My ex-boyfriend had a joke that went like this. He called it a joke. It was really more like a story. Here it is:
So there’s this guy who, one night, someone breaks into his bedroom and rapes him. The rapist is really quiet, really efficient. He doesn’t leave a trace: no DNA, no signs of forced entry. He’s pretty considerate, actually, uses lube. Uses a condom. Totally blindsides the guy while he’s sleeping. Has it down to a science.
How old is this guy? I asked.
He’s like nineteen.
Does he live alone?
So the next morning he goes to the police, they do a rape kit, they do a search, they find nothing. They sort of shrug and say there’s nothing they can do.
Sure. But the next week, it happens again. Same thing. He goes to the police, still no trace. They’re putting out press releases about a serial rapist in the area, dusting for fingerprints, securing the perimeter. Whatever cops do. They check the security cameras, don’t see anything. They shrug. And the next week it happens again. Twice.
And this time the guy can tell that the rapist didn’t use a condom, can tell that he came in his ass. He swears up and down that he could feel it. But the cops do another rape kit, check for DNA, and there’s nothing. The only DNA anywhere in the bedroom is the victim’s. By the end of the week, the entire police department has decided the poor guy is crazy and is making it all up. So he moves, he changes jobs, he changes his name. He tries all kinds of stuff. Expensive, high-security apartment buildings. Nameless motels in the middle of nowhere. He tries staying with friends, which works for a while until one night, it doesn’t. He asks them the next morning if they saw anyone, if they heard anything, and they say no, just each other, just him. Anywhere he goes, the rapist eventually finds him. The only thing that works is jail — he gets himself sentenced to eleven months in prison for stealing a car as a kind of experiment — but jail is so awful he decides that won’t work as a long-term solution. So this guy consigns himself to living in fear. He begins to wonder if maybe he is crazy. Tries psychotherapy. Sometimes he goes on a drug and the attacks stop for a while and he lets himself hope that’s it, it was all a hallucination, he’s cured now. But it always happens again. Eventually his friendships dissolve, he cuts off his parents — after many painful years they’ve decided he must be insane and in need of institutionalization — and he finds it impossible to date, for, I think, pretty obvious reasons. And in the end his relationship with his serial assaulter is the only one he has. He starts to wonder if maybe he deserves this somehow. He starts to almost look forward to the visits because they confirm what he’s come to believe, that he’s worthless. That feeling of worthlessness and powerlessness becomes his only identity. He sort of craves it, after a while. He gets more and more into extreme porn, degradation, BDSM, straight-up rape videos.
Him and the rest of America, I said, tracing a carved initial in the wood of the table with my fingernail.
Wow, you’re so edgy, he said, and took a drag of his cigarette. Even in the worst heat we always sat outside. He said, I love your generation. You think you’ve seen it all because you grew up watching ISIS videos. Anyway, yeah, a rape fetish. It’s all that makes sense to him anymore. He’s traumatized, this poor guy. He’s completely given in to what has been done to him. He starts looking for more and more insane, extreme, and fucked-up ways to get his rocks off. But he wants it to all be consensual, you know? That’s the only thing keeping him from being like his tormentor. He goes the German cannibal route and posts an ad online asking if anyone would consent to being raped and then gets trolled on 4chan for like six months after that for being a moron who thinks “consensual rape” is a thing. He just can’t win. And then someone invents the time machine.
There was no indication this story was taking place in the future.
Shut up. It’s a joke, you don’t need worldbuilding in jokes. He drank his whiskey. Anyway, he said, this poor guy has an idea. It’s an idea that makes everything click. He remembers that dumb question teenagers used to ask each other: would you have sex with your own clone? Or… a version of yourself from the past?
He looked at me, and I said, Oh my God.
And he gets it. The only person he can rape without feeling like a monster is himself. The only way to do what he needs is to get retroactive consent. Suddenly his whole life makes sense. He understands why there was never any DNA or sign of forced entry. He gets his hands on a time machine, and he uses it to go back to the dates where he remembers precisely where he was, which, of course, are the dates he was raped. Because trauma, like, freezes your memory. He tries it the first night and can’t believe how smooth it is. He gets in no problem because of course he does, he’s him. It’s perfect. He finally feels complete. My ex-boyfriend leaned back in his chair, then, and drained the glass.
Is there a punch line here?
No. It’s not a punch-line joke. It’s like a shaggy-dog story. It’s formally inventive. It’s a joke like, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Which came first, the rape or the rape fetish? It’s a meta-commentary on narrative predictability.
I don’t think it’s that funny.
That’s because you don’t appreciate anti-comedy.
That night, after we left the bar, I lay in the dark and brought my knees to my chest. It was early August, whiningly hot. My ex-boyfriend’s bed was big, with a good mattress, but the sheets were always flannel, even in the summer, and the fabric rolled into scratchy little pills that reminded me of insects. No matter what I did I felt dirty. I lay still while he poured another drink and I thought about what my life might look like in September. If I got a better job. If I found my own place. I thought about this as he came to bed. I thought about this as he pried my knees apart. I lay still, very still, and rubbed the sheets between my fingers. I said nothing. I gripped the sheets. I thought about the first time, and the last time, and the first time, and the last time, and the next time, and the last time, as I took the whole night in. The drinks, the heat, the story. We’ll laugh about it tomorrow, right? We’ll laugh about it tomorrow.
Mariah Kreutter’s fiction has appeared in Joyland and Columbia Journal. She is 25, lives in Brooklyn, and is working on a novel.