MJ opened her eyes slowly, adjusting to the light streaming in the window across the room. She looked around, and thought “I must be in a boy’s room”, which she gathered from the generic plaid comforter set and the American flag hanging on the wall. She had a wicked headache, and she was nauseous as she sat up, almost laughing at herself for getting so drunk she had to crash at the frat house. But then she realized-
She wasn’t wearing a shirt.
She looked down, confused, and that’s when she saw the bruises starting to form on her arms. When she registered the soreness in the lower half of her body.
And that’s when she realized what must have happened.
Her eyes open wider now, she looked around the room, searching desperately for a clue that she could use to prove herself wrong.
What she saw instead was a pile of her clothes on the ground, her favorite top sitting crumpled on top of a pair of jeans she didn’t recognize. Mens’ jeans.
MJ closed her eyes, trying to piece together what had happened last night. She remembered going to the party with her friends, taking tequila shots with a girl from her English class, and… that’s it, until about right now.
Starting to panic, MJ grabbed her clothes and got dressed as fast as she could without throwing up. She creaked open the door to the hallway, craning her head to see if she could spot anyone in the hallway. Seeing no one, she quietly shuffled down the hallway and down the stairs, emerging into the kitchen, where a couple boys were passed out on the couch, surrounded by red solo cups and liquids she couldn’t identify. That’s when she saw the clock for the first time- it was only six thirty, and the sun hadn’t even risen yet. Still, she made a move to the front door, easing it open and stepping into the darkness. In the back of her head, she heard her mother’s voice, reminding her not to go out on campus alone when it was dark out- something might happen to a young girl walking the streets by herself.
But the worst had already happened to Mary Jane Healy, and it wasn’t when she was alone, out late by herself. It happened when she was surrounded by people. By her friends.
She felt detached from her body as she stepped into the cold air and started the walk back to her dorm. She didn’t know where her key was, so when she got to her room, she pounded on the door until her roommate cracked the door open, trying to see who it was.
“Jesus MJ, rough night? You look like shit!” Kate whispered in the dark, as MJ pushed past her into their room.
“What happened?” Kate pressed further.
And in that moment, MJ made a decision that she would live with for the rest of her life.
“Nothing. I just didn’t want to walk back here by myself, so I crashed on the couch”, she said quickly while changing into sweats.
“Oh, thank God! I was worried about you, MJ. I thought…” Kate trailed off. “I thought something happened to you”.
“Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Kind of lame party, honestly”,said MJ as she climbed into bed.
And so, it was over. Like it never happened. Lesson learned. Never to be spoken of again.
MJ shut the door to the bedroom she shared with Steve, and she cried.
Why she was crying, she didn’t particularly know. Presumably, it was because she had found Steve’s recent searches for porn on his work laptop, and she was fuming at him and devastated with herself.
It’s your fault, a voice in her mind said. This is your doing.
And with that, MJ cried more, stumbling her way to their perfectly made bed and crawling under the covers. Maybe it was her fault. She certainly wasn’t having sex with Steve, and that’s why he was doing this, right? Because he didn’t know…
And with that thought, she stopped herself. There was nothing for Steve to know, nothing at all. Her trauma was hers and it really was not impacting her, or their relationship.
But even as she said those words to herself, she knew it was a lie.
Her car accident last year had put her on high alert. The soreness following surgery was eerily similar to the soreness she felt after that night in college. The lighting in her hospital room nearly identical to that of the doctors office where she had gotten a pregnancy test, just in case. It was like the accident had unlocked all these hidden memories of what happened to her that Friday in March, and now she was paying the price for it.
And so when Steve initiated things, it was best for her to just turn her back, pretend it wasn’t happening. She felt safer that way, knowing that if she could ignore it, she wouldn’t have to face it. Deep down, a part of her wanted to tell Steve, but she just couldn’t bring herself to say anything to him. He would hate her. Think she was disgusting. She wouldn’t be the person he thought she was. And so he could never know.
With that, her crying got more intense, shaking her whole body. Her phone sat heavy in her pocket, and she thought about how easy it would be to call Steve and tell him he needed to come home. He would drop everything for her, she knew that, but she couldn’t bring herself to pick up the phone.
