Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Taking Inventory

Over the years, I have been a loyal person. When I decided someone was my friend, I basically stood by that person no matter what. When I was in my late teens and twenties, a lot of people abandoned me when I had kids. They moved on with their lives and stopped inviting me to do things. I was very grateful for the few who remained. Probably too grateful. There were two women in particular who remained that became increasingly toxic presences in my life.
As I look back, I can see the ways they damaged me. I remember asking my therapist again and again what to do about this or that that these two had done to me. And I contributed to the cycle by complaining about each of them to the other.
After many years, I figured out I was in abusive relationships.
I'm not going to say all of it was bad or all of it was their fault. It wasn't.
I had to figure out my own shit and learn what was good.
In a way, rebelling against their definition of who I was helped me become a better person.
In their own way, they were both very good and very toxic people. And they had their own demons.
I do wish I had cut off the friendships much earlier in my life.
But I suppose I still had things to learn.
And that is the lesson here that I take inventory.
What did these lousy experiences teach me? A lot. So much.

One of the women, I'll call her Maria, she used to support my dreams by "understanding" that I had them while shooting them down and telling me if I was a good mom, I would stop pursuing them. And she would pretend to support me but at the same time regularly sabotage me.
The other woman, I'll call her Katie, she said something not long ago that was instrumental in making sure we weren't friends any more.
I was discussing my plans for my next big project. And she said "I believe that you'll do it. You'll accomplish it. Looking back on us when we were fifteen, I never would have believed that girl would accomplish anything like this. But I can see you doing things now."
And I am sure she meant that as a compliment. But it wasn't. It was a clear message that she never saw my potential, though it should have been obvious to anyone who was paying attention. She was supposed to know me so well, but I now realize, she only saw in me what she decided to see-- and I think she never really saw me.

Many years ago, a girl I worked with at Cicero's was hanging out with me. We got into a deep conversation about hopes and dreams. I told her I wanted to make movies and write and direct. I can't remember her saying much about that. It was what I was dreaming about and also what I was pursuing in school.

Many years later I saw her again, out with friends. By this time I had made a couple of movies. She said these words to me. "I remember when you used to talk about what you wanted to do when we were working at Cicero's"
I said "oh yeah, I was pretty angsty back then."
She said "I confess - when you said all that, I thought to myself, she's never going to do any of that. And then you did. I was surprised."
I smiled a little. But it kinda made me mad at the same time. Why would you tell me that? What is the purpose of that confession? Is it to make me feel bad?
So, I went back and asked my best friend, the woman who has known me the longest- if she had seen potential in me.
She couldn't believe I was asking her that because she said it was obvious I was going to do things.
And I thought about the people I knew that I saw accomplishing great things.

I'm so blessed with so many good friends now at this point in my life. And it is because of these missteps that I am able to appreciate this all the more.
I've been able to learn from all this pain.
I've been blessed to have recognized and overcome all these abusive and toxic friendships.
Yes, I hung on to them too long. I tried too hard, I forgave too much.
But what did I learn? What did I take forward?
I learned to write well about complex relationships. I learned to appreciate really good friends. I learned that it isn't the end of the world if you end a friendship.
I learned that sometimes you still get to walk away and hurt for years, but it was the right thing to do.
A couple of months before I made the decision to walk away from Katie once and for all, she said to me "I'm afraid I'm going to lose all my friends, I have almost none left because I drive people away."
And as usual, I assured her that I was loyal and would stand by her.
And then I woke up when she was abusively texting me a few weeks later, accusing me of imagined wrongs. A symptom of her mental illness and extreme anxiety.
And I realized I had a choice. I could just walk away from her and not go back.
That I probably should have done it years ago.
That I shouldn't need to go to therapy because my friends were being toxic to me.
That the relationship was abusive and needed to end.
That it is possible to be in an emotionally abusive relationship with a female friend.
That it had been many years since I had any fun with her because every interaction was stressful and involved me walking on eggshells to try not to set her off. Though I should have known that I can't control her mental illness symptoms, but I can control my involvement with her.
That her refusal to get the mental health therapy she desperately needed was pretty much my final clue that things weren't going to get better.

