by Lisa Allen
Editor’s note: This piece exceeds the commonly accepted word count of 1000 words, but what Lisa has done here is extraordinary. This comes from Lily Poetry Review’s inaugural issue, and is an example of the kind of experimental writing we love to come across. Enjoy!Notes for My Daughter As She Prepares for Her Most Public Sexual Assault1
- Carefully choose a plausible aggressor, even better if he’s had a brush or two with law enforcement. Avoid frat boys, legacy boys, football gods, swim team stars. Daddy’s buddies and money and all. Be sure to put your best foot forward: pick the right clothes2, the perfect color lipstick3. Remember to smile.
- Choose your company for the night wisely: three is a good number, but only if all three will testify so it’s best to plan for backups. You never know who might fall ill, who might refuse to remember, who might need to repay a debt. Make sure at least one has the stomach to watch it all go down—talk to this friend first, assure her she’s being your best friend when she doesn’t turn away, when she memorizes the curling corner of your attacker’s lip, notices the brand name of his shoes. Make watching easy for this friend; for this to happen, you have to lead your rapist to an open space, a place easily accessed by others. Steer clear of basements, abandoned buildings, his backseat in a quiet park. Make sure you ask a different friend for a ride home. Work on your talking points now: if this friend doesn’t mention your torn clothing, your smeared lipstick, find a way to casually bring it up in conversation. Remember to take a selfie with this friend—don’t forget to smile. Better yet, video the ride4. Geo tag it. Back it up to the cloud.
- Practice giving your testimony. Stand before the mirror, repeat every detail until you can do so dry eyed. Watch your mannerisms: do you tuck your hair behind your ear? Maintain eye contact too long? Shift from side to side? Stop it. Practice saying I’m sorry and of course and yes, sir. Remember this isn’t an admission of wrongdoing. It’s expected so please understand: if you fail to recount the event just right, the jury of your peer’s attackers will dismiss you without hearing another word you say.
Do you remember what it means to be conciliatory5? Choose your wardrobe for the inquisition: tasteful, professional, but not marmish; you want to strike that delicate balance between Jackie and Marilyn, Hepburn and Bardot. Solid colors look best on camera. Keep your hair on the long side but be sure it’s shiny and neat; the men asking the questions tend to prefer it that way. A little makeup but not too much6. Glasses might help you look smarter. Wear a watch—don’t ask me why, but I read somewhere that leaders and people of worth wear watches. Think back to when we played dress-up and sat at your tiny table for cups of invisible tea: remember how we practiced perfect posture, posed our pinkies in the most lady-like way? This is dress-up too, a grown-up kind of pretend.
- After the assault: carefully undress and package your clothing in gallon-sized Ziploc bags. Swab under your nails, inside your mouth, wherever your rapist penetrated you. Save the cotton swabs, mark each by body part. Label everything appropriately and store it all in our safety deposit box.7
- Now it’s time to make your phone calls: representative’s office, press 2 to report details of your most recent attack; doctor’s office, press 3 to leave a message; police department, press 1 to be directed to the automated assault clearing line; each friend with you the night of the attack, to remind them they witnessed your undoing. Take notes in your calendar, including the time of each call.8
- A note about calling your representative’s office: lines start to jam mid-day so make yourself a cup of tea and dial before it’s cool enough to chug. Have regional office numbers ready; you might have to call multiple lines before you find someone willing to help. When a staffer answers, ignore the routine of it all, the robotic tone with which your report is accepted. But don’t be fooled. Be ready for the hoops, for hold time. They want to see if you can hack it, if you have what it takes to persist. You do. Steep more tea. Stand at your open window and watch a squirrel scramble along your deck rail, flatten itself when it notices you. Watch leaves change from green to grunge to rust, but don’t relent to the romantic notion of a gorgeous Fall; instead stand witness to the dying of it all. You’re strong enough to see the difference.
- Keep your checklist handy. It’s your job to make sure the staffer records your assaulter’s name and social security number, the exact time and coordinates of the assault, and names of your corroborating witnesses. Once you’ve heard this staffer read the information back to you, ask for a confirmation number. Write it in your calendar in the square marked today. Store that calendar in a Ziploc bag, in our family box (there are extra checklists there; grab one before you go so you’re ready for the next time).
- Call me. Anytime. Day, night, drunk, sober, happy, sad, worried, mad. Once, twice, thirty-seven times. Just call.
