When I tell this story, I’m the hero.
I’m eighteen, and I’m in a bar in Brussels. I’ve been living in Belgium for almost a year in a town called Tournai, but I go to Brussels to party on the weekends. I take the hour-long train to the city on Fridays, makeup and clean underwear in my purse, and I roll back to Tournai on Sunday nights, exhausted and wearing the same outfit but new underwear. I don’t get hungover yet because I’m still young. I keep careful records of my adventures so I can brag about them for years to come. When I write down the stories in my journal, between the event tickets and carefully peeled off beer labels, I record only the right truths, the correct ones. The stories are crafted so I’m always the good guy.
I’m in the bar because it’s Emma’s birthday. It’s an absinthe bar, mostly empty because it’s probably too early for absinthe, just across a narrow cobblestone street from the famous Delirium Tremens brewery and bar, which has more than two thousand kinds of beer. Emma’s other friends are over at Delirium, but Emma and I need a shot. Emma because she’s already very drunk and it’s her birthday, and me because I just got there and I have a lot of catching up to do with the other revelers. Neither of us plans on going home that night, just clubbing and drinking until the first train in the morning.
I don’t admit it when I tell the story, but this is a tourist absinthe bar. Real absinthe drinkers let the bitter, licorice-flavored drink drip slowly over ice. Because we are young and ridiculous, we drink it on fire. First, the green liquor is poured into a shot glass, and you’re given a flat spoon with holes in it and a sugar cube. You dunk the cube into the shot, then balance it on the spoon over the drink and light the sugar on fire. It caramelizes, and if you’re smart you blow the fire out, crush the remains of the sugar cube in the shot, and drink it. If you’re not as smart, you drop the fiery cube into the drink, and it burns off some of the alcohol. If you’re really not smart, if you’ve been drinking all day and it’s your birthday, you throw the fiery shot back but spill the fire on your lips, which are soaked in alcohol already.
This is when I get to be the hero, leaping across an empty barstool to slap the ring of purple flames off Emma’s face. I fully believe I save her life.
“Why are you hitting me?” she asks, unaware of the flames licking her lips.
“Bitch, your face is on fire,” I say, in perhaps one of the most dramatic lines of my life. Or at least, I think I say this. I will tell the story so many times I will forget my actual response and replace it with a better, more interesting one.
For Emma, the pain sets in slowly over the next hour. When we rejoin the other exchange students, her lips are swollen like a clown’s. We tell the story, and it ends here, a problem and a solution, a rescue. Emma pouts because it’s her seventeenth birthday and she still expects things to be magical on birthdays.
In Belgium, I am the shittiest person I will ever be. I don’t realize it, of course, not until years later when I’m telling the stories out loud. I drink too much beer in Belgium to realize how shitty I actually am. I drink until all the nights blend together, until the timeline is messy and unreliable, every party slipping blurrily into the next. I drink twenty-four pounds of beer—about eleven kilos—and when a cute Brazilian boy rubs my stomach and says, “Is this from the beer or the frites?” it is that comment that sticks to my insecurity. I will remember his hand on my stomach, questioning all my choices. I will repeat this part of the story over and over to my outraged, body-positive friends. The story will start and end in one line, “beer or frites?” and it will elicit the correct reactions: shock, horror, often the word “rude.” I will talk about how offended I am by that comment so I don’t talk about how, just a few hours earlier, the Brazilian boy’s friend had tried to rape me.
Emma’s birthday is a different night, not long after the “beer or frites” night. The party is still fun. We’re still drinking. We are talking in English, most of us American or Australian or from a country that has a robust English-as-a-second-language program. We are supposed to be learning French. That is the point of the whole exchange, but we barely learn French. I stop caring about grammar after Christmas, just letting the Belgians correct my verb tenses. Conjugation is too hard when I’m drunk.
There’s another American in the bar, and he hears us speaking English. I don’t remember his name. To me, he’s just the American, which is silly because I’m an American, but also I’m convinced that, by this point in my exchange, I have become more European, more cultured. I cast aside my American-ness with a wave of my hand.
“What’s good here?” the American asks, hefting the beer menu, which is as thick as a phone book.
I suggest a beer and tell him it’s my favorite. I know it is a good one because lots of people have told me it’s good, but I still struggle to actually like the taste. I try very hard not to make a face when I drink a sip. My actual favorite beer is a honey-flavored ale, but I’m worried it will be too immature, too girly, for this stranger.
