When the Body is No Longer a Mission
Content warning: sexual assault, date rape, medical procedures.
I try to change the word so that it sits light on the tongue. Smooth out the bristles. I do it over and over again, so we can both be more comfortable in our chairs:
I call it assault, hoping the double s liquifies at the center. I temper it with date so we can assure ourselves that a part of me wanted it, too, had dolled myself up for the incident. I call it the incident, the violation. I led the body to the room.
I am so bored with writing about this. I had other essays bubbling: the one where the trees are whispering to each other, the one about the harvest, the one in which I summon my solitude from frozen Balkan lakes. But when I sat down, an outpouring: this old, old thing.
There are a thousand small ways it rears its head. Yesterday, a new man pulled my hand down between his legs, asking me to touch it, just once, and I became fifteen again, in the hostel with the man eight years my senior asking me to feel it, just once, and I did. I am so good at following directions. These are just the daily things; a series of small attempts, holding the world at bay.
This time, I responded. I withdrew my hand. After I said no, I smoothed his stubble to make sure he didn’t boil over too much in my refusal. I watched the gray get grayer through the window for one extended minute.
Though this was one of the slightest trespasses yet, I found a little voice to lean against it. I said, it’s important to me that I don’t feel pressured. When he didn’t answer: do you understand what I mean? The gray was grayer than ever, though I was trying to make it fucking clear.
There is a telling gathering. People everywhere are lining up, clamoring, asking for a few morsels of belief, for a change in the pattern of violence against the body.
Once the audience hears the testimony, they start looking for the splinter to pull out to sew the thing shut again, fix it, be done with it—this tiresome story.
They are telling us to become proud of our survivor name tags, all these bodily fluids now kept in their rightful containers. A celebration is in order.
Situate yourself: are you the one turning away, or the seamstress quieting the rupture? Are you the howler? The body opener? The valve? The flood?
Were you in the room with me?
Abandon recovery. That thing never leaves the body, even after the exorcisms. And I don’t want to explain why, or how, or what split where and when and who came to rescue.
Let me point you to the dove, quaking violently from the branch: she sings the same, tired song every day. I won’t shame her redundancies. When I step closer she bursts into startled flight; the song and the quiver in one rippling moment, power growing from her. No, let me start over: I’m still regurgitating that language. Trash the violent and the burst. I’m in a pool of bright blue water. The fish are eating off my dead skin, and that’s about as good as it gets.
I want to read an essay about how recovery is a myth. How there is no “healing,” only a roughly similar body with new ghosts. Outside of my house, a tree has been split through the middle, and inside the fissure she whistles a low tune as the wind moves through her. Her two selves now move against each other, a slow grinding. She won’t seal back up, though some might try to heal her. She won’t stop singing. Not until the dead part of her falls off, collapsing the neighbor’s house.
Girlshealth.gov offers a few Q’s & A’s:
What is sexual assault?
Something grows inside you once his fingernails have caught on your belly’s baby hairs: it might not have teeth, might only thrum against your tautness once in a blue moon, might peer over you mid-dream until you wake up, sweaty thrash. Really, not a whole lot happens. Your body may respond in many ways: rigor mortis, clammy sweat, might even open quietly, like you had asked for something and were ready to receive it.
What should I know about date rape drugs?
The drugs often have no color, smell, or taste. We recommend a fingernail polish, which changes color when dipped in the sour thing. We recommend saying “NO” to alcohol. Stay away from “party drugs.” They can be pills, liquids, or powders, and can leave you disoriented and vulnerable. Always go to a party, club, or concert with someone you trust—like an older brother.
But anyway, your whole life, you’ve made a promise you need to make good on. The drug is almost laughable, gratuitous, small peanuts.
Who can I call for help?
Don’t scare your parents. They may ask you to take better care of yourself, or, if you’ve waited a long time, tell you they’re glad you’re being smarter now, making better decisions. Your friends will get overwhelmed. Will get tired of your triggers. Will tell you not to be so alarmist: Everyone has bad sex, uncomfortable encounters. Your mentor might get confused about the logistics, might tell you that enough is enough, you’ve given it fair time in your work, your writing, your conversations. And she is no expert, anyway, having never had any “ambiguous” sexual interactions. The doctor, again, will remind you to cover your drink or, better yet, stop drinking—and how many drinks do you have a week, anyway? This is what happens when you lose yourself, get too blurry. If you start blubbering before she sticks her hand inside you, she’ll shuffle outside for some tissues, apologize clumsily: this has never happened to me.
What about self-defense?
We see you reading the headline: Teen Carried out of Club After Being Stabbed with Date Rape Needle. Yes, well. Grow your nails into talons. We already told you about the polish. Sharpen up. Consider something that buckles around your thighs. When he comes for your open mouth, bring those baby molars down like you mean it, like this is the last living animal on earth and you, starving thing, got blood to spill.
“What is there to show for myself but a hunger
I’ll never be sure is my own.”
