A writing classroom is an intimate space, and so before I tell you about this night, years ago, when I was still what might be classified as a young professor, a fresh transplant to Indiana soil from the wilds of the Pacific Northwest via the red clay of Alabama, and a mother to a seven-month-old baby who took most of his nutrition from my body—before I bare all—I need to tell you something about what I was wearing. I’m sorry, but I do.
Between my voracious boy and the lack of maternity leave, I was shedding pounds like a calving glacier, dipping below my pre-pregnancy weight and still melting. Naturally, there was no time for clothes shopping, but this was a night class, three hours away from the baby, so I’d decided to dress up, albeit in ill-fitting clothes. I chose a substantial bra to harness breasts two letters further along in the alphabet song than they’d ever been before; a snuggish long-sleeved V-neck brown top; a blue and tan rayon skirt, sort of slippy, over caramel tights; and the pièce de résistance, super snazzy riding boots I’d ordered the previous year but hadn’t been able to pull over my swollen calves. The boots were stepping out of the house for their very first time, and I may have been humming Nancy Sinatra to myself as I strode from the parking lot to my building, feeling like a real grown-up in actual clothes—and boots. To my knowledge, I didn’t have a drop of spit-up or drool or pee on my person.
I wish I could tell you that what happened once I got to the classroom was one of those theatrical, innovative writing lessons wherein a well-prepared pedagogue stages a conflict in the classroom and afterwards leads an illuminating discussion on eyewitness and memory. If I had any sense of propriety or self-protection, I would attempt now to recast the humiliating scene as such—but I would be lying. Despite my smart attire, I was insecure about everything and mad about most everything else.
For example, if I wasn’t still fat, did I look saggy and soft? But if I was saggy and soft, was that anyone’s goddamned business? Did I not have the right to be a mother in the academy? A post-partum, nursing mother in a real woman’s body, pumping out milk and words and wisdom?
Was I smart enough? Did I belong here? Was I an impostor?
I had been doing a lot of thinking about breasts.
Also, I was tired.
This was only our second meeting of the semester, so my students and I were virtual strangers. Many months of limited social contact had diminished my confidence in having anything much to say beyond well-enunciated consonant sounds and color words, but I was, I told myself, a professor, and these boots were made for walkin’. So, in I walked.
• • •
Introduction to Creative Nonfiction was held that semester on the ground level of the English Department building, a brick monstrosity boasting an entire first floor with no windows, which could serve as a tornado shelter. The effect was bunker-like. Strips of fluorescent lights glared down on the young faces of the twenty or so would-be essayists who, prior to our first class meeting, had never heard the term essay without the descriptor “five-paragraph.”
In the name of Socratic dialogue, I instructed the students to push their desks to the edges of the room, and after they compliantly screeched and clawed the little metal desk feet across the white tile (would it kill them to pick up the desks?), the result was a horseshoe of smug or scared or bored faces all staring at me, waiting to see if I had anything to offer, anything at all, that might alleviate their self-consciousness, fear, and bottomless need. And at the opening of the horseshoe, that empty space where all the luck can run out if you hang the shoe upside-down, was me, their rookie teacher, standing at the front of the hideous room, my own shining skin and brown top already smudged in chalk dust, with only a small table of carefully prepared notes and my black riding boots for protection. I remember thinking how exposed the notes looked spread across the laminate tabletop, how overeager, how much less smart they appeared than when they’d been on the warm wood of our kitchen table, a sweet baby in my lap.
We were still working out together what the creative in creative nonfiction might mean if—as I was insisting—it didn’t mean the author starts making stuff up when memory and research fail. Actually, the nonfiction part of our conversation hadn’t gone particularly well, either. Fallible, malleable memory. Levels of truth. True, truer, truest.
“How true is true enough? How do we ever know?” I challenged.
The students stared at me—as if they were looking at something. Despite my sturdy boots, I felt strangely unbalanced, but I pushed forward on a wave of good intentions and adrenaline.
“So,” one young man in a baseball hat asked as we dutifully chalked out lists of possibilities and considerations under the headings CREATIVE and NONFICTION. “I mean, how will you know whether what I write is true or not? How will you know the difference? I mean, basically, isn’t nonfiction whatever I can trick you into believing?”
