On being grabbed by the pussy (and other ways the world keeps me small)

I.

The story starts with a walk home. On my route home I pass two bus stops, two alleys, and a strip mall before I reach my street.

I lived in New York City for a decade, so I’m not a stranger to walking alone at night in a city. I lost count of how many times I was harassed during that decade, but I always knew exactly where my witnesses were. Most memorably, a man once grabbed me and screamed in my ear “I could rape you if I wanted to! I could kill you!” and I was falsely comforted by the fact it happened in front of one hundred other people at the corner of 97th and Broadway, many of whom stopped to stare as I shoved him off of me, but none of whom seemed eager to play the role of my savior.

Now, on my walk home, I’m often the only pedestrian in any given block in a relatively safe part of town. When I turn the corner to my street, I walk along the backside of the strip mall. There’s one last alley and then I take a deep breath — the rest of the walk is residential. Neighbors are usually around, coming home from work themselves. Only once did someone follow me past that last alleyway. I crossed the street as a test and he still trailed me. I counted his steps behind me like a metronome, held my keys between my fingers in a tight fist, until finally the sound of a family playing in their front yard a few houses away calmed my nerves. I stopped to wave and say hello. Be noticed. My stalker for the evening turned around and headed back toward the alley. I continued home but wondered for the next three nights if he had seen which building I went into, if he was out there waiting for me.

I think not often about Kitty Genovese, but I did think about her that evening. When I lived in New York, I sometimes walked the exact same route that Kitty Genovese walked in Queens from the train station to her home. The same route she ran along, terrified, on March 13, 1964 as her attacker followed her, stabbed her, raped her, while neighbors who heard her screaming late at night did nothing.

Her home was around the corner from where a former boyfriend’s family lived. I remember the first time we walked the route. “Hey, so, do you know about Kitty Genovese? She was killed here.” It wasn’t a threat, it was a competition: “hey, I bet you don’t know about this!” I laughed. As if I wouldn’t know about Kitty Genovese. As if all women everywhere don’t know about Kitty.

It was that same boyfriend who early in our relationship pushed me into a wall. Almost every day I believe it was an accident. We were standing at the top of a stairwell. He pushed me the way young siblings do when they are fooling around, not yet sure of their own strength. My head hit a light fixture; my scalp was tender for days. It felt strange and surprising, but not quite abusive.

What I remember most was the moment that followed. How he stood frozen in front of me, his arm still outstretched from the push. How he seemed terrified and also suddenly aware. How it had been so effortless. How much smaller I must have seemed than him in a way that he hadn’t quite realized before. How easy it was to move from a point of laughter to a point so very close to a line that he had always been taught to avoid. We never spoke of it again but I was keenly aware for the duration of our relationship that the line was always closer than we would like to think. I wasn’t scared that he would hurt me, but I knew that he could.

_________________________________________

II.

My high school was a small, unusual place, with a campus that felt less like a school and more like a village with a quirky town square. Groups of friends spanned grade levels, and generally I think we all cared about each other but the power dynamics across ages were very real.

One of the older boys was not only a friend but also a champion. He helped me with homework, stood up to schoolyard bullies, called my parents Mr. and Mrs. The kind of guy parents would trust to get their daughter home at night.

And, he was also the kind of guy that blocked me from moving through doorways unless I delivered a quick kiss, held me so tightly I couldn’t move, pulled at my shirts and waistbands. He was 17 years old to my 14 years, substantially taller and heavier than I, and sometimes I think that he was the first man for whom I was smaller in a way he didn’t quite realize. And then, perhaps by extension, smaller in a way that no one could either.

For a long time I believed that this could be fine, just a part of the greater strangeness and newness of high school. I was so young, so apparently small, I didn’t know how any of this was supposed to feel. I knew the lines that defined assault and harassment but in every educational video they seemed to involve a stranger in a dark alley. There was seemingly no Venn diagram, no intersection of people I trusted who could also harm me in this way.

So I just moved the line. Told myself no limits had been reached, boundaries were still far away. People told me “it happens” and we never defined what “it” could be. People told me he had had a difficult time with his family, so I should “go easy” on him. People told me he was flirting with me, so maybe I should flirt back. We later corresponded when I was away for the summer, as friends do. He once wrote “I’m surprised you keep writing, after what happened.” I responded by asking about his heartache.

The line was moved, and I eventually stopped being spooked by an unexpected hand on my shoulder. All of the confusion and doubt just melted away into the general, quotidian pain of adolescence, and that seemed possible enough to manage.

