Last week, as I was driving home from work, I remembered that I needed to buy dishwasher detergent. I went about the usual business of convincing myself that I didn’t really need it, that it could wait another 24 hours, but four other things I was out of suddenly sprang to mind, interrupting my internal debate. So I sighed and resigned myself to that most dreaded of all adult tasks: The after work grocery store stop.
“I’ll be quick,” I told myself. “Ten minutes, tops.” Based on how long I had to search for a parking spot, I knew that was a lie, but I carried on like it wasn’t.
Once inside, I ran over the list in my head as I directed the cart towards the produce section. “Apples, peanut butter, dishwasher detergent, paper towels, coffee,” I repeated. From behind me, I heard a soft whistle. A low voice said, “At least it’s still legal to look.” Another low voice laughed.
I was alone amongst the fruits and vegetables, so I realized these comments were about me. I also realized that these comments were made in such close proximity to where I was standing that I was meant to hear. I rolled my eyes to myself and continued with the tricky task at hand, which was differentiating the Fuji apples from their far inferior lookalike, the Honeycrisp. All I wanted at that moment was to check out and get home to my waiting puppy, throw my hair in the most outrageously messy bun, and nap for an hour. The thought of confronting these so-far bodiless voices was exhausting, even if every fiber of my being was instantly prepared.
As a woman, you have to analyze the cost-benefit ratio in every situation like this one. It’s unfortunate, but choosing when to stand up for yourself is often a logistical decision. Is your safety at risk? Are you alone or surrounded by people? Can you easily leave when/if necessary?
Here’s a tidbit about me, though: I tend to say things. Not aggressively, but I do respond.
On this day, however, I was in such a hurry that I was going to let the eye roll suffice. And I probably would have, if not for what happened next.
While I weighed the apples, the two men who I had not yet turned to face brushed by me and I heard a “How you doin’, baby?” just above my left ear. I shuddered, grabbed my apples from the scale, and spun around.
I was looking up into the eyes of two fifty-something men, both of whom had at least a foot in height and 100 pounds on me. As we stared at one another, one of the men chuckled and said, “You going to buy me some apples today?” The words were mundane but they sounded filthy. I tilted my head and smiled brightly. If you know me, then you know this is a lethal combination. When you get the tilt-and-smile, it’s about to get real.
I responded, “I’m extremely confident that you can buy your own fruit.”
This one little sentence totally threw these guys off their game, which made me smile a touch wider. To be fair, I suspect that it was more than the words, it was the force behind them, the way I took up space and didn’t budge, the no-nonsense square of my shoulders.
After a pause that lasted just a beat too long, proof that they were uncertain of what happened now, one of the men said, “Yeah, okay, you’re right. Sorry about that.” Hmm. Interesting. Sorry about what, though?
So, I said, “Sorry about what?”
To which the man replied, “Huh?”
“What are you sorry about?” I pressed, leaning slightly against my shopping cart, honestly intrigued by the answer.
The man seemed confused, but not annoyed. Actually, he looked sort of curious himself. Another second or two passed and he finally said, “For saying that like that, to you. Sorry.”
I nodded at him, considering. “Thanks,” I said, “I appreciate that.” Then I steered away from the twin pillars, in search of the coffee aisle.
Sure, that wasn’t the most eloquent apology, but it was an apology. I didn’t have to ask for it, either. It was freely given because on some level everyone is aware that a woman is a person, not an object, or a property, or a helper. We are regular people who do regular things, like going to the grocery store after a long day and beginning an important dialogue with strangers. Wouldn’t it be nice if those things could just always be peaceful?