Vocabulary

At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary for it, when I was busy worrying about school dances and how no one would ask me to them, resenting the blackheads that speckled my nose no matter how spitefully I scrubbed them, memorizing long lists of synonyms I never, not even on the SAT, had much occasion to use: abstruse, recondite, recherché.

Whatever it was, it happened two weeks before my seventeenth birthday, on the night of the homecoming dance, which was in the gym, or maybe the theater—some place transformed by tinsel and body heat into a shinier, smellier version of its usual self. Those things always were.

I didn’t know which it was, the theater or the gym, because I didn’t, strictly speaking, make it to the dance. Instead, I was—I allowed myself to be—waylaid in a nearby park by my date, a college student judging the debate tournament that my high school was hosting that weekend.

We were going to stop in a park, the college student said, until we—by which he meant, I—had pulled ourselves together enough to enter a building that contained such a high volume of parent and teacher chaperones. Parent and teacher chaperones were a relic of the past for him, I thought, wonderingly, and I decided that it would be best for me to defer to his impressive age and infinite wisdom.

In my mind, I was succeeding on several scores: not only had I managed to secure a date to a dance, the pinnacle of high school achievement and no small feat for an awkwardly proportioned member of the debate team, but I had managed to secure a date who could in turn secure alcohol. Was there any mark of maturity greater than sipping cheap vodka and orange juice out of their respective plastic bottles in very quick succession? I thought not. I kept sipping.

Abrogate, negate, repudiate.

The park was actually a playground, and I think—though I’m not sure—that I had suggested it. I knew the neighborhood well, and sometimes I came here with my friends at night to smoke the contraband cigarettes that we’d entreated older kids to buy for us in an unreflective act of rebellion.

The park was attached to my preschool, and I couldn’t remember whether it had been renovated since my infancy. Everything had an imprecise aura of familiarity, but the buildings were different—longer, larger—in the drunken dark. It was difficult for me to isolate the points at which its landscape deviated from the one over which my scab-kneed memories scrambled, but something had changed, because I was two inches short of everything I thought I knew, stepping towards the slide too soon, crashing softly and stupidly into the sand, unable to sit upright on the swing, yelling at my date to please stop, I felt sick, push softer, slow down.

Meanwhile, my date was saying things that I heard but couldn’t respond to and did not fully understand, fuzzy things shaped like caterpillars, and when I was on the ground I wondered how I’d gotten there—had I fallen off the swing? What else was elevated enough for me to fall off of it?—with woodchips working their way up my skirt and into the skin of my upper thigh like something living with a vengeance, like someone’s nails (were they?), and it was already too late because the falling was already outside of me, not an action but a fact.

Maybe I was vomiting, maybe I was worrying that I was going to vomit. Things were stuck between their possibility and their occurrence until the time of their happening, at which point they had already happened. It was difficult to take anything seriously.

Certainly I was thinking how stupid and juvenile I’d seem to him, a veteran of a party scene where warm vodka and orange juice cocktails were the norm, unsure how to proceed, pooling into a jumbled puddle, wanting to reach for my phone but realizing that I was wearing some stupid skirt without pockets that was now all bunched up around my stomach (that’s why the woodchips were digging into my ass, which was naked, which confused me) and that my phone was wherever my coat was (when had I taken off my coat?) and there was something in my mouth.

Did I fall asleep? When I got home several hours later and made it past the barrage of accusatory questions—I had been with friends, I was sorry, can I please go to bed now, we drank a little but I learned my lesson, I’ve just been with Patrick and Anne at homecoming and I lost track of time—and inspected my underwear (blue lace, a little torn), I discovered a bright warm flush of blood.

*** 

Afterwards, I faked a cold. It was nothing, I told my mom when she offered to stay home. I just needed a day of rest. I listened for my parents’ departure: the creak of the staircase, the slam of the door, the eventual rumbling of the car, like someone shuffling out of bed. Then I studied SAT vocab and waited for the Plan B to make me nauseous.

Peripatetic, concatenation, sciamachy.

