How to Fight Like a Girl
STEP ONE: Begin by observing the older girl lifeguards at the pool; the way they twirl their whistles and talk to boys with their hips turned out and roll the waistband of their Soffe shorts over three times. Hide away in the bathroom of your new high school to examine yourself in the mirror. Remind yourself that at your new school you no longer have glasses or bangs and that the rest of your body caught up—finally and improbably—with your legs. You do have a lot of feelings, mostly iterations of inadequacy, but this is to be expected because remember: you were always the smartest girl in English class, but you were never the prettiest, or pretty at all.
You've made progress when you look up to find everyone on the bus looking at you after you've flipped your hair to fix your ponytail. Identify a beautiful boy at your new high school. Characteristics of said boy: is too old, too tall and too thin; smokes too many Camel Lights; drives a grey 1989 Mercedes with red leather interior; claims that he has to shove his tongue down your throat before lacrosse games for good luck. Become his girlfriend.
Then write a poem about the beautiful boy. Get it published above his review of Ryan Adams' Silver and Gold album in the high school newspaper. You will always be the smartest girl in English class; you will never be enough.
This is called cultivating inferiority.
STEP TWO: When the beautiful boy leaves for college, try not to cringe when his remaining lacrosse teammates call you by his name in the hallways. Cut your hair. Start sitting at the lunch table with the girls who hang out with boys in college. Avoid your friends on the swim team; they don't understand you any more.
Go to a party with girls from the new lunch table; their older brothers from college are throwing it. Believe that the beautiful boy will be there, or at least one of his friends. Think that maybe if he knows how much you've changed, that you can now drink beer and smoke cigarettes and take bong rips without coughing, he will take you back and make you feel the way he did when he took you to the playground near his old house in Arlington. It will be just like that scene from Grease, where Sandy reappears in all black and puts out her cigarette in Danny's face.
Hide your disappointment when neither the beautiful boy nor his friends are at the party. Accomplish this by drinking too many beers for the first time. Practice flirting with a random stranger, probably someone's brother. Recall lessons from older girls at the pool; review STEP ONE. Characteristics of said stranger: not too tall; not too thin; definitely too old; definitely does not smell like soap and citrus and cigarettes like the beautiful boy.
When he asks you to go upstairs, go. It's a good idea to make out with older boys, and also to do what other people want you to do. Pay no mind that his friend is following you up the McMansion's carpeted steps too. Continue to ignore the stranger and his friend as they watch you urinate in the upstairs bathroom. Don't check your hair as you leave the bathroom. Remember how embarrassed you felt after your dad yelled at you for making faces in the mirror while he read you a bedtime story; he said you were too vain.
There's no point in screaming when they hold you down; you're two floors away from the basement party and the bass line is too deep. If you feel the need to scream anyway, do so, despite knowing the aforesaid.
When your friend asks you after English class on Monday if you're okay, because she heard something "weird" happened at the party on Saturday, say something, anything, in as bitchy a voice as you've learned, and walk away as quickly as possible. You should not speak of this again for three years.
You've made progress when you've fucked every single boy on the lacrosse team. You no longer have feelings. You no longer like food.
This is called building character. Alternatively, hardening the heart.
STEP THREE: Go to college. STEP TWO was punishment, but your crime is unclear. Did you break the rules by drinking? But you did what you were asked. Did your vulnerability demonstrate your weakness? Perhaps. Demonstrate your disgust with the vulnerability that betrayed you in the following ways:
a) Fuck every male virgin you can find. This is not difficult; boys in college are sexually frustrated.
b) In English class, your friend from the radio station with the all vinyl show says that My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun by Emily Dickinson is about Dickinson's attachment to antiquities and the secrets they hold. You must shut her down as fast as possible. Tell the entire class that the poem is about a cock. Make clear that you think your (former) friend is a total idiot for thinking otherwise. Don't be surprised when she stops coming by your room to play records.
Resent your wholesome appearance, which belies your isolation. You are marked, and you therefore no longer get to belong. Make sure no one calls you "as American as apple pie" ever again; deny any and all comparisons to Molly, the American Girl doll. You are the smartest girl in English class, but that's certainly not enough. On the other hand, it's also all you've got left.
