Courtney Zoffness | Longreads | Excerpted from Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement | September 2019 | 10 minutes (2,795 words)
What did they want? More than anything? Violent things. Unattainable things.
More than anything, she wanted to taste blood, said one student.
More than anything, he wanted freedom, said another.
Your characters need to have desires, I’d explained in the previous class. Drama arises when people struggle to get what they want.
Their first writing assignment of the semester at this midsize East Coast college: compose a short fictional sketch that begins with wanting. Compelling, complex fiction, I’d said, grows out of desires great and small. Their opening sentences offered proof.
More than anything, she wanted a baby.
More than anything, he wanted things to return to the way they were.
Then we arrived at Charlie in the back row, a pale, acne-pocked sophomore who rarely participated in class discussions. I’d surmised he was shy, but it was early in the term. I was making assumptions.
I recognized his football jersey and backwards baseball cap, but not the thin-lipped smile he put inches from my face, or the pressure of his bony hands on my hips or the way he moved his body side to side with mine as I tried to dodge him.
More than anything, Charlie read in an even voice, he wanted for her to realize that she shouldn’t depend on the bankers or lawyers she probably dated, that it wasn’t them who could really and truly satisfy her, but that it was him, a student in her Tuesday writing class, him who could and would push aside the pile of ungraded papers and take her passionately atop her desk, him with whom she belonged in a way that only the romantic poetry she taught them could convey.
Twenty pairs of eyes pinned me in place. I willed my face not to blush, my voice not to crack.
Okay, I said, just as I had to the student who’d shared work before him.
More than anything, I wanted to scream expletives in his face.
Charlie’s expression was inscrutable; he seemed neither proud, nor nervous. Perhaps a little expectant, like he’d just ordered take-out and was waiting to be told how much it cost. That passage, I said, has a nice rhythm to it, a nice cadence. I leaned back against the table, my rear precariously close to the pile of ungraded papers. I would not let him have his way with me. The repetition, I said, is poetic.
The repetition, I wanted to say, keeps your voice loud while mine is silent.
I moved on to the student next to him, one whose character, more than anything, wanted a piece of pie.
It is February in Brooklyn and the café speakers try to counteract the cold. They blast Southern soul in the form of Joe Tex’s “I Gotcha,” a song I remember from Reservoir Dogs. You’ll recognize the story in its lyrics; it might even be yours. It was mine one Friday night in high school when I left my friend’s basement to use the upstairs bathroom. The upper floor was dark, the house asleep, but I knew the way. Afterwards, when I emerged into the shadowy hallway, her older brother’s friend was waiting — for the toilet, I assumed. I recognized his football jersey and backwards baseball cap, but not the thin-lipped smile he put inches from my face, or the pressure of his bony hands on my hips or the way he moved his body side to side with mine as I tried to dodge him. The entrapment dance. When I retreated backwards, he stepped forward, until my heel hit the tile at the entrance to the bathroom. He was going to push me in there, I realized. He was going to push me onto the cold floor and lock the door behind him and everyone was in the basement and nobody would hear me scream. I tasted iron in the back of my throat, a bloody nose, and belted — let me through! — and somehow wriggled past. But we’re not talking about a dance, we’re talking about a song. A groovy, horn-filled tune whose lyrics describe how a man, more than anything, wants a woman against her will.
Now kiss me
Hold it a long time, hold it
Don’t turn it a-loose, now hold it
My first-ever intimate encounter was an unwelcome kiss. I was nine. Todd had advertised his crush on me, told classmates I had a nice ass, crude language that made me giggle with embarrassment. Was I supposed to feel flattered? Miffed? (Todd would later try to retract, slipping a sheet of yellow paper into the cave of my school desk, a letter I inexplicably saved: I’m sorry for what I said. You do have a nice ass, but only in jeans.)
One afternoon in the park, Todd announced that he wanted a kiss. Your characters need to have desires. I didn’t want to kiss him, nor did I want to be kissed, but the more I refused, the more he insisted, until a chase ensued. Just a kiss, he called. I sprinted and screamed: No! Everyone laughed and cheered him on, including my girlfriends. Terror bloomed in my blood. Drama arises when people struggle to get what they want. I wound up curled face-down in the dirt, hands and arms blocking the sides of my face, heart hammering.
What was I afraid of? I couldn’t tell you then, but I can tell you now. Impotence. How words we both understood — leave me alone! — had no effect.
Todd found a sliver of exposed skin between my earlobe and neck and crushed his lips against it.
I was twenty-nine in that East Coast classroom, young for an academic, but not a newbie. I’d already taught hundreds of students, and several challenging charges. I had practice diverting attention away from in-class disruptions and channeling excitement into animated discussions. Still, I couldn’t determine what Charlie wanted. To see me squirm? Flush? Freak out? I broke the class into groups to complete a collaborative exercise. Did he expect a sultry invitation to office hours? Or was this his idea of a joke? A performance for classmates? A way to shove the teacher while everyone watched to see if she’d wobble, then fall?
