People with PTSD may experience nightmares, flashbacks, and feel as if they are still in the midst of the traumatic event. Although it has been twenty years since Felicia, now 34, was attacked in her family’s swimming pool by her brother’s friend, Christian, she is easily returned to the horror of that day when she is exposed to cues, or triggers, that remind her of what happened.
Christian was a frequent visitor to Felicia’s home. He and her brother, Francisco—everyone called him Frankie—were in Police Explorers together, and their friendship was rooted in the pursuit of a career in law enforcement. Although the boys were only 17 and in eleventh grade, they functioned as what amounted to “junior officers” in their local police department, and Frankie spent more time there than at home.
One August afternoon, Felicia was dressed in her swimsuit, about to go for a dip, when the doorbell rang. Christian stood on her porch.
“Hey, Frankie’s not home. I think he’s at the police department.”
“Yeah, I know, but he told me wait here for him. Okay if I come in?” Christian stepped into the foyer without waiting for a response, but Felicia thought nothing of it. Sure, Christian was a sort of weird and a little rude, but he was Frankie’s friend, and she was raised to be polite to guests in their home.
Felicia shrugged. “Sure, I guess. I’m headed out to go swimming, but you can watch TV while you wait.”
Felicia’s eyes were closed as she floated, completely relaxed, on a raft, so she didn’t notice Christian stealthily approach the pool; nor was she amused when he “cannonballed” in, overturning her raft.
She popped out of the water to discover that his face was mere inches from hers. She sputtered angrily, “Wh-why did you do that?”
Christian splashed her, laughing. “You looked like you were hot… and I do mean” –he wiggled his eyebrows—“hot.”
Felicia was purely pissed. She turned away but stopped and whipped back to give him a piece of her mind. “Why did you think that was okay to do? … I thought you were going to wait inside. And . . .what are you wear—?” Her eyes widened. “Where are your swim trunks?”
Christian allowed himself to slip back into the water then float to the surface, exposing his tightie whities. “Who needs a swimsuit? Actually, I think I’ll just . . .” he lowered his legs, slipped off his underwear, flung them onto the concrete deck, and gave Felicia a wide smile.
“Oh, my God, you are disgusting!” She lunged for the ladder, and she’d just put a foot on the lowest rung when Christian rammed into her from behind, spun her toward him as easily as if she was a rag doll, and pressed his body against hers.
“I see the way you look at me,” he breathed into her ear. In pain and reeling from being battered against the ladder, Felicia managed only a weak shove.
Christian pushed her back, holding her in place against the wall. He flipped up her bikini top, exposing her breasts. She instinctively covered them with her hands. He clasped her wrists roughly, pulled her forward, and ground his lips against hers.
Felicia turned her head. “St-st-STOP! Let me go!” She kicked at him, but her efforts were useless. Christian was tall and thin, but weightlifting made him muscular. He easily maintained control over her.
He pressed against her so that she could feel his hardness, which sent her into a frenzy of machinations as she tried to escape. Christian was breathless as he tried to wrangle the equivalent of an angry cat into surrender. “Come on, now, don’t fight it …You know you want it…”
Felicia cursed at him in Spanish. “¡Estás pero si bien pendejo!”
Christian’s eyes became cold at being called a fucking idiot. In a flash, he shoved Felicia underwater. He flattened one palm against the top of her head to hold her down as he reached for her breasts, roughly grabbing and pulling.
Felicia struggled and kicked, tried to propel to the surface, but Christian seemed determined to drown her. She was overcome with panic, and the air escaping her lungs produced angrily boiling bubbles. Felicia heard herself scream, “Nooo!” but it might have been only in her mind. She inhaled water and completely freaked out, clawing for the surface but unable to reach it.
Christian abruptly pulled her just far enough above the water for her to sputter, retch, and shake. His mouth twisted into a grimace of a smile as he watched her attempt to breathe normally. She felt his painful grip on her upper arms relax slightly, and he pulled her against his body again. Momentarily paralyzed and confused, Felicia perceived herself as watching what was happening from above.
Christian inhaled a shuddery breath and exhaled, “Now will you be nice? It’s not gonna be bad as long as you stay still.” He reached for her bikini bottoms and slid them down halfway, but the material twisted and he could not maneuver it easily with one hand.
Felicia was unable to form words; what she said was unintelligible. He let go of her so that he could use both hands to remove her bottoms, and she heaved her body sideways then swam for the steps halfway across the pool.
