It was a regular weekday. I was walking to my regular coffee shop. I stopped at the crosswalk, like I always do, when a stranger came up beside me.
“You really stop traffic,” he said. One car honked in an impatient way, like cars often do when they yield to pedestrians.
“No, they had a stop sign,” I replied, immediately changing tone, stiffening in stance and quickening my walk upon noticing he is touching himself.
“Where are you going?” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“[Derogatory remark], where are you going?” he persisted, somehow saying it both coolly and forcefully. He said it in a way that suggested I’m the one who’s insulting for not wanting to engage with a stranger touching himself.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, feeling rushed but trying to keep a calm tone, my pace unsteady.
“Why are you so stuck up?”
“I’m not stuck up, I’m engaged.” Why am I explaining myself? I thought. But, I was panicked and it was the only thing I could think to say to keep him a safe distance behind me.
“Is it serious?”
“Yes, I’m engaged.”
“For how long?” His tone was menacing.
“I’ve been seeing him for years.”
“I asked how long you were engaged.”
I answered, trying to diffuse the situation, and noticed his hand was still on his junk. Then, I finally reached the coffee shop.
He read the name on the sign aloud, so I would know that he knows where I am.
“Have a nice day,” I said, not believing the words as they flew from my mouth. All I wanted in that moment was for the moment to be over. And, if saying, “Have a nice day,” helped with that, even if it felt degrading, then fine.
I told my regular barista what happened and said the shop didn’t need to do anything about it. Why is it that whenever something like this happens your brain makes you feel dirty and guilty and just wanting it to end? Why didn’t I let them call the police?
This isn’t my first terrifying experience with street harassment and being followed. Once, a man chased me to a final on campus. When I was living in DC, a man followed me from metro car to metro car late at night. I reported it to Metro, who took their time getting information to police. And, in junior high, a man tried to lure me in a truck.
We, as women, learn to run early and we don’t stop. Some catcalls sting, but you know in your gut when a few are dangerous. I was able to put this incident behind me pretty quickly. After all, he was only touching himself. He wasn’t trying to pull me anywhere or touch me, I reasoned, like only women have to reason.
A few weeks later, I was walking the same street, like I had done twenty times since the incident. And, there he was again. This time, he was dressed in a button down shirt. I almost don’t recognize him. But he knew me.
“Hey married lady,” he says in a jolly tone as though this is a happy reunion.
I honestly don’t know how I responded. It was something innocuous like, “Yeah,” or “That’s me,” or “Hello.”
What’s depressing is that in the moment I was relieved at this positive interaction. At least he didn’t touch himself this time. At least he remembered I was off limits—because, to him, my worth is established in my marital status and possession to someone else.
I spent the rest of the walk imagining what I should or could have said differently. I spent the rest of the day thinking about it, too. At home, my fiancé jokingly suggested that I should out-crazy harassers and that I should pull a Liz Lemon a la the Batman episode where she dresses like the female version of the Joker on the subway and tells fellow passengers that she is “pregnant with a kitty cat.”
We both laughed at the thought, because it was so implausible, because what we were really acknowledging was that there is, sadly, no way to avoid these threats from strangers. I just have to live my life as the woman I want to be, and trust my instincts in a dangerous situation. And, when people want to make me feel insecure, I can’t let them. I have to keep my head high, walk without fear and know when to haul ass.
(Image via iStock)