Then again, louder. “Wheeeeht–whoo.”
“Lookit that piece.”
I heard a guffaw from across the street.
Then a different voice: “Be-yoo-ti-full.”
Next came a deeper tone. Aggressive. “How are you today, sweetheart?”
The sidewalk was hot and it scraped the bottom of my wet feet. I had just switched to a tippy-toed scamper. I was leaving a trail of dark wet splotches. Water dripped from my waist long hair. I usually had it wrenched up into a messy ponytail.
The block was long, the distance of an entire high school. My mom had sent me back to the car, from the community pool, to pick up her sunglasses. I remember that the wide straps on my blue one-piece were losing their elastic. It was a basic cut. No flair. No nonsense. This was at least the third summer I had stretched it onto my body.
I turned and stared across the street. I saw a dozen men in yellow hard hats lolling around sawhorses.
They can’t be talking to me?
But there was that deep voice again. This time louder. Stern.
“I said, how are you?”
In my memory, he’s sun-hardened and muscular. That sounds attractive, but it wasn’t. I felt suddenly naked. In myths about shame, that’s how fast it happens. That’s how quickly Adam and Eve go from carefree to careful after God shouts down about the apple.
This new unsteady awareness swept through me just as fast as the loud man’s smile. By the time his cheeks were touching his crow’s feet, I was fully ashamed. My bathing suit, my wet hair and my bare feet all felt enormously wrong. I wasn’t quite sure what the men wanted, I just knew that I had summoned it. That my body had summoned it.
Except for a few weird events in early childhood (one involving a naked uncle and a bathtub, another, a seven year old Lothario who insisted that I be his “lover”–I was six and against it,) I had pretty much been left alone by boys and men. Until I began to sprout tits.
Tits. Always hated that word. So crude. But it describes how I felt about them. Not breasts. Men.
And their thoughts about “titties.” Their secrets. Their giggles. My mom didn’t take me bra-shopping until late in the next year. But there may have been hints that summer.
If there were, I was oblivious even in that bright, confusing, sun-shocked moment. I was fifteen years away from falling in love with the novel Lolita. I had no clear understanding of the lust some grown men have for little girls.
On hot summer days, my mother would pack me and my brother and a passel of my cousins into her hatchback, take us to the public pool. She would spread a blanket and lie back with a sunhat over her face. I’m not sure how she could relax so near a pool of yapping children.
Once in the water, I propelled to the grate on the floor of the deep end. Stuck my fingers into the dark. Then twisted to let my feet touch the scratchy concrete floor. Next, I burst through surface and sucked in the hot air. At times I would somersault, becoming the letter O, turning round and round before I ran out of breath.
And then my mom called me over. And sent me on my errand. No bigs.
Now all the men gazed upon me. I was struck mute. Still dripping. I turned, put chin to chest and hurried around the block to the car. I grabbed the sunglasses out of the driver’s seat and paused.
Now what? I can’t go back that way.
I glanced down the street in the opposite direction. It ran the full length of the front of the high school, at least three blocks. If I walked around the other way I would have to pass the football field, the track. It was a distance.
Could I cut across one of the fields to make my way back to the pool? Did a fence surround the grounds on that side? Would my mom start to worry?
Finally, I just decided to walk back the same way I came. Keep my eyes down. Move as fast as possible.
My heart was hopping under my sternum.
And of course, they saw me. And it started up.
Worse because I was feigning deafness. And if I was going to pretend I couldn’t hear, then they would say things that could not be unheard.
When they mentioned my “ass,” I wanted to reach my fingers back and pull the edges of my suit more securely over my bottom. But I knew that would just make it worse.
I was eleven.
Most women have a story like this from girlhood. And each of these stories has some listener who would scold, “why the hell were you prancing around in a wet bathing suit? What did you expect?” That’s the voice I heard.
We girls are young once we realize our world is a sexual menagerie, of which grown men are the keepers of the keys. A world where any female, no matter her age, can arouse sexual interest, if not ferocity, in men. Just by being her regular self.
My story just happens to involve the construction worker cliché.
Looking back, I can never figure out the way that I would have avoided it. Any of it. Or what my life would have been like, if, on a daily basis, I wore loose clothing and walked the long way back to every pool?
I post this excerpt from my memoir-in-progress in solidarity with other women and the hashtag #FirstTimeIWasCatcalled.