I realized that my damage was where I was operating from when we began that friendship and that I have worked hard to repair my damage. That not all my friends were reflections of my damage but I had trouble recognizing when I needed to end it.
That my loyalty has hurt me- a lot, but I am not sorry that I try to work things out.
I don't give up easily, which is why I have had some minor success in accomplishing things.
But I am now learning when to walk away and that it is okay to walk away. That not all things need to be forgiven, that sometimes we can just move on.
I'm always going to have feelings about all of it, I'm just grateful now for the lessons.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Uber Stories: On Women and sex

Lots of people ask me when they get in my car and notice my gender. Aren't you scared to drive at night? Not really. Most people are pretty cool and I don't mind so much. The rewards have been pretty significant. I'm interested in humans and when people get in my car, I get a piece of their story, little by little.
Here is a snapshot of several stories of women I have driven.
They often open up and they open up in so many interesting ways. Sometimes we tell deep truths, sometimes the deep truths are beneath the surface and we never speak of them.
I picked up two women around 11 pm. They were sharing the ride and going to work in different places. One was going downtown to waitress at a Hookah Bar and the other was going to the Hustler Club to strip. I spent many years as a waitress, so we had a long drive and a nice discussion about the benefits and perils of waitressing. I was not really clear on the relationship between the women but I noticed there was complete acceptance for one another's work situations.
It was very much "gotta make a living" going on.
The fact that the stripper was so open about where she worked with no measure of shame was interesting to me. I have never felt the extreme need to hide my profession but I have often felt a little bothered by working in places I considered beneath my overall skills.
One time a girl I went to high school walked into the restaurant I worked in and happened to see me behind the bar dropping off cash for the bartender that night. She looked pityingly at me when she said "oh, you work here?" and I said "Yeah, I'm the manager."
At those words, her face physically brightened. This was a more acceptable job for my exclusive private school education, I guess? I was upset and humiliated. She has no idea that bartenders more often make more money and work fewer hours than restaurant managers. Sigh. And she had no idea I bartended twice a week to bump up my earnings.
But somehow, the title made HER feel better. Which bothered me. And I guess it still does. But mostly, I'm beyond caring about someone else's definition of me. Those jobs, they humanized me in a way that make my writing better, richer and give me more empathy to people than working higher up ever will be. So, while I will get where I want to go career wise, this was never a waste of time.
So, I try not to judge people by their professions so much. I know I am going to find people working at McDonalds that have genius level IQ's and probably can't get a job elsewhere. And I know that there are just a whole lot of regular people out there making a living and we are more than the definition the job gives us. We are humans.
We all have to make a living somehow.
After I dropped the waitress off, I had another twenty minute drive with the woman who worked at the strip club. I asked her how she was treated. She had a few stories. "I wish guys wouldn't be so gross with me all the time. I don't want to hear how they want to lick my asshole."
And I was thinking-- damn, that's not so far off from my waitress days, where I heard statements like that every day from some drunk fool.
Except I'm not naked while they're saying it to me. I try to imagine how vulnerable and tough she has to be to stand up to that, and to deal with being kind to people that don't deserve her kindness.
Still, she said she didn't mind it most of the time, that she was able to find gratitude in the many good people that worked there and all those who stuck up for her and held together to protect one another. That she always felt safe and protected by so many people.
I find I want to poke through her statements with my own pre-conceived notions about stripping. But I fall silent. I don't know enough about this world and I realize what I need to do is just listen to her and accept her and even support her decision to work there. Though I want to smash the patriarchy that allows this to continue to exploit women while old white men make money off their naked and vulnerable bodies, still I support the choice a woman makes to go into sex work. Though honestly, I wish it could be something different. When I think of the damage it does...but I let that go in that moment, and decided to just be there with her.
I told her this as I dropped her off.
"I want you to know that every man or group of people that I drop off at any strip club, I say these words 'I want you to remember to tip well. Tip your bartenders, your servers and your strippers well. And I want you to remember that every single one of these people who wait on you and strip for you, they are human. And you should treat them respectfully and decently. Don't be a dick.'" She laughed at that, and thanked me for the ride.
It really was the only way I could sit right with myself for driving people to the strip club to participate in something that I don't sit right with was to remind them of our shared humanity.
