- It was the same seminar room where at the beginning of the semester Sarah listened to her professor suggest the possible symbolisms for the nightingale in Keats’s poem.
- Bird = Escape her notes read.
- Same room, same long rectangular table, but instead of debating with her classmates the ways that Instagram and Jello-shots leave one’s mouth likewise “purple-stained,” Sarah sat before a panel of three “judges,” professors on the university’s Committee for Student Safety. Just a few chairs down sat The Accused. He had a name—Wilson Sikes—but, a little thrilled, the professors kept using the moniker like this was an episode of Law and Order or something.
- The Accuser = her, Sarah supposed
- = Rat = Snitch = Snatch = Slut
- From her spot at the table she could see through a window. A long branch, like a wagging finger, kept tapping against it.
- The Accused was known by his fraternity brothers as Willy.
- Willy = Dick = Cock = Junk
- The Accused wore an expression of panicked indignation and also a navy-blue blazer at least one size too small. A line of cheap brass buttons, shiny beetles, punctuated each cuff. It was the kind of garment a mother buys a son so he has something on hand for formal occasions—athletics awards ceremonies, winter formals, campus job fair interviews. Sexual assault tribunals.
- Sarah didn’t want to think about The Accused’s mother, about her shopping for this jacket, about the way that woman’s fingertips may have gently brushed along racks of empty torsos as if feeling her baby’s bathwater for the right temperature.
- She didn’t want think about him having a mother at all.
- The order of events from that night. The night, as they say, “in question.” Sarah was supposed to bring with her a list of what events occurred and when, along with a prepared statement.
- Was when she kissed his neck and liked it an “event”? And when she woke up later, pinned?
- Someone tells you to close your eyes and imagine a nightingale. Your life depends on it: is there a particular bird you would actually see?
- A well-meaning therapist from Student Health named Miriam sat beside Sarah at the table. Each had a clear plastic cup filled with water. Sarah had a folded-up piece of paper with the order of events and her statement. Miriam was a woman in a pilled sweater with a broach dangling precariously from one bit of yarn. The pulled loop made an awful O shape. Miriam was not her mother.
- Right about now, Sarah’s mother would be back from her daily walk around the neighborhood, a walk she would describe as, “brisk,” referring to both climate and pace. She was fixing a bowl of oatmeal topped with flax seeds and almond milk. If Sarah were to walk across five states and into her mother’s kitchen, she would be met with that look of intense wonder—a face that says, I made you.
- And, sorrow: You were safe but then you got born.
- Oh, but Sarah liked a cool, clean sheet! An edge to rub between finger and nail!
- “Ms. Reid,” one of the professors was saying, “Sarah.” It was the one who taught Political Science; he had Chia Pet hair and the voice of an impatient person practicing patience. The qualifications for the professors serving on this makeshift court was unclear to Sarah, but she suspected it was just another committee on which they were required to serve.
- Personnel Committee; Research Ethics Committee; Curriculum Committee; Assessment Planning Committee; Advisory Council to the Dean; Committee on Academic Requirements.
- They, too, did not want to be here.
- Not just any sheet; one that smelled of that particular kind of laundry detergent Sarah couldn’t find at the campus store or anywhere in this piece of shit excuse for a town.
- Sitting next to the Poli Sci professor was a professor of Engineering, another man. He had enormous glasses and scrubbed pink pig skin and could not—or, would not—look Sarah in the eye. For the next few hours that would encompass the entirety of the tribunal he would do and say nothing except pop up his eyebrows like jumping beans and expel a gruff, throat-clearing displeasure when Sarah’s roommate, Lizzy, who had been “called as a witness,” used the word, “rape,” to describe what had happened to Sarah that night at the party after everyone else left.
- Vodka punch that tastes like Kool-Aid, endless red cups of it. Speakers blasting Beyoncé
and wordless techno. A room of frozen smile faces. A boy’s neck she’d always wanted
to kiss just to see what it tasted like. A black hole of time that gulped down her body
and vigilance whole. Arms pinned above her head, enormous weight upon her.
Enormous breathing upon her. John Bellushi College poster up there on the wall.
