From the age of about twelve or thirteen, it became customary for me to receive attention from men that I did not know. Most often in the form of whistles or exclamations from across the street like, “Hey, beautiful! Where have you been all my life!”
This phenomenon almost always occurred out-of-doors and was almost always initiated by a group of men engaged in some semblance of work. I came to expect it. Especially when walking anywhere alone. To look forward to it.
It wasn’t until decades later that I heard complaints from women in the media about how degrading it is to be leered and whistled at this way. But I relished the male gaze, as it came to be known. I would even turn and smile, especially if I eyeballed a younger construction laborer or auto shop mechanic I found attractive. The reciprocation really got them going.
I was always warned not to talk to strange men. But this was different. We weren’t talking, although we were communicating–in the most basic way. It was, I believed, simply a form of appreciation. After years of harboring silent crushes on boys at school, waiting for them to notice me and most often to no avail, it was an illuminating discovery– this shared language of desire.
Occasionally there would be the singular guy who would capture my interest. There was a small butcher shop down the road that kept its big plate glass double doors wide open in the summertime. I was allowed to wear short-shorts when the weather was hot and sprayed lemon juice in my hair to make it looked sun-kissed.
I smile and say hello to the man standing alone at the counter wearing a paper hat, as I pass by the shop. I can tell by the way he is still gazing at me when I turn and look behind–that he likes me “that” way. This confirmation gives me a thrill.
The game goes on like this all summer until the day when he calls out to me. Invites me into his store. My heart skips a beat. I know this is a step beyond our casual flirtation. No one ever told me so. It’s something I intuit.
I know I have no business being here but I am flattered, so I enter the cool store, my flip-flops scraping against the unfinished concrete floor. To meet this man with the boyish face and the chestnut hair curling up from under the edges of his bleach-white butcher’s cap. I smell the old, coagulated blood and see up close now, the rusty-red smears on his apron.
He offers me a soda from the case, but even I know not to accept gifts of any kind from strangers. After my mother’s regular recitations of the horror stories about kidnapped children. But this is different. I am no longer a child. I sense I have something valuable that he very much wants. This new feeling of power is exhilarating.
He tells me how beautiful he thinks I am. Asks me my name. He says he wants to take me for a ride in his new car. He seems disappointed when I tell him how young I am.
“I thought you were at least eighteen!” He shakes his head with an amused smile. “By the way you swing those hips when you walk by. That’s going to get you into trouble one day…” he warns.
I’ve been told I act mature for my age, that the way I carry myself seems a little world-wise and precocious for my years. I see it as an advantage.
A year later there is the shy blonde guy from the tire shop who reminds me of Tommy Shaw. All his buddies know he is the one out of their bunch that I like. I walk my bike past the open garage on my way to my after-school job. After much ribbing and cajoling by the other guys, he finally asks me out.
I don’t tell him I am only fourteen when I let him take me for a drive in his pale blue Pinto after dinner at The Mandarin. Or when he unzips in the deserted parking lot of the Science Museum long after closing time. Or when the officer taps on the car window with the butt end of his flashlight.
He never asks.