by Emi Benn
A chorus of me too’s greeted her as she opened the app. Mimi scrolled, reading through the harrowing accounts of people she knew, people she knew vaguely, and people she didn’t really know at all but felt like she did. She had to pause before she included herself among them—had she ever been sexually harassed or assaulted? Of course not, she thought before remembering a voice teacher who’d asked her at fifteen what turned her on and a man on the subway who’d grabbed her butt.
A girl she knew in high school, the ex of her high school ex, was trending after she’d gone public about being assaulted by a Hollywood producer—not the big one that everyone was talking about, but another one who made movies for children, ones that Mimi’s boys had enjoyed. Mimi read the article with interest though she couldn’t recognize the girl she had known in the op-ed. That Flora Dice had been vapid and affected. Her hair had been bobbed and dyed red, with severe bangs cut straight across like a blind that hung high above her eyebrows. She’d wear plain black or white t-shirts with a deep V that showed off her protruding collarbones and wrap herself in long, oversized cardigans. And Flora had been thin, so thin, but no one worried about her then because she always was cheerful, and she’d explain to everyone how she always lost weight whenever she was busy. Mimi had felt envious of her at the time for being so petite, probably a 00 at the department store. Now she felt bad, thinking of Flora not just a person who had snubbed her, but as someone more complicated who had just outed herself as being sexually abused as a child and who would grow up to have horrible things happen to her in Hollywood.
Mimi had read a few years back that Flora had checked herself into a treatment center for exhaustion. She had thought about reaching out, but then she felt foolish—other than having the same ex-boyfriend in high school and a couple conversations more than ten years ago, she didn’t really know her.
There was anticipation in the fall air, each day revealing another perpetrator like a tear-off calendar. At first, Mimi had felt sick by them, but after a week had passed and several people she knew had shared more stories, sometimes very graphic ones, it didn’t seem possible to overshare.
Me too, Mimi wrote to the nearly 1,000 people she’d accumulated on social media. She was at her son’s soccer practice. He was only seven but her elder boy was ten. Her ex, Luke, had been just seven years older than that when it had happened.
Her finger stabbed at the phone’s screen.
This isn’t sexual assault, but it is wrong, and I don’t think it would have happened if I wasn’t female. Once my high school boyfriend shoved a sandwich into my mouth and told me to eat. #stillprocessing #metoo
The responses flooded in: red angry emojis and the sandwich one.
Mimi’s first boyfriend was three years older than her, when that was a big deal and people gossiped about junior boys and freshmen girls. Though he was a junior and she was a freshman, Mimi didn’t classify herself as one of those freshmen girls—she was smart, got all A’s. But perhaps she was just another stupid freshman who had been taken advantage of. It wasn’t the sex that bothered her though. It was the sandwich.
She had met Luke in drama but had known about him long before—everyone did, he was kind of famous at their school. He’d already starred in a national commercial for mouthwash culminating with him successfully kissing a girl. He wore his blonde hair spiked and had large expressive eyes that projected all the way to the back row. Though actors weren’t necessarily popular, everyone knew Luke. People yelled his name as they walked down the halls together, and Mimi could feel them watching her, too, because he had chosen her. Thanks to Luke, she had been lifted out of her invisibility. Though she wanted to project herself out like he did, she was shy when she wasn’t on stage. He knew that about her—he knew her well enough to know that she was often self-conscious and that she got cranky when she was hungry. “A Mimi-thing,” he’d said with a smile when she’d confided it to him.
She knew things about him, too: the real story about what happened with Flora, and that he was still bitter about it. Flora was a junior, too—Luke’s year.
People often compared them—“the freshman Flora” they had called her, which Mimi both resented and found flattering. She thought they were nothing alike. Flora fluttered her hands delicately as she sang with her Disney princess voice filling with a quivering almost perfectly electrically stimulated vibrato. Unlike Flora’s smooth soprano and careful diction (so careful that people often asked if she was English), Mimi was an alto who mumbled. She was a belter and sometimes the transition between her chest and head voice was choppy. The only thing she could do consistently was cry on command, which was such a novelty that she was put in the advanced theatre her freshman year. But even Mimi couldn’t deny they had things in common—theatre and singing and Luke.
They were all at an overnight drama competition when it happened. Mimi had been nervous and not just about the performance. The weekend would be her first time in a hotel room without her parents. She was sharing with a sophomore girl who seemed impossibly adult and had made it clear that she was going to stay in her boyfriend’s room. Mimi didn’t know if she was excited or scared about all of it—the scene, sleeping alone in an unfamiliar place, and that she didn’t know if Luke knew she would be alone, and if he’d come see her in her hotel room, and if she should let him.
