The other day I was at a natural history museum sitting with a paleontologist, a dear friend of many years. We were talking about the situation between women and men. I had recently written about her research on dire wolves. We’d gone back and forth on the page, her asking me to take out this and that because, as she told me, it is difficult to be a woman in science where every little thing about her is under a microscope. If they could find something odd about her, an anomaly, they would use it against her far more swiftly than with any man. I deleted what she asked. It was my job to convey her work, and protect her personal vulnerabilities as a scientist.
Sitting at a table across from us eating her lunch was a woman. She was pretty, to me. She wore a K-T Boundary T-shirt, the scientific implication making her even more alluring.
I saw her skeleton, her organs, her cells. I’d do this with anyone, out of habit. I think of people as organic, biological. I saw tiny blue sparks under her skull, memories and reactions between synapses.
But there, in the midst of a conversation with my friend about men and women and how hard it is in science and everywhere else, I found the woman sitting alone at her lunch attractive.
Now I was the skeleton, the bloodstream, the animal. I did not ogle, but I glanced for half seconds while talking with my friend. I noticed the woman’s hair, her eyes.
In the back of my mind I thought if she were a butterfly and I were one, too, I would be drawn to the ringlets of fugitive colors in her wings, the eyespots opening and closing. The hexagons of my eyes were designed to hone in on such things. If we were birds, I would be caught by the iridescence of her feathers. How to behave after that is my decision.
I have been used, touched in ways I did not want, looked at in ways that scared me. By men, and only men, though I know either gender is capable. When I was 14 and making money cleaning houses, a man sat on his couch and watched me dust the tops of his drapes. He told me he liked looking at me. He left pornography on his nightstand. When I cleaned his kitchen, I rolled up one of his paring knives in my shirt. He drove me home that night and told me what he wanted to do with me, how he wanted to unzip my pants. I unrolled the knife and held it in the dark of his car. He dropped me off and nothing else happened. I never cleaned houses again.
The boundaries between us can become thin, permeable, and sometimes they are ripped to the ground. I do not know what it is like to be a woman watched by a man. I do not know what it is like to hold my own doing everything he does only backwards and in heels.
Here I sat aware of the filigree of the woman’s colors, touched by a sensation so old, so native to sexual creatures, and so potentially dangerous that I scarcely know where to put it. The man I cleaned house for put it in my face. As my employer for that day, he took power over me, claimed his urges as superior. There was no balance between us. At the time I thought it was an anomaly, another odd experience in life. Now I shudder. What if my sons experienced the same? I would want to know. I would bring a knife, or give one to them.
The scale of damage to women and to men — because we are in this together — is thorough. The hashtag #MeToo is proof enough. What we do next as men, as watchers, as voices and hands, must be measured for the sake of sons and daughters and everything we might become.
The woman at the other table finished her lunch, neatly packed everything up, and departed. I stole one more glance, seeing her go.
I hoped she hadn’t noticed, that my glances were unobtrusive, but I didn’t know her. The flashes in her mind were a mystery. Maybe she saw anyone who noticed her, like she had eyes in her skin, like something terrible had happened to her in her past. Numbers don’t lie, something probably did. In the half hour we were in the same room, I’d seen her for a few seconds and no more, enough to wonder if I should have looked at all. Conversation with my friend never had to miss a beat, and when we said goodbye we embraced, holding each others flesh and bones, making things better and worse by degrees.
Photo by Craig Childs of a Red-spotted Admiral (aka Red-spotted Purple), Limenitis arthemis, emerging from its chrysalis along the Gila River, New Mexico