When I was sixteen, I got my first job as a waitress at the Lansing airport. It was a tiny little “restaurant” that sold sub-par food to people in a hurry. If you worked the morning shift, you usually were paired up with another waiter to divide up the 15 tables that made up the floor. Between seven and nine a.m. we busted butt. Sometimes we were so busy it felt like I might split in two from trying to go a million places at once. Then after the rush, things slowed down and there was time to socialize while you restocked the maple syrup dispensers and the cellophane wrapped muffins in the display case. Sometimes, when it was really slow, we’d set up towers of the little jelly tubs and throw sugar packets at them to pass the time.
All of these memories are trivial details that seem to have faded along with faces and names. That is, except one face and name I will never forget. Charles.
I often worked the morning shift with Charles. He was in his early twenties and was attending the local community college studying music. At the time, I was a pretty serious Christian. Meaning, I went to youth group, loved Jesus, and prided myself on carrying my pocket-sized Bible around with me wherever I went. Charles told me one day that he was a Christian too. We talked about church, God, etc. It felt safe.
Then one day Charles told me that I should come over to his house some time and we could study the Bible. He said we could pray together. Then he said we could pray together in the shower. He said all this while standing very close to me behind the counter. He said it so close I could feel his breath on my neck while I nervously tried to count the quarters from that morning’s till. My heart raced and I laughed. I told him to shut up. But I said it while laughing and quickly changed the subject.
A few days later, Charles and I were on the same shift again. While I was getting some food out of the walk in cooler, Charles came in behind me and tried to tickle my sides. I jumped and told him to stop. But I laughed and ignored it.
The next shift included him saying he liked the way that I bent over to get things out of the fridge. He reminded me he still wanted to have a Bible study. He corned me in the walk-in cooler again, this time I bolted out before he could touch me.
I knew this wasn’t ok behavior so I went to talk to my boss. I explained what he did and asked if he could talk to Charles. I said I wasn’t sure if I could work there any more if Charles was there. My boss explained to me that he couldn’t fire Charles because he was dating Charles’ sister. He promised me that he would never put us on the same shift again. I felt relieved, but not safe. I knew Charles would still be there when our shifts overlapped.
At the time, I chalked this experience up to “dealing with sleezy men”. A normal, adult experience. And then I didn’t think about it much until about ten years later when I went through required sexual harassment trainings at my very first teaching job. All of the feelings of violation came rushing back. I felt infuriated that my complaint fell on deaf ears because my boss didn’t want to make things “awkward” with his girlfriend. I thought things like, “I could have sued his ass! He should have been fired! What’s worse, I was a minor! That asshole should be in jail!!” I felt so un-empowered, so naïve, so stupid.
Fast forward to October 2016. A tape was released of the current president of the United States talking about touching women without consent. “They let you do it,” he said.
His words made my skin crawl. Again, I immediately thought about what happened to me in high school. Technically, I “let” Charles do it too. I didn’t report him beyond the conversation with my boss, I didn’t report my boss. I laughed it off and when my boss had no consequences for him, I accepted it. And there was no one there telling me that this was not ok. So I normalized it.
When the actions and words of the man who is now the president of our country came to light, what bothered me most, or should I say scared me most is that, while alarm bells went off in me that I didn’t even know were there, it didn’t alarm a lot of people that I know. Instead, men had to use their wives, mother, and children to explain why it was wrong. And still others chalked it up to “locker room talk”. They called it vulgarity but they also called it normal. I began to wonder – has the world not changed at all in the nearly twenty years that have passed? And my child, my child with two X chromosomes, has to live in this world.
On November 8, when news of the election results broke, I cried. I cried all night as if I had just heard that a loved one had passed away. But it was more than this. They were akin to the tears I shed when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11. It was a fearful cry, terrorized by the unknown and dark thoughts that hope tried to keep at bay this year. They were also tears of defeat. But not like simply losing a game. Defeat, like when love doesn’t win, even when everyone told you that it does in the end. It was like watching the man who raped you get off scot-free.
For me this was something of a metaphor, for others it hit way too close to home.
As the months have passed and we find that this plot, that seems like something from a Hollywood movie, is our actual reality, that cloud of grief and disbelief, or whatever you want to call it, seems to be lifting. I feel more aware and awakened than I was before. I wonder if another candidate had won whether I would be as fired up about these things? Do I dare say that this is a good thing? I don’t want to use a Hallmarky-adage from Mr. Rogers about scary news and looking for the heroes. Yes, it’s true, and yes, it’s a good way to look at it. But it never, really, makes me feel better. Because it’s still so god damned dark and I can’t seem to see the forest for the trees yet.
Today I didn’t attend the Women’s March in Portland. Not because I didn’t believe in it but because of some pretty good excuses (nap time, another engagement scheduled, etc). I really wanted to go and I spent the whole morning having a huge existential crisis. I hemmed and hawed, called my best friend, waffled back and forth. And even though I felt like I was failing my daughter by not going, I made a final decision to stay home and vowed to figure out how to be a part of it all in another way.
As I sat on the couch while my baby girl napped this afternoon, I read news articles and saw pictures of friends and family taking to the streets to protest a man that they did not choose to be their president. Their signs, their words, the beaming, powerful faces of their children as they stand with them, were a balm that my soul has needed after these past few months. And even though I was unable to join them physically, I felt suddenly emboldened by their energy to speak up too and say out loud that I do not accept this as normal. I do not accept that the bad guy wins.
For those of you who know me, it won’t be surprising to you that this piece is hard for me to post. In fact, I started writing it back in October. I was fueled with anger and wine and a hot topic from the news. So I fervently wrote for hours, spewing my thoughts like a cartoon character with steam coming out of my ears. And then I let it sit in my documents folder for months because the topic was political. And I hate talking politics, especially when it’s not face to face. I hate talking about anything that might spark disagreement. I am so anti-confrontation that I once referred to my baby as a “he” for an hour with the Comcast guy because he thought she was a boy. I know I have a problem. I’ll work on that.
In the meantime, these words will have to do. They are my protest for today. The courage to post them comes from a passionate desire to change this world for my kid, our kids, for all of us.
This is for you my dear, future president. A new normal where love wins, in the end. And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure of it.
© 2017 D. Willson