It was a warm May afternoon. The kids were seated behind me in our family van. I was flipping through the radio stations while driving home from the carpool line at their elementary school.

My third-grade daughter’s voice disrupts the normalcy.

"Mommy, what is r-a-p-e?"

In an instant, I am back in time, reliving a nightmare that doesn’t go away when I wake up.

I was a spectator to my rape.

My body was exposed.
I knew that.

There was unbearable pain.
I knew that, too.

It was as if I was there experiencing it all, but also as if I was watching from above.
That’s how I survived. I think.

How far did he go? Too far.      
Those details are foggy. I was a virgin.

How long did it last? I’ll never know for sure, but a friend has said I was missing for hours. I was in and out of consciousness. Flashes of lucid horror, one after another. I remember the songs changing, and then the music stopped. The club was closed. We were the only ones left.

Three things remain clear:
His hands pinning my motionless body to the dirty stairwell floor,
The feel of the cold, hard concrete pressed uncomfortably against the small of my back,
And his face.

The rapist is anonymous to me. We could have passed on the street. Strangers. Yet, he forced us to share the most intimate of acts. Except it wasn’t intimate at all. A few dances, too many drinks, and, without warning, there is the feeling of the concrete pressing against my back and his hand pinning my arms over my head. No recollection of the in between, just him on top of me groping me and raping me in the dirty, empty stairwell.

Salty tears stream down my face. I hear myself whisper, “Please stop.” But, there is no stopping.   He is in control. I must find a way to survive.

People think they know how they would react in this situation. I was one of those people once, but that night I was paralyzed. Even if I could have unfrozen myself long enough to scream, no one would have heard. Music was blaring, people were dancing, drinking and thinking only happy thoughts. We were miles away from life.

Fighting was not an option.

I blame myself for being so drunk, but I never could have fought him. He was much too strong, and needed only one hand to pin my wrists above my head.

His head was shaved, close to completely bald. He had a strong face, with a chiseled jaw line. He smelled like sweat, beer and cigarette smoke. The rhythmic bass sounds of club music drowned out my pleading requests to stop. I whispered and cried, but was helpless. At some point, he told me I liked it. He told me,

“You want this.”

Finally, a club employee came around the corner and startled my attacker; he yanked up his pants and scurried off into the night. The employee doubled back around the corner and waited for me to dress myself and leave. When I passed him, he never said a word. Why didn't I?

I ran out of the club, onto the streets, into a cold October night, the rain pelting my skin and masking my tears. I paid no attention to where I was going, only to how far I was getting away from my attacker. He seemed to lurk in every shadow. Contacting the police didn’t seem like an option; I couldn’t handle it.

I stayed on a friend's couch that night, but never closed my eyes.

The next morning, I went to my advanced reporting class wearing the same clothes. I saw one of my editors in the newsroom, but said nothing. We walked together to hear a guest speaker, but I was trapped in the previous night’s horror. Afterward, I went home and took a shower; visions of the nightmare flashed inside my head: the cold concrete floor, his hands, that face. My body didn’t feel like it was mine anymore.

That face is forever etched on my soul. That night has hung around for all the good and bad moments in my life, haunting me. I might seem strong, but his actions shattered me. It takes effort to hold all my pieces together. I worry the glue will not always stick, and I hate him for that. I can't hear the word "rape" without falling to that concrete floor all over again.

“Mommy, what is r-a-p-e?”

My breath catches in my throat. My chest tightens. My face begins to burn. I blink to hold back tears. The glue fails.

I've dreaded this question since my daughter was born. I don’t have an answer. We haven't even had "the talk" yet, so I have no idea what to say. She told me one of the kids at school noticed those letters together in a word search. The other kids said it was a bad word. My oldest son, a fourth grader, agrees that it is bad. I collect myself as best I can and try for a simple answer. It’s not a bad word, but it is an incredibly bad action that some bad people do to other people. I tell them they aren’t old enough to understand, but when they are I will explain more.

Almost three years later, and I still haven’t found the words – nor the courage – to have that talk. I tell myself it’s their age, but maybe that’s to delay the inevitable.

Fifteen years have passed since that night, but at times it feels as if time has stood still. The nightmare plays less frequently now. But it still plays, still finds new chances to rewind and start again.

I blame myself every day for how I might have been able to change things. I have allowed the shame to control me. That night returns every time I have a drink, when those first signs of tipsiness start to tingle, and especially in the handful of times I’ve allowed myself to get drunk. He is there every time there's loud music and dancing. He is there when it rains, when it's October, when it's football season and when people talk about college or homecoming. He was there when I had each of my children, even if I didn't realize it right away. He is in every stairwell, and, also in my head when I read the news and hear of other sexual assaults. And, he will be here each time I have these discussions with my daughter and with my sons.

How do I handle this? How do I explain this horror without turning into a puddle in front of them? How do I keep my children safe? How do I teach them how to always be the good? How do I preserve their innocence when I know how easily it can be ripped away on a cold concrete floor?

Since he chose to rape me that night so many Octobers ago, these are the struggles I face each day. His actions have impacted my entire life and have shaped the person I’ve become. I carry the nightmare of those hours with me forever even though I have made a great life and found genuine happiness.  But that night will never be undone. I fear that I will never be able to stop blaming myself for the parts I can’t remember. The only way I accept the unknown is by transferring the blame to myself. I know that’s wrong; I’m working on it. A voice in my brain reminds me that the only one to blame for all of this is him. But, that voice isn’t much louder than mine was in that club stairwell on that cold October night. So, I continue to carry the baggage with me along with the glue and all of the pieces.

I’ve tried to maintain a tough exterior, even as I remained imprisoned by my shame-induced silence. But I'm ready to break free now to talk, to teach others about consent. I’m ready to speak for those who haven’t found their voices yet. Perhaps my words can offer some insight into how life-altering rape and sexual assault can be, how these actions are anything but “locker-room talk.” These actions have lifelong consequences that even affect the next generation.

It has taken years of starting and stopping and letting my words collect dust on a hard drive to find the strength to share this story. But, it's time. I have three sons and one daughter. If I don't reclaim my voice, I can't teach them to find theirs.