Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “In The Desert” by Maggie Hart. Maggie is a nonfiction writer from Colorado Springs. She studied history and writing at Coe College in Iowa and is set to pursue a Master's of English with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Oklahoma in 2023. Her work can be found in Little Village Magazine, Glass Mountain, and Cold Mountain Review. You can find her on Instagram at @maggie.hart.
I meet the man who will eventually rape me early in the morning on a day in January, fresh off a 14-hour overnight bus from La Serena to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. I am accustomed to these long bus rides. I even like them sometimes, when there aren’t too many twists, when the driver doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel and veer too closely to a cliff edge, when the person in front of me doesn’t bruise my knees lowering their seat back when it’s time to sleep. I get to watch unfamiliar cities and landscapes blur by for hour after lazy hour, these places I’ll probably never see again because my presence in all these places is temporary. Everything in my life is. I am on month five of an indefinite backpacking trip through South America, kind of working online and kind of just stumbling about and burning through money I saved bartending in Iowa, postponing the “settling down” portion of life I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready for.
I especially liked this bus ride because I am freshly heartbroken. I left the man who broke my heart behind in Peru less than a week ago, so I spent all 14 hours with my forehead pressed against the window and looking at the world, blurred both by movement and tears, and wondering why he didn’t ask me to stay. He asked me to live with him in his Cusco apartment after only knowing me four days. For three weeks, I fell asleep every night with my head on his chest and him whispering sweet nothings to me in Spanish I didn’t completely understand, but I thought I heard amor and siempre and I know those, those words that don’t feel like nothings. We were reckless with our emotions because we could be. It is simpler to love someone you cannot love forever. They stay perfect, unsullied by conflict or arguments or monotony. We were frenzied with adoration and impossibility.
On New Year’s Eve, Peruvians traditionally buy green grapes by the bushel and share them with one another, making a wish for every grape eaten. He soaked ours in champagne and fed them to me all night. I made the same wish every time.
I left him, and Peru, on the first day of 2022.
Neither of us said anything as I packed my backpack until it was overflowing, stuffing it with an alpaca print sweater and scarf and chocolates he brought me from the mountains. At his request, I’d already postponed my flight to Chile once so we could spend New Year’s Eve together, and I didn’t want to pay another airline fee to change it again. There was also the concerning absence of the usual restlessness that appears when I linger in a place too long, and I felt that living with him in that beautiful, ancient city was getting too comfortable. If I didn’t leave then, there was a good chance I would wake up months later still there, and what then? When we kissed for the last time, he held my face with both hands and looked at me so intensely that I thought, for a moment, that he was going to ask me to stay. I wouldn’t have. I have never stayed anywhere for anyone. I wasn’t ready to settle. I wanted him to ask anyway.
So I go to the airport, I get on a plane to Lima and on another plane to Santiago, I wander around the city, I get on a bus to La Serena, I get on a boat and see whales, I get on a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. I continue moving, because that is what I do, I keep going. It seems to me that as long as I continue to progress—through cities, countries, the continent—I can pretend that I am not stuck, that I am, in fact, moving forward in some way, that I know what I’m doing.
After I get off the bus in San Pedro de Atacama and collect my backpack from the luggage area underneath, I tug my tangled hair into a bun so it stops sticking to the sweat and grime on my face. I am greasy from 14 hours on a bus with no air conditioning and from the heat of the desert, already blazing at six in the morning.
I haven’t booked a place in advance, so I walk down the streets looking for a hostel. I knock on the door of the first one I come by, and no one answers. The next place I try has a big painting on the door, and it sort of resembles the tattoo on my finger. My rapist who isn’t my rapist yet opens the door after my first knock. He is cute in a conventional way, with bright eyes despite his grogginess, nicely tousled hair, and without a wrinkle in sight. He is so unlike the man I left behind who had deep creases on his face that made him look older than he was, creases I’d trace with my finger as he slept. I find out later that this man, the hostel employee, is a couple years older than me, but he acts younger. He’s puppy-like; eager, energetic, nice.
