A moving firsthand account of the impact of habitual sexual harassment on women. By Sarah Wells, reposted with permission from Off the Page. Original post available here.
“Look at us!” Lisa pointed out when we arrived at the hotel. “We wanted to go on a trip, so we picked a date and a place and went! Just look at us! We’re adults!” We keep reminding each other how adult we are now, at thirty-four, doing so many adult things, like checking into hotels, like walking into bars, like ordering drinks.
There’s something magnetic about some friends—like no matter what happens between you, no matter how hard you try to pull away, something greater keeps pulling you back together. This, too, is true of Lisa and me. We’ve been friends on and off for twenty-four years. We have witnessed each other’s breakups and bad romances, the damage done by others and damage inflicted by ourselves, by each other. We’ve been there to hurt each other and to repair what was broken. Ours is a friendship that has endured.
The bands in Nashville are stationed in storefront windows like animated mannequins, their music leaking from the open doors into the streets for passersby to sample. We linger long enough to decide if we like the sound and then enter. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, these sounds are always here—the heavy thrum of the upright bass, the scratchy twang or low rumble of a country singer, the whine of a steel guitar. This weekend it’s as if the bands all gathered and decided on the same setlist, a soundtrack of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Johnny Cash classics, and Miranda Lambert.
When we walk into the first bar, I feel myself crawl inside my skin. I see so many people; so many women and so many men, and the men are looking. I push through the crowd of people listening to the music, keeping my eyes above their heads, and see a balcony. “Let’s go up there,” I point and yell to Lisa. It’s less crowded there, even if we won’t be able to see anything from where we sit. It’s secluded. A little bit quieter. Farther away from all the men.
“This makes me miss John,” Lisa says, and I nod. I’m not used to this kind of scene without my husband. There’s no one to lean into here, just the bar. I stare at the very interesting bumper stickers and license plates to avoid meeting the eyes of men standing around in single-sex groups who seem thirsty to make eye contact.
When the band wraps up their set, we find another bar and another band, another crowd. This place has a table in the back that looks open just for us, and again I navigate to a safer place, again feel myself pull into my skin. I have a destination, and it isn’t toward any of these people. It’s toward the table against the wall, where I can see everyone around, where no one can creep up behind or watch us without our knowing it.
We settle in at a table and laugh together, listen together, stand together. Then some guy walks by, sets his drink on our table, and keeps walking.
“…you can drink that.”
“What did he say?” Lisa asks, and I shrug, repeating what I think he said.
“Like I’m going to drink some stranger’s drink,” I say. “Do I look that stupid?”
When he returns, he introduces himself and takes up his drink.
“What are you doing back here all alone?” he says.
Lisa and I aren’t alone. We’re together. See how we’re sitting next to each other? See how we are clearly together?
“I’m married,” I blurt out. “With kids.” Please go away.
“Oh nice,” he says. “Kids are great. I have five with my ex-wife.” He emphasizes ex.
All I want is for him to go away. I have been in places like this before, with a person I trusted, with someone who was married to someone else, with a colleague who saw wedding rings as a challenge, who saw women as things to conquer, who saw himself as so necessary and important and attractive that no woman could resist him, who pushed that message long and hard and far.
After all these past experiences, it seems there are no safe men, no safe conversations. Rings don’t matter. Words don’t matter. Declarations of vows don’t matter. I’m married, I’m married, I want T-shirts made up, I want a tattoo on my forehead, I want the truth of it written up and down my jeans.
I feel prickly, as if all my nerves are waiting for some kind of attack, some kind of affront, some kind of advance. I need to be ready to leave, to resist, to get the hell out of this place.
He keeps talking, but the music is loud and I’m glad for it, because I have to keep shouting, “What?” and soon he’s out of things to say loud enough to hear, tips his hat, and leaves us, alone, together.
When he’s finally gone we laugh about this encounter, laugh because we’re relieved he’s gone, laugh because it’s flattering to be admired. My nerves are still on edge, still coming down, and I laugh because I’m afraid if I don’t I might start to shake. I laugh because I know Lisa feels these same things. To do anything else lets on how long the glass from broken boundaries stays embedded in the skin, how close the memory of that affront remains, how deeply it affects every seemingly innocent interaction with men, every man I can’t trust or don’t trust, every situation separate from my husband—my husband, the safe place I land.
I’d like to blame that one guy in the bar; or that other guy in another bar; or the guy in LA; or the first guy I dated, his fat groping fingers. Instead, I tend to point to the way I just stayed put, stayed still, the way I just let things happen, as if it were my fault, asking for “it,” whatever “it” might be. I am guilty of victim shaming, of feeling complicit in the quick exit of my Self from my skin, of leaving that body to let things happen however they might happen, the whispered “no” a panicked response followed by “sorry,” always so sorry to disappoint.
Meanwhile the men tally up the women they’ve managed to take. Meanwhile the men brag about the women who can’t resist them. Meanwhile the men claim it’s “locker room talk.”
The band kicks into “Jackson” by Johnny and June Carter Cash, and as I sip my drink and sing along with June, I miss my husband’s harmony against mine, miss him to lean into, his hand on my back, his body close. I miss the men who respect boundaries. I mourn the loss of naiveté, the loss of the courage to dance as if no one is watching.
The statistics say this world is a danger zone, and every woman is a potential next victim. I would like not to feel small, unsafe, unprotected. I would like not to be afraid. I am tired of being afraid.
Here, tucked next to the wall with my friend by my side, I remind myself I am safe. I am safe. It’s fine. It’s okay.
“We got married in a fever,” I sing, “hotter than a pepper sprout.” I stand up and dance, the tremble ceasing as I bob back and forth on my feet.
“Look at us,” Lisa sighs. “We’re such adults.”