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Uncle Kobe

“He raped that girl,” said the old man with a snarl.

On the big, wall-mounted screen, Kobe Bryant flexed his injured index finger at the foul line during a late-season NBA game between the Lakers and the Spurs.

“He should be in jail.” Again, no reaction from my family. Ignoring vocal strangers seemed to be a typical adult behavior.

In 2004, my mother, her brother and I sat around a patio table at the Steak and Stick, an upscale sports bar and restaurant in Sedona, Arizona.  The old man had sidled up to our table just after the server had arrived with our food, asked if he could peek at the score. Then he dove into commentary.

The confidence in the old man’s voice startled me, minced my appetite for the T-bone still bubbling on my plate. A tremor in his voice betrayed a vested interest in convincing us that Kobe didn’t even belong on the basketball court. At least that’s what I suspected at 14, squirming in my thick mahogany chair, wondering why the other Albillars seated across the table were aggressively ignoring the old man.

My uncle angled chunks of red meat into the mouth below his black moustache. My mother, wool cap pulled over a bob of dark brown hair, finished off a Stella Artois. Her glazed-over gaze stayed fixed in the direction of the mounted TV beneath the patio awning. This was before Facebook, back when I pieced together the goings on of the world via CNN scrawl and newspaper headlines and my mother’s issues of OK! and InTouch. This was before doing my own research. Truth was a domain ruled over by, as far as I knew, the most earnest adult in the room.

So as the old man shook his head at the sight of Kobe sinking two free throws before mumbling his way back to his seat, I no longer wondered if Kobe was guilty of the rape accusation that had dominated tabloid headlines just a year ago. The sureness in the old man’s voice had convinced me. Then I just wondered, “Why?”

I did not attempt to consider the perspective of the woman who accused Kobe Bryant of sexually assaulting her in his hotel room in Eagle County, Colorado, in 2003. I did not think about whether the parade of death threats she received shortly after filing charges had impacted her decision not to testify against him in court. I did not frame the content of Bryant’s subsequent quasi-apology in the context of a culture that studies show is rife with men who fail to link aggressive, coercive sexual behavior with rape.[1] Nor did I consider my own place in this culture or assess my own capacity to put a woman in danger with my body.  All of these thoughts would come later. Back then, at 14, I just figured I was too nice a guy to find myself standing in Kobe’s $200 shoes.

My mother and her brother, perhaps eager to erase the nagging silence left in the old man’s wake, began chatting about the game between sips and swallows. On screen, Kobe chucked up another three pointer. Hit his mark. Kept rolling. After a last look at the old man, now retracing his steps to his own dinner table, I followed my family’s example. I started to cut up the food on my plate, let heavy thoughts slip off my shoulders.

Six years later I sucked in air outside of my boss’s office on a Sunday morning, tried to steady my shaking hand. I opened the door and found my boss Marí, the hall director in charge of the dormitory where I lived and worked as a resident assistant during my junior year at the University of Arizona. Flanking her was her direct supervisor, a man in his late 50s, whose large gut hinted at the extra minutes he spent every morning coating himself in a tight collared shirt. An empty chair waited for me in front of her desk. I sat.

Marí’s signature smirk and coy warmth typically greeted me when I took a seat in front of her desk, but today the skin of her face was stretched taut with concern. Her cohort studied me with calculated stillness. She began.

“We need to talk about what happened between you and Andrea over the weekend.”

I scanned Marí’s desk, searching for an anchor.

The red plastic whistle from fire drills. She’d told me once that I sucked at decorating doors but I was the only person on staff she’d trust to get every student safely out the building during an emergency.

“We’ve heard some troubling things, Remy.”

The little glass bowl, permanently overflowing with Starburst candies. Marí never minded when I scooped five or six into my pocket on the way to class in the morning. Not today.

“Why don’t you just tell us what happened?”

The nearly stale air inside Marí’s office, a twelve-by-eight room with a low ceiling tucked behind the first floor lobby desk, had never felt so thin. Marí’s boss remained silent, evaluated  me with wrinkled hands folded over his lap.

I told them I had been dropped off at the front door of the dorm from a friend’s birthday party around 1:00 AM on Friday night. I had slumped myself over a recliner in the living room to sober up and watch TV with some of my residents. I told them that Andrea had arrived about a half-hour later, then waved me over from the living room to the entryway.

Sitting in Mari’s office, I recalled the vodka smells on Andrea’s breath and the goofy smile she wore on her face when she embraced me in the lobby. I kept these memories to myself.

“She told me she was locked out of her room, and asked me if I could get her backup key,” I said, glancing at the peeling white plaster and Marí’s master’s degree on the wall.