He's so nice that when he invites me to be his beer pong partner later, I say yes, even though I want to lay in my bunk and be heartbroken and as alone as one can be in a shared dorm room. Every time we win, which is every time we play, he picks me up and spins me around. When the salsa music starts to play, our bodies press close together, our foreheads touch. I am bad at salsa, so he holds me close, directing my body with his. I take his direction well; after a month in Colombia, I gathered that, for those of us without natural Latin rhythm, salsa is mostly about letting the lead take control, which is rather easy to do if I am buzzed enough.
When he takes me to a bonfire party in the middle of the desert, we sneak away from the flames so he can kiss me without an audience, not that anyone was sober enough to pay attention. He’s not a good kisser, far too slobbery, but I am in the sand in the middle of the desert in Chile and I can see more stars than I’ve ever been able to see before, so I don’t care. I kiss him back with my eyes open, looking at the sky. It’s different in the southern hemisphere, so I am reminded again how far I am from home.
We walk back to the hostel hand-in-hand. When we get there, he opens the front door and directs me to his room, which is immediately to the right of the entrance and the only private room in the building. The alcohol is slowing me down, so we’re there before I really even register our arrival. I take a look around. There’s a queen-size bed. There’s a clothing rack holding a few wrinkled T-shirts and shorts, at least two articles of clothing per hanger. There’s only one pillow. He sits down on the bed and pulls me to him, and in my drunken state it feels good that he wants me, this cute boy with nice hair who can salsa and is good at beer pong. But I don’t want to have sex with him. I am not ready for someone other than who I left behind to occupy that space yet.
Incidentally, that doesn’t seem to matter much to him. He paws at my clothes, and I let him take my shirt off, but that’s where it’ll stop, I think. I think we’ll kiss for a while, and then I’ll leave and go to my dorm, and he’ll probably be pissed, but I don’t care because I’m leaving in a few days anyway. This is all temporary.
That is not how it goes.
I tell him to stop when he starts untying my pants, but he doesn’t. I push him off me, and he gets right back on top, and he is so much heavier than he looks. I say no, but only once. He keeps saying it’s okay, with so much sincerity that I start to wonder if maybe he’s right, that this is okay and I’m just overreacting. I said stop and he didn’t, though, so I know it is rape when he shoves his way inside of me. I am being raped, I think, and it is so absurd, everything about this is so absurd.
It doesn’t hurt like I always imagined rape would.
He says something about how wet I am, and I realize that it’s not just something he’s saying because he thinks it sounds sexy but that it’s true, I am wet, and I hate my body more than I ever have because I can’t control it, this thing that I have to lug around and feed and clean and take care of, this thing that can’t even tell it’s being raped and respond accordingly by growing teeth or sealing shut or, at the very fucking least, drying up and making this whole rape thing just a little less enjoyable for him.
The man I left behind in Peru loved my body. He kissed every part of it, so slowly and intently it made me ache. It feels wrong to hate something he loved so completely. It feels wrong to think of him at all with another man thrusting into me even after I asked him to stop. It feels wrong to be here and not there, in his bed, tracing his wrinkled face.
I don’t scream. I don’t try to shove him off again.
I don’t want to think about what’s happening because I can’t quite wrap my head around it yet, that I am in Chile and a nice boy I danced with and kissed is now raping me, so I distract myself by thinking of every other man I’ve had sex with before. I’ve been lucky, I realize, because I don’t regret many of them. They were good people, kind, and they’d only gone inside me when I let them, when I asked them to. I try to remind myself that it can be good, to have someone inside of me, that it doesn’t usually feel like this. I think with the most fondness of my first, who was also a virgin and in love with me, and how we were clumsy and awkward together because we didn’t yet know how to use our bodies in this way, but he was gentle and kept asking me if it hurt, and I lied and said it didn’t because I almost loved him back and I didn’t want to be a virgin anymore.
When my rapist finishes, he asks if he can hold me, and this is all so strange.
Of course not, I want to say. You don’t cuddle with your rapist.
“I don’t want to,” I say instead.
“Why?” he asks, holding his arms out. His arms aren’t that muscular. I could’ve fought harder, I realize, and I am going to live with this forever, this knowledge that I could’ve done more and didn’t.
“Did you use a condom?” I ask, even though I know he didn’t. He shakes his head.
