It is unseasonably warm the day #MeToo drops, so I am blindsided by the gnats lurking around the edges of my dusk run. Bug after bug is smacking into my open eyes, my eyelashes are failing their sole responsibility, I’m slapping at my face with blurred hands, stopping and starting and stopping and starting and stopping and cursing and mustering the motivation to start again, again, again, and meanwhile all these living things are dead in an instant, a blink, their vulnerable wings dissolving in defensive liquid salt.
There’s a vague, premature defeat lodged in there somewhere, splattered against my cornea. If I don’t locate it precisely, fish it out with the tip of my fingernail, I’ll never be certain it’s not snaking its way between the ball of my eye and the wall of its socket, slithering back along my optic nerve, nestling snugly into my brain.
But my fingertip keeps coming up empty. I crouch, barricade my leaking eyes with their untrustworthy lids, imagine myself sunk inside my skull, which is already littered with corpses, the fragments of wings.
Your eyes started to develop two weeks after you were conceived. When you were born, they could already see clearly up to 15 inches away. But they couldn’t produce tears—not yet. You could make all the crying sounds you wanted, but you wouldn’t be able to actually cry until you’d been alive at least a month.
One #MeToo vision: education. The average member of the target audience will associate #MeToo not only with Pervy Old Boss or Hooded Stranger In Alley, but also My Son or My Father or My Best Man or My Frat Brother or Me. The formerly oblivious rapist will draw a direct line of sight between his own desire and someone else’s horror, will no longer look right through any narrative which doesn’t fold itself demurely into the tidy lines he’s drawn around what constitutes consent.
#MeToo, take 1 (never posted): I’m 16 and my after-school job is cashiering at the local grocery store. I redden frequently under the gaze of my 24-year-old manager, who carefully observes the bedazzled pockets of my black flare jeans whenever I bend over to tie my shoe or retrieve a dropped pen. When it’s not busy, I tease him for making proclamations such as “Recycling is actually really bad for the planet!” and “Laundry is now obsolete thanks to Febreeze!” He’s crazy, I tell him, but I wouldn’t know; my mom still does my laundry, leaves my volleyball uniform folded neatly on my bed.
On the back of a discarded receipt, I write the number to my new flip phone, which I’ve decorated with sparkly decals arranged in a star pattern. He crumples up the receipt and puts it in his pocket, and then he starts calling me when he gets drunk, setting the phone down while he plays “The Boys of Summer” with his garage band. Even though I’ve never heard of Don Henley and the only alcohol I’ve tasted is the musky red I’m still mistaking for the blood of a man long dead, I recognize the song from The Ataris cover on my Now 14 CD.
Acutely lonely, insufferable to myself and my family, I am starving for a friend—someone to laugh at my jokes, smile easily in my general vicinity. He’s charming, likeable, basking in companionship: his bandmates, the girlfriend who goes to college two hours south and drives up on the weekends, the other manager he lives with in the apartments across the street from my high school.
This is where I am again at seven in the morning on a Tuesday, curled up face to face with him on his couch, pretending I’ve drifted back to sleep. Guitar Hero is paused on the TV. The sun is struggling hard against dingy curtains the color of sweat. Behind my eyelids, I’m backstage at a piano concert and I can’t find my music. I feel it heavy and cold and threatening in my stomach: the imminent fumbling, the dread.
I’ve never kissed anyone before and I don’t know what to do with my lips, so I just let them be still. The plume of panic is seeping through me, onto the couch, pushing back against the light. “Jack. Look at me. Jack. Jack.” Jack? Only my mom calls me Jack. The sun shrugs—it’s giving up—and I am late for calculus. When I finally leave, he corners me in the hallway, pushes his rigid tongue into my mouth again: a stranger pounding on your door at two in the morning, demanding a jump for his car.
By spring, he’ll replace the college girlfriend with a fellow cashier who is on the cusp of high school graduation. She wears her bottle-blonde hair in braids, ties them securely with white ribbon. I will stalk their Facebook selfies, agonize over the comments: “Awwww!” “So happieeeeee!” “Could you BE any cuter? You’re making me sick.”
People who are blind can still see in their dreams, as long as they were born with sight. In fact, 80 percent of your memories are determined by what you see; 80 percent of what you learn, you learn through your eyes.
