When I was first married, I lived in a laundromat.
I say it that way because the apartment was actually IN the building of the laundromat, but I wasn’t sleeping on washing machines at night. During my short time there, I encountered a man who used the bathroom sink every morning to bathe and then spent the day getting high on tire adhesive to the hum of machines and the tinny radio.
I met a skinhead Nazi on a BMX bike and a gang of 13-year-olds who figured out how to melt the hinges off the gumball machine with a lighter. They nearly pulled off the biggest gumball heist of Utah County history…nearly.
I assisted the landlord in covertly evicting a man who lived in his other laundromat and had constructed a giant cross from the casings of washing machines in the parking lot to advertise his church of Heavenly Mother. It stood five washers high and three across and was featured on the local news.
All of this was going on while I was diagnosed and treated with gnarly surgeries and flattening meds for a rare cancer. I bring all this up because I learned, as a young adult, that the world is a strange place.
I considered how the glue sniffer and I would get ready for the day together with only a thin wall separating our bathrooms ,while my husband was already gone to work. I wondered if he noticed too—if he knew I was alone.
I was brought up with traditional principles of modesty. That a man’s job was to “control his thoughts” and a woman’s job was to “protect her virtue” by covering her body. And I get where that tradition comes from. A woman’s naked body incites violence. Hell–even a woman’s clothed body will do that. And what does this say of men? They are completely vulnerable to their sexual desires, even to the point of violence?
The shadow that’s cast from this paradigm is much larger than the actual physical acts that result. There is a cost.
Here’s the kind of experience I waited 37 years to have because of the way we are conditioned about violence against women. (A phrase that completely fails to mention the men who perpetrate these crimes.) My hope in sharing it is that it will illustrate what women lose in a culture of violence. It’s much more than virtue.
Last Fall my mom and dad came for a visit. I was planning to hike Half Dome, but then most of California caught fire and the air quality became so poor that they closed Yosemite National Park. And this didn’t even feel like an injustice because the thought of doing that 16 mile hike in one day, on a clear day, felt a little menacing, not to mention doing it through a cloud of ash. So the trip was cancelled.
Mom and dad offered to watch R overnight to give me a night to myself and I booked a hotel room near the beach in Del Mar. I took myself through the shops along the 101 in Encinitas. I checked in, walked down the street and had a nice three course dinner by myself. Then walked back to the hotel to relax.
After a couple of hours, I became restless. I decided to walk down to the beach. I was familiar with this part of the bluff because I’ve hiked it so many times, just north from Torrey Pines. There was a path from the hotel parking lot into the adjacent neighborhood. I followed it down through a street or two until I was on the railroad tracks atop the bluff overlooking the ocean.
The whitewash reflected only the starlight on this moonless night. It danced so irresistibly, I had to go meet it.
Because I didn’t have a light, I stayed on the tracks that gradually descended to the level of Powerhouse Beach. This beach is appointed with a spotlight that shines like a medical examiner’s lamp into the folds of the water. In this light, what is sexy and mysterious becomes naked and loud.
I turned away from the light into the darkness to the south and the bluff rose up beside me as I walked. By this time the marine layer had begun to settle in against the sandy wall. The air was thick and cool.
My thoughts kept me company as I walked. I passed a few couples holding hands, making their way back to the lighted beach. There was the occasional fisherman with a line cast into the working sea. I walked on more deeply into the darkness.
At the beginning of my walk I considered my safety, as almost any woman would, walking alone at night. I’ve become used to nighttime walks around my neighborhood. But this place was unfamiliar and I started to calculate, the farther I walked, how unlikely it would be for someone to hear me yell if I was attacked. So for several minutes this debate played out: keep going or turn back?
Then I realized that this back and forth was ruining my walk. So I stopped myself and then this very distinctive thought appeared like a light: What if I decided I was safe?
I wondered, What if that was true? I don’t have a weapon. If someone does attack me, worrying about it won’t protect me. And I could turn around and go back but the idea of missing this beautiful night because I am afraid that some stranger is lurking in the darkness waiting to rape or maim or kill me—look at what I’m giving up for that fear.
I kept walking. The thought became more delicious to me. What if I was safe?! Like what if I was safe in all of the other parts of my life. What if I didn’t have to be afraid of court and my ex-husband and spending too much money and performing poorly at work and people stealing my stuff and fires and package thefts? What if I was safe from all of that?
It was like a giant switch flipped inside me. I can just decide right here and now that I AM SAFE.
I took every piece of clothing off my body, placed them on a rock against the bluff and walked out into the black ocean. In the darkness the waves felt effervescent against my skin, like the sea, itself, was toasting me, Be free.
I WAS safe.
That night nothing happened. And now I keep wondering, how much of my mind is going to protecting myself from unseen things that actually aren’t even there? How much of the collective female mind is dedicated to protecting ourselves from violence on a daily basis? How much wasted energy? How much time? How much heartache?
I’m not saying women need to stop worrying. It made sense to worry about the glue sniffer on the other side of the wall. Most people are harmless but there are ill-doers out there, seen and unseen.
I’m just dreaming of something better. A world where we are free to focus on starlight and being and breathing and the effervescent waves.