There is nothing immature or girly about the American. He is older, at least twenty, maybe even in his mid-twenties. He is in the Air Force, he tells us, on some kind of break. He is very tall and very broad, a giant, and when I tell this story I say that his biceps are the size of my waist. This is almost correct. The size my waist used to be. The twenty-four pounds of beer has changed my figure significantly.
I think about his biceps. He has a huge tattoo on one of them, a full sleeve depicting a ship in the tentacled arms of a kraken. I ask him to tell me about it, and he does but the story is so bland I forget it immediately. I sometimes make up one for him, when I tell the story, so that he seems interesting and deep.
I trace my eyes over the lines and curves of the tattoo. I like it.
“You guys are fun,” the American says. “What are you celebrating?”
“My birthday!” clown-lipped Emma shouts.
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” I lie for her.
She smiles a circus smile at me.
I slip outside. The alley between the bars is choked with cigarette smoke. I’m smoking cigarettes wrapped in dark paper that are flavored like chocolate. They’re called Black Devils and they’re delicious. I don’t bring a lighter with me when I go out because I like asking men seductively for a light. It is the only way I know how to flirt.
“Vous avez de feu?” I ask a skinny boy in an open blazer. He lights my Black Devil and goes back to chatting with his friends in fast French. I lean against the wall, the rough brick pulling at my hair. The world swims around me, glowing orange in the setting sun.
Emma joins me. “Let’s have a threesome with the American. For my birthday.”
I don’t want to have a threesome with her. She is already drunk, her lips fucked up. And besides, she is so small and so pretty and all the boys already like her. I don’t want to have another threesome where I am the least desired. I don’t want to sit there and wait for a chance to suck a thing or kiss a thing, trying not to be greedy or self-conscious, but the longer I wait the more I need and the more I hate myself. I don’t want her skinny, lithe body to lie before me, wanton for comparison. I couldn’t handle it.
“Sure,” I say. “For your birthday.”
The night the Brazilian’s friend tries to rape me, my friends and I meet up with another group of exchange students visiting Brussels for the weekend. Their big group somehow found us on one of our all-night parties, and they invited us to their hotel, where we could scavenge from the minibar and rest between bars. I’m warm-belly drunk, full of drunkenness like it is a meal.
There is a knock on the door.
It is a different boy. His hair is white as ash, and I can’t remember if it’s like that naturally or if it’s dyed. It reminds me of an anime character, that white.
“Are you the girl who knows how to roll joints?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say, glad my skills are both recognized and appreciated. I go with him.
I sometimes tell this part of the story to friends, after a few drinks, when I’m feeling strong and invulnerable. I tell them how good I am at rolling joints. I brag that this white-haired stranger knew me, picked me. I don’t talk about the next part of the night.
Emma’s birthday party moves to the Grand Place, a huge square of beautiful old buildings. Someone told me when I first arrived that the architect of the grandest building killed himself by jumping off it, because the building turned out not to be perfectly symmetrical. I repeat this story to everyone, and they repeat it back to me. I don’t know if it is true. Around us, groups of tourists and locals move, some playing Frisbee, some taking pictures. It feels alive, and I feel alive, and I can almost see the stars through the city lights. It smells, like many places in Europe, like old stone and fresh piss.
The night has filtered our group down. Not everyone wants to stay out all night or has told their host families the proper lies to be able to. My host parents think I’m at Emma’s house, and her family thinks she’s at mine. Emma and some of her Belgian friends from school, the American, our friend Rohan, and I are all who are left. Rohan is from New York, and he is sixteen but he is so much cooler than me already because I am from Iowa. I haven’t been to music shows or seen celebrities. He did things worthy of stories before coming to Belgium. Rohan has a nerdy name and nerdy parents, but he is not like me. He didn’t spend high school reading books and crafting fantasy stories. He never had to make up stories. He could just live them.
Rohan walks when he gets drunk, and he wanders away from us. This is okay because the American and I are flirting, and Emma is playing cards with her Belgian friends trying (sort of) to sober up. We’ve bought a bottle of wine from a corner store, had them open it for us at the counter, and we pass the bottle around, sharing spit in the shadows of the impressive, medieval buildings. I forget what kind of wine it is, maybe rosé. I remember the night as overpoweringly sweet, overripe.
