The Rat’s Legs
I met a rat under a bridge. And we sat there in the mud discussing the rat’s loveliness.
I asked, what is it about you that has caused men to write odes?
My legs, said the rat, for it has always been that men have liked to run their hands up my legs to my secret parts; it’s nature...
—Russell Edson, from “The Wounded Breakfast”
My first inclination is always to say No, before I can’t anymore, before I need someone to protect me without having to ask, before no one does. Before I know your name, I know I will say No. I know this like a fact. I know this in the same way that I know my height is five foot seven inches, like vacuum and continuum are the only words in the English language to contain a double u. I know I will say No.
But when I was very little—couldn’t have been older than four—my father told me that if I wanted something, something like a toy or a quarter for the bubble gum machine in the supermarket, I shouldn’t ask for it. He said if I asked for it, I couldn’t have it. Now that I’m a grown-up, a whole twenty-one years old, I understand that this doesn’t make sense. One can’t get anything, anywhere, without asking, without opening one’s mouth and speaking. I guess he only said that because he didn’t want me to have the my-size Barbie I was probably asking for. Something about child labor in China; I get it. But I was a very obedient child, never talked back, said No to anyone and I have carried that statement with me ever since. I might carry it with me for the rest of my life; if I ask for something, I can’t have it.
So it isn’t a surprise when no one else in the bar but me hears the strangled No when my eighteen year old self drops a Yes, along with the bills you throw on the bar to pay for my drinks. Yes, I’ll go home with you. I’m not surprised when no one but me hears the No, hears the Please Don’t. You don’t see the manic tremble and repeat when Yes, bounces in a hurry off my tongue and buries itself in your cheek, wriggles around in the space behind your teeth. You don’t feel my hand recoil in yours while we leave the bar and walk to your car; this is not something I wanted and I wish that I had been less good as a child.
Drunk, twenty-something boys walk past with their blonde girlfriends. One of them shouts something but I don’t hear it because I am half naked in the front seat of your car, glowing fluorescent and jaundiced under the streetlamp, the bright of which seems slightly medical, as though your hands crawling down to crawl up and up, up, far as you could stretch them were some kind of new and dangerous surgery. Your teeth, white as my bones are tools used for marking all the places that are yours, all the while telling me, You can touch it. Touch it. Touch it, as though you, doctor, were asking me, patient, for assistance. I didn’t know what else to do. When you picked up my hand, I followed your now silent instruction.
You gave me your keys but I must have dropped them, or I suppose I must have given them back to you when I felt a pinch of panic nobody warned me about. I guess, acting as my own anesthesiologist, I was bound to forget something and I wish your hands were still focused on me instead of on the steering wheel. Because that reminds me: this is just the check-up. The initial work-up. The meet-and-greet before the real deal and I wonder if they’ll let me keep my socks on during the procedure.
But, of course, this is not the doctor’s office I was always afraid to go to; it is the front seat of your car. You are not drunk but, judging by the amount of money you shelled out, back at the bar, I am. And I know we are headed towards your apartment where you will fuck me without a condom and then ask me to type letters for you to the American Embassy in Ghana because you are trying to get some of your relatives into this country and you think that you and I will see each other again. I haven’t said No. No one ever taught me how.
Even though I had only just stepped out of my building for a cigarette, when you came loping up the block, when you put your arm around me—stranger—and asked for a cigarette and a stroll, I said Sure, let’s go for a walk. Even though this is the time of night when all the rats are jumping, jumping in the grass in the park, I haven’t said No.
I know that your mother works for the United Nations. I know she had gotten you a job there when you were twenty-two. I know that now you are twenty- eight and work in a hotel, not far from where I’m living in downtown Boston and that your name is Nick. I know you only bummed that cigarette from me so you could try and pick me up, even though I’m smoking Virginia Slims this week—chick cigarettes— they were on sale. I know you don’t even smoke. I haven’t said No. I know that, hours later, when you drive me back to my freshman-in-college dormitory, I will cry in the shower. I will recall how you have almost nothing in your apartment besides a sofa, an ironing board. I will remember how your collection of bootleg porn DVD’s was spread out symmetrically, with something resembling pride or the desire for easy viewing access, on the floor in front of the television and how the inside of your refrigerator held only bottles of Poland Spring water and cans of Heineken. I will not remember where you live or for how long we drove. I will not answer the telephone any of the times you will call, looking for more. I will cross my fingers that I don’t get pregnant or sick and tell myself that I was just looking for an adventure, trying to live dangerously. I will tell myself that, by the next time something like this happens, I will have learned how to say No.
I didn’t get sick or pregnant. But now, three years later, the trees rise up like dangerous demons; I have learned to be wary of them. In the nighttime, when the rats are jumping in the public gardens and the streetlights shimmer across the pond like great fingers of malevolent seaweed, I walk with my head down, jacket closed to the neck. I have learned to say Sorry, I’m all out, when men with roaming eyes ask me for cigarettes, and I smoke Marlboro Reds or Camel Filters. I am skittish around straight men, frightened, worried and I rarely go out of the house, or out of the homes of very close friends. I try to avoid meeting new people.
Still, there have been more of you, Nick. There was a man I thought I could trust, there was a friend I thought respected me, there was a man in a public restroom whose name I don’t remember. I don’t even remember his face. There should be some surgery, some bloody, invasive procedure, implant a chip that allows me to say No. Transfuse me with blood that isn’t O Positive like mine, but No, Negative. Root around in my voice box, rearrange my tongue until all the words that come out of my mouth sound like Don’t, sound like Don’t Touch Me, sound like No.
But, in my mind, I am still eighteen; my vocabulary has not expanded to include these new phrases. We are still driving to your apartment and I don’t know how to tell you to stop. I am living in the front seat of your car; you drive with your hand high on my thigh.
Joanna Vogel spends her days teaching, studying, writing weird poems, and cuddling with cats; she likes to live on the edge like that and is weirdly content. You can find some of her other works at Plain China and The Chronogram.