“I dreamed I was a thousand years old and then, when I woke up, I was a thousand years old and I thought: am I dreaming?” -Kate Greenstreet
Fifth grade marked a rite of passage for the kids in my class. It was a whispered promise passed from the older kids onto the younger, and its name was vague enough to keep us rooted to the edges of our seats: the talk.
Before it even happened, we were herded into separate groups, the boys and the girls. This rift was not new; it was the same rift reflected on the playground once we realized girls could spend recess on the swings and walk in circles dragging our hands over the chain-link fence to hear it clink, but should not play kickball.
Silent with anticipation, we girls were taken downstairs to sit on the floor in the school counselor’s office. We had liked her more when we were in the earlier years of our education because she used puppets to talk to us about bullying and integrity. Those puppets were all still sitting in the corner staring at us, their lifeless eyes and crumpled forms projecting an air of judgement into the room. The door closed with two clicks: shut and locked.
It was a grainy film of a girl talking about deodorant, and we scrunched our noses. They told us we would start bleeding, and several of the girls in my class looked horrified. Cynthia Price was unfazed, and several girls whispered about how they had already seen her carrying sanitary pads in her backpack. The actors in the film had big hair like pictures of my mother in the eighties, which made us titter despite all the talk about puberty. Once the film ended, we were each handed a bag with a panty liner and a stick of deodorant, which we all applied before going back to class, engulfing the classroom in a strong fragrance of vanilla with hints of aluminum.
The separation between church and public education` exists only, it seems, in regards to mathematics. The film conveyed nothing about sexual activity, but it did not need to when we had already been taught to save ourselves for marriage. This was the entirety of the education we received on the subject, but we were convinced that the talk had revealed all of the complexity of womanhood simply because we were told it had.
“I seem to myself, as in a dream,
An accidental guest in this dreadful body.”
My mother took a tampon and put it in the sink to explain to me how it worked. When Bethany lowered her voice in the lunchroom to tell us that using tampons made it so you no longer had your virginity, I stayed silent and looked it up later on the internet. She was wrong, it said, but I was so afraid of losing what seemed to be my most precious attribute. I shied away from tampons until I had to wear one out of necessity in the pool.
As a sophomore in high school, I could name for you all of the parts of the male and female reproductive system. In technical terms, I knew that the ovaries produced female eggs and this was joined in the fallopian tubes by a sperm cell to create an embryo in the uterus. It seemed silly to me at the time that we would need to review forms of birth control when the one my teacher wrote in large letters on the whiteboard seemed the most effective of all: ABSTINENCE. Born into a town with rampant teenage pregnancy and a nursery stationed in the high school, I had been taught only to avoid pregnancy. We watched a video of a childbirth. I averted my eyes.
“I experience my insides as the space of another, yet my own body.”
-Iris Marion Young
Before I left for college, my mother sent me a list of the ways serial killers and rapists might attack young girls. I read the whole of it, and was left with a knot of confusion in my stomach. I could not keep my hair too long or cut it too short. I could not wear too many clothes, or too few. I kept the pepper spray that had been a graduation gift from my dad’s coworker in the side pocket of my backpack and vowed never to go outside alone at night.
I had never tasted alcohol prior to going to school, and one of my most vivid memories (or non-memories, I suppose) is coming back into my senses in the room belonging to the girls living across the hall from me. I was stooped over a trash can and someone was holding a bottle of water to my lips. He smelled like marijuana, but the smell didn’t bother me. “Her lips are blue,” someone was saying. I peeked into the mirror on the wall and realized they were right. My skin looked like it had been doused in flour, and there were cat ears on the headband wrapped around my head.
“I need to go to sleep,” I remembered. I was supposed to drive to Kansas in the morning, and I hadn’t planned on getting this drunk—how had I gotten this drunk? Everything felt hazy. No one could find my keys, and no one believed me when I told them that they had fallen into Rachel’s hamper. They sent me down to the desk with Marlo and I repeated several wrong iterations of my ID number before they finally handed over my lockout key. When I got back to my room, they had my keychain: I had been right all along. No one apologized for doubting me, or maybe I don’t remember.
“Let your body call you back into yourself, into your most deeply embodied self. Land, dive, soar. Find the crumbs that lead back home.”
Non-memories started to characterize the first year of my college career after the assault happened. The first time, I was convinced it hadn’t happened at all. Later, the lawyer who was forced to represent me would call my juvenile for not knowing. She didn’t ask if anyone had ever explained how it worked to me or if I was drunk, which I was. Maybe I didn’t want to be a part of myself any longer, but I had started relying on tequila for hydration. He kept buying it for me.
The second time, the world went gray like it was a black-and-white photograph. I couldn’t be sure anymore if time was moving or if I was frozen in a still shot of my life. When you take a picture of someone, it becomes a representation of them rather than the real thing. My voice sounded the same, I still smiled sometimes, I went through the motions of my schoolwork. I was a near-perfect representation of myself, but my journals were the sieves collecting the broken pieces I showed to no one else.