Some time after #MeToo, Louis C.K. confesses to masturbating in front of women without their permission: “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was OK.” Some time after #MeToo, Aziz Ansari responds to a one-night stand who claims he pressured her to give him head: “We ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.” Some time after #MeToo, I tell my therapist the story of my grocery store manager. I cannot explain to her why I bristle when she calls it “abuse.”
Another #MeToo vision: all of them scrolling, these men who called themselves our friends, sidled close enough to convince us. They’re getting tired, TL;DNR, can you blame them for scanning just the hashtag, not the whole story? They shake their heads, deeply affected, wonder who could do such a thing. They comfort themselves with fantasies of the alternate universe in which they were there to stop it. They click “Sad” and type a comment: “You deserve so much better.”
Your eyes are a couple of crusaders, working together to fill in each other’s blind spots. That’s the only reason you don’t notice you have a hole in your vision, a blight on each retina where your optic nerve attaches.
One #MeToo vision: destigmatization. Claiming our personal tragedies on public platforms makes them worthwhile, noble. It strips away the shame—so internalized, clinging stubbornly like the tiny hairs to your neck after you buzz your head—and replaces it with purpose. Social media’s usual cheapening properties do not apply to trauma, these words that have weighed so heavy, now offered up naked on meager rectangular platters, now illuminating a stranger’s face in bed, or being passed between some buddies at the bar.
#MeToo, take 2 (never posted): I’m 18 and just discovered vodka a few months ago. It’s introduced me to a whole new person I never knew I always was, buried somewhere shallow. This person wears sparkly heels out and kicks them off after the pictures have been taken, no concern for how her bare feet stick to the floors, releasing with a grotesque smack. She dances on top of bars in little denim skirts, makes out with anyone who’s around—friends, strangers, roommates, other people’s boyfriends, whoever.
Early in her second semester, she goes to her favorite frat house, where she takes six shots of peach Schnapp’s right in a row. She chases them with Reese’s Cups and giggles about it with her friends. Someone hands her a beer. She downs it, quickly. She takes another shot.
She blinks and she’s a stumbling corkscrew on the cramped dance floor in the attic. She blinks and she’s vomiting violently into a filthy toilet while a girl she’s never seen before feeds her water. She blinks and she’s stretched out on her side, on a futon in a room she doesn’t recognize.
There’s something bulky and familiar resting on her stomach, encircling her waist, hiding under her shirt. She blinks and blinks and her eyelids are leaden, a couple of soaked cucumber slices. The room is spinning and spinning, the walls falling into place over and over like transitions in a PowerPoint presentation.
She blinks and the bulk is breaching the waistband of her jeans. Is it a hand, is it three hands, is that a face, hovering near the door? Who could say, the walls keep rearranging themselves, lazily, as if they’re wading in vain through a waist-deep pool of whatever makes the floors here so sticky. Do her lips move, does she object? She tries to sit up, even roll off the couch like a sack of dirty laundry, but someone has packed her arms and legs with wet sand. She tries pressing her knees together. It occurs to her to feel embarrassed of her pubic hair.
She wakes up a few hours later, sits up slowly, still so drunk she has four feet. She wiggles her twenty toes, giggles, zips on her boots, which someone thoughtfully removed before laying her down. She looks behind her and sees him snoring against the wall: a friend of a friend, someone she waves to around campus. Slowly, she makes her way out of the house, wobbling, pausing briefly on each stair.
Next week, she’ll gather up these scraps of recall, all steeped in peach Schnapp’s, and avert her eyes as she lays them nervously at the campus counselor’s feet. The counselor’s voice will drip, drip, drip sympathy when she says, “The lines of sexual assault become very blurry when alcohol is involved.”
Your peripheral vision is so low-res it’s like a shitty bootlegged version of a movie you’re trying to stream illegally, mostly black and white. And your retinas can’t actually detect red—they have to cobble it together from yellow and green. Somehow, though, they manage to distinguish between 50,000 different shades of grey.
Some time after #MeToo, a female colleague whispers at a cocktail party, “I couldn’t get him to leave us alone! I was about to yell me too over here, but I don’t like playing that card.” Some time after #MeToo, an important man at the same function contributes this joke to a conversation about Roy Moore: “At least it wasn’t a family member!” The C-Suite executives from around the country, all men, wiggle their eyebrows. Giggle, appreciative.
