I once had an only date with a small, anxious man. He was nervous and … ferret-y: fidgety like the way ferrets move. He was a few years older than me, an inch or two taller, very slender, white. We went to dinner at a Burmese place in the East Village. Then we walked around for a bit then said our goodbyes at the subway.
I knew in the first five minutes that we weren’t a match, that we wouldn’t see each other again. I imagine that he knew it, too.
At one point after dinner, as we walked up First Avenue, several young men ran past us. There were maybe six or seven of them, and they ran on either side of us. They were fast but seemed aimless, as if they were running just to be running.
I found them beautiful to watch, like gazelles, so effortless and full of energy. But they spooked my date. And it’s understandable that someone would be alarmed by having a group of people run up on them at night. Sure. It’s more surprising that I wasn’t alarmed. But my date stayed freaked out long after the young men had flown past us. His state of alert was so high, it began to make me nervous.
Finally, he stopped walking and, when I turned to look at him, said: “If there’s any trouble, I can’t protect you or fight for you. I’ll just run.”
I remember being surprised, amused, and pitying. There’s so much wrapped up in a pronouncement like that. Over time I’ve come to realize how wrong and unfair my reaction to him was. At the time, all I could think was – welp, if there had been even the thinnest chance of a second date, or even a curiosity kiss to end this date, it just shriveled up and died on the vine.
I certainly don’t ever expect my dates to step up with sword and shield or dive in front of blows or bullets if something awful goes down when we’re together. And mostly that is because I don’t think about things going that kind of sour. That isn’t a way my life has ever played out. But even with men I’ve been in relationships with, I have never assumed that they would physically protect me. I mean, if something happened I’d be right there, so I’d expect that I’d defend myself. I’d expect us to fight together against whatever.
That said, for you to tell me you’d run away, that you’d flee to save yourself and abandon me? Um, no. Just no.
Of course, my response to his honesty was based on stereotypes about what it means to “be a man,” to behave in a “manly” way. The shriveling up and dying of any hint of desire I might have felt for this man was caused entirely by the fact that I was trained to expect the man by my side to play the role of knight in shining armor.
I barely knew the man I was on that date with. He could have had any number of past traumatic experiences that made the idea of a street fight so petrifying that he couldn’t keep walking without letting me know that he wouldn’t be putting himself in such a situation.
I told this story to my sister not long ago, and she burst out laughing. I mean, yes. That’s my response, too. Even now, I’m sad to admit. Because our conditioning means that it’s a funny story. Even today. Even with everything we know. Because who says that? But still. Our laughter also tells me how much work I still have to do, how far I haven’t come.
How stunting is it that we don’t allow men to feel things it is entirely natural and human to feel? What do we do to men – and to the women and children around them – when we don’t allow them to be vulnerable, to be afraid, to not want to be fighters? I think we see the answer to that question over and over again – Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, James Holmes. Sadly, that list is so very much longer.
I want, also, to be clear that I am not a fighter. I am not anything at all like a fighter. If someone had attacked my date and me on the street that night, I would surely have faced the attack with bewilderment. I would have said, “Hey!” because I’d have been surprised that something awful was happening to me, and “hey” is my go-to exclamation. And then I’d have said, “Hey!” again, I guess, as I saw my date take off. That date was years before the accident that messed up my knees, so it’s possible that I would have run, too. But it’s more likely that my surprise and shock would have stalled me long enough that my attacker would have gotten whatever they’d come for – my purse, my life, whatever.
I am not anything at all like a fighter. And I’m lucky because I’ve never had to be one – or, only just a couple of times – and, too, society doesn’t expect me to be one. Even with my height and size, I can “play the girl” and not have to know how to throw or block a punch.
I could learn how to fight, could learn how to defend myself. And society makes room for that. As a woman, I have the room for that. Men don’t get the same degree of space.
What do we think we’re gaining as a society by depriving men of the right to their feelings, of the ability to be comfortable with their fears? When will we see that whatever we gain is significantly outweighed by everything we lose?
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.