Chicago Portrait no. 53: Men Throwing Weight Around

I can’t witness a man throwing his weight around without tensing up. Even when it’s probably benign. It doesn’t matter if the guy’s actions are oblivious, and harmless. Seeing a guy consume space and attention while flinging his body about with the entitlement of a fallen demigod makes my stomach tense and sicken with an acidic feeling, like I’ve downed too many coffees without eating. There is so much throwing of weight and confidence around. Like loaded guns flung onto tables in living rooms where assaults will happen over night. Like fists in walls that you know will eventually strike faces. It’s a threat long before it connects.

As a survivor of some pretty serious assaults, I’ve learned to discern the patterns and notice the warning signs long before a hand connects with anything. I can read an aggressive posture or tone of voice from fifty paces. The problem is, I see aggression everywhere. It’s not that my red flags are false positives; it’s just that I can see the potential for harm too well, and recognize just how many people are capable of it. I can read the furrowed brows of friends, partners, children, and confirm my worst suspicious. Sometimes a bowed head is enough to know some permanent harm has been done, and will be done again. So I coil up preemptively, ready to flee or scream or burn myself from the inside with nervous bile.

Sometimes it’s just a guy pounding a counter top with his fists, whistling along to his music, shaking my laptop with each strike. Or a young man thudding the ground with his boots while he waits impatiently for his girlfriend to finish typing on her laptop. The reverberations go across the plane and shake me. It’s so inconsiderate. That’s the first thing that makes my blood pressure spike: these men don’t care about shaking the planes on which everyone else is standing. They just want to move, and strike, even when they’re relaxed, not bothered, just bored. They are constantly reminding us of their size and power, even when they’re not planning to use it. I know there is no present threat when this happens. But I know there are weapons all around me. Waiting to be used if provoked. And that is enough to make me shake.

Sometimes it’s more ambiguous. I saw a man grab his wife by the crook of the arm during the women’s march on Saturday. He dragged her into the crowd, darting around people and cutting a beeline to the train station. She was a bit limp, but mostly annoyed as she walked along behind him. He thought he was helping, that he was using his size and certainty to find them a speedy way out of the throng. But all I could do was remember the times I had been grabbed and repositioned and it felt like being killed, one limb at a time. And from the woman’s slow-footed trudge behind him, I could tell this throwing of weight was killing her in ways he’d never appreciate, too.

Often the damage is hidden by the trappings of romance. That’s when it’s the worst. A man slides across the booth and pushes his face in the neck of the woman he is with. Her eyes flare with frustration and sadness, but she makes a laughing, rebuffing sound and playfully flaps her hands at him. His arms overtake her and curl her up into her body; he starts typing at her laptop, ruining her work, and only then does she feel liberated to yell and push. Then he stops. And now he’s the one whose laughing. She fumes. He scoots away for just a moment, to give her time to undo the mess he has created on her computer, but then he’s back at her, giggling, his legs open and bent, the top of his body looming over her, demanding a kiss that is slow and tortuous. And by then I’m fully sick.

I just wanted to sit somewhere quiet and warmly lit to get some work done. To blot out the memories of all the times I’ve been hurt without being hurt. You know what I mean. The times when my soul has been snuffed out by the flick of a man’s hand; those moments when the sound of my voice in my own head was silenced by the steady thumping of a man’s feet and fists. My apartment is buzzing from the upper floors’ construction. There are men on window washer platforms danging outside my room. They can see me when I’m sleeping. One of them reached into the apartment to close my window. They mean no harm, but I am shaken.

When I leave and go to a cafe, I find a minute of peace. A sip of something that wakes me up and draws my focus. A bite to keep my blood sugar up. For a second, I am at peace. My body actually forgets its vulnerability and the tenuousness of my life.

But then I see them, the couple in the corner, with the man acting brutish and laughing at his own antics. My stomach floods with caustic unspeakable recollections. My mind is torn from my work. All I can do is watch how he harasses her, and try to determine if and when I should act. It’s not bad enough. It so rarely is. Besides, she is laughing while her eyes look furious. He’s laughing too. If I said something or stared for more than a second, he would mock me and guffaw with a braying voice that would consume too much of the room. I’d feel foolish and weak. There would be nothing I could do. And nobody would see the signs I did. Or if they did, they wouldn’t know what to do, because those signs are too numerous and common.

So I sit. And am shaken. Stealing glances at them, wishing almost for an excuse to jump in. For things to escalate. For her to say no. For the whole world to realize that men are throwing their weight on top of other people, always. For the most part, nobody steps in or says a thing. Because the pounding and hurling of weight is dull as it is resonant, and it makes up the background noise of our world.

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