- Remember: this list of instructions applies only to planned attacks. There will be others—many will be micro and seemingly meaningless: a man might cup your buttocks at a crowded concert and feign ignorance when you make eye contact; another might follow you down the street, leer, offer assessments of your body; yet another might pose as your boss, your teacher, your preacher, a relative and whisper in your ear, suggest you never tell. Some will cut emotional scars; others will leave bruises. All will hurt. I have no instructions for these save my own stories and the stories of women I love. Is this my greatest failing, as your mother, how I send you into the world with a shield so easily ripped apart?
- One final note: treat yourself kindly. Work time into your daily schedule to reflect. Bullet-point details of your day, every day, in your calendar. I read once about a husband who, before he died, arranged for a flower delivery to his wife on every subsequent birthday. He left dozens of notes with his florist, dates of future deliveries penned in curly-cue cursive on heavy, cream envelopes. The idea of flowers makes me smile, but only until I remember that flowers, too, die and it’s up to us (the mothers, the daughters) to throw them away, mop up the mess. I can’t bear the thought of burdening you with that, sweet soul; I can’t send you a monthly reminder of shriveling. Of rot. Not when it’s already in and around us, not when we are expected to swallow it all. Instead of flowers I’ve arranged a delivery of pens, a new bunch every birthday. Forgive me for spoiling the surprise but I can’t wait for whatever comes next; I’m too happy remembering how your face lit up on your eighth birthday when you unwrapped a Costco-size box of gel pens: rainbow rows of every color that you used for homework, for sketching, for endearing notes you left on my pillow on random afternoons, your penmanship awkward and loopy and tirelessly joyful. My one wish: don’t save these pens for a special day. Use every pen so often the ink runs dry: grassy green for grocery lists, ocean-water blue to send cards to your brothers, tattoo black to write poetry, essays, letters to your elected officials. On assault days, use one of the red pens—not the red of Valentine’s Day hearts or summer watermelon slurp. Write the details you know others will want to hear in cherry juice red, blotchy and real.
1 I want nothing more than for you to never need this. Statistics say you will, that I did, that two of the three friends you met at freshman orientation already have. When this time comes you’ll be forced to learn a new language. You’ll learn to scan bloated briefs for hidden clues, to read between the lines.
2 Nothing too short, too tight, too sheer, too skimpy, too pretty, too complementary, too revealing, too kinky*, too interesting, too provocative, too feminine, too, too, too. *Nothing that might stoke a clichéd fantasy: librarian, cheerleader, teacher, nurse, secretary, nun. Yes, nun.
3 This is important: it’s not about the best color to complement your skin; it’s about the best color that shows up on photos. No nudes, no beige, no fleshtone lipsticks. No. You need MAC Lady Danger or Dior 999. No glosses; they rub off too easily. You need a good, old-fashioned, matte stain. You need it to leave a mark.
4 You’ll need enough storage on your phone to capture video, so I’ve prepaid for unlimited cloud storage in perpetuity. The good folks at Apple offer a mother/daughter plan.
5 Conciliatory (adj): intended or likely to placate or pacify. Appeasing. Pleasing. Say yes ma’am and no sir, please and thank you. Avert your eyes so as not to appear aggressive. Use your sweetest, quietest voice. Nuance here matters, so I need you to practice: it’s acceptable for your voice to crack, for you to seem as if you’re about to cry but not to show too much emotion, to cry too much, to break down. See: histrionics, hysterical, unreliable witness.
6 This would be a good time to wear the nude, the beige, the flesh-tone gloss. Clinique Long Last Glosswear in Tender Heart or Bobbi Brown High Shimmer Lip Gloss in Bare Sparkle are nice.
7 I’ve included your name on our family box; when you visit, you’ll see my calendars and those that belong to your grandmother, your aunt, my best friend from 2nd grade. It’s our shared time capsule, an addendum to your baby book, your yearbooks, your stacks of posed photos and saved greeting cards.
8 It seems a bit too much, I realize, but even our First Lady says women need “really hard evidence” to even suggest an assault occurred.
LISA ALLEN’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the journals Bacopa Literary Review, Lily Poetry Review, Midway Journal, 3Elements Review, and December, and the anthologies Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now (published by Putnam); Feckless Cunt (published by World Split Open Press); and Dine (published by Hippocampus Books). She holds two MFAs, one in Creative Nonfiction and one in Poetry, both from the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, where she was a Michael Steinberg Fellow in Creative Nonfiction. She is co-founder and co-editor of the anthology series Maximum Tilt and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2019.