In high school, I became the fixation of a foreign-exchange student. Farouk not only memorized my schedule but seemed to know its digressions. If I showed up early to work in the painting studio, Farouk would find me and try to make small talk, apologizing for his poor English. He attended my sports matches, once lingered outside my math class — a bodiless face framed in the door’s small window. I laughed off his overtures, poked fun at them with friends. I thought that ignoring him would translate my disinterest and hamper his, but he only redoubled his efforts. Farouk sent gifts to my house and oversized cards featuring black-and-white stock photos of a little boy and girl. In one, they sat on a stoop, his lips pressed to her cheek, her long-lashed eyes circular and open wide. I was his perfect girl, he wrote, amidst blobs of Wite-Out. Couldn’t he be my friend?
Most of Farouk’s packages included self-addressed stamped envelopes to facilitate a reply, which he never received.
I didn’t seek formal intervention because his advances, while excessive, didn’t seem threatening to my school-aged self. Not even when he proclaimed he’d always love me in our senior yearbook, alongside his national farewell: See ya, USA!
Then there’s the doctor who I saw from pubescence through my early twenties. An obstetrician. He treated my mother, too. Doctor gave me breast exams with clammy pink hands, during which he engaged in small talk. Where was I applying to college? Did I know what I wanted to study? It was good I liked to read, he said, because we might be snowed in over the weekend. Had I heard about the forecasted storm? He was thorough with the palpating, he said, because I had dense breasts. Up close the hairs of his white mustache and beard were thicker than I expected, his forehead more mottled. His wedding band felt cool against my skin.
Doctor was the first man to touch me. He gave me pelvic exams and asked questions about my sexual habits and told me that the structure of my anatomy, intercourse in certain positions would be uncomfortable. He tilted his head, asked if this was the case. Was it? Uncomfortable?
Shortly thereafter, in a crowded rock club, someone slipped a hand up my skirt and fingers inside me. I shrieked and spun around, but the bass overwhelmed my voice and in the low light there was only a lattice of flesh, lips and hands shifting and slithering, one mighty, insidious beast.
Should I have done more to protect myself? Even as a grown woman I was steeped in self-doubt. By the end of my class with Charlie, I’d determined I needed to be more objective.
My first-ever intimate encounter was an unwelcome kiss. I was nine. Todd had advertised his crush on me, told classmates I had a ‘nice ass,’ crude language that made me giggle with embarrassment.
This was a creative writing class, one in which we read stories across the inflammatory spectrum. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe I misremembered the specificity of the student’s writing, or its intensity — dismissive tendencies that, I see now, encourage rapacious behavior.
I located his assignment on the train home and discovered, in sentence two, that his character favored his professor’s striped sweater dress — something I’d worn to our last class — which highlighted her pendulous breasts. The next page offered similar drivel. I slammed my folder closed.
College: a middle-of-the-night phone call from a guy who said he got my name from a mutual friend. The caller thought I was pretty “in a natural way.” He hoped we could talk. When, in a sleepy daze, I pressed — which friend again? — the line went dead. I dismissed the exchange as a prank, until he called a few nights later, and again, the night after that. Each time I slammed down the phone, and only half-remembered the occurrence the following morning. When, on his fifth or sixth call, he complimented my cute blue row house, I called the police. The officers had neither a number nor a name to trace — this was 1999 — so other than showing up in the morning’s wee hours to record my complaint, they could only offer words.
Be vigilant, they said. Be careful. Let us know if there’s any more activity.
There was plenty of activity—for an agitated imagination. For weeks, I eyeballed every lone male in my path, analyzed every noise outside my window, and jogged to and from my evening classes with keys laced between my fingers. I struggled to sleep. Feared my ringing phone, and feared unplugging it, too.
Maybe the caller was a neighbor. Maybe he was peering out his window when the squad car pulled up, and watched me welcome officers into my cute blue row house, face warped with worry. Maybe he realized he’d gone too far. Or didn’t want to get caught. He never called again.
Was it? Uncomfortable? What was uncomfortable was Doctor’s question, which I assumed was par for the course in a gynecological exam. After all, I was paying a stranger to handle and inquire about my private parts. Sometimes, in his office, I’d stare at the framed photos of his blonde children to feel more at ease.
When precancerous cells were discovered on my cervix, Doctor performed the excision. I was 22. My mother joined, and I squeezed her hand while he peered between my legs and spread numbing gel on my cervix and used a hot electrical wire to cut away abnormal tissue. Afterwards, I cramped and bled.
I moved to Baltimore for graduate school a few months later, and found a new doctor.
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My boyfriend, neither a lawyer nor a banker as Charlie assumed, was outraged. The kid sounds psychotic, he said. You shouldn’t go back to class.
