I remember the dress. I felt so grown up wearing it. It was a gift from my great aunt and uncle who owned a clothing store in Nashville. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at myself. Adjusted the sleeves so that they were ever so slightly off the shoulder. Marveled at the buds of breasts that were beginning to appear. Then I would quickly pull the shoulders back up, alarmed at how old I seemed reflected in the harsh bathroom light. I would slowly spin around, examine how I looked from every angle.
It was still a girl's dress. But the girl inside was just a tiny bit woman.
I wore it that day, walking in Jerusalem, where we spent many summers, through the Arab market. The air smelled of spices, leather and olive wood. Though I could feel the presence of my parents and sister behind me, I walked ahead, tasting, for a moment, a grownup freedom. My focus stayed on the tiny shops, hawkers trying to entice tourists into their entryways. It was midday, but dark in the market, the sun blocked by the ancient stone walls of the old city.
A hand slipped gently into mine. I'm not sure what I was thinking. That one of my parents had reached out, not wanting to lose me, most likely. But the hand felt unfamiliar. And I felt myself being pulled to move faster. When I finally looked up, I saw that a strange man had hold of me. His grip was firm. I was too surprised to know what to do.
I'm certain it was less than a minute until my parents noticed and grabbed me away. The man ran. His back disappeared into a dark alleyway. I didn't really understand what had just happened. That a man had tried to steal me away. For the first time, it seemed I had come up against how the rest of the world viewed my changing body, and it was not exactly what I had expected. In that moment I became aware of the gazes of men as I passed by. I was 9 years old.
Two summers later, my father sat next to me on a long car ride. He told jokes and funny stories from his childhood to keep my mind off the creeping nervousness in the pit of my stomach. We were on our way to my first month at sleep away camp. I wanted the ride to be over already. I wanted it to go on forever.
Camp was in northern Maine, and we had decided to do the drive over two days. We got to Portland, looked for a place to stay. There was a somewhat seedy looking Best Western, but we were tired and it was there in front of us. We went inside, and my father attempted to secure a room. All the rooms were taken. They had an apartment they rented out. Would we like that? My father cautiously agreed, and began the paperwork. The man at the desk motioned to him to come closer. He leaned toward my father and said, in a stage whisper, with a sly smile,
"Is she under 18?"
It took a moment to register what he meant. I crossed my arms over my t-shirt, covering my chest. Then I saw my fathers face change, eyebrows raised in indignation. "She's my daughter! She's 11!" The desk clerk backed away, afraid to say another word.
The apartment was dark and dusty, the bed not much better than my camp sleeping quarters would be. I couldn't shake the feeling that I had done something wrong, for the desk clerk to have looked at me that way. Though I hadn't really considered it until that moment, I was suddenly grateful that at camp, girls' side and boys' side would be separated by a whole entire lake.
It was my umpteenth bar mitzvah. As the youngest girl in my class, I dutifully attended sabbath service after sabbath service, party after party, taking mental notes. Winter had come on hard, and overnight, snow had blanketed the town. Many people had chosen to stay home, rather than brave icy roads and sidewalks.
About 15 or so classmates had made the trek. After the service, while the adults ate lunch, we were to be entertained by a man they had hired, who ran games that were "sabbath appropriate." No instruments or DJ or flashing lights. Unfortunately, he wasn't nearly cool enough to pull it off by force of his limited charm. We sat in a semi-circle, eyes rolling, letting the boredom wash over us.
I had worn my corduroy Laura Ashley dress, mauve with tiny flowers, because it was too cold to imagine putting on anything else. I loved that the skirt puffed up when I twirled. The dress was long sleeved, high necked, and flowed down to mid-calf. It felt safe.
I was on one end of the circle, and the game leader had started at the other end, asking the kids the same questions over and over. "How old are you?" "Where do you live?" "What kind of movies do you like?" The answers were even more scintillating, as we kids had all been in school together since kindergarten. Each of us could have answered the others' questions without missing a beat. I waited patiently for my turn.
