Every afternoon, for the first twenty-five years of my American life, I watched Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. It was Oprah who taught me about Gavin de Becker’s “Gift of Fear” – a book written the year my daughter was born – and how to predict dangerous behavior and how being nice does not pay:
Niceness does not equal goodness. We must learn and teach our children that niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction. It is not a character trait. People seeking to control others, almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning.
Later, if ever I were kidnapped, Oprah taught me that I should remember Sanford Strong’s Rule #1: to never let myself be taken to the second location. These and other such lessons I passed along to my daughter hope burning inside me that she would never need them.
She sometimes tells me, when faced with a challenge, that she copes by weighing it against the worst thing that has already happened to her – the death of her daddy and the constancy of him. Other men, good friends of mine and my own father, have tried to fill the gaping hole. Kind. Watchful. Funny. And – perhaps afraid that I might fall apart as her only parent, more aware than I of my own fragility – they are there for her. Just there. There, sitting under a Jacaranda tree with her as she held her dying cat; there, cheering her on as she strode across the stage to receive her high school diploma; there, teaching her to drive; and, there, making a day in December feel almost like Christmas.
Between us, we provide a safe and soft place for her to fall. Prior to milestone moments – Father’s Day, his birthday, the holidays – we are extra vigilant, more active on her Facebook page with supportive comments and ‘likes’ and jokes we know she will appreciate. Stupidly, however, we do not expect to be broadsided, as we were by a moment in a department store fitting-room last Sunday.
My daughter is kind and warm with a personality made for retail. She’s good, but she is also nice. A college student, she works part-time in a local department store, where the managers frequently place her in charge of the fitting room. Patient and pleasant, a pleaser, she is the perfect associate to calm customers harried and in a hurry to find something that fits. To her embarrassment I’m sure, I went into the store last Sunday and – worse – I even tried on clothes, so she could not avoid me, the way we avoid our parents when we are so “over them.” I didn’t notice the numbers scrawled on her hand, I was too busy embarrassing her the way I used to do when I dropped her off at junior high. Mortified that her friends might hear “my music” on the radio, I remember she would turn it down before getting out of the car. Then I would wait until she was on the sidewalk, turn up my classic rock and yell out the window for all to hear, “I love you.” It’s what mothers do, right?
Mothers also usually know when something’s wrong. I can tell by the first syllable of “hello” when she calls if it is, for example, a day when grief has her in its grip – ‘a grief day.’ I can sense it. But I somehow missed it in the department store. I missed it. How could I miss it? It wasn’t until she came home from her shift a few hours later, that she told me. She had written on her hand 4:30 – 4:45, the time period during which a middle-aged man – a customer – had inappropriately touched her in response to her telling him she was sorry the red shirt he was returning hadn’t worked out. She was alone. Vulnerable. Frozen after he put his hands on her, but somehow she thought to inform security of the time so they could check the videotape and “just keep an eye on him in case he came back and bothered anyone else.” Then my darling girl worked her shift for four more hours and told herself that because she was “alright,” management would probably minimize the situation. Nobody came to check on her. She ended her shift, walked to her car alone, and came home to me.
Having had a day or two to reflect on this, to raise hell, broadcast it all over social media and report it to management, to confirm that, yes, detectives are looking into it, and to ensure that a policy will be enforced to require at least two employees in the fitting room at all times, the lingering issue remains. There are menacing men who move among us every minute of every day and that women who look just like my daughter – my mother, my best friend, me – continue to be sexually harassed in public places. My girl is now one of those women.
I know she does not want “mommy fighting her battles,” but she just doesn’t understand that I want to find that stranger and tear him apart until there is nothing left of him. Nothing. She didn’t hear Gavin de Becker tell Lena Dunham in response to a question about how young women can best protect themselves against violence:
. . . Do not accept the scam that violence is a strategy only understood by men. There’s a universal code of violence, and that’s not a code you have to crack; it’s all inside you. When I used to give more speeches, I would ask audiences, “Is there anybody here who feels they could never hurt anybody?” A bunch of people would raise their hands and say, “I could never be violent under any circumstances.” If it’s a woman, I would say, “Well, what about if somebody was hurting your child?” “Oh, oh, oh, well then I could rip, burn, bite, scrape, scratch, poke, shoot, stab,” and so the resource is in all of us.
