*Featured Image: “At The Doorway” from the Ancestor Project by Angela Amias
Three educated women walk into a bar and sit down at a table – a future doctor of internal medicine, a future doctor of physical therapy, and a future person of unspecified employment (me). A little known variation on a classic. We were catching up after living as college graduates for at least two years. I remarked to myself how much more grounded we seemed, now that our worlds had grown beyond dorm rooms and frat parties.
This particular alcohol establishment serves excellent bar bites of various international descent. My roommate and I have, on more than one occasion, gotten sick from overindulging and mixing, not our alcohols, but our bar foods. Lamb sliders with chimichurri just don’t quite sit with pate bánh mì.
Two men pulled up chairs next to us, almost in unison, implying a premeditated and strategic strike. They surrounded us from two sides. I was annoyed, resentful that they thought they could simply join our table without invitation. And I briefly, shamefully, lamented that picking straight people up at a bar was about as easy as sitting down at a table with your back to the world.
These men were drunk, and not on German pretzels with Sriracha dipping sauce. They were drunk drunk. And they were big. Big big. The man to my left, the brains of the operation, as it would soon be apparent, wore army print pants, in uniform as a man ready for combat. He was also the bigger of these two men. When they initially tried to speak to us, I played deflector. As a gay woman, I have acquired a quick bar banter that cuts men loose before they can get my name. In response to their drunken prattling, I cut to the chase. “We’re just here to hang out. Would you mind kindly leaving us in peace.” That this unapologetic rejection didn’t deter them, that it didn’t leave them mortified, marks a severe chasm between how we raise men and women.
These men were more determined than ever. My defenses were firing, “We’re actually all gay.” I didn’t ask my friends for their permission before taking them under my protective gay wing, the safe space where a bar is just a place to buy alcohol, not a chessboard of drawn-out gamesmanship. “I don’t care if you are lesbians,” he said. Maybe he meant that he just wanted to get to know us and enjoy our company. But I doubted it. To me the implication was that our sexual preferences mattered little to him, our desires an afterthought. Meanwhile, his companion, so good at following military direction, not so good at speaking in coherent sentences, was remarking on the cilantro garnishing my sesame udon noodle salad. He grabbed a handful and shoved it into his mouth, insightfully noting that, “this spinach tastes weird.” He chewed with his mouth open as little pieces lodged themselves in between his oversized teeth.
Within two or three more lines exchanged between the big man and me, my friends growing increasingly quiet and downcast, I was explicitly informing him that they had intruded and respectfully requested that they leave us alone. His answer was still no, and his friend still chomped on cilantro.
So here’s the woman’s dilemma, as portrayed in this emblematic microcosm of the feminine experience. Our choices were thus: Give in – let them sit at our table while we sat in silence. Fight them, which, despite my thorough dedication to exclusively watching women’s sports on television in pointed appreciation for their athletic talent, I had to admit would end poorly. Or begin to hurl insults, preparing ourselves for a deluge of commentary about our unkindness. My preference would be none of those things. My preference would be to say, “I’ll let you know if I’d like to talk to you.”
At some point they finally walked away. We had settled for option A, in which we all sit in silence, and they had been uncomfortable enough to leave. But big man came back. “Sorry we bothered you, we’re bad people. I apologize for my behavior.” I thanked him. I told him I appreciated his apology. “No you’re not a bad person, but no, you’re still not welcome at our table.” I felt thankful that, as a gay woman, it wasn’t so refreshing to find an apologetic and sincere male that I might have felt compelled to take my pants off on the spot.
But big man was mad again. He asked me what I did with my life. I said I was getting my PhD. This was not explicitly true, but at this time in my life I was tasting how that felt coming out of my mouth. Additionally, for this particular encounter, I wanted as much in my arsenal as possible. I felt compelled to add educational prestige to feel validated as an expert in what I wanted and could ask of this scenario.
