jeudi, juin 29, 2006

Catcalls

The first time I went to Latin America, I was so sure I would get whistled at on the street. Not that I think I am so hot I sizzle or anything, but my previous experience in France had conditioned me to being singled out as a woman in public places. Okay, so I was more of a girl at the time. Young lady. Whatever.

But once I actually got to Santiago, Chile - nada.

I remember being really surprised and disappointed. After a few days of being totally ignored, I got pissed.

"So, like, I'm not beautiful?" I whined at my Chilean boyfriend-future-ex-husband, "This ass is not whistle-worthy?" I was practically screeching. I had my big-butt-for-a-white-girl sticking out for approval.

"Don't worry, sweetie, it's just because you are with me," he replied, affectionately patting the region in question, "They're respecting that you're taken."

"Like that ever mattered anywhere else!" I huffed, flipping my waist-length blond hair to the side. I thought at least the blond hair would get some reaction. Turns out Chile is full of blondes. Hmph.

"Trust me," he said, "we're just not all that hot-blooded. Have you heard our music? Pan flutes, for Christ's sake."

Responses like that were just one of the many reasons I loved him.

But blonde hair and lady bumps aside, I had many reasons to expect to be catcalled. Most notably, a surreal two-week venture in Lyon when I was sixteen, where I became convinced either I was the culmination of babe-a-licious, or the only female in the greater metropolitan area. I could go nowhere - and I mean nowhere - without being whistled at, propositioned, shouted at, pointed at, or leered at.

At first, I thought I was imagining things. My French was good, but maybe I had misunderstood what the guy had yelled out of his window at me that day. Surely I had gotten some words mixed up and only thought I heard the waiter ask for my phone number. I couldn't possibly have understood correctly when the fucking telephone operator asked me out for a drink.

I still have trouble wrapping my head around that one. Dude couldn't even see me.

It went something like this:

"Yes, hello," I said slowly, making sure of my pronunciation, "I would like to make a collect call to the United States, please."

"But of course, Mademoiselle," the male operator's voice said breathily, "to what number?"

I gave him my father's number. I wanted to tell him I was no longer staying at Pierre's place, and had checked myself into a hotel. (Another story for another day, that one). He was supposed to be my contact while my mother was out of town at a seminar.

"And who shall I say is calling?" he asked, a little playful edge to his voice.

"Penelope, his daughter," I replied.

"That's a lovely name," he cooed.

"Merci," I managed. I felt shy all of a sudden.

He couldn't reach my father, so he came back on line.

"I am not getting an answer, Mademoiselle, you'll have to try again later."

"Okay, thank you," I said. I was getting ready to hang up when he broke in again,

"So, you're American?" He was trying sound casual.

"Um, yes," I answered.

"You speak French well for an American. Are you calling from Paris?"

Why on earth would that matter? I thought, but said, "No, I'm calling from a booth in Lyon."

"Oh, that's too bad," he said, "I would have asked you out for a drink!"

At that, I took the phone from my ear and looked at it unbelievingly. The fucking phone operator just asked me out, I thought. I have no recollection of how I managed to end that call, but I'm sure I said something idiotic like, "Oh! Well! Eh-heh... Bye!"

But things did not end there.

I stepped out of the booth, one of those clear glass ones, and turned around to the sound of men hooting and clapping directly in front of me, all assembled at a cafe table on the sidewalk.

"Nice ass!" yelled one.

"What a view! Do that again!" said another.

I was confused, and turned back around to the phone booth. My heart sank when I realized I had been leaning against the glass while making the call, giving the entire cafe terrace a magnified, crystal clear, spread out view of my ass. As if they had been the lens on a photocopier I had decided to sit on. I ran away, blushing.

And promptly smashed my face into a metal telephone pole.

I should charge for entertainment that good.

A few days later, I was waiting on the subway platform when the subway conductor - as he pulled the train into the station - stuck out his tongue at me. But when he curled it up suggestively to mimick actually licking my lady parts, I thought I had a screw loose. I stood there, eyes bulging out, mouth opening and closing like a fish ripped out of the water.

Did he just do what I think he did? I thought. I looked around frantically to see if anyone else had seen it. I needed reassurance it wasn't my imagination. But how do you ask a total stranger in a foreign country, "Did you just see the subway conductor make like he wanted to lick my hoo ha?"

Yeah.

Besides, there were no other women around to ask.

Once I was walking down the sidewalk when a guy pulled over his car and opened the door. I froze.

"Need a lift?" he asked.

This might have been normal behavior in France-land, but to me, it screamed ohmygod serial killer I am going to die and be cut to bits and fed to the silly-looking poodles!!

I gathered my wits and began to walk away, saying, "No, thank you."

