BY: Jackie Pick
I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to go to the Women’s March. My rage doesn’t burn — and I think it’s supposed to. My story is a nesting doll of small indignities and capitulations, populated with tiny monsters that scatter in the daylight. I’ve packed away transgressions into a small, icy sepulcher in my memory. Marches seem like something other people do, people whose rage runs red hot, people who’ve survived more, worse, or bigger.
I grab the three pink pussy hats a friend of mine had knit and asked me to distribute in her absence, and I stuff them in a Ziploc bag. My ride to the train station arrives, and I jump in the car, my feet girded by the black Doc Martens that make me feel tough, before I can convince myself this is a bad idea.
I had a piece of plywood I wedged into the track of the cheap sliding glass doors of my ground-floor apartment. Most days, my second-floor neighbor sat in a folding beach chair on his small deck, listening to the country music station on the outsized stereo speakers he ran out from his apartment. He’d sit and watch people come and go from the parking lot. He flicked cigarettes and empty beer cans onto the ground near me as I went by.
He asked where I worked and what I did as I lugged my briefcase to and from the car. He asked what was for dinner when I carried groceries into the house. He asked why I had so many groceries. He asked if I was making dinner for my boyfriend. He asked if I had a boyfriend. He asked why I was so early or so late that day. He laughed when I reacted and he laughed when I didn’t react, a laugh that made my skin pull in tight.
I tried to vary my schedule, but he was always on his porch and always ready to probe and punctuate our encounters with a small rainstorm of Marlboros and Coors. He had done nothing other than toss things in my direction and laugh and ask questions.
It was worst at night if I came home after nine.
“Where’ve you been? On a date? You’re not usually out this late on a weeknight. You’re usually home by six.” I pulled out my phone and pretended to dial a number as I walked to my front door.
I was uncomfortable with him and uncomfortable with my discomfort. What was the problem, really? He probably was just messing with me. Maybe I was paranoid and humorless. Maybe he just needed me to be nicer. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so scared and just engaged him in conversation. Still, I kept the blinds drawn and the plywood lodged in the sliding door track.
“You’re not very friendly,” he said, an empty can whizzing past my head. “Bitch.”
I was 22.
The wooden benches in this train station hold only a handful of marchers this Saturday morning. Hopefully, this is not an omen—a small march will feel like surrender. I hope that all of us get over our collective election anxiety, fight the urge to cancel, and show up.
I didn’t bring a sign. I’ve carried a lot in the last few years and I don’t mean symbolically. Babies, bags, books. And burdens, I suppose. They all make my arms and body ache. These are my inane thoughts and I wish the tiny coffee shop in this tiny train station were open. I’m tired. That’s the burden of womanhood. We’re tired. We don’t get to rest much.
One bench over, two women discuss their strategic wardrobe choices based on the marching they had done forty years ago. Layers. Fanny packs. One of them quickly eyes my heavy boots as she wiggles her toes in her sneakers.
We board the train, carefully avoiding the corners of the homemade posters jutting out into the narrow aisle. The cars are reassuringly crowded and will overflow by the time we arrive in Chicago. The train is loud, but not uncomfortably so. It’s all chatter, overflowing and warm. Conversations bob and weave and skitter around like squirrels, avoiding direct mention of the purpose of what we’re doing today.
My first kiss occurred freshman year in high school, taken as payment for a ride home from an upperclassman. He was fast to lock the car doors and fast to scoot over. This transaction with its unwelcome probing tongue would forever be my first kiss.
Still, I thanked the boy for the ride because I needed him to unlock the car door.
I ran that story by the graduate school professor who’d assigned “Write about your first kiss.” His brow furrowed, and he suggested I try the other option, “Write about a milestone in your life.” I wrote about getting my first bra. During class, the professor dismissed my piece as “whimsical.” After class, he called me into his office, a small chilly space suffocated by ragged piles of books and towers of papers teetering on the edge of every surface. He recommended significant rewrites to the essay, especially for the men in the class who couldn’t relate to this topic. He made it clear, carefully, that if I didn’t want to change the piece, we could explore other options which perhaps I’d like him to explain, at, say, a coffee shop or his apartment. I defaulted to sassy and funny, deliberately hearing his words as a joke to give both of us a way out. I made every single change to the essay he recommended and skipped office hours for the rest of the term.
I was 24.
The willing, giggling, joyful squishing to make room for as many women as possible warms the train. There is laughter across the seats, across the aisle, grandmothers to daughters to grandchildren. So many of us have a strange expression on our faces, a weird concoction of joy smeared over unexpressed rage.
My daughter’s fat, beautiful curls tumble down her back. The whorls are magnets. More than once I’ve stepped in to keep people—almost always men—from touching them. Someone’s friendly grandpa, the bagger at the grocery store, a boy at school. When I become my daughter’s barricade, these men or boys or their mothers blink at me and tell me, oh so patiently, that they only had the best intentions, they meant nothing by it, she’s so pretty, what’s the big deal. I take on the full weight of another rejected man instead of it being heaped on my daughter.
