By Laura Fuller
Gentlemen of the city, what surprises you?
That there is suffering here, or that I know it?
I’m from Iowa, but I lived in New York because I was in graduate school. I didn’t love my day job, but I loved and respected my boss. The company rented space in an office building near Penn Station, ten or fifteen floors accessible only by elevator.
After work one summer evening, I got on the elevator at the third floor, even though it was quite full. A group of nearly a dozen men from another business offered jovially to step aside for a lady. The oldest man closely resembled KFC’s Colonel. The majority were middle-aged men who looked ahead from under their shiny, tanned foreheads. With them rode a small handful of young men, maybe college or even high school student interns. Maybe it was Bring Your Kid to Work Day. Watch and learn, sons.
All of the men were white. All wore work-casual attire.
There was a feeling of levity in the air of this tightly closed space. Maybe it was Friday. I seem to remember something about golf.
When I stepped onto the elevator, they laughed, miming exaggerated gallantry and pretending to be my escorts to the ground level, rather than a crowd of strange men in a small space. I laughed along, even as the man standing behind me took the joke to some planet where it felt fun and funny for him to put his hands on my shoulders. He gave me a very real, very unwanted massage as a joke in the series of Jokes About Men as Protective Escorts and Not Predators. The punch line here was something like Relax— you’re safe here.
I kept laughing as I wriggled free, but I did not turn around.
The doors opened on the second floor, and jocularity spilled forth onto one of my coworkers, who waited for the elevator with his bike. My wide eyes registered his surprise. He seemed confused: What great fun was happening, and how did it involve me? He didn’t join us.
The doors closed again, and I began to realize what had happened, that I wanted to tell the man behind me that it’s wrong to give a woman a backrub when she hasn’t asked for one. But before I could speak, the men had flooded past me, off the elevator and out onto the sidewalk.
I stood a stupefied moment, then walked swiftly toward the door to catch them. But they were already gone—across the street or dispersed in all directions. They looked like everyone else on the sidewalks.
I walked downtown without a destination, and my horror grew: everyone in the elevator saw what happened, and no one stopped it. I couldn’t report the guy if I didn’t know who he was. Anyway, it was my fault. It couldn’t have been wrong if I’d laughed with him. Maybe I had asked for a backrub.
In the days that followed, I told a coworker who told my boss—a man. After reviewing the security tape, my boss took me to breakfast and asked me, in all seriousness, whether I’d feel better if the man who gave me a backrub in an elevator lost his job.
I talked it over with a friend who was my superior in the workplace. She couldn’t believe I would even consider taking this guy’s job. This stuff is dumb, she conceded, but it happens, and I should put it behind me. He probably had a wife and kids. Don’t ruin his life.
I let him go unpunished.
A few months later, my partner and I traveled to the Midwest for the wedding of one of his old friends. It was fall, and I wore a fabulous midnight blue dress with a ruffle and puffy sleeves. I wore some equally fabulous hose—pearly and translucent with thin, black, vertical stripes.
After some dancing, we headed to the bar for a refill. My partner chatted with the pastor who’d married the couple. While I awaited my drink, I overheard the pastor congratulating my date on my “naughty-girl stockings.”
I wished that my partner had told him off, but instead he moved me away from the bar before I could douse this man of God with his own drink. I was deeply embarrassed. I wanted to speak up to the pastor or his wife, but my date stopped me, and his face was pained with that decision. This man was a minister, and I was the bride’s distant friend’s plus-one. What would people think? There was no need to make a scene.
When I later found the pastor on Facebook, I drafted and deleted message after message. I wanted to tell him, “I know what you said about me. I know what you say when you are not speaking to a congregation. I know how you really are.”
I wanted to tell the newly married couple about him, but my partner and close friends advised against it. I would cheapen the newlyweds’ vows, sully their wedding memories, and help myself not at all. I stayed quiet.
Before the elevator and the wedding reception, I went to a clinic on the Upper West Side. I’d been in the neighborhood numerous times for work or to visit the American Folk Art Museum, and it had never occurred to me, not once, that I might be in danger there. Drivers, pedestrians, tourists, businesspeople, hot dog vendors, and wealthy New Yorkers everywhere—too many witnesses.
Buzzed in through the clinic’s locked door, I followed the nurse to the exam room with artless walls and rude fluorescent light. She pointed to a table covered with a white paper sheet and said that I could either remove all of my clothing from the waist down, or remove just my shoes and underwear and pull up my skirt. Either way, I was to cover my legs with a paper blanket and sit down. The doctor would be with me shortly.
I tucked my underwear into my purse and sat on the table with my skirt puffed at my elbows.
I turned when I heard the door open. A short man wearing navy blue scrubs entered the room, followed by a nurse. The doctor had dishwater hair, blue eyes. He shook my hand—I noticed his bandaged thumb—and we exchanged smiles. He confirmed my name and that I’d come to the clinic for IUD insertion.
The doctor asked how I was doing, and I told him I was a little nervous.
