Tuesday, December 05, 2017

two #metoo's


I still have a hard time calling it sexual assault. Or attempted rape. Though my girlfriend keeps telling me that’s what it was.

This was in the 80s. I was couchsurfing with various friends and relatives as I searched for a job and an apartment. When my friend Sandy went out of town, I got a week in an actual bed. Sandy’s apartment was on the 5th floor of a tenement in Hell’s Kitchen. His room was in the back, tucked into a space that was little more than an alcove you walked through on the way to the toilet. Sandy’s friend Billy had the front room, which doubled as the living room. The kitchen – which included a stall shower – was in between.

It was summer – the oppressive air almost motionless despite (or because of) the midget air shaft window that provided the only ventilation in Sandy’s nook. I was sleeping naked and must have kicked the covers off in the heat, because I woke to a strange sensation: something wet, warm, weighty and oddly pleasurable around my lower half. It was Billy, crouched on top of my legs at the bottom of the bed, sucking my dick.

I shouted, “What the fuck are you doing,” and pushed him away. He hurried to his end of the apartment. For perhaps 20 minutes, I sat on the edge of the bed, stunned and uncertain and feeling very strange. I think I debated whether to take a hot shower in the kitchen, worried that Billy would emerge to interrupt me. I think I didn’t take that shower. For the next few days, I left early in the morning and came back very late, and tried not to bump into Billy.

When Sandy got back, I told him what had happened.

Sandy didn’t hesitate. He threw Billy out of the apartment. That day. With no warning. As soon as Billy came home from work.

Sandy said that Billy needed to know that there were consequences. Sandy said he couldn’t be friends with someone like this. And he never wavered. Billy remained in the building, moving in with Gladys, on the 2nd floor, but Sandy never resumed a friendship with him. For him, Billy was banished. For life.

I wound up moving into the building, too – taking over a mostly-destroyed apartment on the 4th floor that hadn’t been occupied in more than a decade. I pulled up the rotted kitchen floor and installed a new one. I replaced the fallen kitchen ceiling and patched the damaged plaster walls that were scarred down to the tufts of horsehair on the lathe. I re-ran some of the electrical lines, which featured paper-insulated wires twined together and snaked into ancient gas-lamp fixtures. And I learned how to sweat pipe to install a sink and a tub in the kitchen. Renovation: a good way to rebuild a self.

A few years on, Billy got sick. All of us in the building watched him waste away.

Perhaps a year and a half after he died, Billy’s twin sister showed up at my door. She told me she had not seen her brother since he got out of the army 20 years before and had only just been informed of his death. She had come up from Birmingham to find out as much as she could about him. Gladys had refused to let her in and sent her to me. I went downstairs and convinced Gladys to relent. Then I stood to the side as Billy’s sister rummaged through her brother’s medicines and syringes and needles that Gladys had preserved, stuffed into cardboard boxes in her overheated apartment. Roaches scuttled away as she prised open each box.

“I don’t understand,” she kept saying. “There was no reason for this. Why didn’t he come home?”

I think I might have said that Billy was a proud man and that he probably didn’t want her and the rest of the family to see him sick. But mostly I stayed silent and let her finger the inert medical stuff that was all that was left to give meaning to her brother’s life. I know she was probably feeling heavier and sadder than she had ever believed was humanly possible. And I know that she needed something from me. Something personal about Billy. Anything, no matter how tiny.

I wanted to be able to tell her something, but I couldn’t.

I have always told myself that what was done to me in that Hell’s Kitchen bedroom wasn’t important, that it didn’t affect me. In a general way, that’s probably true. Billy was on me, not in me. He accepted that I pushed him away. And he was not in a position of power over me in any other area of my life. Also, I know it helped that Sandy believed me and threw Billy out of the apartment. But, to this day, I can hear Billy’s bare feet on the floor and see his hairy back retreating to the kitchen after I shouted and shoved him off me.


