Across the computer screen a ribbon of news appears. A backpacker, a woman, killed “by consensual rough sex” (a claim made by the man, the witness, to allow the most neutral term), the article using language like “penetration” and “50 shades” and “inspired by.”
Has sex gone too far? the journalist wants to know, or wants us to consider, and I still don’t know how to disable my notifications, a simple task that would take me less time to complete than it would to form sentences about it, another thing I complain about like pop-up ads or adult acne or the decorative clock stuck at 4:12 AM in my studio apartment.
Instead I wonder about the algorithm. The way language in brackets pools and spreads and reaches a chosen audience. I despise that I am a chosen audience. I despise data, I write in the notes app on my phone while on the crowded city bus. It is simply devastating that I am both capable of heavy perception and being heavily perceived.
Later, I delete almost every note of bad poetry that only seemed good under the invasive bus-light. Instead of installing an ad-blocker on my computer (It literally takes one minute, my friends say at the bar when I complain about the incessant advertisements), I make a point of looking away during promotional videos, mostly to spite Don Draper, who both assaulted women and told the camera he could make anyone buy anything in that stupidly sexy voice of his.
These are not new thoughts. In fact, they are annoyingly old.
I have not excavated anything novel, just had my turn to experience it.
This is possibly how the backpacker felt, maybe, though I would not know, and no one ever will, and as I walk down the long broken street toward my apartment I feel a bit of extra weight in the hollow nest between my shoulders.
Last night B asked to see a movie at the theater with that very recognizable cheap-looking baroque quality, and though the big pretzels are way too expensive I oblige because he knows movies a lot better than I do and most of the time I enjoy them, and when I don’t I instinctually assume it is due to my own lack of understanding, the way people do when they gaze at contemporary art and accept that if they don’t quite grasp it they are simply lacking something fundamentally human.
This film follows a young secretary around as she works for a big shot film producer who knowingly assaults young film hopefuls. This is allegorical but very obviously about Weinstein. The women all happen to be beautiful, in the way that beauty seems to Just Happen to people in movies.
The secretary is beautiful in the sense that she has clear skin and looks darling in a close up shot, even when crying. She also has very obvious panty-lines and is ordinary-looking enough to be told she is smart, not the type of girl to be sexually assaulted by the Big Shot, the distinction made quite clear throughout the grueling duration of the film.
During the previews, there is a movie about a woman who pretends to get drunk and then kills the “nice guys” who try to help her get home. B leans over the dinky armrest dividing us.
It seems they really know their audience, he whispers.
Later I take long sips of ginger ale and bottom shelf whiskey at a smoke-laden Pittsburgh bar where everyone is incredibly ordinary, including myself, ordinary enough to be seen as intelligent, perhaps, and most definitely noticed in the mundane ordinary ways, like when I walk up to the bar to get a cup of water and a man mumbles a controlled, nearly polite, “damn” in my direction.
Make sure u hydrate, B texts me when I get home, and I appreciate this, but I don’t, instead I scroll through one feed or another, and though I haven’t worn makeup in a few weeks I watch promotional videos about how to use Fenty products to make my face look less round until I fall asleep in this knew knowledge, cheeks puffy with dehydration, my phone teetering at the edge of a sunken-in mattress.
Have you fallen in love again? My therapist jokes when I tell her about B—but the answer is nearly always a resounding yes.
I tell her it’s not love but pathology.
It’s as if I need to be looked at twice: once through his eyes, once through what I imagine to be his eyes.
I had a dream about my co-worker, Nel, and now I can’t stop looking at her elbows or the mountain tattooed on her beautiful bicep while she makes lattes. I had a series of dreams about sex with a series of people I definitely shouldn’t have sex with and being on a cheer squad where everyone kills each other.
Dreams are a side effect of the subconscious, I tell my therapist, though she knows this.
You’re so, so young, and so, so serious, she says, trying to comfort me, though this, too, is something I am terribly aware of.
In college I become obsessed with the word perceive.
Perceive, perception, perceptible.
To obtain, seize, take possession of. To take entirely. To grasp. Somehow even more violent than the origins of penetrate, though it’s only looking.
Everywhere I look is a dagger, or a dagger returned.
How scary. How precarious.
We had been staying in a Ghanaian resort, the reward for fulfilling our teaching requirements. I lived in a tiny watermelon-patterned bikini that I bought from a mall in Accra because the strap on my dust-colored one-piece broke with overuse.
A 40 year-old British marine biologist teaches us about turtles.
We all go swimming together in the Atlantic, a few excessive waves knocking us all into one another, an unknown hand grazing my hip, some laughter, a few caught stares.
it took everything not to have u right there in the ocean a WhatsApp message appears on my screen late that night, from a profile that has a bug-eyed baby turtle as the avatar.
This happens while I am on FaceTime with the college boyfriend from many, many miles away.
that tight –
The worst thing I’ve ever done, I tell my therapist, or maybe I just tell myself, or maybe the God who still somehow rules my conscience, is stand in the pathetic shower stream in my humid beach hut and acknowledge that this person does not disgust me, in fact I crave his desire, his critical perception, and if I wanted to I could walk ten feet down the beach path to his hut and no one would ever know about it, though I didn’t do this, and I never would, maybe, but it was a choice I could make, and this felt so deeply pathological that I told the college boyfriend about it.
Why would you allow this person to speak to you, or touch you, he asks, in a voice that could be equally curious as it could be angry, and I just keep saying I don’t know, I’m sorry, im sorry, im sorry, until his voice trails away and I stare up at the netted ceiling and let my perception warp the texture of it, the way these things happen at night, where if you stare at nearly anything long enough it can become something else.
grace (ge) gilbert is the author of “NOTIFICATIONS IN THE DARK” (Antenna Books, 2022) and “whom” (Ghost City Press, Summer 2021). their poems & lyric essays have been featured in the Adroit Journal, Ninth Letter, ANMLY, the minnesota review, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, and more. they are an MFA candidate at Pitt, where they live with the love of their life, Boen Wang, and their cat, Honey. see more at https://gracegegilbert.com.
Photography: Rob Laughter