As a storyteller who often sifts through the blender grind of my existence: the pulpy mash and grit of my childhood, history and culture, I am of the firm belief that no topic is too sacred, too painful or horrific that it does not bear being told through the lens of story. It is the way I personally process the world, bleeding the toxic poison of my both my child and womanhood onto paper in ink: a formalized bloodletting that pushes pain out of me. Often my more serious writing, and even my pulp-fiction, deals with cultures of violence and silence and ritualized physical and sexual abuse with not only pathos but wit and humour as well – a survival skill my mother taught me, and taught me well, to make lighthearted jokes of the most serious of matters. Why cry when you can laugh? Or as John Candy more accurately put it: Laughing on the Outside while Crying in the Inside. And so I have a bit of a rap for being a funny lady – a bit cheeky and someone often not to be taken so serious even when the most serious subjects threaten to cloud ponderously in the room.
However, the subject of if the topic of rape is off limits in story or even joke telling is a different question entirely than: Is Rape Never Funny? And I encourage you to read Chuck Wendig’s brilliant response to the latest “rape joke” controversy…this time brought on by Matthew Inman’s ill-considered The Oatmeal comic. But as for myself, I’d like to attempt to answer that question the only way I know how – by telling you a story: one that is most certainly true but written to you by a writer of fiction, or “pathological liar” if you prefer.
Last spring I went to New York and needed a place to stay. On a limited micro budget, I decided to use one of those websites that hooks you up with locals who have rooms and apartments to rent. My husband and I decided on a very well-reviewed room: clean with air conditioning. The host was known for her great meals and hospitality. Everything was as promised. The woman’s boyfriend made good use of my husband to practice his English on while my husband made good use of the boyfriend to get to know New York. Everybody got along well and it was splendid. The morning before we had to leave, my husband went off to tour the city by himself while I worked alone in our room. The last thing my husband said to me was: “Don’t forget your breakfast out in the kitchen.”
I walked out of our room to the kitchen wearing only a sweater that barely covered my ass. I got halfway across the living room when I felt a pair of eyes on me and I knew I had mistakenly believed everyone had already gone to work and I was not alone. I stopped dead in my tracks and looked over my shoulder to see the boyfriend sitting there quiet as a ninja doing Sudoku with a perplexed face that said: wait…is she not wearing pants for my benefit?
Oh shit! I thought…what do I do? I’m kinda committed now. I mean he’s seen my ass…do I really want him to see the front view? Perhaps if I go straight to the kitchen and sit down with my eggs and act super uncomfortable, he’ll take the hint and exit the room, giving me the chance to run and get some pants on.
Sobbin’ Women ~ My favourite little ditty about mass rape.
Great idea! Right? Of course, that only encouraged him to saunter into the kitchen with that still wild look of confusion on his face. As he walked in, he tried to find a valid excuse to be there. He even stretched and yawned to bide his time to think of a reason to be in a room with a half-dressed guest. Like a teenage schoolboy stretching in that way in John Hughes’ movies that is so awkward it’s hilarious. He cast a glance around the room, looking for a strategy. Water! Yes, he had come into the room to get water. Obviously.
Now this is where it gets funny.
He would not leave. He just kept trying to draw me into clumsy incoherent conversation while I sat there pantsless like a fool. And of course the kitchen was narrow that even if I tried to leave now, I would only brush my bare ass against his groin on the way out. So I did what any other woman in my position would do.
I kept my eyes down on my eggs.
But then he asked a question that begged me to look up. It might have even been: “Look at me and tell me what’s wrong?” So I looked up at him and then he smiled warmly: “Oh my gawsh, you have beautiful eyes.”
I drew my eyes away as he continued speaking in Spanglish and making massaging motions with his hands: “Something something masseuse”…or “Something something massage.” I didn’t know what to think. Was he asking for a massage? That he needed a massage? Was he offering me a massage? Did he have an appointment with a masseuse? Then he finally said: “Something something salsa” and ran out of the room to wash his hands. Wait? I didn’t know what that meant? Was he going to teach me salsa? Was he going to make salsa? I could sense, even then, that this comedy of errors was about to become a barrel full of laughs.
Regardless, the moment he was in the bathroom I bolted for my room, closed and locked the door and threw pants on. Oh thank gawd that was over, I sighed deeply.
And then there was a knock at my room door.
Don’t answer it, I told myself even as I walked to the door to answer it. Don’t answer it. Whatever the fuck you do don’t answer it. But how can I NOT answer it? If I don’t he’ll assume I am terrified of him. And how is this HIS fault? I’m the one walking around half naked! He’s just being hospitable: offering to make me salsa…or teach it or whatever…
So I opened the door to his face that was pained with perplexity: Why had she locked the door? What does she take me for, anyways? Some kind of rapist? He might have even asked me outloud why I had locked it, to which I don’t even know what my lame excuse was: it certainly wasn’t, “I think you’ve gotten the wrong idea and am terrified you are going to rape me.” No, I just laughed tersely and shrugged my shoulders. I made a joke to break the tension because that’s what I do…it’s what I’ve been taught to do, and have learned to do.
