I knew I would soon be seeing my family because of an illness, or maybe worse. I distracted myself by wondering what sports were in season. Deflected my frustration by watching some physical display of strength.
That same day I was due to see my family, I was yelled at by a man at the gym when I tried to learn how to share a lane in the pool. I don’t use the word “yell” lightly here, but literally. The scolding dragged on for some very uncomfortable minutes with a small audience. It reminded me of the people I was traveling across the country to see, my uncle had already worried to my father and aunt that I’d be in the way at my grandfather’s hospital bed. Like a child or an idiot. I was not feeling sad for the loss of a patriarch. I assumed the sadness would come later with understanding.
The man at the pool had large arms and a barrel chest and I had seen him at the gym many times before. I was soggy and out of breath and nodded politely while he berated me. I’ve tried to come up with other words for what was happening, but “berate” is the only one that seems to include how angry and condescending he was when I came up for a rest after a few laps. To be clear, I had not run into him. I had kept pace. I had never shared a lane before and could only guess at the least irritating way to do so. But my error was this: I had not stopped him before I got in his lane (the only one not already split between two or three people) to tell him I was joining the lane. This was, he informed me, indicative of my lack of common sense. The problem was simply that I am an idiot. An idiot in his way.
The night before, I had been talking to a friend about the word “cunt” over drinks. I have a strong fondness for the word that makes it hard for me to see it as an insult.
“So if you’re having an argument and someone calls you a cunt,” my friend said a little incredulous, “You wouldn’t find that offensive?”
I responded that if someone resorts to name-calling in an argument, it is the lack of consideration I find offensive, not so much the word one comes up with.
As we walked back to our neighborhood from the bar, along quiet residential streets without sidewalks, a car sped up behind us, and as we moved off to the side so it could pass, a man yelled, “Get out of the road, hippie.” And I was filled with rage. For being name-called, and threatened, and all from some faceless man who would not have to consider the effect of his actions.
When I got home from the gym, I constructed a few scenes in which I responded to the man at the pool’s attack with varying levels of physical violence and a few cutting remarks. Vacillating between wrapping my fingers around his throat and calmly questioning his own intelligence. But I also wondered what had made him so angry. When he informed me that I had neglected to follow an established code of conduct, I apologized and repeated that I would not make the same mistake again. When this was clearly not enough, I offered to leave the pool. When that was not enough, the problem stopped being my behavior and became his refusal to accept a fairly low grade of human fallibility. How, I wondered, did he make it through each day if that was all it took to ruin it?
As I thought about strangling him, I also thought about how disproportionate his anger was to my error. I knew that I was disproportionately angry about being scolded, but not only because of him. I had been yelled at for my presence, for being in a man’s way, just the night before. I had been asked to excuse or hide or apologize for my body since it formed, without my permission, into a female body.
So when the man at the pool loomed over me and berated me and would not accept an apology I should not have had to offer, I was already primed to see his behavior as an extension of masculine entitlement. But that essay has already been written. I do not feel a need to explore, again, the liberties men in cars, men who are protected, take against women. I want to know why. And not in a general-psychoanalysis sort of way, but literally why that man was so upset. Why, when we would have to see each other again, he was willing to make it unpleasant every time we both happened to be at a facility we’d both paid for the privilege of using.
I want to know why the man in the car was angered by sharing a nearly-empty road, especially when (we learned a moment after he sped by) he was just a block from his driveway. We were his neighbors, his community. Do we need to revisit rape statistics, how much more likely a woman is to know her rapist than not? My own experiences corroborate the data, but that doesn’t answer the question.
I want to know why my grandfather, who had just had a stroke, whom I was packing my bag to go see before he died, had spent so many years expecting my grandmother to feed him, telling my aunt to hide herself, shaking his head in frustration at my sisters and my impudence any time we asserted ourselves. We were not just his community but his literal family, flesh of his flesh. What did he hope to gain by praising the boys and ignoring the girls, and why have his sons followed his example?
When I told friends about the man at the pool and the man in the car, many said, “They’re the same man.” But every woman who is yelled at is not the same, even if they tend to be yelled at for the same reasons. And refusing men the same nuance is the sort of name-calling I cannot abide.
The man at the pool was middle-aged and black and muscular and his lip trembled as he insulted me. I am small and white and female and young. In a growing city where cost of living is raising at a staggering rate and historically minority communities are being sold off for condos—what did it mean to that man when I got in that lane without asking permission to share his space? And I have to wonder how many times he has been asked to apologize for his body, his presence. A line from the opening of The Great Gatsby comes to mind: “‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ [my father] told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
While I am easily able to see discrimination against myself based on gender, I’m hardly able to guess at the privileges I enjoy over others based on factors like class, health, education, and race.
I didn’t see the man in the car, but I’ve been angry in a car when I can’t see someone walking through the road at night. As much as being threatened, I resent being put into a position to threaten someone. To cause someone harm without wanting to.
And maybe this is an excuse I can extend to my male family members. Maybe my grandfather just didn’t see who bore the cost of his protection. The boring ready-made conclusion is that we should talk it out. How democratic of me. But it’s harder than that—we need to be able to confront ourselves.