“Well,” I said, taken aback. Sources, sources. “Yes. No. I mean no.” It occurs to me now that Baseball Cap and I were both trying desperately to “mean” something. I kept trying: “I mean, I want you to consider what Lee Gutkind—the godfather of creative nonfiction”—credibility, credibility—“calls, umm, our contract with the reader. Our pledge to tell the truth to the best of our ability.” There.
“So, you won’t know.” Baseball Cap stretched his long legs out from beneath his tiny desk and leaned back in his chair, grinning as if he were the cat that swallowed the canary. No, as if he were the kid who’d left a mouse in my desk drawer and a glistening pile of fake vomit in my chair and I’d just discovered them both and screamed.
He was a smart kid. I’ll give him that.
Essay. From the French essai—to try, to attempt, to take a stab, I wrote on the chalkboard, tapping marks with my little wand, energetically pacing up at the front of the room, taking comfort in etymology and the smooth stick of chalk I gripped like a weapon.
• • •
The first essay up for discussion that night was “Out There” by Jo Ann Beard, a piece about a solo, mid-divorce road trip up through Alabama, during which Beard is pursued by a homicidal pervert from a backwoods gas station who tries to run her off the road, all the while making lewd gestures and screaming, “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you” into the thick, hot Alabama air.
While I didn’t share details of my own Deep South history with my students—my junior-faculty boundaries, despite my tell-all genre, were sharper than a #2 Ticonderoga on the first day of school—I had landed in Indiana after six years in central Alabama, where I’d been both an MFA student and an employee of the federal food stamps program, a job that involved driving on back roads so remote and chilling it seemed to me they were piping “Dueling Banjos” from the very trees. I had piloted my old gray Honda Accord to towns with names like Rainbow City, Opp, and Hueytown to visit gas stations, produce stands, and mom-and-pop grocers, where I’d pull out my clipboard, lanyard, and camera and get to work evaluating the store’s eligibility to accept food stamps. My job was to count food items in each of the four food groups, taking photographs to confirm the existence of four dusty cans of Libby’s fruit cocktail, two jars of Mott’s applesauce, and three browning bananas, or a tilting box of Slim Jims and a short stack of potted meat food products. The target was ten single-serving items per food group; after that, I could check the box, snap a photo, and stop counting. I wore khaki shorts, a polo shirt, and practical brown shoes.
Suffice to say, when Beard describes her “little convenience store, stuck out in the middle of nothing, a stain on the carpet,” I know that store. I’ve fallen under the unbending gaze of the “various men, oldish and grungy” who stare at her “in a sullen way” while they chew. In fact, chances are excellent I’ve been in that very store checking off a wire rack of Lays chips (first ingredient: potatoes) for the Fruits & Vegetables column at the very counter where Beard stood to order that fateful cup of coffee on the day she was assaulted.
Beard was my sister. Beard could have been me. It’s possible I had shared air with the man in the lure-studded fishing hat who pursued Beard down the four-lane highway, screaming about what he wanted to do to her through the hot air and the busted window. It’s possible. Maybe on that day I just got lucky.
• • •
Nearly a decade later, “Out There” is not the essay I’d choose for the second day of an intro class—both because of the violent subject matter and a fact I can see only in hindsight: reading this scene (basically the whole essay) still made me a little sick. I hadn’t processed the vulnerability I’d felt each time I cut the engine in a parking lot, leaving what felt like the safety of my Honda to enter the buzzing, nearly deafening, chorus of insects in the kudzu, listening as my own sandaled feet crunched the gravel, and then, with a deep, fortifying breath of chokingly hot air, pushing open the door of the next store on my list. The smashing clang of the bell hanging from its shabby string was so loud—and then the perfect silence as all the blue eyes, bluer than blue, swiveled in my direction, no sound at all until the whoosh of their collective held-in breath. What the he-ell? Where did she come from? And then the sound of my own voice speaking to whoever was behind the counter in the position of authority we all grant to that rectangular strip in a place of retail, giving me away entirely: “Hi, I mean, he-eyy. My name is Jill Christman and I’m working with the USDA food stamp program”—holding up my USDA ID in its plastic casing, couching everything I said in the positive—“I need to take a few pictures and make some notes. It’ll just take me half an hour or so, and I’ll try to stay out of the way . . .” Damn Yankee.
