Jan. 29, 2011
The first time I remember a man harassing me in public, I was 17, living in Paris for my freshman year of college. It was a strange situation that I've never forgotten. One advantage of being a poet (however mediocre) is that I can make "art" out of life.
I was too young
to wander the streets of Paris
unguarded. One Friday at rush hour,
in a crowded metro car,
a mob of passengers
pushed me into a grimy corner.
Bodies stale as molding bread
separated me from my friends.
A stranger locked his fingers
around my wrist as if to feel my pulse.
Unseeing eyes searched my face.
He sidled closer, moved in,
bumped me against a wall,
cane barring my escape whitely.
Malevolence in disability.
His eyes flittered and fretted
and tried to see what it was that he touched.
You are beautiful, si belle.
Flattened black curls
clung to his grits colored forehead.
His strong hand slid up my arm
to my shoulder, to my hair.
His fingers brushed my breast.
I tried to shake him off
like a spider.
His friends laughed
at the little American
who was afraid of a sightless man.
I stood paralyzed
as I felt the blind eyes pierce
my careful camouflage
to my secret differences.
That school year, 1975 to 1976, most of the harassment occurred on metros, on the metro platforms, at the mouth of the metro. Tunnels of terror? It's amazing I didn't become completely phobic of underground trams.
I was so shy, not as American as an American girl who had lived all her life in say, Columbus, Ohio. My father was an Army physician, so we moved around a bit, usually lived no more than two to four years (if we were lucky) in one spot. I graduated from high school in Germany. I could blend pretty well wherever I went, whether it was Den Hague, Frankfurt, Bruxelles, even Athens (Greek heritage). I was American enough that some parisiens could smell it on me. I was young, small, pretty (though I didn’t know this then), had long, long hair, an open, vulnerable face. I’m sure I came across as the perfect victim.
I faced my scariest episode that year at the metro station in the Thirteenth Arrondissement near the little flat where I rented a room from two septuagenarian sisters. A large, slouching man in his mid-30s or 40s entered the station from the opposite staircase from where I'd entered and began walking slowly toward me, staring at me as he came closer and closer as if he'd been looking for me. He muttered something over and over. He and I were the only ones on the platform. When he was about a yard away, he started talking directly to me, but his voice was so low, the words spilled out too quickly, my heart pounding in head kept me from understanding. What he finally said before I fled the station was couille toi, I think. It's what I remember. It took me years to track down a translation, but I think it comes out to be "asshole" or "balls" or most likely, "cunt." (He may have said, conne toi. Faulty memory.) Those two words twisted out of his mouth, aimed toward me like … well, knives.
And there was the late-night metro ride after a film. Two young men were harassing a pinch-faced, middle-aged woman who refused (wisely) to respond. They were actually quite hilarious, and I understood just enough to know that they'd had a bit of wine and a bit of hash, meant no harm to anyone. One of the things I found difficult in Europe was the Metro Face, you know, where you pretend you are made of marble, meet no one's eyes, pretend that you're in the train car all by yourself even if it's 5 p.m. and you're crushed up against a wad of five ripe and tired office workers. I burst out laughing at these guys at one point, couldn't contain my mirth. I'm sure the pinch-faced woman was grateful since the boys turned to me.
One of them wanted to follow me out of the metro car, but the other said, "No, no, don't bother her. She's sweet, douce," and they left me alone.
Two days before my parents drove to Paris to pick me up and take me home after the school year was done, I was heading down the station stairs to catch yet another metro. A beautiful young man stood at the entrance and asked me something I couldn't quite catch (I didn't have much French at all when I started the school year in October, but had a functional knowledge by June). I thought he was asking me the time, but said, "Comment? N'ai pas entendu."
"Je veux t'embrasser." And he did (kiss me). That one made me laugh. I shouted to the sky, "OK, Paris! I get it! You don't want me to live here any more. I'm leaving, I'm leaving!"
A list of incidents:
- in grad school, there was the photojournalism student who asked me out on a date but then drove me to his house after picking up a bottle of wine, trapped me in his house all night (but didn't rape me, though he threatened to hit me when I threatened to slap him for touching me in places I didn't want touched) and then didn't understand why I didn't want him to walk me safely to my car from the newsroom weeks later.
