One day last fall, I needed to drop off some mail at the mailbox two blocks from home. As I put on my shoes, I noticed the pepper-spray in the catch-all by the door and contemplated bringing it.
“Oh, ho!” I thought, quite amused. “To walk down the block? In broad daylight? Geez, paranoid much?” I left without it, mentally scolding myself for being so irrational.
That tube of pepper-spray came into my life a few years earlier, back when I was working at a coffee shop a short fifteen minute walk from home. We’d moved to the neighborhood in order to be closer to my practice space where we’d host small, intimate concerts on the weekends. My work, home, and passion were all within a half-mile radius. Commuting, for me, causes a lot of unnecessary stress/anxiety, so to be able to cut that out was magical… Until it wasn’t anymore.
We were having problems at work with a man coming in and being abusive to customers and staff. After his last outrageous outburst, we decided to ban him from the store. When he came in again, I happened to be in charge, so, lucky me! It became my responsibility to tell him. Needless to say, he didn’t take it well. He got in my face, caused a huge scene. My emotionless, almost-bored demeanor (my default reaction for tantrums) only pissed him off further. He made another attempt to intimidate me, but when I grabbed the phone to call the police, he finally left. Until that point, the adrenaline tearing through my system had sustained my dumb courage, but after the man was out the door, I was a shaking mess.
It didn’t end there, of course. On my way home from work, we would occasionally pass each other. He would mutter things under his breath, things he would do to me, just loud enough for me to hear and no one else. I remember being so scared one day that I sought shelter in a mini-mart, asking the guy behind the counter if he sold any knives or pepper-spray. He said, Sorry, he didn’t, and I took a long, weaving way home with my keys between my fingers.
My terror reached critical when I saw the man on my street. He knew where I lived and he wanted me to know it, too. My gut told me he wouldn’t actually follow through with his threats, that he was doing all this to put me in my place for publicly humiliating him, but seeing as how my own experiences with physical violence and sexual assault never failed to surprise me every damn time, I wasn’t about to take any chances. The next day, my husband bought the pepper-spray on his lunch. I couldn’t get it myself. I had to work, and no one in the neighborhood sold it.
Once armed, I only felt a little safer. This man was a foot taller and close to twice my weight. If a physical altercation occurred, I knew it wouldn’t end well for me (unless I have a berserker mode, though doubtful, as this is real life and I am not Wolverine). If I had to go alone, I wouldn’t walk to my practice space anymore. I took the car, if I could. Except for work, I rarely left the house.
Eventually, I got another job and we moved to a different neighborhood. When I passed the man on the street a few months later, he didn’t recognize me. Out of my work uniform, my long hair now cut short, I became just another girl on the street, not the one that needed to be taught a lesson. I felt lighter, free. I was safe again. He’d forgotten my face.
And I will never forget his.
So here I was on this fall day, years removed from that whole ordeal, trying to reclaim my life and stop living in fear. Not even a full block into my trip to the mailbox, I heard a car engine rattling beside me. I turned to see a man driving an older gray truck, keeping pace with me. Forties, Mariners baseball cap, dirty hands.
When I met his eyes, his mouth spread into a smirk. “You sure are pretty,” he oozed.
I automatically wondered if I’d be able to outrun him if he stopped the truck, what direction I should take. Maybe down the street and through the neighbor’s backyard? If I went straight home, he could follow me. Then he would know where I live. Holding back the FUCK OFF on the tip of my tongue, I kicked myself for being so naive to think that I could walk down the block to mail some goddam Netflix DVDs without needing to assess a threat, without needing to come up with an escape plan. I burned with an impotent rage, imagining laser-beams shooting out of my eyes and turning him to ashes. He drove away.
What he said was nothing compared to some of the things that have been shouted at me from cars since I was twelve, or whispered on public transit, but it isn’t about what he said, or what any of them have said. It’s the power imbalance. It’s his potential for violence if I say the wrong thing. It’s that he was safe in his car, in his stronger body, with hands that could fit around my neck with ease while I was vulnerable, alone, not even armed with my stupid fucking pepper-spray that I purposefully left at home because I convinced myself I was over-reacting.
So I’m tired of hearing that street harassment isn’t a “real” issue. I need to relax! It’s “just a compliment!” Because it isn’t. It never is. It’s so much more than that. His “compliment,” as mild as it was (THIS time), didn’t flatter or empower me— it made me feel powerless. It reminded me that I’m not allowed to get comfortable. Compliments don’t cause someone to look behind them on their way home.
It can never be “just” a compliment when I don’t have the luxury to take it as one.
[submitted by wearesaygoodbyetothese]