So she stayed in bed, until the kids got home from school, and then she pulled herself up, wiped her eyes, and plastered a smile on her face for the rest of the day.
Today had been fine. Until Frankie came barreling into the house saying that Bella Fox had been…
MJ couldn’t even bring herself to say the word in her head as she shut the bathroom door behind her. That whole conversation with Frankie had sent her into a spiral as soon as her daughter had walked out the front door. MJ couldn’t catch her breath, and every attempt to breathe deeply only made her panic grow.
Breathe, she told herself, just breathe.
But she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move, except her whole body was shaking and part of her thought she was going to die there, alone on the bathroom floor. She knew Nick was home, and that she could yell for him and he would come running, but she couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. It was like she was suffocating. Her whole body was tense and shaking, and she still couldn’t breathe.
MJ kept trying to calm herself down but she couldn’t. There was nothing in the world that felt like it could make this stop. The panic lasted so long that part of MJ was convinced that she would be stuck in this state forever, just a shivering, hyperventilating mess on the tiled floor of her bathroom.
Minutes passed, though they felt like decades to MJ, who was still crying and shaking, but breathing more deeply and beginning to calm down. The panic attack had passed, but the idea of Bella feeling the way she had once felt, still felt, lingered with her.
Somehow, MJ peeled herself off the floor of the bathroom and stumbled her way into the shower, clothes still on. Sitting on the shower floor, she turned the water on as hot as it would go, and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. The water made her feel more aware, more present, and she was struck with the realization that Steve would be home from the store soon, and she was sitting in the shower in jeans and a sweater. Quickly, she peeled off her soaking clothes, got out of the shower, and went to put on a new outfit, as if nothing had happened.
Because that’s what MJ did. Cry about it, and then move on. Like nothing had ever happened.
Sitting on the couch next to Steve felt foreign. Sure, they had sat next to each other on the couch through their entire relationship, but this was entirely different. In a room that wasn’t theirs, filled with horrible furniture and paintings that looked like they’d been purchased at Homegoods.
MJ felt tense, more than she had ever felt in her entire life. Ever since all the information had come out about Bella, she had felt so on edge, like one little thing would break her into a million pieces. But after a fight with Steve, she had agreed to go to couples counseling, which she was now regretting with every fiber of her being.
There was one poster on the door that she kept staring at, one that read The Truth Will Set You Free in a tacky font that MJ hated. She was laughing in her ahead about the message, because there was no way that telling Steve the truth about what had happened so many years earlier would set MJ free. In reality, telling Steve would just make everything worse.
Or would it?
The thought flashed through MJ’s mind so quickly she almost missed it.
Maybe you should just tell him.
MJ felt taken aback by her own thought, even though she knew that some part of her brain wanted to tell Steve the truth. She had never told a single soul about that night and she sure wasn’t going to reveal her past in front of a stranger and her husband.
But the thought put MJ on edge, more so than she cared to admit. So once the doctor came in and the session began, she was combative, snappy, and, quite frankly, mean. Thr thought of revealing her past was present the entire time, and she recognized how easy it would be to let it go. To tell Steve, to tell this therapist. Maybe then Steve would understand how badly she needed help, how it wasn’t that she didn’t want to have sex, she was scared to. How every time there was a news piece about Bella Fox she felt like she was going to throw up. About her panic attack in the bathroom.
It would be so easy, she thought, to just let it all go.
But it wasn’t that easy. Steve wouldn’t understand, and she had known their therapist for forty minutes, so it wasn’t as if MJ was going to spill her trauma to her. But deep down, MJ realized that she needed to tell someone. Her marriage was failing, her relationship with her kids was failing, her life was falling apart and most of it was because of this one dirty little secret she kept to herself. And she could start to fix it. Right now.
But she couldn’t bring herself to say the words I need help.
And so she didn’t.
Hands. Hands everywhere, on her stomach, her face, her hips. Hands grabbing at hair and pulling it, and it hurt and-
MJ shot up in bed, breathing heavily, heart racing, eyes searching the room for whoever had just been touching her.
It wasn’t real, she thought to herself, it was just a dream.
So why could she still feel a set of hands on her stomach?
