By Jennifer Brennock
I leave the evening poetry reading and begin a non-buddied walk to the dorm. Someone is following me. The unlit field is too dark to see anything but a few unmarked figures making the crossing ahead. They’re nearly out of earshot. I cinch my coat a little tighter, walk a little faster. No dawdling. I am appearing assertive and aware of my surroundings.
Once, my father sent me an email, something along the lines of “Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Get Raped.” He wanted me to learn not to park next to a van with cargo doors, to check the backseat before driving away, to never open the front door of my home to the sound of a crying baby. The father of four girls was concerned about strangers. He didn’t know that the statistic of one in four women didn’t spare his family.
Decades ago, I was fighting with him. I wanted some independence he was denying me. I brandished my face in his and said, “I am a survivor!” He looked at me, not comprehending, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “It’s too late, Dad.” Instead, I folded my arms and told him if I was going to get raped it probably would be by someone I knew. He didn’t know it was the kinder thing to say.
As I continue to stride briskly across the field, I take out my dorm key, just in case, and hold it between my knuckles like a dagger. To poke his eyes out. They give us all this responsibility when we are girls.
At the poetry reading, someone sits down on my left. The man extends both legs fully, each jutting out directly from the corners of his seat. It makes the lower half of his body into a big v. A big valentine v. As if he can’t help from spilling over. You know, cuz he’s so big. He has a right to all this space because he was randomly born with some anatomy that is apparently a foot wide. Men sit like this. On airplanes. On carnival rides. In church. Women are constantly shrinking themselves to accommodate the valentine v net to them. I fiddle with my notebook and pen. This is not the man who raped you.
The poet is talking about oral sex. Once, twice, again and again. Each time he mentions it, the man pretends to be examining the fingernails of his right hand. He holds the hand out in my direction to do this. He’s not looking at his fingernails. It’s made-up. Then he looks openly. First at my mouth, then the top of my head, then a visual sweep down to my shoes like a teenage girl checking out the competition. I pretend not to notice because I was taught to be polite. I look straight ahead. He puts his hand in his lap. It keeps flinching there. He fingers are on the lowest buttons of his untucked shirt, resting on his crotch. He keeps doing it, the flinching, and he keeps looking at me while he’s doing it. I cross my arms, recross my legs. I try to take up less space in my chair. I try to extinguish my peripheral vision. You are being over-diligent.
Now the poet is talking about rape, and the man rests his arm on the back of my chair. Comrade. We’re both grad students, you see. Now his bloodless fingers jerk repeatedly, quick and ugly, a self-pleasure tempo nearly grazing my shoulder. They aren’t touching me, they aren’t, but I know how they feel. They are the albino winter branches, the ones that snagged my hair as I ran after it happened to me. I was twenty. It was a different field on a different campus. I was barefoot. He was a professor. My roommate didn’t believe me, so I didn’t tell anyone else.
I’m nauseous now, and I think I’m going to have to get up in the middle of the reading, everybody looking up with question mark brows. I look around. All the men are sitting like valentines. A room full of them.
I don’t want to throw up. I force myself to think quickly of a man who doesn’t sit like this. I see my brother.
My father’s only son knows women. He has two older sisters and two younger ones, and for most of our growing up he couldn’t get into the bathroom. He kept a toothbrush in his bedroom. He brushed in the kitchen on school days when four girls were trying to blow their bangs into feathers with AquaNet. My brother does not sit in a v. He sits with class. One time when I was a freshman home on a break, I called him in the middle of the night from a party gone sour. I begged him to pick me up. It was an hour’s drive, but he got there in 45 minutes. He got me the hell out of there, pushing his girlfriend’s little car faster through the night. He never asked why, and it wasn’t the reason he probably thought it was. At the reading, the memory works. The Ten Stupid Things list is stalled for the rest of the poems. Afterward I start walking to the dorm.
Halfway across, I dare to look behind. Oh, good. It’s just the poet who was reading tonight. I keep walking. He does too. Of course he does. What else would he do but walk back to the dorm? The pace becomes a little too in sync. As I stride, I can’t remember. For the life of me, I can’t. This seems so important to know right now, and I’m blanking. A fact that could save me. So essential to confirm. How could I not have noticed? Remember, try to remember. Before he got up to read, how did the poet sit in his chair?
Jennifer Brennock is a writer, teacher, mother, and student of historic architecture. She has grown five cucumbers and ten tomatoes (so far) in the median of her street this summer. She considers this a small victory in the pursuit of adapting to Portland. This piece was written ten years ago, before Trump was president and before the metoo hashtag. She carries hope in the fact that she is raising a son who will soon be a man, and that together all mothers of sons can teach them enough to change the paradigm.
Editor’s note: Thank goodness for coincidences. Ten years ago on a Saturday in August, I attended a writing workshop on Orcas Island. Jennifer was the workshop leader and I was one of a dozen people who attended. I wrote a short burst of fiction (300 words in 20 minutes) and, more importantly, made a new friend that day. Neither one of us lives on the island anymore but what a nice coincidence that Jennifer would relocate to Portland.