You will regain a feeling. It is called rage.
STEP FOUR: Study abroad in Mexico. Escape yourself in the Spanish language. Forget Russian and Latin almost entirely. Move in with a boy from Mexico. Learn that love and sex can go together. Get bruises on your hip bones from surfboards, not lovers. Watch at least three sunrises a week with eyes unrested from the night before; they are spectacular filtered by the clouds above the mountains. Local legend is that the large mountain is a warrior, crying over his dying bride, the small mountain. Eat fresh mangos and avocados; you will finally gain back the ten pounds you lost during STEP TWO. Take comfort that your Mexican boyfriend smells like citrus, just like the beautiful boy. He teaches you to drive stick shift, and takes you to a healer in the jungle that tells you both that you will leave him. He cries, but you find peace in the chaos.
You've made progress when you begin to imagine a future beyond your parents' definition of success. Maybe you'll sell mango smoothies in a surf town. Drop the fantasy when you recall that if you're not the smartest girl in English class, you're no one.
This is called remission. Also, building strength.
STEP FIVE: Go to law school in Boston (by default because medical school is out of the question). There is no English class, so you are the smartest girl in Legal Writing class. Tell a boy you meet there what you learned in STEP TWO. You can no longer fuck him, but he continues to leave contracts class to bring you gas when your car runs out at a stoplight.
With STEP FOUR's strength and STEP THREE's rage, unleash a reign of unholy terror over your law school cohort. Defend any and all causes with a heretofore unimaginable level of passion. You've made progress when, while debating whether or not to publish a traditional marriage symposium in your law journal, your invective makes your editor-in-chief faint in front of the entire staff. As he crumples to the floor in front of the whiteboard, grow three inches.
Then get an internship at a big law firm in New York City. Meet an asshole with a British accent. Accept that he treats you like shit. Ignore all evidence that you are unlikely the only one he treats like shit. With pleasure. Focus on his blue eyes and tight pants. Remember: you are the smartest girl in Legal Writing class, but you are never enough. After the internship ends, your mother calls with the news that you got the job.
Return to law school for your final year. Drink green tea and smoke Camel Lights while you wait for the British asshole to call. Graduate. Move to New York.
Convince yourself that female purity, in the abstract, is insignificant. Suppress your feelings of inadequacy; at the very least, pretend that the expectation of female purity does not implicate your flaws, vis a vis STEP TWO. Only you are to blame for your guilty nonconformance. Tattoo half your body with the crying Virgin Mary to remind yourself of this.
This is called a false sense of control.
STEP SIX: Take the bar exam. Go to Cape Cod, to your Aunt Millie's house directly on the beach. Spend the week by yourself. Internalize the ocean's September grey. Feel the timelessness of anticipation. You have no idea what to look forward to, and you don't care to look back.
This is called the calm before the storm.
STEP SEVEN: Go to a party to celebrate your completion of the bar exam, and your possible return to a social life. Drink too much. Decide to go to the West Village to fuck the British asshole; feeling unappreciated seems more authentic than being celebrated. Get lost in the West Village.
See a Mexican man taking out the garbage while closing down a restaurant. Ask him for directions in Spanish. When he asks you to come inside, say yes. It's a good idea to do what other people want you to do. Trust him when he says that he just has to finish up out back and then will show you where the British asshole lives. Plus, your phone is dead, so you aren't able to use GoogleMaps.
When he pours you a glass of wine from behind the bar, knock it over while he's out back. Apologize profusely and say you really have to get going. He tells you he's almost done. When he leaves again, run to the front door. Dissipate your intoxication with a surge of adrenaline. Fumble with the locks on the doors. Realize that there is a deadbolt with no key. Look out the door's glass panel to see the bar that is less than 30 feet from the British asshole's house.
Throw your body into the door. Understand that this is real life. Remember the hatchway that opened to the street. Grab your bag and run down stairs to the darkness of the restaurant's basement. Don't be afraid of the darkness; you've been half-blind your entire life. When he finds you, cry and beg in Spanish and English. Shrink three inches and crumple to the honeycombed plastic floor mats. You are never enough. As he drags you up and presses your face to a metal preparation table, your body remembers to forget.
This is called appreciating the enemy's strengths.
