Ten minutes. I was hitting the 10-minute mark of just standing in front of the freezers, seemingly debating whether to buy a quart or a gallon of milk. Or perhaps unsure of which kind I wanted. Skim or whole? Maybe 2 percent? I had a pensive look on my face.
It’s the look I get when I’m frozen inside. Generally from shock. Often from fear. Almost always after a harrowing experience that’s left me momentarily paralyzed.
My allergies had been just horrific, but I’d decided to brave the run across the street to the little bodega anyway because I’d been out of dishwasher soap and milk and coffee filters for three days. As I walked up the steps to the entrance, two men walked out. Because I’m a woman who’s been trained by society not to look strange men in the eye when its dark out and they look potentially threatening, I didn’t. But they stopped in the doorway and came up close to me, speaking far louder than was necessary. “Whoa mama, look at those tits.” “Daaaaamn. Naw like really dog, daaaaaaamn.” One started masturbating and pushed up close to my face as I stared at the ground, trying to navigate around them. He rubbed himself and licked his lips as he undressed me with his eyes and loudly proclaimed what he’d do to me.
“Guys, stop it.” I said in my tired, exasperated and slightly pissed off voice.
Hollaring back is something I’ve been doing lately, but only from afar. To those men who – in broad daylight – yell at me as I pass by on the sidewalk. From a fairly safe distance I might add. When others are around.
Never before have I fought back – even verbally – to men (plural) who’ve gotten up in my face and harassed me so loudly so late at night in utter isolation.
They were pissed. One pushed me into the doorframe as I tried to pass. Both started screaming at me – “You f—ing ugly a– b—-!!” “Who the f— you think you are?!” “You’ll take it and like it!!”
I got into the store as I heard them trample down the stairs, still yelling obscenities at me. Nonchalantly, I went straight for second aisle, grabbed the soap, and moved to the freezer section.
Where I froze up completely.
And where I now found myself with a slightly pensive, mostly blank expression on my face, just staring. It wasn’t that I couldn’t decide between a quart and a gallon, or whole or skim. It was that I couldn’t remember what I was looking for. It was that I was paralyzed with fear. After a minute the thoughts flowed, and they only made me more petrified.
They had screamed awfully loudly at me. What if they were waiting for me outside? What if they jumped me from behind the stairs as I came down? I’m carrying my house keys and my wallet – my wallet with my ID, which clearly says I live exactly across the street. What if they simply walked up behind me with a knife or a gun and forced me to open my front door for them? What then?
I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t call or text anyone. The store owner had gone to the back stock room and wasn’t someone I’d have sought help from, anyway. Minutes ticked by and still I stood and stared at the fridge. What was I doing there? Why had I come to the store in the first place? How long should I stay?
More minutes passed. I started to sneeze again, and to sweat. Finally I looked around and thought: I have to get home. I grabbed the wrong size and type of milk, sauntered to the front, paid for my purchases, and headed to the exit.
Crossing the street, my eyes were like daggers as I took in all the potential warning signs, jumping at every leaf that crackled behind me.
I quickly bolted both my gate and my front door. Sliding down to the floor, I slowly let the tears go.
Why had they had to say anything at all? Why had they had to block my way and masturbate in front of me? Why did they have to yell at me? Why did they have to make me feel so unsafe and so vulnerable and so scared? Why?
The ironic thing is that I had just returned from a happy hour, celebrating women’s rights and choices and power and freedom with friends and allies. After which I’d given a friend a ride home. We chatted the whole way back about street harassment. About how our male friends – allies though they were – just didn’t understand. It wasn’t just about how often it happened. It was about how often we had to think about it, and how bad it was when it did happen.
Street harassment is about power. It’s about making women feel unsafe and unwelcome all the time. It’s an extension of rape culture that results in making women feel frozen in fear of the “what if.” That fear is what has chained us for so long, its iron grip piercing our skin and invading our minds and making us feel like we’re crazy as we stare and stare at the freezer, waiting for the waves of panic to pass.
An hour later, feeling calmer and more grounded, I look back and wonder why and how it was so bad. Because few such encounters are so bad when you look back on them instead of as you experience them. And now, with the very minor distance of time, I can’t help but wonder about so many women for whom home is not a safe haven. Who wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. Who didn’t have a sister to call immediately afterwards, or a front door to bolt and lock. For most women in the world, their home is the most unsafe place for them to be.
I’m very lucky. I know that. But I’m still angry. I’m still hurt. I admit it – I’m still even a little scared. I’ve looked out my window more than a few times in the last hour, because knowing you’re being irrationally paranoid about such a thing doesn’t actually prevent you from being that way.
Another 20 minutes later, and I realize I’ve forgotten the coffee filters.
But I’m not going back out again tonight.
Reprinted with permission from Left Standing Up.
[Image of woman saying “no” at Shutterstock]