It costs you nothing to bare your chest to the sun. Your body does not stand for anything other than itself.
I heard four of you in less than a mile radius once on my way to buy milk. The day was sweltering, but I wanted to walk to the corner grocer up the street. I craved the sun on my back and the sun against the backs of my thighs, bare to the world as I hiked up the hill.
“Damn, baby, bring that back here.” “Where you going, sugar?” “Hey, I’m talking to you!” A second, internal heat flushes over my body. You see me, blind as a colt, stumble forward as the gallon slips from my hands. “Cunt,” you spit when I don’t turn your way.
Four of you in 10 minutes.
In the suburbs, you loiter in strip malls. You brace a foot against brick and watch for our shapes to invade your turf. Or sometimes, you drive the trucks that we purchase goods from—imagine! a thing like me with breasts and curves and bare skin solely on this earth for you to dissect opening a wallet just like yours, to pay with money just like yours—and lean out of the windows, shouting crudely when you can’t help yourself. “Fine piece of ass,” like a butcher slicing a prime cut. This is the highlight of your day. This is the moment you decide to treat yourself after waking up at some ungodly hour to work your last shift of the week at a job you can’t stand. And with four more hours to go delivering produce and flowers in this heat, you can let off a little steam. You can fondle me before going home to the wife and kids without ever leaving your vehicle.
“We’re so sorry,” your employer says when I call and ask if that’s how they’d like to represent their company. “We’re so sorry; it won’t happen again.”
Sometimes you are as scantily dressed as I am. Have you ever thought about that? But no, we don’t attach the word “scantily” to men because it’s too feminizing; it implies promiscuity, generates visions of strippers and magazine models shedding clothing like skin. A lacy thong in a bundle on your floor. You are never dressed scantily, not even when you mow the lawn shirtless in boxers. It costs you nothing to bare your chest to the sun. Your body does not stand for anything other than itself.
In the city, your tongue is sharper. You slink through alleys and vanish around street corners. You ride the subway for hours, you patrol the aisles and steady yourself on the poles, glowering, until you meet the eye of two women sharing a child on their laps. “What game is that, son?” you slur, using the boy as an excuse to wedge through the seats between them. Close enough to smell and touch their hair. Close enough that their shoulders tense and their eyes dart toward the exits. High on their fear, you push further. “Two beautiful females ridin’ the train.” They should have known better, traveling without a man.
In the parts of town the tourists don’t see, you spill into the streets and wait for us on our lunch breaks. You follow the clicking trail of our heels across the hot sidewalks, weaving pleas through the air in our wake. “You got a boyfriend, baby? I’ll take you out. I’ll be your dream.” And if we refuse, you’ll be our nightmare. “Slut,” you’ll hurl, “stuck-up bitch,” until you’ve convinced yourself that we weren’t worth the trouble. Sometimes you follow us. Sometimes it’s a full chase. At best, you lose interest and leave us breathless and shaken, finger on the pepper spray. At worst, there is blood and a story on the news.
You intercept me en route to the drug store. It’s monitored by security, but the armed officer is on high alert for theft and brawling, not verbal harassment. “I’d tear your ass up, baby girl.” And it works. I feel the intended white-hot shame of having not a body like yours but a commodity to be preserved for worth or exchanged for protection. I feel the crushing weight of the thousand pornographic fantasies that have molded your inability to separate our bodies from your pleasure, that have instructed you to rank-and-file us according to the lengths of our skirts and the lists of our sexual partners and the acts we will or won’t do in bed, and the burden of having to answer to all of it (or potentially risk death) when I am just a stranger to you as you are to me, passing on the street.
I am a woman returning a movie rental to its kiosk, but first I need to get inside the door. You are not allowed inside the door because you like to steal and start fights, and the guard keeps you at his ankle. So you do what you can within your limitations. You spit, you swear, you make me listen to all the things you’d do if you ever got a hold of me when no one else was around.
No matter how bad things are for you, at least you’re not like me: born into this world not belonging to yourself.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.