Nonfiction: Excuse Me

A brief note before the actual text begins: This work received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke University this year. I wrote it partially because of the anger I was feeling after compiling a list of questions that women ask which men rarely have to consider. I recommend reading that list in tandem with this work. At any rate, let the piece begin.

I.

Excuse me, I know you don’t mean anything by it but I’m just not comfortable with the way your palms are on my shoulders with your fingers trailing down towards my chest because I am a small girl in a foreign country who doesn’t speak the language and you are a grown man some thirty years my senior who owns the restaurant enveloping me and you are talking to my professor across the table like everything’s fine. In a way everything is fine because I’m about to drink this delicious mint lemonade you brought out and chat all night with my friend across the table and nothing will happen after you leave except me scooting forwards in my chair a bit so when you have to lean forward the next time your hands will have hard wood to grip instead of bird-thin bones. But I won’t say anything and you won’t say anything and my friend will say something only after you’re gone and my professor’s husband will say something the next day to another student when I’m not even there to hear it except through the grapevine, which is how these things travel anyway. I know they’re all sorry. I know they froze, we froze. But in this moment with your hands on my shoulders and your warm rough fingers dripping onto my skin I am alone.

I’m sorry but I’m not comfortable watching you become a punchline these next few days because I’m part of the same joke in that case. You’re the reason I flinch when my professor taps me on the shoulder the next day and the reason why I’m so much more tense when a drunk man starts following our whole group because the road to hell is paved with guys who didn’t mean anything by it.

II.

I ate freeze-dried raspberries once while camping in a yurt with my Girl Scout troop, a bunch of rambunctious twelve-year-olds comparing tree bark patterns, led by a woman some nine years our senior, a child herself but eager and bright-smiled and warm. I remember being shocked that the berries were similar in taste and texture to Fruit Loops, and when we tried the freeze-dried edamame I spat them out.

She showed me how to turn a penny from copper to silver to gold, and in turn I let her graduate and move away, and I stopped talking to her as she went on with her life. It’s these little decisions we look back on and question. Fourteen months ago in Kansas she swallowed a bullet put there by an ex-lover. She was not yet twenty-eight.

Sometimes I remember the raspberries but mostly I cry when I eat Thin Mints alone and wonder if I will ever give a little girl the world and rip it away in a long-game, one-two punch.

III.

 If I go to hell I’ll be sure to greet Brett Kavanaugh there with a swift kick to the nuts before I’m dragged away so someone else can take a turn. On the day he gave testimony I called my mother in tears because I knew him, this man who laughed and held women down, by some thirty different names. I knew the many faces of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, knew the flavor of the tears she shed both raw and stewed. I know what it is to hold a woman shaking in my arms as we both hunt for the words to make things right.

I was fourteen the first time I bit my tongue to bleed. A friend—and not even a close one—had made me her first point of contact. I would later discover that this was my talent, inspiring trust—I have a friendly face and a burning spirit. The moment she said the word “rape” I was tight-fisted and shaking.

But she asked me to tape my lips shut, so I became all ears and glares and gentle hugs. I learned well what to do, and the next time I was ready. When another friend came forward, and another, and another, and told me, in a stony-faced Greek chorus, about Persephone, I clenched my mind and loosed my muscles.

IV.

When my sister took a self-defense course in college, they taught her to go for the eyes. As a writer I think that’s a lesson I learned long ago.

V.

I was taught to cross my legs at the ankle like a lady. I was taught to cross my fingers and hope for the best. Never put down my drink at a party. Never look a panhandler in the eye. Keep my neckline high and my hemline low. Keep my gaze low—no, lower. Speak rarely, quietly, shyly. Apologize if I interrupt. Apologize when I’m interrupted. Say no once, then acquiesce.