That’s absurd, I replied, unwilling to cower. Of course, the thought occurred to me, too. This was months after the Virginia Tech massacre wherein a male undergrad killed thirty-two people, the deadliest mass shooting on a college campus to date. The gunman had intimidated girls in his poetry class by taking pictures of their legs. Which is not to say I thought Charlie was plotting murder. I just couldn’t read his behavior.
For weeks, I eyeballed every lone male in my path, analyzed every noise outside my window, and jogged to and from my evening classes with keys laced between my fingers.
Neither could the English department chair, to whom I forwarded his assignment. She was apprehensive when she called him in for a one-on-one meeting the following day, joking to me that if the worst-case scenario came to pass, I could have her back issues of The Paris Review. Charlie, meanwhile, was baffled — or acted that way. He’d not only changed the day our class met, he told her, but changed the color of my hair! As he seemed neither hostile nor deranged, and since he apologized, his sentence was reassignment. He commenced an independent study with a male professor. For the rest of the semester, I considered how it didn’t matter that I had ten years on Charlie or more degrees, that I could fail him with the stroke of a pen. He still felt compelled to exert sexual power. I was still a woman.
It’s a catchy tune that’s filling up the café. Customers tap their feet and hum.
You made me a promise and you’re gonna stick to it
You shouldn’t have promised if you weren’t gonna do it
Survey the crowd. There are familiar faces there: my sons, ages four and six. They like the song, too. They bop their heads, lick whipped cream off hot chocolate.
You saw me and ran in another direction
I’ll teach you to play with my affection
Later, when I hear my boys singing the chorus — Give it here! — I can explain that I dislike its message, that a man’s Yes is never more powerful than a woman’s No. I can parlay this into the Respect People’s Bodies talk that some teachers have advised parents to impart. You shouldn’t touch another person, and no person should touch you, without permission, I can say. Ask before you hug someone. Assert no thank you to the offer of a hug if you’re not in the mood. Same with holding hands: ask or give permission.
I can teach them about sexism, too, point to inescapable indoctrinations: the Mrs. and Miss titles they use alongside the singular Mr.; the male faces emblazoned on coins in their piggybanks; the boy toys endorsing confrontational play. I can explain how inequality begets bias begets discrimination begets intimidation begets assault. How if they see anyone forcing a kiss upon someone, they should intervene. That allowing such behavior not only implicates them, but permits another act one degree more heinous, and makes witnesses one degree more tolerant, until there’s no shame in grabbing a woman by the pussy, until 62 million Americans say Yes to a presidential candidate who brags about doing just that.
I can model good behavior, too. Can take aside that boy on the playground who’s pulling a girl’s hair while she squeals.
Let’s not do that, I tell him. She’s letting you know she doesn’t like it.
The girl sniffles. The boy takes off.
Watch my sons watch me. It’s good to be a helper, I say.
In 2015, a suit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court detailed Doctor’s rampant sexual abuse, including how he vaginally and anally probed female patients with glove-less fingers. Nineteen women described behavior dating back to the early 1990s. Nine of them had been pregnant at the time. Oftentimes Doctor would examine women with a nurse present and then return after the nurse left, claiming he forgot to check something. At trial, he admitted to forcibly touching one woman to “gratify” his sexual desire and to engaging in “sexual conduct against a patient for no valid medical purpose while she was incapable of consent.” More than one woman felt his tongue between their legs.
Due to the criminal statute of limitations for most victims, and Doctor’s fierce defense, which worked to discredit accusers, Doctor landed a handsome deal: he plead guilty to one low-level felony and a misdemeanor, and instead of going to jail, he forfeited his medical license. Since the DA agreed to downgrade Doctor’s sex offender status to the lowest level, he doesn’t even appear on the sex offender registry.
Summer 2018. I am a faculty member in a writing program in Greece. I bring along my family and my four-year-old, Leo, strikes up a friendship with a local girl named Ivana. For days they are inseparable, playing tag, trading bites of ice cream, searching for stray cats. One evening, while they pose for photos at an adult’s behest, someone shouts, Kiss her, Leo! A minor chorus erupts: kiss her, kiss her! Leo leans over, holds his pucker to Ivana’s face while flashes flicker.
I could’ve interceded. Said, why don’t they just smile? But there is live music and dancing and everyone is merry and I don’t want to be a killjoy. It is over in seconds.
Ivana seems unbothered. After she leaves to play, a friend shows me his camera snapshot. In it, Leo’s eyes are shut tight, Ivana’s wide open.
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Courtney Zoffness writes fiction and nonfiction. She won the 2018 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the largest international prize for a single short story. Other honors include an Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Center for Fiction, the Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize, two residency fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, and a Notable essay in The Best American Essays 2018. Her work has appeared in various venues, including The Southern Review, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the McSweeney’s anthology, Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement. She directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University, and lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
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Excerpted from Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, edited by Shelly Oria and published by McSweeney’s on September 10th.