Friday night, Washington, DC. We make our way through Mount Vernon Square, windows down, music up, our long, dark hair snapping in the breeze. We’re dolled up and ready to hit the scene downtown; we are young and we are lovely.
I take pictures of the driver, N, then turn around and catch L and K in the backseat, crossing their eyes and mugging for the camera. We pass around boxed wine and a handle of cheap brandy, laughing and singing along with one another, the night beginning to acquire that sweet, smeary feel. Loose-limbed.
Red light; we stop. A carful of guys slide up beside us and lock into place. There are four of them. Four of them, four of us—you could tell they were doing the math and coming up with a quotient that pleased.
There’s a distinct energy pulsing about them, a nest of live wires. They angle toward us, like undergrowth stretching toward the light, motioning for attention. The hunger in their grins makes me think of those cartoon wolves, long tongues unfurling like carpets, panting and carnivorous.
“Hey, hey!” they call.
We wait in the empty space, watch how it’ll fill.
“Does your pussy taste like sushi?” one of them shouts. “I’d love to taste that SUSHI PUSSY!!!”
Unlike some languages, English doesn’t have a plural “you” form—no vosotros or vous—so I don’t know if he’s asking one of us specifically, each of us individually, or the whole of us as a single entity—an amalgamated dark-eyed, exotic girl. I don’t know if there’s a difference to him.
His friends howl and bray along, join in with their own commentary. One starts chanting “PUSSY PUSSY PUSSY PUSSY” in the background like he’s trying call forth an ancient yonic spirit. The passenger slaps the outside of his door over and over, thrusting his head out the window, eyes round as coins and bright with malice. Like he wants to suck in every millisecond of our surprise, every feathering muscle and flinch.
The part of my brain that works lightning fast (often racing ahead of my snail-slow mouth) offers up an unwanted image: a line of salmon maki between my legs, like a grotesque tampon. And this stranger, flicking the tender pink inside with the tip of his tongue, cool and slimy. The image is so unsettling and outrageous that a boiling starts in my gut, steams through my veins, and finds escape with an eloquent: Fuck you.
It feels kind of good in the depressurizing way a sneeze does. So I say it again: “FUCK. YOU!”
By now my cheeks are scalding, there’s a soft roaring in my ears, and I can make out the drumbeat of my friends’ more articulate ripostes dovetailing with my own: who do you think you are; you racist white pieces of shit; why don’t you taste MY DICK?! (That last one from one assuredly dickless friend, bereft of more anatomically apt barbs now that ‘eat my pussy’ is off the table.) I can’t say more than my two words—a pair of floaties sustaining me in a riptide—but it doesn’t matter. The group’s fire is at my back, blowing hot gusts into my sails.
Here’s where I ease your concern that we’re mean girls. We’re not. We don’t yell at strangers or hurt feelings. We smile and placate, say please and thank you, giggle. We do all the right things.
The last thing I see before we peel off at the changing light is the look on these guys’ slowly falling faces: gobsmacked, mouths softly left ajar like ill-kept dressers, as if the prospect of our response hadn’t crossed their minds. As if they were surprised we’d speak at all.
I think of the time I was alone and a man blew kisses at me from his car, then bitterly swore when I failed to respond, or the time a man followed me for blocks on foot, loudly detailing his fantasies, or the time a man sat next to me at a public library and masturbated under the table, or the time, or the time, or the time. How I consistently freeze, lose my speech, shrink down to the tiniest mote of dust, easily blown away. What if I could move through life this way, as a synchronized unit—permanent backup, permanent chorus; a four-headed Gorgon with the power to turn men to stone at the sight of our wild and hissing tongues?
The car is a hotbox of seething, doused in booze. “Shoulda thrown this damn box at their heads,” says K, hoisting a carton of Franzia.
“Nah,” says N. “There’s still wine in it! But fuck them forreal,” she adds, so there’s no confusion as to which team she’s on. We laugh, but I feel a vague sense of triumph, a vague sense of humiliation, mingling and mutually catalyzing. We drive for minutes that feel like years, our car lunging forward again and again as we try to outmaneuver their attempts to pace us.
The next light catches us both and we crunch to a stop moments before they do.
The tension spikes, but before we can go for round two, an actually surprising thing happens: their car, which was earlier a writhing morass of snakes, arms and heads roiling and spewing, is still. Quiet. The driver jerks his thumb at his slap-happy seatmate, says, “My friend is really drunk.”
They say: “Sorry.”
“We were just kidding.”
“We just wanted to talk to you girls.”
They make contrite sounds collectively, murmuring and nodding. Hands open and palms up. They have the chastened air of deflated balloons, kicked dogs, and it is such a 180 that it wouldn’t be ridiculous to wonder if, in the stretch of road between the last traffic light and this one, they might have fallen through a cosmic wormhole.
One in the back adds, in a small voice, “We’re not even really white you know.”
I am again without words, and now so are my friends, so we just stare. Maybe there are none to be had. All eight of us have been diminished—amputated from our chosen avatars, our best constructions of self, through the force of another.
There is, if only for a moment, an interminable distance in all directions.
The light turns green.