By Gen Greer
At the age of ten, I wasn’t ready for you. I was never going to be ready for you, and I should never have to be ready for you. You keep showing up though, over and over; I have come to think of you as my burden. I have built you into my life in all of your forms. I’ve heard you with your simple cruelties, low whistles, and vulgar remarks.
The first time you became apparent to me was on a cool March day eight years ago. My tenth birthday was days away and the idea of double digits excited me. I was going to my mom’s car to get her jacket. We crossed paths in the parking lot. This time, you took on the form of a lanky man in a Grateful Dead t-shirt. You told me I was pretty. You told me you liked young girls. You told me you had a car. My mom told me to never, ever get in a stranger’s car.
If anyone tried to get me into a car, I should make the loudest noise my body could produce. As you started talking, anxiety started forming on the inside of my rib cage. The scream died in my throat. I ran from you. I sprinted two blocks away, weaving through people, pumping my arms, and letting my hair loosen from its French braids. By the time I reached my mom, I was red in the face and crying. Yet when she asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t tell her. You hadn't touched me, or used a harsh tone. Now that I was with her, I couldn’t explain what had made me so afraid.
You left me alone for a few months. I told myself I had overreacted. I knew you did not have good intentions, but I didn’t know what your intentions were. I knew there were people who did bad things, but my understanding of what those bad things hadn’t been developed yet.
By the time I was twelve, you had re-appeared numerous times. Sometimes in the form of, “hey beautiful” and low whistles, and other times in terms that are both objectifying and vulgar.
When I was fourteen, you came in the form of a construction worker shouting across the street, “Gonna get some fresh pussy tonight!”
Mostly you came when I was alone, which wasn’t a difficult thing for you. Independence was something gifted to me at an early age. Traveling by myself has always been my personal pleasure. I love hopping between worlds, and moving about life according to my agenda. I have flown by myself since I was eight. I became the master of airports. You should know my existence has been about movement. I grew up in rural Missouri, moved to the city of St. Louis, spent summers living a tent in Vermont, moved to the Northeast for boarding school, and flew to Hawaii to see my mom when she moved out there. Some people have a fixed point a map and can say, “There! That’s home.” I used to be envious of this ability and having a simple answer to the question, “Where are you from?” Still, I have loved the variety of houses, apartments, tents, and cabins that have threaded though my life.
You may wonder what this has to do with you. You don’t care about the things I love, the things I hate, the details of my life, my favorite books, my love for coffee, or any things that could connect me to personhood. To be honest, I wish I wasn’t writing this down. I wish I could just be angry, write about your entitlement, and run on that fury. Yet I need you to understand what you almost took from me. I need to understand that you made me afraid to walk alone. To sit with myself. To enjoy my own company.
Of course you’ve had your moments when you struck me with company. The one that I couldn’t quite understand happened right before my sophomore year of high school. It was the kind of hot that only comes with extreme humidity reverberating off concrete. I was walking the streets of St. Louis with my dad. It was the end of the summer and I was meeting him to grab an early dinner after work. You came out of nowhere, this time in the form of a skinny guy in your early twenties. Your button-up shirt was half open. I could see the drunkenness starting to form in you and maybe that’s why you did what you did.
“DAMN! You ready for a real fuck? Because I’m ready.” You laughed and put your hand over your crotch. I had an idea that comments were about as far as you were going to go, but I was never sure. You feel you have the right to enact your whistles, your comments, your little everyday cruelties. Mostly I think it's your power grab and your way of throwing me off balance. Your need to take ownership of bodies because you’ve been told this is your right. This is how you choose to project your entitlement.
That day I reacted the way I usually did, by speeding up and counting the seconds until you were gone. But my dad was not used to the pace you set. You had talked to me in his presence before, but before you weren’t as explicit. You had called me beautiful before, but my dad had never heard a man say he wanted to fuck me. You picked up on his shock and in your drunken state you decided to address him.
“Come on, man. I know she’s your daughter, but she’s real pretty. You know how it is.” You laughed and sucked in your teeth. The thing I hated the most was the “you know how it is.” Like it is a secret club all men are a part of. Like somehow my father’s shock and disgust had broken the rules.
