ENOUGH: What You Wore

By

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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What You Wore
Dori Ostermiller

“Can you tell us what you wore?” the ombudspeople ask, when you tell them your MFA advisor assaulted you in his office. Thirty years later, you will marvel at the question. Decades later, after Anita Hill, after #MeToo, after Christine Blasey Ford, you will understand it’s not a question at all, but an accusation, as is the next question they ask: “Are you sure it was assault?”

In truth, left to your own devices, you wouldn’t have used that word.

“He came on to me,” was what you told your housemate, and you wouldn’t have told another soul if she hadn’t made you describe the thing in detail.

“That’s called harassment,” she said, handing you the number of the Ombuds Office on campus, urging you to make the call. “That’s called assault.”

But now that you are finally here with the ombudspeople—two fifty-something men and their young female assistant—you’re not sure what to call the thing that happened. Is it assault when your writing teacher, who is seated in his office chair behind closed doors, asks you to come toward him, grabs your waist, wedges your legs between his open knees, and buries his face between your breasts? Is it assault, you wonder, even if he might be crying? Even if his body seems to be shaking and you are feeling a kind of nauseating pity as you stare down at the top of his balding head?

He’d said he wanted to talk about your manuscript, you explain to the ombudspeople. And your heart leapt at the invitation. Is it assault, you wonder, even if your heart leaps? Even if you admire his work and are thrilled to be invited? You felt trapped and terrified, it’s true, with his face pressed to your breasts, his hands groping your ass. Horrified but also flattered, just a little, because he’s the star of this department. Flattered because he is a famous writer, a winner of awards. Is it assault even if you feel flattered? Or is assault something other than this—his brilliant face between your breasts, his hands fumbling at your skirt, your own hands floundering in the air around his ears like broken fish fins. Your voice floundered, too, pinned beneath your breastbone, beneath his face pressed to you as he blurted, “I want to make you feel comfortable.”

You did not feel comfortable, you tell the ombudspeople. You entered his office with a singular hope—a vain hope, maybe, but a hope nonetheless—that he would like you as a writer. You were riding high at having been singled out. Is it assault if you are riding high? If hope is expanding in your chest the moment before his arms and legs wrap around you and your own legs turn to wood and you don’t know what to do with your hands? The natural thing would have been to place them on either side of his head. If he were your boyfriend or your lover, this is what you might have done. But he is your MFA advisor, at least twenty years your senior, and married. Is it assault if he is married with children? If he’s the same age as your father?

He said he wanted to make you comfortable, but you were not—not comfortable with his balding head between your breasts, your stomach contracting in fear, heart flapping like a trapped bird as his hands massaged your thighs. Your manuscript sat undiscussed on his table, and you wanted to insist on its presence. You wondered if you should grab your deficient, hard-won pages and wedge them between your bodies, remind him of the thing you came here for—the one and only thing you drove three thousand miles across the country for. Or should you just sprint from the room? Fear dictated the latter. You made a break for it, commanding your wooden legs, grabbing the metal door handle, and realizing, as it clicked beneath your freezing fingers, it had been locked. Does the fact that he locked the door make it assault?

“Please describe what you wore at the appointment,” one ombudsman repeats, so you admit, sighing, that you wore a miniskirt—jersey knit, black with thin green stripes—and a V-neck halter tank. Arms and legs exposed and still tan from winter break, you were baring your twenty-four-year-old skin, showing it off, though you do not say this out loud. You don’t tell the ombudspeople how you applied makeup that morning, either, how you took some time with your hair. You don’t tell them you wanted your brilliant advisor to like you; that you hoped he would find you compelling in every possible way.

What would have happened, you wonder, if you hadn’t made a break for it? If you’d simply and firmly said no? Would he have let you go? Removed his face from your cleavage and offered up a chair? Would he have taken out your manuscript, sat at a respectful distance, and played the part you needed him to play, the part he was hired to play—the role he despises as much as his own hypocrisy and hunger—if you hadn’t worn the skirt?

But skirts are often what your women colleagues wear. You’ve noticed them in workshops—knees bare, throats exposed, ankles artfully crossed, while the male students laugh and take up space, their jean-clad legs spread wide. Everyone knows that the stars in your program are all men; that the men are getting mentored, praised, and published. The men are getting contracts and awards, while the women get invited to drinking parties with professors. You haven’t been to these parties because you’ve heard they all end badly: your friend wound up, after one event, giving a blowjob to a professor in the back of his car. Early in the semester, another professor called from such a party to ask why you weren’t there. You remember his scolding voice over the phone when you said you had too much work: “You’ll never make it here with that attitude,” he said.

You want to make it here, you do. You traveled three thousand miles with the hope that you would make it here, be nurtured as a writer, but now you cannot write. Since your writing teacher brought you to his office and locked the door, since your hands turned into fish fins and your voice got trapped behind his face, you can’t write a word. You can’t study either, or keep your mind on the authors in your seminars—James Joyce and Wallace Stevens, Faulkner and Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, Alan Ginsberg and Philip Roth and Joseph Conrad. You’ve started to wonder what you thought you could add to this conversation.

“Why did you wear the miniskirt?” the ombudsman, unbelievably, persists. Thirty years later, friends will scoff at these words, but it is 1989, and these are the questions they ask.

Why the skirt?

Were you attracted to him?

Were you seeking that kind of attention?

Why didn’t you come in sooner?

