I am on top of a truly beautiful woman. I’ll call her Renée. Step back: we’re in her room, on her bed. I’m still wearing my men’s XL winter coat, all ready to walk out into the Connecticut winter. The coat reads “Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum” over the left breast, something that would only be on regular rotation for a college student. The light in her room is warm. Her laptop sits open on her desk. I caught her off guard, in her pajamas. Step back in: I’m on top of a beautiful woman that I’ve been seeing for the last few months, and I don’t want to be here.
The conflict feels obvious, alarming, but I can’t pull myself away. And to clarify, no one’s forcing me to stay. No one even invited me. I had just ended my night in my friend’s room down the hall, with no intention to stop by, but something walked me to the door. She’d want me to say hi. I knocked, came in. I pulled her out of her chair into a hug, and then a kiss. Now we’re lying down, as we have many times before, but my head’s gone. It stepped out the door and walked all the way down the street. It turned my house key in the front door, curled up in my bed, and the whole time I’m wondering when my body gets to leave. How the fuck did I land here in the first place? I wonder if you’ll work this out with me.
Starting at the beginning: Way back when:
In elementary school my parents hired a babysitter for me, for the first time. He had a thick black beard and glasses and no other defining characteristics. I cried the whole time my parents were gone. I remember the mahogany coffee table from the living room, the wood latticed and dark. I used to stick my fingers in and out of the negative space, counting the holes. Maybe I hid under the table that day; maybe that’s just where my mom left me. But even now, I stand by the crying. Why would I want to be taken care of by a stranger? Wasn’t that what older siblings were for?
That day when my mother returned, and agreed to never hire a babysitter again, she asked what happened. I explained that I just didn’t like him.
Years later she asks, “Did he do anything to you?” I think, There was something he could’ve done to me?
So much later: Freshman year of college, 2016: A boy who lived on my hall:
Charles didn’t catch my attention. Or, he himself didn’t catch my attention, but his staring did. It was constant, but I remember two instances even now: the first time we were across the table from each other at brunch, surrounded by so many people we were just beginning to know and picked-at plates of eggs and homefries; and then later in a friend’s dorm room, sitting on opposite beds, his eyes stuck to me no matter who was talking or who he was talking to. During the two-week onslaught, I spun his gaze into a compliment. Why me? turned into I must be something worth looking at.
Which meant that sitting outside, at night, with him and five other people felt exciting, and when he pressed his forearm to mine, I liked it, and when everyone else left, we stayed. It wasn’t exciting after that, though. His hands ran over my body like they didn’t know me and didn’t care to. His tongue poked around the inside of my mouth; his lips felt thin on mine. As we rolled over the hill, a few feet left and then back again, tree roots dug into my ribcage and we picked up debris. I pulled my head back to smile or press my forehead to his, or actually, to breathe. He laughed at me. Time elapsed, not much, and then I stood us up and walked us back to our rooms. “It was good,” I told my roommate, “Definitely good.”
But not good enough for me to want it again. A lie I told myself, I’d realize later, to keep myself comfortable at the moment when I felt the most disturbed. When he’d stare after that I dramatically ignored it, glancing over him as if he were an obscenity blurred out. The cue didn’t land. He only stared back, harder. We would be in a room full of people and his eyes wouldn’t budge. When he’d finally leave, I’d shake my body wildly to clean them off. His friends pressed me on it: “You don’t understand how much he likes you,” and “he expects it’s going to happen again,” and “Didn’t you like it?” As if my desire and consent, given one time, was eternal.
I remember nothing from the second half of that night with Renée. The hook up itself, in our physical bodies, was benign. (If I’m even allowed to say that. Maybe by benign I’m trying to tell you that she did nothing wrong.)
Regardless, we just kissed. But that night, words clotted my throat as my body kept shifting below. Whatever cord it is, thick and vital, that holds our minds and bodies in conversation, that cord had been severed and my body was left marooned in the most intimate sort of moment. My body, then, moved on muscle memory alone: this is what it means to kiss, to hold, to show love. But it moved without desire.
I know the route I would’ve walked home that night, the stoplight I’d pass by at the top of the street, the gentle pitch down to my yellow house. But I don’t remember that walk, only that I must have taken it. And I don’t remember how I was feeling, only that I must have been scared. In a certain sense, I’ve been in much more uncomfortable sexual situations. I’ve been kissed without my consent; I’ve left hook ups feeling incredible shame and regret; I’ve gotten men off to hurry a night along. All of that felt bad. But there was an itch to this moment, something felt newly wrong.
