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I Woke Up From a Coma and Couldn’t Escape the Guy Pretending to Be My Boyfriend

I fell 20 feet out of a redwood tree and when I came to, my memory was shattered and a man I’d broken things off with was telling everyone we were together. Then I found out why.

I Woke Up From a Coma and Couldn’t Escape the Guy Pretending to Be My Boyfriend

The first thing I can recall clearly was sitting in a hospital room in the dark.

I knew something was wrong — that there was something wrong with me — and yet, I couldn’t tell exactly what. I realized the left side of my face was numb. Hanging on the wall in front of me was a television, but there was something wrong with it too. A ghostly copy was superimposed over the standard set; it was rotated at roughly a 15-degree angle and faded away into the burnt cream walls. Is the TV the problem, or is it me?

My mother and a nurse wearing scrubs entered from the left, a disorienting place outside of my field of vision.

“That’s our girl,” my mom said, approaching my bed. “How are you doing today?”

Why was she so nonchalant? Why wasn’t she worried? Considering the haphazard inventory I had just taken, I probably should have demanded answers or cursed a bit. Raised some hell. Instead, I replied with an uncertain “… good,” slightly alarmed that she, too, possessed a ghostly, tilted imprint. When I was young, my mother always went on, at length, about the difficulties of raising my prone-to-tantrums, bang-his-head-on-the-concrete-when-angry older brother. Then, turning to me, she’d say, “But you, you’re so easy. And calm. And you never complain.” I guess that hadn’t changed. I wanted to ask her what was happening — and where I was. Instead, I swept my arm in front of me and, trying to find out what would happen next, said, “And now?”

Before she answered, another character entered from the hallway, but this one I couldn’t place. Fairly young — my age, by the look of him — his youth was accentuated by a clean-shaven chin under full, feminine lips and a baseball cap perched precariously on his head, above his boyish face. He had the look of a perpetually surprised toddler, lips slightly parted in wonder and curiosity.

“Now you have physical therapy,” he commented.

The physical therapist, a blonde woman with chin-length hair, stepped in from stage right, clipboard in hand and a laminated badge dangling from a lanyard around her neck. When she entered, the nurse left, not wanting to crowd the room.

The physical therapist pushed a rolling walker to the edge of my bed and beckoned me to rise. My initial movements were the stop-motion stutter of a crude animation. I reached for one of the walker’s handles. And missed. The double image layered on top of what I thought was the actual walker jutted out awkwardly in a direction that led me to believe it couldn’t be the real one — was I wrong? I tried again. Yeah, I was wrong.

“Are you OK? Ready to stand?” the physical therapist asked.

Planting my feet shoulder-width apart, clinging to my walker, I clambered to a standing position — I’m generous when I use that phrase. Between my shaking limbs, bent knees and outstretched arms, I must’ve looked more like a member of a seniors’ Pilates class than the 25-year-old woman I presumed myself to still be. Everything, including myself, felt familiar yet foreign, an already-read book revisited accidentally. An eerie sense of déjà vu — my own personal uncanny valley, so familiar but not the same.

“OK, Brooke.” The physical therapist then addressed my mother and her companion. “We’ll be back in 45 minutes.”

The therapist led me down a long hallway lined with other rooms and other patients. Every few feet, the therapist paused and waited for me to inch toward her, patiently watching with a fixed smile for the stop-motion hermit crab to scuttle closer.

“Now just a little farther to the elevator,” the therapist said, pulling me back to the task at hand. I had just discovered I was having issues multitasking: Whenever I started thinking too much, I couldn’t walk.

My god, I thought, I am exhausted and we’re not even where we’re going yet.

When we finally reached the elevator, I stepped inside, at the therapist’s behest.

“I feel like I know you,” my voice hissed out of my mouth like a barely audible stream of gas. A death rattle that made syllables and managed to form words.

At first, I wasn’t sure she had heard whatever had escaped my throat. Her back, still facing me, seemed crystallized in position. Finally, she turned and looked at me for a long moment. When the elevator doors dinged close, she took a deep breath and sighed.

“I’m Linda.”

“My grandpa’s girlfriend has your name.”

Linda’s mouth tightened, but her eyes softened.

“I know. I’ve introduced myself to you nearly every day for the past two weeks.”

