LJ and G and I were talking about vulnerability; how did feeling or being vulnerable inform our beliefs about ourselves and our ability to be autonomous in the world. I was trying to describe my first memory of being vulnerable because I was female.
It was 1963 and I was twelve. I walked to and from school every day along a series of sidewalks that were a straight shot to my apartment building. The lengths of sidewalk ended at my building in a dead end.
It was fall; the neighborhood was park-like with many large old oak and maple trees lining the sidewalks. The leaves had been falling, but there were still many golden and red ones on the branches high over my head; they made a muted scratching sound in the light breeze. It was misty that day; a fog had settled down as I walked home. It wasn’t too thick, just foggy enough to be wonderful to a near adolescent romantic.
I was very happy that day. This was not a usual occurrence for me. I was not popular in school, but seen as a sort of freak. I was teased and laughed at for appearing to be unsophisticated, and indeed I was. I did not know much about how to navigate the world. Since this was a fairly small neighborhood elementary school, my reputation followed me to the sixth grade. One of the things that was known about me was that I did not know how to tie my sneakers in the third grade without making two separate loops and crossing them together. I was not very coordinated and was picked last, if at all, for any sports. I made friends with the other weirdoes, and that was the absolute clincher. So, being happy that day was not in direct relation to anything that happened that day in school.
It was the sweater.
All the girls in my class that fall were wearing mohair sweaters. The sweaters had a large round neck and three quarter sleeves; one wore a turtle neck underneath. This was the costume, along with a short pencil skirt (mine not as short as they were allowed; all of them could wear anything shorter than I, which also contributed to my freak status) white crew socks twirled so that the ribbing made a vortex design around each sock, and black ankle boots. I was not thin as a child, or ever, except for the years as a speed freak, so a pencil skirt was not very becoming for me. I also had bigger breasts than my peers (more freakishness) at that time, and my mother, along with rejecting any of my stabs at being like the others, disallowed a bra with the declaration that I was too young. Big ass, bouncing breasts…freak.
I don’t know how or why it happened, but that previous evening my mother presented me with a Kelly green mohair sweater, just like the ones the other girls had. I was beside myself. It did not matter that my skirt made me look fat, or that I didn’t have the boots, but dirty white sneakers. I had the sweater and a turtleneck and I pulled it on that morning with pride.
The day went well in school. I was complimented on my sweater and almost treated like a peer. I had to stay late that day for some infraction, but I don’t remember what it was. I didn’t care, it had been a day made distinctive by finally fitting in.
I walked home alone. There was not much traffic in that neighborhood most times and no one was out walking that day. The day was hushed and misty, like something out of Jane Eyre. I was so happy to have the walk to myself, no teasing boys remarking on my body. I hugged my books to my chest and closed my eyes tilting my face to the sky catching the slight water droplets there.
As I brought my face down and opened my eyes I saw him. A man was two sidewalks ahead of me walking toward me. He walked with his hands in his pockets, had what seemed like some type of bomber jacket on, and a pompadour hairstyle. I was staring and I realized it, so I quickly lowered my eyes. I didn’t think he saw me but I didn’t want to be rude. I raised my head and noticed that now he was walking away from me; in the same direction, along the same path, but now in the opposite direction. He was also continuously looking over his shoulder at me. I saw his profile and I knew he was gauging my progress, keeping track of me.
I knew I was in trouble. I continued to walk. I looked around; not a car, bicycle or person walking. Now the mist made me chilled even though I was sweating, my lovely mohair sweater had become a horror of itching, and my breasts seemed to jump out from my body larger than ever. I no longer felt happy, or pretty, or free.
I kept watching as he kept watching. Finally, I neared the block of my building and the dead end. He was standing with his back to me on the corner. He knew I had to come to him now. There was a ramp to the basement on my left and I could catch the elevator there—maybe. My mother told me all the time, never go in that basement, always come to the front of the building. Don’t go in the basement.
I ran for the basement as fast as I could. I rang for the elevator and threw myself into it as the doors began to close and his hands tried to reach to stop them. I saw his dirty fingernails as the doors closed.
I never told anyone because nothing really happened. I took off the Kelly green mohair sweater, rolled it into a ball and stuffed it into the back of my closet on the floor. I never wore it again, and oddly my mother never asked about it.
A month later Kennedy was killed, the world was not the same place even for the adults, and I made a new friend. She was also a freak, but she didn’t care, and I felt saved.
A year later I was raped by her brother’s best friend.
I don’t know how to be vulnerable in the way most of the women I know talk about. I don’t think they do either. All of our experiences are not the same; some of us were violated emotionally, some physically, most of us endured a combination of many incidents of infringement on our selves, our private spaces.
I don’t know. I just know that despite all I have learned about myself and living, I still see men as I did in my earliest experiences. I would like to bring down the wall, but being vulnerable means I can be hurt. I don’t mean hurt like I will cry I mean hurt like I will be damaged. The thing is: I already am.