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Barnz: 101 North

A personal essay on the occasion of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Personal Essay –– 20 April 2022

by Zelda Barnz
Edited by Nico Prescott and Chela Simón-Trench

What I remember most about last spring is the 101 North, which became my comfort freeway from March to June. Maybe its chaos was a visual representation of my inner emotional turmoil, maybe remembering turn signal mirror mirror blindspot each time I changed lanes offered some kind of distraction. Or maybe the 101 had always represented a conquering of fear, because its congested bends are any newly licensed driver’s worst nightmare, but the years of practice had finally made this route familiar. That I elected daily to drive on one of Los Angeles’s most infamously hectic freeways probably says something about the state of my mental health during that four-month stretch. Almost each day I would disappear and drive aimlessly, until my best friend called to ask where I was. She always knew, but she called anyway, and eventually told me that I was engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms. I was living with her at the time, and on days anxiety made it difficult to eat, she made me cook with her, and she managed to curb my iced coffee addiction and force me to drink water instead. I thought I was fine surviving on caffeine alone. I thought the freeway was as good a place as any for an anxiety attack. I’m grateful she knew better.

Almost a year ago now, just a few months before coming to college, I was sexually mistreated by someone I had been dating. Coming out of that relationship felt like coming out of some strange drug-induced dream, and when I found my way back to clarity, I began to realize that my ex had engineered certain situations to ensure they would end in sex, regardless of my mood or sobriety. The end of our relationship was mostly a relief; the realization that my first romantic experience of substance had been coercive was a heartbreak of its own.

I won’t describe the nature of their sexual behavior. I tried many times to write it all down, but the detailed recountings felt vaguely nauseating. I learned after our relationship ended that many people had been worried (someone even brought the issue to my parents out of concern for my wellbeing after witnessing the dynamic of sexual entitlement). When I spoke to my ex about this, their response included one line in particular that haunted me for months: Zelda, you’re going to Yale for English. Don’t pretend you don’t know what the word “grope” means.

Aside from being textbook gaslighting, these words cut especially deep because we had had multiple conversations about imposter syndrome, a component of my anxiety disorder that is present in most aspects of my life. I hadn’t expected such cruelty from someone who claimed to love me, and as soon as the words had left their mouth, I realized the ultimate truth of the past five months: I could not fall in love with someone as I was, at the same time, falling out of love with myself. Our breakup occurred in that same conversation.

Ironically, I had received my welcome package from Yale earlier that morning, as well as the news that my freshman year would take place in person and on campus. Looking back, it is admittedly kind of satisfying to think that our breakup wasn’t even the most impactful thing that happened to me that day, but I can’t deny that their words had tainted my excitement. After our breakup conversation ended, I called my friend Sam, and he spent an hour distracting me from the sudden wave of nauseating anxiety. When we hung up, I told him I was going for a drive. 

I replaced all the rooms that carried memories of harsh words and unwelcome touch with the 101, and divided up the city in my head. There was no point in designating “safe” and “unsafe” territories within the boundaries of the place my ex and I both called home, but I did it anyway, because I was afraid of being caught off-guard. Every sight of a car that looked like theirs and every cut through their neighborhood became strangely disquieting. 

Subconsciously, I came to resent Los Angeles, all my bitterness directed toward the purgatorial consistency of Southern California’s weather and the slowed summer effect on the overcrowded streets. I became fixated on the 101 because it is LA at its very worst, infuriating traffic and confusing exits and bad drivers, ugly and smoggy and too big, all the things about LA that the rest of the world loves to hate. The city was home to my pain, and by the end of the summer I was itching to leave. I thought college would solve all my problems, as if physical distance could magically create emotional space between myself and the memories of the past few months. I hoped a new beginning could distract me from the quiet feeling of displacement – from my city and from myself. 

When I first got to Yale, I just wanted to forget. I thought it would be easier to move on if everything in my life changed. As I eventually realized, that isn’t a solution. Searching for distractions is not the same as healing. 

I moved into my dorm in the middle of last August’s hurricane. My single, narrow and bare but for the boxes on the floor, felt immediately like my own little refuge, as if it could protect me from the events of the past months the same way it offered shelter from the pouring rain. Unlike my bedroom at home, my dorm could not be associated with negative memories. The fresh start was a reminder that change can be a good thing. Whether due to time or detachment, the bad dreams eventually dissipated. But leaving home did not cut the healing process short, as I’d once hoped. Now I’m just healing in a new place, surrounded by new people, and it’s not so much about forgetting as it is moving forward. 

A while ago, someone sent me a screenshot of my ex cussing me out over iMessage. The anger in their words might have disturbed me once, but now, I find the quote sort of funny. Shortly after I confronted them regarding their misconduct, my ex texted a mutual friend of ours (referencing me): you can’t be a raging c*nt and the victim.
 
This kind of language doesn’t warrant a response, but I would like to say something about it now. At first, I naturally took this personally, but I don’t think it’s actually a very specific statement. Invalidating “unlikeable” women is a common facet of rape culture. But the truth, as they so eloquently put it, is that I have been a “raging c*nt” all my life; it has yet to protect me from coercion.  

I returned to the 101 over winter break, not because I was escaping some emotion that threatened to overwhelm me, but because it was part of my route. Los Angeles is an oddly consistent city considering its population of self-proclaimed creatives and re-inventors, but I think I am finally able to appreciate the always-blue skies over miles of concrete. I drive Mulholland at midnight with my best friend, scream-singing the words to Stacey’s Mom and fulfilling our tradition of getting coffee every time we see each other, no matter the hour. I return to Marina Del Rey with Maddie to watch the sunrise over the water, and we quiz each other on the lyrics of Taylor Swift songs. Sam makes fun of me as I chauffeur him across Sherman Oaks, humbling me with reminders that my parents will always be cooler than I am (he’s right). Ellie lets me drive her Prius, Big Blue, home to Larchmont with a trunk full of party supplies and laughs at me for rolling through stop signs. These were the people who stood by my side as I began to heal. They have helped me restore my love for the place that is home to our memories. Through them, I have come to see LA as a collection of destinations: the graffitied slab of concrete overlooking Santa Monica, the Griffith Park hike to a mountaintop garden, Universal Studios, my favorite picnic meadow, the restaurant where my family and I had our last dinner before I left for school. These are places I have no desire to escape. My home city finally feels worth returning to.