The first time Steve put his hands on me, I sighed, audibly, said, “Okay, then,” and thought, “So this is how it’s gonna be, eh?” I was displeased, not offended or violated.
The first time.
The private room in back of the fancy Portland pub was empty except for me and a bundle of audio/visual equipment shoved in the corner. It was three hours until I was due to take the floor and present at that hip little venue, but traveling in Downtown Portland unnerves me more than transcontinental flight. One-way grids, “parking lots” with unattended booths that still somehow manage to fine you $200 for parking there, “blocks” that are in fact hexagons or wedges or not traffic engineering at all but in fact art installations. I circled (zigged, backtracked, squared, diagonalled) four times to find the pub, even more to find parking, and then lugged all my A/V equipment up-hill to the venue.
I wasn’t budging. I was gonna have a mojito and eat eggplant next to historic oak paneling and imagine all the weird underhanded business transactions that happened in that room over cigars and monocles and big man-bellies 100 years ago.
It was a festival. Lit Crawl, just the second time Portland has done it. Restaurants and book stores and venues all around Powell’s City of Books were hosting readings and panels and book stuff. I was going to read and show slides from my book, in a presentation titled “Unmentionable: The Victorian Guide to Horrifyingly Adequate Sex.”
“There will be red-shirted volunteers stationed all over the area to help out,” the email told the presenters.
Steve had apparently not received the same email I did. His must of said “There will be red-shirted Omnipotents mingling among you addle-minded children. Obey them. Those who question or attempt to impede the Omnipotent in his work will be subject to furious consequences.”
He was large, over six foot, spry and thick chested though near 60. He came into the room, inspecting it with a nervous, jerky body language, muttering, touching walls and tables as if to check how much impudence they contained.
“Don’t mind me!” he said cheerfully. “I’m just preparing for an event later.”
“Lit Crawl? I’m Therese, one of the presenters. Thanks for diving into all this craziness!” I said, raising my little mojito at him.
He grinned and marched toward me to shake my hand.
In the past year, since my book came out, I’ve been offered hundreds of hands. I don’t shake. I fist-bump. A small part is because I’m left-handed and people always give me their right and it honestly confuses me. But mostly because I’ve spent months being reinfected with the same cold, and if my son gets a strong enough cold we go to the hospital for a few days to keep him from suffocating in his own lung mucus.
Everyone is usually cool with that, tho. I said, like always, “Ehh…bump me. I’m all germy and sweaty.” The strain of carrying in my screen and projector from the $23 parking spot I’d snagged had not yet dried from my hair line, and I stuck out a friendly fist to meet his palm.
Steve stopped, smiled, and threw his arms around me. “I’m gonna be sweaty soon too!” he said. The hug was intended, I believe, to show that he was an easy going lovable guy and he didn’t mind a little sweat and germs. I didn’t see him hug any other women that night. But I imagine I give off hug-vibes, chubby and childlike as I am. Still, usually an outstretched fist is a pretty clear anti-hug message.
But I decided. People are quirky, and I’ve got no right to get upset if someone violates social protocol. For instance, within three hours a beautiful pierced and tattooed audience member hopped up to adjust my microphone stand to it’s shortest possible height. She wore a very low skin tight top, and it was quite flattering. When she finished I said into the microphone, “Thank you so much! And your bosom is absolutely lovely!”
To the roar of laughter I added “Oh now, I said it but we were all thinking it.” Cuz it really was lovely. My presentation is about sexual frankness…great bosoms are part of my wheelhouse! I have a whole chapter on them.
Also, I honestly believe it’s not creepy when I say it. (Whether or not it is.) Like how The Golden Girls got away with more sex jokes than any other show on Prime time in the 1980s because the women telling them were cute, not creepy. One of many examples where me being a woman gives me more freedom.
But Steve. Oh Steve.
I watched Steve for three hours or more. He was flustered, as had been the moment he walked in, like a man taxed with single-handedly planning and executing a shuttle launch; instead of arranging chairs and helping plug cables.
Another author came early to help set up for her friend. The author had an authoritative presence, her writing and her mannerisms showing a deeply-rooted feminism. But she had no Sacred Red Shirt. And she and Steve had different ideas about how things should go.
I had a mojito, as I said. And I didn’t care about the chairs. I come freakishly early so I don’t have to be agitated. As long as we got my screen pulled up I was set, and this hot stone soup needed no more cooks. The author, Amanda, bristling against what was becoming the apparent incarnation of everything people mean when they talk about The Man, except for the actual men who run out societies have been invested with true power. Steve had not been given enough and it was making him upset.
Did you know there are different “waves” of feminism? I’m not sure how they work. Basically, most Western people today are at least a little bit feminist in the sense that they won’t refuse a female doctor if they’re bleeding out in the ER. Even the oldest of the good ole boys have known competent women they’ve respected in their lives, women in pants, who get shit done.
Third wave feminism is the most current, I think. And I’m not sure what it is. Probably everyone has a different definition. But I know it digs deeper than “women are people.” It examines the little things the men do to screw over women and sexual minorities. It has terms like “micro-aggressions” and “body-shaming” and “fuck the Patriarchy.”
