The Stories We Don’t Tell

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Photo by Adam Marcucci on Unsplash

When I was a teenager, my mom and I used to sit on the front porch as she’d tell me–usually with a touch of our family’s famous dark sense of humor–about her many brushes with danger. There was the time, while living in late-1970’s NYC, that a man followed her off the subway. When realizing she was alone and in danger, she began singing show tunes at the top of her lungs and acting so insane that she got him to back off. At least that’s the story I remember. I always keep that tactic in my back pocket.

Then there’s the date that went wrong. It all seemed fine until he pulled the car over and asked if she was interested in seeing his Vietnam knife collection that he kept under the seat. She rapidly talked her way out of that one–talked so fast and about so many things that he didn’t know what to do. And then he took her home.

The stories go on an on, each with a shared laugh (an empowering laugh) between she and I, along with a new lesson that I stored in my brain in case I someday find myself in the same position. On top of these, were all the stories of the 1980’s theatre world and grad school culture, directors being so terrifying with women that my parents later discouraged me from applying to certain BFA programs–where those men now worked.

In the 90s, my family went through several years of hell related to sexual assault. As it is not yet my story to tell, I will choose to remain vague. But I remember having a particularly dark thought at the start of it all while watching a NJ Lottery commercial. “Oh I get it, just the way you can win the good lottery, you can also win the bad one.” I was eight. For years, I became overly aware that I could win the shitty lottery at any time if I wasn’t prepared. I decided, wrongfully, that it was all in my hands, that I could handle these situations if I “trusted my gut” or knew how to talk myself out of it. If I didn’t buy a lottery ticket, maybe I couldn’t win.

Society, as luck would have it, backed up this idea. Don’t walk home late at night, always diffuse the situation with a smile, be careful what you wear. It’s in your hands. In 7th grade, they split up the boys and girls for a sex-ed talk. I learned a few self-defense moves while the boys in the next room, a friend told me, learned about contraception. Perhaps he lied. Either way, the message stuck.

With my playbook in hand, I grew up, creeping farther and farther away from my family’s terrible event, but always aware that we could be randomly selected at any time.

I learned to recognize and categorize near misses. Near misses that girls are taught about long before they’re women. As I got older, I compiled these and other tactics into my playbook.

And then there are my own, daily near-misses:

Just a month ago, a man ran through a crosswalk, nearly hitting me in the process. When I angrily turned around to look at him, he was so infuriated with my facial expression that he pulled the car over and began hollering and cursing, knowing I couldn’t get away if I wanted to. A neighbor walked me home as I shook.

Then there was the summer before college when I went to the movies with a theatre friend I knew from childhood. He took our outing the wrong way and when I went to open my car door at the end of the night, he reached past me and slammed it shut, telling me he wanted me to come to his apartment because “He was angry that he hadn’t gotten any in a while.” From my playbook, I talked myself out of that one and cried the whole way home. He called my phone so obsessively that I still block him from social media to this day.

Or how about the good high school friend who said he’d be my prom date, but a month before the prom booked a hotel room without my knowledge–just the two of us in a secluded area. I cancelled our date and went with a real friend who didn’t even go to my school. Girls who knew prom date #1 chided me for overreacting and said I should have just “gone and had a good time instead of being a prude.”

Or what about on the Path train two years ago, when two happy-hour Wall Street men in their 50s hung over me on the train bar, eventually getting up in my face and telling me I had pretty eyes. When I didn’t answer, he screamed, asking what was wrong with me, as the train did nothing.

What about two months ago? When I stood on my porch getting my mail in a blue maxi dress when an older man walked by and yelled, “You better watch out looking like that, young lady, you’re going to get yourself into trouble.” He lifted his top lip like a growling dog and stuck out his tongue a bit as he pointed.

Or a week ago? When I watched my community run a 5k for my dear friend that is currently fighting cancer. I recently broke my toe so I looked on from a tent, killing time as they ran and cheered. Making small-talk with a photographer about his camera, I suddenly felt his hand caressing my shoulder.

How about the hundreds of times when a man stares intensely in my direction, like I’m some sort of animal to be chased, but disappears the moment my husband comes back from the bathroom? I am not a human being to the onlooker, I am something owned or not owned by a man.

Then there are the tactics: pick your nose when a man won’t stop staring on the subway, limp when construction workers look like they’re going to cat call you, have a fake fight on your phone with no one on the other end if you’re being followed. Because no one wants a grotesque, limping, angry woman.

When I first thought of this post on the train ride home last night, I thought of 22 near-miss instances in an hour an a half. And this is only a handful.

Each individual report? A bad night, a crappy encounter, a “misunderstanding.” Line them all up, and it’s a way of life.

For the past two weeks, the Kavanaugh hearings have left myself and the majority of my community incredibly shaken. Not only because my family’s life was genuinely altered by sexual assault, but because of all the near-misses I, and many people in my life experience every damn day. You don’t want to have a story to tell, but you also don’t know what to do with the shorter, “almost” stories: the man who glares a bit too long, the hand on the shoulder, the date that takes a turn. All the while you know, that these shorter stories could have become much longer stories if you hadn’t taken out something from your playbook. As if this is all somehow supposed to be in your hands, and not in the hands of the person committing the wrongdoing.

As much as the hearings themselves have left me infuriated, the denial of her honesty from people I love has shaken me more. People in my life that I care about raging against her bravery, vehemently attack her legitimacy with catty, childish memes, and in the process, remind me that I–as a woman–am nothing to them but irrational and irresponsible for putting myself in a bad situation. Because what happened to Christine Blasey Ford is the longer version of our short stories–the one we all fear. And then it’s not only about the nightmare that did occur, but wondering how you could have kept that longer story from happening after years of shorter ones. Because that, for generations, is what we’ve been taught.

This is about far more than the stories we do have the bravery to tell. It’s also the longer ones that we’re too terrified to speak of, of all the near misses, and the culmination of the two that we carry around every day.

 

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