On a long road trip from Brooklyn to Richmond, VA, between Mariah Carey songs, my friend Mike broke the conversation lull with “Have I ever told you about Furball?”.
The story goes like this: in the early 1990’s there was a toy made. It was a ball with a stuffed animal Ferret on the end, you turned a button and the ball rolled everywhere taking the ferret with it. This awakened in many children the knowledge of and desire for a real pet ferret. Suburban parents of a certain means were cajoled for Hanukah and Christmas to relent to the demands. In the Citrola household the two brothers who are only two years apart harangued their dad for months. And so they got Furball. A simple grey and striped ferret. After a few months of the creature peeing where it wasn’t supposed to and being generally speaking “less fun" than your traditional cat or dog, Furball became an oft ignored member of the family who mainly did what any singular rodent in a strange primate household would do. He ate things he wasn’t supposed to; shat in the corners and since he was nocturnal, kept a schedule in direct opposition to the family. One day Mr. Citrola began to load the dishwasher in the inattentive way that tired parents who have recently been ground down into sharing a house with a giant rodent do. Furball, a curious and also low to the ground fellow, propped himself up and peered into the cavernous space with its leftover food, and warm and humid climate. He jumped in. He had just settled down for a nice nap when *click* the door locked behind him. A blackness surrounded him despite his eyes being opened. *beep boop* *rumble rumble* The flood of water began to rise suddenly as Furball like a peasant on the Titanic tried to make to the higher ground surrounded by wine glasses. Water rushed in raining on him furiously as his little feet grasped pitifully on to the the slick and soapy wire rack. 60 minutes in he blacks out. 15 minutes of hot air blows followed by the pleasant “I’m finished” music playing. The question of “where’s Furball” had not come up. Mr. Citrola opened the dishwasher to find Furball limp and soggy. “Fuck” he thought to himself and pulled the wretched animal from his watery grave. At this point the children have entered the kitchen and seen their pet’s fate. Sobbing they screamed “Daddy , Daddy - save Furball!!”. Mr. Citrola laid little fur ball on his back, takes a deep breath and begins tiny chest compressions followed by mouth to mouth. The children wailed in the background as nothing much happened. Then suddenly, miraculously, Furball began to twitch and drowsily regained consciousness. He is toweled off and rushed to the emergency vet where he goes on to make a full recovery. Although he was never quite the same again, he lived a full and prosperous ferret life.
I think a lot about how disoriented Furball must have felt. How he felt safe and curious and maybe even a little lonely. What did he think when he heard the click? Did he freeze or panic? Did he start scratching madly at the door? Did he calmly accept his fate? Did he have any thoughts whatsoever besides blind reaction? Did he think anyone would come to his rescue? Did he feel abandoned?
The level of bewilderment he must have felt when he finally was rescued after all hope had been abandoned. Did he ever look at his family the same way? Did he see them as saviors? Or did he see them as the ones who didn’t show up when he needed them?
From the outside I see this as a story of a silly animal getting up to an insane hijink. He survives by the grace of a higher power and a dad who did not want to let down or deal with the piercing sobs of his beloved children. I think thats true. But I think any of the stories from Furball’s point of view could also be true.
There is so much ambiguity in his situation, his own culpability and the benign neglect or negligence of a child or a stressed out parent that goes viciously awry. No one is at fault. Potentially everyone is at fault. But how exactly do you parse this out and move forward once you’ve been blow dried and the vet has given you a clean bill of health.
I think of Furball when in the kitchen of a party, in front of many people, a man I had just met walks behind me, puts his arm around me and begins to let it drop grazing my lower back until he gets a fistful of my ass. Shocked, my eyes become as big as saucers staring at the people in front of me who are drunk and only half paying attention. I shimmy out of his slimy embrace and say “you just grabbed my ass”. He mumbles back a muted apology. I reply “do you need a glass of water because I know you wouldn’t have possibly done that if you weren’t absolutely wasted”. I turn to the sink in the crowded aisle between by the island and the counter top. I fill a glass up to the top with lukewarm tap water and place it in front of him and walk away. Stunned. Unsure of how to integrate this into my consciousness. I am 30 years old and I had hoped that this was something I could safely put behind me like waiting in frigid long lines to get into a club or skintight dresses over shape-wear. I thought that burgeoning forehead wrinkles and dressing in billowing garments meant that while sure I was likely to experience “some sexism” and even harassment from greying men with poor eyesight or construction workers in tall buildings, an ass grab at a party by someone my own age was out of the question. It is a continuous lesson that complex socio political dynamic of power, entitlement and desire plague you.
