Currents of consent and control

Like strainers of a river, our memories reshape us from within.


M has decided to tell him that she cheated on him, that the form for the disclosure will be a letter, that the conversation will happen tonight. She’s also going to file a report about the time she can’t remember. That time she was blacked out when friends saw her coworker carrying her up the stairs, and how in the morning, when she found herself in his bed and remembered nothing, she asked, “Was I good?” because she didn’t know what else to do. In the crowded coffee shop she sits across from me, her shaking hands holding the small red cup of frothed milk. She ushers the mug halfway to her mouth and her mouth halfway to the mug, but she doesn’t take a sip.

I’m sitting across from her because I’ve also grappled — am always grappling — with the questions she asks.

I can’t figure out what’s what, she says.

Where was I wrong and I need to take responsibility, and where do I get to say, “But listen, I don’t know when sex is something I own, and when it’s something I owe?” When are my infidelities separate and when are they inextricable from the other stuff — by which she means a litany of rape and assault and harassment and coercion and subtle and overt messaging about what it means to be a woman in a culture built on misogyny and patriarchy. Where do I hold up the mirror to my actions and where do I say: Wait — how exactly was I supposed to know there was any other way?

I’m conflating her words with mine, her story with mine, because they overlap in ways that render them indistinguishable at times. Perhaps your story lives here, too.

And because neither of us can untether the guilt and shame from stories of worth built around the way a body looks and who it is for, we’ve collided in this small coffee shop to do the work of unraveling, of trying to dislodge an instance or a word from an action downstream.

IF WHAT WE FEAR ABOUT OCEAN CURRENTS is their power to push us into vast and unimaginable spaces, fear of rivers comes from the power of currents to push us into small, tight ones. The Animas River in southwest Colorado isn’t the only river to build strainers, but it is the river I know best.

During spring runoff or following heavy rains when water sweeps the landscape and hauls debris into the main channel, downed logs or fences or vehicles snatch small bits from the current and incorporate them into a growing mass — a strainer — that alters a river’s movement. From above the surface, a strainer may appear to be nothing more than a single log or a bouncing twig, but below it, those fragmented bits of detritus weave together a web of snapped stems. Strainers grow and change this way, gathering and releasing, trapping and storing. Over time, they reshape the course of the river from within.

I can’t help but think of strainers as resembling a collection of memories. And if strainers are where memories are stored, then the river is the body and the life shaped by them. Like memories, strainers force a life to slow down and avoid certain corners. Sometimes memories are dislodged and carried to another part of the body, but once there, they are always there. 

Illustration by Emily Poole for High Country News

M ISN'T SURE WHAT THE LETTER SHOULD INCLUDE. A litany of sins that began well before her infidelity — a word we’re struggling with even now? Or just a few instances that exemplify trends? How can she even begin to explain a complicated relationship with sex and desire and power, without making excuses? When are they not excuses but subconscious responses that come from the layering of stories and meaning we collect over years, that build and solidify in such a way so as to inspire the response, “Was I good”?

“Be good” lodged itself into our story the same way “make him want you” was pervasive in every message in every magazine and rom-com and advertisement and conversation about being wanted; “be good” is about pleasing men. To not “be good” was, at best, a surefire way to live a lonely and celibate life and, at worst, a reason for men to inflict violence. To not be what men wanted us to be, in any given moment, was to risk something — a job or promotion, a perceived friendship, a lover, a life.

I tuned in recently to a podcast called In the No. Over the course of the three-part series, the host, Kaitlin Prest, does a resounding job of trying to parse dynamics of power to define and understand her role in a complicated relationship with sex. To differentiate the things she does from those done to her; to define consent. At one point, she records herself in a chilling interaction that by some accounts might imply consent, but the hesitation in her voice is all too familiar. Someone pressures and she says no, but it’s a whisper and then a question.

Why do we say “Yes” when we mean “No?” Or when we mean “No!” why do we say, “No?” Is consent even possible when many of us have never understood that it’s OK to want sex or that sex can be for us and not for someone else? These two messages — “make him want you” and “tell him no” — don’t work in concert with each other; trying to find solid footing between them can make you lose your balance.

ONCE I STOPPED TO WANDER on top of a large and exposed strainer in the Animas River, which is a good way to break an ankle. I tested every step, pressing my weight in measured increments into the spongy surface, finding balance on larger bridges of logs that built the framework for the twigs and mud and smaller things wedged between. On a quick count, the human objects folded into the tapestry of timber and soil included: six paddles, five bottles, one flip-flop, multiple but unmatched tennis shoes, two left-footed Chacos, cameras, a bowling pin, a whiskey bottle, a film canister full of marijuana, pill bottles and multiple unopened cans of PBR. Perhaps most fascinating about this collection was the way the items had become indistinguishable from one another. So woven into the fabric of the strainer were the artifacts that if you began trying to separate anything out, it seemed the entire structure might unravel.

I didn’t learn that strainers were called strainers when I was young and living near the Animas. Only after I was introduced to boating in my mid-20s did I learn that strainers are the single greatest threat to swimmers in a river, particularly when the water is high and the current swift. Friends who raft and kayak have stories about avoiding them, or getting caught in them, and an unlucky few have stories about people who weren’t able to move through those layered chambers.

But to paint strainers as purely dangerous is inaccurate and dangerous in and of itself, and disregards the other 99.9% of species reliant on the river. It disregards the role strainers play in making the river what it is.

Strainers trap sediment that otherwise washes downstream. They provide food for aquatic insects by ensnaring leaves and fish carcasses. The overhead cover creates a critical escape for fish eager to dodge a bald eagle’s sharp eyes and talons. And strainers do their own work to temper the energy of floods, helping to mellow a downstream current by pushing water out and away, by holding it back. Strainers are warning signs and death traps, safe houses and full pantries, the collectors of stories. 

M draws the red mug to her lips again, but the frothy milk doesn’t appear to be diminishing. She just holds it there.

M SAYS, Here’s the thing: I want to use these experiences for good. To be good. And not “good” in some puritanical sense of the word or for anyone else. I want to feel like I’m in control of the decisions that I make, that I understand the reasons, and then I ensure they align with my own moral values. I want to put this cluster of memories and lessons, subconscious and not, to work for me — to reclaim the narrative — not just act because this lesson of being wanted and needed was lodged so deep in my brain that I can’t flow apart from it.  

Together we attempt to step outside the current, to understand the forces at work and try to find words that might help unravel the story. To redirect “make him want you” to “you are safe to say what you want. You are safe to want. You will be heard.”

STRAINERS DEFINE A RIVER by altering its course and pace. By collecting and storing remnants — from flood events and droughts, passersby and long-term acquaintances — strainers act as the record, reminding the river of things come and gone.

Our own memories come together in much the same way, simultaneously present and ephemeral, defining and evading us. Like memories, strainers can exert a dam-like dominance, rendering us immobile at times. But like dams and like memories, those lived and those passed down through story, strainers are not permanent.

In drought, strainers are robbed of their fodder. In flood, their core shaken and reshaped. And when a strainer backs up too much energy behind it, the river swallows it whole, dispersing and reshaping the pieces, rewriting the story, reclaiming its course.

Page Buono is a freelance writer based in Durango, Colorado. She received her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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