What’s the line between a compliment and an unwelcome invasion of privacy?
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I got catcalled for the first time when I was 9 or 10 years old.
Some childhood memories are vague for me, and when they suddenly spring to mind it’s nostalgic and sweet and nice. The smell of salt water, a certain breeze in the air, the crunch of fall leaves and other sensory experiences can trigger a general feeling, a gallery of patchwork memories. This day, though, this day when I was 9 or 10? I remember it like a scene from a film, clear and vivid. I was in the front yard of my childhood home, playing with the neighbor’s cat, who was an adorable little affection-seeker and would just let all the neighborhood kids pet her for hours. It was a warm day, very clear and sunny. My mother’s gardens were in bloom, the grass was a bright shining green, and I was barefoot, kneeling in the grass in gym shorts and a Peace Frog t-shirt, as the cat stretched out ecstatically for a belly rub. I could hear a distant bustle from the harbor down the block, but otherwise the neighborhood was quiet, and peaceful. I almost wish I was making this up, but no: it really was almost absurdly idyllic.
And then I heard a wolf-whistle, and I looked up to see a car with maybe four or five grown men in it rounded the corner, and several men’s voices hurled comments at me. “Hey baby!” “Woohoo, looking good!” “Hey sweet thing!” “Damn, those are some fine legs!” The car peeled off down the street and disappeared. I was spooked and felt sick to my stomach. My face felt hot and flushed. I seized the cat (the cat will protect you!) and dashed behind the house to sit in the backyard and calm down, terrified that the car was going to circle the block and come back for me to . . . do something. I didn’t know what, but the experience seriously rattled me. I told no one what had happened.
I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what I, a little girl, had done wrong. Why were these grown men interested in me? Why did they yell at me? Had I been behaving badly? What had I done to attract their attention? I determined that no, I hadn’t actually done anything. Well, anything except take my rapidly developing body outside to play.
It must have been me. Not my actions, but me.
Previously, Part I
Tomorrow, Part III