I don’t go places alone at night. I haven’t for a few decades. I live in a quiet, safe neighborhood where women sometimes walk their dogs or go running alone at night. Even here it’s hard for me to understand how they don’t feel fear… alone… at night. The only time I feel safe and at ease out in the world at night is when I’m with my husband. Because I know he could – and would – beat the shit out of anyone who might try to hurt us, to hurt me. Because he is fearless in a way I could never be. I’d love to live in a world where women feel safe, but that isn’t the world I live in.
In my early twenties I was more fearless. Or maybe just more stupid. During a college semester in Paris, I rode the subway alone at night and then walked home the few blocks from my stop, through my quiet neighborhood, to my apartment. Once I made the mistake of barely smiling politely at the middle aged man in a business suit who opened the door for me that led out of my stop to the street. The middle aged man who… What? Misread my signals? The middle aged man who started following me home, a short distance behind me, and who didn’t stop following me until I spun around suddenly, looked him in the eye and yelled, “Go fuck yourself, asshole!” I yelled in French, unaware until that moment that I knew how to swear with such vulgarity in another language.
That same semester, a decade before cell phones and internet, I would walk the block from my apartment to make a calling card call to the U.S. on a pay phone in a phone booth that was missing its door. I called at night, Paris time, when I knew I would reach my best friend between her classes in California. One night as I was telling her a story, I saw a man walking toward me. He stopped two feet away from the open booth where I stood and just stared at me – a quizzical look on his face – for what felt like an eternity. I told my friend that I might have to drop the phone and make a run for it, trying to summon up my courage while paralyzed with fear. The worst possible scenario, my greatest fear, flashing through my mind. I could almost swallow my racing heart in my throat. Then he turned around and walked away, and I ran home still trembling, imagining how things could have gone, how trapped and helpless I would have been. I comforted myself – barely – thinking that he must have not been 100% well in the head; as if a mentally fragile man could be any less terrifying than one with a plan to actually pursue me.
When I was in first grade I was terrified of the moment each morning and afternoon when recess would end and we would have to line up to go back into class. That was when two little boys would rush me, one on either side, and kiss me on each cheek before running away laughing to the end of the line. Twice a day they would make me cry. I don’t remember how or when it stopped, or if my teacher took it seriously. I think my parents did.
In my early thirties I spent a night comforting a friend as she took the morning after pill. She had been raped by a man she knew while another man laughed and helped to hold her down. I held her hand as her uterus contracted and she relived the experience, doubting and questioning herself at every turn, wondering if she had led them on, if she had asked for it. As if she could have changed the story if she’d done something, anything, different. “Please don’t blame yourself for what those fuckers did to you,” I said over and over to her.
The summer I turned 20, I went to Club Med on vacation with my family. The hyper Brazilian activities director with the bad perm went by the name of Doodoo. Doodoo wouldn’t leave me alone, kept nagging me to come do water aerobics or some other activity with him and a bunch of middle aged women; I think he thought we were lonely. I kept asking him to just let me read in peace under my umbrella on the beach. One night at the bar, where I could get virgin (and sometimes real) pina coladas with the payment beads I kept around my wrist, Doodoo sat himself down next to me and told me that I should lose weight. Because then I would meet some feminine standard he’d decided he was the arbiter of. Because I should give a shit what he thought of my body. I told him to fuck off. In English.
I spent a good part of high school and college carrying more weight than I felt comfortable with. It was hard to feel good in my body when I didn’t meet the standards of beauty ascribed to me by whom… Men? Society? The media? I craved attention that I didn’t get. I was every guy’s friend, but never anything more. In a crowd of skinny California blondes, nobody notices a chubby brunette.
What does that mean, to want the attention and not get it?
Then to start getting it,
but it’s not me who’s in charge of
but someone else?