On Memorial Day, we had four encounters with men. We: three women—my mother, my daughter and I—walking near Washington Circle Park, hungry after checking out of the hotel in Washington, D.C., where I’d booked a one-night stay. They: everywhere.
The first man did not ask for money; the sign propped against him on the sidewalk detailed his dire straits. I did not bother to read it all before slipping a dollar into his cup. His eyes focused on us for the first time then, looked to the three of us with a flash of surprise that settled into a mix of gratitude and shame. He was still young, perhaps in his early 40s, and healthy looking despite his apparent hard times. It was my turn to be first surprised—that he seemed so lucid and self-aware—then ashamed for finding that remarkable. His expression compelled me. I wanted to stay until I found something more useful to offer, more enduring than that meager dollar. But we went on. …
We are three women defined, in many ways, by the absence of men. My mother knew but rarely saw her father; she was not raised to revere him, but she is a romantic and I believe that, in many small ways, she did. She adapted by loving the idea of men, by flirting not so much with them but with what they might come to mean if they stayed long enough. Her love has the longest arc; it begins by anticipating the happiest, haziest end. And she is rarely afraid of men—whether friend or family or foe—because she is projecting their best selves onto the broken bodies they bring to her. She is seeing their darkest spaces as capable of holding the most light.
I am not like her. I am often afraid of men. They are so foreign, so unknowable, and I become less of myself with them.
We came to D.C. the day after Elliot Rodger committed mass murder in Isla Vista, Calif. By the time we arrived, both media and popular opinion had offered their framing of the tragic narrative: Rodger resented women because no woman had ever wanted him. This, to his mind, was a crime punishable only by death.
He and his entitlement and racism and self-loathing became tentpoles onto which we draped our declarations: #YesAllWomen have been menaced by men! And we came to the altars of social media, laying stories at one another’s feet, digital flowers at a makeshift memorial—only we were not quite mourning the dead (not yet). We were mourning whatever parts of ourselves we’d lost to men who’d made demands. We were lamenting the fear that never fails to form in our eyes whenever we are about to reject a man who will not take it well.
The second cluster of men were in the park, a lush, green circle sealed in by a ring of asphalt. One began to yell, hulking and hovering over a feebler man with a cane. We watched from a sidewalk across a street as the yelling man pushed the cane-bearer down. He stayed down as the other man punctuated his accusations with light kicks: “I was your friend! You lied to me and you hurt me!” A third man, who seemed to know them both, looked on. “When the police came to arrest you, I tried to stop them. I did! And this is how you do me?”
“Where are the police now?” my mother chuckled nervously, looking around for a patrol car.
As we watched, another man approached the curb where we were waiting to cross. He was carrying a quart jug of iced tea, more than half empty. While I searched my phone for the nearest restaurants, in part to avoid having to ask anyone else, my mother merrily asked the iced-tea-clutching man if he knew where we could find food nearby.
He turned his entire body toward her, fixed her with a stare both malicious and deeply annoyed and waited a beat before gritting, “I. Don’t. Know.” He kept staring at her after she smiled and said OK. He kept staring at her as I stared at him, dread creeping over my arms like a shawl. Then when he seemed satisfied, he turned himself out toward the street. He never looked toward the fight in the park. Maybe he’d known enough anger and violence and betrayal, too much to be concerned with its presence in others.