In her 1994 essay, “On Not Being A Victim,” Mary Gaitskill writes: “One reason I had sex with strangers when I didn’t really want to was that part of me wanted the adventure, and that tougher part ran roughshod over the part of me that was scared and uncertain…I was a strong-willed child with a lot of aggressive impulses, which, for various reasons, I was actively discouraged from developing. They stayed hidden under a surface of extreme passivity, and when they did appear it was often in a wildly irresponsible, almost crazy way. My early attraction to aggressive boys and men was in part a need to see somebody act out the distorted feelings I didn’t know what to do with, whether it was destructive or not.”
It happened on my best friend’s birthday. I had had a brutal fight with her, only the second fight we’d had in twenty years. The fight was about her boyfriend at the time, who I hated, and who was living with us, and the fight ended with me throwing a chair across the room at him. I was scared. He was scared. His existence was a threat to my identity and he knew it. If he was Anna’s better half, it meant that I was no longer. We all agreed I should leave, so I left—drove two hours to a friend’s estate where I got blind-drunk, took off all my clothes, floated naked in a swimming pool, and wound up having sex with a stranger in the grass behind the pool house. I remember every moment, though if you ask me I will say I do not remember.
What I remember was discovering, the following morning, that my bottom lip was cut, all the way across, on the inside of my mouth, from where my teeth had broken the skin. I remember feeling very blank. I remember reaching down into my crotch and feeling, for days afterwards, wetness. At first I was terrified. I thought I had “liked it.” Then I remembered that I hadn’t had sex with a man, or anyone, really, in over a year, and my body was responding the way it knew how. I remember later the accusations that on a subconscious or even conscious level, I had wanted to punish my best friend. That I had done this to myself. That I was complicit in my own degradation. I remember denying this. Then, I remember agreeing with it, deciding it was true.
Did I want it, I asked myself over and over. It didn’t seem like something I could’ve wanted. Why would I have cried so hard if I had wanted it? Was it shame, of wanting what I had long renounced, something I had denied myself for so long? Was it shame at the breakdown of my lesbian identity? Or was I terrified and in pain? Was I violated? Could it be a combination of both? Later, someone told me I had grabbed my friend’s hand earlier in the night and (gesturing to the stranger who had taken a particular interest in me) said, “Don’t leave me alone with this guy.” But there is no denying what happened later on: I kissed him. I kissed him, and I led him by the hand behind the pool house. To call it rape now, even to me, feels exaggerated and not entirely truthful.
Let’s say for the sake of argument, and without any pity, that I brought this on myself. That I invited this violence into my life. That I was seeking a physical manifestation of my emotional pain. That I wanted to hurt Anna. That I knew the best way to do that was by hurting myself. That I couldn’t stand the thought of living in a world without her. That I would rather have been physically violated than face myself alone in the mirror.
A few years after the poolhouse incident, I stumbled upon Cassandra at the Wedding, a novel by Dorothy Baker that I identified with greatly. Early on, the protagonist Cassie admits: “The truth is, I’m afraid of men, strange men and ones I know, though I know there’s nothing about them to be afraid of. But I am; they set my teeth on edge…”
Of her twin sister, Judith, Cassie says: “We were insular…We didn’t need people.”
When Judith announces her engagement, Cassie is so threatened by the impending marriage, by the threat of losing her identity, she swallows a bottle of pills halfway through the book. And, as if to confirm that Cassie’s identity has, in fact, been totally obliterated, Baker writes the rest of the novel from Judith’s perspective. It is not Judy, but Cassie’s own self-pity that ultimately destroys her. In other words, the ultimate annihilation can only be performed by Cassie herself.
Zizek says: “Fantasy covers up a gap in consistency.” He also says, “A desire is never simply the desire for a certain thing. It’s always also a desire for desire itself. A desire to continue to desire. Perhaps the ultimate horror of a desire is to be fully filled in, met, so that I desire no longer. The ultimate melancholic experience is the experience of a loss of desire itself.”
Frank Bidart put it best in his poem, Catullus: Id faciam:
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
When I tell friends about the poolhouse incident, they often offer similar stories, and we ask ourselves—if we participated in it, was it any less of a violation? The moment I think back on more frequently, the moment that scares me most, is the one in the kitchen, in which the chair is flying through the air, on a direct trajectory towards the thing that I hate most. Sometimes I relive this moment in dreams, except in the dream, the chair stops mid-air, and, turning, flies right back towards me.
I sleep in a void, and wake up alone.
I kiss my fingers and place them on the cherry wood. It is hard to imagine his tall body inside the casket. Around me, the other attendees cry; I do not cry. It begins to rain and the leaves of the elms shiver with the weight. The gravedigger stands off to the side, wearing a Carhartt jumpsuit, his arm in a sling. The man in the coffin is a friend of mine. He is also a great poet, and one of the first men I ever met that I wasn’t afraid of.
I don’t want to watch as they lower him into the ground. Someone throws a bottle of Italian wine into the pit (“His favorite!” they declare), and it shatters against the wood.
I understand then that he spent most of his life alone. Still, it seems wrong that we should all continue on with our day while he stays there, in the ground, with the fog rolling in over the mountain.
I used to go out to dinner sometimes with the great poet. His voice had a calm, clear tone. I used to tell him the truth: I don’t know if I’m okay or not. I don’t know if I’m happy or not. “If you want to date women, date women,” he would say. Now, without him here, I find myself trying to be strong, trying to be elegant, trying to be as kind to myself as he was to me. The words sound flimsier in my own voice, but when I feel anxious, I look in the mirror and repeat to myself what he used to repeat to me: “You are going to be fine. I love you. There is nothing wrong with your life.”
Quotations used in this piece come from the following sources: “On Not Being a Victim,” by Mary Gaitskill, Harper’s 1994; Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker; The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology featuring Slavoj Zizek; Watching the Spring Festival by Frank Bidart. The poet alluded to is Mark Strand.
Catherine Pond is a poet from Alpharetta, Georgia. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Additionally, she is Assistant Director of the NY State Summer Writers Institute and helps edit several literary magazines. In 2014, she was a Finalist for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Fellowship.