My mind wandered as my classmates answered charitably, pretending to be amused at the series of predictable responses. "I'm 12." "Fourteen." "Thirteen." "I love Grease." "Star Wars." "Flashdance." Really? Then the man's eyes turned toward me.
"And you? You're their teacher?"
The kids all laughed. Everyone knew me as the youngest girl. But they had also watched my body changing. They can't have missed it. I had reached my adult height, a statuesque 5'1" and my form was a woman's. I was periodically surprised when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Inside, though, I was still a 12-year-old girl, wholly unprepared to deal with men's attentions.
Even after he found out that I was in middle school, the hired entertainer followed me around the rest of the afternoon. Making jokes. Suggestive comments. Asking me out. And I didn't find an adult to help because it seemed like something I should be able to handle on my own. It almost always feels that way.
I was 19. After a long day of college classes, I went to the gym to unwind. A creepy sort of guy who had been following me around the workout room, asking me out, was at it again. Luckily, a friend had a job at the health club. He pretended to be my boyfriend when the persistent pest was around, which was only a minor deterrent. But he was bigger than my harasser, and as long as he stood next to me, the creep largely left me alone.
It was completely dark when I exited the building, sweaty and tired. I decided to take the bus home. Even though it would have been a twenty minute walk, a friend had recently been accosted on her way to the apartment, so I decided not to take chances. I sat at the bus stop. In the days before smartphones, I vaguely remember, we learned to be at one with the boredom that comes with sitting and waiting, craning necks to see if the two lights in the distance belong to a city bus.
Instead, what I saw coming towards me was that loser from the gym. I hoped he would pass me by, but, of course, he sat right beside me on the bench. I felt every muscle tighten, shivered in my still damp workout clothes. Pulled my coat tighter around me. He had a job as a security guard, and there was a revolver on his belt. We were the only people around. He turned to me.
"Going home without your boyfriend?"
"He's still working," I lied.
"He should bring you home himself. Make sure you're safe."
"I'm fine on my own." I wondered if saying it would make it true.
He slipped a hand onto my thigh. He wasn't that big. I could've pushed him off of me, yelled at him to stop. But the street was deserted. And he had that gun.
I looked straight ahead, pretending not to notice his grubby little fingers. Prayed for the bus to come. And then, my prayers answered in nearly an instant, I saw those two lights in the distance, growing larger as they approached. I jumped up, ran into the bus, safeguarded by the satisfying seal of the hydraulic door.
That night, secure in my bed, I dreamt I was being chased by someone with a gun. In the dream, each time I reached a pay phone, instead of dialing the police, I dialed information. I couldn't get it right.
I wish I could say these were the only times I wanted to slip out of my woman's body for just a minute, to feel safe. But they are not. Like the time an Austrian U.N. Peacekeeper relentlessly photographed me and a friend on the beach, though we asked him to stop, then curiously brought us a package of cookies -- as payment? Or the time when, on a long international flight, a group of men lined the aisles for nearly the entire ride, forming a gauntlet. Women who got up to stretch their legs, or go to the bathroom, had to run that gauntlet of men who leered and groped as we walked through.
What's funny about all these stories is how very ordinary they are. How familiar. Nearly any woman could provide a list of examples similar to this one, not to mention ones much more egregious, heart-stopping or filled with a pain that becomes a constant companion.
My life has not been defined by these bumbling idiots, confusing exploring sexuality with asserting power. I am a strong, outspoken woman, with a husband, sons and daughters, proud feminists all, and these experiences are only a small piece of who I am. But, some days -- more than I care to admit -- I find myself stuck at the mirror. Trying to decide if an outfit is inviting men's bad behavior. As if they are waiting for an invitation. As if, at the ripe old age of 9, if I hadn't dared to feel so grown up, so confident, so beautiful in that dress, all those men would have just passed me by.
And that is why, when a friend, or my husband, or my own children tell me I look beautiful, I don't smile and say thank you. Instead, I roll my eyes. I mention how I got the dress on sale, or come back with some bitingly clever retort like, "Yeah, right." Because even if you mean it, boys, to a whole lot of women "Hey, beautiful" doesn't sound like a compliment. It sounds like a threat.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.