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Art Inspires: Kao Kalia Yang on Lucretia

He entered my room quietly. I was at my desk. He closed the door behind him. It was just the two of us. He carried a book in his hand. He said, “How are you?” I did the polite thing. We had a conversation. In the light from my desk, he was handsome, this dorm mate I was just getting to know. He patted the bed beside him. I took the book I had been reading with me. I flipped through its pages, my eyes downcast. We talked some more. Our voices got quieter and quieter. He kissed me. I tried to kiss him back. Inexperienced as I was, I thought it was an opportunity to learn. He pushed me down on the bed gently. I tried to get up. His muscles were stiff, his hold hard. I struggled. My mind screamed, but no words came out. He ripped through me. Afterward, he got up, pulled his pants on, fingers moving fast. He was breathing hard. He seemed scared. He picked up his book and left the room. He did not close the door after him. I crawled underneath the blanket. In its quiet darkness, images flashed before my eyes. In all of them, I could not see me, only him.

In the light of day, I pretended we had sex. I tried to be casual and normal. I was not. I told no one. Each night, underneath the blanket, my heart grew heavy inside of me. For the first time, I felt how heavy life could be.

My first real relationship was with a man who pursued sex until I gave in. In the middle of that relationship, we got into an argument one night. I went to a party with my girlfriends. The girls and I were dancing. The music was loud. The drink was free. The man was a blur—although I was not drunk. I found myself on the floor. He was huge. He ripped my tights off me. He pushed his hand into my mouth and his penis into my vagina. I tried to fight him off. I failed. When I came home, torn and broken, the man I was with was waiting. He saw me and he screamed, “How could you do this to me?!” It was about him and I was assaulted not only by what had happened to me but by the guilt he leveled in the name of love.

When that relationship ended I got a needed break. There was much to untangle and I had ambitions and dreams, so I pretended some more that I had been in a normal relationship and I loved him and he loved me despite the fact that it hadn’t worked out.

The most recent rape happened, once again, in the place where I slept, no longer mine because I had learned that there were no more sacred spaces in my life. I had a migraine. I was on my bed. The man, an acquaintance, entered in the cover of night. I was asleep. I felt my clothes being torn from me. I kicked at the darkness. I scratched at the shadowy form. Even in the panic, I knew that he, unlike the rest, was not frantic or fast. He took his time. The realization dawned as my body turned cold, from my heart out. I froze. He scratched me. He bit me. He penetrated me. I fell into a deep sleep. He left me before morning, the shadows still in their corners. In the light of day, surrounded by our friends, I cowered before him. He said, “Give me a goodbye kiss.” I tried not to. He said, “Give me your number.” I trembled and trembled as I spoke my number. My will, something I had always believed was strong, despite the weaknesses in my body, crumbled before his power.

My hands started shaking. My lipstick a smear of red across my flesh. My hair, a mess of black, fell in uneven strands about my face. My body slipped out of the shirts I wore in the places I could not contain. My walk, once focused and forward, twisted and turned as I sought balance on the thin heels I wore.

I think about them all the time. I want to know that they had no power, that they were normal men and I was a normal woman, and this is how human beings treat each other, but I can’t accept this so I want to buy a gun and shoot my head, in the open woods, where no one I love can ever find me.

Healing with your hands on the trigger. Healing with your fingers curved around a knife handle. My heart has left my eyes. My body has left me, a long time ago. I have learned how to accept the hurt. I have learned how to harness my hopes. One final pull. One final push. One final death is better than all the rest.

Kao Kalia Yang is the author of the award-winning The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and the recently published The Song Poet—now available in the Store at Mia. Yang is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She is a public speaker, teacher, and writer. Read more at kaokaliayang.com.

Rembrandt’s painting of Lucretia, from 1666, is on display at Mia in gallery G311.