Image Credit: Danny Sancho
12 years old. The First Cat Call.
A few months after 9/11 my family moved from a neighborhood with tattered chain-link fences to a house with a manicured lawn. It was a mere ten minutes from the apartment in Norwalk, CT that had been my home for most of my life. I knew it was a better neighborhood because the front yard had no barrier to the street. No sidewalk. My mom announced that she would finally have her own garden. I was with her this morning, but she finally convinced me to take off a pair of oversized gloves and leave her with the quasi-gardening. I went inside but left the door open to the front yard.
Some minutes later a voice erupted: “Hey sexy, those pants look good on you.” I knew it wasn´t my father, not because he would never say that, but because he only spoke in Spanish. I thought I wouldn´t hear the voice again. Then a scream: “Yo bitch, I´m talking to you.” I ran out to the porch and called out to my mom. She walked in without looking back as I stared at a white man over the passenger side seat of his car parked in front of our yard.
My mother never learned how to garden. I had dreams for weeks. In them, the man forced his way into our home while shouting the word bitch again, grabbed my mother and demanded an answer to his accolade.
13 years old. Boys Will Be Boys.
The teenage boy or young adult, all I know is he still has no hair above his upper lip, plasters a sign against the car window. Show me your tits appears in black marker. The van the boys are in is the color of old burgundy. The driver darts his eyes from the I-95 to the woman in front of me, the one in the passenger seat, waiting to see if she will lift up her shirt. The boy holding the sign has two friends surrounding him and they are all inaudibly pleading please.
Carolina laughs and tells her husband to look at these dumb kids. They continue to ask her to please lift up her shirt and they don’t stop even when her burly husband eyes them. Him or me? she asks them. You, you, of course, you. She pretends to lift up her shirt as their eyes stop blinking. Instead, right before she reaches her bra, she lowers it and points to her husband. Him, right? They don’t say no, just shake their heads side to side in frustration. We switch lanes, and the almost-man lets the paper fall from the window.
16 years old. Indecent Exposure.
Instead of hailing a $1 taxi that could take us anywhere in my hometown of Milagro, Ecuador, my cousin and I decide to walk. We continuously shake our heads at the men in taxis and gypsy cabs that beep at us. Some of the beeps are actually programmed with recordings of wolf whistles. Every time they pass by and I catch a glimpse of the man in the yellow cab, I picture him at a car shop, asking for his car to be waxed, to make sure they check the breaks, and not to forget to add an automated wolf-whistle. That way he won’t have to cup his lips together and waste a breath. The sound of lust would be emitted with a tap of his hands to all the women that walked by.
We evade the people in bicycles and walk carefully as the railing of the bridge peculiarly only reaches below our waists. Suddenly, we hear a tsss tsss sound. We would never deliberately connect eye to eye to a catcaller, but the sound isn’t coming from in front, behind, or the taxis that hurry past us. It’s coming from the strait of dirt and grass almost below the bridge, to our right, a sliver of earth between the buildings and the river. How he got down there bewilders me but not as much as seeing his half-erect penis. He had just pulled his pants down to his ankles, pressing his heels on them to get them completely off. He was stroking himself up and down with angry enthusiasm as he stared at us in our tank-tops and jeans.
I quickly focus my eyes on the road and upcoming cars ahead of me, and my cousin can’t do anything but nervously laugh. I hope that he won’t get into the dirt-brown river. It’s filled with dog carcasses, discarded beer cans that can easily cut flesh and the residuals from the local garbage dump. But it would be of no use to say anything. This naked man is fraught with curls that have not been combed in days and shades of dirt have accumulated over his torso. A word from me may be an invitation to leap towards us or to prompt him to tell us his fantasies. Instead, we walk faster, and to this day I wonder if he waded into the water, got pulled by the current and ended the day with bracken water in his lungs. I’m sure he didn’t. I’m sure he waited to tsss tsss some other girls behind us.
17 years old. The Wolf.
The three of us are walking in our hometown about a block away from our destination. Our bodies are teetering on womanhood, but our minds are still confounded by teenage proclivities. We walk arm in arm, giddy, happy, worried about the crushes we’ll see later tonight. We’re almost done crossing the intersection, five steps away from the sidewalk, when a man riding a rusted turquoise bicycle stops in between us and our goal.
I’d fuck all three of you but all three of your pussies stink.
I wait for one of my friends to say something, but neither of us can take our eyes off the graying beard and the ingrained wrinkles on his face.
Men have told us they want to be the fart in between our butt cheeks. They have told me that they could but won’t touch me now because I am not ripe yet, as if I were a tender mango being primed for their bite. This insult in the guise of a catcall has cut us off guard. This stranger wants us to ponder his words, question our bodies and make us believe we’re filthy.
His brown eyes are scathing. They bounce from each of us to see which brave girl will cuss him out. It’s anger he wants. This is the sentence he’s used to draw ire out of girls. Foul words. Wads of spit. This is what he feeds off.
Keep on going, old man.
My words come out quick and lenient, more like directions instead of the fury bubbling inside me. I won’t give him the anger he wants today. He won’t have the pleasure of seeing his words hurt me. The man accepts my command and quickly pedals away without another word. We get to the sidewalk, our arms no longer linked, and we wonder in silence if our pussies indeed stink.
