When I was fifteen, Mom enrolled me in the Catholic high school downtown. There were no school buses and I was too young to drive, so a friend’s mom drove me to school on her way to work. After school, I rode the city bus home.
There were two options for catching the city bus. The first was to walk three or four blocks through downtown to the central bus station which was crowded, chaotic, and full of groups of guys who had nothing better to do than ogle the high school girls. I hated going there alone, so I found some kids from school who walked to the station, and I joined them.
But then I discovered that my bus stopped less than a block from school, across the street from our gymnasium. Nobody ever went to that stop, as far as I knew, but it was closer and I could avoid the walk to the station, as well as all the weirdos.
This bus stop was out in the open, situated on a triangle of concrete in the middle of a busy intersection, but I didn’t mind. I just leaned against the traffic light pole and never had to wait long.
One day while I waited for the bus, a homeless man rode by on a bicycle. I was used to seeing the long grey beards, layers of colorless clothing, and piles of belongings either carried or pushed in a shopping cart. The homeless folks left me alone and in my privilege and caution, I looked the other way.
But as I stood on the triangle that day, this guy rode past, glanced at me, and then turned around and came back. The intersection was strangely empty at the moment he rode up beside me and stopped. His hair was long and grey to match his beard, and he wore a black baseball cap. He smiled at me with blackened teeth and muttered something, his dark eyes looking right into mine.
“What?” I asked, glancing around to get my bearings in case I needed to scream or run. He was about five feet away, but he leaned toward me and said it again. It was almost a whisper.
“I said,” he muttered, licking his crusty lips and looking me up and down, “That I’d like to get you alone. I’d push my shaft so far up inside you…” I’m not sure if there was more after that, because it’s like my ears closed up. A cold chill flooded me and I took a step back. At that moment I felt like he had done just what he said he wanted to do. I was utterly alone and even though he hadn’t touched me, his words had done the job.
I said something back, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was. I was terrified, so it wasn’t combative. Something like “No, I don’t think so,” and then he looked me up and down again and rode away as the bus hissed up behind him and I got on.
Trance-like, I sat down with the creepy feeling that everyone on the bus was looking at me and knew what he had said. Like I was naked and exposed.
When I got home, I told Mom I didn’t want to ride the bus anymore, but I was afraid to tell her why. I might have said some homeless guy was bothering me, but at fifteen, the culture had already taught me that I probably did something to invite his evil words. After all, I dressed in cute clothes, had big 80s hair, and always wore make-up. Sure, it was winter, so I was wearing a coat and probably boots, but surely it was somehow my fault.
The message that came back to me either through my Mom (I can’t remember what she said) or the culture at large was, “He probably didn’t mean anything by it, and it’s not like he was really going to do anything right out there on the street. Men like to look at pretty girls, you’d better get used to it.”
Get used to it. I swallowed this. But would I? In reality, the second part might be true. He probably wouldn’t have done anything out there on the street. But he did mean something by it. And I am convinced that if he had found me alone in a secluded place, there’s no telling what he’d have done. For the rest of high school, when I walked downtown with friends, I kept an eye out for that guy. I feared he was waiting for a chance to corner me.
Since then, and even before that, there are countless more examples I have of men saying and doing things they shouldn’t. The first was a prank phone call when I was ten. The caller asked how big my breasts were and said he wanted me to describe them to him. I didn’t have breasts yet and felt the hot rush of shame when he said it. I was new to the world of prank calls and I didn’t know I could just hang up. He was an adult, so I tried to talk him out of it. I never told my parents and I always wondered if he knew where I lived.
There were the suggestive comments and whistles from random guys on the street. The boys who grabbed at my boobs and my butt in middle school and I was told I should see it as a compliment.
The boss, twenty years my senior (at least) who always stared at me until I looked away. The men at church who couldn’t look me in the eye, but they were comfortable resting their eyes on me at right about chest level.
And the one particular man in church who joked so disparagingly about his wife that it made me feel like he was talking about me. About all the women.
Because he was. He saw women as less than. All those men did. And decades of being steeped by the idea that I had no say, kept me quiet.
But guess what? I’m not keeping quiet anymore. I’m telling my stories and encouraging others to tell theirs. Lies and shame have power, but we diffuse that power when we reveal our secrets and our truths.
Now? If a man so much as looks at me wrong, I stare him down. And after fifty years of holding my tongue, I’m itching for a fight. While I was cautious and careful and timid before, I’m cautious and careful still, but with my eyes glaring and my fists ready. I won’t pick a fight, but I’ll be damned if I’ll sit back and let a man be inappropriate with me, or any other woman in my line of sight.
Because the sad thing about the #MeToo that’s been trending the past few days is that there are too many of us to count. Maybe we should take a poll of the women who have never been sexually harassed or assaulted, because that number would be much easier to count. We’d probably only need one hand to count those.
For all my sisters who have suffered from harassment or assault, I see you. I believe you. And I am with you.
Copyright © 2017 – Paulla Estes