Christman. Christ, man. I had no business walking into those stores with my clipboard. I had no business leading a discussion on an essay with an intro class when there was at least a 50 percent chance I was still working through my own fear.
But I did—and there we are in a windowless classroom of the past, using up all the oxygen. Like Beard, “I feel sort of embarrassed for myself.” We’re out there, and this intense and dangerous tale is our first full essay up for discussion because my notes tell me I want to talk about Beard’s artful use of present tense and how life—even at its most terrifying and hair-raising—doesn’t come with a plot. I ask them whether they’re familiar with Freytag’s Triangle—exposition, rising action, climax, and all the rest—and no one is, so I boot my way back to the chalkboard and draw it up there for them, dramatically, professorially, superimposing the familiar Cinderella story by way of illustration. This amuses, and—I’m hoping—instructs them, although I’m somewhat disturbed by the fact that most of them are shouting out details that come from the Disney version with Lucifer the horrible cat and Cinderella’s faithful mouse friends. Never mind that. My neatly organized notes, fanned across the table, remind me that I want to look at the way in which Beard orders information and uses foreshadowing to build tension. That’s my goal. That’s the subject on the table. Here is something we can learn, class.
I’m moving around a lot. I never sit down. I don’t notice anything amiss, but I’m more in my mind than my body at this point. I wonder now, of course, if things were already beginning to slip.
• • •
Returning to the text, we read a bit from the moment Beard enters the gas station to buy some coffee. There is this sentence: “I swagger from the gas pump to the store, I don’t even care if my boobs are roaming around inside my shirt, if my hair is a freaky snarl, if I look defiant and uppity.”
Beard is not wearing a bra. I’ve never given this detail more than a passing thought, and even then, only to admire the way in which she gave agency and range to her roaming boobs. I entertain the vaguely inappropriate thought that my own boobs will be roaming nowhere soon, bound as they are by the industrial-strength nursing bra. As soon as I turn my attention to my own breasts, they hear me—Baby, they whisper, What about the baby? Do you think the baby might be getting hungry?—and then I feel an ache and a tingle. I feel them growing, straining the fabric of my brown V-neck top. Not now, I scold.
(Wait. Am I talking to my breasts in front of a class?)
The text. Stay with the text.
Earlier, Beard reports that she’s going long-sleeved, naked underneath, instead of bikini top, because her “left arm is so brown it looks like a branch.” This makes sense to me. I’ve been there. I’ve driven through Alabama in summer with only an open window and a spray bottle of water to serve as air conditioning. This strategy, born of desperation and a busted A/C, is about as refreshing as putting your face at the end of the exhaust vent for your clothes dryer.
But on this night, my students are not thinking about the heat. They are thinking about Beard’s braless breasts. They are thinking a lot about them.
To be fair, the student who will sprint past Baseball Cap and ascend to the role of antagonist in this story doesn’t start it. A raven-haired, scornful girl who is sitting directly in my line of vision, at the top of the horseshoe, says she doesn’t believe Beard was chased by this guy. Seriously? Does stuff like that really happen? I tap on my open book with the flesh of my pointer finger and read aloud from the text: “He’s telling me, amid the hot wind and poor Neil Young, what he wants to do to me. He wants to kill me. He’s screaming and screaming, I can’t look over. I stare straight ahead through the windshield, hands at ten and two.”
And if it really did happen, Raven wants to know, can we really blame the husband at the end for not caring about Beard’s story? “I mean, you know those girls who exaggerate everything? Make a big deal out of stuff just to get attention?” She sits back, point made, Baseball-Cap style, except she keeps her arms crossed tight against her chest, knees together.