It was all a little like that: waiting to feel horrified, indignant. Intermittently spooning peanut butter into my mouth (and thinking, distractedly, that this probably wouldn’t help the eventual nausea—which, as it turned out, never came). Asking myself—and, finally, him, in a tentative three-word text that also included a good natured “haha,” for appearance’s sake—what, exactly, happened. Padding to the refrigerator, finding none of its contents appealing, padding back to the couch.

I didn’t ask about the bruises or the soreness or the woodchips, why my hair smelled like cologne (how can a smell be greasy, I wondered, but it was), why there had been blood when there had never been blood before, during all of the acts that were not quite sex.

Abarticular, horripilation, laminar.

I felt despite myself, knowing full well (or wanting to) that ‘virginity’ was an antiquated and maybe patriarchal notion, that inviting someone into my body and consequently into the secret places where my self extended beyond my self-control was if not meaningful then at least terrifying. I had imagined that it would be inept, a chaos of fumbling and eye contact that was initially awkward but maybe, ultimately, important (everything, I thought, was a series of misfirings, passings by each other and imagining that we haven’t, trying to stand even somewhat in each other’s paths, if only to expose ourselves to a truly interpersonal destruction). I had painted the event that never transpired as a way out of the whole hopeless mess of communication and miscommunication and imagined communication and longed-for-but-probably failed communication. I saw it as a miracle of interpersonal connectedness, my chance to survive the huge dismantling to which all of our relationships are ultimately subject. Or something painfully stupid like that.

In my journal I wrote, “After having awoken from a drunken stupor to find my thighs bruised, my underwear bloodied, and myself possibly impregnated, I decided to curl up into a ball and read some Kierkegaard. I have spent today worrying about parallels between myself and Bristol Palin. Am not particularly disturbed. Breakdowns to follow.” In a postscript entitled “The Epitome of All Things Pathetic,” I wrote, “there are no clean spoons in my house….so I am eating peanut butter from the jar with a fork.”

Congelation, glossoid, hematology.

I didn’t know what to do with my underwear. I shoved them beneath my dresser, where I hoped no one would ever find them. They’ve since disappeared, and I haven’t inquired after them, preferring to abandon them to the entropy that has been chipping away at my room ever since I left for college, swallowing the items that I abandoned and regurgitating stacks of neatly-packed plastic boxes. Somewhere, I imagine, one of them contains my much-abused copy of Fear and Trembling. 

***

Theoretical discussions of sexual assault always smack of conversational inequity. On the one hand, my interlocutor: invariably, some smug boy from one of my philosophy classes who can’t quite believe that scantily clad women aren’t universally desperate for male attentions, specifically his, someone who read Nietzsche once and quotes it liberally and is probably still smarting from a string of perceived slights delivered by women who disabused him of the notion he’s out to defend. He feels entitled to his position, but he isn’t fully committed to it. It’s just the default view: female aesthetics are for male benefit, and the girl at that party owed him something, and it was more than her pitying parting glance.

 Maybe he doesn’t even consciously identify with this position. He’s just a practitioner of the Socratic method, he thinks, boldly marching forward in the name of philosophical progress, a bulwark against the unwelcome incursions of sloppy feminist thinking and other liberal bullshit. He’s probably smart, at least in some sense, someone I want badly to admire and engage with intellectually, maybe even cuddle with or date or fall in love with, but at the very least like and respect and talk to.

 I, on the other hand, am arguing for my right to condemn the college student who got me so drunk that I couldn’t—still can’t—remember what he’d done to me. My right to feel that the skirt I was wearing, which was short, and the makeup I was wearing, which was heavy, didn’t justify his behavior. For my certainty that no part of me had wanted, much less invited, any of the things he did to me, that accepting a couple of drinks had no in way signaled tacit endorsement of anything that followed.

‘Devil’s advocate,’ the role that male skeptics typically adopt, the role that absolves them of their responsibility to behave with sensitivity, is a position that they have the privilege of opting out of, but I don’t have the liberty of casting my experiences aside for the span of one discussion, “for the sake of argument.” It costs the Nietzsche-quoters nothing to ask why she would’ve worn that if she didn’t want it, huh?!, and tack a casual “no offense” or “I don’t necessarily believe this, I’m just saying” on at the end. It costs me quite a bit—not everything, but close—to dig my nails viciously into the soft of my hand and respond calmly, rationally, that there are plenty of other reasons.