"Can I buy you a drink?" he ventured.

"No, thank you," I repeated, speeding up.

"I saw you from afar, and you're so pretty, I thought I'd try my luck."

"No, thank you, I'm fine," I repeated again, and stepped up my pace.

Would you believe me if I told you that where I ended up next, I got followed by two old men? The same day?

Well if it wasn't the same day, it was certainly not much before or after, cause Lyon, man, that place was just teeming with leery whistley oglers. I must have totally not been in the right neighborhood. So whatever day it was, I left the confines of my cheap hotel room to take a walk around. For years I could still remember the name of the street my hotel was on. It was one of those places that stay inside you. And not in a good way.

I'm casually strolling, looking in store windows, when I notice in the reflection of the glass that there are two older men right behind me, who seem to be discussing me. Or some part of my anatomy. I start walking again, this time only pretending to look in the shop windows in order to watch them behind me. A few shops later, I begin to be convinced they are following me. I decide to test them and cross the street. One of them signals goodbye to the other, and crosses the street. He continues right behind me. Great. Not so subtle, though, buddy. I'm on to you.

Suddenly, I duck down a side street, run to the first building I see, and flatten myself up against the back of it. I'm standing there in the parking lot, catching my breath, and turn my head to realize I am staring straight into the open window of a couple's bedroom. They are, thankfully, not engaged in any hanky panky, but are not fully clothed, either. It was August.

"I'm so sorry," I blurted, "but I'm hiding here because I think there is a man following me."

The man in the apartment came over to the window looking concerned.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm fine," I answered, "but if you don't mind, I'm just going to stand here for a while."

"Do you want to come inside?" he asked.

"No, I don't want to bother you," I said, trying not to look at his underwear.

"Well, we're here if you need anything," he assured me.

"Thank you, that's very kind." I turned around and looked at the parking lot. I felt rather silly just standing there trying to pretend I wasn't disturbing the half-naked couple in the apartment behind me. I almost started whistling to signify how normal this all was. Finally, I gave up and went back to the street. I took two steps and saw the man who had been following me coming towards me. I was sure he hadn't seen me, so I ducked into the apartment building's entrance and plastered myself against the wall.

Please let him just walk by, I willed. Just walk right on by, buddy.

He walked up to the entrance, and stepped inside to find me spread out against the wall like a starfish.

Suddenly, I lost all control.

"Why are you following me?" I shouted. I was angry.

He looked surprised, even offended.

"I'm not following you," he responded.

"Then why are you here?" I asked. I have no idea what I was thinking. What was I going to do? Take this middle-aged man down? I noticed he had brown stains on the front of his white undershirt. I was hoping it was tea. He looked like he drank a lot of tea. In houka bars.

"I am walking down the street," he replied, his hands spread in that what, me? way. "You have too many ideas in your head." he said. His accent was thick, but I had already heard enough.

"And you have no ideas, I suppose? That's why you followed me here? And because of your completely innocent ideas, you are standing here in front of me?" I wasn't even afraid. I was fucking pissed.

I sort of miss the sixteen year old me. She had balls.

"What do you want from me?" he said. Out of the two of us, he seemed the most scared.

"I don't want anything to do with you," I said calmly.

"I am innocent," he said, his voice rising slightly petulantly, "I just wanted to ask you to have a drink with me." He smiled sheepishly. I noticed he was missing some teeth. The ones he had were brown. Tea-stained, let's say.

I laughed. It was not a nice laugh.

"Do I look parched with thirst or something?" I was beginning to come undone. "Because the men in this fucking town keep asking me if I want a drink." I had balled my hands into fists at my side. "No," I snarled, "I. Do. Not. Want. A. Fucking. Drink. With you. Or anyone. Ever."

"You have too many ideas in your head," he repeated, as if this was going to make me change course and suddenly ask for a Black and Tan.

"I have one very good idea," I said, "and it is that you FUCK OFF." He looked genuinely shocked, and took a step backwards.

"I want you to get away from me," I said, raising my voice, "Now."

He raised his hands in defeat and backed out of the doorway and onto the street. I stayed plastered to the wall and watched him walk away. I stayed there until I was calm enough to not knock the shit out of the next man who dared to speak to me.

Then, I went calmly back to my hotel and went straight to the bar. I really needed a drink, alone. The bartender? A woman. I almost cried with relief.

Please, please just don't let her be gay.

She wasn't, and I survived that trip somehow, but I've never stepped foot in that town again. I guess I'd be afraid to be disappointed. If it turned out to be nothing like I remember. If it turned out not to be menacing, just rather banal.

If no one even bothered to say,

"Hey, sweetheart! Can I buy you a drink?"

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