The first time I noticed a man notice me I was 9 years old. I had taken the bi-weekly trip to the Walmart in town with my mom looking for tennis balls and sunscreen. 2% milk and a 6 pack of Hanes underwear. I had a habit of wandering away to places I shouldn’t go and not telling anyone about it, so as soon as we got into the store I was off - running down the ‘back to school’ aisle, enamored with a glittery drawing of barbie on a glossy folder. She had remarkably long legs and her eyes were a lifeless blue. She was wearing a tight pink dress, clutching a small fluffy dog under one arm and a shiny leather purse in the other. Her waist was impossibly small - like how they say bees shouldn’t be able to fly. Their thin, paper like wings shouldn’t be able to support the weight of their body and yet they do. Similarly, the fact that the top half of her wasn’t moments away from collapse was confusing to me, even as a child. Subconsciously, I grabbed at the back of my tank top and pulled it forward by resting my hands on the straight line that would one day be my waist - quickly aware that my body didn’t look like hers and not yet understanding it never would. Suddenly a loud, crackling announcement erupted over the intercom and broke me out of my plastic induced trance. I picked my head up and spun around, expecting to find my mother a few feet behind me, pawing through a row of neon gel pens and scented highlighters, but she wasn’t. In reality she was a row ahead and had been looking on at me every 30 seconds or so, but to me she was dead. Or worse - the argument we had in the car on the 25 minute drive there had pushed her over the edge and she had decided to leave me behind.
There’s a specific kind of panic you can only experience when you’re a child who has a lost a parent. Extra points if its in a public place. Extra-extra points if its on a very hot summer day and your khaki shorts are making your thighs itch and you’ve just become aware of your body for the first time. My yellow converse plodded up and down the aisles while I contemplated what the rest of my life would look like. Surely she was gone and I would have to fend for myself from now on. Would I live here now? Surviving off of flavor blasted goldfish and room-temperature Propel? Would a nice family see my red, swollen eyes and take pity on me? Would they give me a new name and move me into their youngest daughters bedroom? She already had a bunk bed, purely aesthetically of course, so it would be the easiest transition. She might resent me for a bit, but she would adjust and we would become the best of friends. Or maybe a monster would snatch me up in the parking lot and cook me into a stew in some kind of underground dungeon. I better stay inside, I thought. Don’t want to take any chances.
Knowing my propensity for wandering off my parents had prepared me for this situation. I had both of their phone numbers memorized as well as my home address. They told me if I got lost, to stay put and wait to be found. I had already broken that rule so now I knew I needed to try and find some kind of adult. And I also knew if anyone came up to me and tried to grab me, or drag me outside to feed me to the parking lot monster I should collapse to the floor and scream at the top of my lungs.
Suddenly my spiraling train of thought was interrupted by the sharp acidic smell of sweat. The way my dad used to smell after he’d been on the tractor all day. I twisted my neck around and saw a man, much older than me, maybe my fathers age, closely following me around the store. He was wearing knee length cargo pants and a faded green t-shirt and I couldn’t tell if it was stubble or dirt so thoroughly covering the lower half of his face. His eyes were dark, closer to black than brown and the side of his mouth was twisted into a painful looking smile. There’s an intuition you have as a woman, as a girl. I had never felt it before but now it was as much a part of me as the hair on the top of my head. I knew that this man wasn’t like my father or my uncle or my 2nd grade teacher. He was a bad man and I couldn’t find my mom.
I didn’t know how long he had been following me. I had covered some serious ground in the store when I was contemplating the bleakness of my motherless future and I was far away from the glittery pink barbie folder and assorted gel pens. I tried to take lots of twists and turns to prove to myself that he wasn’t following me. That he too was just meandering down the children's bike aisle looking for new beach cruiser to surprise his daughter. But every turn I made, he followed. Every time I stopped he stopped. And soon it became undeniably clear that he was following me and had been for quite some time. I could hear him breathing, shallow and raspy. Suddenly this wasn’t the warm kind of panic that turns your ears red and makes your knees shake. This was the survival type. The type that leaves you disoriented for days after while your heart rate tries to make it’s way back down to Earth.
I don’t know why I did what I did next, maybe I had seen it on a TV show or a teacher had half heartedly mentioned it to me at school, but all of a sudden I beelined for a woman who looked like a mom. She was standing in a magazine aisle with a newborn baby and a boy around my age. I walked right up to them and started talking to her like she was someone I knew. I don’t remember what I said but I do remember the salty smell of the mans sweat rush past as he glanced over at me and made his way to another aisle. I immediately started crying and explained how I lost my mom and then the stranger and her baby walked me to the front of the store where they used the intercom to reunite us.
In the end everything was fine. Nothing happened to me. We came back to that same Wal Mart a week later, although that time I stayed by my mothers side, practically glued to the rusty metal that rimmed the shopping cart. Nothing had happened, really. Except that everything had happened. Suddenly I was aware, hyper aware of everything. Every man was a wolf and every trip to the store, or walk home from play practice or empty hallway in school was a chance to be snatched and eaten. I was no longer careless and wandering. No longer a flighty little girl who had her name quietly called down every department store aisle. Now I was aware.
