Taking the night
This post was written in my habit of being hard on myself (and others). It contains my thinking about the way I see the world, about ideas I have which are not necessarily right, and they don’t make me look that good. Its subject matter is stranger assault, so if that’s not what you can handle reading about, then skip it.
I was riding the bus home the other night, the ride was cold after a hot night of lovemaking. It’s not a long ride but it takes two buses to get my from my lover’s home to my own. I thought I was presenting pretty butch that night, with my pants low, my running shoes, and a boxy pinstripe jacket. My face was hidden in a scarf and hat which I left on in the bus. I felt good, was I maybe swaggering a bit? Getting on my second bus, I met for an instant the eyes of a man who was sitting beside me on the long seats at the back of the bus, a few feet away. I didn’t look right at him the rest of the ride but I sensed his attention was on me. I was not interested in him; he looked not quite sober. A bit drunk? A bit outside of my reality somehow? My stop came after not too long and I rang the bell, maybe a bit dramatically. When I sense a threat I tend to puff myself up, appear bigger. I respond to danger with square shoulders and a purposeful walk, with noise to say: “You don’t scare me. I’m not your victim.” I rang and I heard the distinctive sound beside me of someone suddenly gathering up his things. I moved quickly to get up, go to the door and wait for the stop. Since this man was apparently not expecting to get off so soon and was busy gathering and bundling himself, I got off the bus first. He went to the nearest crosswalk, which you would need to do during the day as the road is busy and dangerous even when you do have the right-of-way. But at 2am there are no commuters and you can confidently cross where you please.
The distance between us was comfortable for me and I walked quickly so as to maintain it. I don’t think it looks tough to be checking over one’s shoulder all the time, so I looked back only once, to see him remarkably close to me. Of course, most men know that it’s not polite to move close to a woman at night like that, that it is respectful to keep a distance to let her know you are not an intruder on her space. He was heading for my building with me. I don’t know how he went that fast, maybe he ran while I wasn’t looking. I kept an eye on my shadow in front of me. My shadow let’s me have eyes in the back of my head, to a certain distance, and will allow me a few seconds notice of any advance.
During this whole time I was thinking of whether I was being paranoid. But I thought of all the nights I had been out, alone, and shared space with one lone man who I knew other women might be frightened of, how I have often passed him, looked him in the eye and exchanged nods to say, “Be safe traveling tonight.” Both of us relieved the other was no threat. I thought of living in other cities, places with reputations for being dangerous to walk around. Just the other night, I was talking to a friend a few timezones away who was telling me how he randomly got his head kicked in walking down a main street in the early evening. A street I walked down literally thousands of times. These kinds of stories were not uncommon for the men I knew, who were subject to stranger violence in much higher numbers than women.
I was thinking of all the stories I’ve ever heard, and the thousands of times I have been out at night feeling slightly guarded, but never had my gut told me there was a potential problem like this time. When I was a younger woman I was told I should not be out by myself, as often by women as men. I decided then that I would not be afraid of going on my way at any time of day, in any part of town. I decided that the buses and the parks and the streets do not belong to men. I have taken my space on so many dark streets at ungodly hours, and I have never had the sense that I did this night. I dug my hands into my pockets and wrapped my fist around my keys, both so that I hand the building keys ready right away and so my hands would not be empty if I needed them. I poked the keys through my fingers, thinking of Jess in Stone Butch Blues.
I was coming up to the door and I was going to close it behind me, let him make his own way in if he did just happen to be innocently visiting someone in my building. I do not know how it happened, I honestly cannot recall how, but he slipped in with me, and we both stood waiting for the elevator.
Posturing aside, I am not a fighter so I didn’t look him in the eye. I did not want to give him the signal that the confrontation was on, I wanted to avoid it. I can tear anyone down with words, but brother, I have played with negotiated non-consensual lovemaking enough times to know that when I fight, I lose, even when I am trying harder than I’d like to admit against people who don’t actually want to hurt me that badly.
I looked at his feet and my feet on the carpet, and wondered what would happen in the elevator. I considered waiting for the next one but that would be so awkward and definitely confrontational. I considered my options: I could knock on the super’s door, but it was so late. I could get in the elevator, I could leave the building or I could take the stairs. I turned to go down the hallway, which was abrupt and all, but he probably had no idea where I was going, because I don’t think he knew the layout of the building. I turned and easily found the stair well. I considered this the best option because my voice would carry so well in the stairs, because I would have routes of escape (the floors aren’t locked in this building), because I would be able, I think, to find help. Also because it’s hard to sneak up on someone in an echoy stairwell.
His feet in the lobby were the last I saw of him. I arrived, breathless after hurrying up 10 flights, in my home and locked the door behind me. I told my little story to my friends who were there. I felt proud of myself, I thought, “I’m not the kind of woman you can trap in an elevator.” I thought I was smart for evading attack.
But then, it occurred to me that my thought of “I’m not that kind of girl” sort of implied someone else is that kind of girl. If my safety that night was something I earned, I deserved, it would seem to suggest someone who acted differently might deserve what they got, whatever it was that man had in mind.
Obviously, I’m proud of the freedom I give myself to act fearlessly in little ways.I like feeling strong and independent. I like being able to stay as late as I want and I like telling other women, “You can do this too.”
The real truth is I feel something like pity for the women I have known who don’t go out alone at night, who always take a cab home, who would give the darkness to the men. I’m not proud of feeling that way, because I know they all have their herstories, I know many of them are survivors of things I have never endured. Not all of them had parents who told them to go into the world, and don’t take no shit from nobody. Not all of them had fathers who asked their sobbing daughter, again the victim of bullying, “Why didn’t you sock her in the face? You’re bigger than she is” (that’s what he woulda done, and sometimes he wanted to, but the world doesn’t look kindly on grown men beating 12 year old girls) but seeing she had no desire to engage in fistfights, helped her with insults that would cut deeply and gain her grudging respect as someone who would fight back.
And maybe some of the scared women of the world had all these things, but for other reasons choose to confine themselves to the daylight, to walks with friends. Maybe when they are forced through circumstance to be out late alone, and their steps are hurried, and their glances over their shoulders too frequent, and their hands trembling, and their voice muted by fear, maybe everything about their self screams I’m afraid. I have seen these women, they have often shrunk away from me when I present any way other than femme. If I pass them I try to smile at them, I want them to know that there are some of us out here looking out for them, that I have their back and please, don’t be so afraid. But usually my smiles are unseen by someone who is concentrating on the ground, on putting one foot in front of the other.
If I “deserved” my safety the other night through square shoulders and cunning, do these women “deserve” what they get? I have been that women sometimes, when I am feeling shitty about myself and defeated, I know that you get more attention from men, the kind of attention that makes you shrink smaller. I can imagine moving through the world like that all the time, how it must be. The extent to which it must compound. All this negativity, making you feel like harassment of one sort or another in inevitable, making you more afraid, so you hunch your shoulders even more to walk down the street.
Of course the real answer is no. Nobody deserves to get hurt, unless they started the fight. I know this, but this situation showed me the part of myself where I believe something contradictory. Where I believe in a person deserving violence. Onwards with the project of fixing myself from the hateful forgiving of violence I was raised with. I don’t really know how to do that, other than watching myself, and reminding myself of why I think these things and what the real situation is. No one deserves to be hurt.