The truth is, I don’t understand micro-aggressions. Maybe because I’ve seen my share of macro-aggressions (that’s code for when a man is so drunk and angry he throws you into the steel knobs of the linen cupboards cuz he tripped on your shoes and you’re nine. Oh… I have stories to tell, but must wait for some people to either die or sign legal agreements not to sue me before I can tell them.)
But as for “micro” aggression…You’re either a dick or you’re not. If you’re trying to be a passive aggressive dick, then you should be called on it, calm and forthright. I did that when a male author, early in my career, smiled down on me and told me that signing a literary agent “was my FIRST mistake” and that if I really wanted to know how to be a writer I should have taken the class he offered last quarter because he didn’t have time to explain the details of his success of Amazon to me. When he said, “Good luck!” as I left his office, I said, “That’s…the most back handed good-luck I’ve ever gotten. It’s on the heels of a huge list of the mistakes you told me I made. But uh…thanks.” We haven’t talked in a long time. Except the time I swung by his office to say, “Hey! Made the New York Times Best Seller List after just two months of publication! Weird huh?” Cuz…I can be a dick too. It was 100% percent gloating dickery. I own it.
Which brings me to fat-shaming. I’m between…50 to 150 pounds over-weight, depending on which draconian health chart you consult. I’m ready to be called lard-ass at any time, with a clicking shotgun finger and a slap to my own butt with “Don’t I KNOW it, Baby.” Which is usually the end of the fat shaming. Crazy unexpected reactions beat casual cruelty. That night, in fact, since it was Portland, I sent my “FAT CHICK” shirt on her maiden voyage. I know my body disgusts some people. It’s visceral, they probably can’t help it, their brains are wired that way. If they keep it to themselves and give me a chance to show my Therese-ness to them, then we’re jake!
As for the Patriarchy…I…I might need to do more research on that. I don’t see a conspiracy, I see the slow adjustment of society to changing needs. Men ran stuff cuz they couldn’t get pregnant and they were stronger. For all of history. This has changed (uh…largely cuz… a man’s invention of reliable birth control allowed it but whatever) only in the past 50 years…it takes some time to rewire all of society. I think we’re moving at a fair clip, historically speaking.
But now Steve. Steve had been sent to challenge my mellow view of sexual equality, that gender isn’t nearly as big of a game chip as people say it is.
The second time Steve grabbed me was after he yelled at me.
He’d just barked off some mild-looking patrons who’d come early for the presentation, saying their presence disrupted (his control over) things and we would NOT open until six o clock. Barked. My German Shepherd does it when strangers come to the front door. Her hackles, the black fur on her shoulders and spine, spike like ferocious goosebumps. It’s a defensive response of her territory. Because she’s scared.
The restaurant was open and there was no keep-out sign on our venue room.
“I think it’s fine if they sit down,” said Amanda, an edge in her voice
“NO. It’s NOT fine.” He spoke as if he believed he was the only grown up in the room. “It’s going to be CHAOS and I can’t deal with extra trouble right now.” The extra trouble that would have been…added to his chair-arranging.
At this point I was fiddling with my screen and computer, trying to make all the cords fit and stretch.
“‘K,” I said. “So I sit when I talk, and I need to be next to my iPad which is connected to my projector, so, yeah I’ll sit here.” I said, indicating a convenient looking spot.
Steve looked up from where he was exerting authority over my electronics. I approached my own projector, my sweet little jalopy, to coax and conjole it into doing what I wanted. Steve intercepted me and said..commanded…yelled,
“SIT DOWN OVER THERE.” He jabbed at a space I did not want to sit in.
You know that red vision “wee-woo wee-woo” alarm scene in some movies where the protagonist just had their rage button pushed? Men yelling at me. I don’t take that anymore. I fought long and hard, and I do not take that anymore. If you want to show your superior male prowess, then you’re gonna have to belt me, I won’t be able to fight that and I’ll have to do what you say til I can think of a way out.
But if you’re just gonna shout, and your brain is flaccid enough that you need to use your testosterone an amplifier, well, I’m in this now.
“I’m sorry. What did you just yell at me?” I came to a dead stop and stood up, walking closer to Steve. squinting my eyes in confusion like he’d just told me do a cartwheel. “Did you just tell me to go sit down like a five year old? Your mama raise you to treat ladies that way? Or did she teach you a word called please?”
It wasn’t a perfect comeback. And don’t think I was talking like Kiddo in Kill Bill through gritted teeth that threatened bloody repercussion. That wouldn’t have worked, it would have escalated, not resolved. I used a voice of irritated bemusement, female and sassy, non-threatening but no-nonsense. The voice of a teacher, a nurse, one of those acceptable female authority figures.
It worked though.
Steve broke into his grin again and groaned. He folded his hands in prayer formation and crowed “Mea Culpa! I’m so sorry! PLEASE try sitting over there! I’m sorry I’m just so flustered.” The he took my shoulders and pulled me toward him. I sunk down to a crouch and escaped him. A weird childlike move, one I’d never been allowed to use in my actual childhood. But unmistakably the actions of a person who didn’t want to be touched again. I thought.