As I grew up these kind of situations got worse and my tolerance for them grew stronger. Every year seemed to bring a new kind of unwanted attention. My dad’s business partner who remarked on how womanly I looked at a dinner party. The priest who used to place his hand on my knee at confession. My high school boyfriend who always asked for blowjobs when I cried because he said I looked really sexy when my mascara ran down my face. My first boss who used to grab my ass when I would bend over to get checkbooks from the waiter station. The men who would chase me into the subway begging for my number. The black SUV that followed me for 3 blocks yelling obscene things out of the window waiting for me to engage. The man who masturbated behind me in a public gym while I ran on the treadmill. All varying degrees of awful things that just exist when you occupy a certain body.
But what has made all of these things worse is the inability of people who don’t experience it to understand it. Or maybe their refusal to.
I lived in a hotel for about 6 months when I was 19. I was on a theatre contract in Fredericksburg, staying in a Holiday Inn Express with my ex boyfriend, Adam. We stayed in a small room with a queen sized bed and blackout curtains. We kept an illegal stove in the corner of the room and a pair of plates that we washed in the bathtub. One night, around 2 am I made my way downstairs to the lobby to buy a snack from the 24/7 store located by the entrance of the hotel. I smiled at the concierge woman and started looking through the different types of chips. There was a man near me, probably in his late 50’s. A business man, driving through town on the way to a conference who needed a place to stay for the night. We made eye contact and I smiled at him and looked back down deciding between SunChips or Doritos. Suddenly I felt his breath behind me and he whispered in my ear “Do you see anything you like?” I jumped and laughed, telling him I was still looking and moved over to the frozen section, closer to the concierge woman who was inputting some kind of data into the computer. I started to feel the familiar hot heat of panic rush to my ears. I stood still pretending to scan the varieties of snack sized ice cream cartons when I felt his hand run up my back and find a resting place on the spot between my shoulder and my neck. “I see something I like.” He said. "Let me know if you change your mind.” I could see his wedding ring shine on his left hand as he dropped it from my shoulder, paid for his nutrigrain bar and wandered down the hotel hallway.
I immediately ran for the stairs, crying while I took them 2 at a time until I got to the 3rd floor where Adam and I had been staying. Once I got inside and bolted the door behind me I explained what had happened. How disgusting I felt. How I had taken the stairs because I was afraid he was going to be in the elevator waiting for me. How I was never going down to the lobby alone again. Adam looked at me confused and asked if I had said anything. If I had told him off. He asked if I had called out to the concierge person. If I had done anything or if I had just let that happen. How all of this seemed like a bit of an overreaction.
What followed was an argument, and a bad one. They always were with Adam. Lots of breathless crying and yelling and “why don’t you just listen to what Im trying to tell you!?”. He was firmly cemented in the position that if women didn’t start speaking up and telling men off nothing would change. That if we continued to sit in the silence of all these awful indiscretions done against us we would die that way. With a look of mild uncomfortability on our faces, our necks rigor from tensing our shoulders. What was the worst thing that could happen? I was in a public place. There was another person there, and she was a woman! Surely if I had brought it to her attention something would have happened. He was disappointed in me and I was comatose in the corner of the room hearing the word ‘overreaction’ in my head over and over again.
And maybe it was an overreaction. Or maybe he just couldn’t understand why that was the only reaction I could possibly have. I couldn’t cry out because the one time I did, my restraining order was denied. I couldn’t tell the man to leave me alone because when I told a male classmate to stop harassing me, he tackled me to the floor of the lunchroom and held me there until I couldn’t breathe while everyone else ate their lunch. I couldn’t reject him because security camera footage of a high school hallway had gone viral a few years earlier of a boy stabbing the girl who had turned down his prom invitation. I couldn’t explain that the hyper awareness and subsequent apathy I gained at 9 years old in the aisle of a small town Wal Mart had only dug its heels deeper and deeper into my every day life and buried itself inches under my skin.
So I left the room, resigned the conversation to a ‘miscommunication’ and took a bath in our makeshift sink until the water was cold. I thought about all of the things I could do if I moved through the world like Adam did. All the people I would scream at. All the walks alone at night I would take. All the advances I would reject and all the advances I would initiate. I fantasized about how loud my voice would have carried in that empty lobby if I had the ability to use it.
There’s a quote I quite like from the tv show Fleabag that says “women are born with pain built in”. And if you don’t have that understanding of pain. If you’ve never been afraid to walk down the street. Or take an elevator. Or say no to someone you don’t want to say yes to. If you aren’t aware of that pain then you’ll never understand it, not really.
That monster waiting to cook me into a stew in the Wal Mart parking lot never existed. But the man who followed me around did. And still does. And in my opinion, that’s much worse.