The Smoky Notes of Consent
by Emma Sklar
I threw up into my hands while waiting in line for the bathroom. It was mostly liquid- whiskey and pickle juice and a little bit of bile. It sputtered through my fingers and onto the bottom of my pink cotton dress before hitting the floor. The bartender saw this happen and asked me if I was OK. His tone was cold and accusatory.
I know that I was puking on his floor but I felt strongly that he didn’t have all of the information, and he could be more generous. As I clamped my hand over my mouth in anticipation of a second eruption I tried to meet his eyes as my own screamed “No, please! You don’t understand! I am a strong lady who holds her liquor!”
It was a nice bar filled with dark wood and glittery granite details. My date, Andreas, picked it because I told him that I had never had a pickleback. This place was known for them. I was thankful for that, because the pickle juice is probably what made me throw up instead of holding down the alcohol until it all hit my bloodstream and dragged me into the doldrums of incoherence.
We had been sitting in the fenced-in backyard on one of the precise wooden benches that hugged the painted brick building back. I was running late from work, which is why I hadn’t eaten anything (I hate being late), so when I arrived he was waiting for me with our drinks. The concrete beneath my feet was still baked warm by the setting sun, but It was October and the air turned cold and dark abruptly. Faux-antique lanterns hung from black-iron posts and clattered when the wind blew or when anybody opened the door. A girl in an apron came around to light all of the candles on the tables with one of those skinny lighters that looks like an anteater’s snout.
Andreas put his arm around me and held his glass of scotch in the hand that dangled over my shoulder. It was a very good scotch, he told me. Its smoky sting wafted from his glass and clung to his breath which was hot on the side of my face as he leaned in close to tell me about his travels, and his job, and his childhood in South Africa.
We were both open about our past relationships and our doubts about monogamy. I admitted to having been in a six year relationship, and having been on a lot of online dates since the breakup. I said I find it fun, which was and is true. We both had freshly bleached hair, which we thought was funny because we both liked to dye it bright colors but were having trouble deciding which one to do next. We were both thinking of blue.
I had a sip of his scotch and then he took a long swig and then he kissed me. His tongue was cold and I wondered if he had held ice in his mouth on purpose because he read somewhere that women like that. I considered asking him, but it was soon after that I felt a wave of nausea creep into the back of my throat, right when his hand moved up my spine and to the back of my head.
I used to enjoy the smokiness of scotch in my nose while sipping slowly out of a squat glass with one large ice cube. This was several years prior at my ex’s parents’ apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I used to visit in college and later stay on weekends when I had first moved to New York. After we broke up, but before I met Andreas, the smell of scotch would induce a sort of sad warmth- a pang for what I had I lost paired with the appreciation for the opportunity to stand in their kitchen and share in their ritual of crackers and cheese and scotch before dinner.
I can’t drink scotch of any kind now. Any whiff of it will turn my stomach over like an old lock in a heavy door.
“You have to get her up or move over somewhere else. She can’t be on the ground like that in front of the bar.”
I picked my head up from between my knees and spoke as clearly as I could. “I’m sorry. I know what it looks like. I just really feel ill. I’m going to get a car.” I had to push the words out breathily, and pause between each sentence, but I know my speech was clear.
Andreas put his hand on the bartenders shoulder and said something I couldn’t make out, followed by easy laughter. This made me furious, and embarrassed, and despondent. I asked him for more water, which I immediately regurgitated onto the pavement.
Andreas ordered a car and offered to drop me off on his way home. This was after I struggled to navigate my own phone through blurry eyes and cried a little when I couldn’t focus. I think he was drunker than I was based on the way he swayed and sweat and how his speech had changed since we met earlier that evening. I wasn’t staggering or slurring, but I was dizzy and felt like any sudden movement was going to incite further gastronomical pyrotechnics, so I remained as still as possible, and kept my head down, and let people assume as much as they’d like.
I genuinely trusted him when he asked if he could come in and stay the night on the grounds that he didn’t realize how late it had gotten, and how far from him I lived and how he was worried about the cost of the car. He offered to stay on the couch, not realizing that I didn’t even have a living room. I thought maybe he had wanted to impress me by paying for fancy drinks and private cars, and now reality was crashing down as he sobered up and started adding the numbers in his head. I felt bad and wished I had made clear earlier on that I don’t care about such things and would have been fine with a dive bar within walking distance from my apartment.
If that had been the case we probably would have only gotten kind of drunk and I would have taken him home to fuck and then asked him to leave from there. If that had been the case I probably wouldn’t even remember his face, let alone be haunted by the smell of his scotch breath or the very specific weight of his body and the image of his frame backlit above me against the white glow from my neighbors flood-light that pierced my open blinds.
As it was he came inside and lay down fully dressed. I changed into shorts and a tank top because the heat was on and there was still vomit on my dress. When I feel sick I like to be as cold as possible. I fetched water for both of us and said goodnight and turned the light off and curled into fetal position on my side of the bed, hoping to wake up feeling better.
I heard the shuffle of his jeans and the clank of his belt on the floor. He didn’t ask me how I was feeling, but I had vomited again in the cab into my purse so I trusted that I did not need to reiterate that I was not feeling up to any kind of kissing, touching, or sexual contact whatsoever.
