This summer at a faculty meeting, I joked with a colleague. I’ve learned how to do this as a woman in the patriarchy. Tease. Joke. Don’t be direct.
“How are the coffee dates with students?” I asked as we waited in line for soggy sandwiches.
He shook his head. “You know, I tell them that I have money on my card to take them to coffee, and they don’t take me up on it.”
“Can I send some of my students to have coffee with you?” I asked. “I have too many.”
“Totally,” he said, but I knew this would never happen. “You must be doing something right. I guess I’m just too much of an asshole,” he added.
I didn’t answer. I let that sit there, not because I think he’s an asshole, but because I envied him and I didn’t know how to say that. The truth is, he’s a colleague I like. I’ve marched with him at political rallies, he’s a good listener, and I admire his research.
We had this conversation because a year ago, at another meeting, he lamented that students graduate from our very prestigious and expensive school without ever having had a coffee with a professor. He thought this was evidence of how alienated we’ve become from our students. I didn’t agree but I said nothing. He has tenure and I do not. I suspect his teaching load is considerably smaller than my three courses a semester, and he makes double or maybe triple what I do. He probably has time to have coffee with students. Perhaps he finds it rewarding. I don’t have the time, and when I do, it’s not rewarding. I have an unchanging 3/3 load; I conference with 44 to 55 students a semester, meet with advisees, and host students at my apartment four or five times a month, in addition to sitting on committees, and designing new curriculum for both a core program and a major. In the last seven years, I’ve also published a novel, a poetry chapbook, three peer-reviewed journal articles, and too many essays and poems to count. I have a collection of essays under contract, coming out this spring. The only thing I don’t do that the tenured faculty do, as far and I can tell, is write grants.
Sometimes, I do have coffee with students, but it’s unpaid labor I do because I feel guilty. I am asked to have coffee anywhere from one to five times a week, and not just by students. I’m a writer of not much fame or success, but occasionally someone will read something of mine and write to me asking to have coffee. They have similar traumas or they feel connected to me or they want to “pick my brain.” I say yes, but after negotiating the complexities of my schedule, they often give up and I’m relieved.
If I were to have coffee with all of the people who want to have coffee with me I would burn a hole through the lining of my stomach and would do nothing in my free time but have coffee with people I don’t know very well. Other times, it’s old friends who I’ve fallen out of touch with. They want to reconnect. “Let’s have coffee? Are you free for lunch?” they text me or send Facebook messages or write me an email. Sometimes I miss them, too, but I don’t want to have coffee. I mostly can’t have lunch either because I’m writing or teaching. If I am free, I’m probably with my kid, and if I’m not with my kid, I’m trying to see my friends and my boyfriend, whom I miss and don’t see enough, or I’m tired and I need to lie alone in a dark room. It’s also possible that I’m doing another one of my three different jobs. Still, people keep asking me to having coffee.
I write this essay to help myself and all of us out there, mostly women, POC, queer people, people with disabilities, and children of narcissists, who have been trained to believe that our worth is tied to our ability to do things for others, to meet with them, to solve their problems, to talk to them like therapists, or to give away our expertise for free. When really, we are just people who are very, very tired. Coffee, it turns out, is also about time, the gift economy, and labor, and we don’t talk enough about how these little grabs for our time—and the larger grabs they imply—have an impact on our freedoms as citizens. I write this essay to grab back.
Melissa Febos is a Goddess of Wisdom
Last May, Melissa Febos published an essay in Catapult, “Do You Want to Be Famous For Your Writing or For Your Swift Response to Email?” If you haven’t read it, please do now, and understand that I am only able to write this essay because she said something important about email. My coffee problem is wrapped up in all of the patriarchal bullshit that Febos articulates so well:
Stop trying to get an A+ at anything but writing your best work. Again, this speaks most specifically to women, POC, queers, and other “marginalized” folks. I am going to repeat myself, but this shit bears repeating. Patriarchy (and institutional bigotry) conditions us to operate as if we are constantly working at a deficit. In some ways, this is true. You have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. I have spent most of my life trying to be perfect. The best student. The best dishwasher. The best waitress. The best babysitter. The best dominatrix. The best heroin addict. The best professor. I wanted to be good, as if by being good I might prove that I deserved more than the ephemeral esteem of sexist asshats.