*** 

These conversations are familiar to me, and if I wanted to, I could avoid them. They have a structure that I can detect the way I can recognize a familiar voice from a ways away. The second someone clears his throat transitionally, signaling a shift in conversational tone—“I know you’re really into this social justice stuff, but don’t you think…”—I know that I should politely excuse myself and go for a long, angry run.

But I don’t. Maybe I want to test myself, to pit my dialectical talents against my wayward emotions. Maybe I’d feel that my date to high school homecoming was winning, even now, if I allowed what happened to me 4+ years ago to destroy my ability to advocate for beliefs I feel are defensible—to render me a poor debater, a poor writer, and a poor philosopher.

So when a hopeful suitor told me that he’d assumed I was stupid because “you were too pretty to be smart” (he met me in a lecture on Husserl), when he went on to defend this claim because “I mean, it’s just inductive inference—pretty girls aren’t smart” (I distinctly remember feeling that this statement was an affront to logic, Hume’s legacy, and pretty much everything else I valued), I pushed on hopefully, feeling obligated to prove him wrong with reasoned argument. Or at least by providing a counter-example that he couldn’t deny. But when this same boy tried to convince me that all women who dressed up for parties wanted to be forcefully slept with—“why would you put on make-up if you didn’t want boys to hit on you? It just doesn’t make sense”—I failed, as I always do. I ran away in tears, shouldering a shame that was bigger than defeat. I wasn’t just incompetent, I was irrational. Blubbering, stupid, emotional. Female in all the worst senses of the word, a confirmation of everything of which the suitor had accused me.

The outcomes of such conversations are unfailingly enraging. At the end of them, frustrated, flushed with an anger that I can’t articulate, which fact infuriates me further, I come up against a familiar wall: the sterility of theory in the face of the playground, the sickening smell of cologne, the woodchips, the nausea, the forgetting, and, finally, the intransigent fact of the blood, so stubbornly resistant to everything I’ve ever tried to write or say about it.

***

When I agreed to go to homecoming with a college student whom I barely knew, I had big plans for my virginity. I had recently fallen into the kind of first love that sticks with you forever, first a filling and then a hungering and then an avenging stomach bug, and I wanted to ‘lose’ whatever I had to its object. It would have felt appropriate, I thought, maybe even just.

I had lost so much of myself to loving him—to reading books differently in the wake of him, to expecting all objects to somehow invoke him—that I wanted my body to change in acknowledgment of how I had changed. But it didn’t. Whatever had been closed in me was opened, ruptured, on the playground of my preschool, and I couldn’t remember it.

That encounter robbed me of something very trivial: my physical integrity, my purity, whatever that even means. In the first heated moments of visceral resentment, I tried to brush the taste of it out of my teeth, to rub the bruises along my thighs out of my skin, to reclaim my arms and hair and legs and especially the deep secret between them. My reward for all this frantic activity was a string of thin blood in the froth of white toothpaste when I spat back into the sink.

But I felt cheated of something that mattered more and more enduringly: not agency exactly, but maybe authorship. In its resistance to verbal encapsulation, in its resistance to recollection and reassembly and interpretation, to rational argumentation, the thing for which I have no vocabulary defied everything I valued. There was nothing, I had thought, that wouldn’t succumb to either rational argumentation or the irresistible allure of poetry, which I regarded (and still sort of regard) as quasi-religious, a magical manipulation of words that wrenched meanings out of language and left them pure and bare, the beach beneath all that tidal chaos. But my long catalogues of words were useless.

Ignify, locellate, aphasia.

How does one grieve for something stupid and ugly and unarguable? I lacked the intellectual resources to describe or debunk it. When I put it into words, it stayed there, flat and trite and inanimate. It flew in the face of literature, which was committed to the production of meaning, and rational argumentation, which was committed to reasoned deconstruction.  Whatever happened to me that night happened from far above me, beyond the furthest reaches of my narrativization.

Mainour, oppugn, pararthria.

I told people—I still tell people—that I was lucky enough to lose my virginity to the first boy with whom I fell in love. In this way, I’m recovering something.       

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