Sometimes, it’s hard to know what is your better judgement kicking in, and what is unhealthy babying of your own stick-in-the-mud proclivities.
My proclivities, stick in the mud or not, are admittedly of the couch potato-ing variety. Nothing makes me me happier than lurking in a comfy house with my most favorite snuggly person. Of course, Paris is tres loin from my own house, and I have no official snuggly person on any continent, so on a Friday night in Paris, by god, I knew I should go out and find some sort of revelry in which to partake, ESPECIALLY in the absence of the social equivalent of holey, broken-in sweatpants. I did want to get ahead of my ‘maintenance tasks’ at work before my Evil Overlord went on vacation, leaving slow-writing me to hold down the Daily News fort, but – jeez: Friday. In. Paris. ‘Get yer ass outta the house,’ I told myself.
So I did. I found a jazz bar where people made a point of dancing – sweaty, frenetic swing dancing, to be precise – not so far from my rented studio that I couldn’t walk home after the Metro closed, which was mere minutes away from occurring when I actually departed the house to go out.
I Metro-ed most of the way there, getting off at the Cluny-Sorbonne stop, and discovered my destination street packed with both people and neon lights, clearly a bit of a nightlife strip of a sort. I found my target – Caveau de la Huchette – http://www.caveaudelahuchette.fr/index2.html – and paid my ten euro entry fee to descend into the sweaty, damp undercellars of the bar.
The band was on break when I arrived, but a sold contingent of people were undeterredly shaking their groove thing (many female partners balanced overhead, acrobatically) to the canned ‘Forties bebop tunes playing in the intermission. Despite having been careful to dress conservatively, I realized pretty damn quick that I was attracting a fair amount of attention, not only in a ‘leering men’ sort of way, but because the group etiquette was such that all the ladies should be given their chance to be sweated upon –and to sweat– out on the floor while being spun dizzyingly by their newly met partners.
Realizing that my stolid demurrals may be wounding some egos, I struggled to explain in broken Franglish that I had two left feet and could be prevailed upon to dance only with my grandfather (who himself, in his newly found singlehood, probably wouldn’t even deign to bother with me at this age, anyway) and I was truly there for the specific purpose of listening to the music and watching the dancers on the floor.
This was comprehended about as well as saying ‘I hate turkey’ at Thanksgiving dinner. I was forced to repeat this lame and incomprehensible excuse over and over again, as sweaty, pudgy, but courteously lascivious men continued to ask me to dance, and then sat beside me for a halting ‘where are you from/what do you do’ conversation after my fervent refusals, finding reasons to stroke my back or knee until I pointedly took their hand and replaced it on “their” side of things, though giving it a brisk, friendly pat after being deposited to let them know there were no hard feelings.
This was repeated with Marco, a dead ringer for Big Pussy from the Sopranos – a fifty-some year old man who took pride in opening the foil pouch-enclosed perfume sample he was rubbing on himself and wafting it generously my way. “Eees niice, no?”
Then with Marco’s protege, a young and handsome man, and truly a gifted dancer; quite a peacock on the floor, and meticulously clad to look the perfectly the part in a newsboy cap, suspenders over a decoratively embroidered shirt, and baggy pleated trousers.
Then with David, a pale, middle aged balding man, who could have been Dr. Evil’s younger, not so evil (nor terribly clever) brother. I really considered sneaking out after I truthfully told David – who became very concerned about my destination when I arose – that I was just headed to the WC, but I dutifully returned to face the unwelcome man-swarm. I watched the band finish their last set, but my enjoyment was dampened by my ability easily see David staring at me steadily [creepily] out of the corner of my eye, and Marco craning his had occasionally to see if I was still there, shooting a glare every now and then at David, who had remained seated near me with a proprietary air.
As the band began to pack, I leaped up to go, attempting to make brisk goodbyes on the spot, but David insisted on escorting me out. His face fell as I made gestures to say say ‘k, thanks, g’nite!’ He motioned inquisitively to the bus stop that was, coincidentally, behind me. I nodded emphatically, wishing to be rid of him to make my peaceful way, at speed, back home and to bed, “Yes! The bus! Exactly! Bon soir!!” I stopped at the bus stop to let David head off to wherever he was headed to and continue my ruse, pausing to whip out the walking flats I’d cleverly stashed in my bag and swapping them for my slingback pumps. The Metro closed, I had intended to walk the straight shot to my studio – I planned for this very contingency, just on the off chance that a hot rich French guy did NOT, in fact, offer me a ride home in his limo, staying politely and chivalrously behind while giving me a card to call him the next day to arrange a torrid lunch meeting at the Ritz. (I mean, it pays to be prepared, right?)
Well. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
A young Arab came up to me at the bus stop and asked me something incomprehensible repeatedly, as I apologized in French and told him I didn’t understand. I turned to walk off and he followed behind, peppering me in questions in French still. Attempts to wave him off were in vain. Finally grasping that I spoke English, he switched languages. “You are going back to your hotel?” “Yes,” I replied. “Bye bye!” He continued to escort me in the direction I was headed, despite my dismay and protestations.
But the Arab kid would not be dissuaded. “I really don’t want company, okay? No,” I explained again. He shook his head, “Is fine, is fine – you are jolie [pretty] and very nice; I just walk you, no problem.” I’d been in Paris several days now, long enough to know any kindness was likely to be followed by a sob story, scam, or a plea for small change or paper money, depending on the greed level of the petitioner. Part of me considered the thought that perhaps this relatively small and young kid – he was perhaps 19 – would be safer to have along than for me to walk by myself, but the street we were rapidly striding down was a huge main street, peppered EVERYwhere with people despite the late hour; surely there was no danger in me going it alone as I’d originally planned?
