BY SARAH CARSON
In the trailer park nothing is permanent, but everything is perpetual.
My first summer in the trailer park, I did not worry that I would spend decades wondering if “escape” was written on my forehead.
It was warm and the stray cats stretched out in the grass and the squirrels gnawed through the phone lines looking for God-knows-what.
After an eight hour shift pulling pallets of Coca-Cola, Sprite, Diet Coca-Cola, Diet Sprite, Coca-Cola Zero, Sprite Zero, Diet Caffeine Free Coca-Cola, Diet Caffeine Free Root Beer, Fanta, Diet Fanta, Fresca, Diet Fresca, Dasani, Diet Dasani (there’s no Diet Dasani, dear reader – I was just checking to see if you were paying attention), I invited my coworker back to my living room, and his arms around me a warm drink after a cold, continually bath of, “Are girls supposed to be doing a job like that?” and “Man, if you were my lady” and “Shit, let me help you with that” and “Fuck, you must have some calves under that uniform.”
At home that first summer, the sound of love was the sound of mating – sharp and animal, echoes around the corners of single-wides, shadows on pulled shades, heavy boots on porches that would not stand a strong wind.
I learned a woman could say to a man, “Do this,” and he would do so willingly, happily. He could take direction. He would bring her flowers, pizza, left over Fourth of July cupcakes, Diet 7-Up.
He’d brag to his friends over a carburetor, a whiskey game of Hearts, and every detail would be significant – how they laid for hours drying the sweat from their hair against the headboard, only a thin sheet of vinyl siding separating their naked bodies from where other people’s children played in the street.
I learned how to hold a man, to keep him all summer with nothing but my open mouth and my open screen door, that I could hold my power as long as I could hold my temper, bite my tongue.
But when winter came, the static of cold was like news from another planet. It rushed our bare feet from where the door did not quite meet the threshold.
There was nothing to break the white, blizzard monotony but a Dodge Intrepid pulling up through the melting slush, the warmth of a down jacket falling to the floor.
When the phone rang, the trailer was electric; the cement blocks shook with anticipation.
He told me he wore his gloves when he broke pallets to keep the palms of his hands soft for just these kinds of evenings.
He said he loved me through the threadbare spots in the pillowcase.
He said my body was a tree taking root beneath the septic system of his mortgage, his car payment, his two kids, his microwave dinners, his wife.
He said my body was an open sky above the winter.
He said my body was his.
All of this, of course, is reconstructed.
Like years later when I call the police on the boys breaking out windshields in the junkyard and the police don’t come, I’ll think of the way his eyes were never fully open, the trick he told me his brothers used to beat the urine tests, a hot bottle of pee taped to their inner thighs.
It’s this I’ll remember when I tell another girl how in Michigan, the legal term for rape or sexual assault is Criminal Sexual Conduct.
First Degree CSC includes penetration.
Second Degree CSC includes sexual contact with a victim who is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections where the assailant is an employee, volunteer or contractual employee.
Third Degree CSC includes penetration by force or coercion.
Fourth Degree CSC includes sexual contact by force or coercion.
Fourth Degree CSC includes sexual contact made by force even if the goal was forced penetration.
Fourth Degree CSC includes sexual contact made after all manner of struggling, twisting, kicking, and screaming.
This I learned from the Internet.
The detective who called me never did explain what it was he wasn’t investigating.
It’s this I’ll remember the third time I call the cops – when I’ve finally got it all figured out, standing in the middle of the highway kicking broken glass with the toe of my smart, reasonably priced loafer.
I will pull my insurance card from my sensibly organized wallet, from the pocket where I also keep my checkbook, my frequent flyer card.
The woman whose car I’ve just totaled will have no such pocket in her wallet.
The police will quickly make a determination of lesser than, greater than.
When I get back in my car, I won’t even think about Detective So-and-So, Dr. What’s-Her-Name, about the afternoon it was all finally over, about how much bigger a man’s hands get when he crosses the border between what’s been consented to and what’s been broken, how a steak knife appears on the bedside table and it takes months to find the composure to move it, how his weight on top of mine was foreign, how all that springtime give was mysteriously gone.