Luckily, my memories started to stick after that disconcerting moment with the TV. Unluckily, weeks had already elapsed since I had been admitted to the hospital, some of which time I’d been comatose. I started receiving various stories about what had happened. Some true, some, I would eventually come to realize, fiction.

One day, shortly after I’d started to remember Linda the therapist, the boy with the childlike face and childlike hat — I’ll call him Stanley here — slipped into the hospital bed with me. Alarmed, but oddly complacent, I said nothing, even as he leaned close to me and whispered into my ear, “I’ve been telling everyone that I’m your boyfriend.”

“Yeah, OK.”

Hadn’t this happened before? Him divulging he was my boyfriend … it felt familiar. How many times had this happened?

“OK,” he parroted and turned to Naked and Afraid on the TV.

“My face is numb.”

“Yeah, you’ve been saying that.”

“That screen is double.”

“Yeah, you’ve been saying that too.”

“What happened?”

Stanley cocked his head to the side like a confused dog and considered my question — or at least, I figured he was considering it. Maybe he was worried about me. Maybe my well-being concerned him.

“What do you remember?” he asked me.

“You moved your stuff into my room.” I knew this had happened, even though I hadn’t realized it a moment before. But I remembered that detail and I knew I knew him. In what capacity? His claim to be my boyfriend didn’t feel right — it couldn’t have been romantic. Wasn’t I just doing him a favor?

His already round, wide eyes widened further. He pursed his lips and diverted his gaze.

“You allowed me to move into your apartment temporarily.” Stanley paused. “That’s the last thing you remember? And you don’t remember what you had been doing that day?”

“What day?”

Stanley let out a huff of air in exasperation. He shook his head in exaggerated impatience, rolling his eyes.

“The day you and Cassie climbed a redwood near the trailer park and you fell 25 feet out of it.”

According to my mother, in the early days of my hospitalization, every time Stanley entered my hospital room and announced himself to the doctors and nurses as my boyfriend, I threw out an arm in a warped imitation of Vanna White and exclaimed, “I guess I have a boyfriend now.” Cue Pat Sajak chortling good-naturedly.

It came back to me early on, distinctly, that he had never wanted to be my boyfriend before this.

But whenever I broached the subject, Stanley told me he hadn’t known what he wanted before, but uncertain of whether I would live or die, he became aware of how he felt. My skepticism remained even as my memory wavered.

Yet, he showed up each day, and I began to believe him when he said his feelings had changed. Trapped in my bed and visited by therapists I only partially knew and family members I only vaguely recognized, it was nice to have someone else come see me and do word puzzles in bed with me, even if I didn’t always remember who he was right away.

Other friends of mine who came to see me in the hospital were wary of Stanley, but his insistence on his right to be there and his role in my life stifled any objections that even my best friend, Sam, thought to make. My mother and I had always communicated infrequently about my romantic endeavors. Coping as best she could, she remained intoxicated most of the time I was in the hospital and didn’t question Stanley’s version of events. Later, she said I seemed like I wanted him there.

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When I was released from the hospital, I couldn’t walk without an arm crutch, and my memory was still far from intact. Santa Clara Medical Center insisted I leave in a wheelchair, and I was wheeled out to Stanley’s car. He said we’d decided together that he’d move to San Diego with me. With no memory of the original conversation, I believed him, but I felt overwhelmed.

Following the seven-hour drive to North County San Diego, I told my mom I didn’t want to live with him. And although Stanley repeatedly hinted he should stay at my parents’ home, my mom put her foot down and said Stanley couldn’t live with us.

So he got a recruiting job and a room nearby. On weekdays after getting off work, he’d walk through the side gate without announcing he was coming. On one particular day in late fall, two months after my hospital stay, he came into the backyard while I skimmed messages on Facebook that I’d received as an inpatient.

I had been talking to our mutual friend, Cassie (I’ve changed her name here, as well as Stanley’s), from college. We’d been exchanging messages on Facebook, and while looking at our conversation, I saw an older message she’d sent me, while I was in the hospital, which I had no memory of.

“Cassie messaged me while I was in Santa Clara,” I mentioned to Stanley, my eye still fixed on the screen. “I said you joked around, saying you hoped my memory stayed impaired, and she replied, ‘Is there something he doesn’t want you to remember?’”

I laughed. Stanley didn’t.

