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