It was a small table, barely big enough for me, my glass, and the sheaf of papers I had spread out before me, but that’s how I like my space: cozy, personal, not inviting to strangers. The total opposite of the long, communal tables in the middle of the pub where families sat—their kids in wellies and their dogs crusted with mud after an off-leash excursion on the Heath—enjoying their lunch before presumably going home to be hosed off as a group. I came early for this table. I know that London pubs fill up early on Saturday afternoons, and I wanted a nice corner to work in beside a long and light-filled window.
I was bent over one of my author’s manuscripts-in-progress, pen in hand, when a woman with a toddler in her arms approached me, asking “do you mind?”
At first I thought she intended to sit down with me, stationing herself and her happily gurgling daughter at the tiny, one-person table with me. I must have looked perplexed by the question, because there was nowhere for them to sit.
Then I understood: she didn’t want to share. She could have done that at any of the longer tables in the room, all with open seating for more people. She wanted my table, and she wanted me out of it.
I shook my head, smiled in what I hoped was a conciliatory way, and turned again to my work.
“Well, are you waiting for someone?” she asked, setting down her wriggling little girl who slapped a sticky palm on my papers.
“No,” I said.
She took the notion in, as though it were hard to imagine that a woman on her own wouldn’t be waiting for someone.
“Well, are you just relaxing here?”
Frustrated now, I dropped my fake smile. “I’m working.”
She gave me a sour expression as she rolled the idea over, then finally walked off.
I watched her install herself and her child in one of the communal areas. She didn’t ask anyone else to move for her: only me. Only the woman alone.
Most of what I know about street harassment (or what I suppose we should just call “harassment”) I know only from hearing other women’s stories. I listen with sympathy and horror when they tell me about being catcalled or leered at or touched by strange men in public, but I’m rarely the target of any such behavior. I’ve often felt that I have a strange kind of privilege associated with my irregular body: with my eyelid that droops and mouth that sags when my facial muscles get tired, with my puffy steroid cheeks, my always-bruised skin, and the waddling gait I often have even when I don’t use my cane, it’s mercifully rare that I’m subjected to unwanted sexualized attention. So far, I’ve taken it as one of the rare benefits of looking somewhat off that I haven’t had to deal with that kind of nonsense when I venture out into the world.
But, as I held my ground—or my pub table—against the woman who wanted to know what business I had taking up space, I wondered whether harassment was a broader thing than I’d imagined. Perhaps it had less to do with the male gaze than with keeping women in line, reminding them of their place. Even when it was other women doing the reminding.
That’s not something I’m exempt from, no matter how much I wish I could be.
When I’d gotten through as much editing work as I was likely to finish that evening, I decided to skip the Underground and walk home to my apartment a mile or so away. It wasn’t raining, and I needed a little exercise (easy downhill strolls being my favorite form of “exercise”).
As I came to the confluence of a residential road with the high street, I saw a sparkly Land Rover backing into the intersection. It was dark already, and I wasn’t sure the driver could see me, so I chose to wait on the curb until he and his SUV had passed by.
Yet instead of driving on, the driver hit the brakes, rolled down his window, and shouted something at me that I couldn’t make out.
“Sorry?” I said (having learned that, in England, sorry can be used as a synonym for huh?).
“I said I have a license to drive on this road!” he shouted again.
“Okay? I’m just waiting for you,” I said, genuinely confused about what the problem was.
“Don’t use that body language with me.” He was red in the face now.
“What body language?” This was getting bizarre.
“That gesture with your arms!”
I had my hands in my coat pockets. Apparently, that was a gesture.
My hands, however, did not remain in my pockets. As he railed at me further, I availed myself of both middle fingers, as well as of some of the more colorful parts of my vocabulary.
Finally, he pulled out into oncoming traffic and left me to cross the street in peace.
I fumed for the rest of my walk, appalled that I couldn’t sit at a table in a pub or stand on a sidewalk without having my right to take up space challenged. I arrived back at my apartment, shut the door behind me with a clunk, and stood in the dark feeling bitterly homesick.
I wasn’t homesick for my life in America, for once, but homesick for a place where women are allowed to walk alone at night. To put our hands in our pockets if we feel like it. To sit at tables. I was homesick for a world that never existed.
In college, I knew a woman who used dry-erase markers to scrawl scriptural verses about “biblical womanhood” on her dormitory mirror. It was the usual business about virtue being better than rubies, covering oneself in tapestry (that sounded overly warm to me, but what do I know?), and raising up children. The point of the exercise, she explained, was to remind her not to judge herself by her looks, but by her inner being. A nice enough project, if irritating to her roommates who were trying to get their eyeliner on straight in the mirror they shared.
At times I think I’d like to adapt her practice and write on the interior of my front door, in indelible Sharpie, I am allowed in public.
The trouble is that I already know I’m allowed. It’s the rest of the neighborhood I’m not so sure about.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the co-editor of the anthology The Poet’s Quest for God. Her work appears in venues including The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Best New Poets, and more.