ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
I Smiled at a Man: An Anecdote
I was twenty. I was in Oxford, England, where I was studying abroad for the semester, and it was a gorgeous day—sun sparking off the limestone and spires, the air soft with the promise of spring. I was happy. Really happy. I’d just turned in a paper on which I’d worked hard and well, I wasn’t wearing a winter coat for the first time in months, and I was going to Belgium that weekend. And as I walked through the heart of the city on my way back to my little rowhome, I made eye contact with the person walking by me—a middle-aged man—and smiled. I smiled because I was glad. I smiled because smiling is a nice thing to do. I smiled because when I was twenty I generally erred on the side of being friendly toward everyone when I felt cheerful enough to do it.
The man smiled back and then stopped me. “Excuse me,” he said, and asked if I knew where something was—a street, maybe, or a restaurant, or something else time has buried because it wasn’t the important part of that day.
“I don’t know,” I said, “sorry,” and the man said, “That’s all right,” and then, “Would you like to get coffee with me?”
There’s nothing wrong with inviting someone, even a stranger, for coffee. It wasn’t harassment. But it was odd. I’d spoken four words to the man. He was more than twice my age. I was a college student—possibly mistakable for a few years older, but also, possibly, for a few years younger.
I answered quickly and, I remember, cheerfully. I said something along the lines of, “Oh, no, thank you, I need to get going, but thanks” and, having ended the conversation on a direct but friendly note (even now it seems important to me to underscore that I was polite), I continued walking briskly toward my house, away from the man.
And I knew, as soon as I started walking, that he would follow me.
How did I know that? I’m not entirely sure. Partly, I suppose, from experience—like many women, I’d been threatened before, and hounded, and hollered at on plenty of streets. Beyond that, though: I could just tell. He’d asked for something unreasonable—not unlawful, not menacing, but unreasonable—and, having not gotten it, was probably going to respond unreasonably.
I walked a block before looking behind me. When I turned my head, I saw that the man had reversed direction, and was now following from about half a block away. Maybe, I thought, he realized that the place he’s looking for is actually in this direction. Still, I sped up.
After another block, I glanced again. He was still there. My house was just outside the city center, away from restaurants and shops and all the colleges. We were quickly getting further and further from any destination he might be trying to reach, the crowd of the city dissipating into a pedestrian here, a biker there. All that was down that way were rowhomes and flats, a small convenience store next to my own little rowhome, and one Indian restaurant. I thought about running, but why, exactly? The man hadn’t threatened me. He wasn’t even definitely following me—he was walking in the same direction I was. This was pre-cell phone, but even if I could call the police, what would I say? Hello, I have a bad feeling?
I kept up my pace, and the man kept up his, and when I reached my house, I walked past it and into the convenience store next door so that the man wouldn’t see where I lived. The store was small and narrow—to the right, the cash register and counter; to the left, little shelves stocked with snacks and toothbrushes. The entire store, front to back, was maybe twenty feet long. I walked in and pretended to look at the candy bars. The shop bell didn’t ring, and after a minute I glanced toward the entrance, hoping the man had given up, or, though it seemed unlikely, had veered off to his intended destination.
He was pacing back and forth in front of the store’s window.
It’s hard to say what was stronger in me at that moment—the fear or the anger. Neither had started with this day. They started with the boy in third grade who sat next to me in lunch every day and whispered dirty jokes until I cried. With the three boys at the end of my street who yelled lewd threats when I rode my bike past at ten. With the trash bag full of beer cans tossed onto my front lawn the night I broke up with my freshman-year boyfriend. With the two months in high school when I ate lunch in the war aisle of the library, hiding from the boy who harassed me in the cafeteria each day. With the anonymous phone call I received one weekend from a hissing male voice describing his genitalia in graphic detail (later that night my boyfriend called to tell me it had been his younger brother—a prank). With every time I’d walked to my car with my keys laced between my knuckles. With my college’s refusal to install emergency blue light phones because they weren’t aesthetically pleasing. With the skills I’d learned in magazine how-to articles about walking swiftly, avoiding side streets, never wearing a ponytail. With my best friend handing me a lit cigarette one late night as we walked through her college town (But we don’t smoke, I’d said. Right, she’d said, but we can burn someone if we need to).