The universe has tipped my horseshoe. The chalk cracks in my tightened fingers, and the floor shudders. My luck drains away. I can’t remember what I say. Maybe nothing? Maybe I just point with my diminished chalk—palming the broken half —at the next raised hand, hoping I will be rescued by a kindred spirit, an astute close reader, or even just a veering distraction, a welcome change of lens.
The hand I point to belongs to a young woman sitting about four feet to my left, quite close. In memory, I struggle to pull up the details of her personhood—curls, definitely curls, light-colored. And I remember how earnest and serious she was, even before this night, following up after class with really specific questions about the syllabus and the days she already knew she’d be absent for a family trip to Florida that was planned way before she saw my absence policy. But mostly I remember how close she was to me physically. I take a few backward steps to increase the scope of the frame. What she does next does not help me to recover from Raven. Raven and Curls work together. A tag-team attack. All Baseball Cap has to do is sit back in his chair and enjoy the show.
Curls jumps into the ring: “Well. Okay. I mean, she wasn’t wearing a bra, right? She says she wasn’t wearing a bra. She went into that store without a bra on! She deserved it. Maybe if it did actually happen, she deserved it.”
• • •
Now the room is honest-to-goodness whirling. My boots are no good to me in maintaining equilibrium. My response is immediate and uncomplicated.
I am livid. I feel my face get hot, and when my face gets hot, it gets really, really red. I am a cherry lollipop on a boot stick. Okay, maybe my response is a little complicated. I am afraid to open my mouth. I am afraid of what might come out if I let my lips come apart and blow out warm air with words attached. I can see a script of possibilities ticker-taping across the dark screen of my inner forehead, and none are appropriate. I see expletives. I see insults. There is name-calling. I see nothing I can actually say. I’ve had this job for about five minutes in the relative time of an academic career. I have children to support. Plus, we need to get through four essays tonight, and we’re still on number one. It’s a three-hour class, and I need to let them have a break. We all need a break. Think think think. Breathe breathe breathe. Thinkbreathethinkbreathethink. Maybe I don’t need to let the full force of my women’s-studies-self-defense-from-the-inside-out wrath loose on Curls, but neither can I let this kind of shit just hover in the blue air of my fucking classroom.
“Listen,” I finally hear myself say in a shaking voice. “Listen. To. Me. This is not the point of today’s discussion. But. Didn’t I just say that our job in this class is not to critique the authors’ lives? That we’re thinking about the choices they make on the page, not the choices they make in their lives?”
The room is silent except for my breathing. I can feel my fury moving around inside my body like a physical presence, an undersized Tasmanian devil using my intestines as a hamster run.
Curls waits for me to finish.
“But,” I continue, feeling as if I must, through sheer force of will, prevent my rage-filled body from spinning like a dervish, “let me say this before we continue our discussion: I should be able to walk down McKinley Avenue naked, completely naked, and be safe. There is nothing I can do that makes me—or anybody, ever—deserve to be attacked. Nothing.” And then, for good measure, I say again: “McKinley Avenue. Naked. Completely naked.”
I’m looking hard at Curls, and she’s looking right back, but the expression on her face is impossible to read. Why does she look so . . . self-satisfied?
I am so mad I want to cry.
• • •
Whatever transpires between my naked outburst and the break is lost to me. Probably not much. Certainly nothing good. My teaching notes tell me I emphasized the breathless forward motion of the scene and the way in which, at the end, we come to understand what the story of being pursued on an Alabama highway is really all about and why the telling of that story is vital. So, maybe I say something like that before waving my hand and saying, “Go ahead. Ten minutes. Be back in ten. We have a lot to cover.”
All the students leave the room—too quickly?—except for one. Curls. She approaches the table where I lean forward, fingertips tenting over my notes, trying to make some sense of what’s left, how I’ll get through it all, how I can recover what has already been lost.
It takes me a beat to recognize that this professor she is looking for is me. Great, I think. Here we go. I can still feel the current of anger flushing through my veins, but I am the teacher here. I am a grown-up. I have said what I needed to say, and now it is time to move on. I straighten and turn toward her.
Her eyes are on the floor, her expression enigmatic. She goes on: “I don’t know how to tell you this—” Her voice fades.
