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When We Say No

by Katy Mullins

1.

I’m trying to live inside my body for the first time. If my body were a building, it would have boarded windows, leaky pipes, collapsing beams, poking wires, graffiti. I’ve been hiding at the top, a run-down attic inside my mind. For the first time now, I’m flicking the lights on the rest of the floors.

2.

My friend and I take walks around the neighborhood where I grew up. I don’t live here anymore. I’ve moved a thousand and two miles away, doorstep to doorstep. No family lives within a few hundred miles. But when I visit, this friend and I always walk together. Our friendship is one of motion. I like it this way, our shoulders bumping on narrow sections of sidewalk, facing out. She and I against the world.

3.

She was raped at knifepoint many years ago. This is something I know about her, like a birthday or a favorite song. It happened before I knew her, when she was nineteen, living alone in her first apartment in this neighborhood. She knew the rapist. The rapist lingered outside her apartment. The rapist followed her inside. The rapist stayed afterward to take care of her. The rapist fed her noodles from a pot on her stove, noodles he cooked for her after he raped her. She tells me: he said it was for my own good. At least I lived, she says.

4.

These are the things we talk about from our attics. These are the reasons we try not to live on any of the lower floors.

5.

She knows this about me, too. It happened to me at sixteen, by a boy a couple of years older than me, a new adult. His fingers on my arms. Pressing me down. Where all I can do is try to move far enough inside myself that I am no longer touching my own skin. When he was done, I turned the lights off, closed my eyes, fled from my crumbling body.

6.

What I was wearing: Long jeans. Baggy in the hips. A tan hoodie. Not tight.

Alcohol in my blood: 0%.

Alcohol in his blood: 0%.

Time of day: 4:13 pm.

Not dark yet, in case you were wondering.

But none of that matters.

I did say no.

7.

Because I knew the guy. Because I consented to go to his house. Because I’m probably just being dramatic. Because no is merely a difference of opinion. Because maybe my eyes said yes. Because, because, because. My body just a package, my personhood dropped at the doorstep.

8.

Our breath comes out in white, cold puffs. I tell her that sometimes I can’t seem to keep track of my feet. Sometimes I look down at my hands, and I can’t understand how they’re attached to me. Sometimes I stare at my face in the mirror and what stares back at me looks like a composite sketch of my face. Sometimes I’m not sure how to take care of this broken-down home I inhabit.

Really, she says—and her voice is so soft that I have to slow down and bend to hear her—the hardest part is learning to live in a body after it’s been raped.

9.

When we stop walking, I look at her. She looks at me.

It’s good to see you, I say.

It’s good to be seen, she says.

10.

Do what you can. Swallow warm soup to feel it glow inside your chest. Stare at the reflections of clouds in a puddle. Move to a new city. Catch a snowflake on your tongue. Light a lavender candle. Trace your fingertips along your collarbone. Watch a lonely pair of headlights weave through a dark and wooded road. Smile at a baby bouncing over a woman’s shoulder. Dip a toe into a cold pool on a hot summer day. Come downstairs in the morning. Brew coffee and breathe deeply through your nose. Stand at the counter and sip it, the mug warm against your palms. Look out at the sky. See the birds flutter between the trees. Listen for the low, five-note coo of the mourning dove. Turn all the lights on.

Katy Mullins's (@KatyRMullins) writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as the Tulsa Voice, the Hong Kong Review, and Bayou Magazine, among others. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she serves on the editorial board of Nimrod International Journal and teaches high school English.

* This essay originally appeared in Brevity #64 (2020).

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