I am walking with my sister and my mother through the University of Washington campus. It's one o'clock on a bright, early summer day. My brother in law has just defended a brilliant doctoral thesis on water fleas, and the three of us are waiting for his committee to release him so we can move on to the part of the day where we drink champagne and eat Safeway cookies outside his laboratory.
I've never been as nostalgic as some when it comes to my Alma Mater, but I did spend five happy years here, and the campus is almost unreasonably beautiful. I'm always proud when I can show my mother around, which is not often because she lives in Vermont. Because it is the end of final exams, Red Square has a quiet, almost vacant feel to it.
We get some lunch from a cart and sit down on the benches in the center of the square. In front us, pacing back and forth in the area created by the four benches, an old man with a bow tie rambles away about evil and sin and repenting. He is dressed all in white, like a tennis player, and swinging around a gilded bible like a racket. There is an unfocused sheen to his eyes, as if he's only half there. The half dozen people sitting on the benches ignore him, heads bent over their text books.
As we're eating, a haggard woman with long strings of grey hair shuffles into the space besides the man. They seemed to be a pair, although of the two the woman has a much sharper demeanor, the wicked focus of a predator. She is walking in jagged lines, shrieking, and stabbing her finger in the air. And then her eyes rest on me.
As I have mentioned more than once before, I often find myself the recipient of the sort of attention I'd rather not receive. If a chattering crazy man climbs aboard the city bus, he'll scan the seats and wait to sit down until he finds me. They always find me. It's because I look terrifically, chronically friendly. Even on my bitterest of days, I seem to radiate the same harmless glow of your favorite cousin.
"Little girl!" hisses the woman, her voice like nails scratching. "You're not wearing any clothes!"
Here it comes, I think. Hold on tight.
"Look at you! You're dressed like a SL UT!" Her voice is raising in volume as she gathers momentum. "You looked like A CHILD SLUT! You are dressed LIKE A WH0RE! YOU ARE MAKING ALL THE BOYS LUSTFUL!"
My face is very impassive as I register her words. Lamentably, what she's saying is inaccurate. I have not made any boy lustful for a longer period of time than I'd like to admit.
"BOYS ARE GOING TO GO HOME AND M@STURB@TE TO YOU!"
Now whether or not that's true, I can't be sure of.
It's at this point in the event, when the word "m@sturbate" is flung out into the ring, that my mother realizes it's me who is being targeted. Yes my mom- my mom who could have gone her whole life without having to consider the lustful boys m@sturb@ting at home to her daughter but alas, did not. She flies up and lands crouched forwards in pounce position, like a cat given an electric shock. "Don't you DARE SPEAK TO HER LIKE THAT!" Her voice is loud and reverberating, and I feel for one minute a pulse of admiration, of gratitude that someone in the world is ready to so instinctively spring to my defense.
The old lady turns her spitting face towards my mother and continues to scream. "You SL UTTY little girl!! What are you, SIXTEEN?"
What I am wearing does not need explanation, just as anyone who is harassed or abused should not have to explain what they wear, because women should be allowed to wear whatever they want without comment. What's worth mentioning about my outfit, however, is that it is brand new, purchased the day before specifically for my brother in law's defense. I put it on at the store- pinstriped editor pants and a lose, ribboned shirt, and spun in a pleased circle in front of the mirror. My mother and Angela, the store owner, told me how unusual and pretty it was on me. That was yesterday, when I lived in a nice, soft place, before I was identified as a child slut.
My mother is still screaming her head off at the preacher woman, and the preacher is screaming back. "ARE YOU HER MOTHER?" She demands, incredulous, and my mother screams "NONE OF YOUR GOD DAMNED BUSINESS!" And the woman screams "WELL I HOPE YOU'RE NOT ANYBODY'S MOTHER WITH A MOUTH LIKE THAT!"
At this point, my vision narrows. My world shrinks until it becomes just me, my mother, the maniac, and the boys in their houses jerking off to me. No one had ever, ever said something insulting about my mother in my presence. Why would they? All of a sudden, as they say, it gets personal.
"DON'T YOU DARE SPEAK TO HER LIKE THAT" I yell, heart beating, arms waving. There are people watching silently on the sidelines. I don't care- I want to grind this woman into the pavement. It's my sister who has the sense to start herding us away, gently pushing my mother and I towards the staircase that leads us out of Red Square even as she fires off a litany of her own over her shoulder. When it comes to swearing, my sister is a star.
Once we reach South Campus, It's very quiet. I can hear my heals clicking on the ground. I point to a building on our right and manage "....and this is where I had my astronomy class."
The officer who meets me outside the lab has me repeat every word the lunatic screamed. Then he says, "So, it's safe to say she was pretty impolite to you."
I bite my lip. "I'd say she was a bit more than impolite." I remind myself to stand up straight, uncross my ankles, stop leaning to the side, look him straight in the eye.
"My partner is up there right now, and he sees a woman matching your description and she's wearing green. Was your woman wearing any green?
I can't remember now if the woman was wearing green. I say, "No, she was all in white." Then I say, "Well, maybe there was some green."
The police man tells me I need to tell him exactly what she was wearing, and I tell him I guess I can't remember exactly, and he seems fed up. He asks if the woman threatened to harm me, and I say not exactly, he asks if she said any hate language to me and I say, "well she said sexual language to me," and he says "that's not hate language." Did she prevent me from leaving the scene? No. Did she point at you? Yes, she pointed at me. Was that all she did?
Then he asks me if she publicly humiliated me. I answer honestly that yes, I suppose she did, although I didn't feel humiliated. I told him I don't want her to be able to do that to somebody else and couldn't he do something?
He can't do anything. "There's no crime here," he says, shrugging his shoulders. "Her freedom of speech is well protected. This is a liberal state. My partner can say something to her- tell her that with free speech comes responsibility. That's all we can do."
Well, that will really resonate with her, I'm sure.
He takes off and I'm left standing next to a steam vent, my back against the brick wall. And for a moment, I see it. A tiny, tiny piece of a broken world, where help is buried beneath miles and miles of bureaucracy, where fear and shame and helplessness become a thick chord tied around your stomach. For just one second I feel a glimmer of recognition with the people whose terrible stories you read about in the newspaper- and then it is gone, and I walk back up the stairs to the celebration, back to my soothing, easy life.