The Kid somehow, though I was keeping a relentlessly brisk pace and attempting to stay as far away from him as possible, also kept sidling up to me and putting his hand on the small of my back. Even if this was acceptable anyway (which it certainly was not) I’d REALLLY had enough that evening of being touched unwelcomely by strangers when all I’d wanted to do was to go out and enjoy myself quietly.
I mean, really, I understand the whole male attention to a single woman thing, but sheesh – after a few polite demurrals and solemn avowals that my boyfriend had simply been unable to accompany me out that night, shouldn’t that be enough to get the hint across? My entire evening so far had been spent trying to keep sweaty men away from me without being so abrasive as to offend, and trying to keep their sweaty paws off of me. (I was reminded of the shop attendant at Galeries Lafayette earlier, trying in vain to keep a small posse of Asian tourists from fondling the fruit and vegetable offerings, despite the warning signs in both English and French.)
I kept swatting The Kid’s hands away and increased my pace, and attempted to explain for the 30th time, in basic French that was escaping me utterly in my frustration, “Look, je ne veux pas. [I do not want.] “Je [pointing at myself] a chez moi [made little walking motions with with my fingers] seulement [was attempting to say alone, but could just think of the word for ‘only’]”
He is, somehow, was managing to keep the edge of his body in contact with mine (an amazing feat for someone who sometimes has difficulties successfully holding hands with someone merely while walking down the street). The Kid says, “No problem, I go, I go – bring you to hotel; I go. You, eh, have whiskey in hotel?”
That did it. I did not want him touching me, in contact with me, and certainly not entertaining ideas of seducing an older, OBVIOUSLY slutty American (out without an escort of several uncles and her monther? nor a burqua anywhere in sight?) while getting me drunk on my own whiskey.
I stopped and faced him and, clenching my teeth to try to maintain a veneer of politeness to send him on his way, I said, “No. Au revior. Ok?” I mimed the French double cheek kiss, then flung both hands away from me simultaneously, and nodded encouragingly. “Understand?”
The Kid shrugged disappointedly, nodded slightly, and said “Ok” and opened his hands in a conciliatory hug offering gesture. I leaned to give him the polite little back tapping hug one gives to a person they really don’t like, and suddenly…. The Kid has grabbed my face in his hands and attempted to shove his tongue into my mouth. As I recoiled in disgust and anger, he missed his target, and I found myself with him sucking wetly on my cheek like some sort of depraved hormonal lamprey, clutching my hip toward him and pressing –dear God– an obvious hard-on against my upper thigh.
Well. I. Lost. My. Shit.
I mean, yes, it’s France, but really? I had just spent three hours and forty Euros to put up with constant harassment from men who won’t willingly understand the meaning of the word no, and now a forcible attempt to grope me from from this… this… little PUNK?
I grabbed him by the throat and jammed my thumb into the soft spot just under the jaw joint beside the tonsil and wrenched him off me.
“NO!!!!!!” I roared. “Absolutely not, not you chivvying little piece of shit! Get the fuck away from me. That’s it! Go home! Do not come near me again. NO!!!” (I was also done with attempting to communicate in French.) I turned on my heel and stalked off, whipping around for one second to glower back at him [making sure he wasn’t following] and spit on the sidewalk in disgust (a habit I loathe, but from movies at least I’ve been led to believe that’s a nearly universal sign of revulsion, and thought I’d throw it in for good measure.)
Now, about a block later I stopped again to be sure he wasn’t following at some far distance, just to be safe, and he wasn’t. Phew. I knew I wasn’t in any actual danger at any time, but I felt really, really furious and violated for the proceedings of the whole evening.
It is a humbling and rather raw experience to realize that as a woman, until your tits sag and your face wrinkles like an apple, you will never be free of having to force yourself to find tactful and polite ways to deter men, to always be on the alert for when tact and politeness must be discarded and true defense of your person is warranted, to tread a line of not wanting to be either a bitch or to unwarrantedly hurt the feelings of a decent and well-meaning man just because of his gender, which does not make him guilty by association, but to simultaneously not encourage horny bastards who will trade on this unbalanced pirouette we are forced into to try to leech more of your company or attention than you’d otherwise give… or worse.
It means that any time you go into public you risk being faced with this exhausting, thankless task, when all you may wish to do is be left the fuck alone. This will be made even worse in a foreign country with its own social cues and expectations.
It means you must always be prepared with a plan for a convenient lie, an exit strategy, an improvised weapon… in case you find yourself suddenly faced with a situation going rapidly south. If that happens, your brain will momentarily be dumbfounded with comprehending what is occurring – ‘Something bad is happening – but, wait you are good person!’ it will howl in confusion. ‘There must be some mistake!’ It will cast about for models of what to do when faced with the behavior of a beast from the form a man, and it will find no precedent. You ARE likely going to be weaker and smaller in this pairing. You ARE going to be at risk – however slight that risk may be. And yet – and yet – I can think immediately of a handful of women dear to my heart to whom things to which they should never have been subjected have happened, so perhaps that risk isn’t as slight as we would wish to make it. That thin veneer of society is easily breached by those willing to transgress it, and — like it or not, fair or not — that is a reality we do not often see, or relish it when we do.