Content Note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.
ONE AND FIVE CHAIRS
The empty chair is the passenger seat of his car;
I am fifteen years old.
They always tell young women not to walk home alone at night,
so I accept the ride I already know will take me anywhere but home.
When it is over, he asks for a kiss as a token of his generosity
in granting me “safe” passage.
O captain, my captor; I carry in my blood and the melanin of my skin
the knowledge of what we women have survived to reach the shores,
knowing full well that it is not freedom
that awaits us when we disembark.
The empty chair is the dressing room of the high-school theatre;
I am sixteen years old.
Four hands on my body, under the guise of a prank,
grasping at my arms, then my bra, until the flimsy material comes undone.
It’s a joke, they say,
and I, the girl-doll, dutifully laugh.
As I re-clasp the bra at the middle of my back,
I run my fingers over my vertebrae.
It occurs to me that if I could sharpen them enough through starvation,
perhaps they could swiftly slice open any hands
that would ever again dare to touch this flesh.
The empty chair is the bare stage of the black box theatre;
I am seventeen years old.
As our scene study from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to an end,
my theatre instructor tells my scene partner to
“keep going as if you were raping her.”
This is not in the script. There has been no rehearsal.
I am not permitted to file my objection, because
I am suddenly face to face with sweaty brow and insistent hands;
there is an audience and so I mumble: “those aren’t the lines.”
Of course there are no lines; this is unscripted.
At least, I reason, the scene has the authenticity of fear.
Weeks later, I learn that my scene partner has assaulted another woman in my class.
I want to say I am surprised,
but I know that he is well-rehearsed in his craft.
The empty chair is the waiting room of health services;
I am twenty-two years old.
He is a stranger, a fellow student.
His chatter is friendly at first, then insistent. I am polite.
Of course I am always polite.
Then he is everywhere; even waits after-hours for me to emerge
from a late doctor’s appointment.
I pull phrases out from my arsenal: “Please leave me alone. I already have a boyfriend.”
Shoulder-grip. I am suddenly aware that there is no-one around.
“You need a new boyfriend.” His breath is hot on my neck.
At campus security, I am given a neon pink rape whistle
and a glossy pamphlet on stalking.
“Don’t worry,” the woman says to me.
“He just sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They’re mostly harmless.”
The empty chair is the faux leather couch in the graduate lounge;
I am twenty-four years old.
It starts at my feet: my boots being wrestled off,
and as I sit up to protest, I am vice-gripped across my chest,
pressure against my sternum.
I do what I have been told I ought to have done before:
wrestle, twist, say no, no (louder), and stop, with an extra
please for all the socially ingrained female politeness that I still cannot shake.
Without my glasses, I cannot make out the figure standing near the
elevator doors that are in my field of view,
cannot do anything.
A while later, there is another ding of the elevator, and I am released before anything else happens.
I splash water on my face, re-touch my lipstick.
Could have been worse, I say,
as I pull up yet another empty chair to my table.