My friend and I were engrossed in conversation, but I still noticed the boys. There were five of them, split into two flanks. Three of them arranged themselves on a bench, idling like birds waiting for a bit of dropped crust to set them swooping. The other two stood on the opposite side of the walkway, joshing with each other, a playful swipe of the shoulder, a weak punch on the arm.
This is part of being a woman with the audacity to take up space in public: vigilance.
It is exhausting and constant; it is another accessory women wear when we leave the house, like slipping an extra sweater into our bag or pulling on a pair of gloves.
Readiness. It sounds like a new shade of lipstick.
From twenty feet away I could tell they all shared a similar build–tall, lanky, lean like basketball players—falling in an age range between 19 and 24. Specific features were impossible to discern from this distance, save the impressions of short hair and baggy jeans.
Seeing without calling attention to your surveillance is another part of being a woman out in the world, letting our eyes fall out of focus just enough to detect movement and figures. Making direct eye contact, openly staring, meeting someone’s smile with a smile are all things that carry a certain weight for women that they do not for men.
It’s likely these boys don’t see how their simple maneuvers—spreading themselves out, talking, joking loudly, indulging in the luxury of male expansiveness—read as potentially threatening.
Do they see themselves gathered like football players on the offensive?
Did they know they were staking out territory?
I silently give them the benefit of the doubt, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let my guard down.
Ten feet away I make a series of small, routine decisions: no eye contact, keep talking, turn my head toward my friend’s face, angle my posture slightly inward; the two of us are a moving shield, I think, we send the unmistakable message: not approachable. These are a variation of choices that come into play anytime I’m out and about. I take what I think is needed to anticipate the given situation.
Women learn to gather armor in make-shift pieces.
Five feet away and my friend keeps up a steady flow of conversation. She’s a Southern girl—charming, friendly, sweet, and spirited. I worry about these qualities with every step that brings us closer to the group. I’m anxious that her natural inclination toward neighborliness will read differently in this context. The things I love most about this friend I see in these moments as dangerous vulnerabilities and a surge of emotion charges through me made up of equal parts anger and sadness.
We toe the threshold to where they stand. The saccharine scent of weed drifts from somewhere nearby and another prick of worry needles my stomach. The boys laugh and I can hear snippets of inside jokes lobbed back and forth. I quicken my pace slightly, focused on breezing past these guys when I hear one of the boys to our left call out, “Hey! You a Star Wars fan?”
My friend wears a black jersey with the retro Star Wars logo etched on the front. I’m irrationally irritated not just by the incredibly lame attempt to interact with us, but that these boys don’t seem to get that we are not speaking the same language, still, in 2016 with story after story ripping through media about women and assault and harassment, after so many of us continue to come forward and put words and power to our own personal experiences. I should not be shocked by the disconnect, which I want to believe is not from a lack of sympathy, but from the straight up ignorance that male privilege provides.
There are two choices: stop or go.
I make the one that I feel is strongest. I go. I slow my steps slightly, but I continue walking. I do not turn my head to acknowledge them. My body broadcasts the message that we are not going to linger, to chat or flirt or indulge you with our friendliness.
My friend keeps up with me, but she has decided to engage. I hear her laugh and answer something that I can’t quite make out. There is probably less than a minute of back and forth banter you might have with someone standing next to you in line for coffee. Harmless. Maybe. Hopefully. The tension of anticipation draws everything out like pulling taffy. I glance back and see she is walking backward on her heels, in, but mostly, out of this interaction. I’m relieved. “Bye!” she calls, letting her southern accent fall in a sing-song tone that is probably just as intoxicating as the pot.
She resumes her avalanche of chatty conversation as we continue on our walk. If she’s aware of what just happened, of what could have happened, it doesn’t register. I can’t decide if I envy her guile or fear it. Then I think that maybe choosing to engage is her way of proactively diffusing an unwanted situation.
Maybe it’s her way of putting those kinds of boys on notice as if to say, “I see you, I’m watching you, I’m not taking anything for granted here.”
I consider this and a different image of my friend emerges as someone strong, conscious, and defiant in the face of a world rigged against her in so many ways. Every instance like this one that failed to scar us, to keep us scared, to exclude us from the joy of being that is our right, is a win. Does it matter how we arrive at it?
It’s a glorious fall day tinged with just the right amount of unseasonal warmth that makes you feel happily drugged. The park is full of people—families trucking babies in strollers; runners; couples out with their dogs; tourists snapping selfies.
The boys and the memory of them fade behind us. We drop out of their story, though they are a part of ours now. We talk and laugh as we make our way across the park, two women in the world.
Photo: ©Julie Anderson All Rights Reserved