But we’re not there yet.
It is still winter, and the plastic on the windows is fogging from the heat of our bodies, the heat of his hands in the place where my jeans spill from my waist.
He asks if I’m losing weight, and I don’t know the right answer.
We argue so loudly in the night that the neighbors give their children extra blankets to shield their ears.
“We were in love,” I tell the state patrolman who is sent to take my name and phone number. “No, wait, I was in love,” I correct. I clarify. “But that was months ago now.”
“Are you sure you aren’t just angry?” he says, taking my hand in his hand, watching my eyes like we’re in the final scene of the kind of movies my grandma watches when she drinks lots of wine.
“I am angry,” I will learn not to say.
The lady cop will walk circles into the floor of my kitchen. She will memorize the ceiling tiles.
“Take off your shoes,” I won’t say to her. “You are tracking mud across the floor of my home.”
“This is not your home,” she won’t say back. “I’ve stood here a million times before you arrived. I’ll stand here for a million more girls after you’re gone.”
I will go see a therapist who will try to hypnotize the memories out of me.
“Jesus was never angry,” she’ll tell me.
“Jesus turned over the tables in the temple,” I’ll say. “Around here all the tables are bolted to the floor.”
The therapist will teach me to combat the adrenalin with endorphins, to hold my arm in front of my face until the muscle exertion sends chemicals into my bloodstream.
I will use the same trick years later in the alley behind the north Chicago condo I paid for by not dragging pallets of Coca-Cola across a giant grocery store.
I’ll be arguing with my neighbor about garbage cans when she’ll say, “You’re about to get beat if you don’t watch it.”
And I’ll respond, “Is that a threat?” because I’ll know by then there must be an immediate threat to your safety if you desire protection. The court clerk will have told me this explicitly before gathering my restraining order paperwork into a recycling bin and closing the door loudly behind a security guard who shifted his weight to hold his baton.
My neighbor will look at me as if to say, “Call the police, then.”
And I will call the police.
I’ll drive my car around the block to get her house number, and I’ll sit there with my doors locked, blocking traffic until the neighbor comes charging out the front door trying to start the argument all over.
“You don’t know where my body has been,” I’ll think through the rolled up window. “You don’t know what I’m willing to do to never let it get away from me again.”
Years later, when I am ready to invite a man over again, he will hold his collarbone against my cheek in the dark and whisper, “Tell me a secret.”
“Once another man put his mouth where he did not have permission,” I’ll say. “Now I am a match against a flint strip. Now I cry at the ringing of the doorbell. I once threw a 24 ounce Mountain Dew at a man just to see if he would flinch.”
This will turn out to not be the kind of secret the man wanted to hear.
The first few minutes afterward were not like they are on Law and Order Special Victims Unit, even though I love that show, even though I haven’t seen that show in years.
For instance, on TV, the rapist never stops midthrust to realize what he’s done cannot be undone, never dismounts and backs out the bedroom door in terror, never finds his hand on a steak knife and seems to say to himself, “Bro, this isn’t you. What are you doing? Leave this poor girl alone.”
Because all of this would be a perfect ending to a story except fuck that poor girl and all her remembering.
Why can’t she just let it go instead of always thinking about that knife – how she once used it to cut slices in her frozen pizzas – or those red track pants she was wearing – the ones she’d bought on internship in the biggest city she’d ever been to — the ones she was convinced hugged her hips in the most perfect, athletic way possible, how after the struggle at her waist to take those track pants off, to keep them on, to take them off, to keep them on, she could never wear those damn track pants again.
And why did Olivia Benson never call any shook up lady in the middle of the workday to say, “Hey, by the way, just so you know, you weren’t raped. You were sexually assaulted. You’re only raped if his penis makes it inside of you. So try to be more clear when you meet with your supervisor later to sort out who will work where and how you can avoid talking to each other at the monthly meeting. Otherwise you’ll be sued for defamation. And nobody wants that.”
And fuck if the trailer park worried that anyone should spend another moment in that single-wide.
The rent is still due, sister.
