I recently found myself in an entirely new situation that felt all too familiar. Kind of like déjà vu except it didn’t take long to pinpoint other times I had felt it. Whereas déjà vu is unpredictable in the sense you might not know when you’ll experience it again, I knew at this time this wouldn’t be the last encounter I had with this feeling.
This occurrence took place on a sunny April day out on a short hike with my friend Adam. I had been really excited to take him out to see this waterfall, not because of its overwhelming power and beauty (well maybe that too) but mainly because I thought it looked manageable to kayak on. While he scouted the rapids, I pursued my own agenda of finding a good place to jump in. The sun had disappeared under the cover of clouds and although the past week had given the impression it was summer, the water was icy cold.
I found a secluded spot and while Adam remained higher on the rocks, I removed all of my clothing and waded into the frigid water. Cold water has a way of heightening all of your senses and forcing you into the present moment. My worries of unemployment and college tuition dissipated with the introduction of the chilly water onto my skin. Taking a deep breath, I dove in headfirst and came up gasping for air and laughing all at the same time. I was shaking with cold but I felt happy, safe — comfortable even.
Then the moment occurred, the strange but familiar moment. I heard a twig snap and I looked back from the water to see a man watching me from the trail. Well, closer because he had gone off trail to get a better look. He was dressed in multiple layers carrying a fishing pole and a small tackle box. In registering his presence, my senses became heightened in an entirely different way.
I became aware of the bumps rising on my skin from a combination of cold and wariness. I sensed how far away Adam was and how my towel was in between this man and I. Most of all, I felt my vulnerability as if it were a tangible thing that could be seen, heard, smelled, and felt. And it might’ve been because this man who stopped to look seemed to have recognized it on me.
He showed his teeth, in any other setting it might’ve been called a smile, and said, “Real pretty sight here.”
Armed with the coping mechanisms of a woman who has lived under a system of patriarchy and spent eight years in the service industry, I let out a nervous laugh. The man glanced up and thankfully, I realized he had noticed Adam and Adam had noticed him. Adam’s eyes met mine and he gave me a confused, disgusted look in response to this stranger.
At this point, my body could barely withstand the cold and I became hyper aware I was still waist deep in the water, my arms clutched over my breasts. If not for this man, I would have been out and wrapped in a towel many moments ago. The man showed no signs of moving and finally, Adam began to down-climb the rocks towards me. As he did so, he called out, “You stare at everybody like that, man?”
The man’s curled lips didn’t change shape as he responded, “If it’s a pretty girl like that, yes. Is she your girlfriend?”
During this exchange, internally I pathetically wished Adam would say yes, not because I had any interest in dating him, but because I felt like it might grant me an extra level of security. I am a proud feminist, but at that moment, standing naked in the river, I was grateful Adam was there.
Adam said no, I was his friend, but he’d appreciate if the man didn’t stare. The grimace turned to a snarl as he snapped, “I am a heterosexual man and if there’s a naked woman, god damn I’m gonna look at ‘er!”
With that defensive statement dripping of entitlement and toxic masculinity, he turned back to the trail and sauntered off. Adam quickly brought me my towel and shaking, I clutched it to me and hurriedly dried off.
This exchange was over and done with quickly, and soon I was standing, fully clothed by the river. The sense of security I felt only seconds before this incident was like a fog that cleared as the stranger walked through it. He wore a look that was as recognizable to me as the street I live on. It is the same look the men who sit at the bar I work at wear while they make comments on my legs. It is the look I have received in a grocery store from the man who leans too close to me and accidentally brushes my skin. And it is the look that makes me wonder what would have happened if my male friend hadn’t been with me that day.
This incident didn’t leave me feeling traumatized in any way or even angry but I didn’t feel calm either. Along with the familiarity of this experience, I felt a deep sense of resignation. I felt the same forbearance women have felt for generations who have had something taken from them. Whether it is their words or their bodies or even a peaceful moment in a river, as if the Lord Himself gave these men dispensation to do so, it is stolen from us. But whether it is our words or our bodies or even our peaceful moment in a river, it is ours and it belongs to us.