I stood there with my keys in my hand. The man didn’t look in; he just walked slowly back and forth, back and forth, patiently. What did he want? What was he planning to do? If he hadn’t accepted it when I’d said no and walked away, what else wouldn’t he accept? My anger grew, partly at the man and partly at myself for not being able to think of a way out of this. The store had only one door, and the man was blocking it. The place was empty except for the older woman behind the register, who didn’t speak much English and with whom I communicated mainly through smiles when I stopped in to buy milk these past three months. My housemates, I knew, would be gone for hours, so calling next door from the store’s line wasn’t an option.
Finally my rising anger spurred me into moving. I waited until the man was at the far end of the store, away from my house. Then I gripped my keys like a knife and strode outside—the ridiculous jingle of the shop bell giving me away—and directly to my front door, where I thrust the key into the lock and turned it. I got in and slammed the door shut, so hard the windows shook. Just before it closed, I saw the man walking hurriedly toward me.
In some ways, the story ends there, or at least the anecdote I told my friends the next fall when I was back in Pennsylvania and recounting my adventures abroad does. I don’t remember what happened after I slammed the door. I don’t remember because it isn’t the important part of the story. I have no idea if the man knocked or kept walking, if he stood outside for a while or gave up right away. By that point I was safe, which was what mattered. I was inside. My door was locked. It was a strong wooden door, and the man wasn’t going to break the windows. I could tell. That wasn’t his way. The man, I’m nearly certain, didn’t intend to cause a scene. What he intended to do was get what he wanted. It’s possible that at some point in his life, someone praised him as a man who didn’t back down from a challenge.
Whenever I told the story, I’d end with the epilogue: how later that night my housemates and I were sitting in the living room, reading and talking, when we heard a rustling at the front door. Jamie, the only guy in the house, walked over and picked up something that had been slipped in through the mail slot. His eyebrows raised.
“What is it?” I said, my heart starting to pound. I’d told them about what had happened earlier, and I was on high alert.
“Hold on,” said Jamie, and swiftly opened the door, looked up and down the dark street. After a minute, he closed it again and locked it.
Then he held up the sheets of paper he’d picked up. On them were pornographic scenes, men and women engaged in various acts, cut from a magazine. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting—I didn’t know what I’d been expecting—but I wasn’t surprised. I’d known something was coming. In the realm of what that might have been, this was minor. In the anecdote I told my friends later, it was comic.
The man never showed up again. A couple of times I thought I saw him around the city, and maybe I did, but I never made eye contact and I don’t think he ever saw me. It’s a story that seems like it’s going to end badly and doesn’t, which is what made it a good one to tell in the dining hall and at the bars. I was fine, and so my friends and I could laugh and shake our heads. Sometimes I felt a little guilty telling the story, like I was making too big a deal out of all of it. I’d end by saying, “Nothing happened, though,” holding out my hands in front of me as if to push away any lingering concerns my friends might have.
But my racing heart in the convenience store aisle didn’t feel like nothing was happening. Neither did my shaking or my rage, or my queasy embarrassment—mixed with fear, mixed, somehow, with guilt—when my housemate held up the pornographic pages. Or the way I looked over my shoulder for the rest of my months in that city. And it’s twenty years later now, and I still consider what it means to smile. I feel my mouth when I do it. I think about all the women who have come up with strategies for how to walk through their days without threat—cross the street, park near the streetlight, wear a cross-body bag, a bulky coat, no heels, keep keys out, sunglasses on, earbuds in, earbuds out, walk faster, avoid this one shop, this one corner, this one bus stop, pretend to be on the phone, keep head down and eyes up, keep head up and eyes down. Myself, I’ve perfected a strategic grimace-smile that I use walking past men when alone—it’s an unattractive expression, a tight-lipped drawing up of the mouth that says, simultaneously, I’m making a gesture toward friendliness and I’m an unappealing person who doesn’t really understand how to be friendly.
The thing is, I do understand. I understand, too, how lucky I am. So lucky. Nothing happened that day or the days that followed, not in the way that these stories often go. But that day I began monitoring my face and the ways it might betray me. I began thinking about how—like a crack in the foundation, a hole in the hull—happiness can be dangerous. And that’s also something that happened.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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