The second story I want to share with you is a woman I picked up from a dive motel at around 11 at night. She was nervous to get in my car, it was her first Uber ride.
I smiled big at her and said "Aren't you glad you got a girl to drive you for your first time?"
She said yes and smiled a little more easily.
I assured her I was going to treat her really well and get her to where she was going and make her first uber ride really great. I had wondered briefly at the location I was picking her up. It was a no tell motel, the kind you know you can rent by the hour.
This in itself was only one piece of evidence, so I tucked it back in my mind as I spoke to her and asked her about herself. We landed on the topic of her son, as so often happens with women, we discuss our children. In there are our hopes and dreams and how we define ourselves because our children change and shape who we become. They alter us in little ways. This woman found so much joy in her child and it made my heart happy. She talked about her divorce and the shared custody and when her boy got really good at video games. She spoke of how he excelled in school and was put in the gifted child class. She glowed when she talked about his future, the one she knew he would have.
And in that, I could see she was burying herself, but I loved her joy and her pride and the smile in her voice.
She began to prepare me for the journey we were taking. It was a long drive, forty five minutes out to a little town in Missouri I had never been before.
The ride was not on her credit card, but on a mystery man paying for her journey. He had texted me instructions and a cell number to let her know when I had arrived to pick her up. This was not unusual in itself either. I often gave rides others would pay for. But there was something about the two pieces of evidence that clinked together. She began to speak of the mystery man and his wealth and affluence.
She described how many cars he had and how fast he drove in them and her first trip out to his house.
"What does he do for a living?" I asked.
She was not really sure or she had asked and it wasn't really clear, but he was super loaded-- that was what she knew. She also mentioned he was nice to her, that he treated her well and was a pretty good guy.
She talked to me about the first time she went to his house.
"I was terrified." She said.
Huh, terrified? That seems an odd reaction to going to someone's house.
"We kept getting further and further away from everything and we started going deep into the country. Finally we get to this really thick woods and we keep going further and further into the woods and the further we went, the more scared I was that I wasn't going to make it out. He was driving really fast and whipping around every corner."
And I wanted to ask why. Why did you keep going?
But I didn't because after all, I knew the answer. You do the things that scare you when you talk yourself around the fear. When you try to convince yourself you're being crazy, that there's no reason to be afraid and your instincts are wrong. And when your instincts are dead on, you berate yourself and when your instincts are hyped up and it turns out okay, you tell yourself you were just crazy all along. Even if you aren't. You convince yourself. It's pure survival. Sometimes our fight or flight is out of proportion to the situation and other times it is not.
And as I drove through the night and we started to get further and further away from civilization and the lights of the city and the perceived safety...I began to feel the little fingers of fear creep into my stomach and crawl around and begin to wrap around my heart and squeeze.
But this third and fourth clue in the little mystery was starting to cement my theory. And I knew at this point that I didn't have to ask this woman what she did for a living because there was no doubt I had picked up a prostitute on her way to servicing her client.
I briefly considered asking her. I thought about it, hard because I wanted to know, and I had a thousand questions to ask her about what she did and what led her to this point in her life and the curiosity distracted me from asking myself too strongly-- what are you driving into?
I decided to refuse the curiosity and deny it satisfaction. I wanted this woman to keep her dignity and let the stories of her brilliant boy and her pride in him and keep her warm with safe and good conversation. I liked her and I didn't want to shatter this moment and make her wonder if I was judging her.
As we drove through the last leg of the journey, through those thick and dark woods, I turned on my brights and kept the conversation witty and light to take the edge off the fear. She said "He wants you to go down the driveway and wait for a minute so he can bring you a tip."
"Oh, how nice." I say out loud but those fear fingers are working overtime squishing my heart.
My heart beats strong, throwing off the fear. Got your stun gun on the ready? yeah you do, Vanessa. This guy won't know what hit him...
We arrive.
I see him open the door and the anticipation is a tangible crack of light streaming from the door.
She gets a text.
"oh, he's not coming out. He wants me to come get it. He's such a dork."
I breathe relief. He's afraid of ME seeing HIM.
Good. I feel safe. She comes out with a ten dollar bill and thanks me for the ride, the company, the conversation and for making her first uber ride a good experience.
I want to hug her, but I don't. Instead, I smile brightly at her and wish her well. She's going to be one I remember.