18 years old. Vile Whispers.
Treacherous butterfly. The lyrics emit from the speakers of the blue bus. A song in Spanish about a butterfly, a woman, flying from petal to petal, mouth to mouth. I am in the aisle, holding onto a seat, carefully placing my hand not to touch the man’s head sitting in front of me. Bodies are scrunched tight together and the stale, tangy, and dense types of sweat mesh into a sheet of dampness. The equatorial sun is as fierce as any other day.
A man places himself behind me but does not touch me. He shuffles to a position where his mouth is inches from my ear. I feel the whisper disturb my skin, producing goosebumps, as he sings the lyrics to me. I ignore him, but unable to move my feet, I tilt my neck as far from him as I can. The man in the seat looks up at me and winces but stays silent. I refuse to look at their eyes and stare out to the green Ecuadorian landscape passing before me. You have a butterfly, he says during the guitar riff. He is referring to the monarch butterfly etched on my back. I forget it’s there sometimes, but I can always count on strange men to remind me. They believe they are entitled to profess their opinions about women’s bodies through shouts and whispers. The man sings to me, even when the song is over, repeating until I get off the bus that I’m a treacherous butterfly.
20 years old. Worldwide Prey.
We are on the outskirts of Madrid, almost noon, at a train stop near the city of Getafe. I have a bag that makes me stick out like a tourist, and we need to walk a few blocks until we arrive to my friend’s apartment. A man appears behind us and says something, but his accent is so thick that I can’t process the words. Carla grabs my shoulder and says: run. My feet begin to plaster themselves on the sidewalk from a surge of adrenaline, hands flailing, bag weighing me down, my chest heaving from an unprepared sprint. He continues to jog towards us, just a few feet away now, determined to touch us. We stop on the opposite street, looking back to check if he is still approaching us. All we can see is the hair on his head and bright green of his jacket, walking back towards the almost-empty train station.
I ask Carla what he said. Let me touch that sweet ass.
We vow not to come back via train later that night, just in case the darkness cloaks him enough that it’ll be easier for him to act upon his intentions.
27 years old. Just Another Day in the City.
I go to New York City in search of delectation: Broadway shows, book readings and museum exhibits beckon me. I plan the days from morning to night, squeeze events until they almost overlap like how the ladies on the subway squeeze into their black leggings, tight enough that the white and red stripes of their panties seep through. I enjoy the city more by myself. Alone, I can linger in the subway platform as men pound on pan steel drums and visitors, travelers, tourists film them and shake their heads in unison. Alone, I can spend the hours I want surveying art at whichever museum I choose, being as idle or as swift as I like in between the renaissance and cubism paintings. Alone, I do what I want when I want.
In New York City, though, you are never alone. And the men in the streets constantly remind you that their presence will not be ignored. As I head to the nearest subway, just a mere block from where the train from Connecticut has just left me, two men inch closer to me. At arm’s length, with the surety that I can hear them, one utters: Oooh, look at this bitch.
Oh yes, who does this bitch think she is looking like that? says the other man. It’s early winter and I have on a black coat, black leggings, black everything. I don’t know what I look like, if I’m a mark of longing or disgust. If my panties show through my black leggings. I was sure their faces would provide an answer to what their tone of voices lack, but I don’t dare look back. I keep on walking to the subway station, brewing with anger that I had not demanded that I not be called a bitch. I wish they had appeared towards my departure, not my arrival, so the rest of the day would not have been tainted by their words.
28 years old. Trust No Man.
It’s past 11 p.m. and my day in New York City is ending. I’m in the Harlem 125th station printing my train ticket for the ride to Connecticut. Tonight, there are just a few people in the lobby. I walk away with my ticket in hand as a man calls out to me in Spanish. He points to where I have just left and asks if this is where he can buy a ticket. Sí, I say, and start to walk away. Wait, can you buy me a ticket? He asks me in our native language.
The man assumes I will say yes again and has got out his wallet. But in my gut, fingertips and chest, I feel it. My body tells me not to get close. That maybe it’s just a façade and he’ll say something that will make my blood fester. Or maybe he’ll touch me. I don’t say no. Instead, I tell him, even though he has a credit card stretched out towards me, that the kiosk has the Español function. You can do it, I say. The man lets his hand fall to the side in anger. I never see him again. I hope my eyes said what I couldn’t.
Stranger, many men have demeaned and insulted me during my 28 years on earth. I am sure that at least one of those scenarios will reprise itself because I plan to walk in public for many years to come. But I cannot trust you. If you are a kind man who truly seeks help, I’m sorry, and I wish you knew what I’ve gone through and why I won’t risk edging my body towards yours. If not, fuck you.
There is an alert that propels my brain and body to lift a shield when they sense potential danger. I am 28 years old and I hope, even though I know it will never come to be, that one day I won’t feel this way as I walk the streets a lone woman.
I would rather ignore a stranger, process the guilt, and shed a tear on my way home because I refused to help an immigrant, a Spanish-speaker, a man in need. But I’m resolute in my decision. I will do the same tomorrow or five years from now. It’s why I don’t lock eyes with strangers on public transportation. It’s the reason I cross the street to avoid a group of men.
It’s how I protect myself from more cat calls and wolf whistles.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com an