notes for a muscle the size of your fist

During orientation week of my freshman year at Pitt – which was, in general, a haze of pastel pamphlets and earnest ice-breakers – the College of Arts & Sciences’ future Class of 2013 was herded up Cardiac Hill into the Petersen Events Center for some family bonding. (There was a lot of piling into arenas and cheering, that first week. At one assembly we sang the theme song to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” while a representative of the administration slowly put on a cardigan and sneakers. Your alma mater could never.)

Before our A&S rally could get underway in the basketball court, there were a few kinks to work out. Aren’t there always? Above, the Jumbotron scrolled through fun facts and pictures of famous alumni to keep all 3,600 of us entertained. The only tidbit I remember now was the one that seemed most out of place: women are worse at spatial reasoning than men, but playing eight or more hours of video games can begin to close the gap. [Citation needed.]

I did not yet call myself a feminist, but I still found this hilariously tone-deaf. My high school graduation present to myself had been a Wii, and already some new friends from the dorm and I had duked it out over Mario Kart. I won a lot of the time; I’d spent most of the summer practicing. Did this mean I was ahead of the curve? At which point would I fully attain Man Vision?

But now, nearly a decade later, I find the diagnosis more ridiculous than its proposed cure. Worse at spatial reasoning, honestly. Worse how? I always know where my body is in relation to the bodies of men. I always solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape. That kind of geometry is my native language. That kind of geometry saves and destroys you.

This is the only thing I remember about that assembly now. Welcome, class of 2013.


The last week or so I’ve felt like my heart is being clenched in somebody’s hand. It took a while to identify the sensation as panic. For days, I thought I might be dying. I made it into a joke, the way I make all my private fears into jokes. Whenever I breathed, I felt that fist in my chest flexing and closing. If my heart had knuckles, they’d be white. If my heart had knuckles, maybe I’d throw a punch once in a while.


I don’t want to write a sexual assault essay.

I don’t want to write a Sexual Assault Essay™.

I don’t want to make a painful episode of my life into a story with a moral and a poignant closing line, though what else is there to make of it?

I don’t want to detail some grand epiphany, because there has been no epiphany, and I don’t want to let all of my pain out, because my pain has not been useful thus far, and I don’t even want to say that I’m angry, because my anger is a secret I am keeping from everyone, including myself.


This morning I made a list of websites to avoid from 10 am until whenever. Can a hearing like this ever really end? Aren’t we still arguing over Anita Hill? Aren’t we still deciding if Leda kissed the swan back?

No Twitter. No Facebook. No news sites. No comments, ever. No emails from political causes I donated to one night while sleepless and heartsick and trying my best to figure out how quickly interest accumulates on the past. Very quickly, I’ve decided; so quickly I don’t think I’ll ever touch the principal now.

Most of all, I am avoiding any place where I might see the men who have spent the last few weeks so earnestly trying to argue that the real victim here is not the woman testifying. I am avoiding seeing the woman testifying. Not because I don’t want to hear what she has to say, but because I already know.


Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in a moving vehicle driven by a stranger.

Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in a moving vehicle driven by a friend.

Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in an unfamiliar room.

Solve for x, where x is the possibility of having to escape, when you are in your own room.


Before I moved into the dorm for orientation week of my freshman year at Pitt, I got an email telling me to complete an online module called Alcohol-Wise. If you’d paid attention at all during high school health class, it was a breeze – I think I finished in twenty minutes. Maybe it helped that I’d never been to a party in high school. Maybe it helped that none of my friends went to high school parties either. There was nothing to get defensive about, just a lot of math problems. One beer equals how much wine? When is a mixed drink fully metabolized by the body?

Essay: which drugs can be slipped into a drink, and what are their effects on the body? How can you avoid having a drug slipped into your drink? What are your safety strategies? Do you know the number of the campus police?

Bonus question, unassigned: how can you avoid slipping a drug into someone’s drink? What are your accountability strategies? Do you know how to face what you have done?


What’s funny is that it doesn’t actually matter what is done to you if you’re sufficiently afraid. For some reason elected officials never understand that. As if the only thing you have to lose is your honor. As if your autonomy does not enter the equation.

What’s funny is that nothing happened. What’s funny is that “nothing” happened. What’s funny is that nothing “happened.”

What’s funny is that, later in college, the friend who kissed me when I did not want to be kissed and held me when I did not want to be held was someone I’d played Mario Kart with many times. So hypothetically we should have been on similar levels, in terms of spatial reasoning, and yet no matter how many times I ran the numbers he was still so, so close.

What’s funny is that I was sober and he was drunk. Come on, that’s funny. That’s actually kind of hilarious.