Am I trying to get an A+ in teaching? Of course I am! I care about teaching and it gives me great pleasure to know I’m doing a good job. I’m also renewed partially on the basis of my teaching evaluations, so it’s true that I have to make students happy. I try to resist this pressure, but in the student-as-customer model of the university, it’s damn hard. Students ask for a lot, and they are paying a lot of tuition so they feel entitled to what they want. Very little of their tuition dollars goes into my pocket, but they don’t know that, and it takes some time for them to understand the institutional realities of universities: tenured faculty at the top, contract faculty like me in the middle, and adjuncts on food stamps at the bottom.
And why do students ask me for coffee and not my colleague who is white, male, and tenured? Are they afraid of him? Possibly. Do they know that I often care more than is good for my own sanity? Likely. Or do they somehow read the subliminal cultural messages that get sent out over the airwaves. Ask a woman. She’ll do it. If I had a dime for every time a student sent me an email asking for a letter of recommendation and opened their request with, “You’re the only professor who knows me well…,” well, maybe I could quit one of my extra jobs. Why should my good work in the classroom (I made a space for that student to be known) mean more work for me (now I have to write a letter of recommendation)?
Part of my job as a professor is to write letters for students and to meet with them during office hours, but I’m pretty sure a disproportionate amount of this work is falling onto contract and adjunct faculty, who care so damn much that they are practically teaching for free.
Shitting and first dates. There I said it. I’m sorry to gross you out. But I’m a 45-year-old woman with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I drink one cup of coffee in the morning alone at home so that I can go the bathroom. Occasionally, if I’m having a really tiresome day, I will drink a second cup of instant coffee (yes, you read right, instant coffee) at home, again alone, because my stomach is tricky and I never really know how it will respond to coffee. The only other reason I can tell to go on a coffee date (and I went on about 100 of these before I met my current boyfriend) is because first dates are mostly horrible, boring, or scary, and coffee or tea is a way to keep them short and sweet and not clouded by alcohol. On first dates when I drank, I usually made out with the guy because I was bored or I wanted them to stop talking, and putting my face on top of theirs was the only way tipsy me could make that happen. Shhhh, baby, don’t speak, shhh, it’s okay, I thought as I leaned over the table.
Café Culture is Dead
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s not 1994 anymore, and we’re not all watching Friends and hanging out in giant cafés that resemble Central Perk. Most cafés in my neighborhood are tiny affairs with no electrical outlets, to discourage customers from plugging in their laptops. Many don’t have chairs or are so crowded you can’t sit down. Most will be gone soon because of Starbucks, The Bean, and gentrification. In Brooklyn, where some of my friends live, these mythical 1994-esque cafes do exist and sometimes I go to them, but they are hushed office spaces for freelancers. The atmosphere is tense and angry. There is very little laid-back chatting. Late capitalism is winning. We are not allowed to lounge and smoke and chat at cafés like Parisians because we’re Americans. Maybe lounging defiantly in cramped café spaces and gabbing with baristas about their amazing tattoos while slowly licking the almond milk out of a bowl is one way to say fuck you to capitalism, but I’d rather call a senator or make a really good protest sign and carry it through the streets with my fellow angry Americans. Will it have any effect? I really don’t know.
I’ve been working on and off on this essay for a couple of weeks, with two voices in my head. One whispers in my ear, “This isn’t just about coffee, is it?” While the other issues a stern warning, “Don’t make this too big, little girl. It’s just coffee. Get over it.” I suppose these are the voices many writers who grapple with uncomfortable subject matter face, but especially those of us who have been abused or told that we’re “too sensitive,” or that our ideas are stupid or that our bodies don’t work or that we’re just plain wrong, wrong, wrong.
One of the many essay structures I teach my students is called the “descending helix.” I learned this from Philip Lopate, whose “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay Film” explains: “Often the essay follows a helically descending path, working through preliminary supposition to reach a more difficult core of honesty. The narrative engine that drives its form is ‘What do I really think about X?’” I give my students many essay structures over the course of the two semesters I have with them—the field of investigation, the pebble in a pond, Aristotle’s story arc, the house, and the quilt, to name a few. Please don’t ask to “pick my brain” about these structures unless you are prepared to compensate me in some way. Side note, I do, on occasion, barter. I am in need of babysitters, someone to dye my hair weird colors, hot gluten-free meals, entertainment, and art.