“So you were intoxicated when you accessed the key box behind the front desk?” Marí’s boss spoke for the first time, voice and eyes and wrinkled hands steady.

“I was.”

I did not share that I had nurtured a crush on Andrea since the the start of the school year, or admit how I’d taken it personally when she’d mentioned that she had started hooking up with Marcus, another RA. He was a light-skinned, round-bodied, jerk-in-a-laid-back-way like myself who worked in the neighboring dorm. I did not admit that I had begun to chant a new mantra under my breath after bumping into the two of them together around campus: “If Marcus, why not me?”

I did not describe the mental gymnastics I had to perform to convince myself to go back to her room. I did not disclose how I had spent three years of college being jealous of men my own age who threw themselves at inebriated women as a weekly ritual, regardless of their apparent capacity to indicate their consent for sex, if only because they had so many stories to bond over at house parties. I skipped the part where I’d told myself it was acceptable to make my way back to her dorm room because, at worse, I was just acting like everyone else.

“I unlocked her door and she kissed me on the cheek. I thought that meant something, so I put away the extra key and then I went back to her room to check on her. I knocked on her door and I asked if I could come in and she said sure.”

I told them how I’d taken a seat on a pink, plush foot stool from IKEA, and that Andrea had followed suit, straddling her legs around my waist for balance.  Blood began to rush to my face as I recounted that we had started to kiss on the stool, then moved to her bed, where we continued to make out and, “Do some other stuff.”

“What other stuff?” The older man’s dead voice was full of life now. He leaned forward as if to punctuate the words, positioning himself at a better angle to read between the lines of my reply.

“I started feeling around under her waistband. That’s when I realized she was basically asleep and I felt weird about it and I got up and went back to my room.”

A beat.

“That’s not the story she told us,” replied Marí. The pair squinted their eyes, as if straining for a better look at me.
“As far as I know, that’s what happened,” I said.  “I don’t have anything else to say.”

Another beat.

I thought back to Saturday morning, when a tearful Andrea had summoned me to her room to fill in the gaps she couldn’t remember about the night before. She had expressed relief when I told her the same account I had just shared with Marí and her boss.

“If you had told me we’d slept together…” She had pointed a finger in my face. A fearful rage sparked behind her eyes.

“We both know this isn’t you, Remy. Jerry, what was the first thing you asked me when I called you yesterday?” She turned her head to the man whose name I’d forgotten sitting on her left.

“I asked if he was drunk,” said Jerry.

“We did some of our own investigating on Saturday, talked to some residents who were in the lobby on Friday night. From our end, we can’t say conclusively that anything inappropriate happened-”

Jerry interrupted.

“But the fact is that you were drinking underage and you accessed the keys while inebriated. Regardless of what happened between you and Andrea, you won’t be working here anymore.”

The two of them explained my options: I could turn in my own resignation or fight the decision through an appeals process. Either way, they expected me to be out of the dorm by Wednesday. Their words washed over me without seeping in past the skin.

I was too occupied with thoughts of what Andrea could have said to them the day before, and why she had insisted we hug it out on Saturday morning after I gave her a recap of Friday night’s events. Jerry delivered this final warning as I was dismissed to start packing up my belongings:

“If one hint gets back to us that you contacted her, we will definitely be getting the police involved.”

As I stepped out of the office and closed the door behind me, I felt as though I’d left a part of myself sitting in that chair, recounting my version of the story over and over, for good.

I paused outside of Marí’s office to slow my breathing and collect my thoughts. I looked up to see Andrea on the other side of the lobby. The eye contact petrified me, as if this accidental glance might have already violated Jerry’s instructions. She smiled and waved, looked through me with a glossy, distant stare. My brain sent signals to wave back but in that moment my wrist weighed a thousand pounds. I broke eye contact, pushed myself through a nearby door and into the stairwell.

I spent the afternoon compressing three years worth of college into my pickup truck, slipped my resignation letter under Marí’s door, and drove off as the sun in my rearview sank behind the jagged Catalina Mountains.

This all played out in May, the weekend before finals. Akshay, a close friend from high school, offered me a couch to sleep on until I was finished with my exams. On the way to his house from my former residence, I called my mother, who lived two hours north in Phoenix, to tell her everything that happened.

“You just wanted to get laid,” she said, between shuddering sobs and anguished groans. “I’ve never been more ashamed of you.”

“Yeah.” I nodded to the emptiness in the cab of my truck and parroted my mother’s words until she was too fed up to continue the conversation. She hung up the phone while I was still a few miles from Akshay’s apartment, leaving me with time to chew over her words. I could not shake the sense that I had doled out a half-truth or made only the necessary concessions. But that was the truth, wasn’t it? Why else would I have gone back to her room?