I expected to hear, There’s nothing to be afraid of. Instead, he said, “Who are you having sex with?”
He asked how long I’d been with my boyfriend, and I made up a figure. “About four months?”
His voice was hard. “Are you sure?”
“About which part?”
“Well, you know why I’m asking, don’t you.”
I didn’t. “Because this is a long-term solution?”
“Well, yeah. And four months isn’t very long.” His face suggested that he shouldn’t need to explain this.
He asked, “Do you know what happens if you get an STD with one of these things?” Before I could answer, he said, “You’re screwed.”
I looked down at my hands clasped in my lap, thumbs twiddling, then gripped the sides of the table. I was half naked and covered with a big paper towel. I rubbed my feet together. The paper crinkled.
He went on: “I mean, you catch gonorrhea or chlamydia and you’re infertile. You’re completely screwed. So I’ll ask you again: Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” and my voice was annoyingly timid. I cleared my throat, “I’ve known him a long time, like, from before we were dating … and even before that, I wouldn’t, I’ve never been … in a non-monogamous, I just, I’m not worried about that.”
The doctor turned away from me as I spoke. I was still stammering when he cut me off, “Okay, if you have any reason—any reason—to believe your monogamy has been compromised, that you’ve been exposed to an STD, you come in here immediately. Do you understand me?”
I was taller than him from where I sat on the table, but I felt as if I were looking up at him.
“I’m going to do this for you anyway,” he conceded. “I’m going to do it because you’re affluent.”
“You’re affluent, and you look smart. You don’t look like some sixteen-year-old on the street who just wants an IUD because she’s bored of taking the Pill.” He mocked this hypothetical girl and meant to compliment me for being unlike her, for having insurance.
He sat down on a wheeled stool and gestured for me to put my feet up, but he was still talking to me. I spread my legs from the knees down, not wanting to expose myself while he seemed, for some reason, angry. I sat propped up on my hands, with my knees stuck together but my feet apart, heels in stirrups.
He put on latex gloves. The nurse handed him a blue kit full of scissors and other shiny, sharp tools. He pointed to a small black lamp next to him, positioned it to shine light between my legs, and said, “We had a woman used to work in here, black as this lamp, five-foot-nine, thin, just beautiful. I mean this woman was put on this earth to make babies because it would make us all a more beautiful race—heh-heh—but you know what? Her reproductive organs are worthless. Like sacks of pus inside her body. You know why?”
I answered the question to prove I had read the brochure: “Because she had an IUD and it got infected?”
“Yep. Sacks of pus, just worthless.” He shook his head to reiterate the tragedy of the beautiful, infertile woman, then noticed that I was still upright. His face conveyed annoyance.
“All right now, lay back.” He tapped my knees and instructed me to let them fall to the sides and relax.
“Scoot forward. Yeah—to the edge of the table. Now we’re doing the Mirena, right? Not the copper kind?”
I said yes. I could only see the top of his head.
“Good,” he said, “The other kind sucks.” He laughed like we shared the joke. “But you know who loves it? Hispanics, the Mexican-American women. They come in here asking for it by name.” He said women who speak Spanish prefer the copper IUDs, which, I’d read, were perfectly effective and lasted ten years to Mirena’s five, because they were a “knock-off brand.” He trailed off into a chuckle and I felt compelled to do the same, seeking safety in the muscle memory of a doctor’s orders routine, even though this did not feel familiar.
I turned my head to the right to see the nurse, herself Latina, arranging tools on the counter, facing the wall. I failed to stand up to the doctor seated between my knees.
“Okay, you’re going to feel a cold mist. That’s an antiseptic,” he warned, and his voice was suddenly gentle. “And then a bit of a pinch and pressure. That’s a local anesthetic. It’ll make the rest a lot more comfortable.”
While he warned me, I worked to believe that I’d been misreading him. Really, he must mean well. He was a doctor.
The antiseptic spray was cold.
He asked me where I was from, and when I said Iowa he threw his head back in laughter. “Oh! So you’re out here chasing your dreams, are you? Did you follow your dreams to New York City?”
There was a sudden pressure from inside of me, and a pinprick. “That’s the anesthetic,” he said.
Rather than defending my home state, I added that I lived abroad last year. I wanted to impress him with Dubai. (A dull push from inside my abdomen. Odd pressures, something moving inside me.)
When prompted, I coughed, and he slipped something into me, fast.
“But Dubai sucks, doesn’t it?”
I heard myself say that I would not like to live there again, a true statement that, in this light and this air, sounded like betrayal. I said I was glad to come home, that it felt better to live where food grows naturally. He approved of my explanation: “You’re funny.” I hadn’t made a joke.
He said Dubai seemed like a worse version of Las Vegas to him. “I’ve known a lot of people who have moved to Vegas, and you know what they always do?”
He waited, forcing me to ask him, “No, what?”
“They come crawling back.”
He shoved his stool backwards from the table, smiling triumphant. “Would you believe that’s it?” He removed his gloves. I sat up immediately.