My students eventually come up with some of their own structures, but the descending helix is wonderful for deep, sometimes subterranean analysis. We use it for doing close readings of movies, TV shows, difficult essays, and lately for contemporary political and cultural events. I’m using it for this very essay, and I want you to know that because, too often, structure is invisible and many readers and young writers think structure is accidental or unconscious. It can be, but mostly it’s work that is crafted so well that it’s barely seen. Structures are the strings that hold up the marionettes—visible if you look hard enough, invisible if you fall under their puppet spell.
The descending helix forces the writer to descend into deeper meaning. This is an essay about saying no to coffee dates, but what it’s really about are the subtle ways marginalized people are asked to give up their knowledge for free, but what it’s really about is saying no to capitalism’s demand that we be its little bitches, but what it’s really about is… I could go on, but I don’t want to give away the ending of this essay.
I learned a lot about structure from my colleague Matt Longabucco. We were once married and are now best friends and have taught in the same programs for almost 15 years. We share a lot of our teaching materials and one child. It’s a gift economy, as Lewis Hyde might say, but we both get and give a lot of gifts. I’ve been lucky to have this with so many writer and teacher friends, too many to name them all, but the underlying assumption is both give and take. I never feel exploited because they are always giving me stuff I need and want in exchange for what I can share with them.
Too often when I do meet people for coffee, they have nothing to say to me or they ask for information they could Google, or worst of all, they are all take and no give. They come without questions, ideas, or anything to offer. I end up filling the time with the sound of my own voice. It’s a waste of both of our time. Or they need a therapist and are unwilling or unable to seek professional help, so they use me as the next best thing.
This Summer I Had a Small Nervous Breakdown Because I Didn’t Say No Enough
My therapist called it a “depressive episode brought on by a year of overwork and exhaustion,” but I’m a romantic who skews dramatic, so I prefer “small nervous breakdown.” My body started to send me signals in the form of horrible neck and shoulder pain, I wanted to go to sleep at 5 pm every night, my meds for my rare movement disorder started to act up, and still I didn’t understand that I was depressed. My physical symptoms were real (and I was lucky enough to have access to doctors who believed me), and my brain was letting me know in the only way I would listen—physical pain—that I was losing it. I said yes to too much, I helped way too many students who were breaking down because of Trump, I absorbed a lot of anger from students who cried in my office about the unfairness of our current political situation and the many things that were happening to them. Some were mad at me for the ways the white institution had failed them. I get it. I’m part of the white institution; I’m German, Swedish, English, and Cuban. I am white passing, have a ton of white privilege, and I am a cisgender mostly straight woman, but I often speak, like so many of us, from a “mixed” perspective. I have some power, and I can always improve as an ally, but I have been unable to stop the abuse that dear friends, Black women mostly, have faced in my department, in spite of exhausting all of the HR and Title IX channels available.
Last year, I said yes a lot and I tried to honor all of the feelings, but it was exhausting. Some students lashed out at me because that’s what you do to people you trust like parents and teachers. It’s called transference. Some were depressed themselves and couldn’t afford therapy. I took it all in. I felt like I had to help everyone I could in Trump’s new America. In the midst of it all, I revised my novel and turned it into an entirely new novel because everyone said I had to, and I just didn’t stop working and giving. Now that I’m doing better and on Lexapro, I see that I never said no, and coffee dates were a small part of a larger pattern that was making me sick.
My dear friend Philip and I were recently texting about my surprise at learning I was depressed.
“How could I not know? It’s all so obvious now looking back. The panic attacks, the need to sleep all of the time, my anxiety about everything.”
“You’re like my favorite episodes of Maury Povitch,” he texted back.
“The women who have no idea they are pregnant, and then bam they give birth in a cab or a toilet at work.”
“Yep, that’s totally me,” I texted. “LOL.”
The Resistance Needs Us
I’ve started saying no to coffee dates. Writing this essay, and thinking deeply about the ways late capitalism offloads invisible emotional labor onto marginalized people is part of my awakening. I am lucky to be able to say no some of the time. No is a luxury, and I have spent most of my life saying yes to every single job and request that came my way. I did it out of fear. I did it because I live paycheck to paycheck.
What about the barista who works every shift he’s offered because of student loan debt? What about all of the people in this country who can’t make it from one paycheck to the next? What about the moms of color who are having their kids taken from them by social services because they can’t find a rat-free apartment? Do these people ever get to say no?