Looking back at myself at 20 years old, the pangs of insincerity I felt on the phone with my mother were telling. Even then, without the courage to express my feelings, I understood that the reason I went back to Andrea’s room had much less to do with sex than it had to do with how I felt about myself. After years of feeling envious of the ease at which many of my peers had separated their emotions from the vulnerability-laden task of trying to relate to women, I could not resist an opportunity to feel like one of the guys. I was desperate to reconcile this distance between myself and my bros, if only for one night. I wanted to feel like a man.

Why not treat intimacy akin to filling out a stat sheet? Why not relieve myself of the obligation to consider the experience of the women in question and pursue my objectives at all cost? What was the worst that could happen?

Kobe Bryant was waiting for me when when I arrived at Akshay’s apartment. The living room flat screen displayed Bryant’s Lakers, up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals against the Utah Jazz, in the midst of securing a third consecutive victory as Akshay helped me carry suitcases into his apartment from the bed of my Dodge Dakota. The living room was mostly barren, save for a couch and a milk crate serving as a makeshift TV stand.

For a moment, the nostalgia of sitting down to watch basketball with my childhood friend calmed my swirling anxieties. Year after year, Akshay and I had suffered the sight of Kobe beating up on Steve Nash and our Phoenix Suns in the playoffs. This was far from the first time we’d spent an evening marvelling at Bryant’s clutch skills and no-prisoners ferocity on the court. He was the perfect villain, the icon of confident masculinity we had sought to model ourselves after.

It was a complicated relationship, one that stretched back as far back as grade school. In admiration or disgust, we were always talking about him. He became “Uncle Kobe” in that way, the family member you heard nasty rumors about but was so beyond cool you couldn’t stop yourself from idolizing him. We demonstrated our respect for his game each time one of us called out “Kobe” before launching a wild jump shot during pickup, then settled on the same dismissal every time he rose up to sink our Suns in the fourth quarter: “Whatever. He’s a rapist, anyway.”

For the first time in my life, I could not separate the man dunking on screen with the name that had filled tabloids six years ago. Every image of grinning Kobe caved in my gut like a sucker punch. His effortlessness in the lane inspired revulsion in place of awe, reminded me of what I was trying to stop thinking about. Everything with me and Andrea that weekend had happened too fast and ended too neatly. Even then I felt that the school’s nominal investigation was part of an effort to move past the event as quickly as possible. If things had gone further that night than they did and I gave the same story, where would that have left Andrea? I felt an obligation to not forget.

“I’m gonna get some air.” I hurried across the beer-stained carpet to the door.

Akshay followed me outside to the parking lot for a cigarette.

“Hey, it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, but what happened, man?” He flicked his lighter awake and pulled, exhaled, pulled as I gave him the short version. The flickering butt between his lips lit up his brown skin and sharp nose. Eyes went wide with surprise as my account came to a close.

“What! Why did she act like everything was alright then?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, at least they didn’t call the cops.”

In that moment I felt close to and distant from Akshay at once, comforted by his automatic support and wounded by how clueless he was about what was actually on my mind. After all, it had been Ak who clued me in on how to talk to women en route to a parties during high school. He had been an eager mentor in the driver’s seat of his zippy white WRX. I was assured that the key to getting girls to like you was aloofness.

How was I to communicate to him now I felt relieved I wasn’t in handcuffs but still felt like I owed Andrea a great debt? I didn’t have the words. So I headed back into the apartment, snapped open a beer, and settled into the couch cushions. For the rest of the night, me, Ak, and Kobe just tried our best to forget about the past.
About six years later, in early December, I sat on a trolley headed home from the office where I worked in downtown Boston, chatting with Lynn, my girlfriend, on the phone. She had called to ask for more details about what happened between me and Andrea in college:

“I know we talked about it a little before we started dating, but recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine and she pointed out that I was kind of naive for taking you at your word about what happened without a really detailed explanation. Frankly, I agree with her. As someone who usually sides with the victim in sexual assault cases, you know, I’d really like to hear from you exactly what happened.”

I admitted to myself that I’d given Lynn a pretty sanitized version of the story the first time around. I hadn’t brought up the part about fishing below Andrea’s waistband. I wanted this woman to like me, after all, so I had found it easy to obscure the more shameful details through summary. On the train, despite the presence of several strangers in close proximity, I gave Lynn the more in-depth account. She deserved the full disclosure.

“Well,” she started, collected her thoughts, then continued. “It sounds like you probably could make the case that you assaulted her. When hands go below the belt, that’s kinda where things start. But I wouldn’t call you a rapist.”