There’s a David Foster Wallace story from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men that begins this way. 
Here is a weird one for you. It was a couple of years ago, and I was 19, and getting ready to move out of my folks’ house, and get out on my own, and one day as I was getting ready, I suddenly get this memory of my father waggling his dick in my face one time when I was a little kid. The memory comes up out of nowhere, but it is so detailed and solid-seeming, I know it is totally true. I suddenly know it really happened, and was not a dream, even though it had the same kind of bizarre weirdness to it dreams have. Here is the sudden memory. I was around 8 or 9, and I was down in the rec room by myself, after school, watching TV. My father came down and came into the rec room, and was standing in front of me, like between me and the TV, not saying anything, and I didn’t say anything. And, without saying anything, he took his dick out, and started kind of waggling it in my face.
The story continues.
I do not remember if he even looked at me. All I remember was the dick. The dick, like, claimed all of my attention. He was just sort of waggling it in my face, without saying anything or making any type of comment, shaking it kind of like you do in the can, like when you are shaking off, but, also, there was something threatening and a little bully-seeming about the way he did it, I remember, too, like the dick was a fist he was putting in my face and daring me to say anything, and I remember I was wrapped up in the afghan, and could not get up or move out of the way of the dick, and all I remembered doing was sort of moving my head all over the place, trying to get it out of my face (the dick). It was one of those totally bizarre incidents which are so weird, it seems like it is not happening even while it is happening. The only time I even had glimpsed my father’s dick before was in locker rooms. I remember my head kind of moving around all over the place, on my neck, and the dick kind of following me all over the place, and having totally bizarre thoughts going through my head while he did it, like, ‘I am moving my head just like a snake,’ etc. He did not have a boner. I remember the dick was a little bit darker than the rest of him, and big, with a big ugly vein down one side of it. The little hole-thing at the end looked slitty and pissed off, and it opened and closed a little as my father waggled the dick, keeping the dick threateningly in my face no matter where I moved my head around to. That is the memory.
So, alone with his dad in the moving van carrying all his stuff to his new apartment, he speaks up.
out of (from his perspective) nowhere, I suddenly tell my father I just had recently remembered the day he came down and waggled his dick in my face when I was a little kid, and I sort of briefly described what I had remembered, and asked him, ‘What the fuck was up with that?’ When he kept merely driving the van, and did not say or do anything to respond, I persisted, and brought the incident up again, and asked him the same question all over again. (I pretended like maybe he did not hear what I said the first time.) And then what my father does—we are in the van, on a brief straight away on the route home to my folks’ house, so I can get ready to move out on my own—he, without moving his hands on the wheel or moving one muscle except for his neck, turns his head to look at me, and gives me this look. It is not a pissed off look, or a confused one like he believes he did not quite hear. And it is not like he says, ‘What the hell is the matter with you,’ or ‘Get the fuck outta here,’ or any of the usual things he says where you can tell he is pissed off. He does not say one thing, however, this look he gives me says it all, like he can not believe he just heard this shit come out of my mouth, like he is in total disbelief, and total disgust, like not only did he never in his life waggle his dick at me for no reason when I was a little kid but just the fact that I could even fucking imagine that he ever waggled his dick at me, and then like, believe it, and then come into his own presence in this rental van and, like, accuse him. Etc., etc. The look he reacted and gave me in the van while he drove, after I brought up the memory and asked him straight up about it—this is what sent me totally over the edge, where my father was concerned. The look he turned and slowly gave me said he was embarrassed for me, and embarrassed for himself for even being related to me. Imagine if you were at a large, fancy, and coat-and-tie dinner or track banquet with your father, and if, like, you all of a sudden got up on the banquet table and bent down and took a shit right there on the table, in front of everybody at the dinner—this would be the look your father would be giving you as you did it (took a shit). Roughly, it was then, in the van, that I felt like I could have killed him.
And, after not talking with his family for more than a year this is how it gets resolved.
Little by little, it seemed like the moral of a memory of any incident that weird is, anything is possible. After the year, I got to this position in my attitude where I figured that, if my father was willing to forget about the whole thing of me bringing up the memory of the incident in the van, and to never bring it up, then I was willing to forget the whole thing. I knew that I, for fucking-‘A’ goddamn sure, would never bring any of it up again.
So he goes to meet his family for dinner, and is late, and his family orders food in his absence, and this is the end of the story.
I sat down, and smilingly asked what they ordered me.
My father said, ‘A chicken presto dish thing your mother ordered for you.’
I said, ‘But I hate chicken. I always hated it. How could you forget I hate chicken?’
We all looked at each other for a second, around the table, even my littlest sister, and her boyfriend with the hair. There was one long split second of all looking at each other. This was when the waiter was bringing everybody’s chicken. Then my father smiled, and drew one of his fists back jokingly, and said, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ Then my Mom put her hand up against her upper chest, like she does when she is afraid she’s going to laugh too hard, and laughed. The waiter put my plate in front of me, and I pretended to look down and make a face, and we all laughed. It was good.


I thought of this story – and my story, which I hadn’t thought about in a long time – when I read the horrifying accounts of rape, attempted rape, abuse, and sexual harassment that have spilled into the press of late.

“Anything is possible,” David Foster Wallace said. But that was an understatement.

I was tempted, weeks ago, when I started thinking about this, to say #metoo, and leave it at that. But #metoo as a stand-alone imposes its own kind of silence. It expresses solidarity while closing the conversation. ‘Yes,’ the meme says, ‘I’ve either experienced this or understood it. But I don’t want to go into detail. I don’t want to open the subject. I’m content with six characters instead of a story.’

So I waited, trying to find what resonated for me, to recover what I first felt, what I still feel. Assault and rape and abuse and harassment are a grievous wound to the self and, even decades after the fact, we can’t talk and others can’t listen. I certainly never talked about my experience. It seemed as if silence was the only way I could re-enter my life and have the world return to normal. Silencio es salud – silence is health – Argentina’s military leaders warned back in the 70s as they killed and “disappeared” all dissidents. Now true in a whole new way.

Yet I know ACT UP was right: silence=death. So I tell the story, just as David Foster Wallace told his. And, even now, having written this, I am not really talking. I’m stating, averring, declaring. It’s a deposition, not a conversation. And I’m just as empty afterwards as I was before I told it, left only with the imprint of Billy’s body on my legs, the memory of his bald-spot gliding up and down as his mouth moved on my penis, the sensation of being locked in a tunnel watching a slow motion movie that will probably repeat for all my years, as he turns and moves away from me down the over-heated yellow-linoleum-tiled tenement corridor of the future.