I do not act alarmed when I overhear my daughters talking about the creepy guy. It’s a Friday night, and I am picking them up and their two friends from the outdoor ice rink. A Christmas song sounds in the background.
“There he is,” says one of my daughters’ friends.
“Ugh,” says the other.
I slow the car and look off in the direction they point. A man in a puffy beige coat with hands in his pockets and baggy corduroys slinks off with another man, stepping over the curb onto the sidewalk, moving past the CD store toward the movie theatre with its garish marquee.
From the safety of my car, the guy they call “creepy” looks harmless
From our car, he looks unassuming and unthreatening, and even so, my anxiety escalates.
“I don’t know,” says Eva. “Maybe he just wanted to talk.”
“No,” says Jolie, my other daughter. “He was following us.”
And the pit in my stomach, maybe the one that’s been there since the doctor announced thirteen years ago that I had just given birth to twin girls, triples.
“Well, you stayed together,” I say, laying down each word like a life raft. “That’s the best thing you can do. Normally, if someone like that gives you a hard time, you should be okay if you stay together.” At the corner, I turn, and we sail past the creepy guy.
My daughters are at an age where they don’t share much with me
My daughters are at an age where they don’t tell me much, and even what they share is vague or delivered begrudgingly, so I learn by chauffeuring them and their friends. In the car, the girls open up.
As I listen, I discover a wave of nostalgia for my own seventh-grade experiences with my best friend, how we’d shop weekly in downtown Lansing, spend our babysitting money on used paperback books and lip gloss from Ben Franklin, then lunch on pizza and slices of pie from Baker’s Square.
At the end of the day, if the weather were nice, we’d walk the two miles to my friend’s house. We’d be talking about school, movies we wanted to see, and the latest Whitney Houston song when a sudden blare of a car horn would stop us. The first few times it happened, it set my heart racing, and I’d look at my friend’s face, soothed by her presence.
What were you saying? I might ask, and we’d slip back into conversation. Somehow, we assumed there would be interruptions like this if we were in public. Catcalls — I later learned they were called.
“Boys will be boys,” we were told
Boys will be boys; the teachers said when someone complained about them snapping the backs of our bras during recess or Rebecca, the most developed of anyone in our class, tired of the song a group of boys sang to her: “Put your head on my boulder….” sung to the tune of the Head and Shoulder’s jingle.
After a day trapped in our school’s musty yellow walls, I enjoyed having a snack and then hopping on my bike and riding it through the forest preserve. During much of the ride, the path snaked behind trees, but when I came to Glenwood Dyer Road, I needed to ride along the street, a two-lane stretch with only a narrow spit of gravel, and my heartbeat ramped up before I began.
Then I sped as fast as I could, stomach clenching at the sound of each approaching car, waiting for the shriek of a horn, whistles, and jeers, Hey baby! from passing pickups. Sometimes, hands and arms would fly out open windows as if I were a toy for catching, and I’d will my bicycle — and me — to stay upright.
The older I got, the more I came to expect that if I ventured outside, some guy would whistle
I bent further and pedaled harder, aware of myself in a way I hadn’t been in the preceding moments. The older I got, the more I expected that if I ventured outside, some guy would whistle, reminding me that I was a girl and being a girl meant sex, something of which I had only a vague understanding.
Afterward, at home in my room with the pile of stuffed animals nested against the wall of my bed, I felt a heightened awareness of myself, my body secured, safely out of sight.
As the girls move on from their spills on the ice to their blisters, the vent a hot nozzle blazing my shins, I’m thinking about the creepy guy and my response. Did I just insinuate that he would be the first of many creepy guys? Did I tell the girls to expect creepy guys and then accept them?
A few years ago, two teens in a nearby town were abducted and murdered while walking trails near their homes on an unseasonably warm February day. And before them, there were other girls and young women in towns large and small — girls with legs for pumping the pedals of a bicycle and balancing on ice skates — or dashing frantically through the woods, knees lifted, breath torn and raging out of their chests.
My girls feel free to be themselves with their girlfriends
My daughters and their friends, with their gleaming hair and porcelain skin, braces glittering, laugh freely, as girls do when they are together. They don’t stuff a hand over their mouths when they laugh; it is just the four of them, and I am a mother.
I was once a girl just like them, and maybe they sense it; still, I want to pull the car over and turn on the overhead lights; my forty-eight-year-old face lit up before them.
“I was wrong,” I’ll say. “You don’t owe him anything — not a smile, not a nice word, or even a no thank you.” I want to break this cycle of accepting that, as girls, they are objects of desirability. Later, at the kitchen table, over hot tea and hot chocolate for the other, I ask my daughters, “That creepy guy. What did he say? Did he try to get you to go somewhere with him?”
“He just kept talking to us,” says Jolie.
“Well, what he did wasn’t right,” I say. “You don’t have to put up with any of that.”
“We know,” they say, looking at the clock on the wall.
The moment, it seems, has passed. Meanwhile, the creepy guy walks freely—maybe seeking out other young girls.
I look down at my hands, remembering how they steadied me during afternoon bike rides, delighted to be outside with the wind on my face after a long day of classes, the sun, a warm hand on my back. I felt free and alive in the deep woods, my heart hammering in my chest and, for a moment, more than a girl.
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