Once, a dream a boyfriend had:
I walked past him, completely naked and emanating golden light. That was the entire dream. I was honestly touched.
Paris, France: Early 2017: When their eyes are a constant, not an anomaly:
This was a spring break voyage to visit Harry, a friend of mine from home and twin to Anna, someone who had entered my life in middle school and hadn’t left. Some friends and I had flown from our various schools in the states and converged in Harry’s one-person apartment. We spent five days tracing lines across the city, only purchasing bread and museum tickets—we’re adults now, remember? So what if we’re a little hungry.
Now, it’s our last night here and we’re inside Café Léa, one of Harry’s favorite bars. The interior is a glow of red and orange. In front of the bar, a brick wall climbs from floor to ceiling. The air is thick with French dialogue. The waiter set us at a long table in the back room. We are five plus Griffin—a friend of Harry’s from the program, who’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a scarf, and beard. His favorite author is David Foster Wallace, which I could’ve guessed. (One of my passwords may refer to Broom of The System, but that’s not something I’d typically advertise). Sofia and I are across the table from each other. She is smiling so fully I think something might pop, and I breathe it in. Pleasant.
I look up. The chandelier has tiny lampshades over each light, the colored bulbs laugh above us. I look back to the table. Caleb and Griffin are arguing about football. Someone has thrown in the concussion and traumatic brain injury tidbit, which has Griffin all conflicted because he loved football when he was younger. Anna makes frenzied faces at me from the other side of them, this is what we were absolutely dying to talk about tonight, how did they guess, and I press Harry into talking about anything else. He and Sofia take it from there, negotiating between their life philosophies and the utility of pessimism, as I swirl my wine in the bottom of its glass and lose track of how much I’ve had.
Leaving that eye contact conversation with Anna, I catch Griffin’s eyes. Like: he’s waiting, or, he wants. My breath curdles, but—there’s some flattery there, too. There’s concealed pride like a half-curled smile. A defense mechanism, like: maybe if I find pleasure in this, it won’t feel so totally violating. So, I look down at my drink, and imagine that he’s interested. It’s not such a far leap.
The night melts after that. A charcuterie platter arrives, ladened with slips of cheese, salted crackers, and green olives. Oh, and a round, silver tray of tequila shots. I don’t remember getting drunk, only that then I was. I catch his eyes waiting, again. I wish he wouldn’t.
Later, when we’re home and in bed, I remember his eyes, all dark and warning. Until: Sofia tells me that he grabbed her thigh under the table. Her breath curdled, too.
I started seeing Renée in the fall, and, for the first time in my life, I started going to therapy that same winter. Bad timing, or necessary timing, depending on what you think of therapy. In my sessions, I was just beginning to understand that I spend a lot of energy trying to understand the people around me. Thinking back, I’m imagining myself in those early sessions debriefing the week’s events from everyone’s point of view except my own. Watching people closely enough, I manage to explain away every disappointment or hurt they may have caused. I frame my thoughts and feelings in response to how I imagine they feel, what must have led them to say or do what they did. I am all reaction.
Sometime around that hookup with Renée, I told her we needed to stop seeing each other. It wasn’t because of the hookup alone, but rather the swirling uncertainty of whether or not I could hold both care for another person and care for myself. The notes I took from the session following that hook up read as follows:
I’m always seeking to make other people feel comfortable
and What really scares me is that I hooked up with her when I knew I didn’t want to
and I don’t know if I can come back from that with her because I don’t know the ends to which I would go to make her feel comfortable
and By fulfilling the moment of being wanted by someone, and them thinking I’m special, I put myself in the position of receiving that much more unwanted attention.
In that session, I tried to work out what had happened inside me that night. Why I felt so comfortable stepping over my own boundaries, ignoring my desire or lack of desire, without any clear coercion from the other person. That work of uncovering and trying to understand the internal workings of my mind was upsetting. I felt ashamed and embarrassed to reveal how in a moment of such intimate importance I had such little control over my own body.
I wonder if your instinct has ever been to run. You’ve figured out that something is wrong, but you don’t know how to fix it. The only way to step forward soundly is alone. Do you know that feeling?
Later in college, maybe 2018: The typical scene: The typical guy:
I leave his room, a basement room in a house I rarely go to. My skin lets off steam, the film of sweat meeting the air in a sudden chill. I left right after we were done. The streetlights cast yellow over the grass and the pavement. I weave between them, avoiding illumination, hiding. I play the night back in my head, slowly at first, the memories hiccupping up and into focus. A haze of tequila and Adderall, a battle for clarity.
