By HEATHER BURTMAN
When the stranger yelled at me from his car window, I was carrying my Zamioculcas zamiifolia, a large tropical plant I had just bought at a greenhouse. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I don’t think he was complimenting my plant.
His words, whatever they were, brought to mind all of the derogatory comments and crude propositions I had heard before, from different car windows and different men: all of the comments about my body and suggestions for what I could do with it. It was as if, once I turned 16, my body no longer belonged to me but to the world at large and to certain men who drove their cars past it.
When I was a little girl, playing shirtless in my family’s garden, my body felt as if it belonged only to me. We had a rectangle-shaped yard out of which we would dig a smaller rectangle, and this dark patch of soil would become our garden. At 5, 6 and 7 years old, my siblings and I laughed as we shook out fat chunks of grass and produced a shower of dirt that went up our noses and down our chests.
I liked the way the dirt felt, all freshly dug, against my skin, and I asked my mother to bury me in it the way she sometimes did at the beach. She buried me halfway, and I smiled and posed for a picture. I liked being that way: a bare, muddy torso with a handful of seeds that I thought might grow carrots and yield a future in which my body was my body. And your body was your body.
Nakedness was swimming in the bay as the sunlight dimmed behind the apple trees, and when we walked down the street and men smiled at us, they didn’t mean it like that.
During my senior year of high school, I went in for my second bra-fitting at J. C. Penney, where the fitter sniffed a little in disapproval when telling me my cup size, as if she were thinking, “How dare you grow those.”
I was now the keeper of this secret: There are sizes beyond DD. You can be an H, for example. That is British sizing. Or a K. That is American sizing. The British make better bras. I was the girl with the big breasts. There were jokes, compliments from female friends, promises that my future boyfriend or husband or lover would have plenty to be happy about.
There were men who ogled. Men who asked, “Are those real?”
I had no answer. I didn’t remember consciously deciding about their size or doing anything about it.
Around then I realized that, in this world, there would be many instances when my body would not feel like my body. When I was in a club and a man grabbed my buttocks and then my hands, trying to pull me in to dance. You can say no 100 times, and he will still pull.
There is the knot of your hands and his, and the harder you pull away, the harder he pulls closer. It is like a game to him, like one of those colorful woven tubes that trap your fingers when you exert opposing forces.
If you are lucky, your friends will yell at him until he lets go. You will stand there stunned, suddenly realizing how sticky the dance floor is, also wondering if they have nice-smelling hand soap in the bathroom, hand soap that smells like summer air, being young, outside. But that is the smell of another world entirely, one that no longer seems to exist.
When I walk to work, and men smile at me along the way, they don’t have nice smiles anymore. “What’s your name?” they say. “Come on, sweetheart, tell me your name.”
They follow me, their footsteps like trees falling. I can feel it in the air, their need to take something from me. It has nothing to do with me in particular, with me as an individual. It has nothing to do with how I was once a fearless, naked gardener with a blue plastic teapot and a collection of Ravensburger puzzles.
If I were to tell them my name, would they remember it? Would they invite me out to a nice dinner and listen as I told them stories about my childhood? Would this be true love?
I can picture the scene now. I’m at brunch with my girlfriends at a place that serves bottomless Bloody Marys and slightly overcooked eggs. After Round 3, we find ourselves on the usual subject: how we met our significant others.
My girlfriends lean in a little closer and say: “Oh Heather, please tell the story again. Tell us how you and Lyle met.”
“Well,” I begin, taking one last sip of Bloody Mary. “I was walking down the street when Lyle drove by and yelled, ‘Hey, baby!’ and asked me to have sex with him. And I thought, ‘This one’s a keeper.’”
Such behavior is not about me. It’s not about love. It’s not even about sex. It is about fear and power. What certain men gain from feeding on such things, I do not know, and I do not want to know.
While traveling in France one year, I held onto my friend’s arm as a man followed us for maybe half a mile, yelling I know not what. There was the glittering river, the stone bridge, the creperie closed for the night. Only the fear really existed.
“We can take him,” I whispered to her. “I mean, if anything happens.”
We marched forward, eyeing the distance between the hunted and the hunter. I was too scared to think and uncertain of how one even got a hold of the police out there.
In Connecticut one day, a man drove past me only to turn around and come back.
“Oh, my God,” I thought. “He came back.” I felt the fear descending upon me the way a colorful parachute does in a childhood game of cat and mouse. He talked, he laughed, he watched me try not to blink. I always blinked. What is the verb? To savor. To luxuriate in torturing another. Sadism.
If someone does this to you, do not give in to the temptation to smile. I tell myself to be the strong woman my mother taught me to be and not smile, but I almost always do.
One man said to me: “Do you know who I am? I am Don Juan, and I am the best lover in the world. See for yourself.”
And I thought: Good for you, sir. Good for you. I smiled at him, laughed even.
Another man on another day stood on the sidewalk in front of me as dusk was falling. He was with his friends, and he reached out his arms and pulled me toward him. And what did I do? “I’ve got to go,” I said. “I’ve got to go.” Sweet smile. Walk, don’t run. They smell fear. They chase.
I will never be 6 again. I no longer remember what it is like to bask shirtless with a garden against my skin, or for someone to take a picture of my naked torso that they will actually develop at Walgreens. I am 24, and my body makes life dangerous for me. My breasts, my hips, the way I walk. Any woman’s breasts, any woman’s hips, the way any woman walks.
It’s all somehow too tempting. Our full lips or thin lips. Our necks exposed beneath cropped hair, or our long hair, or the split ends we pick at while sitting on the bus. Our pierced or unpierced ears. The infinite circle of belly button winking beneath our shirts. We look too good in our T-shirts and jeans. We look too good bundled up in our coats, carrying houseplants down the street.
When we walk home to our apartments late at night, we carry our keys spread out between our fingers, and we jump at the shadows of shadows. In the daylight, we pretend we were never afraid.
A couple of years ago, in the warmth of summer, I stood naked on a dock, and my body was my body. My two girlfriends were standing naked beside me, and their bodies were their bodies. Our breasts were our breasts. Our clothes were our clothes that we had chosen to wear and chosen to take off, leaving them in warm heaps on the chilled wood next to the damp footprints, which were also ours.
When we jumped into the water, we chose to jump in. The weeds brushed against our bodies obliviously, encircling our fingers and toes and hips with no knowledge of or care about which was which.
We splashed water with our fists and yelled, but if we were afraid, it was only of fish. That thought made us laugh. We saluted the dark, starry, silent sky, and it did not so much as whistle or wink back.