I was sitting on a mattress on the floor of a hostel in Pāhoa, a small town on the Big Island of Hawaii, when I remembered I’m a woman.
The air was thick and wet and wrapped around me like cellophane; the sheets were damp and smelled like patchouli; there were oil stains on the pillowcases and cockroaches in the corner, and none of that bothered me. I was traveling alone with very little money and I didn’t care about the consequences of that. But I forgot about one thing: I was a woman, traveling alone. I was a woman, and I’d found myself in a room full of drunk older men. They were rolling around in their hostel beds and looking at me with red rancid eyes. They called me sweetie. They asked me to move to China with them. They looked at my feet and then my face, my breasts and my lips. They asked me what I’m doing for Valentine’s Day.
They labeled me a woman, and now I felt like one. On a daily basis, I don’t think about my vagina very often. But in that moment I was vividly aware of it. I was conscious of my breasts and my hair and my legs. I felt my body in a way I usually don’t, as if I was outside of myself, watching myself through their eyes.
A few weeks ago I’d flown to the island with a friend of mine, a male friend, and we stayed at this hostel. The town seemed charming to me then, stocked with lost souls and hippies; dirty but in a likeable way. I didn’t notice that the hostel was filled with drunks that lived there almost permanently. I didn’t notice the strung-out hippies that were following me now, angry that I didn’t have a dollar. I didn’t notice then because I didn’t have to. I was with a man and no one bothered me. It is still amazing to me how quickly that quaint town felt threatening, as soon as I was navigating it alone. How strongly aware I became of my own vulnerability.
I slept at the hostel with my bag locked and a pocketknife in my fist. I slyly mentioned a boyfriend. I avoided their eyes and tried not to smile. I wore pants and baggy sweaters. The men there were probably harmless. But I knew that, as a woman, I couldn’t assume that they were. I was probably safe. But the one time I believe that, I know that I won’t be. And what a fucking shame that is.