These men, I’m told, are too old to change or too young to understand. As I don’t know the exact moment in time men can accept that any touching of my daughter is by invitation only, I err on the side of caution and roar it to all of them. Full-throated and incurious. I can rage under a maternal sigil.
My daughter brushes her hair furiously several times a day to straighten it. Without pointing it out to her, I have let my hair go naturally crazy curly-whirly. She seems unimpressed by my gesture of untamed sisterhood, especially when people reach out to touch my hair.
She is 6.
With every new passenger carrying bags, signs, or children, the train expands like something magical. There is room. We make space. There is only one man on the train, older, magnificent, confident. I catch myself mentally praising him for not taking up more space or air than anyone else. For being equal.
My son clambered into our car after school, grousing he’s not “sportsy,” the word acrid in his mouth. Eventually, the details tumbled out. At recess, a boy had pegged my son with a rubber playground ball and said, “You’re out, you little bitch,” to a chorus of laughter from classmates. The boy delivered this burn in a sing-song; my son retold it in a monotone, his ears reddening as they likely had during the second inning of a kickball game everyone but he will soon forget.
Clumsy and sensitive to the narrow edges of his own competence, my son gets entangled in rules and his own feet. He keenly suffers the consequences of his missed plays and overwrought arguments with classmates about fairness and boundaries. He is aware down to the cellular level what they called him.
“Did you tell a teacher?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.
“No.” His voice is ice.
He knows the system is rigged against the small, the different, and the bitches with their never-ending complaints. He’d done the sticks-and-stones calculations.
When we got home, he asked me not to say anything to anyone about it, then left the room to devour a dystopian book where disaffected teens in futuristic combat gear save an unjust, cruel world by breaking things apart in the light of day.
He is 10.
On the way to Grant Park, throngs of us stop at cafes to get coffee. There are long lines for the restrooms because some things never change, even in a cultural movement. Three women behind me in line voice regret that they don’t know how to knit because they want hats. I give them the ones I’ve been carrying. We take a picture to send to my knitting friend. We put away our phones, grab our coffees and shout, “To the March!” Everyone in this cafe whoops in giddy response, even whoever is in the tiny bathroom probably cracking her elbows in the walls like I did when I tried to move around in there.
It was always in cramped arenas: supply closets, front seats, offices, folds of theater curtains, and classrooms. Too many men cornered me and sloppily mashed their unwelcome lips on mine, taking the no from my mouth, their fingers clamping in my hair to adjust my face to angles that worked better for them. Taking my shock as a yes. Taking my hands on their shoulders as drawing in rather than pushing them away. Taking my fear as permission. Taking my being alone as an invitation. Taking my youth as the reason they couldn’t control themselves. Taking the risk. Taking for granted we do the calculations.
They took as much as they dared, as much as they thought I owed them for the prize of their attention. I’d won, they’d imply. I’d won their affection, their attention, their heart, their inability to control themselves. My prizes were self-imposed silence and avoidance if I wished to continue.
After all these years, they run together, these men, their faces, their hands. Old, young, angular, jowled, all somehow cloyingly tentative under their brazenness. They ask as they grab as though asking matters.
I distracted myself with doing near-perfect work, because maybe if I were perfect (or nearly so), the success would be all mine, entirely divorced from sloppy lips and sausage fingers. Perfection meant my job would be safe.
I was 25. I was 40. I was 32. I was 14.
I was paying my dues.
Hundreds of thousands of us make our way to Grant Park. My feet ache. This one is my own damned fault, unlike the time when a radiologist told me that “maybe if you ladies stopped wearing high heels you wouldn’t get neuromas.” I needed to go through him to get approved for foot surgery, so I didn’t tell him that my neuroma was a pregnancy complication. I don’t think he’d really care anyway.
We pack the park and spill over. We overflow. Several thousand of us wave to the news helicopters flying overhead.
Everyone is telling her story to one another or in small groups or on a platform into a microphone. Stories of opportunity, access, health care, poverty, child care, racism, prejudice, freedom, rights, advocacy, representation, and reform.
Stories from women who’ve been sharing their stories for years and generations and not enough of us have been listening.
Stories so mighty that they refuse to curve gently around anyone else’s discomfort.
I catch some of the quieter stories murmured in the crowd. These stories, like mine, are populated with little monsters that hide in small spaces and don’t always scatter in the daylight. These monsters didn’t appear in 2016; they’ve lived for ages. We’ve only now stopped locking them away out of fear they are hysterical, ugly, or loud.
They are our stories.
We are timeless.
Jackie Pick is a former teacher and current writer living in the Chicago area. She is a contributing author to several anthologies, including Multiples Illuminated, Nevertheless We Persisted, So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood, Here in the Middle, as well as the literary magazines The Sun and Selfish. Her essays have won commendations from the Mark Twain House and Museum Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Competition and the WOW! Women on Writing Nonfiction Essay Contest. Jackie is a contributor at Humor Outcasts, and her work has been featured on various online sites including Mamalode, The HerStories Project, and Scary Mommy. A graduate of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, Jackie co-created and co-wrote the award-winning short film Fixed Up, and was a member of the 2017 Chicago cast of Listen To Your Mother. She can be found on Twitter: @jackiepick or her website, jackiepickauthor.com.