CW: implied/referenced physical and sexual assault; depersonalization-derealization
I woke up that morning flat on my back, with someone next to me in the bed and a busted lip.
None of this was usual.
I’ve been thinking about Foucault and Kant a lot lately. About the experience of madness and true discourse. That is to say, we cannot analyze our own present in its significant values without engaging in a hermeneutics or decipherment which will enable us to endow what is apparently of no significance and value with the significance and value we are looking for.1 It’s the spectacle created by the Revolution that is significant rather than the Revolution itself. The Revolution was a moment. Merely a blip in time when taking all of human history into account. What lives on is the ways in which the people reacted to the idea of Revolution – the way the Revolution is seemingly stuck in stasis always occurring.
It asks the question: What is present reality? What is the present field of our experiences? What is the present field of possible experiences? Here it is not a question of the analytic of truth but involves what could be called an ontology of the present, of present reality, an ontology of modernity, an ontology of ourselves.
Which brings me to the question I keep asking myself over and over: What the fuck?
I was doing my weekly scroll through the UPenn Call for Papers site when I saw it.
“Who gets to speak? Whose story gets to be told?”
What wants to be said?
The CFP mentions accepting zines.
The throbbing of my ankle jolts up to my stomach, and I feel sick.
We first spoke at the Q&A following his exam defense. He had just spoken about examining and creating digital zines, and I laughed. Zines are ephemeral, I said. They aren’t meant to last.
Trash, though, we agreed later at the end of the semester pool party, was in the eye of the beholder and worth – occasionally – holding on to. And hey, there is a zine fest in Asheville, did you know? Are you going? I might try to get a table and sell my zine.
Then his wife came over, and our conversation came to an awkward end.
I was, they both told me, a very real part of their relationship.
I was, he told me, without a doubt, the second hottest chick in the history of our program.
Sometimes, when I was having an especially hard time wrapping my head around the history of rhetoric and VV’s lack of pedagogical practices, it felt like VV’s eyes lingered on me a bit longer than necessary when he asked what wants to be said – which was his way of prodding us to talk about the reading list no one could get through in a year, let alone a semester.
What wants to be said.
A lot, VV. More than you probably want to hear.
The night leading up to that morning didn’t quite go according to plan.
His favorite story for the six months following that morning was about how hilariously drunk I had gotten the night he came over. According to the story, I got so drunk I became utterly nonverbal. I had, he would tell our friends, not just lost the ability to have a coherent conversation, I couldn’t even speak.
I can neither confirm nor deny his story. The last thing I remember is finishing my third glass of wine.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up flat on my back, with someone next to me in the bed and a busted lip.
What happened to my lip? I asked.
My mouth tasted like blood and flesh. And the nausea I felt as I poked at my lip with my tongue had little to do with my hangover.
My lip was huge and bloody.
There wasn’t any blood on my shirt, but two kitchen towels were soaked in blood in the washing machine.
I wasn’t hurt anywhere else.
I don’t know. He said. You must’ve fallen and then cleaned up. I didn’t see.
What constitutes a body? Where are the borders that tell us this, this is where the body begins? Is a body the flesh and bone and muscles and organs and pain we drag through life? Or might it be that a body is a node of relational process, not a form per se. A body is a complex activated through phases in collision and collusion, phasing in and out of processes of individuation.3 And if that’s the case, then perhaps what constitutes our body can’t be quantified in a textbook but instead is comprised of all the things which have impressed themselves upon us.
I came off Effexor for the third – and final – time during the first semester of the first year of my Ph.D. program, which is exactly when you want to be coming off Effexor.
One day during a quick five-minute break during VV’s History of Rhetoric class, I stood in front of the sink in the women’s bathroom trying and trying to get the sink to recognize that I was there and turn on. I felt fuzzy like my body was made of television static, and the fluorescent lights were altogether too loud. It was as if the buzzing of the lights was directly in my ears rather than feet above my head. Or maybe that was my tinnitus. I turned to one of the girls in my cohort who had also taken the break as a chance to use the bathroom and asked, am I real? She laughed awkwardly. We didn’t know each other well yet.
Emotions shape the boundaries between objects. I had no emotions and, therefore, no boundaries. I existed outside of time and space. Is it any wonder the sensor in the sink wasn’t acknowledging that someone was standing there, wishing to wash their hands?
I waved my hands a bit more frantically under the faucet, suddenly vaguely horrified at the idea of not being real.
The water turned on.
Behold, a grad student in withdrawal.
I didn’t leave my apartment for almost two weeks after that morning. Not until his girlfriend summoned me downtown for a few drinks.
My lip was still not quite healed. I wore my darkest purple lipstick that night.
January is cold.
It’s supposedly a time to start over. And that’s true, I guess.
But why does it have to be so fucking cold?
I was sitting at a high-top table at Top of the Tavern on a Monday night in early January. He was next to me, a friend of his, someone I really didn’t want to be out with, was playing pool nearby.
It wasn’t so much that I disliked his friend as much as I was always on my guard when out with her. Evenings out with her tended to end in three AM coke deals and cases of beer at 24-hour strip clubs. The semester was starting on Wednesday. I had just over a month until I had to write and defend my comprehensive exams. And I had only just driven back up from Jacksonville the day before. Now really wasn’t the ideal time to get caught up in her idea of fun. The plan had been for him to meet me at Nick’s to discuss a panel we wanted to put together.
