So it’s late afternoon and the storm has passed, the light has begun to pearl. I’ve ducked into the local store to buy tomatoes and am issuing barefoot out of their sliding doors and down their concrete steps under the low, spreading tree. There is a man standing across the road behind me but I don’t see him because my face is lifted to the changing sky, feeling the colours dissolve down like layers of espresso and frothed milk blending slidingly together down the inside of a glass. It’s been such a hard week, it’s such a beautiful day. At first the crowing, acquisitive wolf whistle that issues from the man standing behind me (or lounging) does not attract my attention because it’s not about me, it’s about something else, my mind is flowing like a river of milk clunking with thoughts and I am active, relaxed, upright, happy, and at peace.
The whistle comes again, this time with an insistent edge. I feel myself stiffen. My walk loses its swing, a little. I am self-conscious. The street apart from me and, I now realize, him, is empty and there is no traffic. I can hear the traffic sliding round the other side of the hill but too noisy and too far away to hear a person who needed help, if anyone did need help. His second whistle getting no appreciable response he calls out, “Oi!” because it’s not acceptable to him that I might direct my own attention and be mistress of my own thoughts, that my world is mine and not his to command, that I am not interested in seeing his face or his leer or his gesture that I could otherwise add to my repertoire – my quiver – of lascivious and demeaning gestures. His inability to accept, after two failed attempts, that a passing stranger has no interest in his sexual assessment of her all of a sudden gels in my mind and I realize what the worst thing is. It’s not the veiled possibility of attack, though sometimes a woman finds that is worse than anything the rest of us imagine. It’s not the shattering of the bold, beautiful, skyblown and well-earned day and these few moments in between working at my desk and cooking dinner when I can think about whatever I please.
It’s that moments ago I had escaped the ever-mirrored hall of minor torment that is girls’ guide to the universe. I’d slipped the leash. From birth I’ve been, like almost every girl, taught that my expression and the way I stand and how I sit – with knees together! at all times! yet mocked for pigeon toes – are subject to the constant and perpetual raillery of everyone outside me: they have authority over my appearance, it is not mine, it’s theirs, for them, to please. And somehow slipping out of the house preoccupied with my thoughts and not stopping to change my worn old tank top and stretched-out skirt, somehow browsing over the bags of round tomatoes and lifting them to catch the scent and emerging into the late afternoon with that soft red weight hanging in my hand I had momentarily forgotten, I had reached the open sea, I was making for the islands and I’d lost my sense of the lifelong liability of my gender.
They say some cultures – not ours, oh, of course not – have household-sized kings, many little Mussolinis. Drug kingpins and pimps are local emperors. Each man is entitled, if this be what he chose, to run the harem of his immediate neighbourhood. This man, to use the term (yet again) very loosely, is afraid of my independence and feels he has to broach it. What spurs him is not my luscious, unconscious walk nor my legs nor the way some sun or streetlight caught my hair nor how my skirt swings. It is that I sashayed past in my womanhood and failed to notice him, to put down my tomatoes and acknowledge his mandom. The little kingdom of him.
Once I’d not heard him, or ignored him, I had to be brought to heel. He needed to emphasise and impose his own right to impose a faint sexual threat, by which a man says to a stranger: You, girl. It’s you I choose. I’d like to do this and this to you and it’s immaterial to me how you consent to the idea of it, how you consent to it. As the distance between us sags and increases what’s bothering me is the thought policing. His outrage that I didn’t respond. His insistence on his right to control. He wanted to intrude himself onto my thoughts: a physically masculine impulse. And what injures me, only slightly and for the thousandth time, is the occupation of this sweet space I’m living in, which is full to the brim already with adventure, not all of it easy and fresh and rewarding, not all of it kind. It’s this intrusion by the flimsy failing fascism of some random stranger who strokes me with his stalk eyes as I go: but who will never, however powerful the zoom on his X-ray specs, ever really see me.
I turn the corner and arrogance, or rather privacy, reasserts itself and I start to notice the cupped corns held out by a neighbour’s mown bushes. I notice the soft crisping carpet of green leaves and blossom that has been cast down by the storm. I think: nor will he ever, surely, truly see himself. Nor see the sky for what it is. Nor feel the breeze landing cleanly on the naked parts of his skin. Nor feel the pale green of these undersides. The rustle of fresh joy in the trees and underfoot that announced the storm has now passed and all of us here have, as they say in German, overlived it.