A co-worker closed the door to the staff room behind him.
It locked automatically
and I started planning what I could use as a weapon:
smash the glass beside the fridge into his eye.
pick up the fork next to me and sink it into his leg.
claw him across the face if I couldn’t get to anything in time.
As I calculated how hard it would be to shove his body weight off of me,
he finished making his lunch, said, “Sup,” and left,
the door automatically locking behind him.
I expect if I told him I was prepared to stab him with the corner of my staff ID if I had to,
he would say what I’ve heard too often, the one we all know
but are getting wearily suspicious of:
Not all men are like That.
When I was eleven, all the girls in my class got sent to self-defence
because they assumed we’d need it one day.
When I was twelve, there was a prostitute’s body dumped in the river next to my house
because someone thought she was disposable.
When I was thirteen, it happened again and this time the man went to jail
and people stood outside the courtroom and held up signs that he did the right thing.
When I was fourteen, my friend showed up to a sleepover late, chest heaving from sobbing
and from running four blocks after getting chased by a man that followed her off the bus.
When I was fifteen, my mother accused me of being a Man Hater
and I said, “No, but god, would you blame me if I was?”
I got catcalled and then got laughed at when I flipped them off.
they pulled up beside me and I clutched my bag tighter,
my hand going in for my keys and my mind going over how their noses would look
if I smashed them in with my elbow.
“What’s the big deal,” the guy at the steering wheel asked. “We’re just complimenting you. We’re not like That.”
Sorry, but I’m not going to trust you in case I end up on a poster labelled ‘MISSING.’
Even if you seem like the nicest guy, I’ll still have one hand holding my keys
as the only knife I’m allowed, because I don’t know how far you’re going to take it:
if you won’t back off when I tell you I don’t want to date you
if you’ll shout BITCH at me when I don’t respond well to your catcall
if you’ll expect my body as a reward for treating me like a human being
if you’ll try to take what you think you’re owed by being a man
if you’ll turn me into another statistic that people shudder away from.
I have been trained to assume that it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing
or face the consequences.
I don’t know if you’ll nod when I reject you
or pump me full of bullets.
Every single woman I’ve talked to has a story where they haven’t felt safe in their own body
because of what a man said or did.
Not all men are like That, but god, it’s enough."
In the Deep South, God is a cotton king,
Trussed up in plantation whites and powdered over smooth
with a little bit of talcum from Momma’s compact.
He’s the Georgia dust that gets on everything, in everything,
Caking the soles of bare feet
sifting through cracks in church pews,
and catching in your lover’s eyelashes.
In the Deep South, the Devil is a beautiful boy
who swears and cheats at billiards on Sunday.
He is the one who reaches up your skirt,
pulls out the prayers your were saving for someday
and lights them on fire with his tongue.
He will sing hymns while feasting on your forfeit heart,
call you blessed while peeling away dignity like stockings,
then drag you out in front of the church to be stoned.
In the Deep South, the Holy Spirit is an old woman
with hands brown and gnarled as the nuts she boils
and a voice soft and dark as the Appalachian sky.
She is the swamp kingdom matriarch children are sent to
when sins need to be wished away like warts,
the presence of whom straightens the spines of wayward souls
and coaxes a “Yes Ma’am” from the devil’s own.
In the Deep South, Jesus is a mixed-race child
with drops of destiny mingled into his blood
and the names of the saints tattooed along his spine.
He has his mother’s bearing, one that wears suffering nobly,
and baleful eyes that speak of the sins of his forefathers.
The word of God flutters from his mouth like butterflies
with bodies baptized in tears and wings dipped in steel.
In the Deep South, angels drink too much.
They sashay and guffaw and forget to return calls.
They tell white lies and agonize over what to wear.
In the Deep South, angels look very much like you and it,
and they cling to each other with dustbowl desperation
and replenish their failing reserves of grace with ritual
in the hopes of remembering what they once were,
what wonders they once were capable of performing.
My mother calls
to tell me about her day
and I listen,
because I know
there’s no one else who will.
My mother asks me
to tell her about mine,
so I tell her only the good things
and keep the rest inside
because words travel distances
but her loving hands cannot.
My mother asks me
if I am happy,
and I tell her that I am;
I ask her the same question
and she says ‘yes,
if you are, I am’;
and I know that some lies
are worth telling.
My mother reminds me
to be strong through it all,
to remember to be modest
and to always keep
my head up high;
” I’ve given you everything,”
” make me proud.”
But my mother doesn’t know
that everything comes with
her shame attached;
that the child of an immigrant
cannot smile without guilt,
cannot feel without pain,
cannot be without fear.
My mother asks
if I understand,
and I say yes,
I can’t unlearn it.
And when my mother
asks when I’m coming home,
I know she’s asking for me
to never forget;
I promise her;
You are 12. You’re at the library looking for some generic young adult fiction novel about a girl who falls for her best friend. Your dad makes a disgusted face. “This is about lesbians,” he says. The word falls out of his mouth as though it pains him. You check out a different book and cry when you get home, but you aren’t sure why. You learn that this is not a story about you, and if it is, you are disgusting.