But then he brought her. And then she ran out of cigarettes. And he didn’t like having to keep going outside to smoke. And hey, don’t you have a membership to Top of the Tavern? Let’s move this over there.
One minute he’s sitting a PBR in front of me, and the next, it seems to just come out of his mouth.
You know, we almost did fuck.
The cold has crept inside. The building is old as fuck, and judging by the state of the bar and bathroom, I don’t think it has had any sort of repairs or whatever since my uncle worked here thirty years ago.
What? When was this? I asked. You would think I would remember.
That night last summer. He was so blasé about it it took me a minute to figure out what he meant. That Night. The one he has been using as an amusing anecdote for the last six months. My laugh was slightly hysterical and too loud by far, but it distracted from the way my hands had started to shake.
It’s difficult to light a cigarette with shaking hands.
Well, I say, it’s a good thing that didn’t happen!
Yeah, it was touch and go for about fifteen minutes or so, though. What does that even mean? Sex is sex, you either have it, or you don’t. I’ve never known anyone to equivocate about sex the way men do. The way men who cheat do.
I laughed again, but by now, it had lost its hysterical edge. It was still too loud, though.
The cold had, by now, seeped into every part of me. I’d never loved the cold more than I loved it then. If the cold had become part of me – if I had gone full Elsa – then I wasn’t real, right? No emotions mean no boundaries between my body and everything and one else. I was a half-melted ice sculpture. You could tell what had been standing there just moments before, but the once sharp lines and edges no longer existed. And a half-melted ice sculpture is an ex-ice sculpture. Pining for the fjords.
And if I wasn’t real, then this wasn’t happening. That’s how it all worked; I was sure.
But it would have been amazing, he continued as he leaned over and lit my cigarette. The flame from the lighter suddenly felt a lot hotter than it had any right to.
What happened to my lip?
And to think, I had been so concerned about being out with his friend.
It is, in the end, easier to make zines digitally than it is to make them entirely by hand.
But you can’t sit there and tell me that holding zines and downloading zines achieve the same affect.
There is a framed card I bought at the cutesy little boutique downtown that says censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.4 I read those lines for the first time at the end of my first year and then again while taking the DC Metro to Arlington National Cemetery. I’ve had it on my desk for almost two years now, and I’m still not sure I understand what it means.
Right now, my body just aches, and I’m not sure of anything.
But that’s all so melodramatic, isn’t it?
If I were to tell you that, rhetorically, normalcy functions not to define itself, but to mark out what it is not,5 you would likely roll your eyes and probably mumble something uncomplimentary. But waking up that morning flat on my back, with someone next to me in the bed, and a busted lip wasn’t normal.
My aching body is normal.
A ringing phone isn’t normal.
Maybe it was a week after that Monday night in January that my phone started ringing. His girlfriend was on the other end, screaming so loud my cats ran from me: one under the bed, the other under the sofa.
What did you do?! She screamed.
I’m sure that I have done a lot of things that would justify being screamed at, but I couldn’t think of a single one in that moment that would upset her so much.
You told him I slept with a married man?! When did I do that?! When did I sleep with a married man?! What the fuck, Shelley?!
Oh. That. I’ve thought about this conversation often. And not just because this phone call was only the first time I would be screamed at and guilt-tripped for the same thing over the course of the next month.
I could have sworn she had told me she had slept with a married man when I told her I had.
We broke up now! Because of you! Why would you say that?!
That, dragging me in and making me a pawn in their fights, that was normal.
Me freezing up when being screamed at, also distressingly normal.
I vaguely remember that after the flame from his cigarette lighter lit me up, our conversation meandered its way to exactly when the two of them got together. After a year of rumors and speculation, I heard directly from the source that they had slept together for the first time at the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Minneapolis, just a few weeks after his wife interrupted our conversation at the pool party. Wanting to take him down a peg, I said, well, you’re hardly the first married man she’s slept with. I was angry. He made me angry, and I wanted to make him feel little and insecure, if only for a moment.
Why were you even talking about me? I asked when she finally took a breath.
I could have explained it all then. Told her about That Night and The Monday and What the fuck, Shelley. But I didn’t. Because I had a lot of the same questions.
What did you do?
What the fuck?
Why would you say that?
I would finish my zine with plenty of time to spare to submit it, but it’s his email address that is listed under where to send your submissions. And that’s not a can of worms I want to open right now.
I tell myself I don’t want to be the one that damages his career with speculation.
If, as the sticky notes on my laptop would have me believe, pharmakeus–pharmakeia–pharmakon exist in a chain, then we are left with the specter of the pharmakos. There is no need for the physicality of the scapegoat if you stop at the drug itself.
A million years ago, before the end of the world, before That Night and The Monday, when we were standing by the pool with drinks in our hands, I said y’know, I think it’s a control thing. I know that if someone wanted to, they could scan my zine and put it on the internet if they wanted, but if it’s printed – if I make it by hand – then I at least have the illusion of control sometimes.
He laughed like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
- Michel Foucault, The Government of the Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France 1982 – 1983.
- Erin Manning, Always More Than One
- Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”
- Jay Timothy Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric
About the Author
Shelley Lloyd (she/they) is a disabled rhetoric Ph.D. candidate, cat mom, and a general weirdo. In 2021 she moved approximately 575 miles just to be in the same city as her favorite hockey team. You can find Shelley online at vileteapot.com as soon as she ever stops procrastinating long enough to get it up and running. Until then, you can see cat pictures on her Instagram account: @vileteapot.