—Rebekkah Leigh LaBlue, What’s Still Buried in a Field of Poison Ivy Above the City
When I was a small child, I ran around the lake with nothing but jellies on my feet, my childhood love running naked alongside me, his small flopping penis then just another easy part of flesh that came with the rest, as buoyant as the seaweed.
Now I stay inside, leaving the windows open to watch the world carry on in its gruesome ways. The robins are so diligent in their hunting. Their red bellies always give them away.
What I want is for us to not need a language for the mishandling of the body, a vocabulary of violent hands. Imagine: we live in a world where the body asks and no one pushes their little squirming needs back into it.
Yesterday, I thought yes, yes, I’m doing it—here I am in my moment, that loud call I’ve been writing poems toward finally summoned exactly when I needed it. The man didn’t laugh. He didn’t keep pushing. The man stilled, watching me, and nothing happened.
I was surprised at the sturdiness of my body, not evaporated, considering how much it took to wrap this small chain-link of words around me. How tired I felt, after: every time I walk back out into the world thinking it could be tender, only to spin in circles with my arms stretched out around me.
“In some instances, a victim’s miscommunication and, vastly more often, the perpetrator’s misperception lead to sexual assault. Therefore, [Weitz] suggests direct and explicit verbal communication training (e.g., ‘‘Stop. I do not want to have sex with you.’) may be the appropriate strategy for date rape prevention.”
—Burnett et al., Communicating/Muting Date Rape
Oh, baby. I say it over and over: no like a sedative, like a crowbar.
Even after I said I need you to be patient with me and we’re keeping it PG tonight, his body pressed me awake hour after hour.
Anyway, I am tired. Aren’t we bored of this story?
Let me take a break for a moment, offer myself some antidotes—run the bath, roll the joint. The candles around me seem endless. I remind myself that masturbation is a mapping of the body, of its borders.
And if I won’t spill? If I won’t resurrect the violence for you?
The problem is that now you have to believe me. You have to hear the constant breach in the equation. You have to listen, and I know you are tired of listening, and you want to play devil’s advocate want to run the situation by me again want to get it right want to understand which direction the bed was facing and was the roommate in the room next door and what time exactly again and at which point did you say what and did you say anything and was there profusion in your rejection was there passion was it believable did you make it sing, baby, did you really do it right this time did you go to the doctor afterward to get the proof or were you wet too did something in you say okay say fine say I guess this isn’t so bad after all say yeah give it to me—
The issue with the not-telling is that you don’t have any proof. And god, we want proof. Even now, the professor is pointing to that part in the poem where the speaker breaks down and the thing shatters, when the moment with its patient teeth is offered up to the world and our trauma-fix is fulfilled for the day, and she’s saying yes, here, good, here is the evidence, we can believe you now.
The problem with this essay is that there is no rape in it. Just the echoes, and the smallest trespasses.
Reader, I want you to know that this essay was twice as long. I wrote pages and pages about the mishandling, then cut it all down.
More than one person has told me to stop writing about it. The meat has been wrung dry of its juices.
Still, I know there is power in language. Eight years ago, I had to Google the violence to understand it. That, according to the law, one cannot—
All the headlines say: 15 Ways to Heal from—, How Mindfulness Helped Me Recover From—, Overcoming Substance Use After—, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help Survivors of—, START Toolkit, Put the Focus on Victims of—, Nature as a Pathway to Recovery From—, A Self-Help Guide for—, What Does Sex Look Like After—
For a long time I wrote about the birds instead. They picked it out of me, stitched me up, shattered something long dead against the pier with their unbreakable beaks. But they, too, became the victim and the perpetrator. They gulped the sunfish or the ducklings down. They brought their bodies as weapons into the flesh when it went haywire. I misconstrued them. And anyway, it wasn’t their fight. I pretended, projected.
Anyone could call me selfish, but it takes a real man to leave me the fuck alone. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs” to fucking me.
I will stop summoning the Big Violence onto the page. Turn to your own self if you’re so hungry.
Instead, my daily grievances: man at the stoplight pinching his nipples at me, the one in the middle airplane row who won’t move an inch when I climb over his lap for the bathroom, the colleague who tucks a photo of himself in a bikini in my folder of images for the graduation program, the one who tells me that, when I walked down the stairs at his church, he whispered his country’s age-old saying for when a beautiful woman enters the room: Who ordered chicken?
“Like something good can still come
from all of this, if I just keep my eyes fixed and open.”
—LaBlue, What’s Still Buried in a Field of Poison Ivy Above the City
The rains shake the termites from their grassy beds. When they lift up in the sky into a great shimmering cloud, I walk the dog through them as if they’re snowflakes, or hovering cottonwood motes. When I look back, they gather in the distance against the cul-de-sac, glistening like a kind of glitter, or metal.
After X all those years ago, I invited the boy back over. I wanted to make it up to him, ashamed of my sloppiness that night when I was absent from the body.
Even now, after the small trespass, I want to text him and tell him I still think he’s a good person. As if “good” means anything.
