“Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.” — Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
On Memorial Day, we had four encounters with men. We: three women, walking, near Washington Circle Park: my mother, my daughter and I, hungry after checking out of the hotel where I’d booked a one-night stay. Them: everywhere.
The first man did not ask for money; the sign propped against him on the sidewalk detailed his dire straits. I did not bother to read it before slipping a dollar into his cup. His eyes focused on us for the first time then, looked to the three of us with a flash of surprise that settled into a mix of gratitude and shame. He was still young, perhaps in his early 40s, and healthy-looking despite his apparent hard times. It was my turn to be first surprised — that he seemed so lucid and self-aware– then ashamed for finding that remarkable. His expression compelled me. I wanted to stay until I found something more useful to offer, more enduring than that meager dollar. But we went on.
We rarely go anywhere together, vacationing. When we do, I shoulder the entire expense, and it’s rare that I’m in a position to do so. My daughter, having never stayed in a hotel room, immediately claimed the little double-doored closet as her “house.” When it was time to sleep she sprawled across the stark white linens, making wings of her long arms: a snow angel in slumber. For once, in this queen-sized bed, she had room to flounce and thrash as wildly as she wished without so much as grazing me.
As a family, we are in dire need of more freedom and space. I, as primary breadwinner, am the one who worries most over this, the one who sees what it means when the baby smooths her hand over a wide swath of open bed space and grins deeply in her sleep. At home, she would grimace.
Her father says he is moving back. He mentions it near-daily now. But I do not know what it means. I do not know for instance how long after such a move he would have a place of his own where our daughter could have a room of her own (which is my highest toddler-hope for her). I do not know how evenly we will distribute care and time and expense. I have listened to the promises and know he will we do his best to honor them, but abstractions are difficult to account for; his close proximity can only be something to factor if it becomes a fact.
Until then, the promises make me angrier than I would ever admit.
We are three women defined, in many ways, by the absence of men. My mother knew but rarely saw her father; she was not raised to revere him, but she is a romantic and I believe that, in many small ways, she did. She adapted by loving the idea of men, by flirting not so much with them but with what they might come to mean if they stayed long enough. Her love has the longest arc; it begins by anticipating the happiest, haziest end. And she is rarely afraid of men — whether friend or family or foe — because she is projecting their best selves onto the broken bodies they bring to her. She is seeing their darkest spaces as capable of holding the most light.
I am not like her. I am often afraid of men. They are so foreign, so unknowable, and I become less of myself with them.
We came to DC the day after Elliot Rodger committed mass murder in Isla Vista. By the time we arrived, both media and popular opinion had offered their framing of the tragic narrative: Rodger resented women because no woman had ever wanted him. This, to his mind, was a crime punishable only by death.
He and his entitlement and racism and self-loathing became tent poles onto which we draped our declarations: #YesAllWomen have been menaced by men! And we came to the altars of social media, laying stories at one another’s feet, digital flowers at a makeshift memorial — only we were not quite mourning the dead (not yet). We were mourning whatever parts of ourselves we’d lost to men who’d made demands. We were lamenting the fear that never fails to form in our eyes whenever we are about to reject a man who will not take it well.
The second cluster of men were in the park, a lush, green circle sealed in by a ring of asphalt. One began to yell, hulking and hovering over a feebler man with a cane. We watched from a sidewalk across a street as the yelling man pushed the cane-bearer down. He stayed down as the other man punctuated his accusations with light kicks: “I was your friend! You lied to me and you hurt me!” A third man, who seemed to know them both, looked on. “When the police came to arrest you, I tried to stop them. I did! And this is how you do me?”
“Where are the police now?” my mother chuckled nervously, looking around for a patrol car.
As we watched another man approached the curb where we were waiting to cross. He was carrying a quart jug of iced tea, more than half-empty. While I searched my phone for the nearest restaurants, in part to avoid having to ask anyone else, my mother merrily asked the iced-tea-clutching man if he knew where we could find food nearby.