“Why do you think that’s funny?” he demanded, pulling the laptop toward him. He didn’t sit down. “Why would you tell her that?” He shoved the laptop away and placed his hands on either side of his head. “Why would you say that to her?”

“Hey, relax,” I grunted while using both the table and chair to pull myself to a standing position. Once facing him, I added, “I don’t see what the problem is.”

“You don’t — you don’t — ” Livid, Stanley couldn’t seem to express himself through his rage.

Instead of walking away or going inside, I just stood and watched him stutter as his face flushed until he finally formulated words. And boy, what words they were.

“What is wrong with you?” he started. “Here I am, doing everything I can to help you — sticking around when we thought you were going to die, staying when you were r*tarded, not leaving when we weren’t sure if you’d get better. And I’m here now even though — look at you.” He paused to wave a hand from my short hair to my bare feet.

Incapable of speaking, I retreated through the sliding glass door into the kitchen. All of the words I wanted to say slithered through my mind, broken, disconnected. But nothing came from me.

“And you might be like this forever! And instead of telling Cassie how supportive I’ve been, you say that to her? Why couldn’t you have told her how good I’ve been to you — trying to make you look like less of a mess, getting your hair cut, taking you to get your face waxed because it was disgusting.”

As he spoke, he encroached on my space, stepping forward until his face was less than a few inches from mine. His hands still flapped in the air to either side; I think he may have wanted to grab me by the shoulders but refrained. It wasn’t until he vibrated each hand on the left and right side of my face that I realized I was shaking too.

Stanley pulled his hands back, made a noise that sounded like a mixture of an exasperated moan and a frustrated yelp. Finally, he stomped out of my parents’ kitchen like a schoolboy suffering a tantrum. All I heard next was the gate slamming behind him.

Later, he pretended we’d never had that interaction — I only brought it up once in the following days, and he insisted he didn’t know what I was referring to.

More than two years before I woke up disoriented in the hospital, it was the beginning of my “junior” school year at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). All of the out-of-town transfer students over the age of 22 were corralled on the first floor of the transfer dorm. That dorm became a haven for all of us who had spent our post-high school years not attending college. But we had finally pulled together those community college units to gain admittance to a four-year school. And by God, we were celebrating.

Cue the night after we all moved in: Everyone left their dorm doors propped open and flitted from room to room, taking a shot here, nabbing a plastic cup of our hallmate Cassie’s homemade wine there. Everyone except me. Stationed at the school-supplied prefab wooden desk underneath my bunk bed sans bottom bunk, I was drinking whiskey and playing music from a USB-connected speaker.

“Anyone dislike Tom Waits?” I shouted in the general direction of the bodies amassed in my room. “All right, well, that’s what we’re gonna listen to now.”

Among the gyrating bodies, a short guy in a blue baseball cap, brim pushed up jauntily, slid forward with an elbow pointing at me. He looked too young to be drinking.

“I like Tom Waits,” he offered. “I’m Stanley.”

“Let me guess,” I snapped, “you like Rain Dogs. That’s fine ’n all, but we’re going to listen to some real sad shit right now.”

Later, Stanley would divulge his first impression of me: feet up on my desk, pugging whiskey straight from the bottle and ranting to him about Tom Waits. He thought I was a bitch. And I would tell him that I thought he was a disrespectful asshole. That didn’t stop him, after our initial meeting, from tapping on my dorm door every day, asking if I wanted to go walk in the woods or mountain biking. And it didn’t stop me from taking a swig of my ever-present whiskey and replying, “Sure.”

We weren’t together, but we weren’t not together. Before we slept together, Stanley spent all of his time with me and stopped seeing all of the other women he had been involved with. By the end of that first semester, we had slept together multiple times, met each other’s family at Thanksgiving, and still not talked about what, exactly, we were doing. At the time, I didn’t think a conversation was necessary; I figured we had a gentleman’s agreement and were on the same page: exclusive but unserious.

Although we lived on the same hallway, Cassie and I weren’t particularly close outside of the companionship provided by a common pastime: drinking. At the end of that year in the transfer dorm together, we all dispersed. Cassie moved into UC Santa Cruz’s on-campus trailer park — the one I’d fall out of a tree next to, a year later — and I found a room in an old Victorian on Mission, not far from Laurel Street and downtown.