So many of our favorite parasites are beautiful—kudzu takes over the whole of North Carolina, killing everything it touches, the trees hollowed. The highway grows bright green, flashy, tricking us—look: something’s alive here. Even the gruesome can shine.
I try to keep my fingers behind my back so they stop pointing, keep it centered on me: When you did X it made me feel X, and really not him, but society, the herd, or my own dampened voice not coming up loud enough to fill the space he left between us, if any. The hard sheath of his chest an impenetrable boulder.
I used to know how to respond. I was born with spunk. When I was eight, I latched my teeth around a boy’s shoulder, leaving a circle of blue that broke open beneath the surface, rose to greet me like a badge of honor. I tested the dog’s ears, wondering how hard of a nibble he could bear until the whimper would break through his mouth. The red bugs that smeared like paint between my fingers, the gerbils I held by the tail, wriggling rope. I was rehearsing. (There I go, writing the violence again. Little broken tune.)
Sometimes, I still feel it pulse through me. I shove a friend too hard in our horseplay. A performative strike to the gut that hits a soft spot too hard. Mostly, though, I smooth the instinct back. My hands soft and pretzeled behind me.
Long after X, I could barely get the water heater fixed, the pilot light scaring me and the lengthy, red instructions with the big red hand with STOP in all caps for when things threatened to go wrong, though they didn’t.
I had promised myself I could learn to be resolute. I could absorb something from the water heater’s obnoxious shout of a sticker. The attempt was a little swollen, a little weepy, but sometimes ravenously proud, riding down 11th with the windows open and a new fight-me-red lipstick. I learned to get on in waves.
4 days ago: Former Pa. Police Officer Acquitted on Sex Assault Allegations
3 days ago: Former Ill. Medic Convicted of Sexually Assaulting Patient in Ambulance
10 hours ago: Boone County Man Charged with Sexual Assault, Cruelty to Animals
7 hours ago: Sheriff: Standoff in Laurel County After Suspect in Sexual Assault Case Barricades Self in Home
The woodpecker is digging into the loin fat smeared on the tree bark. Everyone is hungry. Her red stripe breaks at the throat.
Even the cockroach lays claim to my body. I try to strike a bargain—if he stays far enough away, I won’t snap wing and split gut. But most times when he wakes me in my sleep, climbing my skin, I cup his body kindly, anyway. I escort him gently into the night.
Boundaries are tricky. Sometimes you can see them, feel them, sometimes they are disappearing, sometimes erased, sometimes muted.
I take notes from the world around me: the peeling fence, the river body moving against the crumbling bluff. But even earth’s partitions come down eventually, moved by the elements, or hunger:
“Exogenous or endogenous forces may tend to maintain or destroy a boundary through time . . . plankton may be concentrated into patches by ocean gyres or dispersed by winds or currents. A boundary between two vegetation types . . . is reinforced by the grazing preferences of herbivores.”
—Belnap et al., A Classification of Ecological Boundaries
What of the grazer? What of the field? The gyre? The current?
“The structure lasts only as long as the winds persist.”
The limit lasts forever, or until something gives. Once the gales weaken: an opening.
Do I keep howling eternally? I push my hand against the world’s chest again and again and again. When I lower my arms, it closes in.
Most times, life doesn’t end when an invader wakes the body. This morning, the clock reading 3:28, I was unusually clear when the roach woke me, and though I wanted him dead, and what’s more, wanted him to twitch his unseemly legs before dying so he, too, could know agony, I noticed that his small body mounting the hill of my leg was stripped of urgency, was just wandering, not looking for anything in particular but heat, the night unusually cool this time of year, and when I turned the lamp on he was just strolling, leisurely, and only when I slapped my book down on him did he start to panic, and god how hard those things are to kill (another lesson in strength: your tenacity, how strong your little bug body), and I rose and went for the spray.
“how to discern reclaim from cope
in the inflection of a magician”
—LaBlue, What’s Still Buried in a Field of Poison Ivy Above the City
The body remembers. To this day, I wake sometimes with a start, the man in my dreams peering over my mattress. When a date moves his hands too quickly to my face outside the bar, I stiffen. I will stop writing when the body is no longer a mission.
Months ago, in a bookstore, a poet read from her book for the launch, and when she sang her rupture into the room, I cried openly in the audience. The man I was with fidgeted nervously next to me. After, in the autograph line, she held me. This stranger, now sister, took me into her: stretching out from her wooden chair, surrounded by others who seemed to be mostly collected. I told her I was sorry for my blubbering, and she broke us apart briefly, looked into me, said no, said did you just say that? and pulled me back in.
“We haven’t made it to the punch line. Everyone is waiting. Everyone wants resolution, for the poem to click shut. Who gets the last word? Who, in the end, dictates the story? I’m sorry. I really don’t know.”
—Cameron Awkward-Rich, Essay on the Awkward / Black / Object
The tree keeps whistling outside my window, and I won’t watch for the split. Let me write anything, anything, anything else.