He then gestured that he wanted me to relax and that he was only going to crack my back. You know, by me crossing my arms over my chest and him lifting me up in the air from behind. How could I refuse such a generous and thoughtful offer? his eyes implored. And so I obligingly turned around, and closed my eyes, because I DIDN’T WANT TO FUCKING OFFEND HIS FEELINGS and make him think I thought he was going to rape me. Because AFTER ALL: I was the one who walked in the room half-naked! He was just being “helpful.”
In steady breaths, I waited, with my eyes closed, for him to crack my back when he started to caress my arms up and down – to relax me, of course, as part of the routine back-cracking therapy. And my knees trembled and I kept saying to myself: please don’t rape me, please don’t rape me, please.
He put his arms around mine. I waited for the lift…and there it was: his groin pressed into my ass, now clothed at least, and lifting me up in the air by his dick first.
I must have flinched because he set me down and looked at me with gentle concern that said: why are you so frightened…I’m just here to help?
He told me to relax and he lifted me in the air again: this time cracking my back. And I felt every vertebrae go clack, clack, clack.
And now I get to the best part:
The moment he set me down, I whirled on him with a huge saccharine grin and saluted: “THANKS!! FEELS GREAT!!! NEVER BEEN BETTER!!” Ran to my room. Slammed the door. Bolted it. And collapsed in the fetal position on the bed in our $40 a night clean room with air conditioning.
You see: a friend of mine had been “brutally” raped the week before through one of those sketchy dating sites she should have KNOWN better not to use just like I should have KNOWN better not to use this sketchy site…just like I should have KNOWN better not to walk out in an apartment, presumably empty but not, with my ASS hanging out of my shirt like low bearing fruit. Because as one male friend recently had the good decency to remind me that women bear some responsible in at least trying not to get raped. Like even banks tell people to secure their pins instead of telling criminals not to steal money. Great tip. If only I could discretely wave my hand over my vagina to protect it from getting raped instead of the long list of tactics and strategies I’ve had to develop over the years. But I’ll bore you with that another time.
I had no phone and no exit. I couldn’t tell my friends online. They would have freaked – especially with my friend’s rape so fresh in their minds. And why would I have them call the police: for what – a guy so nicely offering to crack my back? This must be all a big cultural/language misunderstanding. So I just waited. I had been in this kind of spot numerous times as a teenager, where I had to barricade myself on one side of a door while evading the hot ardour of a man on the other side. But all that had been many moons ago – when I was young and “dumb” and “getting myself” into all sorts of scrapes with all sorts of men who were more often than not almost as smart of trapping me into them as I was of barely getting out of them.
When my husband finally came back, I had no choice but to lie to him why the door was locked and pretend everything was hunky-dory. I couldn’t come up with a plausible excuse for us to suddenly leave our rental the night before we were supposed to leave. He knows me too well and would know something was wrong and the last thing I needed was for me to UPSET HIM and cause a scene that would UPSET OUR LOVELY HOST who probably would not be so keen to learn I HAD WALKED around half-naked tempting her boyfriend (modulating for everyone else’s feelings again, as I had been trained to do).
So I did what any good storyteller would do. I flushed the experience from my system as quickly as I could by storifying it. In fact, I was even telling it as a partyjoke while we were still in New York (out of earshot of my husband of course), and the joke just kept getting funnier and funnier until I kept telling it to all my friends back in Toronto, choking out tears of laughter in the corners of my eyes. And I laughed and the people listening would laugh – from polite awkwardness I cannot say. And then I thought…what if I had been really raped? How funny would it have been then? How much golden material would I extrapolate from that experience in which I would have everyone in the room hanging off the edges of their seats as I aggrandized my “epic rape adventure” into a palatable comedic farce that only I had the stomach for as it was the only way I can purge these things from my system in a sort of perverse psychic bulimia.
It is what I do. And I am certain that is exactly what I would have done if I had indeed been raped.
And I began to get really caught up in how funny the story really was on so many levels: playing up the textures and tensions and language confusion. It was practically a fish out of water story — so funny to see how that poor little fish gasps for air.
Until that is: I told it to an online room of my closest friends, choosing to save the best audience for last…because now I was sure I could tell this story with such aplomb that none of them would dare worry about me so far-along after the fact.
And instead of laughing…like I deluded myself into thinking they might, they began, one by one, to share all their rape stories: their near rapes, “half rapes,” and “brutal rapes.” All of my friends had been in “one scrape” or another if not an endless string of them. And none of us had ever talked about it before but could do so now because I had cracked open a door by telling “a story” about it.
Only it wasn’t so funny anymore.
But perhaps the next time I will tell it, I will wear a shirt that says “F5” while giant crocodile tears roll down my flushed cheeks, and then maybe, just maybe, it might be.
Everybody sing with me! Altogether now:
Them a woman was sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’
Fit to be tied
Ev’ry muscle was throbbin’, throbbin’
From that riotous ride…