This is the thing about 20: You’re ripe. And most people know it. They see it, smell it, feel it, sense it. And if you’re a girl like I was—trusting, hopeful, optimistic—you try to be good, you want to please people, your impulse to make everyone happy overrides any notion that you have a right to say no.
I wasn’t especially pretty at 20—my butt was huge, my brown hair was a bottle red, I bought ill-fitting clothes from thrift stores or wore giant men’s button-down shirts as dresses with pumps and lots of eyeliner. But I was ripe. And there was a reaction to that ripeness that sometimes surprised me. When boys near my age, ripe in their own lithe and muscled ways, puffed up in my presence like mating doves, I couldn't help but feel pleased. Harder to deal with was the behavior of people I thought of as “grown-ups.”
Beyond the comparatively harmless catcalls and horn honks, there were the lungers. The manager at a restaurant where I was a hostess liked to call me into his office to ask questions that could have easily been asked on the floor. He’d shut the office door, then dive on me as if I were beanbag chair. I’d push him off, squirm out of the way, and turn my head from his attempted kisses. As soon as he’d been removed from my body, I’d sputter out, “What did you want to talk to me about?” And he’d mumble something about picking up another shift, or coming in early on Sunday morning.
Two different professors lunged at me. The most blatant offense happened in my room when I was sick, coughing up slick yellow clots into an old tee-shirt because I didn’t have the strength to get up and grab a tissue. The professor sat on the edge of my bed (he knew where I lived because I babysat his kids), said he and his wife had an open marriage, and then lunged at me. His grown-up body thrashed across my torso as he wildly tried to plant his bearded face against me, his tongue against mine. The effect was somewhat like being smashed down by a violent wave, twisting and turning with seawater rushing in your mouth, as you try to figure out which way is up while keeping your swimsuit over all the parts it’s supposed to cover. When I was finally able to speak, I smiled, apologized, and exaggerated my dating status: “I have a boyfriend,” I said. It didn’t occur to me to be angry and cast him out of the room. I worried about the babysitting money I needed.
Equally startling were the flashers. Two men fell into this category. One was my housemate’s brother: he was about five years older than me and great-looking. I looked forward to his visits until the night he stopped by my room for a “chat.” I was already in bed, but invited him in. The only place to sit was the end of my bed, and in the age of communal living, this didn’t seem like an indecent invitation. We talked about getting-to-know-you things until I looked down and noticed that his penis was suddenly out: bright pink and almost shiny looking. “Do you like it?” he asked. We hadn’t even kissed—we’d never even shaken hands—so this viewing felt completely anachronistic and, therefore, obscene. “Well ... I ...” I had no idea what to say and when he leaned in to kiss me, a kiss I would have welcomed only seconds earlier, I jolted away and asked him to leave. He pled his case for a couple minutes, then zipped up and walked out.
The second flasher was another boss, a man who owned a dress shop on a desolate, litter-strewn street where Oakland and Berkeley meet. He was impeccably-dressed, spoke with a radio host’s purr, and upon our first meeting, teased me gently, as if we were old friends. The first time I worked alone, he locked the shop door, strutted over to me, unzipped his slacks and laid out the goods on his palm. I backed away, surprised, temporarily speechless. He gave me a winky-wink smile and started talking about size, manhood, and how I hadn’t yet been with a real man. Idiocies came out of me, something like yes, surely it would be great ... shouldn’t you put that away before a customer shows up?! The second and third times his penis came out, I quickly made my way to the door, unlocked it, and stood outside trying to draw in people off the street. Before there could be a fourth viewing, I quit, leaving a message on his answering machine. It was the way I had done it with the restaurant, too, as I was far too timid and unsure of myself to explain my reason face-to-face.
By the time I turned 21 that fall, I had developed an awareness that created a filmy but firm barrier between myself and others. This barrier allowed me to see what could come out of an interaction in a particular place at a particular time. It is an awareness that some girls seem to be born with and some women never develop. It sits like a sheet of cellophane over ripened fruit, making it less desirable to hungry, grabbing hands.
My 16-year old daughter has long, shiny hair that swooshes across her back and a wobbly little gait that once compelled a middle-aged woman walking behind us in the Baltimore Target to exclaim, “Look at her go, look at that ass!” The other day I dropped her off at a café where she was meeting friends. A group of 50-something men were gathered on the corner. They paused mid-conversation, turned their heads and watched my daughter waggle into the café. She was completely unaware of their lupine stares, just as she is unaware of her blossoming ripeness. Of course I want her stay this way forever—this place where grown-ups act appropriately and children get to carry on with an unfettered openness. But soon I will be among the people who will rob her of this openness. How can I let her loose of my grip without warning her of the ways some people respond to a ripe girl? I have to prepare her for things I couldn’t yet imagine at her age, things I hope she’ll never see.