UP IN THE AIR
‘I Wasn’t Raped:’ A Flight Home from Hell
In an excerpt from Controlled, Neesha Arter describes a torturous flight home from Texas, where—unbeknownst to anyone aboard—two men had raped her days before.
Monday, January 2, 2006
That early afternoon flight from Dallas, Texas, to my home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the worst two hours imaginable—not because I was sitting next to some horrible, hacking old man or a screaming baby. It was because I could not stop thinking about that night. For the first time, I had no fear of flying; I had no desire to come down.
The unknown felt so much worse than fear, but as I tried to distract myself in the plane, I realized this feeling was not about to go away. My mind drifted to my yearly spring break trips with my parents. We would fly to Hawaii, usually Maui, for a week of sunshine and virgin piña coladas, but I always knew I would have to make it through the terror that filled my body during every flight. Sitting in between my parents made me feel safer but could not entirely shake the apprehension that always seemed to come over me.
But this time, I was not sitting with my parents. I was by myself. Realizing I was in this situation alone, I knew I would have to deal with it by myself. My thoughts slowly came back to Houston, and my mind ran in circles, around and around, back and forth like someone deciding their punishment between a day without water or a day without food. I bit my chapped lips as if my teeth were rubbing against splintered wood, but I did not even notice.
I sat in the window seat beside an elderly woman who smelled like old newspaper and Chanel Number 5. Somewhere in her midsixties, she wore a short long-sleeve black dress over white tights. Her narrow thighs did not touch, even though her shiny black shoes clicked together on the airplane’s beaten-up carpet. I glanced in her direction for a few seconds out of the corner of my eye and saw her staring down at her wrinkled hands in her lap. She turned to me with the kind of look you would give a baby in the grocery store who stared at you, and then she smiled. That smile forced my big brown eyes to close, eyes that must have been completely vacant. I finally opened them and forced a smile before my gaze bolted to the window again.
She put her hand on my leg and softly asked, “Are you okay, honey?”
Of course I’m not okay. I can’t even breathe. “Yeah, thank you.”
I dropped my eyes to the book I held in my wobbly hands—Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Thirty thousand feet in the air, I began to shake my right foot uncontrollably while my thighs flinched back and forth. As I repeatedly crossed and uncrossed my legs, I read Capote’s words about the “mean reds:”, You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of.
As if my fear of flying wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t even distract my mind by reading this novel. A two-hour flight felt like eternity, yet I had no desire for it to end.
I had convinced myself to the point of terror that I was in serious trouble with my parents for letting this happen. Putting my long hair up in a ponytail gave me a second to notice the tray table in front of me, but it just made me feel like I couldn’t move. As my hair fell back into my face, I gave up in a huff and placed my pink hair tie back on my wrist. Drumming my fingers one at a time in order across my book, my mind ran away from me.
It ran to the darkest corner where no one ever wants to be. The corner of your childhood mind in the middle of a nightmare that makes you want to jump into your parents’ bed and never leave. The part of the nightmare that forces your body into shock, and all of a sudden your eyes bolt open, waking you up. When you’re screaming in your dream and you can’t stop, no matter what you do to try, you just can’t.
The part where life seems closer to death when you are running away from the bad guy and he has you pinned up against a wall in the corner of a dark alley. All the effort in the world won’t make the good guy appear, the one who’s supposed to save you. The corner where there’s no sunlight and there’s no heaven, just a permanent hell.
As my thoughts bounced in and out of the shadows, a soft teardrop fell onto my book to dampen the page. What would have happened if they just believed me? If I had the chance to explain my side of this story and my family gave me a hug and asked me if I was okay, would I be? How did I lose the trust of my aunt and uncle so fast? What did I do wrong? I was just like one of their kids all of these years, but now…
Disgust built up for my family in Houston, as well as for Will and Mark. But most of all, I disgusted myself. My legs felt detached from my body. The only thing I had left was my mind, which I could barely keep track of. It felt restless and forced every finger of mine to twitch. Biting my fingernails as my hot pink nail polish chipped off, I no longer had the top whites on my nails. Only wet skin that was now red and raw remained.
I closed my eyes, but I was left with the image of the exercise room. I shook my head rapidly four times. I could not get rid of that white exercise room.
I wasn’t raped, I repeated in my head over and over, to make it okay. I wasn’t raped.
I wasn’t raped.I wasn’t raped.I wasn’t raped.I wasn’t raped.I wasn’t raped.
I thought that if I could remove myself from the catastrophe and pretend like nothing happened, my parents would never know. If I acted like nothing happened, then nothing did happen. If I could pretend like I was the same person that I was the week before, then I was. I could have the freedom of being the carefree girl I used to be if I really believed I could.
Excerpted from Controlled by Neesha Arter. Copyright © 2015 by Juliana Barbassa. Preprinted with permission from Heliotrope Books LLC.