These conversations, these connections-- they mean something to me to have this human experience in that short time I get with people. Every ride is its own story.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Reflections on Eleven

When I was eleven years old, my mother had a discussion with our next door neighbor about me, in front of me that I remember pretty well. The neighbor was asking how old I was and they both agreed that eleven was just about the perfect age. My mother revealed that I still played with barbie dolls (I was mortified and considered myself too old for dolls even though my bff and I had so much fun with them, it was our little secret we never told) and both women went on to wax poetic about the age of eleven, how much they had enjoyed it, how sweet they had been, how much they loved spending time with their mothers and how simple things were before the complications of teenage angst came along.
I have never forgotten this conversation and it had a profound effect of me as a young girl. I haughtily did not consider eleven to be a perfect age. I was frustrated and wanted to do things and be more grown and felt as if my brain was always more adult and mature than my body and no one took me seriously because I was only eleven.
I had listened intently to every word those women had said, though I don't think it was anywhere near a very important conversation or that it had reached the level of something significant but nevertheless had revealed something very important about my mother and though I chastised her soundly when we got inside for embarrassing me by telling the neighbor I played with dolls, for some reason it always stayed with me.
When each of my daughters reached the age of eleven, I have recalled this conversation and replayed it in my head. I can remember tossing around the seedballs in my back yard while pretending not to be paying attention so that I could listen longer. Time has convinced me that my mother was right in ways I could not understand that day. The age of eleven might be perfect for mothers and daughters for their relationship is more pure than it will be ever again. It is the last time we will look at our mothers before the cloud of hormones overtake us and rush us into a resistance. It is the time before everything changes in that relationship when we both want to be with one another. it is the time before I didn't have to see my mother as a woman, not understanding womanhood and being sure she could still do anything because she was more than human.
Isabella is my last daughter and though that conversation will be with me forever, this is the last time I will look into the familiar eyes of the eleven year old that is a small representation of the me that I used to be, and the girl that my mother was, and the barest glimpse of my grandmother and her mother. In her eyes, I feel that precious purity of what was and hope for what will be.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The De-Escalation Choice

Last night I was driving uber at my usual time and hanging out near the bars and college. Around 3 am I picked up a solo passenger. He said "Can you wait one extra minute while I get some water?" I said "Sure"

