Welcome to the women's locker room

Dear Straight White Men,

“Telling it like it is” seems to be something many of you prize highly right now. Some of you have gone on record saying you are delighted that one of our Presidential candidates is a real man’s man, not afraid to say whatever he likes. Some of you are unfazed by his “locker-room talk.” Some of you think “rape culture” is a meaningless phrase whipped up by histrionic women just to irritate you. Some of you doubt the concept of white privilege, and many of you bristle at the need for the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the fact that the sanctity of your white male life has never once been in question in what is the United States of America.

Since many of you straight white men seem to enjoy Trump’s approach, I’ll tell it like it is, too—just for you. But first I’ll tell it like it was. And then I’ll tell it like it will always be, for me, a woman. Don’t get your boxer-briefs all in a wad. This is just some locker-room talk for you. You can handle that, right?

Welcome to the women’s locker room:

I was 11 when a nun at my Catholic school demanded that all the boys in the room raise their hands and promise they would never, ever, ever let any girl they knew get an abortion. Every little boy in that room raised his hand while the girls bowed their heads in shame that we did not understand and could not articulate. This was math class.

I was 13 when a new girl arrived from California. I heard she did things with her mouth to groups of my male classmates in the woods near the school. I thought badly of her and steered clear. It did not occur to me to doubt the veracity of this gossip, or wonder about the morality of my male classmates, who happily spread these rumors.

I was 14 when the husband of my mother’s best friend insisted on driving me home after I babysat his children. Once the car was in motion, he slid his hand up the inside of my thigh to the cuff of my shorts. I pressed myself against the car door and wondered if I should open it and jump out at 55 mph, into six lanes of northbound traffic, before his hand went any higher.

I was 16 when a boy laughed in my face, “Oops, I guess I slipped” after penetrating me without my consent. If you go by the biological definition, that was my first time.

I was also 16 when he body-slammed me against a second-floor bannister and held me by my hips as I dangled headfirst over his stairs, taunting me that he could let go, if he wanted to, and watch my skull smash. He thought this was good fun.

I was 17 when a boy I did not know at a teen dance club pulled me down onto his lap and shoved his hand up my skirt, jamming his fingers into my vagina as I struggled to get away from him. We were surrounded by people, who watched the struggle but did nothing. Later I bled.

I was 17 when a boy from a nice Catholic college prep school took my head in his hands, held me down, and forced his penis into my mouth in a parked car. I was afraid of what would happen if I fought back. I had never heard of a girl refusing to do this. We girls—as far as I knew—had to do this, or there would be worse repercussions.

I was 17 when a strange man cut through our yard and scaled the side of our house so he could peer through my bedroom window and watch me getting changed for bed. “Beautiful body,” he hissed through my screen, his mouth and voice and unseen person two feet away from my naked body. I screamed and fell onto my bedroom floor and crawled nude into the hallway, clutching a bed sheet. My father and brother ran outside, where they found huge footprints in the mud. The police estimated size 13, size 14 men’s. The cops said there was nothing they could do, the man could have been watching me for a while, would probably still be watching. To this day, doctors and lovers alike are surprised by my inability to fall asleep at night without medication.

I was 18 when one of my college classmates shoved me against a wall outside and forced his hand into my pants, telling me he “knew I wanted it.” I did not. When a friend began dating him, I warned her. She stopped talking to me.

I was 19 when I told my first college boyfriend I had been date-raped. He recoiled and told me, “Now I feel like I am trying to love a used Jenn.” I wound up comforting him as he cried and trying to assure him I was still good enough and pure enough for him.

I was 21 when a leering man crossed the street at midnight to approach me as I walked my dogs. The dogs were my voice that night, and barked menacingly at him until he crossed the street again and slid into the darkness. I could not speak; I had lost my voice and was trembling violently.

I was 39 when a good friend of the man I was dating told me (on a double date) that he couldn't stop picturing me with a ball gag in my mouth and how nice I would look bent over his kitchen table, or hog-tied. His wife and my date acted like this was perfectly normal dinner conversation. I asked him to stop talking to me. He continued an obscene litany of the things he wanted to do to me, even after the waitress delivered a plate of sweet potato fries for the table to share. I felt sick and left the table to go to the bathroom. The man followed me, then seized me from behind in the middle of the crowded bar. He groped my breasts and violently dry-humped me. When I fought him off—with no help from the bar patrons all around me—I told my date I was leaving and explained why. Despite having witnessed his friend’s revolting sexual threats all evening, my date doubted what I was saying. As we left the bar, my date sighed with great disappointment that I was going to make his friendship “awkward” if I persisted in my claims.

