We didn't gather round

"We didn't gather round," she said. "It was the least we could have done. We should have listened to you and surrounded you with love. We should have gathered round." 

They are sitting at a bar in Sandton, a decade and 975km away from Grahamstown, and the night she was raped. Their sneakers have long since been replaced with heels and they now pay triple the price for a glass of wine than they did for a bottle. To Candice, her rape feels like a vague anecdote of something that happened to somebody else, something she can speak about as glibly as her graduation. Even the word, rape, seems too harsh a word to describe what took place, despite the police, the line-up and the endless questioning. For this reason, her friend's remorse comes as a surprise. 

"You're not to blame, you didn't know what to do." 

"Admit it though, we could have done more. God, we could have said something." 

She had a point. Nobody ever asked her directly about what had happened to her. Rather, the information was passed on through whispers in the dining hall, over coffee dates that she wasn't invited to. University life bubbled and flowed past her, an ongoing river of nights out, drunken stories and love affairs. She stayed stuck like a stone, paralysed with the guilt that it was all her fault. Nobody explicitly said it wasn't, so she assumed it was. She was so drunk that night after all. 

Her friends didn't wonder why she started sleeping around a few months later. They were grateful  to have the old Candice back, regaling stories about filthy sexploits over tumblers of Autumn Harvest Crackling. Secretly they thought, "Ah look how easy she is. The whole rape thing must have just been a misunderstanding."Nobody considered she might be using sex to assert her power against men or even act out her rage against them (now I get to fuck you this time and walk away). Real rape victims don't act like that. They cower in a corner and wither away until nobody has to see them anymore. 

While nobody gathered round and comforted her, some of the other girls in her res let their facade slip. Shelly lost her virginity in O week to a fourth year, but in Never Have I Ever she admitted she didn't really say yes. Natalie got a reputation for doing anal with a guy in Smuts House, but she doesn't remember a second of it. Jen broke down one night outside The Rat and Parrot, sobbing to a concerned huddle of girls that her classmate in politics had forced himself on her. 

There was no reference point back then, nothing to lean on when they were haunted by visions of  wanting 'it,' then flashbacks of what happened when they changed their minds and said no. There was only the persistent fear of 'causing a scene,' because it would make people look at them, people who held the power to form their own judgements over whether or not they were to blame after all. 

This is why nobody gathered round. With her court case and her Page Two story in the paper, Candice had made too much of a scene. Secretly, everybody believed that real rapes belong in the paper, ones where monsters from outside of campus pin girls down behind the bushes and hold a gun to their head, leaving them for dead when they're done. If the alleged rapes that happen on campus are real, that means the monsters can't be confined to a prison cell, asylum or poverty-stricken neighbourhood. The monsters have lived among them all along. 

Candice dropped her case. She froze when the investigating officer sent her a date for the trial and a time to come and identify the two suspects. The shame was still too raw, as was the uncomfortable feeling that maybe she was mistaken. Still, even she made it through her phase of inflamed promiscuity to settle down into suburban life. 

Four years after those drinks in Sandton, she arrived at the first birthday party of that same friend's child. A guy who pissed on the floor of their third year digs was standing at the braai, fussing over the fillet. The guy who made out with a schoolgirl from DSG was showing off the engagement ring on his fresh-face fiancé's finger. The tall guy from politics who raped her friend was bottle-feeding his baby while seriously discussing the various merits of store loyalty cards. The one who took her other friend's virginity was boring a group of acquaintances about how he got funding for his start up. 

Those University days were so messy, so raw, so violent. Everybody was still learning who they were meant to be and disappointing themselves in the process. Thankfully, time smooths everyone over. It's so easy to dismiss the blurred line between sex and violence as a by-product of alcohol, hormones and underdeveloped minds. Still Candice gets a chill when she looks over at the uncontrollable boys, now wearing expensive clothes and acting as men. Where is that aggression channelled now? Perhaps the monsters still live among them after all.