A Woman Like Water -The Toast

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water-691184_1280It would do men well to be more afraid of me. I am a woman like water, 5’3,” 145 pounds, size-7 flats on my feet. When a man wants to walk me home at night or escort me through a dark parking garage, I feel sorry for him. Cement corridors have long echoes and we are strangers.

Men—you should be wary of a woman like me.

When we’re in a car—together, alone—and a man doesn’t want to leave me by myself, I want to laugh. There are bears in Yosemite who have learned to open the doors of parked SUVs. They smell the food and, once inside, they feast. But the bears don’t know how to let themselves back out. Returning hikers find their car interiors splintered and full of terrified, furious bear. Aren’t people just like that?

In my own glove compartment, I keep an exacto knife and a list of all the people who call me “sweetheart.” I am sometimes kind and generous, but I have never been sweet. The list includes the homeless man at the mouth of the parking garage; the boys from the neighborhood high school; Marcy, the office accountant; and the safety officer at Hubbard elementary school who does not make anyone feel safe.

One time a postal worker called me “pooh bear.” She didn’t mean it as a form of endearment. She said it like what she really wanted to say was “shit head.” “Write the address first and then come up to the counter, Pooh bear.” Hardly anyone who says “sweetheart” means anything sweet by it either.

Marcy—the accountant who only comes in on Mondays—uses sweetheart when she can’t immediately recall who I am. There are just so many young aspiring professionals in the office. Each of us trying to make a career from the threadbare seats of just two pairs of black work slacks. The accumulative scent of hairspray must be noxious. As long as the paperwork is filed, Marcy doesn’t care who we are.

On Michigan Ave., the homeless man rakes my body with, “Hey sweetie, don’t you look nice today,” and it’s a tariff for the spare change and the smile I do not give him. The boys on my block sputter “Hey baby, pass my way again.” I am not particularly beautiful, but it doesn’t matter how I look on any given day. Their words stiffen like the dicks in their hands as they measure their bravado against me.

All of my beautiful friends are convinced that a man will come along and tear their insides—both womb and heart—to bits. All the stories they’ve been told of men end the same bad way. Someone we know gets HPV, herpes, or pregnant; cheated on, stood up, or into more than she really wanted.

I am not afraid. Like water, I am more lethal than a bear, and a man is more vulnerable than leather seats and power steering.

In my ex-boss’s office there were no windows or nearby doors. The floor was piled high with files and books, except for our chairs. They were crammed in so close, the arms had to touch. He wore cowboy boots and a belt buckle the size of a closed fist. He asked me to come in and sit down. He told me to shut the door, so I did. It was my performance review and we were alone. You’ve heard this story before. I’m not saying anything happened, because it didn’t. But I’d watched enough TV to know that one of us had to be stupid. I shut the door because I wanted to know which one of us it was. It wasn’t me.

It’s not that I am particularly smart or remarkable. Women like me are everyone. I cannot imagine why men are not more afraid. With one phone call or letter I could have had him pinned down, trapped. I do not feel bad intimidating men in this way; it is something women are supposed to have grown accustomed to everyday. If I should be cautious and wary, shouldn’t they?

At the elementary school where I deliver books, the safety officer smooths his mustache with his thumb and pointer before he buzzes me in. He sits in a swivel chair, armed with a radio; his eyes are steel wool blue. I’m working here, with a group of volunteers, and he’s working too.

He asks, does my daddy know I go out in the cold like that? I’ve been at this school every Thursdays for four years, but he says, “hey stranger, where have you been all week?”

Sometimes when I walk down to the kindergarten wing, he follows. He grips my arm above my elbow and asks, can he get me some food? He means the bagged sandwich and two percent milk that the government subsidizes for lunch. He puts one hand on the small of my back, the other on the stethoscope at his neck. “Can I listen to your heart?” He laughs, he’s “just kidding, sweetheart,” but how should a young, aspiring professional respond to shit like that?

Meteorologists have considered vetoing any girls’ names and referring to all hurricanes as boys. They find that people are subconsciously less concerned about impending female storms. Hapless citizens do not stock up on canned goods or board up their windows appropriately for hurricanes Laurel, Mariah, or Nadine. I guess, subconsciously, what I want to say to these people is: fuck you and go bloat yourself on torrential street water.

I look at men’s razor-burned cheeks, the way they suck their bellies in over their strained belts, the sweat wake gathering at the collar of their button up shirts. Why do men gel their hair like that? Through ignorance or obliviousness—it’s almost like they’re asking for it.

I would never put that kind of pressure on a man. I don’t say, “Don’t videotape me dancing and singing along with Céline Dion.” I don’t say, “I’m not drunk; I’m having fun.” I don’t ask anyone not to comment on my outfit, on my legs, my ass. It’s not a compliment. I don’t care if you’re working minimum wage or you’re the CFO. I don’t care if you mean well. I don’t care if you served in Vietnam. Don’t tell me to smile.

I don’t ask him to walk me home, but when he does I don’t say “come inside.” I say no—you should go. When he leaves, this one says, “I’ll be thinking about you—I’ll be thinking of you in that dress.” I don’t share what I’m thinking about.

Come on, haven’t you heard the story about the school safety officer before? Haven’t you heard the one about the okay-date gone wrong? Can’t you smell his breath on your beautiful friend’s neck? Perhaps what men really need are a few stories of women to dread.

When he texts me, twenty minutes later, to say: “I finished,” I feel disgusting, but I don’t say anything back. Fuck you and go bloat yourself on torrential street water. Subconsciously, of course.

I read—in one of the many articles by a man, about men and the pervasiveness of rape culture—that all women spend most of their lives feeling vulnerable. I do not feel vulnerable. I have no great tenderness. I do not think I am an exception.

Men should feel the threat of me as I approach. As with a tornado, their stomach should gather green and dark with bile. Their hearts should grow still and they should batten down as if for a full-force gale. I am not afraid of men. They should greet me with their eyes down. When they shake my hand, they should feel their job titles fluttering violently as a dry leaf on a twig.

Tovah Burstein is a writer and professional literacy enthusiast living in Chicago. During the workweek, Tovah directs literacy tutoring programs in Chicago Public Schools. Her writing has previously appeared in MAKE, Defunct, Hobart and the Chicago Reader. Tovah is the Reviews Editor for Ghost Ocean Magazine.

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