I also understand that my saying no means some people will have to go elsewhere for help. Where will they go? I can’t answer that.
As I worked on this essay, fires ravaged Northern California, women who had been sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein came forward to tell their stories, and famous men, with the exception of Anthony Bourdain and Joe Biden, stayed silent. Trump and the Republican Congress rammed through legislation that would outlaw abortion after twenty weeks and allow employers to deny birth control coverage to women. I thought about how this connects to coffee dates. I’ve been writing essays for long enough to know that if I can’t stop thinking about something small, it’s probably connected to something much bigger.
A couple of years ago, two close friends pointed out to me that women emerge from bathrooms stalls and say “I’m sorry.” I do it too, though I have made a conscious effort to stop. What are we sorry for? Having to pee and shit? Taking too long to do it? Holding up the line with our inconvenient stupid bodies? Because of Melissa Febos, I no longer apologize for “late emails.” I refuse to believe that any email is late. I’ve answered it or I haven’t, and I’ve accepted that some emails are not worth my time at all.
Reading Ronan Farrow’s ten-month investigation into Harvey Weinstein and the women he assaulted, I noticed how many of the women he attacked blamed themselves and were still sorry they didn’t do more to fight him off. I’m not surprised by this, but it makes me sad. Women are trained to blame themselves for everything, small and big and in between—late emails, missed coffee dates, failed marriages, sad students, struggling children, having bodies that need care, and oh, right, rapists.
I also noticed how many of these encounters began with Weinstein’s request for a meeting, not a coffee date—that’s not his style and a café wouldn’t allow him to disrobe, shower, and ask for a massage. Women are trained to acquiesce to a small request for time, to go to meetings that have no actual agenda, to agree to coffee—to complete the many small labors that we tell ourselves are good for us, will advance our careers, and make us valuable.
That same week, I sat in a meeting until 11:45 pm. It was run my two of the most competent women I know, not because we needed to have a meeting at that hour, but because we’d been told by our institution that there was no other time we could have it that fits everyone’s complicated schedules. This may be true, but if we put our heads together, couldn’t we figure out some other workable structure? I watched a young woman of color on the verge of tears because she was exhausted. For once, I wasn’t exhausted, but that’s because I’m on Lexapro and Clonazepam and I sleep seven or eight hours a night straight through. I told the students in this meeting about my nervous breakdown. It was Mental Health Awareness Day, and I outed myself. We’d spent much of the meeting talking about student wellness and mental health.
The next morning, I had an epiphany—this whole self-care push is just another capitalist boondoggle. We won’t take care of you. In fact, we will continue to push you until you are a broken body and we won’t change a thing about our working conditions, and then we will claim that it was on you to take care of yourself, to practice self-care. After that, we’ll take away your health care too, so that you can just go away and die.
I thought of my good friend Lynn Melnick’s new collection of poetry, Landscape with Sex and Violence, which is, among other things, a harrowingly accurate portal into the nightmare of rape culture. Lynn chronicles, through a series of shifting “landscapes,” the difficulty, the pleasure, and the threat of violence that comes with having a woman’s or girl’s body. Though Lynn’s imagery is often specific to California and its trees, the book’s power lies in her ability to create eerily familiar narratives and places that feel both internal and external.
In “Some Ideas for Existing in Public,” the speaker talks back to her harassers:
I think you should whistle so loud at my fat ass
that I jump like a stray rodent and you couldn’t be more correct
it is a shame my fat ass is walking away
from you because why it is walking away from you?
Why am I walking away from you? Why am I here on the sidewalk?
I’m yours. (62)
The poem’s last line, “I’m yours,” says so much about how marginalized bodies are configured in public spaces—our bodies are meant to be used, touched, taken, brutalized, fetishized, and consumed. This poem and the whole book ask us to imagine a world in which we are un-consumable, resistant, sexualized on our own terms, and talking back.
In a recent Facebook post, Lynn wrote, “Believe women.” Why is this so hard? I remembered the TV shows I had just finished watching that spoke to this firestorm before it blew up in Weinstein’s face—Tig Notaro’s brilliant One Mississippi, which implicated Louis C.K., before five women came forward to tell their stories, and Aziz Ansari’s charming Master of None, which outs an un-named famous TV personality for sexual harassment. Every day there is a new abuser, and we need to keep believing the people who are telling their stories.