When it happened a third time, I shattered. I had always admired the china dolls in the shop we used to go to when my mother bought cards or trinkets to use as gifts. They were beautiful, delicate, their eyes revealing absolutely nothing. If one of these dolls fell from its perch, the eyes might be the only thing remaining: entirely glassed over, both seeing nothing and having seen too much.
My freshman year, I learned there are three reactions to fear: fight, flight, and freeze. Stories pass between women like hard candies. They are shrouded in secrets and taste more bitter than blood. Tears are as much a part of womanhood as the monthly pain which was supposedly inflicted on our gender by Eve.
In Sunday school, we learned Woman was the cause for our pain. As we grew, we learned to direct blame using other terms: “asking for it,” “slut,” “whore.” I used to be afraid of the kind of words that will later echo through dreams, but I discovered that the lack of speech can be more terrifying. I had never before seen a glare implying I deserved a place on the earth less than the boy who thought he deserved access to my body. I told myself I was asking for it, and the girls who knew looked at me like they agreed.
“If you just set people in motion they’ll heal themselves.”
I would wake covered by blankets of sweat and tears. He was on top of me, he was behind the door, he was lurking in the basement still and I couldn’t breathe. The only respite I clung to was the knowledge that he was no longer on the other side of the wall. Outside of my room, however, nothing felt guaranteed. His yellow shirt was reflected in the window when he came to stand behind me and caused my vision to go blurry. I used the last of my breath to call campus safety. My friend bought me a pint of ice cream, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it, so it sat in a plastic bag on the table and melted completely.
We were locked in a safe room, and Ash started screaming. Kate burst into tears. Marlo told us her story. The four of us performed an exorcism and pretended we could remove the ghosts from the room so we could finally sleep. A copy of a restraining order application was waved around the room, our version of sage.
I don’t remember the name of the store or even the area we went to for the sake of distraction. I bought a mug with llamas carrying fruits and baskets on them. It was supposed to be for the sake of the concept everyone kept talking about in the forums I had fallen into on the internet full of pieces of what used to be girls: self-care. I still didn’t understand what the concept meant, and I still cannot quite claim to. It might have something to do with pictures of feet pressed to the wall of a bathtub or a glass or chardonnay or maybe a lavender diffuser. It could also have something to do with the concept of sleep, but that’s never been something I’m good at.
A little-known fact about llamas is that they have actually three kinds of spit. They come from different parts of the body: the mouth, the throat, the stomach. These are generalized in a single term: spit. People tend to fear this concept regardless of the location the mucus came from. The same is not true of assault. There are always whispers of the same phrase: “Well…it could have been worse.”
“We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don’t.”
– Jeanette Winterson
When I was eighteen years old, I thought I would be able to write a book. I read back the notes later and realized they were the scribblings of a neurotic someone I couldn’t remember being. It was only after listening to a writing professor cautioning the class not to use a pen like a knife to twist open wounds that I realized they weren’t words after all, but blood spilled over the pages of my notebook.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
As a high schooler, I worked with kids at a daycare center in the middle of a gym. One of my coworkers had a son who broke his leg immediately after learning to walk. For a number of weeks, he was crawling haphazardly due to his right lower limb being wrapped tightly in a cast. I have never had a cast myself, but the entire concept of a broken thing being healed by something rigid and unmoving seems strange to me. A cast in my mind is like a turtle shell: the hardened exterior keeping the vulnerable innards of the animal alive.
My coworker told me it’s actually good for kids to break bones. They grow back stronger. I’ve wondered about the veracity of that statement. When we were going around doing introductions in fourth grade, Maggie Walters told us she had broken her right wrist eight times. We were nine years old, and she could point to the fault line where the bone seemed to be more brittle than the rest. Does a bone really become more resilient after a break, or does its owner simply learn to be more careful?
I remember returning to my room after midnight almost every night so that my roommate didn’t see me cry. In the dark, blankets were suffocating; I couldn’t shake the image of the fabric on top of me being anything other than a person. Headphones shielded me from prying questions. I couldn’t recognize the hollow look in my eyes, but plastered on a smile when a classmate told a joke to prove to both of us that I was just fine. When the bruises on my legs faded, there were no visible fractures to show that I had been broken at all.
Lily Nussbaum (she/her/hers) is a huge proponent of the question of why, both in terms of finding a sense of purpose and questioning the way that things have "always" been done. Her passion areas include gender-based violence, education reform, and the accessibility of mental healthcare and she plans to continue to advocate for change in these and other areas. After graduating from the University of Denver, she has been working in customer service and using her free time to walk dogs for a pet care company. When not at work, she can be found drinking coffee, reading, or painting.