A group of them were walking to the car the first evening to put away props after finally finding food in a vending machine. Luke was carrying a cheese sandwich; Mimi was carrying a bagel in a plastic bag and a diet soda. It was dark, and the warm Santa Ana winds kept blowing dirt into her eyes. Two of the drama guys, Eddie and Chuck, were with them, and Flora was there, too, doing accents with Eddie—first Russian, then French, then New Jersey—switching fluidly from one to the next. They all sounded convincing though Mimi didn’t know enough about any of those places to know if they were accurate or not.
“Did you see J.P. Caruso in the audience?” Luke asked the group. He was pleased. Caruso was a former alumnus of their high school who directed plays at a high profile, experimental LA theatre. “I hope he liked my interpretation of Hal.”
Before Mimi could respond, Chuck said what they all knew Luke wanted to hear: “Maybe Caruso will call your agent.”
Mimi just grinned at him, trying to show that she agreed. After Chuck said it, she didn’t know what else to say.
Luke was manic, waving his hands as he talked. He got that way after applause and liked having people around him as he wound down. Mimi, still not sure of her exact status in his life, especially among his friends and the drama crew, slackened her pace. She was waiting to catch Luke by himself to tell him that she needed to eat. Luke in his up mood could have them marching all over campus, belting out “Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes!” even if there was no one to hear them.
When Luke finally moved far enough away from the others in the parking lot, she scurried to catch up. He was humming to himself, doing a bit of soft shoe.
“Luke, I have to eat,” she whispered. “You know I have to eat. Can we please stop and sit for a second? I get that it’s a competition but I’m really hungry. I don’t want to be cranky in front of the others.”
Her voice went a little shrill, and she thought she sounded bratty. But she couldn’t walk and apply cream cheese to her bagel at the same time and didn’t want to insist they stop, not in front of everyone. Luke could make them, though. He was the ringleader of drama.
It just took a moment. She saw him pull the stiff plastic bag off his cheese sandwich. Mimi softened, thinking that he was going to share it with her. The sandwich you could chew while walking. She’d wished she’d thought to get one.
“Eat this,” he said.
The timbre of his tenor voice was so rich and pretty that she couldn’t understand at first that he was shoving the sandwich into her mouth.
Mimi had been saying something—she couldn’t remember what—and her mouth had been partially open. It happened so fast that she didn’t think to close it to stop him. She could feel the cool temperature of the bread against her tongue. It was hard, almost plastic, from the refrigerated machine. The bread was stiff, a little stale, much too big to fit all the way in.
She turned away as she gagged, hoping the others hadn’t seen.
The next day her scene didn’t go well. She was playing the Manson girl, Squeaky Fromme, and had to sing “Unworthy of your love.” Luke watched from the back of the classroom, and when she looked out at him sitting in the plastic desk that was too small for him, he was snickering with Chuck. Mimi assumed they were laughing at her, maybe about her singing or about the sandwich. She went sharp, just for a moment, but she knew Luke wouldn’t have missed it.
Her phone lit up with notifications. When she finally checked them, she saw that Luke had posted a response.
It was supposed to be funny.
Mimi didn’t even know that he followed her. She knew he was married, lived in Southern California near their hometown, and that he still acted, primarily as a voice actor. Once, flipping through the channels, she saw him driving somewhere, scowling at the windshield, while his fake children were squished in the back, screaming and pulling each other’s hair. There was an “after” once he’d switched vehicles: a better, alternate life, with Luke driving a bright red minivan that had a TV in the back to entertain his transformed, well-behaved kids.
He also taught drama at a community college. Mimi had found out from an Internet search and had seen that students had ranked him and left reviews, sometimes with chili peppers.
She put down the basket of soiled laundry to concentrate.
@thelucasjefferson it wasn’t funny. Force feeding is never funny.
People commented under her, supporting her with angry faces, crying faces, and expletives.
—I was just trying to help @mimiforreals. You were hungry. It was a joke.
—Stuffing food into anyone’s mouth isn’t funny.
—I don’t get why you’re saying this. You went out with me for two years after that. I couldn’t have been so awful if you went out with me for so long.
—You assaulted me with a sandwich.
Her high school friend, Anna, was typing in a chat box.
What do you want to do? Do you want to get him fired? He teaches young girls, you know. Do you want him to apologize? I bet you could get him to do whatever you wanted. He’s losing followers and getting a lot of sandwich emojis and angry faces on his feed. And if there was anything else—I believe you! I never understood you guys together.
