1. THE SITUATION
The situation is that I loved a man who loved me even though I was his labor. I used to think it was cool to spend Friday nights on my professor’s pale brown couch with the tear in the arm cushions, singing Fela Kuti while the oxycontin sunk in. The wall above his desk was covered in Post-It Notes. They said things like “Home should feel like a resolution” and “Look around, the world is bright.” He liked to listen to me speak and I felt lit up when he listened to me. There was a hole in the corner of his ceiling and often I thought I saw a rodent poke through to watch us strip.
2. THE WOMAN IN THE CEILING FAN
I once told him, “I think I’m dying here,” and he reached behind my head for the orange pill bottle. He dumped the oxy into my hand. The drug he took for migraines and back pains. “I won’t make it past thirty-five,” he said. “I have a very strong feeling that I will die very young.”
I was about to leave him when his mother arrived inside of the house. Suddenly, “I’ve left,” became, “I am trying to leave,” or, “I am in the process of leaving now.” He said the grief of losing his mother was entering him only now, twenty-five years after the fact of her death. His mother had died, his father had followed, and he had largely raised himself.
He said the grief of losing his mother was making him ill in a nausea inspiring way. That he found himself weeping at the toilet seat, filling the basin with vomit. I came and sat at the edge of his bed and listened. He said his mother appeared to him at night, drifting above his head, her limbs tangled in the ceiling fan.
We slept together naked in the unforgiving spring heat. She wiped the sweat from his brow with cool towels. Held his arm where it shook on the sheet. When his eyes shut, I retreated to the other side of the bed and the distance between us was a field I hoped not to fall into as I succumbed to sleep and lost control of my body.
He told me his mother came to him and begged him to hold her in his little boy arms, now long and muscled, and grabbing for her waist; she swung her legs away. In the afternoon, his mother sat on his desk where he sat editing his work and he turned up The Underground Spiritual Game and danced hard to get her out of the house.
He whimpered in the dark; I watched his mouth open and hang in place. His mother came for him. I lay in the dark and undressed and watched light slide across walls. There was a sculpture on his dresser. A skeletal figure carved from sanded balsa wood. Another woman had purchased the sculpture for him, and it was the only object in the room, aside from the yogurt container he filled with water and placed on the stool beside the bed for me to sip. From my twisted position, I stared at the skeletal figure. The figure had no eyes. A soft space where the eyes should have been.
I wondered where he kept the gifts I had given him. Two interlocking stones forming a short chain, sculpted by an old man we’d met at a park on the outskirts of Harare. I had asked the artist about the curves in his wood and stone pieces. The shapes all reminded me of the female body. He’d looked at me and smiled, amused. “Of course,” he said. “The essence of all my work. You must know we all come from a woman.”
On one of those nights, guilty in the house I no longer wished to be in, as sounds of fitful sleep pushed through the walls, I remembered a younger iteration of myself, the girl he’d met at eighteen. I peered at my face in the bathroom mirror and touched the girl with the palm of my hand. That girl had been falling through a crack. He’d handed her a ladder; the ladder was language. For that, I still felt I owed him something.
His mother story. It made me open, made me unbutton my shirt. Could I help him? I watched him pace the house, reckoning with his mother. I touched my own face to be sure it was still there. My ears, my mouth, intact. I had begun to feel that my face had fallen off of me, that he had scraped my face from the bone while I was asleep. He spoke. I watched him pace but couldn’t hear the sound his feet made on the floor. A silence grew between our bodies. I heard everything else— the mice scurrying in the drywall, the water through the pipes.
Toward the end, he asked if he could hire a photographer to take a nude portrait of the two of us in bed. I said yes but the photographer never arrived. I imagined sticking his thumb down my throat in front of a camera. The final developed image: my unclothed body flat and horizontal on his bed, my hand pushing his thumb deeper into my mouth, his own mouth open and laughing.
Had the mother clipped the collar on? Or had he clipped it when I turned my head to look out of the window, onto a stretch of the yard, bone dry, and vinegar was the sunshine crawling up the little stone angel in the shredded garden, the little black dog barking in the neighbor’s yard. We stayed inside the house and every blind remained shut.