That resource is in all of this. Except, we don’t really believe it, do we?
Last week, I went to a local bar to shoot pool with one of my best friends – a 66 year old woman. For reference, a bad thing happened to me last summer, and pool became the good thing that lifted me up and out of it – a perfect distraction. We found the quintessential dive bar – a hole in the wall, no windows, somehow smoky even in the absence of smoke, three pool tables, a parking lot aromatic with weed, “Sweet Home Alabama” on the jukebox, and bartenders who tell stories and listen to yours and call everyone ‘sweetie.’ You get the idea. I had never played pool until last August, but because of Paul Newman in Color of Money, I had always wanted to. I didn’t even want to be good. I wanted just one time to make that sound – that crack of a great opening break. I was a long way from doing so. I didn’t know how to hold the cue and could barely make contact with the ball. My friend is a lousy teacher, so we would watch YouTube videos on our phones or ask the advice of old guys who bring their own sticks to the bar on League Night, which also happens to be Ladies Night, or on Sundays when it is free to play. After months of practice and time recently spent with a man who quickens my heart and teaches me how to make the shots he makes me call, I’m not as embarrassed by my game any more. In fact, I win more than I lose (just not against him).
He wasn’t with me last Friday when I put up my quarter. Oblivious to my surroundings as I too often am, I was only vaguely aware of the young man seated at the bar behind us. Remembering him now, I recall shorts, T-shirt, flip-flops, receding hairline, slightly overweight. I recall nothing remarkable and no hint of danger. I remember half-noticing him talking to my friend, but I thought he was only asking about the boxes of pizza on the bar and if anyone could have a slice. (Yes. Anyone can.) She didn’t tell me until later that he had rubbed against her and asked if she liked playing with balls. She froze. The way so many of us do, later telling me, “Yeah, he hit on the old broad first.”
Subsequently, when it was her turn to play, he sidled towards me, and said with a sneer, “Hey, hey, your friend says you like playing with balls. Is that true?” Hey. Hey. Typically, this would render me frozen as I have been every other time something similar has happened, but this time I could feel an approximation to violence. Foreign and empowering, it made me not fear him or humor him or ignore him. I don’t know what shifted in me, but something did. Clutching my cue – and wanting to break it over his head – I eye-balled him and never looked away as I told him, coolly and quietly, “Yes. Yes, I do. I love it. But the fuck of it is that you’ll never know since you don’t have any. Now get the fuck out of my space.” I almost scared myself. Now I am no stranger to profanity – I’m Irish after all – but the words came out of me like razor blades, and before I could turn away from him, I watched as he slithered out the back door.
Still, I was left feeling guilty about cursing at him and – even worse – wondering if perhaps it had been the way I had smiled, the silky summer top I was wearing, the cut of my jeans, the length of my legs – if it had been my fault. Was it because I was in a bar on a Friday night without a man? He would not have said it had I been with a man, would he? Had I asked for it? Well, had I? And, if I am honest – mindful that I am middle-aged, postmenopausal and most of the time invisible to men on the make – should I have been grateful for the attention? This is the maddening and shameful contradiction that sends me, recoiling and ashamed, to the disconcerting reality that I am no longer the proverbial spring-chicken therefore attention from a young man must mean I’ve “still got it.” Really? Yes, really. And I am perplexed by this.
Now what? Well, today and tomorrow, I will step out into the world, and I will dress the way I always do. I will “sparkle and enchant” the way I do and risk being called flirtatious which sometimes sounds very much like “you’re asking for it.” My daughter will continue to be good – but perhaps not as nice – to strangers. We have been altered.
Like a thief in the night, those men – and every other strange and entitled man who has ever touched me or taunted me or told me I smell good when I’m standing next to him in line at an electronics store or called me a stuck-up bitch and told me to suck his dick because I didn’t smile back – have taken something from us, and we are not sure how or if or when we will get it back.