the fortune teller
On high school graduation day a teacher asked me to stay after class. He sat me down, and took my hand, and said, “I want to tell you your fortune.”
I looked at him expectantly.
“So high school is over, and you didn’t go to prom, and you weren’t a popular girl. But high school is full of boys. In the fall you’ll be starting college, and there will be men there, and they’ll feel very differently about you.” I must have looked hopeful, because he frowned. “And no matter what happens, I want you to remember what I’m telling you today. Try – try – not to become bitter.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. Just remember.” He patted my hand. “Now go, grow up.”
He was, it turned out, a very wise man.
College youth leadership meeting, in a cabin in the mountains. Watching Alien, talking about God, playing pinball and “If you love me, honey, you’ll smile!”
He comes in the night, the dark haired young man with the piercing blue eyes. An awakening to hands sliding under the prim flannel pajamas, reaching up, reaching down, exploring places that are supposed to wait for marriage. A soft curse in the darkness. “Why are you wearing a bra? Why are you wearing panties?”
Because the other girls warned me about you.
A sneer, full of contempt. “You’re no woman. You’re a baby.” But he goes away.
Special forces reservist, a little volatile, a little violent. But it’s passion, no? And sometimes with passion comes pain. And the parents think he’s a good influence. You need someone strong to keep you in line.
There’s a lot of fighting, amidst the passion. One day, in front of the house, he reaches under the seat of his Jeep, pulls out a pistol. Points it. Then turns it around, extending the grip. “Want to do something about it?”
Take the gun, put it under the passenger seat. “No, that’s all right.” Get out and walk – don’t run – into the house. He is sorry. And persistent for a while. But the father answers the phone from now on. “She doesn’t want to see you. No, I don’t think that’s going to change.” And says to the daughter, “It’s really too bad. You need someone to put you in your place.”
A blind date gone bad from the outset. “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m working on a Ph.D. in philosophy.”
A hearty laugh. “That’s cute. What do you really do?”
But he recovers well enough, in the face of annoyance. The talk turns to technology. He mentions a problem with his printer, easily fixable with the right knowledge. An offer of help, accepted.
At the apartment, a glance around the room. “Where’s the computer?” He waggles his eyebrows, jerking his head toward the hall. There are only two rooms down there. “In the bathroom?”
A laugh. He draws near. “That’s cute.”
“No, no it isn’t.” A frown, arms crossed. “I’m going to use your phone. Then I’m going to wait outside for my ride. Alone.”
Irritation. “Then what did you come here for? You must have known.”
“No, I didn’t. I thought you meant what you’d said.” More fool me.
A walk on a pier, with a man who wants to create a sound that has never been heard before. Full moon, lapping waves, mussels glowing on the supports. Leaning on the railing in silence, looking, thinking. “What do you do that for?” he asks.
“Make me feel – the way you do.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Silence again, uncomfortable now. “Maybe we should go.”
A poor musician, he has no car. Hands on the pickup steering wheel, eyes ahead on the road. The sound of a zipper, a flash of white. Takes a hand from the wheel, rests it on his groin. A turgidity there. “I want you to understand, what you make me feel.”
Remove the hand. Eyes ahead. Drive to a supermarket, crowded, well lit. Pull in near some people. “Get out.”
“What? How will I get home?”
“I don’t really care. Get out.”
Sullen. The sound of a zipper again. “I just wanted you to know, the way you make me feel.”
“I know now. Go away.”
The man in the class seems friendly and smart, but something’s a little off. Parry his requests for a date, even coffee on campus. Studying in a quiet corner outside when a shadow darkens the book. Pack up quickly and stand. “Hi. Good to see you, but I have to go.”
“Not just yet.” Forced against a railing. A kiss, then another.
“Stop it.” Hands reaching under the sweatshirt. “I said stop it.”
“That’s what they all say. They never mean it.”
240 pounds per square inch of pressure in a stiletto. Jammed into a sneaker, turns out that it hurts. Swearing and threats swell and then fade, lost to distance and the panting from exertion and fear.
The professor is sorry (not sorry), but he can’t expel the man from the class. “Just sit where you can’t see him. After all, nothing really happened.”
Frigid. Dyke. Bitch. All the slurs at the intersection of desire and rejection, designed to wound or perhaps to coerce. You don’t want to be that. Prove to me you’re not.
No, I don’t need to prove anything to you. But always that twinge of uncertainty, of guilt. Do I?
and all the rest
To be fair and to be clear, over the years I’ve known many delightful men. There have been and are good friends, and good colleagues, and lovers for whom consent has always been inscribed onto their bones. Many of them had to get past – yes, the bitterness – that I wore like armor after a time. Marriage has softened some of that, and middle age even more, as invisibility sets in and men are more likely to offer to carry groceries to my car than to invite me to some tryst, wanted or not.
But the shadow of fear is always there, burned into the skin like a brand. The red heat may fade to a black scar, but it never really heals. And to the disciple, the soldier, the professional, the student, to all those men who think that women don’t mean what they say, that they need to be tricked or coerced into passion, that they are constantly deploying some mysterious feminine wiles rather than just trying to live their lives, I say: I “made you” feel nothing. But this – these scars and this fear is on you. This is what you made me feel.