Let me make one thing clear: few places on Earth mean more to me than the McDonalds of Middletown, Connecticut. For four years of college, that little fast food oasis just off campus was my happy place—day or night, sober or hungover, with friends or flying solo. There were a lot of 4 am drive-through visits after I finished my graveyard shift at the radio station, and the occasional finals study break bag of fries to bring back to the library. During my senior year, my boyfriend and I would get McNuggets and then go across the street to the Home Depot parking lot to practice driving stick shift. I have with that McDonalds the inexplicable bond you form with a place you take for granted, somewhere that is always open, safe and warm. No matter how much changes at my alma mater, no matter how much I change now that I have graduated, that McDonalds is always the same.
I spent Valentine’s Day weekend back at school with my friend Torii, who is still an undergrad. On the last night of my visit, Sunday at around 10pm, we piled into my Mini Cooper and skidded our way to McDonalds for Sweet Tea (her) and a large Diet Coke (me). The drive-through was broken so we parked and went inside, mid-conversation about the latest installment in the sitcom that is my post-grad life. We had made it a few feet into the building when we found ourselves faced with the ultimate nightmare: a group of four white teenage boys.
One of them, some brat in a hoodie who must have been between 17 and 19, towered over me and said, “You are very beautiful.” He had a smug look on his face, recognizable as the expression dudes get when they are showing off for their friends. It wasn’t a compliment. It was a posture, a game edged with little boy malice.
I kept walking, but I turned just enough to flash him a disdainful smirk and say, “You can go fuck yourself.”
I get approached in public all the time. It has nothing to do with how I look; usually when it happens I am dressed down, and that evening I was wearing a heavy winter coat over a flannel shirt (no makeup, greasy hair). After a summer living in the Bay Area and years of walking through the streets of New York City, I have learned how to quickly assess the safety of responding to a man’s comments in public. Does this man look crazy? Is he going to ask me for directions or invade my personal space? Am I in a well-lit environment full of other people? Is what he said really worth a fight?
Teenage boys are my favorite. They are just becoming aware of their power as almost-men, the safety it affords them, the entitlement over women’s bodies that they are nearly old enough to claim. A few weeks ago I was looking for the track number of my train at Grand Central when a boy came up to me and offered me a free hug. Three strikes against him: Approaching me while I had my headphones on and was focused on a rushed activity, his I’ve been dared to do this expression, and the way he had his arms already half-open and extended as if poised to embrace me in his Axe body spray warmth. “You can go fuck yourself,” came spilling out of my mouth, and his face shrunk, his arms folding back to his sides. I felt guilty about it the entire train-ride home, uncomfortable with violating the script of politeness expected of me as a tiny, defenseless girl. But I would rather assume a threat where none exists than suffer pain, discomfort or embarrassment. And I never want to lose my voice.
Back at McDonalds, I stomped past my would-be paramour to the cash register, not sticking around long enough to see his reaction. I heard muffled guffaws from his friends but I focused on ordering my meal, and on making sure Torii was okay, and figuring out how to put the entire restaurant between them and us. After we ordered, Torii went to use the bathroom, and the boy reappeared just behind me to wait for his food. I ignored him and he didn’t say anything, the anxiety radiating from his tall, gangly body. I had rattled him, openly defiant. I had also embarrassed him in front of his friends. Without them he was quiet.
I went and sat in a booth near the restroom, not wanting to test fate. It could be some anecdote of everyday harassment, a “but I was being a nice guy!” microaggression. I would forget about it, and more than likely so would he. The male cashier brought me my soda cup, perhaps aware of what had happened and wanting to help me, or perhaps he was just nice.
Torii and I got our food and then buttoned up against the cold; the temperature outside was in the single digits and the news warned about wind chill. My mind had returned to processing my personal life, but I was aware—in that constant, quiet way women always are of their surroundings—that the group of teenagers was sitting in a booth by the exit, the booth that had always been my favorite. I’d written the last paper of my college career siting in it only nine months ago.
Torii and I were chatting, almost defensively to discourage them from engaging with us, when my harasser yelled, “Bye!”
We ignored it. I considered getting a refill of my soda but knew that would only widen the time window of potential harassment.
“Bye!” Again, I ignored it. Torii was opening the door in front of me and I reached out to take it as she moved into the vestibule.
And then, just as I could feel the cold kissing my face, a third, insistent, angry, “BYE!”
I snapped. I don’t know what it was: The entitlement of his tone, the element of stupid teenage boy group think, how clearly he was trying to redeem himself after being shut down in front of his friends. Mostly it was the fact that this McDonalds was my home and I’d never had a single unpleasant experience there in four and a half years. I turned around and re-opened the door, leaning through it to look directly at all four boys. I couldn’t see their faces, too much adrenaline pumping through my veins to focus, and for a moment I was worried I would find my mouth empty, the words caught up and tripping.
But for once I didn’t stutter or fumble, blessed by anger and my own confidence. “You need to stop thinking women owe you attention,” I snarled, slow and clear. I let it hang there for a second, and then I left, satisfied and furious and hot.
Over the roar of blood in my ears, I heard a final nasty, “Bye!” Because of course he had to have the last word.
I would wonder what happened after I left the restaurant, but I know how that conversation amongst the four of them went. I know how I looked to them: A snotty, arrogant student from the university wearing a coat with a fur collar, slumming it at McDonalds, thinking she was too good for their compliment. She should have just smiled and said thank you. How dare she reject our praise? What the fuck was her problem? Who the fuck does she think she is? They couldn’t have known I am years older than I look, that I work in a fast paced city full of street harassment, that I am quick to anger and fed up with little shits like them. They fucked with the wrong woman. But they don’t know that.
At the end of the day, that kid is a jerk and probably always will be. Maybe he will fall in love with a strong-willed girl who makes him realize that, oh shit, women are actually people. Probably not, though.
But one of the other boys, the ones that didn’t engage with me, the ones that sat silent and watched—maybe they thought about it. Maybe they will remember the night that girl went off on them at McDonalds, and maybe they will learn.
What I do know is that Torii, the closest person I have to a little sister, was amazed. She was practically giddy when we got in the car and took out her phone to tweet my call-out. “Nice comeback,” she giggled about his final bleated goodbye. Just as that kid wouldn’t have said anything to me if he’d been alone, I might have kept walking if Torii hadn’t been with me. There is safety in numbers on both sides. And I want to be that big sister who fights back, a role model and a protector. She doesn’t need my help, but I want the world to be better for both of us.
When we got back to campus, I accidentally dropped my Diet Coke while getting out of the car, its contents exploding across the snow. All of that, for nothing. But maybe not nothing.