The night of the sandwich, she’d been waiting for Luke to apologize when she heard knocking on her hotel room door.
“It’s me,” she heard him call.
She didn’t answer. Mimi decided he needed to work for it. He only knocked for two minutes. She was worth more than two minutes.
Ten minutes later, there was knocking again, and she had to stop herself from flying to the door and flinging herself into his arms. She had told herself that if he tried again she would forgive him.
“Mimi?” a beautiful, soprano voice called. “It’s Flora.”
Then Mimi did rush to the door, too shocked to clock her disappointment or remember that she had changed into a tight-fitting tank top and sleep shorts just in case he came back.
Flora leaned in hug her. She smelled of gardenias.
“I just wanted to wish you luck for tomorrow,” she said. “And say that if you ever want to talk I’m around.”
Mimi nodded. She tried not to feel embarrassed in her tight-fitting clothes as she looked at Flora and gazed into her face like a crystal ball. She wanted to know if Flora had seen what happened. But Flora’s face was a smooth surface of regular features dusted with minimal makeup. She also was a good actress—she could hide it if she knew. She was still wearing the short dress from her scene that made her look like a prostitute though she exuded a kind of innocence that made the dress seem even more garish. Though Flora was smaller and thinner than she was, in her embrace, Mimi felt very young.
A DM was waiting.
Mimi looked at the little picture that accompanied the message. Luke’s eyes seemed sad though his face was still handsome. It was wider and had filled out while his hairline had receded.
I don’t get why you’re bringing this up now after all this time.
I still care about you. You were my high school sweetheart.
I don’t think you mean to hurt me but I’m getting a lot of hate and I’m hoping you could clarify that I wasn’t so bad. You know I’m not an evil person.
I’m worried this is going to affect my work. I have a 2-year-old daughter. This stuff on the Internet lives forever.
Mimi tried to breathe as she sat in what she hoped looked like a blissful cross-legged position in yoga while the annoying girl she always felt competitive toward contorted herself into an advanced pose. Every class, that girl managed to monopolize the teacher’s time, showing off her handstand and backbends—but now even that seemed like relief compared to everything that was blowing up on the tiny screen inside her bag.
After class, she glanced at the home screen and heard herself audibly gasp.
Flora Dice had added a heart as a comment to her post. When she clicked on Flora’s profile, there was a checkmark by her name, so she knew that it was the real one.
I didn’t want to have to say this, Luke had written publicly. Mimi had an eating disorder. I know that that doesn’t excuse what I did but I hope it helps contextualize it. Anyone who’s loved someone with an eating disorder understands the complexity and frustration of their not eating.
—I had an eating disorder because of the sandwich.
—You got cranky because you didn’t eat even before that. You only ate bagels.
—I didn’t eat that day because there wasn’t any food!
—But I saw you other days. We hung out before then. Maybe I was triggered. Flor had an eating disorder, too. I was worried about you.
—How dare you out me and Flor like this. It’s not your story to tell.
Mimi had thought that Flora would be her friend after she visited that night. If she had to choose, Mimi would’ve preferred to side with Flora over Luke. Though Luke had a national commercial and popularity, Flora was fascinating. It was thrilling when Flora talked, whether in her theatre voice or in another one of the many accents the drama kids affected. The one time that Mimi hung out with her alone before the hotel room, Flora had given her a ride back from rehearsal, right when Mimi had just started going out with Luke. She thought it might be awkward, but they’d sung along to an Oldies’ station in easy companionship. Flora’s voice, so distinctive for its particular vibrato that was broadcast over the school speakers whenever the national anthem was required, took the lead harmony. Mimi tried to blend with her from an octave lower. Flora never seemed jealous of her for being with Luke, but then Flora never seemed particularly invested in the everyday drama of high school. She made Mimi think of an empty vessel, flitting around, though never filled with anything particularly herself that defined her. No one seemed to notice because she was such a pretty girl and clearly so talented.
Before Flora stopped her mother’s minivan completely, she slowed in front of Mimi’s house and said, “You know, you’re better with him than I was.”
“He seems happier with you. He was always super competitive with me.” Then Flora pulled a small, closed-lip smile and waved through the windshield before she drove away.
The next day, Mimi wondered if Flora would single her out and if Luke would be mad if she and Flora became friends—she desperately hoped that they would. But it was just the same as before. Like Luke, Flora could feel so close one day but then it was like it never happened and the next day was reset to zero.
Mimi kept replaying everything Flora had said to her until she was convinced it was all an insult.
I’m going to leave it, Mimi wrote to Anna.
