Annie Olson

A New and Different Sun

I flew to Anchorage in late May of 2002. I don’t remember the plane ride. I also don’t remember which hotel I stayed at, only that I thought it was close to the Aramark headquarters where I had to report in the morning. It wasn’t close. I walked for over a mile—hauling my suitcase and duffle bag—and arrived late for the employee training. After orientation, my new coworkers and I rode on a bus for six hours to McKinley Village, a resort outside of Denali where we had seasonal contracts. The dense green of the forest blurred along the highway, and I poked holes in the seat in front of me like an elementary school student. I was twenty-one years old and I wanted the past year of my life to disappear like the black spruce and muskeg ponds on the other side of the window.

Two days earlier, I’d dropped out of college in rural Minnesota with no plans to return. My boyfriend, Mike, and I broke up the night I left. I told him I loved him for the first time that night because I didn’t think there would be a second chance. We sat on the side of a dirt road, next to my old Chrysler van.

“I love you, too,” Mike said.

He didn’t mean it, at least not the way I did, but it was the right thing to say. Our relationship was complicated.Real life is complicated. Something happens, and then something else happens. But the real story is often what happens after that. I was assaulted at a party in Madison, Wisconsin in March of 2001, about 15 months before I moved to Alaska. Not raped. I woke up on a couch at 2:00 AM with some guy on top of me, starting to have sex. One of the girls I was staying with let him back into the house after we’d gone to bed—he’d forgotten a jacket. Something like that. He kept trying after I woke up, pulled off my clothes, and I shoved and kicked him off the couch a few times. Eventually, it seemed like the easiest way to get rid of him was a blowjob in the kitchen. It was a gray area. I know all about the gray area.

I went to the hospital and filed a report, even though I didn’t know if I wanted to press charges. Police in Madison assured me that all sexual assaults should be reported—even if they were “attempted” or “third degree” and not rape. That report is probably in a box somewhere. No one followed up with me, and I didn’t call the police station in Madison to check in.

Instead, I returned to school at the University of Minnesota-Morris, a small branch campus in the far western part of the state. If you look at a map of Minnesota, Morris is the little bulge in the state line that juts into South Dakota. You can walk from one side of town to the other in 45 minutes. There are five bars and four gas stations.

Mike and I stayed in Morris during the summer of 2001. We were not dating, but we moved into a tiny, one-bedroom yellow house together that cost $300 a month to rent. He smoked cigarettes like James Dean, talked about politics with confidence, and always opened the door for me. I’d loved him from the day we met in class as college freshman. But that summer, we were just friends. I didn’t know how to move the relationship out of the friend zone. This is a reversal, I’ve realized, from the way college relationships typically progress. We spent every waking minute together, and he slept on the couch at night.

Maybe the assault in Madison affected things with Mike over the summer. I was uncomfortable even talking about sex. I remember wanting clear definitions, like: if someone starts to have sex with you, but doesn’t finish, are you still a virgin? I thought it was an important question. Regardless, both of us wanted to keep things easy. We worked at the movie theater to pay rent and survived mostly on theater popcorn. We read Vonnegut in the basement, watched Steal This Movie (the Abbie Hoffman story) dozens of times, and talked about changing the world. The most that happened was a hot-and-heavy make-out session on a mattress on the floor. That shiny, magical summer could have been the first chapter of a romance novel.

Here is where the gray area ends. Mike moved out at the end of August to live with his friends. I kept the lease on the little yellow house. We were still friends, just no longer li