Two-Minute Memoir: The Newlywed Examination

Justin was the quiet presence who helped me heal from sexual assault. So why wasn't I fighting the accusations against him?

By Aspen Matis, published May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I was 20 years old, just married, urinating into a plastic cup in the pastel green bathroom of a women’s health clinic in Portland, Oregon. For the past few days I’d had to pee every few minutes—behind a tree or bush or just right on the Pacific Crest Trail’s soil and roots—but only a squirt each time. And it burned. Now in a gynecologist’s examination room, on a vinyl bed draped with a paper sheet, I shut my eyes behind my sunglasses, uncomfortable, stressed by what I might hear. I sat up straight. My spine was sore and tender.

Five days earlier I’d said “I do.” On a stone stage in a fog-drenched garden high in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, I’d wed a man 10 years my senior, jobless and without job prospects. Justin was handsome, earnest; I loved his almond-shaped, stone grey eyes, bright under thick dark lashes. I loved the smell of his skin: salt and fresh, sweet infant. Loved every cell. He loved me, too.

In my mind he had healed me.

When this doctor let me go and our honeymoon ended, we would be moving to San Francisco, to the opposite coast from my parents and brothers, a big city where I would know only him.

The doctor came in, said I had a urinary tract infection, an easy fix. Then she told me I was being abused and, don’t worry, she and I were going to figure out what to do to get me safe.

I met Justin a year to the day before our mountain wedding; I’d been hiking alone from Mexico to Canada on a continuous wilderness footpath called the Pacific Crest Trail. The path extends 2,650 miles—meandering from southernmost California’s bright beige inferno to the snow-blanketed High Sierra mountain range, the pumice-piled volcanic mountains of northeastern California, and then through the green Cascades of Oregon. Up to Canada. I was trying to walk off rape. A fellow freshman at my college had assaulted me, and I’d dropped out. Wilted like a Gray’s angelica in the dark, I’d shut my schoolbooks with limp hands and walked away. I met Justin in Oregon after three straight months of walking.

 Bride on a mountain
MOUNTAIN ESCAPE The author on her wedding day in Washington State.

He was hiking from Mexico to Canada too, and had started just 40 hours after I had. He’d quit a stressful job in finance in New York and I’d quit college, and for nearly 2,000 miles we’d been within a day’s walk of each other, trekking in sync.

Justin had seemed perfect. Those bright eyes, scrunched smile lines, toned arms. His warming generosity—he would offer me his best food or lie back on a bed of pine needles to wait while I took three breaks in one hour to pick huckleberries or stopped for half a day on a river-cooled rock to read Lord of the Flies and cry when we should have been walking north. He would touch my hand when I cried. He never touched me anywhere I didn’t want him to. I loved his cheekbones, though, and his lips’ asymmetric fullness, so I didn’t mind when, on the woodchips along the tamed river that twists through Bend, Oregon, he kissed me. I pulled back. I smiled.

Weeks later I described to him what had led me to walk—the rape, my young rapist’s flexed face—and Justin did not, as my mother had, go mute and fade out. And he didn’t seem to think less of me. My mother had said people would feel I was damaged if I told them. My school’s conflict mediator had told me: Inconclusive! We can’t know for sure what happened that night.

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside us in the absence of an empathetic witness,” writes psychologist Peter Levine in In an Unspoken Voice. When I told Justin, I felt from him steady attentiveness. He didn’t wince. Then he hugged me, and in his arms I unclenched.

We stayed together, sharing food, touching hands, and five weeks later we crossed a clear-cut borderline in the pine trees, into Canada. We’d met backpacking, both of us alone in the mountains, and I was sure I’d never be alone again.

For our honeymoon we returned to the trail. We bumped and swayed our way down an uneven dirt road to a grassy glade in the deep pine forest, in the shadow of frost-studded Cascade peaks. The air was cool. We set up a foldable Walmart table and unloaded onto it six dozen eggs, 30 pounds of potatoes, a pyramid of onions and red and yellow peppers and tomatoes, stacks of frozen pizza to heat over the camp-stove flame, piles of garlic, bottles of oil, vinegar, and ketchup, and one five-pound block of cheese. We hauled onto the grass a love seat–size cooler filled with wine, beer, and soda left over from our wedding. And we pitched two tents: our own and a $20 children’s tent into which we placed Justin’s two cats.

We stayed at that clearing beside our beloved Pacific Crest Trail, sleeping nights hip-to-hip in our tent, chatting with and cooking for passing backpackers until, four nights and three days later, every last beer and potato was gone.

Most of all I remember the cats—how they scratched at the tent’s sides in high-pitched zips and paced and meowed without pause through the whole first night, and finally, in dawn’s navy light, went still. In those first black hours of our marriage, I felt awful for them. Washington’s woods are home to bears and bobcats.

The next three nights they slept soundlessly in a soft and shivering ball.

The doctor left, came back. She examined my inner thighs, my eyes (“please shut”), the section of my lower back that felt tender that I could not see. And she said she was “so sorry.” She’d seen the markings of abuse before. The lower-back bruises, the UTI, the dark sunglasses I had not, in this dim room, removed. She removed them. She knew what this was.

She talked. I froze.

My God. Why didn’t it concern me, as it did my closest friends, that Justin had quit a good job and, two years later, had not found another? And why didn’t I worry about fidelity? I was only 20—was I really ready to dismiss every other man I’d meet? If we grew poor. If we had nothing. If our love died. I thought of all I had given up.

My innards heated as though I had been caught in a lie. It wasn’t what the gynecologist suggested, though; she was wrong. It was my pause before protesting that made me sick, that beat in which I considered accepting her sympathy, embracing her invention. Letting it carry me away.

With an inflection that revealed no emotion, I told her that the sunglasses were prescription; we’d been hiking. Contact lenses get dirty. The bruises on my back, I said, were from when I’d stopped short on the path and Justin had walked into me, had fallen on me. This was the truth. But I didn’t say it as if it were.

The doctor collected a few pink and yellow pamphlets: You Are Not Alone, Moving Beyond Abuse, National Domestic Violence Hotline. Because the “marks of abuse are impossible to dismiss.” She’d heard my story before.

 Aspen Matis dancing at her wedding with Justin
STEP TOGETHER The newlyweds dance at their reception.

But mine was true—it wasn’t so improbable. This was my honeymoon; must I defend my marriage now?

Then I realized: No. I didn’t need to explain or justify or prove a single thing. I had only to tell the truth—to myself. My postwedding doubts were frightening, yes, but it was okay. I loved Justin. I did want to be his wife. He’d never hurt me. She was wrong.

So I didn’t say a word in his defense, or in my own. I took the UTI medicine she gave me for free (“Of course it’s free, given all this,” she said) and the stack of brochures she pressed into my palm.

My parents, my college’s conflict mediator, this doctor: Every authority figure in my life who was supposed to know the good from the bad had a faulty gauge.

“The sunglasses,” she reminded me.

I folded the glossy pamphlets and dropped them in my bag. “My eyes aren’t bruised,” I said. I hopped down off the bed and walked past her, out the door.