My spins were just giving way to sleep when he shifted positions to spoon me and press his bare erection into my upper thighs. I groaned and squirmed in protest like a child, hoping I wouldn’t have to open my mouth to articulate my displeasure. He said something along the lines of how it would be a “shame” if we didn’t get to enjoy each others bodies and how he wanted to make me feel better. Clearly the words of a man who does not fuck properly if he thought any fucking that would not agitate nausea is anywhere close to adequate.
I just wanted to sleep, so when he started to crawl towards my hips to go down on me I asked him to stop, but then he was on top of me, and then inside of me, and I was just sort of there. That’s the best I can explain it. Nothing hurt and he wasn’t rough so at that point I just closed my eyes and hoped it would end swiftly.
It did not go swiftly, as it rarely does when a man is so drunk, and I started feeling sick again. I asked him to move because I was going to throw up. I did so into a mesh waste basket next to my bed, which was the second worst thing that happened that night, because there was no bag in it. While I was heaving over the edge of my bed he tried to position himself behind me but luckily his erection had more dignity than he did, and it’s increasingly ductile form would not fit inside of me.
He said “give me a minute” and tried to get himself hard again. I told him I was going to sleep no matter what, and he could go to the bathroom if he needed to finish and that my alarm was set for 6:30.
At 5:45 he woke me up with his pawing and pressing, stating that he “really needed to cum” because he had been inside of me “all night.” His sweat smelled like scotch now and I recoiled when he tried to kiss my neck.
He asked for a blowjob and I laughed without answering. He asked if I could get him some more water because his mouth was too dry to generate the necessary spit to masturbate with and when I sat up to consider it I felt sick again and ran to the bathroom. I decided to lie down on the bathroom floor and wait until I heard my alarm from the other room.
When I came back out he had fallen asleep and could only barely be roused in time to get up and get dressed. I had to be at work by 7:30. We walked in silence to the train. He didn’t come into the station with me and I didn’t ask where he was going.
On Wednesday of the following week I sat in the waiting room at a free STD testing service in Brooklyn writing and re-writing a text to Andreas.
Hey. I don’t know if you remember but you didn’t use protection so I’m getting tested. If you do have anything please do me the favor of just telling me.
Hey. I never made it to work the next day. SO much vomit haha. Anyway can we talk? I’m not super comfortable with how everything played out.
Hey. Do you remember me saying that I didn’t want to have sex?
Hey. I’m getting tested and if I have anything I am going to find you and I swear to fucking god I am going to find a way to destroy your happiness forever.
Hey. You should probably know that I have an STD. Good luck guessing which one!
Hey. That was kind of fucked up.
In the end I said nothing. I figured I would if any tests came back positive, but they did not. The truth is that I didn’t really want to know if he had remorse or not, and I didn’t want to face the litany of insults or rebuttals he might deploy if he felt threatened by my inquiries. Mostly, I never wanted to see him again. The thought of his large face and his hot breath and his once charming accent were enough to make me delete the text I was working on and erase our entire texting history.
There is a dichotomy that some of us have to operate within (we know who we are) – either we have to be ready and able to take legal action or we have to be 100% comfortable with every instance in which someone has jammed a part of their anatomy into our bodies. Any admission that we otherwise enjoy sex reduces our credibility. Any hint that we are reckless, as I often am, or prone to trust someone without enough evidence, which I often do, is an indictment. We’re the ones who have to learn lessons about our safety and the ones who either need to have our story straight or be at risk of slander.
I want to believe that just as I regret my lack of assertive action, he regrets the part of him that compelled him to keep trying to have sex with me once he was in my bed despite my previous objections. I wanted to believe, and still want to believe that we were both victims of the same broken system, and suffer the same weaknesses, and that mine just happens to make my body more vulnerable. I want to believe that he would also prefer a life full of only vigorous consent.
I can still drink bourbon and whiskey, no problem, even though I’ve had too much of both on several occasions. Same goes for tequila, vodka, and gin. When I’ve had a long day I like to go to my local bar and get a double whiskey with a very cold hard cider. When I achieve a pleasant haze I wander the three blocks home to my still, empty room which smells exactly the way I want it to. I do so without fear or concern for what might happen, or how my drinking might be perceived by others. I do it all the time. I do it with the conviction of someone who doesn’t believe that she should stop doing something she enjoys based on someone else’s actions. I do it with only a little bit of spite in my heart.
I enjoy a very free and fulfilling existence, but I still can’t drink scotch. I can barely be near it. Andreas didn’t hurt me or traumatize me or really do more than ruin a few hours of my life, but even so I lost that, and I can only wonder what people who have had it worse are missing- what smells and places used to fill them will nostalgic bliss that now only fill them with terror. People talk about “the gray area” when it comes to consent, and I don’t disagree that it is often more complex than it should be, but whether that space is grey or smoky or completely blank there is no ambiguity about what is at stake for the person who has to exist there.
This is a work of non-fiction. Names have been changed or altered
Emma Sklar was born and raised in rural Vermont where she learned how to ski, ride horses, and be alone with her thoughts. She now lives in Brooklyn where she never rides horses and tries to publish her thoughts as quickly as possible. You can find her work in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary, on (b)oinkzine.com and via Twitter at @emmasince1988.