He turned his entire body toward her, fixed her with a stare both malicious and deeply annoyed and waited a beat before gritting, “I. Don’t. Know.” He kept staring at her after she smiled and said okay. He kept staring at her as I stared at him, dread creeping over my arms like a shawl. Then when he seemed satisfied, he turned himself out toward the street. He never looked toward the fight in the park. Maybe he’d known enough anger and violence and betrayal, too much to be concerned with its presence in others.
We settled at a table in Starbucks with a view of the park from the glass front. As the police pulled up ten minutes later, I asked my mother if she had been afraid of the man at the curb.
She shrugged. “Some men just hate women.”
I used to think I could hide from those kinds of men — or from all of them, really, until I developed a plan for how to safely interact with them. I never went anywhere where I’d feel outnumbered, never drank in public, never answered my phone after I’d felt pressured into giving out my number, only dated men I’d known and observed for months in a shared setting — church, work, school — and made sure I found something countercultural in them: a disinterest in defining themselves primarily by their aggression. And then, after all that, I still knew all I could do was remain wary and guarded and pray.
That was, of course, when I was 17 and had never dated, before I’d met so many confiding women whose most imminent male threats were in their homes (or jobs or churches or schools).
As an introvert, I wasn’t even immediately aware that I was in hiding, that I had made my own world as small as the circles we were strolling around in DC. A life as limited as the circumference of Washington Circle Park’s turnabout — and now, even there, it was clear how easily peril and desperation could commingle.
Like most grown women with little girls in their lives, I worry about what to tell my daughter. I wasn’t told much, myself. Stay away from men seemed to be the prevailing wisdom. I have, for the most part, and I have not been deeply harmed. But this is not owing to some fail-safe formula for reclusion; it is not the result of effectively secreting myself away.
And it is also no way for a little girl to live, pulling herself in when she’s meant to fling forth.
I will need to modify the advice I was given growing up: Listen closely to men. Stay away from the ones whose words belie strange ideas about who women are. Listen for expectations of subservience. Listen for irrational anger, for unreconciled loss, for pain. Only begin to ask questions when you have determined that you do not need to run. And then: listen ever closer.
The last man was toothless and I had a hard time understanding him. He saw the money in my hand at the hot dog truck and looked from my face to the bills to my face. He was old and it was hot, the sun still high in late afternoon. “Water. Water. Water be nice. W-w-water’d be nice.” Flustered, I asked the woman dressing my daughter’s hot dog where she kept the water. She pointed to a cooler to my left. When I opened it, the man said, “Coke, too. Can o’ Coke? Coke be nice.” Handing him the water, I muttered, “This is the best I can do.” I’d spent my last cash on it. My mother shook her head from the car, where she and my daughter sat waiting.
“What did you buy him?” she asked, before noting that I rarely turn anyone down. Then she smiled, likely thinking of how close the man had stood to me while making his requests. “You looked so unfazed.”
I wasn’t. There is little I find as unnerving as a strange man asking for help and in the process of being given it, changing the stakes or asking for more.
He would not have harmed me; he seemed harmless. But I was not unfazed. We sat and watched him acquire more from other tourists, stopping to get Popsicles and soft pretzels for their kids. I was glad he would not go hungry and glad to be back in the car.
We do not know which men will respond to us in ways that will make us feel safe. We do not know which ones will be kind and which are not used to kindness. We do not know what men will simply hate us because we are women. My mother, my daughter, and I encountered all of these types during our two days in D.C. And this is as much a reason to move freely through the world as any. To hide is merely to wait in immobile terror for an unknown evil to find us. And sometimes, it will.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” — Maya Angelou
To live is to engage every sense and gauge for ourselves our own stakes and the odds. We can live as though every man who comes near us is a bearer of a private apocalypse; we can hunker down, away from them. Or we can claim our space in the world, come what may, because it is our right. Either way, there will be fear. But only on the latter path will we learn to breach our own perimeters and feel free.