—I think so. Seems like it’s dying down anyway.
—Did he say anything else?
—No. I posted that picture of us together from my sophomore year to try to calm everything down, but some people are commenting that it’s creepy and I look really young. But I don’t really have much more to say. Jer is saying I should spend more time in the present with him and the boys than in the high school in my head, and I kind of agree.
—As long as that’s what you want, Anna wrote.
Mimi scrolled to find the yellow emoji that looked like an M&M that had a finger to its chin, thinking.
“Aren’t you going to congratulate me?” she heard Luke say. Mimi had thought she was alone in a quiet courtyard where she was hiding to get away from the competition. But there he was, ambling up. It was the last day and they were waiting to hear who would be awarded prizes. The Luke in front of her seemed bigger, as if all the applause had absorbed into his skin and was radiating off him. It was hard for her to reconcile this version of Luke with the fact that he had shoved a sandwich in her mouth two days prior.
“Congratulations,” she said flatly as she tried to walk away.
She felt his hand gripping her shoulder. “Hey, what’s up with you? Why have you been being so weird?”
“You shoved food in my mouth. In front of Chuck. In front of Eddie and Flora. Then you talked through my scene.”
“Chuck and I were just laughing at Alex. You know how he overdoes it when he drools over the Jodi Foster picture. I’m sorry you took it the wrong way.”
“You never said anything to me. You didn’t even give me notes! You haven’t really talked to me this whole weekend!”
“Mim—I’ve just had so many scenes and been so busy. You knew that I would be slammed.”
“You shoved a sandwich in my mouth and then you blanked me.”
“It was supposed to be funny.”
“I gagged a little.”
“It was just a sandwich.”
“It was unacceptable,” Mimi said and crossed her arms. She knew her language was all wrong—she sounded like a school principal or a disappointed teacher, but she didn’t know how else to convey the severity to him.
Luke sighed. He looked the same way he did when he was on the small stage of their high school theatre gazing off into the distance. Despite herself, Mimi wanted to sympathize with him—he looked like he did in a scene where a female character had obviously caused him distress. He had the kind of face that people were used to sympathizing with.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I was still in character. I was being method and was acting like Hal. Hal would have thought it was funny.”
Mimi stuck out her bottom lip, willing him to talk more, waiting for him to say the thing that would make it alright. He kept talking but nothing explained the sandwich.
She had been thinking about red flags—she had read about them in a glossy magazine in a small article that accompanied a relationship quiz. How some behavior could turn into worse behavior and that that kind of toxic behavior was a red flag. The magazine had emphasized that it was important to try to talk about what happened—she felt she owed him that—but with a red flag there probably wasn’t a logical explanation. It was just a red flag and that meant game over.
Still, over anything, Mimi wanted to be fair.
She kept seeing the sandwich and a billowing red flag until a sandwich was superimposed onto the red flag and became the red sandwich flag of a pirate ship with Luke at the helm. He was laughing and in character—she could hear his perfect pirate gravelly cackle. It was just as she was recoiling from this image that Luke reached out his long arms and wrapped them around her, leaning his tall body over hers, and then she was enclosed in him, and they made a small pod.
“I don’t want to lose you, Mim. I’m a fuck-up. You’re the only one who gets me,” he said quietly into her hair.
She knew that his parents had divorced when he was young, that his stepfather looked down on his acting and often made snide remarks about his sexuality, and that Flora had cheated on him. In his black moods, she would think that this was the price of all that talent: being able to access those dark places and make them real on stage but also light and comic. Then he was kissing her. He’d only kissed her four times before and there had been a kind of formality about it; Mimi hadn’t told him that the first time had been her first kiss because she was embarrassed, and he hadn’t seemed to notice. This time, she could feel electricity on his tongue and the turned-on taste of his breath rolled on her tongue. She was surprised to realize that he must taste the same thing from her, answering him. They passed it back and forth like a piece of gum or a marble. Though she wanted to keep the image of the red flag in her head and make sure to remember, she could still hear his light voice, the way he uttered the line—I’m a fuck-up. Her hands were in his hair—it was a big scene, the make-up scene—and she was pressing up against him and thought, This is what forgiveness feels like. She would be magnanimous, as if her largess could engulf them both though there was still a niggle whispering that he was someone—he would always be someone—who could shove a sandwich in her mouth.
She thought—she was sure he knew without her having to say it—that it was OK because she was deciding it OK. She was making it OK. They were OK just then.
Emi Benn lives in Hamilton, Ontario. Her fiction has appeared in apt, Joyland, Monkeybicycle, and other places.