Tomorrow: John Killen | Chasing Kristin
Yes, yes, yes.
Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing this breathtaking essay. It’s hard to believe that you wrote this essay ten years ago. It is absolutely on target for the times we are living in now. How is it possible that young women walking to their college dorms this September will share the same horrifying experience? And not report it…because no one would believe them. My, how times have changed…not.
I’m compelled to make a follow-up comment. I am aware of how this piece is so gender binary. To me, it showed me how much my ideas of gender have changed in the ten years since this was written. It’s kind-of nice to see that because it means progress I think. Not just in my own use of language and gender in writing, but I can see what my people have taught me. How hard stalwart they have been in holding their truth. I thought about editing it for that, but changed my mind. It seems like a growth chart written in pencil on the kitchen wall, so I left it alone.
Maybe times have changed a bit? I’d like to think so. When I was a freshman at university, we marched and “took back the night.” So even though they are dangerous, I would never have learned to raise my voice if not for the existence of college campuses. And English classes especially 😉 have so much potential to talk about these ideas. So, yay, college! 🙂
It is an unfortunate state of societies, that people, men too, not just women, can not count on being safe from personal assault. Violence by one person against another seems, too often, to have become acceptable behavior.
I had a very hard time reading this. I thought back to the experience of one of my five sisters who asked me to be present during the trial of her assailant and the rage I felt against the man who carried out the attack. I wanted to hurt him! Years later, I didn’t want to be “that” man who couldn’t protect his wife and daughter and wouldn’t hesitate to step in when guys thought it was their right to invade my family’s space. I’ve learned to appreciate that sending out repelling signals by how I sit isn’t worth the extra space gained.
The rage we all feel like that I think has to do with feeling like there’s nothing we can do. But I think there is. We can change the paradigm one childhood, one adolescence, one role model, (one president?) at a time. Was talking to a group of writers about toxic masculinity recently, saying I felt helpless as just one mom against its influence on my son. But someone told me about their toxic childhood, and he is one of the most feeling, expressive people I know. It’s a pattern we can break.
Tough to read. I hope one day you will be able to walk anywhere, be next to anyone, and not have reason to fear. In the meantime sharing the thoughts that go through your head is a very valuable exercise for whatever gender is reading those words. They have a lot of impact.
Thank you for getting it, John. I’m so grateful to George for open space. It’s rare, and each year I try to take full advantage of that by talking about things that don’t come up in conversation. I think that’s how we all get safer with less fear. The talking about it. Cheers!
Thanks for all of you for responding to this marvelous piece of writing. Through precise description and inner dialogue, Jennifer puts me in there at the reading and later, on the path, as she experiences this sleazy, threatening behavior. It’s nothing new but, still, a useful reminder of things we shouldn’t tolerate from anyone toward another person, regardless of gender. I’m grateful that Jennifer takes full advantage of this open space. Agree we benefit from the talking about it.
I’m sure the memory of this experience may not be great, but your writing is so lyrical!
It feels like so many structures and firmly entrenched attitudes are falling or changing whether it’s binary thinking or tolerance for sexual violence or racism. I was reading about the NewYork Times 1619 project on slavery and it was shocking to read this by Nikole Hannah-Jones “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst.” I wondered whether the Founding Fathers just meant white men! After reading a couple of books on Indian history it was eye-opening to read about the roots of the religion of my birth. The caste system was highly racist and much of it was made up along the way (like most religions.) All good I think and hopefully lead to all of us being “woke” in more ways than one.
Sometimes I think when inequalities are pointed out, and we feel this big push-back from entrenched ideas and institutionalized inequality, it means we’re doing it right. Glad for your thoughts. 🙂
As always, reading anything by JB makes me hold my breath … excellent writing. I’m sorry you had this experience but honestly, haven’t most all women? I’ve never felt safe, not since I was a child and had nightmares about bad guys in the dark. Not since I was in college and a group of men thought they should teach me a lesson. Not since I was a younger woman and walking in daylight anywhere meant enduring wolf whistles and cat calls. I had heard that when women age we become invisible. It’s true and it’s a damn relief.
Yup, Lynn. I think most of us have. If this piece communicates anything, I hope it is the lasting effect of trauma. Cases like the Stanford swimmer (Say his name: Brock Turner, Brock Turner, Brock Turner) come to mind. So much concern for the lasting effects for him. His lasting effects were more important than hers. One example.
Cheers, my friend — to Aqua Net, a lack of Vs and the days that I don’t feel the need to carry my key between my knuckles like a dagger. Most evenings, I still do.
Haha! Million dollar product idea: mini AquaNet “safety” keychains. That stuff is some toxic shit.
Cheers, my friend — to Aqua Net, a lack of Vs and the days that I don’t feel the need to carry my key between my knuckles like a dagger. Most evenings, I do.
I LOVE this piece.
Thank you for reading, Kristi.
Excellent work. I love beautiful writing about ugly experiences. Well done.
Oh, my goodness. Wow. How nice to get feedback from another colleague. Cheers! JB