Another #MeToo vision: all of them smoking cigars around a table in a dimly lit room, sipping peaty scotch, examining our offerings with magnifying glasses, crunching crunching criticizing, “Too salty,” “Not spicy enough,” “Is this even real meat?”
Thanks to Death Cab for Cutie, it’s common knowledge that your retinas perceive the world as upside-down—your brain, eager to please, flips the image for you. But did you know that each retina also receives images split in half, distorted? Your brain is left to scramble them together into something that makes sense.
One #MeToo vision: progress. Even if it’s a minefield of triggers, a viral campaign does more good than harm. Something is better than nothing. Now they will listen to us, the people who never did before, now they will join the conversation. No one will tuck any story somewhere near the bottom of a grand hierarchy of rape culture, dismiss it accordingly.
#MeToo, take 3 (never posted): I’m 19 and studying abroad in Australia. At the university club, I meet the sexiest fella I’ve ever seen, a ripped local dude who flatters me with baffling attention. I decide I’m tired of being a virgin.
I don’t know yet that this word is a construct. I haven’t yet heard the phrase “slut shaming”—that’s three years away. I haven’t yet read a memoir in which the author recounts the long-term impacts of an acquaintance rape which began as a consensual encounter and didn’t end when she changed her mind—that’s not until I’m 24.
These belated lessons will crack open wells I didn’t even know I’d sealed, release steady streams of reckoning. But right now, 24 feels pretty remote, perhaps even unattainable. When the club closes, I take him back to my dorm room. I remove my shirt and pants but leave my bra and thong on. I lie on my back and watch the ceiling fan while he gets himself hard. The pain is sharp and appalling and he doesn’t notice. After 20 minutes, he decides he can’t finish. He leaves. I place my bloody thong at the bottom of my plastic trash can.
For a week, I itch and panic about STDs, but it turns out it’s just the tear healing. I don’t sleep. I take several showers a day to address the grime on my thighs, the pads of my fingers. I sign on to Skype and chat with my good friend back home, who will later become the other half of my first long-term relationship:
it was horrible, so painful
it didn’t feel good at all
i guess actually
i did say “wait” and “that hurts” and “i can’t”
but i mean
kinda too late by that point
i’m the one who said “do you have a condom”
can’t really change my mind when we’re right about to fuck
i mean you can
i feel like such a slut
not at all
you made a mistake
If you scrape your eye doing something stupid, like furiously digging out an eyelash or applying mascara after you’ve had two glasses of wine, it’ll heal quickly. With proper care, it only takes about 48 hours to repair a minor corneal scratch. Around 80 percent of vision problems worldwide either are curable, or they could have been avoided in the first place.
Some time after #MeToo, the Huffington Post publishes an article about how most people don’t deserve to use the hashtag because their stories aren’t harrowing enough. Some time after #MeToo, everyone’s mouth is full of “witch hunt.”
Another #MeToo vision: the corpses coating the inside of my skull, nameless, weightless, identical to every movie and TV show and newscast and comic book and video game, just another layer lining a mass grave of desensitization, giving them a pass to keep scrolling, scrolling, eyes glazed over, oh, it’s just locker room talk, quit being so hysterical, where’s your sense of humor, you’re such a drama queen, it’s just a little fun, boys will be boys, why don’t you try this nail polish that changes colors if your drink’s been roofied, why don’t you bat your eyelashes a little less, honey, have some self-respect, cover up, buddy up, grow up, stop leading us on?
Your eye is composed of more than two million working parts. It’s the second most complex organ, after the brain. The iris alone has 256 unique characteristics; a fingerprint has only 40. But only one-sixth of your eye is exposed. It measures about an inch across. It weighs less than an ounce.
One #MeToo vision: healing. If we wrap around each other in layers, if we hold tight enough, bodies clenched into fists, we’ll be able to finally wring them out of us, the traces they left behind.
#MeToo, take 4 (never posted): I’m 21 at a house party with my best friend, a writer whose passion for alcohol sucks the kick out of his antidepressants. He has a fascinating mind and nobody makes me laugh like him and I love him dearly, just not the way he wants me to.