He asked me if that was all. Thinking he meant one thing, I added a couple of hobbies to my list of occupations. He meant the other thing. He meant is that all I do with my life, that fragile thing between birth and death that we all risk wasting. He whipped his phone out. He was a military man, he said, but I was seeing neither pictures of the military nor pictures of the man. Instead, I was seeing pictures of guns. He was letting me know just how dangerous he could be. He was showing me the violence he could enact. “I risk my life everyday for your freedom,” he said, though clearly not my freedom to pick my tablemates, or, for that matter, my right to shove my own damn cilantro garnish into my own damn mouth. He fought for my freedom, but resented me for making a choice that didn’t include him. My freedom was conditional.
I suppose he wanted my gratitude, but probably didn’t understand that bravery and courage aren’t supposed to be transactional, as that would undermine the words’ very meanings. He was angry that I didn’t treat him more reverently, despite the fact that my very first iteration of “get the fuck away from us,” was firm, yet respectful. Which is why, when he implied that I lacked human decency, I was dumbfounded, for that was exactly what I had given him, approximately twenty minutes earlier in the evening. It’s almost as if, and bear with me, he didn’t care about having my respect at all, and was after something else.
He left again, performing the same ritual of grabbing cilantro Sam and saying, “come on, they clearly don’t want us here,” (It simply couldn’t be more clear). But one more time he came back (despite how clear it was). “You’re a real jerk,” he told me. “We just got back, and my buddy is having a hard time.” In an attempt to tap into my feminine duty, soothing the soul of a troubled man with an abundance of nurturing, big man had unwittingly summed up my role in a capitalistic, patriarchal society. He performed his role as the laser-focused, mission driven, self-sacrificing, army man, and I was supposed to comply, entrusted to provide care and comfort for his buddy’s emotional homecoming. The blunt subtext is that in exchange for using his body in combat, I owed him mine.
It was recognizing this subtext that allowed me to be firm in my response: no. Which inspired him to ask me one final question, “Do you get off on shitting on veterans?” Naturally, if I wasn’t sexually aroused by his very presence, I must be somehow sexually aroused in my refusal. Either way, his narrative sexualized me. I had attempted to diminish my role in this man’s life. He, and only he, had decided to make me a person of interest – it was because of his persistence that I had become a source of anger.
I had to be assertive, but I couldn’t be a jerk; I had to be kind, but I couldn’t be seen as too inviting. I needed to state my case, but given his size, my size, his military training, my snarky mouth, I had to handle this situation calmly and carefully. If I ran, he might have followed, if I shouted, he might have struck. It was safest to stand still, making imperceptible movements toward my safety, using only an armament of deliberate vernacular. For all the rhetoric that women are too emotional to make level-headed decisions, I know that only a man could afford to blow up in rage at an unwanted visitor, a release I deeply craved, but knew I could never have.
He left one final time. Either because his larger group collected him and his fellow soldier, or because the bartender shoed him to the street outside, I don’t recall. I watched intently as he loaded into the back of a truck, which he only conceded to after attempting to declare himself the driver. I made sure his body got into the vehicle that was driving away from me, his threat dissipating with the emissions of his tail pipe. The bartender came up and offered a nonchalant apology. I asked him, facetiously yet pointedly, if he had seen our cries for help. I made no literal attempts to grab the bartender’s attention, but I wanted to make it clear that this was a potentially dangerous situation, one that he should look out for in the future. He apologized again, offering us free drinks. Under other circumstances, I would have declined, hoping to seem easy going, rather than demanding. And yes, these drinks could have been seen as a payment to placate me or silence any complaints I could have about this bar. But I decided to say yes to a round on the house – partly because I didn’t want to say the words, “It was no problem,” and partly because I needed a reason to stay at this bar for another thirty minutes to make sure the white truck wasn’t lurking nearby to follow us home.
So we sipped. My sour beer tasting extra sour as I took a reward for a race I never wanted to run. We tried to make light of what just happened. Grateful that we had a man with a mouthful of cilantro on whom we could focus our bewildered memories. We laughed because we had to, because we were at a bar with friends, because we weren’t ready to discuss the tireless frustration of that encounter. And hey, at least we got free drinks out of it.
***An alternate version of this essay was previously published in: The Blotter, July Issue, Durham, NC