My mother said, “It’s ok to say no.”
I needed a cup from my grandmother’s cupboard, but I was four, unable to reach. My aunt grabbed me by the waist, cupping my bottom the way a swing set holds the body of small children. She hoisted me up to reach the cup, but I wouldn’t grab one. When she set me down I mumbled, don’t touch my private parts. Her laugh was defensive. She confronted my mother and said I was disrespectful. My mother said, “She governs her own body.”
In middle school an older female teacher sometimes walked behind students and laid her hands on them. Everyone joked about how inappropriate it was. As a class, we decided we would stand up and voice our discomfort. One day, she rested her hands on my shoulders. I jumped up. Don’t touch me, I shouted. The room was silent. I was sent to the principals’ office and eventually transferred to another teacher. My mother was proud of me, although I’m ashamed of myself now for those moments of pain etched in my teacher’s face after I’d shouted at her.
That was my mother’s gift to me. While other parents taught their children to say yes, to their teachers and their elders and their peers, my mother was adamant I learn to speak for my body.
Recently I went to get a massage from a cheap parlor; a type of place where you don’t undress. I signed a form stating I wanted a stranger’s hands on my body, to pull and push it into submission.
In a communal room, my masseuse told me, in broken and heavily accented English, to flip onto my stomach. Without speaking, he removed my arms from the shoulder straps of my dress. I assisted him. My stomach burned. He tugged at the dress, mumbling something as he pulled hard against my waist. I was waiting for him to stop. Stop beneath my shoulder blades. Stop there, at the lowest rib. My body became a list he checked off with ticks. He unsnapped my bra.
When the dress was pulled to my hips, just below the two dimples along my lower back, I told him that was far enough, the only words I was able to utter. The breath from his laugh hit my naked back and stung.
Later I learned I’d unknowingly consented to a massage, body unclothed. The masseuse was not a predator. But during that hour, I was a woman, silent.
Afterward he tried to snap my bra back on for me. I removed his hands and attempted it myself. My hands shook; I couldn’t hook the clips of my bra. He laughed again as I took the bra off completely and, still face down, slithered back into my dress. I shoved a crinkled five-dollar bill into his hand, fled.
In the car I fixed smudged mascara, my frizzled hair. My lip was swollen from where I’d bit it to keep from screaming.
In 2018 Briana Loveall was a finalist for the Beacon Street Prize and the winner of the Peninsula Pulse Hal Award. In 2017 she was a finalist for the Montana Book Festival Award and the Annie Dillard Award. Her worth has appeared, or is forthcoming, with The Rumpus, The Forge, Under the Gum Tree, Crab Orchard Review, and others.