You are 15. Your relatives are fawning over your cousin’s new boyfriend. “When will you have a boyfriend?” they ask. You shrug. “Maybe she’s one of those lesbians,” your grandpa says. You don’t say anything. You learn that to find love and acceptance from your family, you need a boyfriend who thinks you are worthy of love and acceptance.
You are 18. Your first boyfriend demands to know why you never want to have sex with him. He tells you that sex is normal and healthy. You learn that something is wrong with you.
You are 13. You’re at a pool party with a relative’s friend’s daughter. “There’s this lesbian in my gym class. It’s so gross,” she says. “Ugh, that’s disgusting,” another girl adds. They ask you, “do you have any lesbians at your school?” You tell them no and they say you are lucky. You learn to stay away from people.
You are 20. You have coffee with a girl and you can’t stop thinking about her for days afterwards. You learn the difference between a new friendship and new feelings for a person.
You are 13. Your mom is watching a movie. You see two girls kiss on screen. You feel butterflies and this sense that you identify with the girls on the screen. Your mom gets up and covers the screen. You learn that if you are like those girls, no one wants to see it.
You are 20. You and your friends are drunk and your ex-boyfriend dares you to make out with your friend. You both agree. You touch her face. It feels soft and warm. Her lips are small and her hands feel soft on your back. You learn the difference between being attracted to someone and recognizing that someone you care about is attractive.
You are 16. You find lesbian porn online. Their eyes look dead and their bodies are positioned in a way that you had never imagined. You learn that liking girls is acceptable if straight men can decide the terms.
You are 20. You are lying next to a beautiful girl and talking about everything. You tell her things that you don’t usually tell anyone. You learn how it feels not to want to go to sleep because you don’t want to miss out on any time with someone.
You are 15. Your parents are talking about a celebrity. Your dad has a grin on his face and says, “her girlfriend says that she’s having the best sex of her life with her!” You learn that being a lesbian is about the kind of sex you have and not how you love.
You are 18. You are in intro to women’s and gender studies. “Not all feminists are lesbians- I love my husband! Most of the feminists on our leadership team are straight! It’s just a stereotype,” the professor exclaims. You learn that lesbianism is something to separate yourself from.
You are 21 and you are kissing a beautiful girl and she’s your girlfriend and you understand why people write songs and make movies and stupid facebook statuses about this and time around you just seems to stop and you could spend forever like this and you learn that there is nothing wrong with you and you are falling in love.
You are 21. And you are okay."
Ten Women I Have Been Warned Against Becoming:
1. The Girl Who Takes Up Too Much Space, always, her shoulders too wide in stairwells, her hips too big in doorways, her voice too loud in classes. This woman does not understand the art of crumbling, of curling herself tight like the spiral of a fern, soft, delicate, unwilling to reach out the ivy of her fingers to grasp onto what should rightfully be hers. This is a beast, an elephant, a moving mountain and she is capable of flattening you, she is capable of ruining you, she is capable of making you feel as small and insignificant in her life as she is supposed to be. You are this woman’s footnote to history, you are her side note in song lyrics, you are constantly interrupted by her with a witty joke you wish you thought of. I asked what the problem was with being a steamroller instead of a sunflower and I was laughed down.
2. The Beautiful One, the long hair or the slim waist or the pretty eyes or the lips like bowstrings. This woman looks good in everything because she’s confident in whatever you put her in. She’ll cut her hair short on you no matter how you like it, she’ll wear high heels and step on your opinions, she’ll look hot as hell no matter what size she is. See, the reason you can’t trust her is because women like this don’t need your permission, they’ll do as they please and get away with it. They’ll say no to you, over and over. Teach your daughters that beautiful means dangerous, teach them to distrust women who love themselves. Equate beautiful with vapid, equate pretty with stupid, take their power from them. Say they’re vain for their makeup, refuse to see them without it. These women are snakes, they are serpents. I said maybe the problem lies with you being unable to control yourself and was told to get off my pedestal.
3. A Bitch. Women are supposed to be ladies in the street but will tear skin under sheets. I’m told: Never raise your voice. Speak gently. Submit. Hold your opinion against your lips and when you admit to it, make sure it comes out as a butterfly wing suggestion. Don’t disagree. Don’t undermine someone else’s authority, regardless of whether or not they deserve your respect. Someone touches you, just move away from them. Don’t hit. Don’t talk back. Be like the ruins of Rome, only beautiful if you can’t hear your quiet death.
4. The Needy One. I have heard how others spit when they talk about how she gave you everything and you shoved it back down her throat until she choked on it, until she came back crawling and asked you what she did, until her palms and knees were scraped for want of just a little affection - never be this woman, I’m told, because she’s a joke and the joke is that she dared to have more emotion than you did. The truth is, I’m told, the one who cares less in a partnership is the one who wins. I didn’t know this was a competition.