Christian easily caught her. He held her by the waist, amused at her useless struggling while he stood flat-footed on the bottom of the pool. Even though Felicia had muscular legs from running track in middle school, the water was too deep for her to touch the floor. She cursed at him again and slashed his face with her nails, leaving three long scratches.
“You bitch!” Enraged, Christian plunged her underwater with both hands. She found herself too weak to fight as strenuously as she had the first time she’d been submerged, but took advantage of her assailant standing in place instead of treading water.
Felicia dug her fingernails into the soft flesh of Christian’s midsection, then used every ounce of remaining strength to thrust her knee up between his legs. He immediately released his hold as he crumpled; she lunged toward the shallow end and pulled herself out of the water.
Christian did not return to their home again, and Felicia never told her parents or Frankie what happened that day in the pool.
To add to the unfortunate state of her life, Felicia and Frankie’s family was dysfunctional: Frankie practically lived at the police department to avoid their stepfather’s alcoholic rages. If their family were our solar system, Felicia was Mercury and Frankie was Saturn, orbiting the same sun but on different trajectories.
When drunk, their stepfather, Orlando, called Felicia “Puta” (Whore) and accused her of sleeping around, even though she’d never given him cause to make such accusations. Orlando hated cops, and expressed his disdain for Frankie’s career goal by verbally and physically abusing him. Frankie, like Felicia, was short, and Orlando easily slammed him against walls. Orlando bestowed upon Frankie a nickname: “Gusano” (Worm), because he said Frankie was spineless.
For whatever reason, Frankie perceived Felicia as their parents’ favorite, and his resentment of her ran deep. While the idea of protecting people was his main motive for becoming a cop, Felicia was not a benefactor of Frankie’s public good will. Once, when he suspected her of taking a pack of gum off his dresser, he placed her in a police choke-hold until she passed out.
Felicia’s mother was unwilling and/or incapable of advocating for her children. If they came to her with problems, she multiplied them tenfold by making herself the victim. If Felicia told her that Christian tried to rape her in the pool, it would simply mean that she would end up attempting to soothe her mother’s guilt about, for example, not knowing it was going to happen, and therefore not preventing it. Better not to say anything than to deal with another of her mom’s predictable emotional collapses.
Felicia was alone, and she knew it.
In the weeks following the attempted rape, she began her freshman year of high school. If she saw Christian in the hallway, she abruptly turned and walked the other way. She told herself that what happened that day in the pool did not matter, and comforted herself in knowing that she wounded him—at least temporarily—when she delivered the blow that enabled her escape.
Unwanted attention from a male relative hit its crescendo at about the same time as Christian’s attack on Felicia. She gave up running, which meant she lost the majority of her social group. Felicia withdrew from her previously active, full life, and began soothing herself with food. She developed Binge Eating Disorder, became very overweight, and, while she hated herself for it, especially because Orlando added “Gordita” (Little Fat Girl) to his list of insults, she also felt less vulnerable since guys no longer looked her up and down, the way they did her friends.
After graduating high school, Felicia went to work in a daycare, and the parents of her young charges loved her because of her patience and compassion. She smiled from early in the morning until the last parent arrived, no matter how late. But even Bella, the Great Pyrenees who slept by her side each night could not protect her from the 24/7 anxiety that kept her on high-alert.
And yet… she could not put a finger on why she was always uptight: what had she done to deserve feeling guilty all the time? She couldn’t remember, but was certain it must have been really bad. She was really bad.
At 34, Felicia had not consciously thought of Christian in years. Blips, like high-speed video clips, of the attack ran through her mind at odd times; for example, if she was near a swimming pool or smelled chlorine bleach. If she did not change the TV channel quickly when she happened upon a true-crime story about a woman whose details echoed her experience, a feeling of panic resonated within her. She had no interest in dating or physical intimacy; the thought of having a man’s body against hers inspired panic that sent her heart rate skyward.
That August day when she was 14 colored every aspect of Felicia’s life, but she didn’t even realize it. It wasn’t until a citywide tragedy occurred that her very personal trauma came home to roost. The passage of two decades made no difference: the ghost of Christian Palma walked right through her TV screen, into her bedroom. And she never saw it coming.
Several local police officers were gunned down in a vicious attack the evening before, and the ensuing manhunt went into the wee hours of the morning. Felicia was still half-asleep when she reached for the remote and clicked on the TV for the early morning news update. She tuned in just as an announcer said, “… and we now go to a news conference in progress, where Lieutenant Christian Palma, spokesman for the department, is giving an update.”