“What?” I say, sharply, with an irritated flick of my hands I have been regretting for ten years. “What? What is it?” I am certain she has waited around to tell me something having to do with all those hussy women, unlike her perfect self, who just set themselves up, day after day, in their braless hussiness for sexual attack.
First, she points.
She points a steady finger at me, aiming just below my own most private of private parts, and then she turns her eyes up to meet mine, and she speaks: “Your skirt. Your skirt is falling off.”
The moment freezes—my what? is what?—and then shifts into super slo-mo. Inside my mind I am screaming: “Nooooooooo . . .”
I break eye contact and look down. My god.
Oh. My. God.
The slippy skirt, so attractive in a professional way, so hip-skimming and floaty in a back-down-to-fighting-weight way when I was still safe at home or striding across the parking lot, has slipped. Not just a little. Too far. Much too far. There is a good eight-inch gap between the bottom hem of my top and the elastic waistband of my skirt, and in that eight-inch frame is my entire pelvis. There is a triangle of light flashing in the space formed by the bottom of my crotch, my honest-to-goodness vagina, and the waistband of my skirt. It’s all there. All of it. Everything. Full frontal, below-the-waist nudity—but for the caramel tights. So, there’s that. The tights both cursed—slippy on slippy? the reason I couldn’t feel what was happening?—and blessed me: some coverage. Something.
How long was it before I reached down with both hands and yanked my skirt up? Nano-seconds, right? It felt like forever. Eons of nakedness.
For the second time that night, I feel the heat in my face. The creep of blotchy red. “Thank you,” is all I manage to say.
“You’re welcome,” she says, smiling. We are both embarrassed for me. I am that embarrassing. “I just thought you’d want to know.” Her turn is a pivot, like the kind jazz dancers do, and her curls bounce behind her on the way out the door like Nellie Oleson’s on Little House when she flounces back into her daddy’s store for more candy, leaving a humiliated Laura on the street, dripping mud.
I am Laura. If Laura were a skirtless hussy.
• • •
In the years that follow, when I tell the story of the night my skirt fell off during class, I make a joke of it: “What a missed opportunity! What a waste! When she said that—your skirt is falling off—I should have just smiled like I’d planned it all along, like I was delighted she’d noticed, stepped out of what was hanging on of my skirt, whipped it around my head like a lasso, and screamed, ‘Damn straight! Take back the night, sister!’”
But I didn’t. So I can’t say that.
Here is the true ending.
When class resumed, the teacher made a request to all the assembled students: “Okay. So. In the future, should any piece of my clothing fall off during class, someone, anyone, should wave a hand in the air and alert me, okay?”
Afterward, the class continued through discussions of the three remaining essays and a first-memory exercise, all completely unmemorable, until finally, at 9:10 p.m., Completely Naked dismissed the class, packed up her notes and books, and walked back across the dark parking lot in her fancy boots, holding onto the waistband of her slippery skirt with one hand and her briefcase with the other, anxious to make it back home to her baby and take off her bra.
I thought that was the end of the story. But I was wrong.
• • •
Here is a question my students ask me again and again: “How long do you have to wait after something happens before you have the distance you need to write about it objectively?” The students who ask this question are almost always in pain. They’re in the thick of a terrible betrayal or in the unflickering darkness of a depression, fumbling for the switch; they’ve too recently moved away from a house where there was alcoholism, abuse, neglect—or all three; someone they love, someone they needed to keep living, has just died; their bodies have been attacked (sometimes the assailant is themselves); or they’re afraid if they swallow enough calories to sustain themselves no one will love them. In my twenty years of teaching, I have heard so many stories, and I hold onto these stories. I have come to understand that this is part of my job: to listen and receive the stories. So, when my students ask—How long do you have to wait?—I know, in part, they’re asking for a number (two months, three years, four days), but I can’t give them that. There’s no way I could know.