“I think you’re right.” It was the only reply I could bring myself to offer. The train neared my house and I angled myself through a jungle of thick winter coats to reach the platform. Lynn moved the conversation along.

“One, thank you for being honest with me. Two, have you considered writing her a letter, explaining all this?”

I had been writing a letter to Andrea in my head on a yearly basis for over half a decade, waiting for someone to bless an attempt to contact. Jerry’s warning still held some power over me.

“I’ve thought about it a lot actually.” I said this while walking up the sloped streets that led from the train stop to my apartment. Wind chill was palpable but the streets were dry, thanks to a mild winter. Three-story Italianate homes rose on my left and right, arched windows filled with light to stave off December’s early evenings. “I was never sure when the right time would be. I didn’t know if she’d ever want to hear from me again.”

Lynn let out a deep sigh.

“Personally, I don’t think that rapists deserve forgiveness. But I do think it’s worth it for women who are assaulted to forgive their rapists in cases where it can help along their healing process. Maybe you explaining yourself will bring her some closure, and that’s really what’s important above anything else.”

When I arrived home, I raced up the stairs to the second floor, cleared piles of Subway wrappers and Dr. Pepper cans from the top of my desk, and got to work on the letter. After showing it to Lynn and making a few of her suggest edits, I forwarded my message to Andrea and waited for a response.

Andrea had already been on my mind for months before my phone call with Lynn. October of 2015 kicked off Kobe Bryant’s last season playing in the NBA, an event dubbed “The Kobe Farewell Tour” by sports journalists. Keeping up with the league that season meant navigating an endless torrent of articles and editorials lauding Kobe’s accomplishments on the basketball court and his evolution as a mentor, a leader of men.

I made a game of searching these pieces for the obligatory sentence or less dedicated to his sexual assault case in 2003. These references almost always contextualized the incident in terms of Kobe’s miraculous ability to compete at an elite level despite the arduous task of constant air travel between legal hearings and basketball games, or how he adopted his “Black Mamba” persona as a form of dissonance, a move to establish distance between the man on the court from the man in court. The apparently media-wide effort to downplay and forget the incident astounded me and made me think of Andrea.

I was left especially dumbstruck while watching a Showtime documentary titled “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” which had been released earlier that year and featured the future hall-of-famer attempting to reframe the story of his sexual assault allegations. As I watched Kobe emphasize how the scandal had inspired him to be a better husband, I doubted that his attempts to focus on family would do much for the women he admitted did not consent to their encounter in 2003[2].

As the credits rolled, I imagined a world where Kobe had become an activist and championed the right of women to rescind their consent in the midst of sexual acts. This alternate universe Mamba toured high schools and led workshops about consent to the very boys and young men who occupied themselves with thoughts of how to be just like Kobe Bryant. He kept putting up 29 points a game and carrying scrubs like Smush Parker to the playoffs. He got his rings and his money and his sponsorships. In spite of all of Kobe’s self-incrimination and occasional media backlash, American sports found themselves willing to look the other way.

After writing my letter at Lynn’s suggestion, I felt like I had a better understanding of why Andrea did what she did to get me kicked out of that dorm. When I put myself in her shoes, waking up with a hangover and inconsistent memories of a man’s presence, I too would have felt a strong impetus to assume the worst. Based on her own experience with pushy, aggressive guys, the warnings and testimonies of her friends and family, and no shortage of statistics, it was clear that she did what she did to protect herself. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Who was I, as someone who would never know or face these threats, to say anything but, “I trust you?”

After writing my letter, it became clear that I would not have reached these conclusions if I had made a lifelong effort to forget the discomfort that came with my culpability.  Now it was impossible for me to watch Bryant bask in the glory of his achievements and not feel his discomfort as well.  I was convinced that behind the wide smiles and pleasant post-game interviews that in some part of Kobe’s mind he was still running from 2003, still doing his best to dodge the issue by staying hot on the basketball court. I decided to hold onto the discomfort I felt watching Bryant, to remember what really happened in 2003 in Kobe’s place, if not for the sake of Bryant’s victim then for myself and for Andrea. The stakes felt too high for me to forget.

Andrea has yet to respond to my message. I haven’t reviewed the letter since I sent it. It feels unnecessary to retread those lines and risk getting caught up in fantasies about her reaction. The will to not forget, the compulsion that urged me to write the letter in the first place, is what I’ve chosen instead to keep fresh in my memory.

[1] David Lisak, “Understanding the predatory nature of sexual violence,” Civic Research Institute: Sexual Assault  Report, 2011, 14 (4): 49–64.

[2] “Kobe Bryant’s apology”. ESPN.com. 2004-09-02. Retrieved 2016-03-29.

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