I'm going to call him Floyd.
Floyd returns with a cup of water and gets in the front seat. This is pretty common for single riders so I won't say I over worried about it.
He asks me how I am doing, then he offers me some of his water. I thought this was kind of weird but I say no thank you and keep driving. It's kind of a regular, very usual conversation about the work he does and who he is and all that until suddenly, Floyd says.
"Hey, why don't you come over and smoke some pot with me?"
This is not really the first time I have had this offer. It's usually a little more tentative or respectful. And it's pretty easy to turn down. One time a group of bachelorettes wanted me to eat breakfast with them at Eat Rite diner and I truly thought about it because they were a lot of fun.
I figure he's drunk and lonely, so I just say "That's awfully kind of you, but I have to drive the rest of the night and I can't do that high."
Floyd then starts attempting to convince me.
I say "Thanks, that's really nice of you, but I'm going to say no." But honestly, I am out and out lying at this point because his offer isn't nice or kind. It's rude and threatening.
And Floyd isn't having that "no" word.
He takes out some money (a ten or a twenty, I think, I didn't look) and places it on my dashboard.
"There, I've paid for your next ride, you can come in, just take one hit and leave. I just want to smoke with you."
And now I am realizing he thinks he can buy me.
Like a hooker? I'm truly annoyed now. But I bring out Bartender Vanessa who knows how to make a cranky customer calm down. I start the de-escalation process by just letting him talk and allowing him to think for the rest of the ride that he is getting his way.
I start wondering what this scenario looks like as he tries to shame me into going inside with him. I just stop saying no for the rest of the ride because I have already said it at least three times.
I think about all the times this has happened to me before. I start going back in my head to the incidents of times I said no when a man has not respected me.
I've come a long way with the word no.
When I was a teenager, this kind of pressure was extremely difficult for me and I ended up in some situations that were extremely uncomfortable. When I was fourteen, I was nearly date raped by another fourteen year old. He escalated quickly. That is another story but I feel as if it might have been my first experience with not just lack of consent but repeatedly saying the word no and some asshole just not hearing a word you say.
I realize I have two choices on how to deal with this.
The teenage Vanessa was meek and quiet and tried to "nice" her way out of things. It always ended up making me feel weak. The Vanessa in her twenties started to feel her feminist power. She learned to say to the gropey guy in the bar "Get your hands off me." and walk away. She has real chutzpah! She gets it. She can say no to any inappropriate stranger. But she is terrible saying it to her friends. She lets them walk all over her sometimes. Even worse, this Vanessa ends up in some brutally abusive relationships with very pushy men. I think about all the ways I have had to say no in my life and every time I say it, it comes with guilt.
Why is that? Why do I feel shitty for saying no to a clearly inconsiderate person who has no respect for me or my feelings? I have no idea.
Is it the empath in me that knows I am wounding his ego and can just feel all the insecurity oozing out of him. He had struck out at the bar, was feeling all those feelings that were coming at me and now this uber driver was telling him no. How dare she.
I don't want to feel all that. He is now saying to me "When is the last time you did something like this? You need to do this."
And I am quietly super annoyed now, but I keep that smile on my face and even throw a laugh in there. Does he really think I live some dowdy, boring life and I need HIM to provide me with some pot smoking couch sex? Yes, he does. He doesn't know me at all. He hasn't bothered to ask one thing about me. I am the four am chick he thinks he knows is as desperate as him. Except I am not. And in the light of the car, I can feel his loud, sweaty, needy feelings.
But I am better at no, now. I can do this. But most of all, I have to do this. I have to get him to get out of my car and get myself out of this potentially dangerous situation. I start to review my self defense techniques. I take a deep breath as I pull up in front of his place. The money is still sitting on the dashboard. I'm not taking it. I realize I have two choices about how to say no to him. There is the firm, aggressive "Get the fuck out of my car." that I really, with every fiber of my being want to say. I want to do that. I am a strong woman and I have been so disrespected in the last five minutes that I want to make a super strong statement about "No means no." But I am not at the bar and this is not a public place. And I am more vulnerable in this place.
I might need my anger next. I may need to get scary and crazy in a minute.
He starts off with "Okay, let's go."
I decide to go with firm, business like Vanessa. She de-escalates without judgment. She thanks people kindly for the interest. She says "fuck you" inside her head while telling him to "have a nice day." and smiling.
I said "Look, Floyd, like I said, I appreciate the offer, But no."
I think about pulling the husband card but I hate that. It takes away so much of my power as a female to say something like "my husband/boyfriend is waiting for me/ he'll be here any minute" but don't think I won't use it or have any less respect for women who do use it. It's sitting in my back pocket.
My arsenal of how to say no is swimming in my head. I am ready.