I found out I was a girl on a mustard-yellow school bus that ferried me from elementary to middle school for algebra classes. I was all elbows and knees, joints wired together with gangling copper and not a hint of spare fat for curves. The six boys I had for company on those rides back and forth would talk to each other and rarely to me, spreading their legs wide to claim entire seats, making fart jokes in August, dick jokes in November, pussy jokes in March. They spoke in tongues too large for their mouths of violent acts and degrading deeds while I shrank in the corner, raised my hand less in class, and stopped outscoring them on tests. It didn’t keep them from turning on me by April. My very presence was an attack.

There are so many rules for being a woman in public, rules that change shape based on the color of your skin or the weight of your body, the prominence of your breasts or the wideness of your eyes. There are so many ways to erase ourselves from hungry eyes that keep uncovering us.

VI.

So when your fingers brush my shoulders, grip my collarbones, graze the skin above my breasts, I cannot breathe because I’m tired of having to make myself small for you but I don’t know how to speak without making you angry and I don’t know how to make you angry without making myself unsafe and I don’t know how to do anything but stiffen and make awkward eye contact with my friend across the table and wait for someone to say something and crumple as you leave.

Musings: A List of Questions…

This is a list of questions I compiled from an Instagram story poll, wherein I asked the young women I know to share questions that they have to consider which rarely occur to men. I have withheld the names of the submitters to protect their privacy, but I know their identities and can vouch that they are all real young women I know personally. These questions are listed in the order of submission.

The questions on the list range from relatively light-hearted (e.g. Question 53: Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?) to anguished (e.g. Question 63: What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know? and Question 64: If it happens again, am I partially responsible?) though notably more of the questions are on the heavier end of the scale. Of particular interest to me was Question 60: Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real? This is a phenomenon I have experienced, in which an instance of harassment/assault is committed by someone who is usually kind, or someone who is greatly apologetic after the fact, to the point that such harmful rhetoric or action from the perpetrator seems entirely uncharacteristic. We live in a world where it is easier for women to change their memories than to confront the problems posed by men in their lives.

It is important to acknowledge that the questions on this list do not exclusively apply to women, but occur more often to women than to men. Many of these questions were submitted by able-bodied, heterosexual, white women and as such do not reflect the even greater intersections that women of color, LGBT women, and disabled women must deal with on a regular basis. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center (https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics), a nonprofit that seeks to inform the public about sexual violence and ways to prevent it, “one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives,” and “one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime”. These rates are significantly higher for minority groups of all forms, and “one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old”. I encourage you to follow the link and read more statistics about sexual violence.

To bring this back to a more personal scale, every single respondent is someone I know personally, ranging from about age 16 to about age 20. Every one of these women has experienced sexual violence or knows someone who has. It is a fear that follows women regularly, both consciously and subconsciously, as we navigate a world that seeks to silence us, a world where victims are threatened further when they do come forward. The purpose of this list is to present to you plainly the ways this fear is made manifest in our daily thoughts and behaviors, and to make it concrete to those of you who do not experience this fear.

I do not have a solution to the epidemic of sexual violence plaguing not only the US, but the world. I do not know, or claim to know, any way to calm these fears in my own mind, or to protect my friends. I know, however, that I have to live every day knowing that my former Girl Scout troop leader was murdered in January of 2018 by her former partner. I carry with me the rapes of at least three of my closest friends, the harassment and assaults faced by countless more, the knowledge of my small body and inability to fight back if my life depended on it. I carry with me tears and hugs, support and shame, and always, always questions.

And to those asking why I’m sharing this on my blog which up until this point has only included my creative content, my answer is twofold. First, it makes an excellent companion for a nonfiction piece I’m posting later this week, which received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke this year. And second, I think these questions tell a number of important stories of their own. With that in mind, the list begins here:

  1. Is it safer for me to give him my contact information and hope he never uses it, or to turn him down and hope he doesn’t get angry?
  2. Are we just going in the same direction or is he following me?
  3. Do I take the short way home that’s poorly lit, or the well-lit route that adds on a lot of extra time and distance?
  4. If things go wrong when I say no, am I closer to the exit or is he?
  5. If I called out right now, would anyone hear? Would anyone care?
  6. If I report him, would anyone believe me?
  7. Do I need to borrow my friend’s pepper spray to walk back to my dorm if it’s just barely after midnight, the path is well-lit, and it’s a five minute walk?
  8. Is he joking or am I in danger?
  9. This makes me uncomfortable, but if I say something about it will he take it the wrong way and overreact?
  10. If I speak up, will it hurt my career?
  11. If I speak up, will it hurt my social life?
  12. If I speak up, will he hurt me physically?
  13. Is he really my friend or is he just “playing the long game” and going to freak out when I tell him I’m not interested in being more than friends?
  14. Is this old guy being friendly because he’s just a nice old man, or should I be leaving right now?
  15. I’ve told him no in every way I can think of, including gently, firmly, and with profanity, but he still doesn’t get it—how do I make him just leave me alone?
  16. What is the best response to have when I hear about someone I considered a friend harassing women?
  17. Is it my responsibility to correct the way this person inappropriately acts?
  18. Will I be unsafe if I do?
  19. Will I be complicit if I don’t?
  20. If I accidentally make eye contact and smile, will it be considered an invitation?
  21. Should I avoid wearing this cute dress because it will draw unwanted attention?
  22. Why has this boy I have barely met latched onto me as someone to share personal information/struggles with?
  23. If I tell him to stop, am I mean?
  24. Will he lash out at me?
  25. Will he tell others I am unkind?
  26. If I don’t stop him, will he only grow a stronger sense that I am someone he should turn to?
  27. Can I no longer show simple kindness/politeness to strangers because it makes them latch onto inappropriately?
  28. Should I be doing more? If something happens will people say it’s my fault?
  29. Is carrying my keys like Wolverine claws too much? Or is it just a safety precaution?
  30. Will I be safe walking upstairs to ask the floor above me to stop partying at 3 am?
  31. Am I safe at this coffee shop with a 30 year old man hitting on me and touching me uncomfortably?
  32. Should I not try to leave because I’m not sure anyone will help me if he tries to go further?
  33. If I leave will he follow me?
  34. Do I trust this male friend to walk me to my car? Should I find someone else?
  35. Wait, why did I just say I’m sorry?
  36. Am I okay letting my male boss drive me somewhere?
  37. My friend and I are sharing a cab/Uber/Lyft, should I spend extra so she can get out first and be safer?
  38. Is it safe for me to give this man directions, or is he using that as an excuse to follow me?
  39. Why do women feel obligated to help male strangers even when it inconveniences them?
  40. Over half of all rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Am I really safe with my friends, family, and partners?
  41. What do I do if a guy gives me unwanted compliments while I’m at work (in the hospitality industry)?
  42. Is the way he’s touching me creepy or platonic?
  43. Does it matter if I’m uncomfortable?
  44. Can I give this male acquaintance a ride? I know it’s cold, but am I safe?
  45. Does the man I’d be alone on this elevator with if I take it seem nonthreatening?
  46. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I don’t want sex?
  47. Will I be safe if I say no?
  48. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I have a physical challenge that prevents me from having sex at all, or at least without pain?
  49. Would I be creeped out by this action if a woman did it?
  50. If I wouldn’t, is it still valid to be creeped out when a man does it?
  51. Why am I so used to men being unapologetic that when they are kind, respectful, and apologetic after an incident, part of me feels bad for calling them out in the first place?
  52. Is it safe to meet up with someone I met through a dating app?
  53. Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?
  54. Is the trauma of reliving my assault in a trial worth the slight chance my attacker sees consequences?
  55. Did it count as rape if he didn’t seem to know he was raping me?
  56. Why do I keep making excuses for my attacker?
  57. Will wearing headphones in public keep me safe from harassment and unwanted conversations, or put me at more risk of not hearing potential assailants?
  58. Why do women on TV and in movies excuse abusive/stalkery behavior just because the male lead is attractive?
  59. Is love an excuse to put up with abuse?
  60. Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real?
  61. Do I have to forgive something unforgivable just because he said sorry?
  62. What do I do if he knows personal information about me that he could use against me?
  63. What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know?
  64. Is it partially my fault if it happens again?