- In the sick, throbbing dawn walking home across campus in last night’s dress with stockings that were somehow unripped =
- A miracle?
- Cross-legged roomates across from each other atop Lizzy’s quilt fashioned from an array of colorful Camp Tawonga T-shirts for the teary disclosure.
- Hearsay! Speculation! In the voice of Sam Waterson.
- In high school, as Sarah sat at the kitchen table doing homework, her mother would walk by cradling their pug, Norton, and with a giggle press his wet nose upon her neck.
- Sarah left a deep purple hickey the shape of Greenland on The Accused’s Polo-scented throat.
- Exhibit A shall be entered into evidence.
- In the voice of Mariska Hargitay: Objection! Beyond the scope!
- A roommate questionnaire arrived the summer before freshman year:
I am usually: a) Social; b) Quiet; c) Studious; d) Outgoing
I usually keep my room: a) Neat; b) Average; c) Messy
I plan to have overnight guests: a) Never; b) Once or twice a week; c) Weekends only
- Sarah’s dreams had always been epic in nature, set in spaces rich with drama—the circus, the sea. At home, when roused from a particularly upsetting or interesting one, she would creep down the hall to slide into bed with her younger sister, ten years younger, whose sleep-breath had not yet turned sour, whose white noise machine was always set to rain.
- Escape from reality and into another state of consciousness the flipside of a 3 X 5 notecard titled, Keats, Nightingale, read. Sarah had never really understood poetry—one cracked-open door led only to another locked one—and thus had to rely on keen memorization skills to get her through exams.
- Did you enjoy your late virginity?
Do you miss that calm sense of safety?
Those galloons of vodka Kool-Aid—were they yummy?
Did that neck taste just like you wanted?
Look around—what are the available escape routes? No, besides that red blinking EXIT sign.
Behind you. Behind you. On top of you. Inside.
- When Sarah finally got her period, age fifteen, her mother opened a box of pink Franzea and told her that now she had to be careful.
- In those days leading up to the tribunal, Miriam, the therapist, sat beside Sarah in her tea-smelling office as together they worked on the list of what events occurred and when, along with the prepared statement. The only pen in Sarah’s backpack was a purple gel pen that left an obscene trail of glitter.
- The nightingale is a kind of thrush covered in plain brown feathers. It is a small, secretive bird who builds its cupped-shaped nest close to the ground. Nightingales are partial to ants and beetles. It can sing more than one-thousand different songs.
- Nightingale goes on one side of the on the 3 X 5 notecard. The facts as they’re known get written down clearly on the other.
- = your life depends on it.
- The remaining professor on the Committee for Student Safety taught the higher level English courses Sarah had yet to take for her major, including one called Identity and Agency whose reading list was rumored to be doled-out on a student-to-student basis. Harboring some vague notion of future class participation credit and also because this professor was a woman who had huge, brown, sympathetic eyes and who wore voluminous Laura Ashley-type floral dresses which on her appeared stylish, it was to her that Sarah would momentarily address her statement.
- Any moment now she will have something to say.
- And if she says it perfectly, in perfect order, it could be like a highlighted paragraph from one of her Used-stamped anthologies for class, its translucent pages thin as butterfly wings. It could be a scene where every word and image has been chosen to achieve a certain purpose.
- The tapping branch; the camp quilt; the bird; the tunnel; the wet-nosed dog; the rain sounds; all those equals signs. The Accused who is Willy for short.
- It could build to some sort of resolution.
- It could mean something.
- One-thousand + songs
- Away! Away!
- “Ms. Reid, your prepared account, please.”
Lauren Goodwin Slaughter is the author of the poetry collection, a lesson in smallness, a finalist for the Rousseau Prize for Literature and the Eric Hoffer Award in poetry. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and winner of RHINO’s 2019 Founder’s Prize. Her poems, essays, and short stories appear or are forthcoming in Image, Pleiades, Construction, New South, 32 Poems, Four Way Review and Quiddity, among many other places. She is an assistant professor of English at The University of Alabama at Birmingham where she is also Editor-in-Chief of NELLE, a literary journal that publishes writing by women. Find her at www.laurenslaughter.com.