In my eyes I carry the terror of being followed on a run by two men in a pickup truck. They drove by just as I was leaving my driveway and I saw them take me in as they passed. The running shorts, the tiny tank top. That wasn’t unusual because I am a woman and my body is a thing that is ogled, judged. But then I saw them again on the next street, driving slowly. And when I turned a corner, they did too. I cut through a churchyard into another neighborhood and my pulse was way up but they were gone and I felt smart — until I eventually jogged back home, and then every nerve ending in my body erupted. They had backed into the next-door neighbor’s driveway, which sat just behind our house.
What were they waiting for?
I had left the garage door up. I hit the button and it closed at a snail’s pace. I locked my sweaty, shaking body inside and then in a fresh panic strained to remember whether I had seen both men in the truck. I called my boyfriend at work. This was before cell phones. He told me to get a kitchen knife and go into the bathroom and lock the door, then he hung up and called the police. I remember chastising myself. Stupid garage door. Stupid tank top. The police came in minutes, my boyfriend right behind them. The men tried to pull out of the driveway as the cruiser pulled in; they were stopped and questioned. They said they were waiting for the homeowners, whom they couldn’t name.
In my eyes I carry the terror of knowing I can be watched, followed, caught. In my nerve endings I carry the feeling of being prey.
In my stomach I carry the trauma of being molested when I was a little girl. I do not remember what day it was or exactly how old I was. Five, maybe? Six? I didn’t know then that he was a longtime child abuser who had destroyed other girls before me. I remember the sound he made as he tickled me, and what that turned into. I remember staring at the sliver of light coming through the crack in the doorway to the spare bedroom where I lay, wondering why no one was coming in to check on me.
In my stomach I carry the feeling of being treated like an inanimate object, a pillow or a plaything, not a living being with tears and value. For much of my life that feeling was a black hole.
On my face I carry the indignity of being spit on by a jealous boyfriend. He followed me to a bar one night, a bar my friends and I had invited him to but he’d turned it down. He watched from afar as I ran into an old high school friend and shouted a few happy pleasantries above the din of the band. The friend asked if I was dating anyone. “Yes!” I said. “For two years now. I think he’s the one!”
He congratulated me and we hugged goodbye; I turned around to search for the friends I’d come with and there was “the one” suddenly coming toward me. My face broke into a smile because What a coincidence, I was just talking about you! And then he spit in my face. “You gonna go fuck him tonight??” he snarled, his baseless accusation dripping from my nose. A moment of humiliation and disorientation, and then absolute clarity. I knew I couldn’t react in anger or it would get worse. I wiped his spit off my face while people watched, their beers frozen halfway to their lips. I tried to turn away but he grabbed my arm and pulled. “We’re not done here” he said as he yanked me toward the entrance — and the bouncer. “Get your hands off her,” the beefy dude working the door said, and “the one” was kicked out of that place and out of my life.
Behind my forehead I carry the understanding that a man’s insecurities, general unhappiness or anger can be weaponized against a woman he “loves” with no justification or any real consequence to him. In my jawbone I carry the defensive will to defuse, not alight.
In my calves I carry the shock and shame of being sexually harassed by an employer. He came into the small office kitchen where I was stooped over the water cooler, one hand on my bottle, one hand on the tap filling it. My boss was the owner of the company; he was dating the newly divorced sales manager.
We were alone in the kitchen, and he suddenly bent down beside me and started rubbing my legs. “If you’re not ever gonna wear shorts or a skirt to work, I’m gonna have to feel what you’re hiding under these jeans,” he said as his hands slid up and down my calves and above my knees. I stood there paralyzed, pouring water. What? What is happening? It was over in a few seconds. “Damn, girl,” he said as he stood up. “You really should show those off.”
He had never said anything like that to me before. It was the first job I really liked. I was 23. I walked back to my side of the building, sat down at my desk and stared at my screen. Why didn’t I kick him? Why didn’t I pour water on his god damn head?
In my calves I carry the painful knots of objectification and disrespect in the workplace. In my hips I carry the weight of shame and second-guessing my responses to it.
In my shoulders I carry the trauma of having a man I care about take what he wants despite my wishes.
I cannot write about it yet, but I carry it. I carry the inner disappointment of not having been forceful enough with my words or my body.
We tried to watch a movie afterward but I couldn’t watch it. I couldn’t sit next to him, this person I’d known so long and liked so much. I couldn’t sit still. I perched on the edge of the sofa, one leg bouncing up and down continually. I had an overwhelming desire to take a shower. I needed him to leave so I could take a shower. And when he started to cry and apologize for ignoring all my signals I shriveled up inside myself and said nothing, so he left. The next day I sent him an email apologizing for not being able to comfort him when he was feeling so sorry for what he’d done.
In my shoulders I carry the resignation I felt when a man’s wants superseded my needs. In my mouth I carry the bitter betrayal of my spirit and all the words that in a moment felt too powerful or too entitled for me to say.
In my heart I carry the enduring love I have for men, the gentle understanding that they bear their own set of unique burdens I can’t see. I carry the acute and abiding love for the men in my life who have treated me well, the men who have sheltered and cared for me, inspired me, challenged and pampered and really listened to me. The good bouncers and good officers and good boyfriends and good co-workers of the world. The men who have made me a better person and a better friend, a better writer and a better lover. The first man I ever trusted, whose big calloused hands still make me feel safe even as they grow wrinkled and weaker, and the two young men I carried in my womb who are making the world better because they’re in it.
In my heart I carry the love and hope and expectations I have for men, the young ones and the old ones who are doing the best they can every day, and the broken ones who desperately need less privilege and more accountability.
These things I carry are personal yet also universal. I am not unique, and these incidents are not rare. Some may call me a victim, others say survivor, or maybe just another melodramatic female who can’t let go of the past and writes long-winded blog posts. If you think that then you don’t understand how memories like these work, how they stay locked in your body, leaking out in weird sideways reactions when someone tries to tickle you, or your own precious baby suddenly sneezes on your face, or you hear the quivering voice of a brave woman in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing describe a dehumanizing trauma she suffered.
In those moments all the extra weight I carry is magnified and I can’t hold it anymore. It’s too heavy and it spills out in rage and tears and resignation and shame and confusing emotions I can barely identify that don’t seem appropriate yet somehow are. These last several days this happened more than a few times. And I know a lot of other women were similarly crushed by the relentless reminders of what they too carry silently all the time, along with the willful ignorance we are up against. So we acknowledge one another’s experiences. We listen, and we believe. We get back up; we always do. We share so that our burdens might enlighten, and be lightened.
I am 5-feet-8-inches tall and I weigh 138 pounds. But I am so much more than that. I am a woman.