I learned how babies were made from the little boy next door. Inadvertently, of course. My mother filled me in on the details later. She read me a picture book so she wouldn’t have to really talk to me.
I don’t remember the neighbor boy’s name, just that he lived in the tall, shit-brown house next to our duplex. One time, I took a rain-soaked bag of pinecones I found next to a tree in his yard. His mom came over to our house and yelled at me. My mom said the boy’s mom was a crazy bitch.
The boy was older than me, much more, or not much more. How much would matter? One day, I was riding my trike in the driveway, going around and around in circles. That’s all the space the driveway would allow, and the boy stepped in front of me.
“Hey,” he said, “I want to show you something.”
I shook my head, my pink helmet shifting around on top of my skull. “No thank you,” I said. Or maybe I said, “I don’t want to.” It doesn’t, didn’t, matter how I said no.
“Come on,” he said in a pleading tone. He kept glancing around, and I wondered what he was looking for. “It’s really neat.” In a lower voice and with his mouth warped into a sneer, he said, “I won’t leave you alone until you do.”
I got off my bike with my face flushing hot with annoyance.
“It’s over here,” he said. I followed him around the back of the duplex and down into the space between the back steps and the humming air conditioner. He sat down in the dirt, his legs folded underneath him. I sat with my legs criss-cross-applesauced.
“Do you know what makes boys different than girls?” he asked me.
“Girls have long hair,” I replied. “And girls can wear dresses, but boys can’t.”
He shushed me, told me I was speaking too loud, that the grown-ups couldn’t know that we were down there in the dim dank.
“Because!” His voice was rising with impatience. “Because I’m going to show you what makes boys and girls different.”
He kneeled up on his knees and looked around like an animal on the prairie scoping the area out for predators. The coast was clear. There were no coyotes. He pulled down the front of his pants and pulled out his penis. I stared at it for a moment, that strange pink lump of flesh sticking up and out between his maggot-tinted legs. It didn’t seem that exciting to me; the thing that made boys and girls different was a lot less profound than I would have imagined, had I ever imagined it.
“Okay,” I said after a sufficient number of seconds had ticked by. “I’m going to go ride my bike now.” I went to stand up, but he reached out and pressed me back down.
“Now you have to show me yours.”
I’m not sure what I was thinking at that moment. Perhaps the anxiety of being difficult and having the boy not like me, or maybe I was swept up in the fantasy of going back to my trike and riding around in slow circles, the repetitive motion a strange sort of comfort, like counting the beads on a rosary, which I might have done, had I been Catholic.
Either way, I pulled the elastic waistband of my pants down and tilted my pelvis up and out so the boy could get a good look. In the shade of our hiding place, he leaned his face in close to see.
“Yours is called a marine,” he said. I imagine him, years later, majoring in marine biology in college and being horribly disappointed when, in his first class, he finds out what marine really means.
A few more rounds of this, the methodic “show me yours, I’ll show you mine,” until finally the boy grew bored of the quid pro quo, and I was allowed to go back to my trike. I rode in slow, deliberate circles around and around the driveway, going out of my way to run over ants when they skittered across the pavement. Spiraling around myself, I rode until dark.
It’s not an interesting story. When I tell it, people expect it to end in a teary confession of having been molested, textbook molested. Show me on the doll where he touched you, where he broke into your flesh, where he put his big, wormy tongue. There’s always a strange sort of disappointment at the end of the story, when their interest deflates and they feel cheated. “You were lucky,” they’ll say sometimes. “It could have been a lot worse.” And I’ll agree. Or they’ll say, “That’s not so bad.” And I’ll agree. And sometimes they’ll say, “It doesn’t count.” And, for lack of anything else to say, I’ll agree.
I was a slut in college. It doesn’t matter if I defined myself as that or not; everyone else did, so that’s what I was. While Esther Greenwood’s I am I am I am thudded in her ears while her body crested the surface of the ocean, upward and outward, mine was when I was being railed. My head hanging over the side of the bed, running full with blood, I closed my eyes and felt my existence swirling around in the pearly blackness. I had done this. I had created this. I am, I thought, in rhythm with the man’s body rocking into me. I am I am I am.
We’ll call him Steve.
I flirted with him sometimes when I was bored and when there was no one else. I flirted with him at the bar that night and let him buy me drinks. He flirted, and I flirted back.
At some point, though, I stopped flirting. The night stopped being fun, and I caught myself wishing Steve would leave me alone. But he stayed there, at my elbow, leering. His profile shone blurry in my peripheral vision.
“You can’t get me all riled up and then not do anything about it,” he breathed in my ear. “You did that at Mike’s party and then left right away. That wasn’t very nice of you, being a tease like that.”
Tease. Cock-tease. Prick-tease. Teaser of penises. Snake charmer with no sense of follow-through.