Her heart was still racing, and her breathing was getting more frantic. Beside her, Steve slept, snoring. He was a deep sleeper- there was no way MJ’s little incident would wake him up. It never had in the past, even when she would sit there for hours trying to calm herself.
As much as she tried to slow her breathing, MJ couldn’t do it. Her chest was rising and falling so fast, and her heart was beating so fast and her mind was racing so fast and-
“Stop”, she whispered to herself.
This was a trick she had taught herself back in college, when the nightmares started. Sometimes, if MJ could tell herself to stop, her body would respond. Her breathing would deepen and her pulse would slow and she would be fine.
Tonight, it didn’t seem like she would be that lucky. The dream just felt so real, and MJ couldn’t stop thinking about it. A tear slid down her cheek as she tried to regain control over her mind. She didn’t know what to do. Her thoughts were spiraling so fast she didn’t know what would make them stop.
Steve, she thought. As much as they had been fighting lately, Steve was big and strong and she knew that he would hold her until she felt safe. But she couldn’t bring herself to wake him, choosing instead to move herself to the bathroom so no one would hear her sobs.
Why is this my life? She thought. What did I do to deserve this?
Sinking to the floor, leaned against the shower door, MJ cried and hyperventilated and heaved until her body was exhausted. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was 5:30- close to when she would be getting up anyway, no point in going back to bed now. And so she washed her face, put on her slippers, and went down to make the kids breakfast. As far as anyone in the Healy house knew, MJ had slept all night, no problems. And that was how MJ kept it.
MJ and Steve left the courthouse hand in hand, MJ leaning on Steve a bit as they entered the elevator of the parking garage. Sitting through Bella’s testimony had been exhausting for MJ, though surely not as exhausting as it was for Bella. Still, Bella’s words rung fresh in MJ’s head as Steve drove them home, humming along to whatever awful 80’s song was on the radio. MJ closed her eyes and smiled at his antics, but a wave of sadness came over her. They didn’t have the verdict on the case yet- it would be several weeks still before the jurors decided on the case. But for Bella, the hardest part was over- she had looked that boy in the eye and told everyone what had happened.
Something MJ never did.
And would never do.
The thought hit her as Steve opened their front door and she stepped into their house, the life they had built for themselves. As she walked into the kitchen, Bella’s description of her assault played over and over in her head- so similar to what had happened to MJ, all those years earlier.
Even with months of therapy, thoughts of her assault often still put MJ in a state of panic. Today was no different. As she replayed what she had seen in that courtroom, her heart began to race, her breathing became shallow, and the panic rose from her belly. Her thoughts were spiraling, and fast.
But things were different now. Instead of hiding in the bathroom, she turned to face Steve, who was poking around the fridge for a snack.
“Steve” she said at almost a whisper, “I… need help”.
With that, Steve turned around and took in what was happening in front of him. It was still surprising to him to see MJ cry- years of her pushing her feelings down meant that Steve only ever saw the MJ that was a perfectionist, the one who took a spin class four days a week and drove the kids to their practices and made dinner every night. He was still getting used to seeing this MJ, who was vulnerable and emotional and… scared. She seemed scared now, kind of all the time. Of what, Steve wasn’t sure, and frankly, neither was MJ, but it was something they were working through. Together.
Seeing the rapid rise and fall of his wife’s shoulders, Steve took MJ’s hand and led her to the couch, where she sat up straight as a board, still trying to hide her panic from her husband. Slowly, Steve started rubbing circles on her back, reminding her to breathe, and that it was going to be okay.
Suddenly, MJ let out a strangled sob and fell into Steve, clutching at the sleeves of his shirt. Her breathing was getting shallower and she felt too out of control, too vulnerable.
Steve guided her head up so her eyes met his and said, quietly, “MJ, I know it hurts right now, but you will get through this. You’ve gotten through everything before this, and you are going to be just fine, you hear me?”
MJ nodded silently, falling into Steve again as he held her close, her breathing beginning to slow.
Later, when Nick and Frankie came into the house, they found their parents asleep on the couch, MJ curled up next to Steve, who still had a protective arm around MJ’s waist. Both were softly snoring with peaceful looks on their faces, like nothing had ever happened.