Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

merigne

The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Sexual Predators

feral

“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.