Ashley N. Roth is a writer, mother, and animal activist living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 100 Word Story, the Molotov Cocktail, and HerStories: So Glad They Told Me.
1. Your father says cunt. He doesn’t think you’re listening, that you’re too distracted with the new plastic Hot Wheels racetrack. He cheats when you race. You watch him press the button before he says, “Go!” He doesn’t think you hear him when you build the Lego fortress that you’ll scorch later, because you have a young dad who likes heavy metal and watching things burn. He and his friends drink large packs of Heineken. They call each other fag and bitch. He calls your mom a cunt, but since you don’t know what it means you don’t react. It’s his girlfriend who tells you what it means. You’re ten. She says it’s the worst thing you can call a woman. She also told you that your parents didn’t love you when she drove you back to your dad’s house. You only had to go home because she drank too much and chewed prescriptions without water and
yelled your mom’s name into the toilet while she was puking. Later you even told her you were sorry. When your dad says that word again, you flinch. At that point you’ve had a period and he’s called you a woman.
Your lesbian punk rock friend loans you a book when you’re eighteen. The book is called Cunt. The title in bubbly pink letters and the girl who writes it says she’s taking the word back. You read her stories about sex and herbal home abortions and how she rejects shaving, but still have a hard time telling others the title of the book. And when you do say Cunt, you hesitate. You whisper.
Your daughter’s father says it too. He says it to the restaurant staff when they screw up his sandwich. He says it to the children’s ER when they take too long examining your daughter after she fell out of the bed. He yells that you’re a cunt when you walk out, when you carry sagging boxes into an open U-Haul and dent the doorway with your antique couch.
2. Your cousin tells you to hold your tongue and say person. It comes out like pussy. Your aunt and uncle laugh when they tell him he shouldn’t do that. He also tells you to hold your tongue and say apple and you know that sound like asshole, but you still can’t figure out why he’s laughing when you say pussy.
Strangers say it later. Men from pickup trucks when you’re eleven and wearing ripped jeans and a Green Day shirt that falls below your knees. There are other men with thin tank tops at the liquor store when you buy candy and don’t care when you say you’re only fourteen. There’s the man at the laundromat whose eyes go different directions and he smells like the puddles on Bourbon Street and Hollywood Boulevard; he smells like the toilet water in gas station bathrooms. He smells like your dad’s recycling. He corners you and says what he wants to do to you. The only other person there is an older woman sweeping. She says she doesn’t understand when you say, “Please. Walk me to my car.” You run out and leave an entire load of laundry. All of your white socks and that pink striped shirt with the fuzzy cat face sewn into it.
It’s confusing when the word sounds sympathetic on the St. Patrick’s Day after your boyfriend disappeared, leaving a note and “Perfect Day” set to repeat on the boombox. You’re wearing green glitter when you run into his childhood friend at the Red Room. He tells you how much prettier you are than the girl your ex-boyfriend ran away to. He shows you pictures of the girl on his phone and says that she hates you. When he buys you a drink and says something about pussy, you are so tired of crying for days and being twisted inside your head that you do things you swore you would never do. Afterward you wander the street with false eyelashes tangled into your hair. You tell yourself pussy is profane.
You listen to Bikini Kill. Kathleen Hanna makes pussy powerful. She chants feminism and unravels rape. The girls in Russia make pussy an artistic statement. Your friend chants “Pussy Grabs Back” outside of a gilded Trump tower and becomes your hero. When your old college professor changes her Facebook profile picture to a meme with a hissing cat and that same retort to Trump, it’s like pussy is colloquial—almost like it’s a word you can say in front your mom.
3. Your mom says privates. She waves her hands below her stomach and says, “You know.” She gestures when you’re eight and curled up in the bathtub. She tells you you’re too young to shave and then asks if anything weird happened with the neighbor girl who was molested by her dad.
She finds the crumpled picture of you giving your first blow job when you’re sixteen. You wish you’d thrown it away and not just buried it under the trash in your backpack.
“I didn’t raise you to be a slut,” she says. You look to see if she’s crying. It’s the way you looked at her after that man told her she had nice tits. You want to ask her why she rolled her eyes. You want to ask her why she sold raffle tickets while wearing bikinis. You want to know why you aren’t allowed to wear dog collars and short skirts.
You want to know why your dad said cunt.