“Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.” from The Journals of Sylvia Plath
I am in New Orleans today. I’ve been here since Friday, staying with my cousin in her shotgun house in the Bywater, soaking up the sunshine and warm wet air before I fly back to Cambridge tomorrow morning. I’m on my own for now; my cousin is at her job, working for a public health/charity organization, and I spent the morning in a café, working. I planned to get things done early and spend today exploring, maybe bike to the city park. I wanted a sno-ball from a stand nearby. I stood in line. A man got in line behind me, made small talk. He was polite, clean-looking, from Memphis, not creepy. He asked if I would take a picture of him in a costume he’d just bought so he could send it to his girl back home. I agreed. We were in a public place in broad daylight. There were people around.
I won’t go into details because I don’t feel like it. In essence, the situation did not play out as I expected. It was not harmless. It ended with the man exposed and ejaculating, and me in a state of shock, unable to say anything but “have a nice day” as I walked away, beginning to shake, with the realization that I had been violated setting in surely and steadily. I chastised myself. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d been smarter, I thought, if I’d been less compliant. Things like this have happened to me before, and they will happen to me again, and yet I am always caught off guard—and somehow, my instinct is always to comply. Today I walked home quickly, discarded my plans to see the city. I wanted to get inside. My sense of safety was breaking. Shouldn’t have had it in the first place, an internal voice reprimanded me. I wanted there to exist a blend of tea that could wash memories out of my head. Forgetting tea, I called it, distracting myself by making things up. I sat a while. I called my mother. I began to see the truth, which is that this event was not an “accident,” was not a natural consequence of my foolish friendliness, but was an act of violence of the kind that happens all the time. I am naïve, I am foolish, but those traits didn’t give that man his need to feel power over me. And my vulnerability lies not in my habit of smiling at strangers, but in two things: my femaleness and the fact that I have not learned to fiercely defend my own boundaries. I have to learn.
The following is a fragment I wrote this summer, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I might write it differently if I wrote it today. I might not.
Three days ago I sat and waited on the patio of a restaurant called the Shed while my friend Rob filled out a job application. Between the two of us, Rob and me, we know a fair number of Santa Feans. It’s a small town, and I make a habit of talking to strangers. An older man, maybe forty, scruffy-looking, sat near us and mumbled something—a greeting to Rob, I thought, and because Rob nodded distractedly, I assumed this man was his friend. I turned to him and smiled brightly. “I’m Natasha,” I said.
The man looked surprised and so did Rob. “Hot as hell today,” the stranger grunted. I smiled again and we left.
“You really love meeting people, don’t you,” said Rob. It wasn’t a question, but I answered “I guess.”
“You should be careful sometimes,” Rob told me softly. “I’m not telling you to stop… just be careful sometimes. You have an innocence about you that some people might want to take advantage of.”
I talk to strangers. Like any girl made aware, I cross to the other side of the street at night if there’s a man nearby who might be following me. I walk in the dark with my keys between my fingers like brass knuckle knives. I listen for footsteps and try to make my own gait a little less like a woman’s. But in daylight, I talk to strangers.
Rob was a stranger when I bought iced tea from him in the railyard district. Now he’s teaching me to drive with manual transmission, and pronounce some words in Navajo, and he says he’ll teach me to play poker next. A man named Perry was a stranger in the gym before I asked him a question, and now I’m editing his memoir in exchange for the personal training he usually sells for fifty dollars an hour. Four days a week I lift weights and listen to stories of youth in the hood, embellished with the most delightful analogies I’ve ever heard. “You’re amazingly approachable,” a red-bearded street musician told me when I paused to listen. I found out how he loved knives and the smell of skunk on the road. I sat down nearby and met a thin old man with long black hair. He was wearing black pants with many pockets, and a shirt of dark, thick suede, rolling into other colors. His boots were heavy brown leather with gold buckles, and he wrote with a silver fountain pen from 1934. He smoked a hand-rolled cigarette and told me how he’d walked through opium fields in Afghanistan, roaming with friends and nomads. The field workers would shoot, you would shoot back, and you would pass.
It probably is dangerous, the way I talk to people. I have the accidental habit (picked up in a small town, where I really did know most of the people I saw on the streets) of smiling at strangers like I already know them, which makes them think I intend to. I don’t. Sometimes I’d rather keep walking my way. Most of the time, though, I want to hear what people have to say. I trust people a little too much. Nothing really bad has happened to me yet. I’m naïve. I’m lucky. I should worry more. I wish I didn’t have to. I would like to be adventurous without being stupid, safe without being guarded. Perry plans to teach me how to fight, and my father plants seeds of sensible wariness in my mind when I tell him I’m going out—but it doesn’t come naturally to me, fearing people. I’m afraid of a lot of things (injury, quick-moving insects, highway driving, relationships, running out of money, and my mother cursing) but strangers don’t scare me.
What scares me is reality, which is that I should be scared: that I ought to carry with me everywhere I go a bit of fear, as if it will protect me. When people tell me I should worry, I do. When my neighbor comes over as I sit on the front porch at ten p.m. drinking hot chocolate, and looks afraid for me, and tells me “weird things have been happening” in the neighborhood, and that I should lock the doors and windows, I get nervous, and I get a little angry. I want to be the kind of person no one would mess with. I want to be a man.
What scares me is that all the women I know have learned to be alert and afraid. And, as I reassure my boss when she says she doesn’t run on mountain trails too early alone, “with good reason.” What scares me is that eighty percent of rape victims are women under thirty, women like me, and women tougher than me, more alert than me, smarter than me, women who keep their heads down and walk quickly and don’t talk to strangers. Actually, women are statistically less likely than to be victims of violent crime at the hands of strangers—and more likely to be hurt by people they know. And I’m lucky. I’ve never lived in a dangerous place. I’ve never lived in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, or worked a high-risk job. On Perry’s old block, nine people were shot and killed inside a year. On my old block, I sold crayon drawings and lemonade to the elderly couple next door.
I left the topic there. I came to no conclusion. I have still come to no satisfying conclusion. I will keep talking to strangers, because I can’t help it and I love their stories. I will carry with me a little less safety and a little more anger wherever I go, and I’ll probably keep trading safety for anger as I get older and travel. I will go eat some beignets. I will finish Come Hell or High Water and watch an episode of Twin Peaks in preparation for the class I’m taking with Junot Díaz. I’m drinking forgetting tea right now. It happens to be licorice-flavored.