“It depends,” I say. “Maybe you need to write about something five minutes after it happens, and that’s going to capture details and nuance you won’t be able to access two years later. But maybe you need those two years to figure out why something matters. So maybe you write something right away and then again two years later. Maybe what you write is two separate somethings because the consciousness you bring to bear on the events is everything—and those two years change your angle. Those two years change you. Or maybe you choose to fold over what you wrote on the day of the event with what you think two years later, and it comes together to make one essay. It just depends. Of course, you can wait fifty years, and you’ll never be ‘objective.’ The scope and distance of your subjectivity will change, but when we write essays, we are always subjective. That’s the whole point.” Here, I usually smile to make up for the fact that I’m not giving my students what they want to hear, the teachable key to unlocking the thing they need to say in a way that will take readers by the scruff of our necks and make us listen. We all want to be heard. And what they’re really asking, usually, is: Can I say this? I have a thing I really need to say. Can I say it?
So, sometimes I add this other true thing: “You are the only person on this planet who can tell your story. No one else can do it for you. So, if you don’t do it, your story will never be told. If you have a story you need to tell, tell it. Write it down. You can always tell it again later if you want.”
All the students with all their different faces and all their different hair and all their different names and all their different stories for the past ten years: Can I say this?
• • •
The objectively disastrous skirt-falling-off Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class took place on a September evening nine years ago. That night, or the next day—very soon—I wrote down some of the details, recording mostly direct dialogue like “I don’t know how to tell you this.” But then the file sat on my hard drive for years and years. Was that because I didn’t have the “distance” to tell the story? Was I too embarrassed? Still angry? Conflicted? Or just otherwise occupied?
Now I wonder: How would I react now if the same scene played out in my classroom? I don’t mean the skirt. I’d pull the skirt up, laugh, apologize, produce a safety pin from my purse, and deal with the situation. I’m a dance mom now, for heaven’s sake. Wardrobe malfunctions fall into the category of fixable problems.
I’m talking about the bigger thing that happened that night. If a student tilted her hand and showed me her wounds? Think about it. What had already happened to Curls that compelled her to respond to Beard the way she did? What messages had she swallowed, digested, internalized? What does a young woman have to accept about herself in order to believe with such surety that the choice to not wear a bra because it’s hot and uncomfortable could possibly equal a just punishment of rape or death?
I’m closer to getting it now. If this happened today, I don’t think I would get angry. I definitely wouldn’t feel compelled to stick to my lesson plan. I’d take the time to figure out what Curls was trying to tell me, tell all of us. Beard had opened up a portal for her, and when Curls tried to step through, I blocked the way. I missed my chance to help.
I failed to understand that she was asking me a crucial question. I couldn’t yet hear the question mark hiding at the end of her sentence. She was asking me something she needed to know, and I didn’t answer. Nine years ago, while I stood in my boots at the front of that ugly classroom with my skirt slipping down my hips, Curls said, “Maybe if it did actually happen, she deserved it.”
And I didn’t realize she was asking for guidance. Instead, I heard only fighting words. I pushed back with everything in me that hadn’t yet been healed from my own rape when I was a freshman, when I was the same age as Curls, when I wondered whether the invitation I’d accepted or the bikini I’d worn or the alcohol I’d swallowed that day had made the rape my fault, a secret I couldn’t tell. I knew victim blaming when I heard it, and so, in a voice calibrated by rage, I told Curls the truth: there is nothing any of us does to deserve sexual attack. But I couldn’t hear the need below my student’s judgment. I couldn’t hear the buried fear Beard’s essay evoked in me, carried up to Indiana from the steaming back roads of Alabama, the words of my own vulnerable self drowned out by the ringing of the cicadas. It could have been me it could have been me it could have been me.
If I could return to that room with those young writers, to that moment right after Curls said what she said—“Maybe if it did actually happen, she deserved it”—I would hear the question and I would hold her gaze. I would keep my face open to receive whatever else she needed to say, whatever else she needed to tell us all. I would move to pull up a desk to sit down—Ooop! My skirt was falling down! Y’all should have said something! Then, I would laugh and adjust my clothing. The students would be relieved, and we’d screech the little desk feet across the floor to tighten our horseshoe into a circle. “Okay,” I would say—without edge, without anger, leaving my lesson plan behind: “Why? Let’s talk about what’s here that makes us want to distrust and cast judgment on Beard.”
And then I would listen.
* Illustration by Anna Hall