“No thanks, I don’t need any pamphlets.” My voice sounded terser than I intended. The nurse practitioner set them on the counter, unperturbed.
My roommate during freshman year, Kathleen, lusted after pamphlets. They collected them from the various offices around campus, keeping the ever-growing stack in their desk drawer. The best ones, the most prized and sought after, were the ones about sexual health, women’s health, safe sex practices, and consent.
When I came to college, I had never talked about women’s health or safe sex before. My Catholic upbringing had excused me from any sex ed class, and my mother had given me a book to read rather than ever talking to me about menstruation. By contrast, Kathleen loved talking about women’s health. They talked about their period, about their breasts and the influence bras might have over breast shape, about queer sexuality and how the definition of sex most people subscribe to only affirms penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse. Kathleen was my first introduction to healthy, sex-positive, stigma-erasing conversation about human sexuality. I was slow to catch on, but I did, eventually. I can’t say it was really the pamphlets that I took to heart. I read them, but it was my relationship with a person who cared about these things that wedged a door open in the way I conceived sexuality. How it could be fun. How it wasn’t always someone making you feel guilty until you acquiesced to their demands. How my ex-boyfriend had crossed lines into abuse. How it didn’t have to be that way.
The summer after that, I worked at a local graphic design company, filling pockets on a machine for ten-hour shifts. Sometimes, at the end of a day, the boss would come around, asking if anyone wanted to stay after and do some handwork. Handwork was a jargon term that meant “someone ordered something that won’t run through the damn machines.” Often, it was the result of a specialty paper stock, or the customer not understanding the limitations of the machines on the production floor.
I always raised my hand to stay after, because we were allowed to listen to music once the machines were shut down for the day. And we got to sit down after running around on concrete all day. Handwork was almost like a treat.
One day I stayed after to hand-fold 1,600 trifold brochures, and my supervisor Jenny stayed after too. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of Jenny. I had just never met someone with a buzzcut that showed off a tattoo of “69” on the back of their neck. Also, she occasionally brought up her stint in prison.
While we were busily folding these brochures for the local mall (they were rebranding with a new logo and colors) and placing groups of one hundred in the plastic mail trays, Jenny started talking to me about strippers. Now, I had never been too interested in female strippers, but when your butch lesbian felon supervisor talks to you about strippers, you should probably feign a little interest.
“That’s how I went to prison,” she said, “hanging out at the strip club too much. I started being friends with the girls.” I stopped folding, my attention prompting her to continue. “I started noticing when guys would make them uncomfortable, crossing the line. Being too drunk and stuff. Dicks. I turned into an unofficial bouncer.”
I laughed. “Didn’t they have bouncers already?”
She smiled, saying “Yeah, but they’re men. They can’t see anything. So anyway, I felony assaulted a creep one night.” Folding brochures was quiet after that. I didn’t want to admit how okay I was with Jenny’s crime.
Working amidst stacks and pallets of paper during the summers was actually a great job for me. I love paper the way Kathleen loves brochures. I love the feeling of a crisp fold under my fingertips. I pick up paper off the ground in parking lots and on sidewalks. I study these scraps of other people’s lives. I believe in the fate of found papers and receipts. Once, I found a business card on the ground when I was walking home drunk, and I kept it, calling it “The Destiny Card.” I will know when it’s time to use the information on The Destiny Card.
When I went to Boise State, the ground around campus was always littered with religious tracts. Students would accidentally make eye contact with some witness of one faith or another, be pressed into taking a brochure, and then drop it in the next fifty paces.
There was a pamphlet on the sidewalk next to my new roommate Jessica, when Sami (another new roommate) and I found her. She had dropped off her stuff earlier that day in our new campus apartment, exchanged names and numbers with us, and then headed to the bars in downtown Boise, also known as BODO. I was just finishing unpacking when Sami came to my open door and knocked on the door frame.
“Jessica stopped texting me back, and she was drinking a lot.” Sami bit her lip, waiting for me to respond. I stopped, considering what the right thing to do would be.
“Should we try to go find her?” I finally asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”
So my first night in Boise was a crash course in navigating from our apartment on the edge of campus to BODO. Sami was calling Jessica’s phone. Every time Jessica answered, she was less sensical and quicker to hang up. When we found her, she was sitting on a curb on the edge of campus closest to our apartment building. She was too gone to notice the pamphlet on the ground next to her. It had a crying woman on a blue background and text that read “Will Suffering Ever End?”
I assume the inside text of the pamphlet answered the question in a way that pacifies.
We hauled Jessica to her feet, running mascara and all, and drag-walked her home. She was crying and babbling about someone who bought her a lot of drinks and then offered her a ride home. Sami looked sick, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the details tumbling from Jessica’s mouth, or her strongly liquored breath.
After we took off Jessica’s shoes and got her a glass of water, we put her to bed. Our three bedroom doors were clustered at the top of the stairs, with the living room and kitchen on the first floor. Sami and I sat on the landing and whispered.
“Do you think she’s okay?” Sami looked close to tears.
“I don’t know,” I answered. It felt somber, this stair-landing meeting. Normally I just felt annoyed when my friends were so drunk they had to be fetched and carried, but this night had a different, undefined bad feeling.
“Do you think that guy she was talking about hurt her?” I paused a long time, finally understanding what Sami had been worried about since she knocked on my door frame. We never talked about it again, never tried to find out if the guy who dumped Jessica out on the curb had sexually assaulted her, never asked her if she remembered what happened. I think it was fear that kept us from talking about it, or maybe a mix of pity and awkwardness. I know now that what Sami and I did when we subscribed to this silence constitutes a betrayal, but I lack any good plan for rectifying it.
Two years later, I was in the doctor’s office refusing to read brochures like “What you need to know about reporting your sexual assault,” and “Recovering from Sexual Assault,” and “Acquaintance Rape: myths and facts.” I had done just what Jessica had done that first night in Boise: gotten into a car with a stranger who had bought me drinks and promised me a ride home. There was nothing the crisp, glossy pages of brochures could tell me about rape that I didn’t already know now. It’s more common than you think and it’s not your fault. Even when it feels like it’s your fault.
What wasn’t in those gloss finish, 100 lb., two-score trifold brochures was anything that would remove what had happened to me. No words I could read would replace the memory of his breath on my neck or the pain of his unwanted penetration. I hadn’t cried yet. I hadn’t even felt anger or sadness really, just a hollow feeling like disappointment with the middle scooped out. Even when I’d told other people, I’d found myself telling them it was going to be okay. I was worried about burdening them. I was worried about them not believing me. But I didn’t need a brochure to tell me anything about this process. I’m a woman; I’ve seen my friends go through this process before. I’d watched the documentaries and organized interactive theater events decrying victim blaming and rape culture. I sympathized with rape victims until I could empathize with them, but then I felt nothing.
The tears came eventually, about an hour after leaving the doctor with my various prophylactic prescriptions. I was driving across the state to see a friend play in an orchestra concert, and I realized I could have saved those brochures to give to Kathleen when I saw them next. It was so stupid, but I suddenly missed the feeling of a crisp fold in my hands, the different finishes and weights of paper, the creative formatting of information. And I finally cried.
Hannah Carr-Murphy is a poet and folk musician from Iowa.