This guy sports the outline of a pencil on his bicep. He wants to be a writer he tells me, as he pushes his shirt sleeve up to show me the ink. As the pieces of the night surface, everything is the color of funny. Did I laugh directly into his face when he showed me the pencil? Unclear, but I remember him showing me his other tattoos, so it seems unlikely. Or maybe he just went boldly on.
He talked a lot, maybe something about the film posters on his wall or what he wants to do after college. A performance really, as if he were on stage and it was a privilege for me to watch him. Then maybe later we pulled our clothes off. I remember his dick somewhere in the mix. And with that it clears up a bit, the rest of the night: he fucked me like he was groping in the dark for a light switch. I faked an orgasm and thought, You’re welcome.
When I wake up the next morning, the memories are not that color anymore. I wonder, How do I take last night back?
Once, a dream a real asshole had:
It was about the head I gave him. At the time, I was honestly touched.
When Renée and I started seeing each other, it felt a little like I had found the answer: Women. Well, a woman. A bright and wild woman who was easy to brag about and absolutely impressive in person. I’d show people the photo of her on my phone: her face speckled with freckles, her hair sandy red and perfectly disheveled. The whole time, just leaking tidbits about her studies (psychology) and her various artistic mediums (photography and the violin). It feels good, I learned, to be intimately connected with someone who understands what navigating this world as a woman feels like, and as a queer woman, too. I imagined it as the ultimate safety. With Renée, there were no threatening eyes digging into me. No forearms pressed into mine, no assumption of interest or intimacy. The first time I saw her at a party, she barely looked at me and she didn’t stay long. I was the one staring that night.
I was safe with Renée. I just wasn’t safe with myself. I was the agent of my own violation, mobilizing over my desire to deliver a particular fantasy to someone I cared about. The fantasy I imagined: a perfect partner in service. Supplying every need, each desire, in anticipation of any actual request. I realized after that she had never expressed any interest in that fantasy. I had, of course, never asked. That hook up stands alone, separate from so many intensely uncomfortable experiences where I was coerced, manipulated, or left unsatisfied, because it’s much scarier to realize that you are the one hurting yourself. Cord severed, body unmoored.
Our breakup wasn’t the end. It should have been, but as most breakups go, the disentangling was difficult. We’d spend a week apart, then reunite for an intensely emotional sit-down where she’d tell me that she took time to think about it and she did, actually, want to be with me. My head would cloud: maybe I was wrong, maybe we should be together. I’d stare at her face, the freckles still somehow dramatically present even in the middle of winter, trying desperately to remember why I broke it off in the first place. Those conversations gave way to a week of reconnection, until I’d realize all over that I ended things because I couldn’t trust myself to care for someone else, just as I was beginning to understand myself. Another breakup, time apart, and then we’d run the whole sequence over again.
Thinking clearly about it now, that breakup was so necessary because it was my grab for agency. After a moment where I felt like I had lost it completely, I needed to know that if I wasn’t safe with myself in a relationship, I could actually just be alone. Space was the only answer at a time when there were no others. I wasn’t sure quite how to talk about it, imagine it, resolve it. I chose to step away.
Now, I keep returning to the idea that we all have the capacity to cause harm. During that dragged-out breakup, Renée and I both hurt each other intimately and repeatedly. This is the kind of harm that I almost understand––or perhaps, just am more familiar. There’s no clear delineation between the harmed and the harmers in this world. No matter how angelic we feel, we can hurt or disappoint the people we love. We do it all the time. But we can harm ourselves, too. Somehow, that idea has opened up so much space in my head and heart. Room to grow. I wonder if I’m not the only one who has hurt themselves like this. I wonder if you have, too? Whether because of so many internal mechanisms and societal expectations, you, too, might have gotten caught in some unpleasant space, violating your own trust or boundaries? I’m so sorry, if you have. I know it isn’t easy.
Once, a dream I had to cultivate:
A picture of safety. In it, I care for myself with the intention usually reserved for others. I listen to my own boundaries intently and learn just where they lie. (This one, I know will take until the end of time.) I talk during sex a lot more than I do now. So much more I can’t nearly explain. In this picture, my body and mind are intact, connected. My breath is uncurdled and honey sweet.
Nikita Ladd is a creative nonfiction writer and poet based in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BA from Wesleyan University, where she studied Neuroscience and minored in Writing. This is her first publication.
by Nikita Ladd
Winner, Creative Nonfiction Prize