I am 46. I still cannot sleep on the first floor of a building. I cannot sleep next to a window. I cannot shower without the door locked. I look over my shoulder constantly wherever I go. I look under my car before I climb into it at night. I lock my car doors immediately upon entering the vehicle. I am deathly afraid of groups of teenage boys. I shudder when I have to walk through or by groups of men. I hold my breath as I pass men on running or hiking trails, then sprint for my life until they are far from sight, my heart pounding. I have recurring dreams in which I am being chased and assaulted. When I ask for help in these dreams, if I can find my voice in these dreams (sometimes I am mute there too from fear), no help will come. All around me there are dead eyes, observing me coolly, with no pity.

The dead eyes are set in white male faces.

I do not know how to teach my daughters how to feel safe, because I do not know how to feel safe. “Safe” is not a default mode for me. Ever since I have had breasts, I have felt unsafe. That is 36 years of feeling unsafe on a daily basis, if you like numbers.

The people who have sexually assaulted me or threatened me have all been—with the one unknown of the stalker in my bedroom window—straight white men. I have never encountered “a Mexican rapist.” I have never been assaulted in the ladies’ room at Target by a trans person. I have never been groped by a black man or a gay man (or a gay woman, for that matter).

Do you hear me? I am afraid of you. I am afraid of no one but you.

Many of the straight white men I watch on TV during this vile circus act of a political cycle are defending Trump in ways that defy the very logic they claim to adhere to and believe in. Although this letter is for those straight white men, they will not read it. However, if you are a straight white man in the United States, and you are still reading this, I thank you. I’d like you to do more than read this, though: I’d like you to use your voice. I’d like you to amplify mine and those of the women all around me and those of the women across the globe.

My “telling it like it is” is absolutely nothing compared to what some women have to say. Sexual violence is not a one-moment event for the one who survives it. It can’t be “acid-washed” or explained away. The act or acts of sexual abuse and sexual violence live on in the fear that coils around your spine, constricts your heart, and pollutes your dreams at night. This is also how it is.

Straight white men—those of you who realize that Donald Trump denigrated you, too, by welcoming you into his mythical and abhorrent locker room; those of you who are horrified that Donald Trump has insinuated that you will agree with him that boys will be boys; those of you who are repulsed by the concept that any suggested or actual sexual violence should be forgiven with a nod and a wink—I need you to speak. I need you to raise your voice, because no matter how loud I speak, no matter how loud any woman is speaking right now, straight white men are still dominating the discussion.

So I need to you to do something—anything—because I am at a loss for how to be heard in a world where a man can admit on tape to “grabbing pussy” with no thought of consent and still be considered the champion of “regular guys.” Surely a majority of straight white men cannot believe this is truly acceptable behavior for anyone—let alone a Presidential candidate. But now I don’t know, because on and on it goes, with no abatement.

Straight white men who are still reading this, can I tell you something? I feel more unsafe than ever. Do you hear me? I feel more unsafe than ever.

If you speak up, my straight white male friends, you will be heard. If that’s not privilege, I don't know what is. Allow yourself to be humbled by this privilege. Please be aware of this privilege, and use it well. Defy this disgusting “locker room” myth, and teach your sons to do the same. Challenge those who dismiss rape culture loudly and often. Because I can tell you, my voice is not being heard. The women I know are not being heard. My daughters are coming of age in a world full of men who leer and grope and objectify women without shame and without consequences.

Please have the courage to tell it like it is, for someone else. Because this is how it is for me and many, many other women. I hope you take my word for it this time. Donald Trump may be grabbing my pussy, but your humanity is far more at risk.

The door

The door would not close.
I had tried for years
to close it behind me.

So like me, to fill a room
too full, to keep too many
useless things, to fear
pardoning the ghosts.

I pressed my hands against
the door. I shoved. I used
all my weight, as well as
the weight of all my wishing.

Then, love,
you came along and placed
your perfect paver's hand
on top of mine.

The door closed beneath my palm.
A quiet, solid click of the latch.
No slamming, no straining,
no groaning of the hinges,
no splintering of wood.

The door closed. 
The door stayed closed. 

And all at once there
was nothing more to do
but turn to meet the warmth
of your golden-sweet smile.

I have exactly one callus
to show for my prior efforts,
right at the base of my
left ring finger. 

I would show it to you,
but I don't want to let go
of your hand.

—for ML

Speak to me first


Speak to me first of absinthe
and pork belly. Your calloused
hands do the talking—
I have done most things and
you, woman, will be next

Lean in.
Tell me the one secret I have
never been told. Linger by
my ear, finger a lock of my
hair with your
usual carelessness— 
take me or leave me, 
the usual.

You will never be mine but
only children count people.

this silence

This silence would be deafening
if you could hear it, still. 