Part of me figured Stanley wouldn’t skulk around my door anymore, since we no longer lived a few feet away from each other. But sure enough, he ended up in a sublet off of Laurel Street and would rap on my window from the front porch, softening his big brown eyes when I pulled back the blinds to see who it could be.

One day, Stanley, now sitting by that window at the computer chair and desk my sublet provided, broached a conversation we had never touched upon before, one I always avoided with everyone: acquaintances, bar patrons, friends — whatever Stanley was.

“How did you lose your virginity? I remember when I lost mine … ”

For the life of me, if you asked me how Stanley lost his virginity, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about it. I stopped listening after his initial question.

“Are you OK?”

Stanley’s genial curiosity caught me off guard.

“Yeah, I was just … thinking.”

“You don’t look OK.” He came over and sat next to me on the sublet’s twin bed. A wood frame painted white housed a run-of-the-mill mattress, neither soft nor hard. Stanley peered into my eyes incredulously, daring me to confirm what I could see him working out in his mind. So I did.

“It, uh, wasn’t my choice.”

“Do you remember his name?”

And I said it for the first time in nearly 10 years. I don’t know how I wanted Stanley to react. I don’t know what I wanted him to do — maybe nod? Maybe ask if I wanted a drink? Oh, God, I wanted a drink. The previous night, I had polished off my bedside whiskey and hadn’t had the chance to walk to the liquor store before Stanley popped over. But I know I didn’t want him to do what he did.

Immediately, he bounded to the computer and opened Facebook.

“And this was in San Diego? OK, let me see.”

And then he began clicking on profiles and muttering to himself, “No, too young. Couldn’t be this one. Hmm, new to the area — no. You don’t know his last name?” Stanley glanced over at me and then stopped touching the computer.

At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary, but now I can describe how I felt — confused, disoriented, overwhelmed. I heard the words, I understood them, but none of them stuck with me. It’s almost like tunnel vision, but the opposite seems to happen — everything expands and your field of vision contains too much and none of it makes sense. Your eyes water because everything feels overexposed and lacks detail.

I didn’t notice him rejoin me on the bed or when he took my limp hand from my lap and held it. But I did hear him when he said, “I think people place too much weight on a person’s sexual history.”

And then he kissed me gently and we had sex, on a mattress that could have been hard or soft or just fine. But it hadn’t been love — he felt sorry for me. He insisted, afterward, that he cared about me, but he didn’t want to be together, couldn’t be in a relationship. And I understood because, I felt, who would want to be with me?

No one knew about this interaction, but I’m sure the leeway I gave Stanley despite the boundaries he crossed — because of his reaction to a truth I hated so much — looked like love.

In the months after I left the hospital, my memory slowly but surely came back to me. I remembered all of this, about how I met Stanley and what our relationship was like before the accident. But I still had some questions. Some missing pieces — like how I could have let any of this happen.

“Icouldn’t tell you before,” said Cassie. “Because I thought you were in love with him. How could I tell you what Stanley had done?”

This conversation with Cassie took place before I fell out of the tree, and it came back to me as I gradually regained my memory. Nearly seven months after leaving the dorms, we were sitting at an outdoor table on the patio of UCSC’s Kresge Café, where we often met to talk about the likes of Amiri Baraka or Jean Toomer for our poetry class. It was well into our second year at UCSC, our “senior year,” that Cassie and I began hanging out consistently and (relatively) sober; Cassie had an elective slot open, and I suggested she take a poetry class with me.

Cassie rubbed her left arm with her right hand but kept her eyes on mine.

It happened on Memorial Day Weekend when we all still lived in the transfer dorms, she said. Only a little over half of a year before our meeting at the Kresge Café. Memorial Day had been a transfer dorm hallmate’s birthday and everyone had gone to Cowell’s Beach to celebrate — everyone except me. They left before I returned from — where had I been? I don’t know. Drunk somewhere. Like always.

Cassie described a beach bonfire. But then she and Stanley had run into the woods to find firewood. She described Stanley slinging his arm around her neck, the same way he did to me. Cassie hadn’t found this strange, and I didn’t think she would — when he did this to me, I felt more like a “bro” than a romantic partner. It was when she fell down that things changed.

She described them losing balance and toppling over a log. And then she told me Stanley started ripping down her pants and putting his mouth on her … I can’t go there again.