And yet. I always remembered the first time, up against a locker. I was late to class; not many people were around but we were right outside of three classrooms and that quirky town square. I remember the striped tank top I wore against my barely pubescent chest that moments later he was touching. How he told me, “you could like this.” The metal was cold against my back and the lock swayed against my upper arm. The handle of the locker rattled against the pressure of my shoulder. I went through four more years of my life hearing that sound a dozen times a day. A small metallic cry reminding me: this place will not keep you safe. No one can even see you.

___________________________________

III.

Three years, four months ago I had a night out with friends. I remember the timing of the night this specifically because it was right after I met my now-husband. There was another interested suitor at the time who was with us all this night. I wasn’t sure if I was actually interested, but he hadn’t given me a reason not to be.

I watched our friends watch us as he drank more and more. A brush on the arm flowed so seamlessly into a knee against mine, a brush of my hair away from my face. Friends whispered and giggled. It was a fun game for them and for a while it was for me too. The gestures became more abrupt and forceful which I initially forgave due to the tequila. “He’s getting pretty handsy,” one person observed, and I couldn’t tell if it was a congratulations or a warning.

As his hands explored more of my skin, I shifted my body, trying to shrink and pull away from his grasp. “Let’s just keep talking,” I said with a smile. “But you could like other things more,” he suggested. There was a metallic cry rattling in the distance.

The next three minutes went by so fast. I said I needed to leave; he implored me to stay. “Come on, you know how I feel about you,” he said as his hand squeezed my ass. It was as I was asking him to call me when he had slept off the hangover, assuring him that I would give him a chance, that he leaned in even closer. Chastised me for leading him on. Told me that I should have known what he really expected to get that evening, told me what I owed him. With bodies everywhere around us, he put his hand up my dress and pulled down my underwear just enough to grope my crotch, fingers reaching through pubic hair trying to claim his prize.

I wish I could recall what got me out of the moment. I think I pushed him off but also maybe he got scared and pulled away (arms outstretched, frozen?). I know that I went home in tears but first drove out of my way past my high school because that rattling cry wouldn’t stop and I was drawn to the epicenter. I know that the next day I spoke to a mutual friend who had been there and who tried to explain that this guy was really going through a rough time. Family stuff. During that call I pulled out a shoebox of old letters to find that 15-year-old summer correspondence, desperately searching again for the pain in my high school champion that had made it possible for me to be so small.

I also know that when the new suitor reached out a few days later, confused as to why I had been out of touch, I sat at my desk, legs pulled up against my chest, voice quiet. He remembered nothing and I had the indignity of recounting to him the nature of his crimes. The line felt just as blurry as his drunken memory and he said, exasperated, “I honestly don’t know why I would do this.” I didn’t know how to explain that it is hardest to make sense of things when we are standing right on top of them.

__________________________________________

IV.

I am almost 33 years old and I flinch at the sound of metal against metal. I have a friend who was groped by a clergy member on a plane. Another whose neighbor raped her when she was 11; another who was raped by her college boyfriend. A former classmate casually mentioned that she had been molested as a child by a friend of her parents. A childhood friend was followed down a street when she was 12 by a man who exposed himself to her repeatedly; the female adult she told responded by telling her it happens to everyone, eventually.

This is how I laughed to myself the first time that ex-boyfriend challenged me, “Hey, so, do you know about Kitty Genovese?” How even if I hadn’t known the story of Kitty Genovese I still knew Kitty’s story. That the story of a woman crying out for help on a public street within earshot of people with the power to help was just familiar enough and I had the sense to know I’d live the story again. It was a catalogue of stories I would be hearing and organizing for my whole life, and I knew it well before I read about Kitty in a psychology textbook or that first time I walked down the street to her apartment building.

I think of the catalogue and wonder about the stories I was never told, the stories that none of us has ever been told, since some of my stories here are ones I’m telling for the first time and there are still others that I’m not yet telling. I wonder, if I feel this small and weightless, how small would something else, something more grotesque, make a person feel? Would they just be invisible?

I wonder if 1 in 6 women experiencing assault sometime in their life could possibly be a true statistic, and if any number can really quantify the ways that a life is shifted once you know, forever, that your body is never your own.

And, I wonder if any number can tell me when being grabbed by my pussy will become being fucked violently in the pussy. If there is some way to know when I’ve made myself just small enough to go unnoticed, or overwhelmingly large enough to be seen. Or on what day I’ll walk home and someone — emboldened by forces beyond me — will make good on the threats to my body that the world has been making my entire life.