A man you don’t know makes a joke online of which you are the brunt, you know the one—woman, kitchen, sandwich—that old droopy-eyed dog of a joke still rattling around under the stoop, its bark long faded to a hoarse cough. It’s ironic, someone comments, because he’s sooo progressive, a real champion for women, haha! and you wonder what it means when the champions use the same language as the oppressors, their lines interchangeable except that one of them, at the end, elbows you hard in the ribs and says, Just kidding. Tells you, Lighten up, take a joke, like they’re doing you a favor.

And aren’t they? Could be worse—at least they don’t mean it, right? At least someone’s having fun?

***

Not long after college, you meet your friend Tony* at the bar one evening for happy hour and find him waiting with your favorite drink—gin and ginger, tall, extra ice. He’s the kind of guy who will do that, who knows your drink and buys the first round while you’re stuck in traffic on your way over from work, the kind of guy who does it without expectation—no unanswered debt filling the space between you, crowding one of you out. But tonight he has an eye on the girl you’re with, the way she’s braided her hair and pinned it across the top of her head like a crown and has borrowed your turquoise earrings and listens with her whole body when someone else is speaking. Tony buys the second round too, because, you know, he’s nice like that, and then he stands close enough that his whisper in your ear trails a shiver across your neck, an arrow drawn back in the bowstring, unquivering: She’s deliciously rape-able in those jeans, yeah? And when you don’t respond because you’ve forgotten how to direct words out of your mouth he holds up his hands as if to fend off what he knows is coming, his smile unassuming, even genuine when he tells you, I kid, I kid. His betrayal is such a surprise that you know if you allow yourself a moment to linger beneath its weight it could snap each one of your ribs in half. Instead, you let your drink sit untouched on the table, the ice melting in your glass like a slow goodbye, and then politely refuse—and refuse again—when Tony offers to walk the two of you home. You sure? he asks, it can be scary out there, as if for even a moment you could have forgotten.

***

The year you trade your dark mermaid hair for a pixie cut, men you’ve barely exchanged more than a sentence with spring up from all over the place to tell you, I don’t normally like short hair on girls, but… and no matter which variation of the compliment follows that conjunction, you can’t find anyone to explain why even a small kindness must be caveated, why it is that when men talk to you about your body or your hair or your clothes—opinions you didn’t ask for—they go out of their way to make sure you know the scraps they’re throwing are hard-won, that on any other day, you would not reach the bar regardless of its placement.

***

At a summer cookout, a friend fishes a cold beer from a cooler and slinks her body across a canvas chair in the shade to discuss her new apartment. Between sips she picks at the fringe of her cutoffs and says, I like it there but sometimes I’m afraid to walk by myself through the parking lot at night. And her father-in-law snorts, tells her, Come on, don’t think so highly of yourself! and winks his gotcha! face at the rest of you, like he’s the first person to ever think up this line—the funniest man in the room. By now you’ve earned a bit of a reputation as the kind of person who always finds a problem with everything, so when your throat fills with things you want to say, realities you want to explain, you swallow them back down and look away. No need to be such a buzzkill, yeah? So you don’t say that you once told a man no and he slid inside of you anyway, that as he was making himself at home in your body, you weren’t actually thinking all that highly of yourself. You don’t say that if you stood up right now to count the number of women in the backyard, statistically it’s unlikely you’re the only one.

***

One morning you jolt from a dream in which you’ve gone to a bar, alone. In it, you wear a dress that hints at summer—grey with flowers, cut a few inches above the knee, the fabric a whisper against your bare legs. When you lean across the counter the man standing behind you sees an invitation, slides his hand up the back of your thigh and grabs your ass—a handful of your flesh in his grip the way he might hold fast to the neck of a dog who has just been caught with his snout in the garbage. You spin around in that syrupy movement of dreams and tighten your hands around his throat. In real life, of course, you would never be this bold—you do not have a death wish. You would like to think that in actuality you’d turn and fight with your mouth, that you’d scream or berate, that you’d shut down this nonsense with words you sharpened against your teeth, but even this puts women in body bags daily. Still, here, your dream-mind is something more animal, and you are silent as your palms press down into his jugular, the man pinned briefly beneath you, his laughter reaching you in echo. You are small, and so you have memorized the many ways you might wield power when there is danger, and in this dream you go to find the manager. She hustles back with you, her long ponytail bouncing, explaining, I’m so glad I was working tonight. You allow your relief to unhitch, waiting for even a minor justice—and doesn’t that in itself really say it all?—but to your surprise she comps his entire meal and apologizes to him for the trouble. She tells you, Did you really think I was going to side with you? the anger dropping from her tongue the way a cape gannet folds into itself mid-flight and torpedoes below water for the next kill, its feathered body built for impact, and even after you’ve been awake for hours you can’t stop thinking about it—the way it’s so incredible how deeply ingrained in you these lessons are. How, no matter what you do, they always find their way back to the surface.

***

You birth a daughter. Then another. One Saturday, your husband takes your preschooler to visit a family friend, a bulldog of a man old enough to be your grandfather. He stoops to shake your daughter’s small hand when she introduces herself, then turns away as if she’s only present when he wants to see her. Over her head he tells your husband, My, now she’s a pretty little thing. There’s an expectation that some men still carry around for girl children, and later, when she interrupts a room of adults who she is certain share her excitement for a beloved cartoon explorer and her adventures, the friend announces to the crowded table, Boy, you sure were prettier with your mouth closed! and the roar of his laughter shrinks the kitchen in an instant. Your daughter’s face drops with confusion, and your husband whisks her to the back patio where it is sunny and quiet, where there’s enough space for anyone to exist as they are. He stands her in front of him and tells her, You are pretty no matter how much you talk. Tell me everything—I want to hear it all.

***

Your daughter starts talking and never, ever stops. One morning you ask her a question and she answers with pointed, unexpected sarcasm. Laughter lifts from your mouth like a bell calling her home, and she wants to know, Do I crack you up? You nod until you can speak again and then affirm, Yes, you’re the funniest child I’ve ever met, and kiss the top of her head. You’re careful not to say, funniest girl. And as she gets older, as she builds herself an army of bright, ineffable girlfriends, this is what you’ll teach her: that humor is about working a room. That laughter is a salve but also a weapon. That being funny hinges on the element of surprise but also on the practice of empathy, that part of cleverness is in drawing connections between things that others don’t see, and this takes a certain gift. This is how you become funnier than the funniest man in the room—it takes confidence, but also heart. You know this means there will always be someone who wants to diminish her, who raises his voice as a way to quiet her own, and over and over in answer you’ll remind her that, already, she is enough.

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KIRSTEN CLODFELTER is the author of Casualties (RopeWalk Press, 2013) and editor of the forthcoming children’s book series, Feminist Fairytales. Her stories and essays have been published in The Iowa Review, Narrative Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, Brevity, Hunger Mountain, storySouth, Green Mountains Review, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Parents, Role Reboot, and Salon.com, among others. She lives and writes in the Midwest.

2 responses to “How to Be Funnier Than the Funniest Man in the Room”

  1. Nazrana Roth says:

    Kirsten,

    You write so beautifully. I’ve loved how you’ve woven these pieces together, how seamlessly these stories fit, how much despair and redemption your sentences carry side by side. Your writing is a whisper and a shout at once. This is a piece I’ll be sharing with many, many people. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Fayyaz says:

    You write so beautifully. I’ve loved how you’ve woven these pieces together, how seamlessly these stories fit
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