Featured Stories

Everything I Can Remember

Notes on a lifetime as a woman

Sep 20, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo: F/Unsplash

When I was about eight, my mother took my sister and me to a local state park, a place where we would often ramble among the rocks and trees and streams. I waded up a stream on this particular trip, and when I looked back for my mom, I had gone a bit too far. A man was standing there in the stream, blocking my way, looking at me. He held a long, sharpened stick. And he began to chase me, up the stream and away from my mom and my sister. My mom finally realized I was missing, and she ran up the stream, yelling. The man ran away.

All personal photos courtesy of Jessica Shortall

I’ve always had a low voice, even when I was a young girl. Starting when I was about 10, if a man was on the other end of the line when I’d call to order a pizza, or to speak with customer service, he’d often tell me I sounded “sexy.”

When I was about 11, something happened to me that I’m not going to share with you. So don’t ask, because it’s my story, not yours. And by the way, I didn’t tell anyone, for 27 years.

When I was 13, the boys in my eighth-grade class often sang me a song in the cafeteria: Roses are red/Violets are black/Why is your chest/As flat as your back?

L: Eighth grade. R: Homecoming.

When I was 17, my father told me I looked like a “slut” in my dress for my high school homecoming dance.

When I was 18, I started college, and twice a year would make the eight-hour-each-way drive between New Jersey and North Carolina. This was pre-cellphone, so I had a CB radio. Once, after dark, I got on the radio to ask how the traffic was up ahead. The (male) truck drivers heard my voice and started working together to figure out which car was mine, based on the big antenna that was part of my CB system.

Once they had figured out where I was and were headed toward me, I realized I had to pull over and reroute to try to get away from them. It added something like two hours to my journey. I got to campus close to midnight.

When I was 19, my African History professor started calling me, repeatedly, in my dorm room. He would tell me he liked how I looked, and ask me what I was doing right then. By the time this began, it was too late to drop the class without losing credits, so I just kept going. It never occurred to me to tell anyone in the administration.

None of this defines me. But if you think it hasn’t shaped me — I’m guessing you’re a man.

When I was 20, I spent a summer working in the kitchen of a family restaurant on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. A girlfriend and I rented a room above the restaurant. The chef also lived up there, in his own bedroom; we shared the living space and kitchen. One day, the chef asked me, “So, how come you lock your bedroom door at night?” The lock was silent. There was no way he would know we were doing it unless he had tried the doorknob.

When I was 21, in college, I was asleep in my off-campus house when my locked bedroom door rattled. It was a man, inside my house, trying to get into my room. I called the police and escaped through the window. They never took fingerprints.

My senior year in college, I spent three weeks volunteering in Calcutta, India. We had to take a train somewhere, so the protocol for this annual volunteer trip was followed: Each girl on the trip was paired with a boy on the trip. We were told to stand face-to-face, in a tight hug, for the entire train ride, to keep the girls from being groped. (The boys were as uncomfortable as we were, for what it’s worth.)

When I graduated from college, I fulfilled a lifelong dream by joining the Peace Corps. I moved to Uzbekistan. In the first 10 weeks, we volunteers were clustered together for training in a town outside the capital. One night we had pizza together, and a fellow volunteer named Mike offered to walk me home. About halfway to the apartment I was staying in, Mike hit me across the face, with no warning and no precursor. Flight kicked in =and I took off, running all the way home. He resigned that week and went back to Kentucky.

In that same apartment in Uzbekistan, I was living with a host family during our training period. One night, my host mom’s boyfriend — a police officer — showed up drunk and started pounding on the door to be let in. When she told him no, he ripped the bank of metal mailboxes out of the wall in the hallway and beat on the door with it — unsuccessfully (thank goodness for Soviet brutalism, I guess). He started screaming my name, telling me, in Russian, that he was going to kill me. It went on for hours. We couldn’t call the police because he was the police.

While in Uzbekistan, sometimes men would shout vulgarities at me on the street — in Russian, Uzbek, or English. Once, a man yelled in English that he was going to fuck me; I confronted him (in Uzbek) and learned he didn’t even know what he was saying. He’d just seen in American movies that that’s what you yell at an American woman on the street. He was very sorry.

When I was in my 20s, I reported to a man who called all the young women at the organization he headed “wild thing” and “babydoll”.

When I was in my mid-30s, I reported to a man who called me — the most senior person on his team — “young lady,” but only when we were in front of the rest of the team, who reported to me.

This week, a man sent me a private message on Twitter. I told him I did not want to talk to him. He persisted. I told him to fuck off. He replied that he would “teach” me “what sexual assault means.”

None of this defines me. But if you think it hasn’t shaped me, hasn’t made me make rules for myself, hasn’t shaped how I view other women, and myself, and men… if you think it hasn’t shaped my ambitions (for good and for bad), or the way I vote, or what I see when I look in the mirror — I’m guessing you’re a man.

My whole life has been peppered with these things, gigantic and small, that have been sending me a very specific set of instructions about my place in the world. I’m exhausted by it. I’m lit up with rage about it. I’m resigned to it. I refuse to be resigned to it. I tell myself “not anymore.” I know this list will grow.

And these are just the ones that I remember.


Written by

Proud 1st generation American, social entrepreneur, author, mama