Well I feel lying and waiting is a poor man’s deal
And I feel hopelessly weighed down by your eyes of steel
Well it’s a world gone crazy
Keeps woman in chains
—Tears for Fears, Woman in Chains
Men go crazy in congregations
They only get better one by one
One by one, by one
One by one
—Sting, All This Time
It’s a strange land, the modern masculine. There’s been progress but there’s always the urge to lurch backwards. Now feels like one of those moments. There’s still much that needs to change.
I don’t fit within the narrative well even though I’m all the “right” things. See: White. See: Male. See: Straight. I don’t follow Jesus though. So, maybe not ALL the right things. As I navigate, there is conflict, isolation. I’m more observer than participant. At least that’s what I tell myself.
I was raised by my mom and she taught me to respect and protect women. When I was young one of my best friends was a girl. There’s my sisters, too. I am eldest child by a decade and my mom needed help. I changed their diapers. I fed them. I helped herd them, wash their faces and hands.
Women are people. Women are family. When I lose sight of this, it’s brief. There’s too much love for me to stray far. This is not true for all men.
My mom is sitting on the toilet and we are one still, soon to be two. That’s when a man’s arm reaches through a small window that is ajar, in up to the shoulder. He is trying to touch her. Grab her? Just scare her? She screams with the lungs of a professional singer, which is powerful. I jerk inside of her.
This is the first time I witness a man wielding privilege. Of course I do not remember this. And yet I was still witness. I do remember the next.
We are at the grocery store and I’m slightly ahead, sliding my fingers along a shelf edge, wreaking pricing havoc. She lets out a gasp and I turn to see why. Her face is shock-rage but she stands still. I ask what is wrong and she stumbles for words. How is she going to tell her child that a man just grabbed her pussy? She says a man just goosed her. I don’t know what “goosed” means but it’s clear that it is a bad thing.
Then it’s when my mother and I are walking back to the motel after spending the day at Disneyland. A girl’s screams. I can see a teen-aged boy in a pool dunking a girl underwater, his teeth framed by smiling lips. She thrashes, but the pool is too deep for her to stand. A woman sits in a lounge chair watching without reaction. Their mother? The boy relents, but only for a second as the girl breaks the surface and gasps. Then she’s under again.
Mom grabs my arm and looks me right in the eye. “You keep walking up to our room. Don’t stop,” she commands, shoving our room key into my hand. I keep looking over my shoulder as I leave and stop walking before I lose sight.
“HEY, MOTHERFUCKER, STOP,” she booms and the boy visibly jerks. “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING? LEAVE HER ALONE.” The boy stops, dumbfounded. The girl pops up scream-crying and swims away to shallow water. “SHE’S TERRIFIED, ASSHOLE. SHE CAN’T BREATHE.” The girl shakes her head in agreement as she trembles and sobs.
The boy yells back, “FUCK YOU, BITCH, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”
Then it’s high school. I’m on the bus across the aisle from a semi-friend and he’s flirting with a girl seated in front of me. The bus stops. He reaches out and shoves his cupped hand between her butt cheeks, and then up, as she begins to stand. Her face is straight shock laced with confusion, hesitation. I am shocked too, but other boys laugh.
Then it’s in the car next to mine, a man driving is leaned over, punching the woman passenger in the face over and over, his face ugly with rage. Cell phones don’t exist yet and I’m getting on the freeway, they aren’t.
That’s my memory’s excuse. Maybe I just drove next to them and didn’t do a thing.
Then there are the retellings.
Like when your mother tells me that she and her sister run to their bedrooms when their father comes home from work. He is drunk and, dammit, dinner isn’t ready. Next time it will be something else. There’s always something. Then the sound of their mother’s punishment finds its way to their rooms.
Like when a lover tells me she was drugged and gang-raped when she was 16 and I am swept into the emotional devastation that holds her captive and makes her cut, makes her drink, makes her try to die, makes her lose custody of her child.
Like when my sister tells me she was drugged and gang-raped years ago by boys who are high school classmates—the same high school where one of her best friends, Michelle Montoya, is raped and then murdered by a janitor. They find her body in wood shop, her throat slashed.
Like when I’m told a talented woman I know but never met in the flesh committed suicide because she’s been violated too many times in life and can’t stop the pain.
It’s also the aching disappointment I feel when the first question a man asks about a girl I’m seeing is, “Is she fat?”
When I pull out an unusual amount of cash from my pocket and a man’s reaction is, “Man, you’re nigger-rich!”
When a married man’s phone is filled with pictures of swimsuit models that he and his married friends send each other in texts. “Check out this one,” he says.
When I hear a man say, “Fuck Black Lives Matter, they just need to go to jail. Stop breaking the law, stop resisting. Problem solved.”
When I mention that the armed white men who took over the nature preserve in Oregon are found innocent of any wrongdoing by jurors and a man says, “Good, they stood up for what they believed.”
When I hear a man say, “This shit is nigger-rigged.”
When I hear a man say, “He’s such a Jew.”
When I catch myself objectifying women—I like tits just like this, ass just like this.
When I notice subtle fear tickling up my back when black or gay men outnumber me.
When I admit I’m attracted to strong women but also fear them.
When I watch the nation elect an unabashed sexist bigot to the most powerful position in the world. Just for spite’s sake.
There’s scores more. More than memory can serve in one pondering. Even if it were possible, even if I could recall each instance clearly as I write this, the pervasive weight of it all would break me.
Here at the coffee shop, a late-aged white man just asked the barista, “Hey, how about a smile?” She doesn’t react, doesn’t even acknowledge him. “Whoa, guess not.” he says, looking at his late-aged white male friend. The friend laughs, replies, “there’s not much to look at here today. Where’s what’s-her-name, you know, the redhead?”
I stare at them and seriously consider making a scene—the kind that escalates quickly to violence, especially in this political climate. But I don’t. I settle for a cold stare but I think my distain is lost on the two. I think what they just did is lost on them.
It’s the water they swim in. It’s the water they were born in. It’s likely the water they’ll die in.
My mom would confront them. She wouldn’t hesitate. She wouldn’t consider safety first, she’d just roar. She’s beyond worldly events now, but if she were still here, her fury would be epic. So much of her life was survival and struggle. I’m glad she doesn’t have to witness the present.
The cognitive dissonance today is deafening.
I wonder what my perspective would be if my father would have been present. I wonder what my perspective would be had I not been molested by an older neighborhood boy. I wonder why, how he became that way. I wonder if I forgot some things purposely. I wonder about a man that also lived in the trailer park, the one I was introduced to by the older boy.
There are fragments of memory, suspicions. But memory is fickle, especially concerning things that don’t want to be remembered.
What did I lose? What did I gain from my childhood? Do I hold women too high? Do I hold all men accountable for the trespasses of a few? Is my heart too soft in places and too hard in others? Do I, in some twisted way, hate myself because I’m a man? There are no saints, but women have left me far fewer scars. I know this is not everyone’s truth, it’s just mine.
But historically speaking? Well, it tells its own tale. Our culture is traumatic and carves a particular wound on us, yet each outcome is unique and complex. We are all perpetrators, victims, and enablers of variable degree. Men have just led the way.
Like how I was abandoned by my father, and how now I’ve abandoned you, in a sense. Divorce causes collateral damage, son. I’m so sorry. You didn’t get to choose the consequences.
I hope I can make up for it, that I don’t lose you to resentment and rage. We need more men in this world who are gentle and kind, not brutal, their hearts bled cold by loss and the desire for control.
I love you.