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On Telling Strange Men That I Am Married

I married for many reasons, and protection is not one of them

Rachel Toliver
Jul 1, 2016 · 5 min read
Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash
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Here’s me: at the bus stop wearing my brown boots — my favorites, looking better now that they’re scuffed up. I’m a woman standing at the bus stop in busted brown boots, which is pretty much the same as being a woman standing anywhere. I’m going to teach/going to print something at the library/going to read for a while/going to a bar/going, doesn’t matter where. I’m trying inhabit my body and get to where I need to go.

It’s warmer now, but it’s not warm enough to ride my bike. I prefer biking; my breath arcs like a tree inside my chest, and on my bike I feel like I am difficult to catch. Biking across the bridge I see the charcoal smudge of a heron. A bunch of upside-down geese turn their white bloomers to the sky. Sure I appreciate the nature, but mostly I appreciate the way birds do not make conversation.

Here at the bus stop there’s a White Castle and what used to be Valero, now Sunoco, across the street. Anyway: Bike or bus, my mace is always in my pocket. There are chatty men here. I never ever — snow, rain, whatever — wait inside the little closed-in shelter. Sometimes, standing here, I place my thumb on the mace, feel its black and ready pressure.

My hands are bare and in my pockets because I lost that one red glove and it’s weird to wear only the remaining glove. My husband is at home, getting ready for his work; he’s a farmer and today is harvest so he’ll draw the fronded kale out of raised beds. This evening he’ll bring it home in armfuls: stalks thick, rust-colored, bound with rubber bands. We’ll cook it: steam on all the darkened windows, slight mineral tinge upon the air.

The man at the bus stop has a face that looks chafed red. He’s wearing a suit, headed downtown, shoes shiny like cockroaches.

Hey let’s go on a date. Hey. You hear me. I want to take you on a date. I’ll take you on a nice date. His eyes are like the eyes of pigeons.

No thanks, I say. There’s no one else at the bus stop, so my no slips down into the street — down into the granules of crushed salt that remain and remain, persisting after ice.

Why not? You too good for me or something? You hear me; don’t ignore me.

Oh, I say. I’m married. And this is me: all shrug and flash of diamond.

This is the easiest way, and it leaves my mouth like breath. Apparently no is only a theory; marriage, on the other hand, is proof. The bus stop guy backs off a little. Oh baby sorry. Sorry baby sorry. The leer leaks out of his face.

But anyway it isn’t me he’s sorry to. I am a corridor; he projects his sorry through me. Some idea of a guy like him is on the other end.

It’s not like anything has really changed. I’m the same as I was before — worn boots, etc. — except I’m married so I’m not the same. Except I am the same. I mean, I left the house today, and I wished my husband a good harvest, and I kissed him, and right then I certainly was married and I knew it. But here at the bus stop, in the small space of that man’s pupil, I can be made into one thing, then another. I see it in the way he blinks. Whatever I am, it changes every time he moves his paunchy eyes.

I’ve got a granola bar in my backpack and that’ll be my breakfast, on the bus. The sun on the eastern skyline is a pinking crystal, and before today is done I’ll say those words — I’m married — two more times. I’m married; I’m married; I’m married.

At a second bus stop, where I make my transfer, a guy tries to sell me his bus pass. Then he asks, You got a boyfriend? It seems that I’m a multipurpose transaction here, in front of the state capitol’s competent granite. No, I say. I’m married. I stand there near a fence that looks like swords. I unbolt my private life for this guy, anyone else who is around. Oh, and I don’t need a bus pass.

That last time’s at a bar, a stately place with shiny paisley wallpaper. The guy is wearing pricy biking gear. My pint glass almost masks the words I’m married — I’m not ashamed of being married, but I’m ashamed of saying it three times. He looks at me and I feel like apologizing, waste of a bar stool that I am. Maybe if I’d opened a book, set it on the bar. Maybe if I’d brought a notebook, written in it. Done some other multitask to make it clear I had a purpose, that I wasn’t just a woman, enjoying herself here. If I were a man, I’d be relaxing, taking advantage of the cheap happy hour; being a woman, I must be here for company. Now the beer’s fulfilling glinty taste is gone. Now I long for home, where our hungry cats show their baleful bellies, where the teakettle throbs like a heart. I love my home, where light stretches into light, where sunset over snow makes the cold less so. I love my home, but being chased back there — feeling unsafe when I’m not there — makes me love it less. When private space gets tied to fear of public space, all the warmth of cornbread, of cats and folded blankets, rushes out from it.

I’m married. I say it three times over, and this feels like a crime of faithlessness, and the faithlessness creeps in every direction. I’m married allows me an apologetic smile when I have every right to be baring my teeth. I’m married fills the part of my lungs where the word no should reside. I remove the no from my tongue, weigh it like an undiscovered rock. I relinquish it, act like my no is owned by another. My husband is a gentle person, one hand holding radishes, the other petting the cat’s head. Our home smells like coffee and compost; ownership does not prevail there. But sometimes, when I’m a woman trying to get from one place to another, I cede my no. This, more than anything, makes me feel that I am owned.

And also: Why should my fidelity be linked with fear? And also: I married for a lot of reasons, but protection wasn’t one. My marriage is more than a circle drawn around me.

And what about this: I never even said the word husband. I never said man. Maybe these guys know that marriage has a thousand gleaming surfaces, that fidelity can be turned this way or that, for every sort of shine. But I kind of doubt it. To them a female-looking body speaking the word married must mean married to a man. But in these moments I’ll accept the violence of language — better the violence of language than whatever might happen there, in front of that White Castle, with its sign that still says Book Now For Valentines. I’ll pull my hood up, edge away from them, squint for the bus. I’ll snap that violent language shut around me.

The words I’m married wear through the inside of my cheeks. When they’re a weapon, all the joy is robbed from them. I arrive home on the bus, set down my brown boots on the cold sidewalk. My keys and mace in hand, I weigh their weight and find the heft of just and only no.

Rachel Toliver

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Thinking about cities, cats, public and domestic spaces. New Republic/ Brevity/ TriQuarterly/ American Literary Review. https://www.racheltoliver.com