Roughly 3 weeks to a month ago, I confirmed I was coming back to writing for good. At this time, all I knew was how much I wanted to start again. But I’d made a promise without paying thought to how I would keep it.
Unsurprisingly, I have not uttered a word since. It’s not laziness that’s been the issue. There simply hasn’t been anything I’ve felt strongly impulsed to talk about— at least, not for more than an hour at once. What’s more, I refuse(d) to return half-heartedly.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, as the case appears – life happens and it gives you stories to tell. Kelly Clarkson had a point when she sung “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. She ought to have followed it up with “what doesn’t kill you gives you something to write about.”
I suppose I should start at the beginning.
Last Friday night, I went out. I spent the evening dancing with friends and with strangers, and the next morning, I woke up and I went to work (writing and study aside, you’ll find me part-time at a local café).
Despite the slight hangover, I was doing okay. Thankfully, it was only to be a short shift. I felt energetic, bubbly and happy. I finished by 2pm and headed straight to Cuba Dupa (a festival celebrating culture in Wellington). I spent the evening with my boyfriend, topping homemade pizzas and watching a young Shia Lebouf dig holes to build character.
Lovely as it was, I may as well have gone out again. I woke up the next day feeling worse than on the Saturday. The tiredness had truly hit. Nonetheless, I made my way to work. As I walked in, everyone seemed delighted by good company and Sunday brunch. I spied a little buba with eyes wider than his world. He grinned my way, the sweetest smile you’ve ever seen, and his little hand began to wave.
Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. And myself, well, I was working with people I loved. I soon forgot about fatigue— granted the several filters may have helped. I became my bubbly, happy self again. As usual at work, I endeavoured to give great service and spread positive energy. I pranced around the café with a skip to my step and a smile in my eyes.
My back was turned to the counter when a 40/50 year old man sought my attention.
“Excuse me?” He said. He appeared angry, so out of instinct, I responded with a warm smile. It was busy and I presumed he wasn’t being served. I was gearing to redeem his negative pre-judgement.
“Hi, how can I help you?” I replied, elated and interested.
He took his time to answer, his face covered by both a sly smile and a deep, brewing anger. I struggled to read him, but my smile remained. Any trace of his suddenly disappeared completely.
“The rest of your skirt? Where is it?”
I stopped. I hadn’t heard him properly. Or perhaps, actually, I had. But the words hadn’t gone through.
My manager passed by me.
“Huh? Where’s the rest of your skirt?” He demanded. His eyes slapped me with disdain. Tutting, he filled the silence in which I did not reply. My face burnt red. My co-worker stood not far from me, herself taken aback by his words. I had looked over several times just to see if she had heard the same.
I turned around and I continued to work. I heard him say the line once more. I felt like Alice, but I was far from Wonderland. Very quickly, I was shrinking— and this man knew it too. Just like he knew I was obligated to provide him with service. Here I stood vulnerable to his attacks.
It is a moment such as this where you expect yourself to respond with some ballsy feminist statement. Even, to show him the door. Your respect for yourself should rise above any work obligations. But when you are so high, so happy and so ready to give, to be slandered comes as a complete shock. As if to refuse the sudden bad energy, you retaliate with… nothing at all.
It is individuals like this very man who seek high energy in order to take advantage of it. For he is not happy, it becomes his job to see that others are not also. They must instead be ridiculed, critiqued and humiliated for the bettering of his conscience. He’ll leave you feeling shattered and weak. Disappointed, even, that your shock quietened your strength and your prowess, for the single moment they were most needed.
What is perhaps worse than the incident itself comes the aftermath. You’ll convince yourself it’s okay. That it doesn’t matter, and that his words don’t hold value to you. Your co-workers will promise they have your back. Your manager, the same. They do.
And yet, three hundred words will be said, those 6 repeated ones will still triumph. They’ll linger in the air so long as your hurt heart holds onto them.
Kind words won’t make authentic that now fake smile fronting your interaction. They won’t change your self pity at having to force glee. Tears will still rise to the rims of your eyes. With gazes on you, you will beg that they are not released. Those stares are simply looking out for you. Checking that you’re okay. And yet, they will only make it harder to forget those 6 words.
And despite all this, you won’t even regret wearing your skirt. You love this skirt. You picked it up at an op-shop after a long day walking. And when you put it on in the curtain-held changing room, it made you feel good. You liked the cut. You didn’t once consider the length; it wasn’t shorter than another skirt on the rack.
You won’t feel like a slut, despite how said words have implicated you should. You won’t even feel trashy. For its not the content of those words which matter to you; you do not believe them. It is the ability of the man to criticise at all.
And I want to say just this.
That you are blind-sided, old man.
It is silly for you to believe that simply for you can see, that you can see the whole picture. You don’t know me. You don’t know the 21st century. Oh, it’s the age of provocativeness, you say? A woman is shameful for showing her body? Is that what you think?
You, sir, are all men who claim that women “ask” to be raped given their choice of clothing. And you need to learn that the only person with agency over her own body is a woman herself. If it had something to do with you, she would damn ask.
So old man, who gave you permission to judge so freely? The fact you paid $4.50 for a coffee? Well, sir, I gave you a smile and kindness for free. It is not in my contract to be nice to you. You ought to take it out of yours to be a self-righteous asshole to the likes of me.
You walked in and you spat your words on me. You spat your words near my friends. You ripped my skirt off and you made me the slut. You assumed that your words apply to me. But, old man, they don’t.
I am so much more than your words. I am the smile I turned to you with. I am the fact that I didn’t retaliate with aggression. I am the memories that brought me that skirt. I am that skirt. I am young and I am confident.
I am a woman. I am a believer in civil rights. I can wear what I want. And sir, I do not care what you believe it says about me. For I do not wear short skirts for you. Why, I don’t wear short skirts for anyone but me. How foolish of you to think I put my body on display in plead for your response?
Your opinion was not warranted. Your opinion was not necessary. And sir, your opinion is yours.
I’ve been reading a book called The Happiness Equation. It’s by Neil Pasricha and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while. On the subject of happiness, he reminds us of facets so obvious we can miss them entirely.
He recalls one particularly memorable story. And I’d like you to listen, old man. One day, Buddha came to visit a tiny village. Buddha was getting so popular that when he came, everyone went to listen to him. Other Brahmans (those at the height of Hindu priesthood) became jealous.
One of them approached Buddha, and out of envy, “insulted”, “taunted” and “berated” him. And you know what Buddha said in response?
“That which you have insulted me, who is not insulting, that which you have taunted me, who is not taunting, that which you have berated me, who is not berating, that I don’t accept from you. It’s all yours, Brahman.”
Published 01 February 2017 – Random House NZ (RRP $30.00)
I say the same to you, old man. That extra length of skirt to which you’d rather I wear. That is yours. Your harsh words and your shaming looks. These too are yours, old man. I would much prefer to speak with the sounds of my helpful voice and the look of my smiling eyes. Because when I look at it, old man, I’d much prefer to be me too.
Despite how hot my face flushed, the tears in my eyes, I’d rather be the girl in the short skirt who smiled at you. Than the old man who walked out with a coffee, having made humiliation of her.
To those reading this, I urge you to make your own pick. And to never, ever let your confidence or your rights or your happiness be taken by a man (or a woman) who lacks knowledge about all three. Not for a moment, for an hour or for a lifetime.
Much love to you and to all the damn short skirts that exist in this world. How beautiful both things are— if there’s one thing you do, please don’t forget it.
Wearing: Dress by Zara Trafuluc
Photos by Darina Mohammed