A few weeks prior, I had taken too many shots and, in a drunken, bored haze, grinded my ass on Steve’s crotch when we ended up alone in the kitchen.
“Remember?” he prompted.
“I remember.” My voice was slurred from all the vodka, but it was unmistakably cold. I hopped off my barstool and stumbled over to talk to someone else, anyone else.
Time washed away, water at a stone, as it does when you’ve been drinking too much. Water was inside and outside me. I rose and fell, buoyed here and there by the invisible waves. I was lost at sea. As I floated, I passed Esther Greenwood; she smiled at me and then dipped, slipped, below the surface.
Steve was there to give us all a ride home. Or two of us: me and my ex-boyfriend. I watched as if from outside my body as I crumbled into the backseat, watched as Steve’s car cascaded through the oily, empty night. I watched as the car pulled up in front of my ex-boyfriend’s house, watched as he opened the door and tumbled out like floodwater.
“Thanks for the ride, man,” he said to Steve.
I watched as my ex-boyfriend slammed the door shut. I watched Steve coax the car back onto the street. I watched myself give Steve burbled directions to my apartment.
You had to have known what was going to happen. You should have said no right away. You should have gotten out at your ex-boyfriend’s house. You should have never gotten into his car in the first place. You shouldn’t have led him on. You shouldn’t have been a cock-tease. You shouldn’t have been a slut. You shouldn’t have been drunk. You shouldn’t call it rape, not textbook rape. You shouldn’t call it sexual assault. You shouldn’t even be writing this.
You wouldn’t have let it happen if you didn’t want it.
Most people can guess what happens next, because it’s happened before. It’s happening right now. It’ll happen again and again, in shouts and in silence.
Steve followed me to my apartment door under the pretense of making sure I got in okay. Everything was whiskey-haze as he came in after me, chatting all the way. He bent down to pet my cat. He stood up. He walked.
And I was in my bedroom. And he was there too. And we were there together. And the ocean had followed us there. It rocked beneath us on the bed, sending us swirling into one another like ships.
And in the dim glow of the streetlights outside my window, I watched Steve’s shaved-bald head grow bigger and smaller as he rocked into me and out again. I watched Steve work his pelvis rapid fire, hard, without finesse, jackhammering his cock up and in in in.
And I watched as Steve pulled out and pulled back, breathless. The light pooled dull on his bald head.
“This is wrong,” he said. He looked at me, wanting me to absolve him. Say five hail Marys and your sins will be forgiven. Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.
I looked back at him. I laughed.
I am not. I am not. I am not.
The worst part was that he stayed the whole night. He fell asleep next to me in my bed, his face turned to the side, mouth snoring in my face. I didn’t sleep. I drifted up and down on the cocktail waves, followed the morning light as it crept across my ceiling, hesitant and apologetic. The drunkenness faded to buzz. Soberness sidled in with the dawn. I looked at the man lying next to me. I hated him. I hated myself more.
When he woke up, he pulled on his clothes, said I’ll see you at work, and left. I got in the shower and made myself throw up. I watched the liquor and last night’s fermented dinner swirl in chunks down the drain. I got out, got dressed, went to work.
As soon as I got home, I stripped my bed. I threw my sheets in the wash.
I’ve had chronic nightmares since I was a teenager. But with age, like with wine, the flavor has gotten stronger, gotten deeper. I dream of Civil War soldiers standing in a fading line, facing bullets and bayonets that swoop in and take off their jaws, snap the tight skin from their skulls. I dream of animals dying, drowning, burning alive, running out onto a busy highway flooded with roaring engines. I dream of my grandma lying on the floor in a hospital gown and coughing up blood, again and again on a perpetual loop.
And I dream of a man, a man of amorphous black smoke and a mask that comes into my room, tips me over, and fucks me while I scream.
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I do not have a word for what happened. I feel uncomfortable using the word sexual assault; there was no violence in it, no physical violence at least, just violence against my inside, against the interior of my spirit. Rape seems even more incorrect; the connotation of rape is the idea of a mysterious and brutal attacker popping out of the bushes, assaulting a female jogger, and then scurrying off, going ha ha ha all the way home. I know these assumptions to be false, of course. I’ve read the statistics, and I’ve taken the obligatory sexual assault awareness courses that many colleges require, presumably to cover their own institutional asses, to absolve themselves from any guilt they may or may not feel.
I’ve settled on coercion. It’s enough to convey what I need to convey. It’s enough to stop people from coming up with But . . .and swooping in like linguistic superheroes to help me define it, to define myself. It’s enough to get me out of having to defend my label for it.
It’s not textbook. But it’s enough.
Jen Corrigan is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, and former editorial intern at the North American Review. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Heather; Apocrypha and Abstractions; The Gambler; Change Seven Magazine; Hypertext Magazine; Cease, Cows; and elsewhere. She is currently a jury member for Mash Stories. Visit her at jencorrigan.wordpress.com.