The omsbudpeople say it’s important to answer the questions, so they can advise you about next steps. You tell them that your outfit was not premeditated. You know it’s a lie, but it’s too complicated to explain about needing to be acceptable and seen, needing to be attractive and appreciated, and using whatever bit of leverage you might have. You don’t understand yet that you’ve been trained to do this—by your mother and father, by your culture and your friends, by every man you’ve been in contact with until now. You’ve been trained to wield the tools at your disposal—and beauty, you know, is a tool that any woman should use, given how little else is at her disposal. It’s a way to command attention. A simple snare for the eye of a man who you hope will take a moment, and look deeper.

You wanted so terribly for him to look deeper. You wanted him to see. You with your father issues. You with your abandonment issues. You with your ferocious drive, your insecurities about competence and worth. You, who on some level don’t know if you can make it here, but at least you know you have this other thing—this surface thing that men respond to.

How do you explain all of this to the ombudspeople? That you might have worn the skirt on purpose. That you may have even sought that kind of attention, because you’d been trained to, because any notice was better than none, wasn’t it? Until the thing happened and your heart was flailing and your hands turned into fins. How could you explain about using the tools, as any practical person would do? And how were you to know that this particular tool might backfire? How were you to articulate the deepest and strangest desire of all: that your advisor would see and appreciate you, and maybe even want you just a little, but not act on that desire? Never act on it. That he would look beyond his blunt urges, beneath the ancient patriarchal roles you’ve both been taught to play. That he would discern, beneath your makeup and your fear, the real reason you are here. That he, of all people, would be able to glimpse, under the façade, your singular ambition. That he’d make the choice to help. You wanted him to help you, whether you were wearing a bikini or a fish tail or a fucking Santa Claus suit.

You do not say all this to the ombudspeople. You don’t even know it yourself yet, so you tell half the truth, and the other half sits twisting in your belly.

Maybe that’s why you don’t balk when they suggest you let it go.

“The wisest course is probably to sort things out with him,” they say. “Then get back to acquiring the education you came here for.”

Later, you will try to “sort things out.” A few weeks after this inquiry, you’ll walk around campus with your advisor, marveling at your own audacity, and you’ll explain about hoping for guidance. You’ll tell him about feeling confused by what happened between you, about being unable to write. You’ll remind him it was his job to uphold the boundary, and he’ll smile.

“Are you really going to throw bureaucracy at me?” he’ll say. “Don’t tell me you believe in the oppressive power structure? Are we not both consenting adults—fully formed people with the power to say yes, or no? Are we really going to play that bullshit game?” He’ll shake his head at your simplicity, reminding you, in any case, that you gave him all the signs—you came to his office wearing a miniskirt and lipstick, blushing, and with all that hair. “Do you want to be treated like a woman or a child?” he’ll ask. “Do you even know what you want?”

You’ll tell him that you wanted to be mentored, and he’ll laugh and say, Of course. Sure, sure—you can still work together, if you’ll stop throwing bureaucracy in his face. He’ll be on your committee, if what you need is for him to keep his hateful mask on, play out his professional role. Is that how you want this to go? And you’ll agree, despite the cold knot in your throat, because you somehow still admire him, and now you fear him, too. You’ll agree because you don’t know what else to do—your options are sorely limited—and deep down, you hope he might still teach you something more than humiliation.

“In the end, if you decide you want to file the complaint,” the ombudspeople warn conclusively as you rise to go, “you’ll have to go through the appropriate channels.” This office, and then that one. There will be paperwork, a lot of questions to answer, a much deeper inquiry than this. It will most likely be unpleasant and could go badly—a he-said-she-said scenario with a man who is powerful in the department, a man everyone admires—and in any case, there is the thing about your skirt. It shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately it often does… They’ve seen these things play out. You wouldn’t want this to tarnish your whole academic experience, would you? No, no—the best course is to move on.

And because it’s 1989, and no one seems to know any better, you concur with the ombudspeople. You take the business card they offer, printed with the name of an on-campus counselor, and you vow to put it all behind you. It’s what you most want anyway—to go back to the moment before, when there was still a chance of being seen, and taught. You don’t understand yet that you can’t go back, that you will not be able to write, that you’ll feel this cloud above you still for months—a year, in truth—this blank, alarming weight inside your chest that you can’t name.

Years later, after seeing the on-campus therapist for much longer than expected, then another therapist, and another, you’ll finally have words for it—exclusion, marginalization, patriarchy, silencing, shame… Years later, when you can finally write again, you’ll understand it was assault not just because of the face between your breasts, the hands beneath your skirt. It was assault because your confidence was broken—because your voice was taken. It takes decades to begin to get it back.

But you can’t know this yet. You don’t know yet, either, about the others in his wake—so many others just like you. You don’t know that this story is much bigger than your own, so you leave the Ombuds Office, sure that you can work it out. You tell yourself it wasn’t that big a deal—wasn’t anything like assault. Assault is something else entirely, something like the violence in the world where he grew up. You know nothing about that world, not really—you, with your privilege and your whiteness. You with your naivety and need.

You take a breath; you plunge back into classes. You try to get back to the education you came here for, struggling not to notice how much smaller you feel now—so much smaller and more silent than when you first entered the Ombuds Office, or this school. You work hard not to care that your advisor no longer speaks to you in the hallways, that he refuses to call on you or meet your eye in class, that he returns your manuscript with barely any comments. You try not to see that you are being quietly punished, silently erased.