Part 1: Springtime in a Pandemic
Escaping my house for the first time today, I drive across the long river bridge and up the hill. The low afternoon sun cast everything golden and the spring landscape is showing off–pink trees, red tulips, neon green grass lawns. I’m headed to a friend’s house to share some joy in the form of baked goods.
I write a quick note and drop the reused take-out bag on my friend’s porch, briefly mourning the lack of a face-to-face conversation, but knowing this is the best way to love her and love our community facing down a pandemic.
I hop back in the still running car and contemplate where I might walk to extend my time in this glorious evening. I have a mask, but this neighborhood isn’t mine, and I feel strange parking to just wander. I guess I’ll head home and enjoy my familiar riverfront with its yellow wall of wild mustard flowers.
Part 2: The Red Light
The air is cool, but the sun still warm, so I start my ride back with the window down. My senses are heightened by paradoxical familiarity and strangeness–cool spring air on my arms while my face warmed by a mask. The road is familiar but the signs and traffic are abnormal. But this too is a new kind of normal, a street sign declaring “Stay Home” against the backdrop of that park I ran while training for a fall 5K.
As I pull up to the intersection, I notice a white Jeep in the left turning lane. Every window is open, arms hanging out from the occupants stuffed in. Four (five?) 20-something white guys in t-shirts and shorts. Their loud confident voices layer over the bumping bass pop line. Like me they seem to be enjoying this fine spring evening.
But their lack of masks, their close confines, and their brash look-at-me energy spills beyond their vehicle, and I feel myself unconsciously tense. As I slow, I feel a growing dread–I know exactly how this will play out. I’m a woman driving alone with my window open, wearing a mask to adhere to pandemic restrictions, sitting a few yards from them. There’s no way I escape this without comment.
Tense and ready, I stare ahead at the red light, trying to recapture the feeling of freedom just moments before when I rolled down the window. I’m trying to ignore what I feel I know will happen next.
It’s yelled across three lanes of traffic and despite feeling sure it was coming, I’m still somehow jolted. The tone is mocking, provoking, assured in its power to play. He is a strong, invincible young man in a Jeep. Things to prove to his friends. He scoffs at obeying government guidance. Rebels against sacrificing fun. I’m alone in a car, my compliance plainly worn and my posture uninviting. I am irresistible.
My arm, previously relaxed on the window, instinctively and protectively responds.
I flip him off.
His reaction is so predictable, it’s boring. Every woman can verbatim whisper what happens next. It’s the fodder of bad TV and cheap entertainment.
“Fuck you, bitch”
My eyes never leave the road, and I gently press the accelerator in an unconscious reaction to the light changing green. I give him no satisfaction with my gaze or my attention while my entire body floods with adrenaline.
My heart beats fast in my chest and my breath grows shallow across that long bridge toward home.
Part 3: The Mind Game
Minutes later, I’m walking upstairs trying to brush the 5-second exchange away. I’m irritated at how shaken I feel. My mind proffers excuses and rationales while my physical body betrays any strength or calm. The familiar battle between mind and body has begun.
“You were never in danger–there was entire lanes of traffic separating you. Besides, you operated a car, just press the pedal and you were safe.”
“Why did you antagonize him by flipping him off? Couldn’t you just have ignored him? Crassness was the downfall here. Rise above.”
“People hear much worse every day. It’s not a big deal.”
You don’t know him; he doesn’t matter. Don’t let him affect you. He wins if he gets to you. Brush it off.
And, finally, the the big guns:
What if you interpreted his tone wrong? What if he actually was paying you a compliment? What if you overreacted?
My anger rises. I know those messages and questions are programming. Programming meant to make me question every instinct and feeling that I have. Question every action and reaction.
Programming that shrieks “civility at all costs” from other women whose entire strategy for survival is to “be a nice girl.”
Programming that scoffs “it’s just a joke” from men whose entire strategy is to shame women for their emotions with “you’re so dramatic.”
Programming from my first family culture where emotions felt without cause were a highest order inconvenience and gaslighting was fairly normal from men who held power.
I’m shaking, internally and externally from anxiety, from fear, from anger, and from the jolt of driving on a spring day while also existing as a woman alone. But I’m noticing the messages my body is sending. I’m acknowledging the emotions I’m allowed to have. I’m giving permission to feel and be affected. I’m rejecting the impulse to stuff or diminish, along with the lies that stuffing gives me any kind of empowerment.
Before the sun slips below the horizon, I end my day by admiring the wildflowers, holding the hand of someone I love, and calming my heart. I’ll use this one experience to think of all the women enduring worse day in and day out. Harassment for wearing too much or too little, for existing too close to a man who feels entitled to her time. I’ll take time to write as a reminder that entitled men should not get the last word, and women’s experiences count even as they’ve been dismissed by first others and then ourselves.
And next time? I’ll flip him off again. Because a flick of a wrist and a crass dismissal is all he deserves from my evening.