It broke you years ago, when
you were seized with a fit
of wanting needing so violent
you dug your way out through
your own skin to escape the
stunning cruelty of the
everpause between the
asking and never receiving.

You bled yourself in
payment for what did not,
would not come.
You did not think to ask
for a receipt.

Maybe this silence was
always deaf to you too.
Imagine that: 
a deaf silence.

The world becomes something
altogether kinder, if we know
nothing exists that can hear
some of us, and not others.

There are those who swear
they hear, and are heard.
They insist that this silence
excavates their fossilized prayers—

readily willingly mercifully
just in the nick of this time
and that time too—

from somewhere inside the black
crevasse of palms touching.

You have stopped (almost)
longing to be one of them.

You are alone.
You put yourself to bed
at night and listen to your
own prayers as they
whimper, then settle,
in the dark.

You are the only one
who can hear the four-letter
words howling fire
and spitting bile
and leapfrogging
in your belly.

You are not mute (yet)
but you know better (now)
than to ask this silence
just one more time
about the unanswerables
the unmentionables
the unhaveables
the unavailables
the unassailables.

You are nothing much to everyone in particular.
You are no one's one.
You are especially nothing to a few.
You are everything to two for as long as
it will be until you are not.

Yes, this silence
would be deafening
if you could hear it,


the yes places

For me there have always
been the yes places

I know them before I
get there
I am always on the
slowest train to yes.

I know the yes places
will receive me as
well as I have mapped
them in my heart.

They always do.
Iceland, Wales, Scotland.
Germany, France, Japan.

There are, of course, 
others. How the thread
unwinds, tangles.

When I leave something
behind in a yes place—

a gold ring, a book,
a lover, say—

the yes places never mind.

They fold my lost things,
over and over, until they
disappear, until their shapes

no longer appear on
my heart's map and
I can trace each skyline
as I please.

It's wise to pack light,
the yes places say.
The dark will find you,
wherever you roam.
Latch the suitcase.
No need to bring
anything from home.


Because on January 1st, I drew a picture instead

On the second day of 2016,
I can hear the new year shuffling on the porch,
a new postman on an unfamiliar route, 
unsure where to lay
the oversized packages.

I sip my warmish coffee,
listening to the new year fumble tinnily
now with my battered blue postbox.
He might welcome some instruction.
He might welcome a welcome.

I might have welcomed these too, once.

In 2015 I might have dared to open the door.
I might have introduced myself, with my signature
head duck to a bob to a once-fetching tilt,
with the usual apology in my eyes
for the screen door's consolation prize:
yes, sorry, only this, only me,
only a woman of a certain age
(read: not his)
with wet eyes liquid soul wobbling breasts the yearning
sloshing onto the toes of his newly issued uniform shoes.

In 2015, I might have warned the new year that
the dogs will always bark. I might have counseled him
to leave the awkward pieces of mail on the
wide-hipped seats of the red plastic Adirondack chairs.
I might have told him not to fear his first day
(although how I hate the first day of anything)
and let him know that, sometimes, my daughters bake.

Now I refuse to open the door to him. Too soon.
It's nothing personal, newest new year.
He is welcome as far as my porch—as far as the doormat.
Let him, thumping, unseen 2016, deliver as he may.
What do I know, after all, about his job?
Let me, steely now, sit quietly. Let me offer no apology for being.

No year is at fault for what it delivers. No need to
shoot the messenger; no need to interfere.
What will come will come, never when expected,
and thus,
just as expected.

Safe enough


By 43, I think, in addition to knowing the right brassiere for any occasion, I should know how to say goodbye. I should be able to say goodbye with conviction, without looking back. At least, I feel like I should be able to do this. But I am always looking back, hoping for one last glimpse, one more wave. No wonder my neck and spine hurt all the time. I ache with goodbyes.

Not love (a sestina)

Yes, I would rather sleep alone than fight

and this is why I sleep alone. A drunk?

Not too late, my first last career. I write

already, my prerequisite word sea

dotted by empty green bottles. But sex.

You were saying? I liked it with you. Love--

The second-best shower

He loved me when he was drunk. There was a simple equation at work, not hard to follow: the drunker he was, the more he loved me. He grinned red-faced on that June night in his corner of the backseat of the cab. The red-faced grin: the closest thing to love I'd come to know on his face.

Sea shell, snowshoe, circumstance

In last night's dream I could run pretty fast:
tenth place in the 5k that involved climbing
wobbly circus ladders through plastic sheeting.
I did not stop for water. When I got home,
Lady Gaga received me well in my bed.

Then I drove five hours north to see you in
Montreal, a place in which neither of us has
ever lived.