These were the years of the garden apartment in the converted historic school, where a man, sunk
deep in you from behind, picked up his leather belt and began without asking to thwack the big
ass in front of him. These were the years in which a different man, after six months of being told
you didn’t want to see him anymore, showed up at your house one night, looking dazed at you
through the metal security screen. “I was at the law library,” he said. “I was in the neighborhood.”
What you were really learning those years, then, was the inability of certain men to pay
attention; how these men always came sniffing back to the last place they’d seen sex, which too
often was you; how their reappearances, strangely earnest, carried also a vague whiff of threat,
because they’d so carefully avoided hearing what you told them.
It was a high stakes game to fuck strangers, but the only real way you found your way to
sex in your late twenties; each time entered into with the hope that this might be one of the good
ones: the German, in for a conference, who drove with you west into the mountains, who took
photographs of the desert while you ran and then, as the stars came down, who fucked you
against the car—your hands gripping the roof rack, your legs hitched around his waist. Or the
red-haired friend of a friend you met at the big writer’s conference; how you arrived late one
night into his hotel bar and kissed him brazenly, spending the next two days in his skyline hotel
room fucking and watching Seattle soak in rain.
But just as easily you might find yourself walking out of a bar at ten-thirty after a man’s
temper flared, after he mocked you, fear telling you to leave your whiskey in its tumbler upon
the bar. There are many kinds of not-listening, and mockery is one of them—a paving of the
way, you might say; a bright flag suggesting your consent will not matter.
Sex was a trade, then; a contract entered into; that the universe might offer you solace,
now and again, a good story, a weekend of pleasure, and that in the meantime you would
shoulder the whole story of what it meant to be a woman: a body seen for its vagina and tits, a
mouth trained to apologize, a mind that angled, again and again, to offer the benefit of the doubt.
For the ones who turned out to be creeps showed up at the bartending job you took after
graduate school, spent long hours fingering the rims of their IPAs and trying to get you to talk to
them. Hear the tinny-bright voice you developed as a woman bartender, now into your thirties,
how you learned to wear red lipstick, how you built the nice-until-I’m-not persona you’d need to
carry. See how the men leaned over the bar to make crude comments as you pushed the credit
card deep into the reader. Notice how you swallowed your knowledge of the lines they’d crossed
before, the lines they were crossing now, because they had a right to be there, because it was
And still, late in those evenings of splashing foam onto the drip tray and pulling a wet
towel against the bar until it gleamed, you found yourself telling men too much about yourself,
those men and other men, always too much: because they asked and it’s rude not to tell; because
if they find you rude you ruin tips for the whole team. So in this way a man can own a bartender.
And this is it, really—not the retribution but the threat of it, the belief of some men that a female
bartender is their own intimate object, their sexual plaything, and that, rebuffed or put in place,
they could withhold her salary, fail to place the customary bills against the counter.
Or, too, they could show up later. “I’m going to be such a part of your life you don’t even
know it,” said one man, pale, wasted, trying to hold your hand, laughing caustically as he was
firmly booted from the bar. He lived, of course, in the neighborhood, not far. And it seems to you
even now a miracle that he has not come back. A point, perhaps, in his favor; an excuse we
But do not mistake. The point is not that he hasn’t. It’s that he could.