My dad followed me with a shake of his head. We walked back to apartment and opened a pint of coffee ice cream together. We talked about regular stuff that evening. The classes I would be taking in the upcoming semester. How I felt going into my second year at boarding school. If I thought I would get the dorm I wanted. He wasn’t sure how to talk with me about you because you hadn’t affected him. To be honest, I felt sorry for him. I’m sure he wanted to help, but he couldn’t find the words. When it comes to you, I am on my own.
My dad was not the only one to witness your actions. You often approach when I’m with my female friends. We talked about you. How we each have our strategies for dealing with you. Last April, two of my closest friends and I decided to spend a long weekend in New York. We drove to the train station nearest our school and hopped aboard the first one to NYC. The start of our train ride caught us in a sentimental mood. We had an intense friendship built on watching each other cry, riding in the back of pickup trucks together, getting lost snowshoeing in subzero Vermont weather, and conversations over countless cups of coffee. All of us were afraid of losing each other after graduation. Each of us wanted this to be a weekend to form memories and be together.
As we reminisced about our younger selves, you approached. You came up this time as someone in their thirties with tightly knit eyebrows.
“Where are you girls going?” You leaned onto the back of my seat with a freckled arm. Our giggles immediately stopped. We were silent. The question could be well-intentioned, but I saw your evaluating eyes. Behind them I could see a little bit of glee and something calculating.
Finally my friend joked, “Wherever life takes us right?” It was her way of defusing the situation without being rude.
You didn’t pick up on our discomfort, or maybe you did. “You know, I live in Manhattan. It’s a nice place. You guys getting off in New York?”
I exchanged some eye contact with my friends. Your voice had developed a sense of urgency. Letting the conversation develop was not likely to go well. In my head I made a mental plan, “You know it was nice talking to you, but we should probably let my mom know we got on the train. She worries.” The call to my mom was a nod to my youth and the best excuse I could think of to have you leave.
Your nice guy act broke for just a second and you let a scowl appear. It passed as quickly as it came. “Why don’t you send her a text?” You wanted to keep the conversation going. A moment of tension hung in the air.
“She’s one of those old-fashioned ladies. Likes to hear our voices.” Now the urgency was in my voice.
“Well…” I could see you trying to think of excuse to stay that would keep with your script. “I’ll be in the next car up. Would love to hear about what you pretty girls are doing in New York. I like to throw parties. And I really like when pretty girls come to my parties.” The wink you threw in was supposed to be charismatic, but it sent shivers down my spine. You gave me your card. I ripped it up when you left.
Though I’ve known you to appear everywhere and anywhere, you seem to like cities. You thrive amongst the eight million moving, breathing bodies of New York. I made a project of counting you that weekend. You appeared twenty seven times in various forms. The fun weekend of zine shops, used bookstores, and art museums is peppered with your narrative. Your comments. Your words.
I could go on for pages and pages recounting the times you have emerged from nowhere. I could write to you about how you followed me into a bookstore. I darted from aisle to aisle and you followed trying to talk to me. I could tell you about the strategies that I have used to get rid of you in your most persistent forms. Sometimes I pretend to talk on the phone, run into the bathroom, or slip the whistle out of my purse into my hand.
Some days I blame myself for you. Perhaps it is because I love being alone or because of the way I dress that you appear. I shouldn’t wear the clothes I like, because you think I’m trying to impress you. This has never been my intention. If there is anyone I am trying to impress, it is myself. I’m sure nothing I wear will stop you, but sometimes I stand in front of the mirror thinking about what might deter you. Though I understand that I am not the problem, sometimes I think changing my ways would be easier than living with you.
You do not have one body type, age, smell, or pattern of speech. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant your comments may be, the same reaction occurs. The anxiety corset tightens around my ribs. For a second, I am cold.
It all started when I was so young. My heart aches for the fear that ten-year-old with wild hair and teary eyes felt. I hate you for hurting her. She didn’t know. She didn’t understand. The sad thing, it’s also just not her I think of, but all women. So many have it so much worse than I. This thought is not comforting. None of us should have to be an exhibition for you to remark on. Still whenever we walk out the door, we join it without consent.
Gen Greer is an English major at Pitzer College.