I have a threesome with another woman sometime during the beginning of my year abroad. Her name is Claire and she is beautiful and soft-lipped, and we eat Camembert cheese for dinner before, and we cry together at the train station afterward, her head on my chest. I don’t understand why she cries, not really. She is so thin and experienced and fun. All the boys like her, even the boy we both slept with together. He wanted her more, pulled her closer. She straddled him, and I sat there, hoping someone would remember me. Threesomes are supposed to be exciting and wild, but I was bored and alone. I didn’t have two lovers but instead watched my friends with a pathetic jealousy. I cry about that, how no matter how much I like a boy, he always seems to like someone else more.
That’s why I can’t have a threesome with Emma. I can’t stand it if she is the most loved, the most desirable. I can’t handle that again. That’s not the story I want to be living.
Rohan comes back from his drunken stroll, and he is fuming and swearing and demands a cigarette, not one of my shitty, girly black ones but a real actually-tastes-like-tobacco cigarette, which I also have because I smoke a lot in Belgium. I hand one over and he explains that his phone was stolen, how he earned the money himself, paid for the new SIM card so it worked in Europe. It held his music, his pictures, his memories. He is angry. He wants whiskey.
I use this opportunity to escape Emma with the American. “We’ll go to the police,” I say, “see if they can do anything.”
“Fuck the PO-LICE,” Emma says, slightly coherent.
“We can’t take Emma,” I explain.
“Fuck the PO-lice,” Emma says again.
The others agree.
Rohan, the American, and I go off. We leave Emma with her other friends.
The police do nothing, but we all expected that anyway. We end up in a quiet bar drinking whiskey. It is dark, and my guts feel heavy with booze.
“Tell me some fucked-up shit,” Rohan asks the American. “You’re a war hero? I bet you know some fucked-up shit.”
“Yeah, but are you sure?” He looks like he might be worried about my sensitive lady ears.
“I write fantasy books. Gore doesn’t bother me.”
He proceeds to tell us things that will bother me for years. Not long ago, he and his squadron raided what they thought was a terrorist recruitment center in Afghanistan. Instead, they walked into a basement that was a torture site. “People had to run out because of the smell. It was that bad,” he says, and I will spend many years imagining the rot of bodies and vomit and festering, necrotic flesh. I will try to portray it in my books, when my heroes stalk the blood-soaked fields after a battle. I will try to write it into dank caves where monsters lurk, the smell of death ripe and brutal.
The American continues, explaining how this body is ravaged and that body is destroyed, and there are wounds from knives and burns from cigarettes and then he says, “This is the one that really gets me,” and it will be the one I remember for the rest of my life.
There is a man hanging from a hook on the wall by his hands. The terrorists have created a set-up with a power drill, pointed into his abdomen, and yards of the man’s intestines have been twisted out of him by the drill. Disembowelment is the only proper term for it, reminiscent of medieval interrogators and historic brutality.
“How do you come back from something like that?” I ask, picturing medics trying to unwind the intestines from the drill.
“You don’t,” the American says, and at first I think he is trying to say that the man is dead, and then, the more I tell the story, the more I wonder if he is actually talking about himself.
We drink whiskey.
Emma is texting me, but I send Rohan back to her alone. The American and I go to his hotel room, paid for, he explains, by the righteous American taxpayer. I ask him, “You don’t want to have a threesome with Emma, do you?”
“No way,” he says. “She’s way too fucked up.”
I am happy with this answer. I am chosen, the most loved. I don’t think about consent, how Emma is actually way too messed up to be able to make a choice about her body. I just think about me, how maybe this American likes me more than someone else. My story has shifted.
The night I am almost raped, another exchange student, Alex, finds me crying in the hotel stairwell, a hard place made of cinderblocks with a steel utility railing. “Are you okay?” he asks. He is with a Brazilian boy, the one who will call me fat but not in so many words. Alex sends him away, though, and gives me a long hug. “What happened?” he asks.
I don’t know how to tell him. How I went to the boy’s room and rolled him two joints—one for now and one for later—with Amsterdam weed. How we smoked one on the roof of the hotel. I don’t know how to say out loud that, after smoking, the white-haired boy took me to his bed and at first it was all okay and then I said no and he didn’t seem to understand so I kept saying no and he kept fumbling between my legs and I asked him not to take off his pants but he did anyway and I was just lying there and then I knew I didn’t want to be there anymore and he tried to stop me and I pulled away and grabbed my purse and ran out and then I was in the stairway and my guts felt like they had been all twisted up with a power drill.
I don’t say any of this, not to Alex, who I think I am in love with, not to anyone. I won’t tell my friends, my parents, not until I’m safe in America, years between me and the white-haired boy.