Once, he got so upset about this that he jumped out a second-floor window and hid, a leaking huddle, in the back of an unlocked moving truck in the U-Haul lot across from campus, until our friends found him and took him to the hospital. For three years, my guilt’s been a downpour, rotting.
We both have to pee and we spill into the bathroom together, laughing too loud, my beer sloshing onto the tile. I set it carefully on the windowsill and unbutton my pants. On the floor in the corner, a Dixie cup is overturned, and I remember a smaller version of myself: revolted by the spider in the basement but too chicken to risk a frantic, dying leg wriggling against my skin. I’d place a cup over it, knowing someone braver would eventually come home to smash it, flush it down the toilet.
When I look up mid-pee, he’s holding his dick in his hand, staring at my lap. “We should touch each other’s stuff,” he explains. “Just to see. Like playing doctor!”
I laugh, too loud; only kids play doctor. I’ve been smashing spiders dead for years, now, sometimes with my bare palm, sometimes crushing them between my fingers like I’m adding salt “to taste.”
Once, during a conversation about why we’re vegetarians, I told him I have no moral quandaries about killing bugs, because they can’t feel pain. He’d corrected me: “They can feel it. It just doesn’t register the same way ours does.”
I pull up my pants and button them closed. I wash my hands at the sink, pat them dry on my thighs, while he watches me from the door.
When his hand seizes my hand I’m watching the Dixie cup. I’m wondering about the tremor underneath it, how it may or may not be dead, and what’s the difference, anyway? I want to tip it over with the point of my shoe, see what instincts catch fire when the spider realizes it’s free, but then again maybe there’s nothing underneath, after all, maybe someone was just clumsy, careless, took a swig of mouthwash and knocked the cup onto the floor and never thought about it again.
I watch my other hand pull open the door and he zips up without using the toilet, cheerfully follows me out. Years later, I will walk into this story’s many variations: different party, different hostage, but same guy, on and on and on. By this point, he will be long gone from all of our lives. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes.
Seeing is such a big part of everyday life that about half your brain has to get involved to accomplish it. Out of all the muscles in your body, the ones that control your eyes are the most consistently active. Think of all those tiny muscles constantly toiling away: a subconscious assembly line of immense and crushing effort.
Some time after #MeToo, the expert I’m interviewing for a magazine article tells me that even if a company has a troubling history of sexual harassment and assault, insurers are unlikely to deny them employment practices liability insurance—coverage for legal defense costs related to sexual misconduct allegations. “It’ll be more a matter of rate increases than refusal to write,” he explains. Which is to say, some time after #MeToo, the insurance industry—one of the most male-dominated sectors in the country—will continue raking it in.
Another #MeToo vision: all of them leaning back, putting their feet up on a deductible, while we still have to claim what’s ruined us every day. Still have to keep getting out of bed, taking a shower, washing out the coffee pot, feeding the dog, driving to work, answering the phone, laughing at the CEO’s jokes, eating a cup of yogurt, reading a book on the train, digging for our keys in our bag, all while it gradually corrodes our insides. Still have to keep smiling as we swallow it down again and again, because we can’t find the right words, because we don’t have the language to describe why something feels wrong, polluted, why our memory keeps getting stuck on it like the tips of your hair in the iron web at the end of the blow-dryer, quietly charring.
By the time I go to sleep my eyes are furious, bloodshot ash, parched as if I spent the day opening them wide underwater in a hotel pool. After my run, I’d stood in front of my bathroom mirror with a bunched-up tissue in one hand, pulling down my lower lids with the other, dragging my conjunctiva for stray body parts. There were none but I skimmed the tissue back and forth anyway, just in case, why not? Maybe I’d pick up something too small for my incompetent eyes to notice, maybe I’d be able to scrub them clean.
They only screamed. They screamed and they screamed and I knew then that I’d click the red X in the upper right corner of the Facebook post I’d been typing and deleting and retyping all night, select “Yes” when the popup asked me, “Are you sure you want to leave this site? Changes you made may not be saved.”
People always say, “Hindsight is 20/20.” Most of them don’t know, though, that having 20/20 vision doesn’t mean your vision is perfect. It just means that at 20 feet away, you can see about as well as the average person.