CW: Discussion of Sexual Assault
I look at you, but this trick only works if you look back.
In first year, we read the work of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Both believed (or so we were given to understand) that text had a sex; every work written was shot through with man. The overwhelming rush of the linear narrative, building up with throbbing speed, event after event pushing you on with a pulsing rhythm until reaching the singular and stunning climax – and everything after that a deflation.
It hardly needs spelling out. In places Shakespeare did it on purpose – now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe! – an unmistakably masculine thrust of the hips driving itself through the page. The words force women from language, shoved out into the dark and silent space beyond the world of man.
They explain it through the body. Cixous imagined a language made of mother’s milk and soft insides and the beautiful curve of breasts, of words with which woman can soar, many-feathered and miraculous, able to speak at last. Irigaray was more direct with it. This Sex Which is Not One, her masterwork (there he is again, the man that pulses along beneath all things) is popularly understood to be about the cunt. The two lips that part then meet again, the rolling pleasure, the liquid, flowing multiplicity. Every woman is always touching herself, or so Irigaray says, and only in a text capable of multiple orgasms can she write herself into existence.
I think lecturers love this kind of thing, mostly because they like to see us squirm. Breast-milk. Thrusting. Pen as cock. I try not to twitch my writing hand, and shift uncomfortably beneath my clothes.
I also like to think that Irigaray’s body, like mine, is a misunderstanding. There’s an argument to be made that the phrase ‘not one’ does not mean two or three or four; it’s just not one. One sex, as in a sex. A thing you might ask for in a shop – hello, I would like one sex, please. The sex which is not one, is not a sex.
Only man has a sex. Everything else is just Other.
I’d set out for Edinburgh with a strange and solid glow inside. No-one tells you how bright autumn is in Scotland. It’s awash with gold, a light that throws the borders of all things into sharp relief, and crisp as an apple with the coming cold.
I say goodbye to my family on North Bridge, overlooking the station. I am the eldest child; my mother has tears in her eyes. I hoist my bag onto my shoulders, and walk on (walk off, walk on, off, on, the phrasing flickers like a switch) into the light.
Freshers’ week is meant to be a wet kaleidoscope of vodka and vomit and music and sex – or so I gather from those around me. For me it mostly consists of uncertainties. Some nights I try to turn my body into a woman’s body in front of the smeared mirror in my room, but it feels like having blood drawn every time, and I get funny looks from my flatmates regardless. I still can’t swallow vodka. Thankfully I can’t remember – among other things – the toilet seat I must have gripped with sweaty hands in the process of rendering it undrinkable.
It’s the LGBT society meetup and I’m in some dark bar, rambling, drunk. The words weave away from me on a narrative walkabout, certainly no masculine climax here. A table sticky and blunt-edged against my forearms, my audience is losing interest, no doubt, and then a glass smooth voice slides from the darkness: “You’re really engaging. Can I buy you a drink?” And there he is.
The bar is backlit with dim purple lights. Whisky for me. A spark drops into the dark like a pebble into a very deep well.
Cixous says: “woman must write woman…and man, man” and I, I tried to not. Strange thing searching for an outside-beyond, something between the explosion of feathers and the dull thrust of the pen. I wrote bizarre, unpeopled narratives that disintegrated as they went. I meticulously constructed stories devoid of pronouns, full of sexless characters scrabbling across frozen wastelands as their bodies fall apart. People translating themselves from one thing to another, but you can’t tell which way they’re going; pornographic vignettes where no matter how many times the bodies collide, you can’t tell who’s fucking whom.
So, here are the facts.
There was a bed. Okay. Good.
There was a bed. I woke up in it with no memory of the night before. No, no – even there we have the beginnings of narrative, and therefore of blame. Back to the drawing board with you.
There was a bed. I woke up in it. Fine, but this is hardly a news item. Anonymous Stranger Wakes Up In Bed – somehow I doubt the Daily Mail would run it.
I woke up in his bed with no memory of the night before. Even in the barest bones of it you can see the ghost of the text I’ve stripped away. You know there’s something wrong in the terseness of it, in the absences, the interruptions to the great old rhythm.
Drunk when he phoned me, as I mostly was those days, and answered hazy with a high line of electricity buzzing in the blood. Sitting on a park bench both dark and luminous. Screen lit up my face like the moon. You’re meant to do these things when you’re much younger than I was then.