- in grad school, there was the foreign student who asked directions to the Registrar's office one afternoon, then showed up at my apartment door that night, though I had no idea he'd followed me (he was Iranian, he said, and he was sure that we were fated to be married).
- Houston, post graduate school - The tae kwon do instructor/school owner who showed up at my apartment with a bottle of wine and told me he sensed in class that I was anxious and wanted to teach me how to breathe through my anxiety (got my address from his class lists. Seriously, how does one prepare to defend oneself against a black belt in tae kwon do?).
- The former boyfriend who, unbeknownst to me, used to follow me around town, park across the street from my apartment complex so that he knew when I was home and could call or come by.
- A colleague who shut me in his office on the pretext of discussing the future of our magazine (I was leaving the company) who asked if he could kiss me (later blamed it on back pain medication)…
You know what? I'm tired of this listing. It goes on, ends only with the summer of 2009. I have been blessed in my life. It's never gone beyond a bit of following around and minor harassment.
What's infuriated me and terrified me now is that it's my beautiful daughter's turn to face public harassment.
Last night, we went to a play at the high school, met up with a great wad of her friends. When the play was over at 8:30, I went home, and the Girl went off to Bob Evans for a bite to eat with her gang, not as big a gang as I thought it would be, it turns out. You know, safety in numbers. Groups of teens are more terrifying to the public than the public is to groups of teens. But three teenage girls? Not so scary.
Between 9:15 and 9:30, something made me go into the kitchen to look out the window toward my garage. Our friend Senior Girl's car was parked in my driveway, and I saw my daughter and Senior Girl coming up my walkway, I opened the door. My Girl tumbled into the house, practically bent double with sobbing, had been crying so hard her mascara ran into her mouth. She was more upset than I'd seen her since she was little, and never like this.
There was some guy at the bar at Bob Evans who was staring toward their table, specifically staring at my Girl. Her friends sat across from her and had their backs to the bar area.
The man approached their booth, she said and he kept looking at her, just her. He leaned his elbows on the back of the seat where her two friends sat, stared into her face as he tried to talk to them.
"His face!" my daughter cried. "I kept trying not to look! But he was... he was ... right there! And I couldn't look away. He was too close, and he was looking... he was looking only at me!"
He said something to the girls about his friend's tricked out car or something funny written on the car.
"Why don't you come outside and look at his tricked out car. See the pictures on it..." or maybe it was... "take pictures of it and put them on Facebook."
Senior Girl told me the guy tried to pay his check quickly when he saw that the girls were leaving. She and the other friend seemed unaware that he was threatening. But she believed my Girl when my Girl broke down in the car, made sure the other friend was safe in her car, brought my Girl home to me.
I don't know what my daughter saw in that man's face, but whatever it was was so awful that she nearly threw up.
She slept last night on the living room floor on a pile of pillows, sleeping bags, blankets instead of up in her bedroom (she doesn't have a television in her room here, though she has one at her dad's), television played Nickleodeon all night, cat kept watch over her until he came into my room to sleep on my feet.
She's better today.
Her father is livid and called the police, stopped by this afternoon to make sure she was OK, tried to get a description out of her.
"No hair, or buzz cut, skinny, 30s, black clothes. I don't remember! I don't want to remember what he looked like!"
I could feel her starting to shake again.
My daughter's father tells me no one at Bob Evans noticed any guy approaching the booth where my Girl and her friends sat. They say the manager was out front the whole time, that the girls could have said something to him/her.
But… they are children, you see, and they don't know yet what to do with these kinds of experiences. My child reacted from her gut out.
The man didn't touch her, but something in this guy scared my child so badly that she fled the restaurant with her friends and broke down.
I'm forever grateful to Senior Girl who told me that she wanted to break down, too, remembered her own bad encounters from the past, but she called on her inner soldier and got my kid home (she'll be a private in the Army come July).
I don't know what to do with this. When I saw my daughter folded up on herself last night crying so hard she couldn't breathe or talk, all I could think of was that someone had hurt her. Although he didn't, didn't touch, wasn't fast enough to follow, that stupid man made my child afraid. It's a form of terrorism. She'll be less likely to want to go out now.
He took away a little bit of her power, and I really want to get even.