At this point, I have chosen to use deescalation and it is making me feel like a shitty, weak, bad feminist. Just tell him NO MEANS NO. Show him your power! Using the words "I appreciate the offer" is just the worst. I want to choke on those words. Fuck those words. Get out of my car, you inconsiderate piece of shit, trying to shame me, trying to coerce me, refusing to hear any of the words I say. But I fight the shame down. Try this first, I tell myself.
And ladies, I say this to you--- if he won't hear the word NO from you in this polite circumstance, he isn't going to respect you later at any point.
So Floyd says "I guess you think that something is going to happen and I can see the reasons that you might not want to do this."
Code, I think he might be setting me up for an assault of some kind.
Yes, Floyd, I do think this. And you know I think this. And I think this because this is exactly the scenario in which it often takes place. And your platitudes of trust me mean nothing to me. Because I have been in this situation a thousand times before. And I'm not flattered and I don't think you find me attractive and I don't give a shit about your feelings right now because you haven't given mine a single thought.
Yes, Floyd, I think about the other girl who might have gone into your apartment and you served her some drugged drink and she woke up hours later, sore on the floor with her pants around her knees. I think this. It may not be true or accurate, Floyd. You might believe you are charming enough on your own but I know one thing about you at this point. No means nothing to you, so I expect more of that. I expect if I go into your place and smoke one hit of a joint with you, and I say "I have to leave" because this is what we agreed to. One hit. I expect that you will not honor that by saying "see you later" Instead, I expect that this one interaction leads to more of "no thank you" and you not hearing that little word a hundred more times. Because I know this one thing about you. Floyd, you haven't been nice about me saying no. In fact you have been coercive and brutish. Every tactic in your arsenal is to shame.
So I don't respond to him trying to reassure me that I'm not going to get assaulted because - whatever dude, it's not like you're going to be honest with planning a sexual assault!
And maybe you are just a harmless dickhead but guess what-- I'm not willing to take that chance.
So- I'm sitting in the car trying the de-escalation tactic first.
Floyd takes the money slowly off the dashboard. "Really?" he says, dripping sarcasm.
As if I give a shit about that money.
"Yes, Really." I respond.
He holds the money above his wallet and repeats "REALLY?"
And I say "have a nice night"
And you all know what I meant by that.
He puts the money away.
Then, I breathe a little sigh of relief as he gets out of the car without any more fight. He thinks he has humiliated me by taking away the money. I laugh a little on the inside as I drive away.
Now, I realize that there are some of you that are going to tell me "you need to stop doing what you're doing, you are going to end up in a worse situation next time, it's dangerous."
And I am going to tell you something-- just by living your life, anything could happen to you. Being out at night does not mean you will get raped or that you are at a higher risk for rape. I realize that some of you will never be convinced by this but shit can happen to you anywhere. I could just as easily have been able to de-escalate that situation as it could have spun out of control. I think about this all the time because I have to. And in spite of all the preparation and thought, this may not save me.
I made a choice to go with de-escalation. I often make this choice. I'm trying to feel good about it but it still makes me feel sometimes as if it's the weak thing to do. I want to say to men, stop asking me to make that choice, to have to decide between my dignity and my safety and just respect the word no. Because it all comes down to that and if that would happen. If every single person would just do that, I wouldn't ever have to be in that position because my consent, whether it is consent to come inside your house or consent to kiss you or consent for anything. I should not have to fight for the right to be treated with common respect. This was not a date. It was a ride. Fortunately 99% of uber riders understand that. In more than 100 rides, this has not happened. It is not common. It's literally more common that this happens to me when I am out in socializing that some guy just randomly disrespects me.
I'm not going to lie about it scaring me. It scares me. But I refuse to let fear of something that might happen stop me from living my life. But it gave me plenty to think about.
And the best part of what happened was that I had a plan. I had an arsenal of self defense. I had an idea of what I was going to do and how I was going to handle that situation and there is no part of knowing this kind of thing that makes that not helpful.
So, I would encourage everyone to play out that scenario, I want guys to play out that scenario, to understand what that feels like for us, too.
I encounter more levels of having my consent disrespected in a thousand small aggressions a day. And my most ugly fear in that if I don't attempt to de-escalate, I will somehow inadvertently incite your anger and this anger will kill me. Though there is not one thing I can do to make sure you don't become angry. Floyd's anger was always out of my control.
I feel soon I have to take this to the next level and look at how education is dealing with this and think about my role in it. And to those that will say to me, "how can you put yourself in that situation?" I say this to you- I did NOT put myself in that situation. Floyd put me in that situation. Let us be clear in that now and forever.