The doctor boasted, “Now what was that, like three minutes?”
“I had an attending physician in med school who took twenty minutes to put in an IUD, and it hurt, you know?”
“Yeah, but that didn’t hurt, right?”
“Right. You wanna know the secret? You numb ’em up. It’s that local anesthetic. You numb up the cervix and you can—” He saw horror spread across my face. “I can do whatever I want.”
He went on to tell me warning signs to look out for after the procedure. “But right now?” he said. “It’s beautiful.” He laughed like he’d won a game.
He shook my hand again, and I said slowly and clearly, “Thank you.” I looked in his eyes. I meant it.
Some days later, I printed paperwork from the state of New York to report this doctor. But I didn’t send it. Instead, I felt tremendous guilt and shame, internalized all fault for the things he’d said to me, thought briefly about killing myself, and found a therapist.
He can do whatever he wants.
I am a smart woman with a good life. I have a good job and kind friends, a supportive partner and a safe home. I am in good health. I enjoy privileges I did nothing to earn.
Nonetheless, my life would be better if I had not been assaulted in my workplace, abused while seeking medical care, or reduced to a sexual object by a man who teaches morality.
My neighborhood in Brooklyn was full of people of many races and social classes. There were small children in strollers. High schoolers stood self-consciously in circles. Drunken men hung around outside the liquor store. There were many languages in the air. Cops walked the beat. From my bed I heard loud parties and midnight basketball games. I even heard a gunshot once. I was surrounded by things I’d been taught to distrust and fear. Nothing bad ever happened to me there.
The only men who have abused me are men I was taught to trust without question. They are men who know no consequences, men whose inner goodness is implied by their career choices, their age, their affluence, their skin color.
Time and again, these are the men who have caused me to think that perhaps I was not good or smart or worth my own life. Although I was allowed to speak up about their missteps, and people may have even listened to me if I’d done so, social pressure made me think better of making a fuss.
If the businessman’s employer or the church or the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct had issued some reprimand for these men, traditional wisdom told me, I would undo their lives of otherwise perfect service: These men do not deserve a second chance; they deserve a never-ending first chance.
My silence came from the supposition that these men were as good as it gets. If these men were not our businessmen, our doctors, our pastors, we might just have to do without commerce, without care, without God.
I now understand my decision to over-pretend at normalcy, to thank the doctor, to keep quiet: It seems this doctor has been elected president. So has the pastor. So has the businessman.
Years ago, Donald Trump said into a microphone that he cannot resist kissing women he thinks are beautiful, and that he can do this without the women’s permission because he is famous. He can “grab them by the pussy.” He can do anything he wants.
When asked about these statements in a debate, Trump shrugged off all criticism. “Don’t tell me about words,” he said.
Americans hold dear a sweet trope about childhood: When you grow up, you can be anything you want. You can be a farmer or an actor or a teacher. You can be a doctor. You can be a pastor. You can be a businessman. You can be the president. It’s hopeful.
Trump heard this promise and thought he understood, but he needs someone to tell him about words. When he was promised you can be anything you want, it seems young Donald heard you can do anything you want.
This essay used to be confident and indignant. It used to declare, if you want to be the president, you must do service for the people you wish to govern and treat them with respect. It is best not to do things that amount to sexual assault and brag about these activities. If you do that—let me tell you about these words—you cannot be the president.
I was wrong. This man is the president. Each day we awake to the new horrors his reign has brought, and we punch as if blindfolded. More crises will come, but I do not know just what these will be.
I do know that to speak of men’s abuses of power is more important today than it was before the election.
I know that my silence about such abuses means harm to those whose identities render them mute to the ears of those in power. Even when I am not the direct beneficiary of my own actions, I am responsible for the world around me. We share everything.
I know my own family, people who would never identify as racists or sexists, voted for Trump nevertheless. I try to hold up the fact of Trump’s election and get a good look at it. I know it’s gravely important that we work to understand. For unknown reasons, this is most difficult in the mornings.
I’ve made the strange decision to throw myself at gardening. I planted bulbs in my rented front yard despite the fear that many would be dug up by squirrels or eaten by rabbits before they could bloom in the spring. I set paperwhites in the windows all around my house, inspired by their ability to bloom without soil, to bloom especially when I needed them most, as snow flew outside and the whole world seemed dead. In the darkest days of winter, I bought a houseplant that is a carnivore. This plant nurtures itself by eating its pests. I found its hunger beautiful, and I hung it in my kitchen.
Despite bruised hope and disillusionment, the end of this essay remains:
My great-great-grandmother sent a song down through the generations. In a mock-operatic voice, the women of my family have used this song to goad our brothers and husbands: “Let the women do the work, do the work, and the men lie around, around, around.”
LAURA FULLER is an Iowan and a pie enthusiast. She lives in Wisconsin, where she teaches English and writes essays. Her work has appeared in Misadventures and various other publications and has been featured in performance at Lincoln Center. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from The New School in New York.