STEP EIGHT: Wake up wearing all your clothes. Go to the bathroom. Do not look at yourself in the mirror. Take off all your clothes: your jeans; your striped underwear; your favorite grey tank top; your favorite black bra. Put them in the hamper where they belong. You will never wear them again. Run the shower. Wash your hands three times. Brush your teeth. Floss. Hydrate. Take your multivitamin. Moisten your contacts. Use the bathroom. If and when you see blood, your body denies it: "He didn't touch me." Get in the shower. He didn't touch me. Wash and condition your hair. Clean your body and face. Step out of the shower. He didn't touch me. Dry yourself. Cut your fingernails. He didn't touch me. Look in the mirror. Look at yourself, at your goddamn face. It's so pale, and your eyes are so dark. Yes, you're here after all. Fight the urge to vomit. You must have asked for this.
Go to dinner with your best friend. She sits across the table, and even though her ice blue eyes are round with pain, her spine is as straight and strong as steel. You say that he didn't touch you. "No," she says. "He did touch you. And it's not your fault." Say nothing. Walk 23 blocks from the restaurant home to think about what she said. Only now do you feel the ache of each step. When you get home, and see blood, fall to your knees in the bathroom. Call your best friend, sobbing. Tell her she was right about one thing: he did touch you. Your body misunderstands the admission as an instruction to lower its guard: the influx of memories eviscerates your insides. Hang up, and remain in the fetal position on your floor, pushing the memories back to their boxes behind the closed door. You did this again? You did this again.
This is called preparing for battle.
STEP NINE: Go to the hospital, alone. This is your burden, and you don't want to bother anyone with accompanying you. Either the world is an orderly place, in which you have control, or it's disorderly and unsafe. You choose orderly, and thus self-blame. You choose control, and thus solitude. Plus, you can't imagine that anyone wants to hear about STEP SEVEN when they have work to do, groceries to buy. Gather your clothes from the hamper into a plastic bag, forgetting temporarily that Law & Order: SVU says that a paper bag is best.
Wait in triage with the unmedicated schizophrenics. Once you get to the front, tell the nurses what happened in STEP SEVEN. You are hyperventilating because it's the first time you use the word "rape," and they can't understand you. They think you're in respiratory distress, and begin to hook you up to a heart monitor when you shake your head to try again. Success. Don't be alarmed when their faces fall. Don't be alarmed when you are ushered into a separate room through several mechanized doors, like on the Death Star. You can't tell if you're being quarantined or treated as a frail tropical flower, but at least you're on an assembly line and you no longer have to think. Or feel.
Consider consenting to an evidence collection kit at the encouragement of the hospital's social worker. You don't know if you want to tell the police about STEP SEVEN yet because you're still not sure that someone other than you should be punished for your mistakes, that you are both "special" and a "victim". To avoid making a decision, acquiesce in case you want to report STEP SEVEN later. Pull out your own hair at the technician's instruction, making sure to get the follicle, and place it in the orange evidence bag. Open your mouth for the technician's swab. Open your legs for the technician's swab. Laugh when the technician drops a vial of your blood on the tile floor. It explodes everywhere, but you're so far away that the technician's frenzied apologies are hilarious. Of course your blood is all over the floor; it should be. Take a sip of "grape drink" from a plastic cup, covered in foil, and swing your legs on the exam table as she scurries to clean up.
The next day, go to the police station, alone. It looks nothing like Law & Order: SVU. There are precarious stacks of faded manila folders. The fluorescent lighting buzzes with carcinogens. The heavy computers are from 2000, at best, probably best deployed as anchors. And it's a ficus graveyard. But this is what's next, so again agree to extended questioning. Answer honestly and clearly and forthrightly. Say everything. Honesty feels like brutality, until the fingerprint bruises on your thigh and your chipped molars remind you what brutality really is. Also show them your tattoo of the crying Virgin Mary when they ask if your body has any "identifying characteristics." Do not flinch as their cameras flash.
