Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas, 40″ x 50″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
“I hate running.” My oldest daughter might quit soccer.
I start to defend running, though running, to me, is always as in a dream, legs stuck in quicksand, lungs stiff with panic, the bad guy closing in. Why defend things I do not like? I tell my girl the truth. “I hate running, too.”
When do the men come to you? They come to me at night. In the quiet, they find a way in, as if they’d been waiting in the foyer all day. Samantha will see you now. Which is to say, I let the men in, reckoning with the past. I don’t sleep well and, through the long night, the men line up like planes for landing, a flight pattern of losers: the crotch-grabber on the night train; the frotteur on the Roman bus; the masturbator on the C local; the man in Grand Central; the man at the photo assistant interview; the guy in the Chevrolet; my older cousin’s older boyfriend who slipped into my bed when I was fourteen; and the stranger jerking off beside me on a dark Santa Monica beach as I sang a slow, sad version of “Shattered,” wearing my nutty song as a protective shroud of mental instability or at least a muffle to drown out the grunts and fleshy kneadings of him getting off on my fear.
When the men line up at night, I deal with the easy ones first, like a bureaucrat trying to clear my desk. The easy ones are the ones who got what they wanted. What did they want? That’s harder to know. The rush of cruelty? The cold alarm of violence? Feeling like the big boss man? Ejaculation? Control? Power? A rough grip on my soft parts? Proximity to gentleness, to a womb? Revenge? I don’t know what the men wanted. But I’m quickly done with the ones who got what they were after. They are dismissed as sad sacks and losers. It’s the ones whose attentions I escaped who present a stronger challenge in the night. These men remain an open file, a contract left unfulfilled. And that’s how far I’ve normalized the abuse handed out by men.
A stranger in a green car pulled into my driveway. “Are you a good speller?” he asked.
“Yes.” I was nine, playing in the yard.
“Can you spell cat?”
“Can you spell pussy?”
He wanted me to go somewhere with him. Where is that place he wanted to take me? Through the car window I saw what appeared to be a fake penis. I hadn’t yet heard tales of erections. I thought, There is something really wrong with this guy’s body. I ran.
Three Brits on holiday in Kinsale drank shots of Malibu, a coconut liquor named for a town that might be the opposite of Kinsale. They bought me a shot. One of them had canines like David Bowie’s. They stood close. They touched me. I ran away that night, feeling victorious back at my hostel. Like a bank robber, I celebrated as if I had gotten away with a crime, only my crime was being a girl who wanted to be alone.
A man from Cork picked me up hitchhiking. I was dizzy with freedom, insistent on traveling the way I wanted. In his car danger was evident instantly. He looked as if he were actively trying in each moment to not cut me up and eat me. He licked his lips. I spoke about my parents and siblings. People love me. Please don’t hurt me. I clutched a Swiss Army knife. Its blade was no longer than my index finger. I talked as to a wild animal, calming, humanizing. He stopped the car and I ran.
Does my escape from these men mean another woman had to take my place? A woman who couldn’t run as fast as I could? I think about that often.
Because I ran, I’m left to write and rewrite versions of a narrative I did not begin. It’s not even a story I like, yet I spend my nights imagining different possible endings. How I might have tripped, or slowed down, or decided to stay and enjoy the party a few moments too long. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, and by Adventure I suppose I mean assault. The Sultan and Scheherazade. I can’t kill these men off because I don’t know how their version of the story was intended to end.
My daughters are surrounded by good, calm, quiet, listening, kind men. The message has always been: Love all the people. But my oldest is eleven and soon I’ll be remiss if I don’t add an addendum about men. “Remember how I said love everyone? I didn’t really mean everyone.” I told her she could quit soccer if she wanted. Maybe that was a bad idea. But running was never a real solution.
On a freezing Vermont highway I had a flat tire. An older man in a pickup truck stopped. I asked him to drive to the next exit and call my boyfriend for help. He said no. He said he would drive me there. Please, I asked, just call him for me. No, he said, so I climbed into his cab, terrified. He spent the drive angry at me for not recognizing that he was a good guy, a kind father. I spent the drive wondering how I was supposed to know the difference. Was his goodness apparent in the style of his winter coat? The model of his car?
I was relieved. My daughter decided not to quit.
When the men come in the night, I’m going to ask them, How is it supposed to end?
The men will say, Wait a second. Who are you?
You know who I am.
I was drunk, they’ll say.
You were but you’re not now.
And they’ll say, I don’t know the ending.
I’ll remind them how I, too, once didn’t know the ending. How, because of them, I’ve now spent years of my life making up endings.
The men will say, I don’t know what to say.
And I’ll say, Yes. I know you don’t. But I can wait. I’ve got all night.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Dark Dark: Stories and three novels. Mr. Splitfoot is a ghost story. The Invention of Everything Else is about the life of the inventor Nikola Tesla. The Seas, Hunt’s first novel, was republished by Tin House Books in 2018. Hunt is the recipient of a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship and the Bard Fiction Prize.
This is an excerpt from Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, edited by Shelly Oria and published by McSweeney’s on September 10.
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