When it was time for my presentation, I asked for the lights to be turned off. My projector is a sturdy little thing but it’s shy and needs darkness.
Giving Steve control over a dimmer switch was giving Steve too much power. He toyed with the lights, up, down, blinding, black. He turned them full up and I collapsed in exasperation in front of my audience.
“I spent frickin’ HOURS finding these images of birth control douche-bags and TV-MA Kama Sutra drawings and you’re all damn well gonna SEE them clearly!” I told my wonderful audience.
Steve entered the center of the room and boomed. “I will not turn out these lights until 7pm. There is a waitress in this room doing her work and I have to be aware of her.”
I covered my anger with an indignant “Which of you dared order food or drink during my presentation!” to my audience, who laughed. Also, none of them had. The waitress was done. He must not have asked her how much light she needed or how many orders she had to fill.
At seven sharp, the lights blacked out. And I had a fantastic time with my audience and my presentation. I told people stuff that made them groan, gasp, and laugh. My audience was wonderful, and we had a fun, fun dang hour.
After a presentation ends, there is a mash of bodies. Some coming to see me, some going to the bathroom or leaving, and the next presenter was doing an entire burlesque show in that little room. There was allotted 15 minutes for me to clean up and her to set up. I moved slow I admit.
Steve was in my face, it seemed even before my eyes could adjust to the light.
“We need to get your stuff cleaned up. What do I do to help you?” That wasn’t rude, I know. But I heard his brain speak, his behavior over the whole night, not his mouth. I heard, “You’re in MY way. You’re making MY important job harder. I’m the boss here. I’m the BOSS of YOU.”
I whirled on him. “Steve. I’m moving fast as I can. I will get my three items of clutter removed from your space. Give me five damn minutes.” I was pissed, well and truly. Not a place I usually find myself.
Steve’s face blanked. “No I mean it I want to help!” He reached out his arms again and walked toward me.
I leapt back. “NO. HUGS.” I said.
He stopped and shook a finger at me. “You’re…I can never tell if you’re joking.”
“I am not.” I said, circumventing him widely, suddenly finding space among the a sloppy circled crowd that had formed like teenagers in a movie-fight scene. “I’m not joking. I’m exhausted. I will clean up before the next showing. You have my word.” I had come out of strict-teacher voice into something closer to my own naked one, tired and angry.
Steve left, muttering about not being able to tell if I was messing with him, to “help” set up the next act. That was the last I saw of him.
Steve wasn’t a dyed in the wool asshole. He wasn’t. My son is autistic, his diagnoses has caused me to learn a lot about what is called “non neuro-typical” people. What we used to call weirdos, geeks, retarded even.
This is what I gathered from watching Steve all night. He had little ability to read other people, his interactions felt like he was trying to play-act how a person in his position SHOULD act. He felt an over-exaggerated sense of responsibility and importance. He had difficulty completing tasks that required going from A to B without digressing to C and 11 first. He seemed to set on edge the teeth of all the people he was trying to help, particularly the women. Is that enough to make me think he had a minor cognitive disability? Yeah.
He crossed my very, very wide line of what is acceptable behavior. He yelled at me, treated me like I was foolish, and touched me despite my repeated loud non-verbal communication not to. It’s new territory to me. Men rarely bother me in any way in my adulthood. Partially because I had years of…well…lets call them “macro-aggression” from men. Telling me I should smile more often doesn’t necessarily even register as aggression to someone whose made their peace and forgiven the man who used to through them into walls. The last man who told me to smile was walking into an estate sale next to me. I stopped. I thought. I wrinkled my brow at him and said, “No.” And he said, “Okay.” Done. No harm intended on either side.
I wished my husband had been there. He’s from New Jersey with very high functioning Asperger’s. But to anyone who doesn’t know Gus, he’s a dead-eyed, silent wall of weight and muscle who pulses with the “he was a quiet guy, kept to himself ” as they haul out the body bags from the basement-vibe. But Gus wasn’t there that night. And I know if he had been, Steve would not have been a noticeable part of my evening at all. Therefore, he hugged and bossed me because I was a lone woman, one who didn’t look like much of a fighter, unlike Amanda, who was tall, angular and assertive.
All I know for sure is that Steve was not helpful that night. That he lost his temper, that he made things harder. That he was too overwhelmed, and contributed to the disturbance he was supposed to soothe. I will write the organizers and tell them as much.
I don’t know if his behavior was purposeful misogyny. Or misogyny at all.
I do know one thing. Whatever Steve’s deal is, I wasn’t his victim. Not of micro-aggression or patriarchal oppression. The only thing I was a victim of that night was aggravation. You teach people how to treat you, no matter your gender. You can dress in leather leggings so tight your pudenda is perfectly outlined and still not be a slut if your eye contact is firm and your words are wisely considered. You can weigh 300lbs and defuse fat shame with a smirk and wiggle of your ass. You can stop micro-aggressions by putting up your hand and saying with a smile, “You’re kinda fucking around with me here, aren’t ya, buddy?”
Some people, like Steve, it takes them longer to learn what I’m teaching. But I wasn’t oppressed. Steve did not have enough power to oppress me. I never gave it to him.