Have your case worker give us a call even if you never do spend another night here, especially since you’ll sleep every night of your life in that trailer no matter where you go.
Now is the part of the story where I tell you the trailer park has nothing to do with whether a girl gets raped or does not get raped or gets criminally sexually assaulted or does not get criminally sexually assaulted.
It maybe has everything to do with whether the lady cop will look her in the eye or not.
It maybe has everything to do with whether the detective comes to her home instead of calls her on the phone.
I couldn’t tell you. I was only raped in a trailer park and am unwilling to control test other locations.
Also, I have been informed, I was not raped.
I was sexually assaulted and that is different, I guess.
I have friends, though, who will tell you it’s not the trailer park that does it – that a lady cop, a gentleman cop, the detective in charge, the detective not in charge, the court clerk who helps you with your restraining order paperwork, the court clerk who doesn’t help you with your restraining order paperwork can care or not care just as much in the suburbs and in the city and in the Bahamas and in the locker room at the gym with the security cameras and in the barn where you were looking for the Christmas lights you could have sworn you left in the hay loft.
Maybe it has to do with being a girl. Or a woman. Or a boy. Or a bro.
Maybe it has to do with being raped.
Maybe if only we could have kept them away from our bodies, held them off until they committed some more respectable crime against us, maybe then we would have been worth the time of a police report.
I have no idea.
His body was stronger than mine.
Weeks after the cops leave, I begin shopping late at night at the 24-hour grocery store where I will soon have to return to work.
The grocery manager calls out to me between shoppers, “What did he do to you?”
And I say, “Nothing that a war, a military coup hasn’t done. Raised my body up the flagpole. Left me to grow back into the extra skin the psych ward has left on my bones. I will look great in a bathing suit this year.”
When I leave the trailer park, I take only half of my things with me.
I fill my car with as much as it will hold. A blender perched precariously atop the boxes in the backseat slides into my headrest at every four-way stop.
At a gas station just beyond the city limits, where the trailer parks begin to give way to homes on more solid foundations, I stop to fill up and get something to drink, and a cop sees me fighting to keep my belongings in the car.
“Are you coming or going?” she asks, stirring a packet of sugar into her coffee at the counter.
“Both,” I say, not joking, and this makes her unhappy.
Her face falls.
“I know,” she says. “I mean…”
It will have nothing to do with her, and I’ll know this.
Maybe if she’d been dispatched that morning everything would have been different.
Maybe my life wouldn’t be an arrow pointing away from. A therefore. An after that.
Nearly ten years later, when I’m driving up Chicago Avenue in Evanston, Illinois and a man in a Jaguar waves a gun at me for driving too slowly, I will call 911 and speak to an operator who swears every officer on duty has been given the man’s license plate, that he will be stopped, that he will be found.
I’ll pass a cop smoking in the parking lot of what used to be a Blockbuster Video, and I will be crying, and the officer will swear he heard nothing on the radio, that he saw no Jaguar.
“Do you really want him caught?” he’ll ask me. “Or are you just glad that he’s gone?”
I’ll think, “I really want him caught.”
I’ll think, “Don’t we all really want him caught?”
But I’ll say, “I guess I’m glad he’s gone,” and I’ll get back in my car and I’ll head home.
But he won’t be gone.
He’ll be in every Jaguar, in every left-turn lane for all of perpetuity.
He’ll be in the rearview.
He’ll be in my blind spot.
He’ll ride shotgun.
He’ll be in my recommended Facebook friends.
He’ll be in every trailer park I can see from the highway and every 24-hour grocery store across the Midwest, in the Coca-Cola, the Sprite, the Diet Caffeine Free Root Beer, the Diet Dasani (just kidding, reader, there’s still no Diet Dasani.)
He might be sorry.
He might have just done it that once.
But he’s still here, and he isn’t going anywhere.
He never left.
Sarah Carson was born in Flint, Michigan but now lives in Chicago. Sarah's work has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Cream City Review, the Nashville Review, the New Orleans Review, and Whiskey Island, among others. She is also the author of the books Poems in which You Die (BatCat Press) and Buick City (Mayapple Press).