, years ago. I started laughing, in that weird way you do when nothing's all that funny, but you feel like you should make some kind of noise. And then, before I could stop myself, I threw it out. I came back a few hours later, to try to dig it out of the trash, but it was gone.