Yesterday I walked to the New York Public Library on my break and sat at the base of a statue outside until a strange man came up and started talking to me, and so I went into the building and sat on a smooth marble bench until a strange man came up and started talking to me, and I feel so guilty for looking at men like I am a deer and they are headlights, but surely they’re used to it by now.

The second man just wanted to know if the library had wifi. I told him it did and showed him how to log on, and then he told me about how he and his wife had come all the way from Australia to see the city. Where was I from? Did I want to see some pictures of kangaroos? And I did, actually. And they really were pictures of kangaroos, not of anything else. We have so much to be grateful for.


A few days ago I went to therapy and held forth, as I have done many times and will presumably do many more times, on how much I hate the idea that everything happens for a reason. For one thing, I’m Orthodox, and we’re all about the irreducible mystery of faith, not about God-as-parlor-magician. For another thing, I resent the idea that suffering is necessary. I would not be diminished if I had, at a few key moments of my life, been luckier.

What I think is that things happen. And you try, for the rest of your life, to make something useful from them. Not the reason why they happened but the way you mean to carry on.

Solve for x, where x is the distance between our bodies.

Solve for x, where x is the circumference of my heart.

Solve for x, where x is the amount of time this is going to take.

Please share your answers. I really need to know.


hello babies, welcome to earth

I only know how to tell stories by starting in the middle, so here’s the middle: tonight I walked up Murray Avenue to the Giant Eagle, where I was going to buy boring necessary things, and on my way there I passed the newsstand. Despite never having set foot inside, I adore the newsstand. Whoever runs it puts up signs in the window that are changed on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and each of these signs is a piece of wisdom written in the bold hand and uncertain English of someone I have come to love sight unseen. Today, it was “GENTL[E]NESS IS ATTRIBUTED TO SUCCESS.” (Another favorite of mine: “GOD IS LOOKING FOR EXCELLENT HUMANS. BE ONE!”)

So the thing is that I think they meant it the other way around: that you will be successful if you are a gentle person. Optimistic, yes, but it’s in keeping with the general philosophy of the other signs. Phrased this way, though, the implication is very different. You can afford to be gentle if you are successful; gentleness belongs to those who are doing well.

I bought my two kinds of bread and two kinds of cheese (see? boring and necessary), and on my way back I stopped to copy down the wording. Wanted to make sure I’d gotten it right. I have notebooks and notebooks of things I’ve copied down this way. I am a collector.

On Murray, in the dimming evening, I walked past strangers and thought, am I gentle? What would it take for me not to be?

nah, you right

Last Friday I had an early-morning appointment at the dermatologist, and my bed was too warm to leave, so I decided to skip the bus and call a Lyft. I was having a cyst removed and knew I’d be coming back with stitches. Some things should get you a pass out of public transportation.

The story that follows is one I’m tired of telling. The short version is that my driver complimented my hair when I’d buckled my seatbelt, and I thanked him, and then he told me he liked girls with hair like mine. We were still rolling down my street. How long could four miles be?

He was a quiet man. Sometimes he mumbled a little and I had to ask him to repeat himself. He had music playing, plus a tablet showing Jurassic World, I guess for when he was between rides. Bryce Dallas Howard was doing something onscreen when he said he liked red-haired girls, and I gestured at the screen and said something like, “I get it.” You shouldn’t always assume that people mean you ill.

I didn’t have to ask him to repeat himself when he asked if I had a boyfriend, even though he was still quiet and still mumbling. When you’re on alert, your senses are clearer. I said I did. He mimed disappointment and said, “That’s okay.” Bryce Dallas Howard walked through an office in heels. I looked out the window.

For a mile or so, we talked about trains. Model trains, specifically. I like to see what stories I can get other people to tell me. He told me about the set his mother had bought him and his siblings once, and I relaxed a little bit. We talked about books. We talked about what I wanted to do when I graduated. When he asked me what my boyfriend did, I had to ask him to repeat himself, because when you’re not on alert, you miss things.

“Oh, so he makes money,” he said, gesturing at his car as if to say: I’m at a disadvantage, then. 

I actually don’t remember how he brought up maybe killing off this boyfriend, but it was around the time he missed one of the turns. It was a joke, as much as things like that ever are. He could use a small boulder, he said. Just hit him over the head. Maybe while I was at the doctor’s. Then he’d pick me up and we’d leave.

Being a woman means being a good sport. “Glad to know I’ll have a ride back,” I said.

“Nah, we’re not going back,” he said. He’d take me out somewhere nice instead. Maybe a Halloween party. He wanted to be Captain Crunch. I could be his Crunchberry. “I’d nibble on you all night,” he said, and then something about taking off my clothes that I didn’t catch and didn’t ask him to repeat.