“I told him to stop and he did.” Her voice trailed off as if, maybe, she should excuse him for the initial violation since he was so good at following instructions afterward.

“I am … so fucking angry — ”

“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” Cassie whispered. “I didn’t want you to hate me.”

“No, no, no, no, no.” The word tumbled out of my mouth and wouldn’t stop. “No, no, no.” Maybe if I said it enough, she’d know. “Not with you — you did nothing wrong — with him. With him. He’s a fucking monster.”

And I hated myself. Because I had been awake, drunk but awake, when they returned. Everyone else clambered upstairs to continue the party, but Stanley pulled me into his room and into his bed. After what he had done.

When Cassie told me all of this, Stanley had been studying abroad for months. Neither of us had heard from him in that time. I heard from other mutual friends he had a girlfriend of sorts.

A month after Cassie’s revelation, Stanley commented on the UCSC trailer park’s public page, a community Cassie was a part of, and received a harrowing response from a friend of Cassie’s: We’d rather not have any sexual assaulters in our community, thanks.

Which, of course, caused Stanley to call me — the first time in nine months we’d had any contact.

“What is she saying about me?” he shrieked.

“Not really sure who or what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play fucking dumb: Cassie. It was an accident. I stopped. What is she telling people?”

I sighed and tried to keep an even tone. “Whatever happened, it obviously caused her more harm than you thought.”

“You were raped,” Stanley responded. It sounded more like an accusation than a comment; it felt more like an accusation.

I didn’t answer, and he continued. “You know what real assault is like. You need to tell her. Call her right now and make sure you tell her. You have to tell her what it’s really like — that, what was his name? That the construction worker came into your room and held you down and told you not to scream and forced his fucking — ”

“Hey, hey, hey now.” I didn’t need the play-by-play. “I get it, I get it. Jesus.”

And because it’s easier to shove your hurt onto someone else than addressing the bleeding parts inside yourself, I called Cassie and did the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life: I told her it could have been worse.

“Cassie,” my voice cracked as I told her everything and then said, “What Stanley did was inappropriate, but he stopped.”

I n the months following my coma, these memories returned to me in sporadic waves. I remembered, and then I convinced myself I must be misremembering, I must be wrong. Stanley would storm out whenever I brought up the past, only to return the following day like nothing had happened, which made things even more confusing.

But I finally called Cassie toward the end of January 2016, five months after I had moved back to San Diego. I wish I could say I had mustered the courage a month earlier, as soon as I realized there was something Stanley didn’t want me to remember, but how could I possibly tell her I remembered, that it had come back to me, and Stanley was still here?

“Cassie?” I asked quietly when a voice answered the phone. I stood in the backyard of my parents’ house, the only place I could be alone.

“Brooke! It’s so good to talk to you. How have you been? What happened?”

I told her everything: Santa Clara, Stanley, not knowing exactly what had happened.

“I called Stanley as soon as the ambulance took you away,” Cassie said slowly, “I figured he would have contacted your family. The hospital had to find your parents’ information? Why didn’t Stanley call your parents?”

A foreboding sensation crept into my gut and my skin became cold and clammy. It was overcast, typical January weather in San Diego, but far from cold.

“That night,” she said, “we had made it to the top, at least 85 feet up, and you were really confident — we were joking around — and then all of a sudden you looked at me and told me, ‘I have to get down. Now.’ Then you sped down, and I think climbing to a lower branch before you fell is what saved your life.”

“And,” I started and then stopped to moisten my mouth — it had gone dry — and eased myself down to sit on the concrete patio. “That’s all that happened?”

“Well,” Cassie added, “I did think it was weird when I heard Stanley was still with you in San Diego. Before we climbed the tree that night, you were telling me how much you hated him. You had him buy a plane ticket back home in front of you to be sure he was really leaving. He had just moved all of his shit into your room after his lease ended, and you wanted him gone.”

“Cassie,” I replied weakly.

“Well, it’s good the two of you have worked things out. It was just, y’know, weird.”

It was true; my misgivings hadn’t been unwarranted.