I dress quickly and walk out without looking at him. The water at this hostel gets turned off at 10 p.m., so I can’t even shower him off me. Instead, I strip in the bathroom and scrub myself with the wet wipes I usually use to wash the stickiness of fresh mango off my hands. I rub my body so roughly that I have patches of raw, pink skin. I put on a sports bra and shorts and fall asleep in a room with ten bunk beds and nine sleeping men from all over the world who don’t rape me but probably could if they wanted to.
The next day, he’s sitting just outside the dorm room and leaps up at me the moment I walk out the door. He asks me if I want to go on a motorbike ride so he can show me his favorite part of the desert. I say nothing. I want to turn around and go back into the room, crawl up the rickety ladder to my bunk, and hide under the sheet, but there is nothing, I realize, stopping him from following me there. He hands me a helmet, and I put it on without thinking. It is too small for my head and pinches my ears.
The man I left in Peru drove us everywhere on his motorbike. Every time, I would wrap my arms around his body and squeeze, and he made jokes about me being scared, but I wasn’t. Not of the motorbike, at least. I just liked holding him. Every now and then, he would reach back and run his hand up and down my thigh, and it was so intoxicating to me, the familiarity of this action, the tenderness of it.
My rapist gets on his motorbike and starts the engine. I get on the back. I don’t know why. There isn’t a why. It is another nonsensical thing I have to live with forever.
He brings me to a cave, his favorite place, and we spend two hours crawling through it even though I tell him I hate the dark. I scratch my arms and midriff every time I drag myself underneath a stone ceiling. The scratches bleed, and the openings in the cave get smaller, but I keep going because I don’t know how to do anything else and because there is no other way to get out.
After we emerge from the cave, he takes me to an adobe cottage he built himself in the middle of nowhere. It is empty except for a telescope and a rug, and when I see the rug, I know why he brought me here.
It is similar to the night before, but I am a little bolder this time. I say no five times instead of one: when he yanks my shirt over my head, when he unzips his shorts, when he pushes me onto the rug, when he pushes my underwear to the side, when he grabs my leg and puts it over his shoulder. I am only a little bolder because I say no five times, but I still don’t run, I don’t hit him, I don’t scream. I am in a position now of needing him; I have no idea where I am, except that I am in his cottage that I got to on his motorbike that he drove. There is nothing nearby, nowhere I could go, that doesn’t belong to him. I stop saying no because it doesn’t work, the word doesn’t mean anything anymore.
This time, I don’t think of men. I am practical with the time it takes for him to rape me, thinking instead of bus schedules and flight prices and future itineraries as his sweat drips in large beads on my body, on my eyelids, in my hair, mixing with my own. I have to keep going because that is what I do. I keep moving. Progress.
It is so hot here, I think, when he collapses on me and pants in my ear. I should go somewhere colder. In a few weeks, I will walk to a supermarket without a coat and in my sandals through the windy streets of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina, and for the first time I won’t flinch away from the frigidity. I will buy green grapes at the store. I will make lots of wishes. I will scratch at the scabs left behind from when I scrubbed myself with wet wipes in a bathroom in the desert I try not to think about.
When he drives us back through the desert, I cry not because I was just raped for the second time in twelve hours but because this body, his body, is all wrong, his stomach too hard and his shoulders too narrow, he is not who I left behind, and I am not handling any of this like I think I should.
The sun burns my shoulders. The helmet crushes my ears. I miss everyone I love but left anyway. These are such small, manageable pains. They are temporary. Everything is.
From the first sentence, I was in the grip of this amazing narrative, under its spell, sleepwalking along with you, your out-of-body experiences, your surrender to the realization that, "There is nothing nearby, nowhere I could go, that doesn’t belong to him. I stop saying no because it doesn’t work, the word doesn’t mean anything anymore."
So many levels in this extraordinary piece. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Dear lord. This gutted me.
I was 16 when it happened to me. I too know that feeling of betrayal of a body responding in spite of itself. I walked upstairs after - because it was a high school party and others were there - and sat on his lap and kissed his hard dry lips when he left a little while later. I am 47 now and I still replay that and question why, even though I know why. I know what world was made for a girl like i was then and the woman that you were in this story. I know the impossibility of all the things we think we would or should do. Thank you for writing the truth of this. Even this many years later, there is rest inside of every true story we tell.