“Hello hello!” Voice high and low at the same time and I felt like giggling.
More drinks, then, and me swiftly drunk enough that I break the cigarette he hands me and have to be handed another. Wet cobblestones and bones liquid in the laughter. A trickle, a torrent. He leans towards me, says: “There’s something interesting about your interest in women, darling.” Oh, he thought he had me pinned. Something about the hair, perhaps, or the ugly ill-fit of the wrong-gender clothes. I want to lean in closer, make myself as cocksure as he is, say: “Baby boy, wait until you hear about my interesting interest in men.” Mute in the quickness of him, I do not.
The stream of it turns red and rushing. Stumbling to my flat for whatever booze I’ve squirrelled away there and back to his where we could smoke inside and blurring the wet stones and somehow not being sick and stubbing out a cigarette in the scented candle he probably used to cover up the smell of smoke and music, I think, and then just the thick dark of it. The red you see if you close your eyes and look at the sun.
Morning proper. He’s coy. Builders on the scaffolding outside. The inexpert plasters on my stomach give him pause, but not enough to stop him putting his mouth on me, and I watch from outside myself. His fingers inside and all the wrong parts of me stiffen. He’s perplexed that my pleasure isn’t more.
The front door slams shut behind me and I abrupt am engulfed by one last fragment of the evening, a thing that passes like a flash flood and leaves broken-boned wreckage in its wake. The brain’s little gift to itself. Straddling my chest and laughing, he, red-faced with drink, and head tilted up to him, me; not because I want to, but because even near-paralytic I know what’s expected of me, mouth open, reaching, and my clumsy efforts have him laughing all the more.
He is frightening in scarlet and dripping with the heat, but it’s the laughter that makes him the devil.
If we are defined in the eyes of the Other and exist only in what others see, then I am fucked, let me tell you.
The one doing the gazing has the power. That’s how it goes, through a thousand stripshows and peepholes and upskirt photos, and I follow the logic through the eyes that follow me through the streets, my own gaze fixed rigidly on the void of the middle distance, or the cobbles at my feet.
When Cixous wrote Laugh of the Medusa she envisaged a woman who, being gazed upon, loses nothing; in whose gaze one finds an ecstatic disintegration. You meet the Medusa’s eyes. You see that she is beautiful; you see that she is laughing. You turn to stone.
I’m not sure what the fuck I was doing when I tried to be a woman, or if it was any more ludicrous than when I tried to be a man. Again, again, very again, I stand before the mirror and see. Short hair, long hair, face paint, fake. Wrongbodied I hunch before myself. I would like one sex, please. The spines of the ribs shift under the bristling skin like tectonic plates and the singing of the blood is the noise of railings in the dark. Boygirl, this body isn’t a body, baby, boygirl, this body is not one. Up, come on, up up up to the travesty of the scarlet mouth and up again, up again, to where the eyes stare out and turn me to – turn me to stone.
These days I’d say I see the stickers once or twice a week. I find them on lamp posts and bus stops and the bins on Magdalen Bridge, and every single time they make me feel like shit.
Women Don’t Have Penises. Adult Human Female. Get The L Out. Stop Mutilating Our Children. I Will Not Bow Down. Like fungus they bloom from whatever flat surface will have them, blinking like eyes from bridges, railings, walls, but their gaze slides off me. Perhaps they don’t know what they see.
What they and we are meant to agree on is that you know if you’re a woman. The travesty of the mirror asks me why I do not.
I scrape the stickers away with my keys. Their silence follows me over the stones.
More, of course, and I go back for it this time, because he has his claws in me, because his eyes are inside me now.
A learning process. Me in him sometimes, sometimes he in me. Knees are for kneeling and eyes are for watching and hands will do when all else is unworkable. He listens to ghostly electro better suited to the darklit pulsings of nightclubs than his shitty fagscented room, the kind that should throb in the dark places between each swell of light. I don’t like clubbing because I’m scared of the toilets. You hear stories. Hands on your shoulders if you’re lucky, fingers in your hair if you’re not. Oi! That man is not. That woman. Is not.
“Maybe I’m just a gay man,” downcast quietly.
“I don’t think so,” dismissive he.