The GPS had caught his error, so we were almost to my destination despite his not really paying attention. I was smiling so hard my face hurt. Ha ha, a joke in the shape of a rock. Ha ha, a costume I didn’t want. “Maybe I won’t kill him, I’ll just pull a gun on his head and scare him off,” he said as we approached the hospital. My appointment wasn’t in the hospital, but close enough. I wanted out. “Anywhere along here would be great,” I said, and he pulled up to the curb and said something about the dress I could wear to this party we were going to. Size zero, right? (It’s not.) I said, “Thanks so much for the ride,” and I got out of the car and walked into the wrong building and waited for him to be gone.

I said this was the short version. I meant it. The real thing took so long I wonder if it isn’t still happening out there somewhere.

Here’s the truly inexplicable part: I rated him three stars out of five, not one. And I tipped him. Not very well, but why did I tip him at all?

Being a woman means that it all becomes familiar eventually. I don’t want you to have the wrong impression; men have said things like that to me before. Men have made me feel like that before, like I was very small, a fragile thing. But this was the first time the man was a stranger.

2015-03-31 23.33.28

I have this running joke with my boyfriend. The running joke is that I’m a bitch. Maybe it’s only funny if you know me, if you know that I can hardly stand to watch the Olympics sometimes because the shots of disappointed athletes make me so sad. I mother the people around me at the slightest opportunity: come over for a hot meal, tell me how you’re doing. I still feel guilty about killing two cactuses. How do you even kill one?

The other night, on Skype, I described myself as cold-hearted. Maybe it’s only funny in context. “I cannot imagine anyone ever calling you that,” he said, and I said, “Wait, but I just remembered, once someone did.”

I’m not interested in providing an inventory of my experience. I’m not interested in laying out proof. Just know that once, an ex-boyfriend called me a cold and heartless bitch. A few years later, after we’d broken up, he told me he’d recently gone out with a girl like me. “Guess I have a type,” he said. “Pretty and smart and fragile.” I’m smart. I clean up nice. I’m not fragile.

No girl I’ve ever dated has used those words for me. Draw your own conclusions.

(And what does it matter that the boyfriend I invoked is real? Even if he wasn’t, I would have answered the driver’s question the same way. Better to be under the care of some imaginary man than alone in the passenger seat. Better than saying that you, yourself, are not interested. Come on. Talk sense.)

Let me be blunt. The men I have known are, almost to the last one, wonders. There’s the friend who, when we were college freshmen, gave me his gloves and towed me around an ice rink because I was too frightened of falling to skate. There’s my roommate, who cooks me dinner sometimes and once let me cry about my thesis all over his shoulder. There’s the cousin who drove to Pittsburgh to help me move last summer, never mind that he lives in West Virginia. There are people. I have people.

The majority of my Lyft drivers are men, and all but one has been very kind. One helped me carry my laundry to the door. I told him I could handle it, because I could. He said he knew, but he just wanted to help. I let him. And he got back in his car and drove away. That was last fall. I still remember it.

Only one of my exes has ever called me a bitch, and it was years ago, but I still remember it.

It’s like that for every ugly thing someone has said to me. Just one, just once. But I still remember it.

2015-02-17 18.49.48

If I ran the newsstand, I would keep posting signs, but I don’t know what they’d say. No, I do. Each of them would say BE KIND, week after week after week, maybe in different colors, maybe in different words.

I called Lyft’s hotline after I got home from the doctor. I took the bus back, even though I had stitches, even though the blood in my ears sounded like the sea. I was bone-achingly tired and I wanted someone else to dial the number, but so what about what I wanted.

The man who took down my report was horrified. He had a gentle voice, and I liked him a lot. My roommate came in and gave me a hug, and he was gentle too. I wrote to my mother and she wrote right back, and there’s no one gentler than your mother when you need her. When the email from Lyft Trust & Safety came in on Tuesday, I read the words I am so sorry and felt like maybe I wasn’t fragile. Maybe I just need to be handled with care.

I think I am gentle. That’s enough. GENTLENESS IS ATTRIBUTED TO SUCCESS because they’re one and the same, because the world is mostly difficult and so any time you can spend being tender is a victory. The signmaker and I have that philosophy in common. I wonder if I will ever get to tell him that.

Maybe not. Probably not. I like not knowing him. I like checking the storefront when I pass on my way to buy milk or eggs or sugar. People have made me feel like this before, like it isn’t stupid to look for signs, like all of it matters. It isn’t the first time that person was a stranger.

God is looking for excellent humans. Be one.