Stanley and I had been involved, but it was long over, and — as usual — Stanley used me right when I thought I was rid of him. When he came back from studying abroad, he stayed with me for about a week and insisted I mediate a conversation between him and Cassie. (I did, and she said she wasn’t going to press charges.) He found his own place, but then when the spring quarter ended and his sublease was up, he moved all his shit into my room; I protested but he insisted. I kept telling him that he needed to just go home, but he continued to insist, over and over again, that he needed to stay to make sure “Cassie wasn’t going to do anything.”

I still have no memory of the night I fell out of the tree, but Cassie told me I had made him buy a plane ticket in front of me to be sure that he would leave.

After concluding our phone call, I remained seated on the ground outside. I felt stupid; I was stupid. Stanley had been convincing me he was doing me a favor, that I needed him. When really, he needed me. Still paranoid about what had happened with Cassie and his reputation, he had been using me to convince everyone he was a good person.

Aweek after my call with Cassie, I was baking cookies. Remembering the recipe, the measurements, the order I needed to mix the ingredients, exercising my fine-motor skills to mix them — it was all good practice. It was all rehabilitating, my occupational therapist told me.

Next to the kitchen sink, my mom swirled a glass of champagne and said, almost as if she were channeling it from another plane, “Three days into your coma, Stanley told me we should pull the plug on you.”

Above the bowl of sugar and butter, my hands held a jar of peanut butter and an overlarge spoon, motionless. I stopped to look at her, closing one eye to combat the double vision the damage to my occipital lobe had caused.

My mom averted her eyes as she added, “And he would sit forever and try to guess the code to your phone — he was desperate to get into it.” Then she shrugged. “But you seemed like you wanted him around …”

“When I was in a coma?” I asked.

My mom ignored this and said, “Stanley told me he knew you and knew what you’d want.”

Even knowing this, knowing my life had been disposable to him, I was too weak of a person to make him leave. Stanley kept coming by my parents’ house every day, telling me I should stop focusing on rehabilitating my mind and should instead make my physical appearance more appealing. Often, he’d drop me off at walk-in waxing salons, instructing them to make my face smooth, “less disgusting.”

“I just want to be able to think again,” I’d whisper after.

“This is probably the best you’re going to get,” he’d reply. “You need to take better care of yourself. You have a lot of competition.”

This obsession with outward aesthetics culminated in him taking me to Calaveras Mountain, a small mountain in east Carlsbad, and bidding me to run to the top.

“My physical therapist said I shouldn’t do any strenuous exercise without her … my body still can’t regulate temperature.”

Stanley shot me a look of disdain and hissed, “My stepdad is a physiatrist — I know what I’m talking about. I guess you don’t actually want to get better.”

Halfway up Calaveras, my double vision split even further — something I didn’t think was possible — and I felt bile rising in my esophagus. Taking a knee, I put both hands onto the dirt-covered path and threw up.

“My dad was never easy on me,” Stanley solemnly whispered, a bizarre explanation for his actions.

We walked the rest of the way down.

“I think I need to go,” Stanley finally said one day.

“Do whatever you need to do,” I responded.

We were sitting at a Thai restaurant in a strip mall. Across the way, I had briefly worked as a hostess in a restaurant when I was newly 18; they tore it down and built a Red Lobster in its place.

“You’re not upset?” He searched my face. “Would you want to stay together? You’d miss me.”

I wondered who he was trying to convince.

“Yeah, we can stay together … even though you tried to kill me.”

Stanley reeled back as if he had just been slapped. His feminine lips parted and his bottom jaw hung open, aghast.

Stanley, enraged, knocked over his tea. It had been almost empty. The outrage felt performative; the spill theatrical. I was beginning to get a headache; I just wished someone would be honest with me — my mom, Stanley, anyone who had been there. Everyone wanted to protect themselves at my expense. I felt like a child every time the thought “But what about me?” sprang into my head.

“I just meant if it got to that point — if you were going to be brain dead.” His hands flailed and his lips flapped as they always did when he tried to make a point. I’d finally settled on Beaker — he looked like Beaker from the Muppets. “If you were brain dead, your mom would just keep you forever in a back room drooling all over yourself! Look at you now — you don’t even have your own bed and they’ve been taking your disability money for months.”

That was sort of true; once I had been established as disabled by Social Security, they started dispensing $775 a month to me, an amount based on my previous W-2s and work history. But I chose to give it to my parents — the insurance had covered the majority of the medical costs, but my mother had racked up hotel bills staying in San Jose. I handed the provided debit card for my disability benefits to my father and said, “For everything I’ve done.”

