Slow-Cooked Sentences

A manifesto hidden
within mise-en-scène

Rachael Conlin Levy

Cameras swivel on heads as lenses blink, dilate, then focus and record a single car in an otherwise empty parking lot at night. Inside two teen-agers mess around until a point where the girl hesitates. The boy pushes her into the seat, tugs on a pair of panties.

In a millisecond the scene collapsed. Instead, we exist here, on a couch bathed in television glow. Next to me, one teen-age son yanks a blanket over his head, and his muffled sentence is recorded: Oh, no. Oh, no. He’s getting all rape-y on her.

In yet another millisecond, I’m no longer in this room, but another, and with not this young man but another, whose name I’ve tried to forget. The two of us, the four of us, the six of us exist, scene embedded in scene, a mise-en-scène mirrored and shrinking into the infinite and indecipherable.

After I fought off a sexual attack, few asked if I was okay. In my family, generations of women are scarred by sexual assault, a secret known to some, and discussed by even less. I aimed to end a legacy, but talked into silence. I yearned for my struggle to symbolize a rejection of assault passed down from grandmother to daughter to mother. But no woman can shoulder this responsibility alone. Even as I write it into the space between us, and fill my head with Patti Smith’s howls, I know an isolated act of self-defense will not break a lineage of trauma perpetrated by men we trusted.

Here she comes
Walkin’ down the street
Here she comes
Comin’ through my door
Here she comes
Crawlin’ up my stair
Here she comes
Waltzin’ through the hall
In a pretty red dress
And oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna ah-ah make her mine

A friend undressed me as I lay passed out. He unzipped and shimmed his pants to his ankles, as I slept. I imagine hands spreading apart knees so he might enter. Make her mine. Make her mine. Make her mine. This man I thought was a friend never sought forgiveness, and I do not grant it. In the Jewish faith, forgiveness isn’t granted by God, but by the person wronged. I don’t discriminate in my damnation of those who think another is theirs to touch, to hold, to possess without permission. I tell you, Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. 

May he burn in hell.

Consent is more than a word. It is body language. And like any form of communication, it must be learned through repetition, taught through action, a practice of requesting and giving that becomes a familiar and anticipated language over years of use. I exist only here, within soft flesh sculpted into heavy breast and rounded hip. I’ve tattooed it with ink, pierced it with iron, rubbed lotion into its skin, and poured whiskey down its throat. Abused or adored, this flesh is mine, and yet I must fight to own it.

I demand a private, secure life, and will fight to give it to my children. Let’s begin where our future exists, within our babies, whose young bodies ask to be caressed and cuddled, the perfume of their skin inhaled like a drug. Let’s talk to our daughters, whose bodies bend like saplings, coltish legs akimbo, nipples still flower buds pressed to flesh. Teach them that they possess their bodies, and ownership gives them the power to share or rescind another’s touch. Let’s talk to our sons whose sharp angles and skinny arms promise a strength and desire to rival Adonis. They, too, control their bodies, but not another’s. Let’s talk to our teen-agers and college students who are immersed in hook-up culture where grinding and casual sex are common, and consent an afterthought.

People say ‘beware!’
But I don’t care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me

While I believe that to attempt rape is unforgivable, I also know it is illegal, which is why I walked into a police station and reported the crime. I sat in a room no bigger than a closet, across from a man in a uniform, and watched as he wrote down my answers to his questions.

What had I been wearing?

A bathrobe, before it happened. Nothing afterward, I said. He’d taken my clothes off of me.

Had I been drinking?

Yes, I replied. A lot.

Had I had previous physical contact with the guy in question?

Yes, I admitted. We’d messed around.

Questions suggest guilt, and I chose not to press charges, but went home to tear pages from the books he loaned, to rip the ribbon from cassettes he’d made, then burn it all in a fire I built in my apartment’s parking lot so I might begin the task of forgetting. On the days when I can’t recall his name, I congratulate myself. But sometimes a song, a word, a bit of news unearths it. Then time collapses, scene upon scene, until I am nothing but the sound of a scream as he runs out the door.

Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me 

I have never regretted going through the awful experience of reporting the assault, and suffering through the cop’s heavy silence, because I believed (and continue to believe) that the humiliation was worth the outcome: Though never charged with a crime, his actions became part of the public record. It counted. I counted. Being forced to give his account of that night, suffering judgment and humiliation, just like me, forced the two of us to own our decisions and acknowledge their consequences. And it was a step in returning body and power to their rightful owner — me.

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