Like walking to school at 13, a long walk, because I had changed neighborhoods but not schools, and confessing to a friend that I couldn’t make the walk without having guys honk or whistle out their windows at me. So she told her brother, and his reaction was, “Why, when all she wears is that baggy dress?” which was a dress I’d made myself and loved, but really, as he rudely suggested, it was not revealing at all, so now I wondered, “What was I doing to make this happen?” The decades-older me knows it was “Being female and 13,” but the newly sprouted teen hadn’t a clue. So I started walking with my bookbag slung between me and the road, as if it were a shield.
And using a book as a shield lifelong whenever I dine out alone.
And riding a crowded subway to work, jammed like sardines, and wondering whether that was someone’s briefcase, but slowly registering, ew, it wasn’t, because there’s nothing like a little frottage to start the day right, and twisting imperceptibly so that it hit somewhere less vulnerable, and the guy in his Brooks Brothers suit or his low slung jeans staring straight ahead, never ever at me or anywhere near me, because again, it wasn’t about me. It had nothing to do with me, really.
Or sitting at a desk in a long Queens office with the bosses’ father at the desk directly behind me, quietly, whisperingly, asking me all day long whether I went on dates, was I wild, were shiksa girls like me easy, he’d always heard that we were, and finally complaining to the bosses, who shrugged and said, “He’s old and blind, what’s he gonna do?”
Sort of like when I went with my cousins to an island in the Caribbean, and we walked into a club and someone immediately, drunkenly, grabbed my crotch, and I turned around and left, and my cousin was disappointed in me for ruining the fun.
Or walking happily to work one day in the spring sunshine, past the fire station, and having one of the heroes sunning himself outside remark to me, to the delight of his comrades, that I’d be beautiful if I lost about 12 pounds. And spending the rest of my walk thinking of things I could have said but didn’t.
Or sitting on an airplane as the guy next to me, a cute young guy, too, falls “asleep” and somehow has his slumbering hand come to rest between my thighs, or on a train where the guy standing right in front of me exposes himself to me, or walking past a car, ditto, or walking through a park, ditto, or walking down a long hotel corridor, ditto.
And those tremulous moments of breathless fear on the way home when a man comes out of the shadows toward me—it’s laughable to think that we’re castigated for crossing the street when we see a group of African-American men come toward us, because I can’t count the number of times when I’ve crossed the street to avoid just one single man of any age or race, holding my keys pointed outward in my fist, just in case, as though keys trump knives or even muscles. And the seconds between opening the street door and the vestibule door in my no-doorman building, those moments that every woman knows are the most dangerous, because you are trapped like a gasping goldfish in an empty bowl.
Or cutting short a hiking trip with my sister because times had changed, and suddenly being a couple of young women in the forest alone was scary for reasons more vital than losing one’s food to a bear. Or buying a dog once I moved to the country, because I couldn’t keep checking all the closets every night.
And now I have a gorgeous teenaged daughter who works at a bodega in Collegetown that is besieged some afternoons by students buying beer and ping pong balls, and I ask her whether she ever feels threatened by them or by her male boss, and she flips her hand and says, “Nothing I can’t handle.”
And I know exactly what she means, because that’s what we do.