culture & community relationships & love sisterhood

A Lesson In Creating Space (or: I Have Been Taught To Grow In)

by JoAnna — December 6, 2013

The other day I worked, wrote and walked–with the walking part being the focus of this post as I spent the late afternoon meandering around midtown, running errands. With several stops planned, I worked hard to get things done in a timely manner. That day also saw me multi-task, preoccupied with throwing off the shadow of a man who insisted on following me.

He found me in Lower Manhattan, just as I had crossed over from Nolita. Stopped on a busy shopping street my head was down as I consulted my phone for directions. It was as Google Maps calibrated, trying to lock down my coordinates, that a relatively put together man came up and threw down the standard “Hey beautiful” line at my feet. Feeling myself bristle, I set my mouth in a straight line as I checked him out from the corner of my eye. The revulsion was instantaneous. I didn’t like this man. Don’t ask me why–since he was well dressed, showered and seemingly clean–but he was slick like oil, everything about him was slippery to the touch. He also stood far too close for my liking and hovered, like a swarm of fruit flies, ravenous bees. What’s worse is that he didn’t keep walking when I uttered a flat thank you and took a couple of steps to the right. Shuffling a couple feet to his left he asked me where I was going.

He smirked as he lingered, briefcase swinging in his hand, clearly adverse to the hints I handed out. When I said “Around. I’m meeting someone,” he took that as the cue to ask me if we could meet up sometime. A Cheshire grin crawled from from the base of his jaw towards the rise of cheeks and allowed me to notice the way his incisors peeked over the ridge of his bottom lip. I recoiled slightly and responded with a firm, “No, I don’t think so” and walked in the other direction, my heels striking the ground with machine gun force. It was an echo that reverberated down the length of sidewalk: rat-a-tat-tatting ‘fuck the hell off’ in a militaristic, step dance, Morse code.

As I raced down the street in the opposite direction I caught the trail end of his raised-voice mutterings. They were verbal exclamations that included you don’t get it, bitch and who do you think you are? It was only when I turned the next corner that I realized I’d gone the wrong way (I’ve never been good with maps I’m afraid) and had to figure out an alternative route to get where I was going. Checking my map again I opted for a detour that cost me ten minutes and was useless in the end. It was useless because moments after entering my destination I found out I hadn’t been able to shake the the huntsman who’d been in my shadow, trailing me every step of the way. Stalking at a modest distance as I moved along my deviation. It was while I spoke with a salesperson at the boutique that this man, that man, came inside and slapped another stupid smile on his face.

“Oh look, it’s you! Fancy meeting you here!” he said with such aplomb and cheer you’d think we were the best of friends; and had been for years.

I didn’t reply and instead turned to the salesperson to say “I don’t know this man.” I walked towards the back of the store. I continued to go about my business hoping the hunter would leave. It took five minutes and a heated discussion with the security guard before he was finally gone. I lingered for about a quarter hour longer, doing what needed to be done and also–let’s get real–bide my time. Once I tired of the waiting (and now unable to ignore my pangs of hunger any longer) I made my way to the door, wrapped my scarf around my neck and pulled my phone out of my purse. It was as I was about to push on one of the double doors that the security guard whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “Walk left if you can, the man went that way,” he pointed north, his thumb angling towards Houston Street.

Thankfully, or at least as far as I know, I didn’t run into that man again. I walked 25 blocks to my next destination in the hopes that I’d tire him out if he were hot on my trail. I turned my head once, twice, five, ten times along the way. I was on high alert the entire 40 minutes to my next appointment, my head swivelling continuously as I looked for his shadow or any other residue that might have stuck: lodged underneath my heel or attached, like velcro, to my coat. Even two hours later, as I got on the express train back to Brooklyn, I scanned every face (including those in the adjacent cars I was able to bring into focus). It was important to make sure he wasn’t there, there, or anywhere 

Now, I tell this story because I’m rip-roaring mad. I’m angry because harassment has once again become a daily affair where I turn into public property the moment I leave my home. I know I’m not the only one to experience such a thing because I hear the stories. The stories with subtle variations, are the ones I hear far more often than I’d like. I don’t know why I presumed it would be different here in New York City, however I did and, because of it, I feel like like a fool. I’ve come to learn that even here I need to think twice about what I wear and how I carry myself. I have to show assertiveness and aplomb every time I spill out onto street. What surprises me the most is that I find harassment to be as bad in New York as it is in Cairo. Replete with dirty words, obscene gestures and trapper-like actions, every occurrence is meant to terrorize and intimidate.

With a series of actions that have no good intentions behind them.

Maybe I should get used to it. Yeah, maybe I ought to get over it. But I’m afraid that’s something I can’t do so kindly don’t ask. I seethe as the memory of being followed fires me up. It reminds me of all those other times, the occasions when I had to zig zag thirty minutes when the journey should have taken ten, or the times when I was forced to grit my teeth when approached by a man whose face read want, desire and sex. Men whose collective focus are on the body (my body, her body, our bodies–mine and yours) and the interplay involving power, insecurity, patriarchy.

Control.