The house had never been mine to enter as I wanted, and because of this fact, I was impressed by the mother for having found her way inside. On days when I couldn’t reach him, when I was feeling particularly desperate, I had attempted to pick the locks. I’d run the mile to his house in the middle of the night. In shadow, so the eyes of the town and institution couldn’t see. He’d hear me banging at the door and he’d come and he’d hush me and push me inside. He’d peel off my clothes and lift me and sit me on top of the washing machine, the soft whirr of clothes and soap humming beneath me, and he’d wash my clothes after we finished—so you don’t go to class in the morning smelling of me.
Almost five years later I learned that there were others.
I was in the shower shaving when I heard a faint voice on the radio begin to speak about a military coup. Robert Mugabe, who had been in power since the country won its independence nearly forty years prior, had finally been ousted. No one anywhere knew what this would mean. The razor blade shot up and down my leg, lifting hair into the drain. That day, I was preparing to kill a man, and this man happened to be from Zimbabwe, where the coup was now in motion. It occurred to me that my timing could not have been crueler.
I wanted my legs to be clean when I sent the offending documents. His letters. I wanted my head to be very clear. I would brush my hair slowly and put on lipstick. I would sit down on my couch and compose my final message as I bit into a runny egg.
As I wrote to a dean at my alma mater, I pictured my professor preparing coffee in his house. I saw him there. His hands were on the metal grinder with the thin blade, an appliance that had always frightened me. He was a very particular man and I was always terrified of disappointing him. Apparently, my fear extended even to the proper grinding of coffee beans. If I pushed too lightly, the bean wouldn’t crush, whereas if I pushed down with force, I might crush the bean to pieces, thus creating a useless powder, no good to drink.
The Zimbabwean woman being interviewed by the radio journalist could not contain her joy. Her voice lilted and sprung into a new octave. This would be a new country, she explained, and she would learn how to participate in it. “I never thought I’d live to see the day my children would not call that hideous man the leader of their world.”
I was shaving around my ankle, picturing Mugabe’s Blue Roof mansion, a sprawling estate hidden behind a stone wall in Harare. He said that after five the street closed to cars and pedestrians. Young ZANU-PF soldiers patrolled through the night. “If you’re found walking the street after hours, horrible things happen to you,” I had been told by the man I was about to betray. Our relationship had begun around the corner from a dictator. We walked around the Avenues on Sundays, careful to avoid his street.
On one of those walks he taught me the word for ‘demon’ in his language.
Now I felt like a demon. There was a cut on my ankle, bleeding. Was he listening to this radio program in his own house? I couldn’t help but wonder as I soaped the flat space between my tiny breasts. His hand was on the grinder, the grinder was on the beans, and outside the sun would remain locked in place for seven days. I’d checked the forecast in his area. I wanted to take him down on a day he least expected something would go wrong, and I knew how he felt about rain.
Whenever it rained in Zimbabwe that summer I could never leave the house. I couldn’t go anywhere without being accompanied by him, for fear on his part that I might enter into a marriage I didn’t understand.
“How young do you think I am?” I’d ask.
“Trust me,” he’d laugh. “These men are very charming.”
I was proposed to several times that summer. Once at a bar with a braai pit outside. Our cab driver had approached our table with a pink drink in hand. All around us pig flanks, chicken breasts, and hot liver smoked on hooks above the grills. When the driver approached our table, the man I would kill today had pulled the chair out from under him, so that as the driver popped the question, he fell with the chair into a heap on the floor.
The razors I used were pink and cheap. My hair in the drain made the basin fill up. I walked dripping and naked to the scanner, where I copied his letters. The ink ran a little. The red envelopes were in my wet hand when I pressed send. Red envelopes with his yellow post-it-notes stuck to the front. “I am sorry this is invasive, won’t happen again.” Red envelopes that he’d asked a friend to place beneath my pillow.
“They’re the color of poison,” another friend noticed, when I pulled them out of a box.
Outside my window, a dog pissed on a bench leg. The chef at the restaurant I lived on top of walked into the street to kiss his wife.
“The world is strange and telepathic,” he used to say. I took notes, naked in his bed with my notebook out.
“I can always sense when you are thinking of me. Do you know you repeat your opinions three times, whenever you are very touched by something?”
I wrote it down.
4. ON THE TV, A SCALPEL
I remember the news report that seemed to be everywhere several months after I faxed the love letters. Veteran harbored a medical scalpel in his body for almost four years, lawsuit says. Surgeon being sued for malpractice.
