I started being treated like an idiot in the seventh grade. I’d transferred out of a school where I was so nerdy and ostracized that a pair of “popular” twin boys took to leaving death threats on my parents’ answering machine, and entered a school located all the way across town, where nobody had any idea who I was. I had a blank slate. Over the summer before I entered my new school, my bangs grew out, I shot up a couple of inches, the beginnings of breasts appeared, and I started to emerge from that tragic awkwardness that plagues middle-schoolers of the large-toothed sort.
Boys noticed. I noticed them noticing. I loved it.
I also spent a lot of time observing my new environment, and specifically the girls who seemed like they had a handle on it all; like they were important. I noticed that it wasn’t cool to be smart, or to do well on tests, and so I started lying. I moaned over my grades when I was actually getting solid As; I asked for homework help that I didn’t need; I giggled and pretended not to know what James was getting at when he and his friends came over to me in the cafeteria and he handed me a banana and told me they wanted to see me eat it.
I ate it.
My pattern has been the same ever since: I get talked down to, or made fun of, or made to feel silly or stupid or (much) less than I am, and it feels bad, but I don’t want to make anyone else feel bad, so I smooth it over.
I mean, I certainly wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone.
A few months ago – horrifyingly late in my life – I realized that I am sick and fucking tired of this. More specifically, I’m sick and fucking tired of making the protection of the fragile male ego my priority, when my own feelings have never even been in their top ten. This moment was a sea change in my life, and since then I’ve discovered that the power of speaking my mind is so incredible, so empowering, so impossible-feeling that it sometimes makes me cry from relief – even joy.
A contractor talks to me about voltage and says, with a wink, “Let me know if I’m going over your head, honey.”
“You’re not,” I say. “I’ll let you know if I have any questions.”
A man I’ve hired to help me with a renovation project shows up while I’m unloading supplies from the car. He looks at me carrying boxes full of lights, looks at Kendrick buckling helmets onto tiny heads, and tells Kendrick he should be doing the lifting.
“I’m pretty sure she can handle it,” he says. “Besides, I have to watch the kids.” And he runs down the street after our three year old, who is pedaling all by herself for the very first time.
(My husband, in case you were wondering, is my hero.)
I can lift the lumber; I can build the steps; I can hammer the nail and wire the light and install the appliance, and the fact that I smile and laugh a lot while I’m doing all of these things doesn’t make me one tiny bit less capable.
What I’m getting at here is that I’m done with it. I’m not here for this shit anymore, and I’m SO PROUD of myself for having finally come to terms with that.
And then, last night, I disappointed myself, and I am furious.
I had spent the day hanging Christmas lights – more Christmas lights than I’ve ever hung by a million (yes; crazy early; I know – it was for an integration with Ace Hardware, and I’ll post about it next week). When dusk fell, I ran outside to look at my house all lit up and beautiful. I’ve just never lived in a house that looked so much like Christmas.
I was wearing short shorts and a tank top, which I shouldn’t even mention except goddamnit, I feel like it matters in this story and that makes me feel sick. A couple of male neighbors – good friends of mine – called out to me from across the street. They threw up their hands and yelled that I was showing up everyone on the block; that I was stressing them out. “Now we have to spend all weekend putting up our lights so we’re not the lame unlit house; thanks SO MUCH.”
We all laughed and I felt so great – about my lights, sure, but mostly about the fact that I’d landed in a place where I have real friends – male, female, whatever; it doesn’t matter – and we rib each other and we joke and we yell friendly jibes at each other from across the street. I felt really safe in that moment, which makes what happened next worse.
Another male neighbor – another friend of mine – came walking down the street, and we did the back-and-forth about how I jumped the gun with the holiday season and ugh now he has to do it and etc etc, ha ha ha. And then he said something semi-obnoxious about the massive storage container that’s been sitting in front of my house for three months, but he was clearly joking, so I laughed and gave him the finger: Yeah yeah, fuck you.
“Anytime, sweetheart,” he said.
Then he walked over to my other two friends – all three of them just far away enough that I could absolutely hear them, but could also pretend not to hear them if I wanted – and said, at the exact same volume: “Am I right? I mean, if she’s going to dish it out, she can put her money where her mouth is. I’m here anytime. …Am I right?”
You know what I did in response? I broke into the age-old, much-rehearsed routine I call, “Oh I Didn’t Even Hear You!” I adjusted lights. I checked my phone. I tried to figure out how to go back inside as fast as possible without making anyone feel weird.
One of the other guys called out something else to me, a question about Halloween decorations. “What? What?” I said loudly, cupping a hand over my ear and leaning towards him theatrically. You know, so everyone would be sure I hadn’t heard all the other stuff.
I mean, I wouldn’t anyone to feel embarrassed.
Except I am embarrassed. I am furious. I am a capable, badass woman who is just as good as this guy is at absolutely fucking everything, and he knows that as well as I do – and I know that the fact that he knows that is probably what made him act the way he did. I know better. I want to do better. But still: when it came down to it, I protected him.
Old habits die hard.