He likes to watch so he has me lie on his bed, eyes on me from across the room and my own gaze comes as if from a great height. My hand moves out of sync, no rhythm me, and the fingers are numb to the knuckle. He’s disappointed that I never come
I think overall I decided I was his third best thing to fuck at any given time, and as such sometimes weeks go by without a word. I want to pretend I don’t keep count, but I do. Eyes are for watching and I am for being watched so when I am not watched I am a hollow. Hurried out the door and forgotten and then weeks before I flicker back into existence. That’s the rhythm of it – the pulse of light that comes then passes, leaving an abyss I drop into like a stone.
When I am anxious I lose feeling in my fingers, and the more I panic, the further up my wrists the terror spreads.
Later – university finished, Edinburgh abandoned – I will suffer a brief spell back in the London of my parents. There I am, playing at being an office worker, with the old sharpness and sweet tart cold forgotten in the hot dark and the crowded bodies that rush along under the earth. Eight in the morning. I only have a seat because I live at the end of the line. I’m seated, then, when he gets on, one passenger among the many that flood in at every station, and when the flow of people places him nearby, I am obliged to look up at him from below. Just a glimpse, to be sure it’s him. Then eyes to the floor
Three stops for him and four for me because once he’s gone I stumble from the train, am vomited onto the platform in a wash of people like something half-drowned. No oblivion down here, only the harsh metal howl, so I slot myself back into the crowds of the next train and move off, standing now, as punishment for my lack of spine. Fine until I reach the office, but there I crumple into the single gender-neutral bathroom on the ground floor and retch up everything I’ve ever eaten. Can’t remember now how my sweating hands must have clenched on the toilet seat because up to the elbow I was numb.
Almost a year to the day since we met, I sit on the splinter wood bench below Appleton Tower with you standing over me, and I finish it. There’d been no conscious thought to it; some void in the blank space deeper than blood made the decision on my behalf. A slow numbness all through me and something flicks off, and when it flicks on again, the we-need-to-talk text has been sent. The whole of the grand old rhythm ground to a halt, the pulsing light gone dark, the eyes in the mirror both alien and my own. I meet their gaze and the world is still.
Now, morning after, here we are.
I say my line. Then you – “but this is absurd” – and I allow silence where I should speak. Finally, you – “can we at least get off this bench?” – and I suppose I’m grateful for that.
You don’t look at me, but it doesn’t matter, because for the most part I am not looking at you. Autumn, and my eyes are off among the leaves. The last time I touch you it’s a one-armed embrace because I have a cigarette in my hand. No linear narrative here; all the many moments gather together and happen all at once. It’s the cross point at the very heart of the first bite of the apple; the moment when you break the skin. It’s the clenched jaw (yours), the breath of smoke (mine), a switch flicked off quietly at the leaving of a room. And at the end, the end, the very end, it’s a turning and a walking off and a walking on, into the sharpsoft and heartrending light.
Older and far away. Red kites drift in the lower reaches of the overhead, eyes fixed on the sightless things scuttling below. I go to Oriel Field at dusk and watch a kestrel hovering against the rising moon, impossibly still. The noise of the river laps at the edge of it, lingering just below the audible. Even though you can’t hear it, you know it’s there.
I’d be lying if I said I was safe down here in the maze of cobbles that sleep under the muddied air of the south. The kites are indifferent. I’d be lying if I said I never felt the eyes of older and higher hawks fixed on my shivering back.
This was what you wanted, and now I am here among the spires and the dreaming, and not even impressed but exhausted. Shithole Oxford. You’re not meant to think it, because the thought sends your teenage awe reeling out of existence in a panicked explosion of feathers. I scrape the stickers off with my keys.
Now I am here, and you are not. (Why are you not? Why are you not?)
Bittersweet, because finally, here where you are not, I can play that great of greatest tricks and look without being seen. And oh, screenlit in the dark I do indeed look. In your wedding photos I find someone who looks a little like me, with an in-between body like me – but I know that isn’t quite it. “Boygirl, you were a practice run”. It’s me that looks like them.
Sometimes I dream of you, despite my best efforts. I find you in lecture halls and on cobbles and in bedrooms, naked, clothed, swallowed by crowds, alone. The Northern line, club toilets, bridges that overlook stations, lit with the light of phone screen or sun and haunting me through a hundred other iterations besides. So many different places, but we come face to face in every one.
Our eyes meet. I bite the apple.
One of us turns to stone. ■
Words by Oscar Sapper. Art by Millie Dean-Lewis.