The veteran had suffered severe abdominal pain for ten years, ever since his surgery performed at a VA hospital in Connecticut immediately following his final tour. At a recent doctor’s appointment, an X-ray showed that the surgeon had accidentally stitched a scalpel back into the veteran’s body. This scalpel had rusted significantly in the gut. The blade had shifted and now threatened to poke through the stomach lining. The lawyers were calling this situation an egregious malpractice case. An incomprehensible level of incompetence on the part of the surgeon. He would pay the victim 2.1 million dollars damage, and he would never work again. The news anchor interviewed the veteran as I ripped the scabs off my body in bed.
Considering this outcome, I wondered what the victim was most pleased about. Was he happiest to:
1. Discover the source of his pain
2. Have proof (x-rays) to locate said pain. To show it to others. He would not be questioned.
3. Profit from this pain-source
In my view this result was incredible. Much better than having suffered years of severe pain for nothing. A competent surgeon removed the scalpel. He wiped the rust from the veteran’s innards. The veteran survived and he also made money. I was envious. I felt sick all the time and I had no idea what to do with my feeling.
5. THE SITUATION
There was another woman. I learned about her a year ago. X was also in his house alone at night. She documented her experience. I bought her story for sixteen dollars on the internet and felt conflicted. I wanted to know and I wanted to remain blind. I took off the blindfold when I broke the spine of her story. I appear in the middle as a knock at the door, but she doesn’t know this, doesn’t know the knock is me. He says I am his colleague. It was the day before my birthday, the day she writes that they were alone in his house. His house which was also his classroom. When I knock. She uses parenthesis to suggest they touch in some significant way. They touch between parenthesis, in the pause, when I am not around. He sneaks her out the back door when I knock. The back door leads to the garage, where extra trash bags pile up. When I read the scene the first time through, I picture her standing by the trash, inhaling the stench of brown banana peels and rabbit; the food we ate. I make her fall into the trash, into our dinner, when I read her story. And we sat week after week, side by side, our legs probably touched. I mean, they must have. His couch was small. And we sit in our creative writing class in his living room, eating the lentil soup he’s made, squeezing the perfect lemon wedges dry. All ten of us, his students, but X and I always on the couch, claiming the place we know, our whole bodies know… our knees knock, our bowls spill a little, and maybe we smile collectively, like a pair, and then we move on to talk about the work. I guess maybe I suspected. I don’t know. If I’m being really honest, I didn’t like her. I know he fed me reasons. He told me she was coming on to him. My distaste for her became extreme. I have not thought about her in a very long time. Not until now. Now I cannot stop seeing us there together, on the couch, riveted by the man who made us feel seen, or something, what was wrong with us. The two of us sitting there, upright in the place where we howled and undressed. At least where I undressed. The man asked us to grab for our insides and spread them out for everyone to see. And I held him there, at night, in our classroom, as he threw up his own insides and talked to me about the grief of losing his mother. I thought he was my mother. He was, in many ways, a mother to me. I didn’t know what to do with his grief. I didn’t know how to hold it. I held that grief so clumsily, like a child holding a cup of juice. Spilling the cup. A reflex. A sudden jerk. She wrote about all of it. His childhood, his history, what little he told of it. Where he was from. An orphan. Places I knew. I hated her, I hated that she did that to him. I felt for her. I wanted to talk to her. I’m not sure. During the nights that followed this revelation, I thought that I could hear the ocean, but I live across the street from a gas station in Providence.
You know, in the morning when you lie facing the wall of windows,
your back arched a little, your spine
runs delicately under your flesh, cutting you exactly in half.
Sometimes I watch you [a] sleep. When you are asleep, you have
such peace: your face holds the most delicate of privacies.
It is greying outside, the sun laying firm siege on the sky.
There, its [sic] leaning on the high floor of the flat across from ours.
When you are asleep and I watch you, I feel like such a creep.
You have the quietest of hairs along your spine.
You have the loveliest beauty spots played asymmetrically down your back.
I am lying there next to you thinking of how kind you are.
How so smart, so sweet, so funny, and how so content
You feel to me in that hour. I lean over to you, gather
You in my arms.
I want always to kiss you down your spine, knot after knot
Lay my lips on you.
You’re my kind of girl.