There’s a complex mixture of fear, shame, desire, love, and anger that so many smart women I know and love are carrying around right now. Are we fires that won’t stop burning? Maybe there’s no other way to live right now, but as inflamed, burning, every last one of us a phoenix.
I was slow to accept that California was on fire. It’s my native state, and even though I only lived there for six weeks, it’s dear to me. I often fantasize about the life I could have had in California—I’d have been a surfer girl who somehow got a tan instead of freckles and burns. I’d have walked to my grandma’s house after school and she’d have made me rice and beans, taught me Spanish, and told me about her childhood in Cuba. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten sick, and my parents would have stayed together. My California Dreaming.
I’ve joked with my friends that being on Lexapro is like having a chill surfer dude in my head. He is a little like the Dude in The Big Lebowski or the turtles in Finding Nemo. He abides. He gives less fucks. He lets shit go, but he also says no without a lot of guilt or hand-wringing. He is definitely a he and he totally lives in California. I like him. I wonder why I need Lexapro to say no and not care so much.
I’ve long been told by people who love me that I have anger issues. I do, and I’ve been working on them for a long time. I don’t lash out as much. I don’t have as many tantrums. I don’t hate myself as much as I used to. Lately, I even love myself. This isn’t the drugs, though they help a lot. It’s mostly five years of talk therapy and a lot of writing and a very painful recognition that just because I had a shitty childhood, I’m not entitled to anything.
Entitlement. Isn’t that what’s at the heart of the patriarchy? I am entitled to coffee with you. I am entitled to your time and labor without compensating you for it. I am entitled to your body because I want it. I am entitled to take your story and suppress it, twist it, and turn it against you.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly bleak about our current president, I comfort myself with journalism. We haven’t yet lost our freedom of the press, and marginalized writers are in the vanguard.
We are telling our stories. Some of us are getting paid. Some of us are getting trolled. Some of us are mostly ignored. But stories, the truth, matters more and more.
The coffee dates, the stupid meetings, the gift economy, the fires we’ve watched on TV and somehow embodied, the women who have come forward, the nervous breakdowns, the trick of self-care, and capitalism’s absurd time suck are really about the ways the patriarchy tries to keep us small, weak, tired, unfocused, and most of all, silent.
We need to whisper it, chant it, shout it, roar it, and write it. We need to make it our mantra. We need to internalize it until it rolls off our tongues like a nursery rhyme or a Double Dutch chant, “No! No! No!” and then tell our stories.
My favorite phoenix is Dark Phoenix, played by the luminous and powerful Famke Janssen in X-Men: The Last Stand. Though Marvel Comics fans know much more about her complicated story than I can recount here, in the movie, the good Jean Grey is corrupted by the evil Magneto and turned into the Dark Phoenix, a telekinetic cosmic entity whose rage can destroy entire galaxies. Near the end of the movie, her former mentor Charles Xavier begs her, “Don’t let it control you,” the “it” being an anger so deep it can destroy him, atom by atom. When her would-be lover and eventual murderer Wolverine tells her that she can be fixed, she snarls, “I don’t want to fix it.”
Like many misfits, I’ve always loved the X-Men, which critics have read as a story about marginalized people using their “freak” powers to rule the world. But the story of Dark Phoenix is Hollywood patriarchy at its most typical. She is a goddess of sexuality and anger and she must be destroyed. Her problem is less her rage than the fact that the men around her can’t control it. It’s no surprise that Famke Janssen lost her role to the younger actress Sophie Turner, and who knows what’s going to happen to this character in the next movie. Hollywood doesn’t like its actresses too angry, too old, or too outspoken. Look what it tried to do to Rose McGowan.
No matter. We have our Dark Phoenix. She is everywhere now.
Here’s my rewrite of the ending of that movie. The Dark Phoenix has every right to be angry, and maybe she does blow up some of the world. But she might not, if only men would stop whispering in her ear to “control it” and “get better.” Maybe she and Wolverine finally fuck and it’s hot and wild and consensual.
Whatever she decides to do—and it’s her choice—a better world emerges out of the flames and ashes.
CARLEY MOORE’s debut collection of essays, 16 Pills, is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions in 2018. To see more of her work, check out her website.