At the sound of his name, Felicia gasped and bolted upright. Although his hair was thinning and he wore rimless glasses, there was no doubt that the man in the uniform was the same person who attacked her twenty years earlier. His brown eyes seemed to bore into her own, and Felicia immediately transported back to the worst day of her life: his face in hers, and his attempts to subdue her through near-drowning.
Christian began to speak at the press conference and his thin, reedy voice was the same as on that day. In fact, Felicia could have sworn that he said, “I see the way you look at me.”
At that moment, Felicia’s mind opened up and let go a waterfall of images more terrifying than the worst of the nightmares that plagued her. She felt as if the attack was happening again. She could not move, and she spent the rest of that day curled into a fetal position, her bedcovers pulled over her head. She’d done the same: crawled into bed and hidden under her covers, her body a tight ball, after going inside her house twenty years before, when she left Christian cradling his balls in her swimming pool.
Monday morning, Felicia called into work and lied to her boss, saying that she had been sick all weekend with the flu, and that the doc at the urgent care told her to take the week off. Then she remained at home, ignoring phone calls and texts from her friend and co-worker, Denise.
Felicia would not shower because the thought of being fully wet sent her body into that place; that day in August,, and she could not even manage to step outside her door to check the mail. She convinced herself that Christian could be passing by, and even if some part of her knew it was very unlikely, it was too big of a chance to take. After all, he’d reinvaded her life the same way he’d invaded her pool that day in August, 20 years ago, when her sense of safety was shattered.
That Friday evening, Denise pulled into Felicia’s driveway. Unable to reach her friend all week, she had a feeling that something was very wrong. She knew that Felicia had a tendency to become depressed; she had once even told her about a suicide attempt she’d made while in high school. “Imagine how disappointed I was to wake up the next morning,” Felicia had said. When Denise expressed concern for her, Felicia insisted that the whole thing was a joke.
Felicia’s car was in her driveway, and her enormous dog, Bella, barked at Denise through the front window. She could see a package of cookies and a jug of milk on the bar that separated the living area from her kitchen—obviously Felicia was home—and with every second of knocking with no response, Denise’s panic grew that Felicia might be sick—or worse. At last, Denise whipped her phone from her pocket and dialed 9-1-1.
The moment Denise pulled into her driveway, Felicia paused in her cookie binge and ducked behind the tall counter. Mind whirling, she feared that if Denise saw how clearly not-sick she was, Denise would rat her out for lying to their boss and missing work. Denise had never given Felicia a reason to think she’d betray her, but Felicia was not in her right mind as she imagined the conversation:
“You don’t look sick to me, so why are you lying?”—then, she’d have to explain about Christian, and—then—and then—” Felicia shook her head, squeezed her eyes closed, and whispered, “No—no—no—no!”
When the knocking stopped, Felicia, thinking that Denise had given up and gone away, crawled from behind the tall counter where she’d been hiding, into the hallway leading to her bedroom. Out of sight at last, she stood. Bella was barking like crazy, but then Bella barked at leaves falling off trees, so…
She’d just tiptoed into her bedroom and started to close the door on Bella’s incessant barking when the officers Denise had summoned pounded on her front door and announced themselves as police. Felicia fainted on the spot.
Mary, the kind older woman who lived across the street and was Felicia’s landlord, paused in watering her flowers to watch the wildly gesticulating woman who followed the police as they walked the perimeter of the house, peeking in the windows. They shook their heads at the woman, and she got into her car, but did not seem happy about it. After she pulled away, the officers did the same.
Mary sat on her porch for a while and debated what to do, but at last retrieved the key to her rental and a milk bone for Bella. Mary marched across the street and let herself into her tenant’s house. Seconds later, she found Felicia alive, but definitely not well.
After repeatedly reassuring Felicia that she could never think less of her, Mary listened as the sobbing woman allowed twenty years’ of pain, shame, and self-doubt to spill onto her sturdy shoulders.
She rocked Felicia side to side and said softly, “You poor baby; I can only imagine how scared you must have been. But it’s not your fault, honey. It’s not now, and it never was.”
Mary set out fresh clothes for Felicia and convinced her to shower—something she only agreed to do after Mary promised she’d be right outside the door so that she wasn’t alone—and so that Felicia could be certain that Christian could not come in.
Afterward, Mary took Felicia to her home, made her soup and a sandwich, and shared the name of the therapist who saved her son’s life when he returned from Iraq with PTSD.