5. The Cock Tease, certified stripper, how dare that girl look like that and not want me to sleep with her. Lust is always personified as a lady in red with a dress slit up her thigh. Lust is sinful because it’s power, it’s not asking for attention - it’s demanding it. I’m told she is the worst kind of woman, that looking good is supposed to be some kind of shame on her kin. I’m told not to leave the house in such a short skirt, not with a shirt so low, not with a lace back, not with high heels, not dressed like that. My lipstick can’t be too red, my hair can’t be too mussed, I can’t just “turn someone on like that and then leave them wanting.” I mentioned that instant gratification actually ruins our psyche and was told that being led on was “exhausting.” I said that there was a difference between purposefully tricking someone into liking you and just being attractive or friendly. I was told there’s also a difference between coffee and tea but both result in caffeine. I said, “I’ve been turned on in class by the girls I talk to but I didn’t expect anything from them,” and they said, “It’s different, you’re not a man,” but couldn’t explain where that difference was.
6. A Slut, obviously ruined by another person’s touch. It doesn’t matter how many people she’s actually been with, it’s all about the rumors she carries with her. Easy. Harlot. You’ll still try to get with her, you’ll still take her into your bed and kiss her and say things you don’t mean - but you’ll defame her name when you talk to your buddies. My father used to say “A slut is fine for the night, but the virgin is who you take home and marry.” Maybe he didn’t know he was teaching his daughter to hate her sexuality. Maybe he didn’t know that every time she’d be kissed, her whole system would shake until she felt ready to combust, shame and self-hatred shivering against her spine. Maybe he didn’t know she’d disconnect emotions and sex because he always told her, “Boys are different, they won’t care about you.” Nobody said to her that it was okay to experiment. See, the funny thing is, I’m a dancer so I know exactly where my center of gravity is. I know how hard I’ll fall in each direction. Yet out of fear of getting hurt, I won’t let a single person inside of my bed.
7. The Soulmate. Never love romance more than you love being cynical. Never show weakness, never like pink, never think maybe you might find someone nice and settle down with them. Someone will find you, I was told, And if you’re lucky, he’ll put up with you when you start getting old. Never be the woman who believes in happily ever after, never be dumb enough to think maybe someone could love you after all of your mistakes. It has nothing to do with whether or not a family is important to you and you’re in a good place where a relationship would make your life better - you’re not a princess. You don’t get married, you settle.
8. The Girl With Strength, who can outrun everyone and who is stronger than her boyfriend. “See the thing about boys,” says my daddy, “Is that you have to let them win.” I sat at home and read stories about Artemis and wanted to become the huntress, too. I wanted to howl at the moon, I wanted to slay the beasts that bested me, I wanted to rule my kingdom with bloody fists. But girls are never athletes, never supposed to be “built,” regardless of the fact civilizations were constructed on our spines and we made homes in war by the steel of our ribs. Never be strong. We are supposed to wilt.
9. The Lady CEO: because if you choose work over family, are you really a girl? How dare you fight your way to the top through every pair of eyes that bore through your blouse, through every meeting where you were hushed by the sound of someone else talking, through every time someone called you “sweetie,” how dare you yearn for something. Is your husband the stay-at-home one? I can’t imagine how that is going. He’s not a real man, after all. I don’t give it long before the divorce. How dare you decide you’re happy being single. Don’t you know you’re supposed to bear children. Where is your honor? Where is your wisdom? Who cares if you are the leader, the best suited for your position, the quickest-thinking, the one who makes the hardest clients come back again. Don’t you see? Across history, women have been terrible at success. They always lose their man in the end. (When I said, “I would rather be a famous author than a mediocre mother,” I was told, “No, don’t worry, you’ll be a fine mommy.”)
10. THE GIRL I AM: FIRECRACKER AND DON’T YOU FUCKING FORGET IT I’LL RIP YOU TO SHREDS AND I WON’T FUCKING REGRET IT I’M NOT YOUR PRETTY GIRL I’M NOT YOUR ANYTHING I’M PERFECT, MOTHERFUCKER, AND I’M NOT GOING TO GIVE UP WHAT I’M DOING. I DON’T WANT TO BE “LADYLIKE” THAT LITERALLY MEANS NOTHING I’M NOT GOING TO STOP STANDING UP AND DEMANDING WHAT’S COMING TO ME. I’M GONNA BE SOMEBODY. I’M GONNA MAKE THEM REMEMBER ME. I REFUSE TO BE OVERSHADOWED IN HISTORY. I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO CREATE BUT YOU MADE ME A DRAGON YOU PUT ME IN THE FIRE AND WHEN I STOPPED BURNING I LEARNED HOW TO GLOW DON’T THINK YOU CAN STOP ME YOU CAN’T TAME A TORNADO."