EndSH_Flier4-photo-credit-Julie-and-Amy-Mastrine 2

Such occurrences piss me off because I feel like saying: who gave you right to talk to me? What non-verbal cues did I give you that made you think I wanted you to comment on my dress, my face, or how pretty you find my shoes? I’m astounded that men who don’t know the first thing about me (or any of you) try to empower themselves by slipping the types of phrases into our ears that warrant nothing more than a kick to the teeth or a mouth full of soap.

These men, emasculated in one way or another, think it’s their God-given right to saddle up and try to get our attention. That because we walk the same street, or share the same skin colour, or have the same patterned scarf, or are almost the same height, then…we are meant to be together. Of course I must be interested! Naturally, yes, I must be gagging for a lewd comment followed by a slapdash display of machismo wrapped up in arrogance. Clearly, I must look like I get off on festering pick-up lines and bad grammar. You’ll have to pardon me as I force back the bile that threatens to force its way up my throat. You’ll have to excuse me for being rude with the man who followed me in SoHo, and for not being genteel when he offered a compliment. Kindly forgive me for not acting more gracefully. Forgive for keeping my composure when I really felt like bellowing, “Are you talking to me? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

I’m mad because it’s men like him that keep me on my guard. Those imperious types that force me to wear my armour at all times. It’s because of men like him that I notice–albeit a couple days later–how I shrink into the corners of my jacket in a bid to make myself smaller, less noticeable, and somewhat unremarkable. The days when I forgo heels for flat shoes, because they’re faster, you know, they enable me to run. It’s because of men like him that I have adopted the habit of leaving the house with earphones plugged into either side of my head, sunglasses lounging across the bridge of my nose and a look that reads something between “Don’t talk to me” and “Really, don’t even think about talking to me.” I have spent countless hours working on perfecting the hundred yard stare that could stoke the fires of hell and, hopefully, shield me from a handful of these bothersome men urban experiences.

It is a stare of madness that, while protective, unfortunately safeguards me from all the good encounters as well.

*****

“Across from me at the kitchen table, my mother smiles over red wine that she drinks out of a measuring glass.

She says she doesn’t deprive herself,
but I’ve learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork.
In every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her plate.
I’ve realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it.
I wonder what she does when I’m not there to do so.

Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s proportional.
As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.
She wanes while my father waxes. His stomach has grown round with wine, late nights, oysters, poetry. A new girlfriend who was overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s “crazy about fruit.”

It was the same with his parents;
as my grandmother became frail and angular her husband swelled to red round cheeks, round stomach,
and I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking,
making space for the entrance of men into their lives,
not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave.

I have been taught accommodation.
My brother never thinks before he speaks.
I have been taught to filter.
“How can anyone have a relationship to food?” he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs.
I want to say: we come from difference, Jonas,
you have been taught to grow out,
I have been taught to grow in.
You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much.
I learned to absorb.
I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.
I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for oysters,
and I never meant to replicate her, but
spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits-

that’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades.
We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next how to knit,
weaving silence in between the threads
which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house,
skin itching,
picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to kitchen to bedroom again.
Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled.
Deciding how many bites is too many.
How much space she deserves to occupy.

Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her,
And I don’t want to do either anymore,
but the burden of this house has followed me across the country.
I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word “sorry.”
I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the entire meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza,
a circular obsession I never wanted, but
inheritance is accidental,
still staring at me with wine-stained lips from across the kitchen table.

Shrinking Women by Lily Meyers

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  • Sara Patterson Woubishet

    power CAN be found in a feeling of powerlessness. you’ve got it. i know you do. i know WE do. what scares me is bringing up girls who pick up habits like crumpled bit of paper. i don’t want to raise shrinking violets. and i worry my habit of shrinking overwhelms my moments of power.

    • Roving Altruist

      This, just this: “I worry my habit of shrinking overwhelms my moments of power.” I hear you loud and clear my dear.

      • Irma

        loud and clear! … i hope “my habit of shrinking” heard that loud and clear, too!

  • wendy

    JoAnna, I feel your anger. Women always end up paying a price for simply being—and finding oneself on the receiving end of aggression is the pits. I have a ‘bitch face’ I put on when not feeling too secure, but it’s a terrible place to be. Sorry you had to go through this.

    • Roving Altruist

      So true Wendy, on both counts. I’m sorry that we all have to go through this from time to time. *meh*

  • Cheney

    I’ve found New York a bit confronting on visits because of some of the behaviour on the street towards women. Even during a short visit, the catcalling and being made to feel like anyone had the right to approach me on the street and say whatever they want, made me wonder how women who live there feel about having to put up a defence every single day. It completely sucks that it’s the jerks who get to determine how you occupy a public space, in terms of how you dress/walk/behave/occupy the space. I wish there were more ways to take that power away from them.

    • Roving Altruist

      ‘Confronting’ is the perfect word. I have sometimes wondered if men (harassers) would lay off if they underwent a week of being treated the way women are treated in the streets. I suspect that taking away their power is near impossible, though if you figure out how dear Cheney….please let me know how.

  • Victoria

    I hate it when these men think they are God’s gift to women and cannot take a subtle hint that you do not find them in any way attractive or interesting. And if you finally have to spell in out in Capital Letters and in Bold Print that you find them Odious and Offensive they turn the tables on you and make it look like you were the one who threw the come-hither stare down their way in the first place. Grrrrr. . . . . dense dense dense pathetic little guys. Must be Mama’s boys.

    • Roving Altruist

      Amen Victoria. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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