Thu, Nov 16, 2017, 2:28 PM
My name is ___________ and I am the Title IX Coordinator at ______________. Dean ___________ shared with me what you had shared with her regarding your experience at ________ with Professor ______________.I wanted to let you know that we met with Professor ____________ today to let him know that the college would be imitating a formal resolution process against him for a violation of the sexual misconduct policy. In that meeting he was calm and admitted to having the relationship he had with you. He also chose to resign effective immediately.
_____________ shared your concern for the safety of your sisters as well. I want you to know that ___________ is no longer allowed on campus and has received a trespass notice. This means that he must be escorted on campus if he has a legitimate need to be here (i.e. returning items or removing items from his office). I also personally warned him not to have contact with you or anyone associated with you and he stated that he does not plan to do so. If your sisters do experience any kind of communication from him, please encourage them to speak to me about it.
If you would like to speak with me regarding this, or if I can be of any support to you, please let me know. I am also including information below about our website where you can find all of the information regarding the sexual misconduct policy.
6. ON THE PHONE WITH A VICTIM
I was up in bed, staring at a blue strip of light hovering on the wall when the first woman called to tell me she had also been his victim. I’d moved into my small and unembellished apartment nine months prior. The only sheets I owned were on the mattress. The mattress was on the floor. I woke up with my right leg on the hardwood, the other twisted in the sheet like a branch ripped from a tree. My window opened onto the roof, and as the woman spoke, I realized I needed air. I had been inside all day, arranging and rearranging my four pieces of furniture: a blue chair, a pink lamp, a rocking horse, a cinderblock and on the cinderblock my books: The House of Hunger, Black Sunlight, Nervous Conditions.
She described my life four years ago to me. “When I was in the house with him, he was very paranoid,” she said. “He pulled down the blinds and checked them once. Then after he took my clothes off, he circled the rooms again, checking a second time. As if this weren’t enough, he walked to his closet, grabbed his neckties, and began hanging his ties around the curtain rods, so that the slats between blinds were covered.”
“Yes,” I said. “He did that.”
“Oh. He did that? You saw that too?”
“Yes, exactly that.”
She continued. “Sometimes he called me late at night and I wasn’t sure what he wanted. I knew what I wanted. I’d walk to him and when I arrived the snow clung to my hair. He pulled the snowflakes out. He made me soup. Everything felt warm.”
From my roof, I watched a woman push her baby through the snow in this little red toy car contraption. She was running. She screeched, her baby giggled. The two did not slow down. I felt worried for the baby. Would the baby fall out? I was glad the mother didn’t seem concerned. When the mother couldn’t run anymore, she picked up her child, threw him into the air, and caught him.
The woman on the phone was still talking and I had no idea what to say to her.
“How did you get my number?” I asked her.
“He gave it to me.”
“Why do you think he did that?”
“I don’t know. I begged.”
“One of the reasons I wanted to call was, well, he gave me an STI. I got really ill. My mother had to come to take care of me. My mother needs some sort of support system. She feels so responsible. How is your mother holding up?”
I didn’t know what to say when the woman tried to comfort me, because I felt more like a bull than anything. If I were to adopt her new terminology, I would have to concede that I was on the phone with a victim, living below a victim, in a victim’s body, on a floor mattress.
On the first night of my life in this new apartment, the woman who lives in the place above me cried for several hours. These tears were not normal tears. They were violent, shuddering, and I thought they’d never end. I’d followed her cry around the rooms, trying to interpret or make up an event that might have precipitated them. At first, I felt very sympathetic towards her. I pictured her in many dire situations. I considered bringing her a bowl of soup, but as I neared the bottom of my whiskey glass my patience for her noise dwindled, and I wanted to go to sleep, so badly that I communicated with her by standing on my mattress and knocking with a hammer left behind by the previous tenant—and she yelled down, you’re so cruel.
Below me, a popular restaurant. This restaurant played music at all hours. Depending on who was working, I got the top forty countdowns or Axel Rose, and I liked neither the top forty countdowns nor Axel Rose, so I often sat with my headphones on and listened to the news, all bad, as usual, why was news never the good kind, I wondered, something good must be happening. I watched the mother and her baby walk down the street and out of view.
