Early warning system

Last week, I worked at Welcome Table, a twice-monthly free dinner at my church, open to the public. Early in the evening, I went from table to table with a pitcher of lemonade, offering drinks to guests waiting for dinner to be served. At a table in the back, I spoke to no one in particular as I asked, “How are you tonight?”

As I poured lemonade into a plastic cup, the man to my left said, “Much better now!”

“Good!” I smiled. By the way the other men at the table laughed, I knew that he wasn’t talking about the lemonade, but I pretended he was.  I filled the glasses and moved along to the next table.

Later, I circled the room to help those who’d finished their meals, scanning for spills to clean up or for dishes to clear from those who’d finished their meals. Each time I approached that table in the back, there was more laughter. Probably just enjoying each other’s company, I hear an inner voice say.  The man called me over, even though I’d already bussed that table.

“Can I help you with something?”

“You already did, honey.” More laughter. Keep smiling. Keep working.

A third time, he waved me over. “I just wanted to tell you…I wish I had another plate.”

This time I answered from two tables away, chirping brightly: “They’ll make an announcement if there’s enough for seconds.”

He paused, waiting for me to come over, and when I stayed at the other table, joked “What we have here is failure to communicate.”

I kept smiling. “Do we? I don’t think we do.”

The men howled, and they left together.

***

I didn’t feel threatened, exactly. But I felt the energy of those exchanges shift from where it started as good-natured, albeit one-sided, flirtation. Some sort of early warning system activated in me, alerting that maybe this man wasn’t playing a game, but was testing my boundaries.

Once the warning system sounded, it started sending me directions: Don’t stop smiling. Don’t go to the table.  Don’t be rude. Wait, go to the table, but go to the other side. Manage the distance between you. Don’t talk back. Or talk back, but be funny. Be clear. Don’t make him feel disrespected.

The encounter lingered with me over the next twenty-four hours. The voice in my head persisted, replacing the practical (if contradictory) instructions with dismissive scoffing at my gall: You’re being ridiculous–you really think that man was attracted to you, a 38-year old chubby mom? He was just being friendly. You’re imagining things. It was nothing. You should take it as a compliment. Don’t take everything so seriously. Lighten up.

It just so happened that the same day, Bill O’Reilly was fired in the wake of mounting objections to an environment rife with sexual harassment. All the news and the chattering classes were discussing whether it was plausible that sexual harassment could really have been that bad for that long at Fox News. The news blended together into a series of sound bites: You’ve got to expect this in certain environments. These women were not attacked. Political take-down of a brave conservative voice. Men are going to notice certain things. If you can’t take the heat…. 

I recognized that voice.

I want to be clear that I don’t mistake my passing discomfort at a volunteer event as the same as being sexually harassed in the workplace. But the voices that excuse the latter are pervasive–so much so that I have apparently learned well how to echo them. I don’t want that voice to come out of my mouth or into my mind, because my actual true self thinks that voice is full of crap.

The thing about letting your true self speak is that it has to practice doing so out loud once in a while. Only out loud can you listen carefully and evaluate what you say, and make sure it’s really you talking and not just what you’ve heard others say. I gave it a try, and haltingly described the man and my discomfort to my husband. “I know it sounds like nothing,” I began.

The insignificance is the point, though: these moments are so much part of the fabric of women’s lives that we are grateful if they amount to nothing. I was grateful for my early warning system, and that I knew how to handle myself. That gratitude grants as a given that I am always the responsible party–that the man in that room was free to act, free to speak. I, then, am always obligated  to react, to weigh carefully, to be strategic, to guard against possibilities.

I can be realistic and can swallow that pill, bitter as it may be. But I know that my true self wants to spit it out, because I can not stand the thought of my daughter having to do the same. To imagine that she must develop these skills! Why should she believe–not just believe, but KNOW that she is responsible for preemptively managing the behavior of strangers? She will be twelve next week. How soon until she is no longer free? Until she must be on guard? Worse, how soon until she hears the voice of self-doubt and shame, masquerading as her own?

Let mine be a voice that speaks of her dignity, her freedom, her worth. Of my own. Of yours.

May it drown out the others.

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