I saw a girl in Soho wearing spiked shoes the other day. Not spiked heels, spiked shoes. I could describe them as studded shoes, but the studs were really pointy—so, spikes. And they were at the toes. Armed–or footed, rather–with a couple dozen metal points on the left and a couple dozen more on the right, a girl could kick a guy in the balls and really mess up his future children.
The shoes reminded me of Death Race 2000, the Roger Corman ‘70s film featuring cars designed to kill people to earn points in a race. One racer drove a car with mounted machine guns and a big knife right up front. How cool would it be to have retractable knives mounted on the front of your sexiest pair of shoes?
The night before I saw the shoes, I’d gone to an art opening in Bushwick and made small talk with a group of four women artists about catcalling. One wondered aloud, but furtively, whether it was racist to mention that the Latinos in our neighborhood were pretty aggressive sometimes. I forget who said what but the conversation became a single stream of consciousness, like we were donating our thoughts to a verbal wiki about how it felt to be harassed.
Sometimes the men just don’t stop saying things until you look. And then there are some who just stare. Some yell at you like they really expect you to do something. In this neighborhood I just feel like they’re louder. If I feel afraid, I say hello to them. Yeah, I try to at least acknowledge them so they don’t get mad. Right, but then if you look it’s like you’re okay with it. What do they want, anyway? They just do it, it’s not even like they really want to pick you up. It’s a threat, always a threat. They just want you to feel intimidated. Yes, exactly, and mostly you’re by yourself but they’re with their friends. It’s like they want to remind you they have power over you.
My fantasy switchblade-shoes remind me of Speed Racer’s car, Racer X’s car. The Batmobile. Bond. In our stories, man exposed to nature, man exposed to his enemies, is naked, and so he needs his daggers, his bullets, gadgets that will spray the winding road behind him with a mist of oil to fend off his enemies. If you are someone who has no weapons or gadgets, it’s obvious what the stories are all about: The undefended, unarmed man hates nothing as much as his own vulnerability, so he clothes himself in weapons and aggression.
But what protection does a woman have from this?
On my way out of the gallery, as my final contribution to the conversation, I pulled a powdercoated pink cylinder from the front breast pocket of my winter coat. Get one of these, I said. My friend gave me this one for my birthday two years ago. I forgot to carry it for a while, but then those two girls got assaulted around here. I pulled the cap off my pepper spray to show them the spritzer. Oooooh, the dark-haired girl said. That’s so pretty. It looks like perfume. I know! It’s great, I said.
But it’s not great. I walked out of the building and down the street alone, it was late and dark. I passed only two girls, one was aiming her iPhone and the other posing for a picture amid the photogenic urban decay. I passed them without making eye contact–didn’t need to. As I walked, my right hand rested in my pocket, cap off my pepper spray and my index finger on top of the nozzle. If I was approached from behind, if someone grabbed my arm, if they were too close, if I wore shoes that I couldn’t run away in, it wouldn’t matter that I had a pretty weapon in my pocket, in my hand. Even Speed Racer has to deploy his super-secret protection at just the right moment, or the hero remains in peril.
So, even pepper spray is bullshit. I would need to have pepper spray and access to it and the reflexes to use it and the presence of mind to start running and to not stop running and to run somewhere safe even if I had no idea where I was. In other words, to stay safe, what I really need is to have the word No lodged inside my body, fighting for air, with a will to get out or die trying.
Why is it that for all of the brilliant defenses granted porcupines and skunks and dogs and butterflies, the protection reserved for a woman comes down to just that word–No? No, as in, “Did she say no?” “I never heard her say No.”
And why don’t people ever hear the No? No is everywhere, all the time, closer than my finger on the top of my pepper spray. No is the default meaning of my silence. No is what my body screams when it doesn’t look at someone and keeps walking. No is what I say with a smile before the words “thank you” when I wish I could tell someone to fuck off but feel safer and wiser allowing him to save face.
Why can’t I just have venom darts, little needles I could spit out of my mouth as if from a blow gun every time I get harassed on the street or strategically bumped on the subway? I am not especially angry, it’s just that the monotony of vigilance is exhausting. I don’t have a blow gun, or spiked shoes, or a way to shoot poisonous needles. I only have No. And No is what I always mean, what I always say, what I am always saying, when you do not hear me say the word “YES.”
They sound so different. Here, listen, repeat them to yourself: Yes, YESSSSSSS, yes, YES! To any question, anytime, anything that does not sound like the Meg-Ryan-ordering-lunch-YES, means No.
To the question of Steubenville, the answer is No. Do I want to holla back? No. Am I lookin’ for a date, baby. No. To too many other questions–New Delhi, Kashmir. No. No, no, no, no…nonononono. It struggles to find its way out, lodged inside, taking all the air, until I feel exhausted.