Like Mozart I take to the keys. Though mine are not melodic, but harsh truths of near pasts and closer futures. I find that putting my words down is a release, as I am sure many can relate, I aim to not just let go, but expose. For how can we empathize or understand each other if we don’t put it blankly before us, accessible to the eyes and thoughts of those on our peripherals. I know it’s not my job to teach others how to be, or what to feel. And that is not my intention. My hope in writing this particular piece is not to get sympathy or “sorry’s”, I am not looking for spotlight or attention, in fact my story is no different than many others. What I intend to write is an absolute truth of the female experience, it is the fear, sadness, anger, and raw terror I have experienced in the last twenty fours. Though my story is the only one I am currently present to, I know it is safe to assume that at least one hundred other women in the United States have been assaulted, harassed, or harmed because of their gender in the last twenty four hours. The people around me are constantly saying, “what is it about you, you are the only one I know who these things happen too.” And I know they come from love and fear and a “what the fuck’ when they say this, but it’s just not true. And it scares me and pisses me off that people think that I am the only one out there dealing with this. I am not special, I am not unique. I am not the only women who was chased, harassed, and terrified in the last twenty four hours because of a man. This is a daily, hourly truth.
We live in a world where women learn to fear men, yet men are not taught to not hurt women. College campuses warn their female population: careful what you drink, what you wear, where you go out, who you are with, rape is out there, lurking. They do not tell their male students: don’t rape. We live in a society where young girls are told to hold space for their male counterparts, to get smaller so they can get bigger, to fallback, to speak less and smile more. I do not remember when I learned this or where, but a part of me feels like it was always known. It is inherent in my experience as a Woman. As I got older I realized how ingrained this was in everything I did, everything I said, and how often I apologized. But I do not remember being taught this, it feels: just so.
It was not until college that I began to experience the fear and actual danger of men. While living abroad in Granada, Spain I worked on the outskirts of town as an english tutor. One night while waiting for the bus a man drove by very slowly on the opposite side of the street and never took his eyes off me. I immediately tensed up, and prayed to myself, please don’t tell him make a U-turn, please don’t let him make a U-turn. In between my prayers I thought what will I do if he does? Where can I go? In the midst of my mental chaos, I saw his faded orange car slow down, make a U-turn and head my way. It’s okay, it’s okay. Maybe he is just lost. It’s okay.
He pulled up to the bus stop, rolled down the passenger window and just starred at me. I was shocked. Why wasn’t he saying anything? What did he want? Would I be able to understand his Spanish? As he continued to not speak the voices in my head got louder and louder. And then he looked down, looked back at me, and looked down again. Naturally my eyes followed his path and I looked away from his to see that he was jacking himself off. I immediately jumped up and began walking towards the house I had come from. What if he asks me to get in the car? What if he gets out? As soon as I reached the front gate he sped away. I was in shock. What should I do? I wanted to buzz the family but how could I explain this in Spanish? I wouldn’t even know what words to use. I felt completely alone and afraid to get help. My fear of explaining what happened was almost equal to my fear of the man, and so I went back to the bus station and waited for the bus, shaking.
When I shared this story with my mother, in tears, she told me similar things had happened to her. And of course the more I have shared this, the more I heard how common it is. Men taking their dicks out, and jacking off at or in front of women is so fucking ordinary, that most women have a story like this. I can’t tell you how often men randomly take their junk out in this city, as if they are offering something, with that gross unapologetic smirk on their face.
In 2011, a few weeks after just moving to San Francisco, I had my first “holy shit you are alone and no one might help you” experience. Walking up California street to go visit my ex at the restaurant he worked in, I too had recently gotten off work and was looking forward to sitting at the bar, and exhaling the day. It was night time, but it wasn’t late, probably around seven or eight pm, there were still a good amount of people on the streets, and though I was conscious of my surroundings, I wasn’t afraid, and didn’t feel I needed to be. As I was walking across Drumm street I noticed two men up ahead sitting on the steps on my right hand side, the side I was walking on. As I made it through the intersection and reached the sidewalk a homeless man was walking down the street and veering toward me. I immediately tensed, but kept my head up and picked up the pace. As soon as we were about to reach each other he stepped closer to me, opened his mouth and made one of those awful gestures, probably one of the grossest things you can see a strange man do with his mouth: he stuck his tongue out, wiggled it around between his first two fingers. He did this about twelve inches from my face, and so I lurched to the side, trying to get out of his path. As we fully passed each other he reached out and pulled my hair. I immediately yanked my headphones out, and yelled help to the two men sitting on the bank steps. Nothing. Oh wait excuse me, they didn’t do nothing. I heard one snort, and the other one offer some laughter. Shocked, I ran up the street and reached the restaurant, shaking.