I’m 3 in the backyard of my preschool, perpetually lonely I’d sit on the far end of the chain link fence. The grandsons of one of the teachers ,raggedy kids who drink only Mello Yello and watched WWE, suddenly asked if I wanted to play. I begrudgingly say yes and they pin me against the chain link fence and started to lift up my dress. I struggle to break free and one of them gets distracted. I bolt. And that bolt of freedom I think has marked me in a way that is completely unfair. Perhaps had I not been able to run the instinct would have been shut down completely.
I’m 15 and I meet man with pink hair and tattoos at a coffee shop. This is a man who is a man’s age who then asks me on Myspace if I want him to come over. I’m so curious I say yes. My parents aren’t home. He starts to act weird. I ask him to leave. He says no. I run to my room. Type up a message to two friends about whats happening in case something happens. I say you need to leave and lock myself in my room. He leaves and I lock the door and stay up all night nervous he’ll come back. Years later I see him working at a Hustler’s Hollywood shop.
I’m 18 living in Paris walking home late at night. My French is mediocre but the word
“no” ,luckily, translates easily. A group of teen boys maybe 15 or 16 start trying to talk to me and I keep it moving. They keep it moving towards me. I start to walk faster and one of them grabs me from behind engulfing me completely. I shove and manage to slip out of his grip. He grabs me from behind again this time locking his forearms tighter. His friend grabs him seeing the look in my eyes and I run and run to my apartment which is complicated to get inside. There are ancient locks and passcodes and when I get inside the door I call my mom who doesn’t answer.
I’m 21 and am at a party out of town that is really a small gathering. I am too drunk when we begin to take gravity bong hits and am immediately spinning. I excuse myself to go the bedroom I was sharing with my boyfriend at the time. The older brother of my friend who’s house it is comes in and gets into bed with me. He says “shhh” “shhh” and begins to spoon me. He starts touching my waist and the whole room is spinning. I say “what the fuck”. He says “shh” “shh”. I send a sharp elbow right into his stomach. I squirm down to the bottom of the mattress and off the bed. I run. I run out the bedroom. I take a breath and open the sliding glass door and walk to the bonfire. Tired, spinning. I say nothing because this isn’t my house. He got married last year.
I’m 30 and the disorientation at this party is a mixture of disbelief and relief. I ask myself the same questions as Furball, what does this mean? Am I mad? Is it nothing? Am I lucky? As we clean up from the party - a couple people admit to what they saw. Everyone wants to be a hero in the aftermath. And what even is the aftermath? Am I materially any different now? This isn’t a violent assault. This wasn’t a violation of trust. I had no trust with this person to lose. The question I kept circling around is how do I define what happened, when the language we have built especially in the past 5 years feels hyperbolic but returning to the previous language of “nothing” would require a lobotomy.
The choices of definition as I see them laid before me include: “unwanted sexual touch”, “sexual harassment”, “sexual assault” and “no big deal”. The primary problem I feel when trying to employ the term “unwanted sexual touch”, “sexual harassment” or “sexual assault” to the situation is that it feels like a Human Resources term. It feels litigious. It feels like I am trying to mount a case I don’t even know if I want to mount. I don’t have desire to protect this person’s reputation per se but it does feel gross and wrong to lump this in with people who get backed into copiers late at night and fondled. However I can’t simply say this is “no big deal” because the complete lack of potentially confusing signals I displayed. I am not someone who believes that every misplaced kiss or misunderstood mutual attraction is tantamount to coercion. I strongly rebuke the more modern interpretation that explicit verbal consent free of any potential power imbalances ,potentially notarized, is the only way we can begin to contemplate ambiguous sexual or pseudo sexual experiences. Hell, I rebuke the notion that sexual experiences can not be ambiguous. But when someone says "okay so what’s your solution Nicole?”. I have to admit - I don’t think I have one, I don’t even know how to categorize this and I’m not sure how to move on.