Yesterday I stopped by my favorite gyro joint. The joint is in a fairly congested shopping district; yesterday’s beautiful weather was cause for more than the usual congestion but I felt prepared, had put my claustrophobia in check long enough to score some late lunch.
I was barely 2 steps out the door with my gyro and baklava in tow when I heard, “Excuse me Miss,” from what seemed a couple of blocks behind me. Without my wristlet and only the pockets on my gym jacket to hold my cash and keys, I didn’t imagine that I was “miss”–I didn’t have anything to drop.
I heard the call several times before it stopped. When it did, walking beside me was a young man, an African American, in what appeared to be rocker-style gear from my quick and startled glance over. “Hello, what’s your name?”
I was rendered speechless by his sudden approach, as it quickly became apparent I was the “miss” being beckoned in the shouts. I looked into his eyes; they were auburn. He was serious.
I stammered my name and continued to walk a purposeful pace taking note of the activity on the street. I needed it to feel secure. Or maybe he would disappear if I ignored him.
A couple strolled toward us. The male, an African American guy with the kind of build that suggests past grandeur as a footballer, was clearly not interested in the goods his partner stopped to stare at in the window. He quizzically watched, instead, the exchange between Rocker Boy and me. I guessed that he had seen Rocker Boy approach me from behind and was curious as to how this was gonna go down. Footballer was close enough and walking slowly enough to overhear our exchange.
I told Rocker Boy my name; a fake one wouldn’t come to mind quickly enough.
“What are you doing tonight?”
Being completely dismissive usually comes easy for me, but his behavior was tangibly erratic. This time I wasn’t just annoyed; I was unnerved. I could only muster a mumbled “nothing,” continuing to walk and look straight ahead.
“So do you have a number?”
There was no more honesty left in me, “No.” I was crumbling fast. And it turned out to be for good reason: he took immediate offense. He went silent only a second before saying that he would kill me and everyone on the street. I looked to the only person that would understand the context of the situation.
I surmised that on this busy street, it might be easily assumed by others that I was with Rocker Boy. He was close enough that I could smell his breath; close enough to cause the damage he promised. I looked into the eyes of Footballer with probably more fear than I cared to reveal. Should I scream?
Footballer turned his eyes away as if to look at what had been so uninteresting before.
Next month, I will testify in a case that began eerily like this one. The assault began with a much more reasonable and cordial exchange, though similarly my intuition made me wary enough to call my friend and force him to listen to it in case something went down as I tried to make my way into my building and away from the Freak.
That early summer afternoon exchange ended with the Freak standing close enough that I could smell his cigarette breath, holding his penis in his hands, and letting me know that “my man” whom I was apparently “dissing” him for could not boast the same, um, merits.
In the coming weeks, he would assault other women in the neighborhood similarly sometimes publicly masturbating.
What I offhandedly name intuition is probably moreso borne of experiences that have recently taught me the magnitude of such sexual assaults–their scars are rarely readily apparent and they are hard to qualify.
In college one of our first orientation lessons was to always “speak to the locals” when spoken to. Our college was smack in the middle of the hood and the men were plenty and interested.
One night, walking the expanse of the parking lot from a late night run to The Galaxy, a hang out and artery-clogger, my roommate and I were summoned by some “locals.” We heard, from behind, their greeting–probably a “What’s up shawty” or something equally 90s-ish.
We waved, chanted our hellos in unison, and walked faster. If we could get closer to the guard gate, we knew we’d be visible to our ever vigilant security team and thus safe.
Maybe ironically; maybe just youthfully ignorant, I didn’t feel endangered enough to run as the conversation continued but then it got directed at “you in the green jacket,” and I quickly felt alone.
I tried to turn my body to the men as I walked to make sure they heard my lie: that I couldn’t stop to talk because I had to make it in for curfew. Before we’d reached the point where public property stopped and the University’s began, a glass bottle shattered just behind us followed by laughter and a slew of insults. We ran.
As we did, two Morehouse brothers realized the situation, caught up to us and ushered us the rest of the length to campus.
The sexualization of women’s bodies–even when they are doing nothing to overtly encourage such advances–is, bottom line, traumatic. And the violence that often follows if they do not respond to those advances is traumatic.
This is a trauma with which I only now realize, or maybe accept, that I’ve unwittingly functioned. I know we all function at some level of deficit. My inability to be emotionally vulnerable is one I’ve recognized but never as a direct function of this history.
In my dating life, sexual overtures have been unnecessarily jarring; made me stand-offish or defensive in situations that didn’t require such vigilance. But, the men have believed, I was just being complimentary. And a part of me has known that what they are saying is true. But another part has felt trapped and wounded; eliciting a fight or flight response. (I typically choose flight).
For me, a reel plays. On that reel are scenes of puberty where I grew breasts and lost my role as playground buddy and turned instead to object of conquest.
The violence that follows in the pubescent show of the same ilk looks like harmless playground rejection–teasing and insults to the girl that won’t and the girl that will.
Assault = aggressive attack
Sexual = of or pertaining to the act of sexual intercourse
Just because it doesn’t result in litigation or bruising doesn’t mean it is without its ramifications. And it’s not without its scars.