What Hands Can Do
When I was fifteen I went away to camp for the first time. My father and I spent 48 hours in Cooperstown, New York before he drove me 114 miles to Lenox, Massachusetts where I was attending a summer program for young classical musicians. It wasn’t until an hour of our journey had passed that he realized what was happening: his youngest child was being deposited somewhere he had never been and he would not see her for a full two weeks.
I don’t know if this is what caused him to stop the Beatles CD we were listening to, or if it was something he had wanted to say all along. Either way, he switched off the music and there was a sudden silence as his shoulders tensed. He told me to be careful if any grown men, any teachers or counselors, behaved inappropriately toward me while I was away. I felt my stomach sink to my feet and I turned toward the window, imagining myself outside and not buckled into a rental car as my well-meaning dad tried his best to explain what I already knew — I did not have the option of implicit trust.
It’s strange to remember this moment as an adult woman. Though I was embarrassed, I immediately knew what my father meant by inappropriately and why he brought it up. But while I literally understood this type of abuse happened, I didn’t have the understanding of sex, or of anything really, necessary to comprehend why. I knew I felt very uncomfortable when men honked and leered at me on the street. I knew I often avoided getting lunch at a specific deli because of the way a certain cashier would always press his palm into mine when handing me change. I knew I looked older than my age, just the night before my father and I were mistaken for a couple. I knew all of this from the thousand small knowings every girl and every woman has. The ones you intuit from childhood on. The ones that all add up to a small and sinister fact — the world, as it is, is not meant for you.
But I didn’t yet know why it wasn’t meant for me. Most naively, I assumed eventually it would be, that all this would change and that someday my body would no longer feel like a thing that wasn’t mine, like a vessel hiding the real me, the one that couldn’t be touched, could think and feel and that, I would eventually learn, didn’t really matter.
I’ve been reflecting on this with something akin to grief these past three years as stories of abuse at the hands of powerful men are only selectively impactful, as if the mistreatment of girls and women is something to ignore, to only occasional try to learn from. It hurts, right now, every time a Supreme Court headline is released. I think of Brett Kavanaugh and wonder if this is how the remaining forty, fifty years of his tenure will be? I leave rooms when R. Kelly songs play, feeling baffled it wasn’t until this year that most people stopped asking why. I remember who is President, the twenty-two women he has violated, those women with names so few have bothered to learn, and only want to fall back asleep.
These men, these powerful men who think what they do with their hands does not matter.
This is what I did with my hands this week: I made a salad; I I wrote a paper prompt; I re-underlined my favorite sentences from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in preparation for teaching; I washed my hair and combed it twice; I practiced a difficult passage from a Chopin Ballade; I stuck red sale stickers on expensive apparel at the retail job I use to supplement my adjunct income; I brushed my roommate’s cat; I held a cold beer while my best friend told me about her boss’ poor handling of a potential Title IX lawsuit; I dialed Mitch McConnell’s Washington D.C. office number; I googled videos of Anita Hill’s testimony; I hugged my mom; I held my friend’s daughter’s small fingers; I typed up tweets from the hash tag #whyididn’treport — my mind lingering over so many of the words and names. They reminded me of my first kiss, which was forced on me. They reminded me of my hands, a year later, pushing away a taxi driver in the back of his van. It was midday, one of the top twenty busiest airports in the country. He didn’t even bother rolling up the windows. They reminded me of the man who tried to follow me home from a gas station, after soliciting me for sex, just last year. It was one A.M., he shouted vulgar obscenities, even on the freeway, until I lost him. They reminded me how so little has changed in the past sixteen years, how now, at thirty-one, I try my best to not spend too much time with straight men outside of my family.
What a strange moment, when the internet is, ever briefly, a comfort. But this is what happens when neither your present nor your past are safe places to be. And what a thing — millions of women repeating this and typing words of their own and these men with their hands that once touched us only ball them up into fists.
Meriwether Clarke is a poet, educator, and essayist living in Los Angeles. Her work has recently been seen in Tin House, Prairie Schooner, Gigantic Sequins, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
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