Our Campaign for Her World
I’m aching my way up back road, the long steep
low-gear bit that kills me every time,
when a red car goes by, slow, the driver
turning his head then moving on.
I’m not much nearer the top
when he comes by again and stops
and mumbles something . . . college . . .
Sweet Briar? “Yep, right across the highway,”
I reply, though who could be on this excuse
for a road and not a know where the college is—
in a town that is the college—
is beyond me. He drives off and his words
go up and down with the pedals until it’s clear
he’d asked me if I went to college there. Maybe
he’s some wealthy daddy champing at the bit
to scold the campus cops for letting its well-bred girls
so far off rein? Maybe. I coast past spindly brambles
bent beneath wild blackberries’ promise,
ditches spiked with thistle, padded in pink clover
blossom. On both sides, towering crazy and triumphant,
kudzu topiary bathes in golden light. I stop to watch
a stopped train chug beneath the wooden bridge
—each time I cross this bridge I wish for trains—
and in the heat, the cadence of the interrupted
train, I hear a gravel-scrape beside me
and it’s his red Chevrolet. I get a good eyeful:
moustached and balding, maybe 50, so fat he’s melting
into the seat of his red Chevrolet.
After a long moment he drawls
you wanna make you some money?
You wanna make you some money: what
lurid porn frames flicking through this guy’s skull
compelled him to circle round twice in his big ol’ car
to see if he couldn’t score his own Lolita?
Fade in. A sweet young thing hunched over in the front seat
sucks my sweaty cock
This isn’t the Strip, it’s lush, rural Virginia,
just round the bend from an arts center—
not to mention that well-endowed girls’ school
whose students bring to campus their own horses,
trotting to the motto “Our Campaign for Her World”—
and I almost ache for him,
for how we can dream ourselves
so deep we’re just plain lost. One part of me
wants to ask how much, to lean down close
and breathe d’ya want me to suck your sweaty ol’ cock,
mister? oh yeah, I bet you do. Because
I’m not above cruelty, because I’m not above
a story. Yet a man like this may have a shotgun
on his front seat, a man like this may have
rope coiled by his boots, so what comes out is no
with such frank disgust you’d think even a man like this
would flush with shame, would limp home to his just-fine wife
and daughter—what do you bet he has a daughter?—
and buy them things and treat them nice and nurse
his tail between his legs. But his expression doesn’t change
and he coasts down the long hill I’ve just struggled up,
maybe humming to himself, maybe feeling like a hero.
Insights from the author: I wrote this poem a week into an artist residency in Virginia some years back. Writing new poems wasn’t going very well, so I took a long bike ride around the women’s college campus nearby and on the back roads behind the arts center in this semirural area. At the time I rarely wrote narrative, autobiographical poems, but “Our Campaign for Her World” emerged the morning after my run-in with the driver of the red Chevrolet, and it jump started my writing during the residency.
Most women have to deal with harassment both subtle and overt their entire adult lives, but the privileged self-assurance of this man in propositioning someone he assumed to be a young student at a college founded to promote leadership opportunities for women was nevertheless stunning to me, and my welter of repulsion, fear, and resentment spilled onto the page. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder about the depths of fantasy we all live in and with.
Melissa Stein is the author of the poetry collection Rough Honey, winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Harvard Review, Best New Poets, Narrative Magazine, Southern Review, and many other journals and anthologies, and she has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writersâ€™ Conference, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo, as well as several awards. She is a freelance editor and writer in San Francisco. www.melissastein.com
Illustration by: Vlad Alvarez, who was born in El Salvador, Central America and now lives in West Chester Pennsylvania. He attended Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and graduated with a BFA of Graphic Design and Illustration. The image was created for Fort Worth Weekly. http://vladalvarez.com/. Vlad is featured in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.