As I explained this, Stanley’s mouth quivered in a dumbstruck “O.” But his horror and confusion only infuriated me; I had told him all of this before. He knew this — or should have. Did he ever listen to me?

“And did you say that?” I shot back, restraining myself, but barely.

“Say what?”

“‘If it got to that point?’”

“I didn’t need to. That’s obviously what I meant.”

Stanley left the same week.

He telephoned me in February 2017, more than a year later.

By this time, I had finished my bachelor’s degree by taking my remaining classes at UC San Diego, and I’d started working seasonal shifts as a production assistant at an academic publishing company. I took the train to work by myself. An eye surgery had corrected my double vision, and I no longer needed to close one eye or wear a patch to see. On paper, I appeared to be a legitimate, functioning adult, and no one asked about my abnormal gait or inability to write by hand.

Uncertain if I should answer Stanley’s phone call, I watched his name manifest on my cell phone screen and blink away when I didn’t touch it. A month later — I don’t know if curiosity gripped me or if I hoped for an explanation, or at least an apology — I called him back.

“I was surprised to see you calling,” Stanley said by way of greeting. “I took mushrooms and went to a really dark place and called you because I knew you’d make me feel better. Do you think I’m OK?”

“What do you mean?”

“Cassie.”

“For someone who didn’t do anything wrong, you certainly are acting like you did something wrong.”

“Fuck, Brooke, I didn’t do anything!”

“You ripped her pants down — ”

“I DIDN’T RIP HER PANTS DOWN. I PULLED THEM DOWN.”

“Did you unbutton them?”

“What?”

“Did you unbutton her pants?”

“I don’t know. What the fuck does that matter?”

“It does matter. It all matters. You’ve tortured me for over two years — do you realize that? Cassie told you two months before my accident that what you did was fucked up, but she wasn’t going to do anything punitive. And then — and then — you lied to my family and friends, saying you were my boyfriend to paint some sort of sympathetic narrative for some made-up situation you thought you were in — something that wasn’t real. But what happened to me was real. Everything — my whole life — my whole life. And my whole life meant nothing to you … you — ”

“Wow,” Stanley interrupted in amazement. “Your speaking — your speech is really good. You could barely string together a sentence before. You — ”

You!” I roared back. “You stressed me out all of the time. You interrupted me. You yelled at me until I shook. I — ” My voice cracked. I felt — all at once — I felt pain. Regret. Shame. Remorse. “In the time you’ve been out of my life, I’ve made such improvements,” I continued in a near whisper, “… amazing improvements … if you had never been around … if you hadn’t forced your way into my recovery … ” I trailed off.

“You can’t put that on me — I was going through something — ”

“No.” It was resolute enough to make Stanley fall silent. “You went through nothing. You did something very wrong to Cassie. And me — you probably stunted the progress I could have made. I’ll never know. Goodbye, Stanley.”

Cassie doesn’t hate me, but she should. At least that’s how I feel about it.

We were able to see each other in person in 2017, then we talked on the phone in the summer of 2019. She’s doing well, despite everything, and understands the emotional manipulation Stanley employed to keep me under his thumb. She’s given me grace I’m not yet ready to give myself.

I don’t know where Stanley is or what he’s chosen to do with his life. I hope he’s done some self-reflection, but I doubt he has. The hold rape culture has on us all makes it nearly impossible for genuine self-reflection to occur in these types of men.

My physical deficits are still an everyday part of my life, but I’ve come to accept my disability. Ironically, the trauma of my accident, recovery, and new identity as a disabled person pales in comparison to the effects of Stanley’s destructive presence. I’m suspicious of all romantic partners and don’t trust the motives anyone purports to have. I’m distrustful and resentful. I go to therapy to discern which parts of my skepticism are warranted and which are pure paranoia. Even when I know, am painstakingly shown the truth, it doesn’t feel real or genuine.

Despite this, I’ve developed a tenuous romantic relationship — maybe the word “situation” is more accurate — with an old friend who lives on the other side of the country. I think this is all I’m capable of, and right now, it’s all I want. Maybe that’ll change, but for now, I’m grateful for my cognitive capabilities, the drive to stay sober, and the lack of responsibility for someone else’s emotional stability — maintaining my own is quite enough.