Immediately reassess the relative severity of your situation when you see a woman enter with a black eye, wearing little more than her enormous studded handbag. She's speaking loudly and quickly in Spanish, and the detectives excuse themselves. You overhear their conversation about her "boyfriend," and about drugs, and about how she was beaten, and about how she will help them find him. You are ashamed. How weak to want to get treated like shit by the British asshole. How stupid to drunkenly ask a stranger for directions, then go into his restaurant. You're a silly white girl; all you have is a broken heart, no broken bones. But now that you're on the assembly line, you can't get off. You'd rather have someone else evaluate STEP SEVEN than think about it yourself.
So go to the district attorney's office, alone. The assistant district attorney looks about your age, and like he's from Ohio or Illinois. Respect him because he's a real lawyer; you're just a poodle from a big law firm. Persevere through extended questioning. Your answers humiliate you; you anticipate his legal analysis of your intoxication, of the holes in your memory. He asks whether you've experienced anything like STEP SEVEN before. Thinking of STEP TWO, your body sets your face on fire.
You're not sure what to say. On the one hand, your failure to report STEP TWO is legally advantageous. A girl that reports both STEP TWO and STEP SEVEN to the authorities is not to be trusted. You imagine it: "Your Honor, her testimony is credible. She does not report ambiguous wrongdoing. For example, in an earlier STEP, she flirted with a boy and went upstairs with him. He and his friend understood these actions as consent, and so she told no one. She takes responsibility for her actions." Then again, you know (but do not feel) that those girls, the ones to cry wolf, are as fictional as said wolf. And while you're not one of those girls, you are one of these girls: the ones that stop eating, start drinking; stop trusting, start fucking; stop crying, start bleeding. That you chose to stop eating and trusting and crying instead of reporting STEP TWO to the authorities, or to your parents, or to your friends is degrading because it feels like relief. Despite the humiliation, and the damage wrought by the drinking and the fucking and the bleeding, tell the truth.
"Yes, I have, and no, I told no one."
I call this knowing myself.
STEP TEN: The assistant district attorney's intern welcomes me from implosion. In an attempt to make small talk, she tells me that she passed over an employment offer from my law firm to work at the district attorney's office. The comment is shocking; is the me sitting in the district attorney's office the same me that goes to work every day? I don't know the mechanics, but I don't want the infection to spread. Before I leave, I accept the ten dollar bill that the assistant district attorney pulls from his worn brown wallet. We've run late and administrative personnel have left. He explains that it's "for your testimony—from the victims of crime fund." I fail to understand.
But I call this summoning the enemy to the field of battle.
STEP ELEVEN: I answer the phone when the district attorney calls. He says that they finally found him—after he quit his job and ran to his cousin's house in New Jersey—and that I must testify before the grand jury. I struggle deciding what to wear. I don't want to look like one of those girls; see STEP NINE. I want to look like someone this doesn't happen to, like anyone but myself. I regret my choice in shoes when the heels echo as I cross the grand jury room to my plastic seat at the front. Every click reminds me that I exist and that I hurt.
I look into the faces of twenty-three of my peers, raised lecture-style like in an English seminar. To my left is a stenographer; she grows exasperated because I speak too quickly when I'm nervous. So I slow down. I tell the truth. To that sea of anonymous, pitying faces, I tell all of it, with words like "vagina" and "penis" and "anus" and, worst of all, "I don't know." It is horrible.
I do not cry as I click out of the grand jury room. The heavy wood door swings closed behind me, with a rushing sound like going underwater. I hold my breath until I reach the municipal bathroom. I barely make it inside. My shoulders hurt from quaking and crying; I want to fold into myself and disappear. I scare a woman out of a stall; she rushes out without washing her hands. I'm as colorless as the taupe subway tile after voiding my secrets before those faces.
I call this modifying my tactics.
STEP TWELVE: I answer the phone when the district attorney calls again. He says that the grand jury indictment was the fastest he'd ever seen. He says he's never worked with a victim with such a clear and consistent memory, and I almost feel pride. But then I remember that all I am is the smartest girl in English class who also happens to be able to recite facts with a reasonable degree of certainty.
Then I wait. A very long time. Without the assembly line, I have only myself to deal with. I suffer nightmares. I endure silence. My physical existence offends me for days at a time. Equally offensive are the entire months encased in fog and emptiness. I choose to exist anyway. Eventually the district attorney calls. He says that the sentence is ten years on three first-degree counts, and that there is no possibility of parole.
This is fighting like a girl.