Unfortunately this is not the only time strange men have made sexual gestures at me, or pulled my hair. I told a friend this once, and she laughed and said, “well maybe you should have shorter hair.” The anger I feel when thinking back to this, not merely getting my hair pulled, but this stupid fucking comment. MAYBE MEN JUST SHOULDN’T TOUCH WOMEN? Why are we so apt to blame or try to fix ourselves, rather than blame the guilty? Why do we continue to laugh off and give excuses for mens’ actions instead of punishing or teaching them something different? Why do we tolerate an entire population of women apologizing for everything they do? I’m tired of apologizing. Also tired of feeling like my personal body space is not my own and at any time can be infiltrated. AND YES, for those of you who read this and think I’m exaggerating “any time.” I MEAN IT. From getting your hair pulled on Muni, to old men grabbing your arm and asking what your tattoo means, to guys slapping your ass when you hardly know them. The only time I feel completely sure that no one will touch me, or try to, is when I am home alone and every door is locked. The only time I feel at ease, and can stop checking every corner, checking behind me, and having my pepper-spray in my hand or right in my pocket is when I am inside and behind not one but four doors.
Here is what’s so. Monday at 6:25 am, I left my apartment just as the downtown skyline was turning into a deep indigo blue, the light was rising from the bay, but hadn’t yet reached this part of the city. I have come to find that crossing the street immediately after leaving my house feels safer. On my side of the street there are always men, and sometimes a few women hanging out in front of a convenient store, shooting up, and shooting the shit. After one of these men aggressively pushed me weeks back, I have found solace in retreating to the other side of O’Farrell. On this morning I noticed a man across the way, shaking, moving about. I sensed his chaotic energy and decided I would brave the calm of heroin addicts, and continue up my side.
As I began up the street the man across, in an evergreen hued fleece button up, entered the middle of the street and made his way to my side. I tried to think nothing of it, but this neighborhood at any time, though particularly when the sun has not risen, has taught me to be over cautious. You know what to expect from most strangers, but down here anything is possible. The drugs can turn, the guns come out, the meth tweaks the brain, and it’s completely unpredictable what a passerby might do or say to you. Noticing that this man was now closer behind me, I decided to take my ear buds out, and put them, along with my phone, in my bag so I could jog without losing them. As soon as I picked up my pace, the man behind me did too. The rush of fear that penetrated my thoughts and blood, began to escalate. Move. Run. Was my immediate response. And as I got faster, so too did he. Trying to stay calm and keep my wits about me, I decided to cross the street to see if he really was following me. As soon as I crossed into the middle–there he was. Panic. This is not a test. This is not a drill. You are being chased. I saw that his body was hunched forward, and his right leg was a bit slower than the other. It gave his movement meaning, like he was preparing to lunge forward and was moving like a monster toward its prey.
I swerved back to my original side and began running as fast as I could, and this is when he began grunting at me. I was afraid to stop and use my pepper-spray, as everything in my body screamed: GO. I noticed a man in a business suit ahead, and decided to cross the street and go next to him, with hopes that he was “normal” and could possibly help me if necessary. As I almost reached my self proclaimed safety net, a bus pulled in front of him, and opened its doors. The man in the suit got on, and I realized if I didn’t follow him, my chaser and I would be the only ones left on this block, and then what? Up ahead were hardly any lights and no people, and the nearest open store or place to run to was at least five blocks away. I pushed myself to run faster and ran directly onto the bus through the back door. I grabbed hold of a yellow pole to stable myself, it’s okay, you are safe, you can stop moving: my entire body was shaking, I could hardly stand. I looked to the front of the bus, trying to catch my bearings, and there he was. My heart fell into my stomach, this was real. Up until this moment a part of me still thought maybe he wasn’t chasing me and I was just being an ego maniac. Maybe this tweaking street person was just running. But when I looked up and caught eyes with him on the bus, I knew that was bullshit. I was being chased, and he wasn’t about to give up. Terrified what he might do when he made his way to the back of the bus, I begged my legs of jelly to move forward five feet and sit down at an open seat near others. As I did this the man trumped through the bus with purpose, never taking his chaotic anger filled eyes off me. His scowl was powerful, and it had meaning behind it. He sat down on the seat right across from me and just started starring and grunting at me. What do I do? Should I call out? He hasn’t tried anything yet, maybe if I stay quiet and don’t look he will go away. And if he gets up or moves toward me I will scream and tell the people around me I’m being chased by him.