I don’t remember what I say to Alex. I know I cry. I know I tell him I am feeling weird. When I retell the story, I say, “I should have taken his weed,” because stealing drugs is okay if the person you’re stealing them from just tried to rape you. I feel uncomfortable in my skin, more so than usual. I feel exposed, though I’m wearing a blue dress that isn’t terribly exposing. I have a strong desire to shower and let the water wash the night off me. I want to feel clean and fresh and climb into my bed back home, all the way in Iowa. I want my mom, not my host mom but my real one, who might understand me implicitly, no story necessary.
I remember crying in Alex’s arms and knowing I’m not the girl he wants in his arms in the first place. He wants Claire, just like the other boy from the threesome. Alex is my hero, but he doesn’t want to waste his night being a hero.
“Come with me,” he says. “I’m with a bunch of Latino guys. We’re dancing salsa and smoking hookah.”
I don’t feel warm drunk anymore but sick drunk. I don’t want to dance with a boy or let them put their hands on my belly and ask me how I got so fat, but I go with him anyway.
The night of Emma’s birthday, the American shows me his hotel room, with the big TV and the king-sized bed covered in a red duvet. It smells like a hotel, sanitized and starched. I tell him I want to “freshen up” and, in the bathroom, I shower. I shave my legs and armpits quickly, and I come out wearing nothing but a towel and a full face of makeup. It is the first time in my life I do something like that, something so mature and sexy. I feel grown up, alluring.
The American is sitting on the bed, on top of the covers. He’s watching a nature show on the TV.
I drop the towel, like people do in movies.
The American fucks me doggy style, and it is the first time anyone has done that to me. He’s rough and strong enough to lift me and flip me and move me however he wants, and I am happy to let him. I don’t know what to do so I like when he tells me what to do. This is the third time in my whole life that I have had sex, and it hurts, but I don’t tell him.
I don’t come but it is not about coming. It is about being picked in the first place. It is about feeling small and beautiful and dainty next to this giant, this American hero. It is about feeling wanted. I watch the nature show and try to moan appropriately. Eventually he makes a big sound and a lion sinks its teeth into the hindquarters of a gazelle and he slides my body off of him, and we go to sleep, one of his massive arms wrapped around me.
For a while, I feel safe and loved, but not safe or loved enough to take off my makeup. I don’t feel like I thought I would. I still feel big and bloated. I wish I hadn’t drunk so much beer or eaten so many fries. I’m not sure what makes the American different from the white-haired boy, except maybe his torture stories and his biceps. Except maybe tonight I am drunker.
When I tell people about that night, I don’t mention my insecurities. I tell them about the burning mouth and the torture site and the rough sex because it is all sensational and wild, and then everyone will know that I’m a cool person, willing to put myself into danger to save a friend, someone who isn’t bothered by gore and has one-night stands. I don’t like myself, but I like who I am in the stories.
In the morning, I sneak out before the American wakes up. I smoke a cigarette on the cobblestone street, listening to a homeless man sing “Satisfaction” and play a beat-up guitar covered with band stickers. I check my phone and Emma needs me. I trudge to the train station, where she is waiting outside, chain smoking through lips that don’t even look real anymore. She is alone, Rohan and the Belgian friends long gone. She sits at the base of a cement column, her legs kicked out, pale hands on a Styrofoam coffee cup.
“Happy birthday,” I say. I feel bad, a hangover of regrets.
“How bad do I look? I think I must look pretty bad. Someone bought me this coffee.”
“You look pretty bad.” I haven’t learned to lie about things like that. Her lips are gray-ish and blistered. They are three or four sizes too large. They are unhideable by makeup. “Does it hurt?”
I imagine what her whole face would look like, had I not been there to save her at the beginning of it all. I imagine her pretty features all swollen and blistered and ashy. I imagine what her lips will look like when they are healed, if they are ever healed, and they are not the lips of a beautiful girl, nothing like Claire. “Yeah, I can’t believe you yelled at me when I was trying to put the fire out.”
“Yeah, seriously, thank you for not letting me burn.”
And just like that, I am a good guy again. I feel important, but not in the way I want to feel important. So I keep crafting myself stories about that night, about all the nights. I write them down, tape down more beer labels into my journal, keep a list of every boy I ever kissed, on purpose and not on purpose. I don’t write about the white-haired boy or the Brazilian calling me fat. On the train home, I watch the green countryside pass the windows, and I tell myself about the grand adventure I had, all the stories I collected here, how I am the hero of every one of them.