I was up in bed, now nine months into my tenure as a tenant, noticing how the exquisite yellow of the gas station sign faded when a car pulled in for gas with blinkers on. This blinkerlight ruined the innate beauty of that yellow, the properties inherent to it became clouded, and this made the sign look drab. I looked down at my skin and wondered what sort of light had effects like this on my body. I knew, of course, that bad lighting was a real thing, that the quality of a photograph often depended on the photographer’s aptitude with manipulating his light sources. This made me sad. Manipulating the light sounded horrible, like putting a choker on the sun.
She was telling me a story about how they’d met again, years after their affair ended, somewhere near the school where she was getting her Master’s degree.
“Anyway, I think this rendezvous might have taken place when he was still seeing you,” she said, “Which is why I wanted to call and let you know.”
I bit my hand. I didn’t know how to tell her that I really didn’t care about something that had happened four years ago. Somewhere along the line, I’d grown a sharp tongue. It was better to bite down on it. I had learned how to make a fake plant appear real to me, and vice versa. I went to the circus and stared at trapeze artists, studying how they moved, graceful, without a tinge of visible self-doubt. Doubt would cause you to fall to your death. Doubt was a fatal feeling. I tried to explain.
“I think what happened has already happened, and I am really sorry you are only learning about me now, about how there was another one of you and I was her, that your experience of love has been duplicated. I know it’s very hard,” I said.
These new powers of reality-bending helped make me feel as invincible as a dental patient on Novocain, as though I were permanently under my own spell. The sidewalk cracks were trapeze wires. I walked across and didn’t fall.
A car pulled out of the gas station and the yellow returned to its usual magnificent state.
The woman said she’d heard I sent the letters. She thanked me for sending them. “That was very brave of you.”
“I didn’t feel brave. I just walked to the scanner. I put the letters face down on the glass. I pressed send. It was all pretty abstract.”
I was alert when the mouse ran into my room and sat by the heater for a second. I would later be asleep when it died in the trap I’d set in the opposite corner. I would wake up again in the morning and smell it, and I would be the one to find the latex gloves under the sink and wipe it up because I was living alone.
“Could I hear one?”
“Could you hear what?”
“Could you hear one—”
I was up in bed, retracing what everyone around me kept calling my trauma, and what I kept seeing as my dog. I kept attaching bobby-pins to my arm-hair and calling them IVs. I kept whispering that my trauma was my pet. My love was my dog. My love was the black spot on the floor where mouse intestines had decayed overnight.
The man had probably wanted to kill me. As it turned out the man had many loves. He’d been the love of other people he also called love. I hated love. This woman was loved, and as I listened to her speak, I was a bit insulted to be in the same camp as her, not because she wasn’t a kind woman, she was, but because I could tell that under no circumstances would we have ever gotten along; in fact, I was sure that if I had met her in person by chance, I would maybe have said two words to her, hello, hello, before calling it quits. She would never be a woman who registered to me, and I would never be a woman who registered to her, so this reparative conversation we were having felt like a waste of my time and I resented him for putting us in this awkward position.
“It turned out that my love saw me as a child, he licked my cunt to teach me how to be a woman. Don’t just get down on your knees. Learn to ask for your pleasure, and I did ask for it, and in this arena, he always delivered. No other man has ever known how to make me cry,” she said.
“I also learned that crying while naked can make a woman more susceptible to deep love, or something close to wonder. Whenever we touched a space as wide as an inked sea expanded in me and I had to swim in it. So, whenever I pulled up my jeans, I always thanked him for the fun,” I said.
The woman who cried above me slept with fifteen stuffed animals every night. I knew this because a week ago a fire alarm had kicked us out of the building. The owner of the restaurant below us was a drunk. He’d pulled the alarm. He often ruined the bar experience for his customers. They seemed not to mind, as they kept coming back. I ran downstairs to escape the unbearable noise. Fifteen minutes after the alarm began sounding, I was in the restaurant, drinking a whiskey sour on the house, when I saw the woman weeping on the corner of the street, near the mailboxes, with her stuffed animals wrapped in her arms. If this had been a real fire, she would have died for love of those animals, and I was shocked that she’d risk her life for multiple species of stuffed fabric. I decided that if I were a person who loved her, I would buy her a real dog, because she would be a very good pet owner, indeed. I felt like patting myself on the back for thinking of this. So, I did that. I reached one hand behind my head to congratulate myself for wiping the stain up when the mouse died, and for responding so quickly to the fire alarm.
*I am grateful to the women who helped me understand my experience by sharing with me their own. Some identifying details altered, some voices composited.