Scanning my surrounding to see who could help, I noticed everyone had headphones on and were looking down or out the window, except for a man directly across from me in the seat in front of my chaser. He only had one ear bud in, and I noticed he was checking out the man who was grunting and making all the commotion next to him. We caught eyes and I felt a small relief, okay someone else is here. The chaser, who though sitting still hadn’t stop twitching or moving his body about, never sat all the way back in his seat, as he if was staying ready at any moment to lunge. He kept his eyes on me, they were simultaneously wide with rage and extreme focus, I could see the whites of them; but the pupils were dark and almost squinty, as if he was both cracked out and lost, but also intent and sure of his focused hate. My spine sat erect, hands in my lap, with my mind moving rapidly. Should I get off at the next stop? What if he follows me? Do I just ride this to the end? What if he never moves? Should I tell the other gentleman what’s going on, what will he do? Oh my god what is he doing? As I was going through all my options and trying to calm my fears, he began moving his pants towards his ankles and rummaging in his boxers. What the fuck is he about to do? He kept looking for something, and moving his hands around his shorts. The bus pulled over to another stop, and a few got off. At this point his pants were at his ankles, he stood up, started to take something out of his boxers, turned, and got off the bus.
I wasn’t calm until I reached my gym. There is a class I go to every Monday morning, and I found solace in the routine, and also in the movement. I didn’t get to stay in my head and think about everything that just happened, I got to let go and just be in motion. After the class, and on my walk home, the fear reinstated itself, and I was, as always, extremely cautious. Would he be in my neighborhood again? Was I going to run into him? Why did he chase me? Just get home, just get home. You don’t have to leave the house again today, you will be safe. When I turned the corner down O’Farrell and off of Polk, I started down the street where I had caught the bus. I noticed a man there, also tweaking and shaking his limbs. No no no. I crossed the street, tried to see if it was him, but thought best to just keep moving and not face him in case it was. On my block I walked by two women, both moving their jaws and grinding their teeth, with their eyes wide. The man next to them was slouched against the side of the building with a syringe sticking out of his arm. Where the fuck do I live?
As I got inside my gate I felt a wave of emotion, yet nothing to show for it. My insides were screaming, my legs still a little uneasy, I felt like I wanted to cry and break down. But for what? I tried to give myself space to feel anything I wanted. I noticed emotions were there, but nothing in my body was letting them out. I got in the shower, and just was.
I went about my day like it was any other, because it was. I told friends what happened. A lot of them were shocked, but what they focused on wasn’t the act itself, but how often this happens to me. As if I am some beacon for crazy, as if my aura draws this shit to me. And I get where they are coming from, I too wonder why I have so many stories like this from the city, and why many of my friends do not. But I know it’s not me, it really has nothing to do with me or who I am. This is the world we live in. This is true. This isn’t a special or odd incident. I am not an outlier here. Everyday women are harassed, chased, beaten, in danger. Friends asked why didn’t you turn around and pepper-spray him? Why don’t you get self defense? And I know these questions come from love and concern, but I don’t think these are the questions we need to be asking. Why do they all revert back to me having to do something different? Or me having responsibility for men being dangerous?
At five thirty p.m. I called the work day over, and got in my bed to watch something, and order food. Having recently finished a few shows, I laid there, starring at my ceiling wondering what to put on. I was about to go to my go to and just put on Friends, when I realized I still hadn’t seen The Handmaid’s Tale. I went to Hulu, turned it on, and like much of Atwood’s worlds I immediately fell into it. For those of you who haven’t seen it it starts with with a black screen and a distant police siren. Soon we hear a car moving fast, and deduct that there is a chase going on. Within seconds the audience’s viewpoint is behind said car, and we are watching it attempt to flee. Inside the car we are introduced to a family of three, who look terrified. We feel the chaos, the fear, and immediately care. The car crashes into a tree and ditch, just as haunting music starts, letting us know we too need to be scared. All isn’t right here and something bad is happening. The father tells the wife and daughter to run. And suddenly we are stationed behind and to the side of them as we watch their movement through a forrest. The noises quiet, and all we hear is their feet on dry leaves, and random noises strategically spaced to make the audience feel the terror. We don’t know why she’s running, but its clear the woman is being chased.
Running. In watching the opening scene I was overcome with emotion. This is exactly what I was doing today. Running. This is happening. This is real. Atwood’s world is our own, this is our present and our future. I had to pause my computer as the tears began to fall. Where are we headed? How much more running will we have to do? Holy shit this is going to happen. This is happening. The tears flowed and I couldn’t stop them. This is the world we are living in, and it’s fucking scary. And shit I don’t want to have a kid. What will the world be like in five years? Will women ever be safe? Why the fuck is this us?
I lost my exterior of making the day smaller, and really let it in. I was chased by a strange man, who looked like he wanted to hurt me. If a bus hadn’t come, what would have happened? I am not safe. We are not safe. I don’t know what he got out of his shorts, or what he was doing. I don’t know why as soon as I left my apartment this man zeroed in on me. But all of this is just MOOT. Because what I do know is that we live in a world where this is what happens. Women are targets, women are chased, women are beaten. Women have to fight for the right of their body. Women have to carry pepper spray. I don’t know what happens next. But this is happening. This is where we live.