Two days before graduating college, I got a job offer for a stellar position in Miami, where I only knew a friend from my hometown. I kept things hush for a while, and only told my grandparents, aunts, and uncles once I had already accepted the position.
Everyone in my Latinx family told me how worried they were about my moving to a new (and big) city after graduation. They expressed their concerns about my safety, especially related to crime, traffic, and being a woman, and warned me to be alert and smart about my everyday decisions. I had already made a big move from my home in Texas to a university in upstate New York, so I wasn’t too concerned with starting over (mostly) by myself in a new place.
Things went smoothly until my first day of work a few days after arriving in my new home. My friend from high school/roommate had helped me scope out the commute and parking situation (which I had been sure to ask about when accepting the job offer) the Friday before. Everything was going smoothly, the traffic was minimal, I was able to navigate the drive without depending on Google Maps too much, I felt at ease. Then I pulled into the open parking lot with a cheap flat rate only two blocks away from work. A short, sunburned man walked up to the car.
Good morning, sweetheart!
His enthusiasm comforted my first-day jitters.
How are you doing, beautiful?
I told him, and reciprocated his politeness.
I'm doing good now that I've seen your face.
I chuckled nervously.
You got a beautiful smile.
He chuckled slightly as I handed him the $5 bill I fished out of my wallet. I could feel his light blue eyes piercing into me as he ripped the ticket stub and told me where to park. I peeled out to where he pointed, parked, and power-walked to work. I discreetly (or maybe not) glanced back to see the sunburned man and his coworker, a younger guy with a gold grill and Rasta hat, watching me. A whole new kind of nervousness washed over me until I knew a skyscraper hid me from their view.
That was day one, so of course my feeling uncomfortable has only gotten more intense in the weeks since. The older man almost always says (and in this order) good morning, that his day is better because he saw my face, and that I’m looking good, all while gazing down at my lips or chest. The only mornings he doesn’t are when I’m wearing a nude lipstick instead of my usual fiery red or delicate pink. Maybe nude lips aren’t as inviting for such “remarks.”
And that’s the problem I’m having with all of this. I don’t know what to call it: compliments, statements, or just that — remarks. What is it called when I wear higher-cut tops on the days I know I’ll see that man? When I don’t wear the flared skirt, just in case there’s wind as I walk away from my car? When I don’t do my wing-tip eyeliner so sassily? When I pull out my money at the stoplight before the parking lot entrance? When I save my $5 bills for those days so I don’t have to wait for change? When I hesitate to roll down my car window? When I roll it up as soon as I get my change and ticket? When I try to get out of view as quickly as my short legs will allow me?
Does it count as cat-calling if it isn’t a complete stranger off the street, but someone you see twice a week? Is it harassment if it’s more a feeling rather than actions, or even words? Does it make it better or worse that this man seems to speak on behalf of his coworker, when really his words are from both of them? Am I overreacting, or is my dreading those mornings justified?
But then there are mornings when it’s not as simple, when his statements cannot be played off as innocent or friendly, when I know it’s something more, something not-so hidden in his words. Those mornings make me wonder where all this falls on the spectrum of being uncomfortable, of being a woman.
I know it isn’t normal for a man to tell his coworker that “his girl” is here. A middle-aged man shouldn’t tell a woman probably half his age that he can tell she’s lost weight, that he can see it in her body. A perfect stranger shouldn’t tell her that his coworker “likes her too much,” especially when she had only been parking there for three weeks and she had never even spoken to the guy. He shouldn’t call his coworker “her boyfriend” or ask if them looking at her is why she got a dark tint on her car windows. He shouldn’t try to get her opinion on his coworker’s goatee and ask if he looks good, shouldn’t laugh when she responds, “I’m just trying to get to work.”
If it’s not his words, then it’s his actions. There is the staring, the older man wasn’t joking when he said the guy with the hat watches my every move. The last few weeks they’ve gotten in the habit of having me park in the row directly in front of them. They get to see me get out of the car, adjust my clothing, and power-walk away from them. I wonder what goes through their minds when they see me, but I know it’s better if I stay clueless.
This week brought as much confrontation as my introvert self is capable of. The sunburned man had barely taken the money from my hand when he pointed to his rasta-hat-wearing compadre.
Your boyfriend say he be missing you too much.
I questioned why with a confused but on fleek eyebrow.
’Cause he only got eyes for you. He don’t care about anyone else in here but you.
A van pulled up behind my car and the rasta guy told me where to park. I rolled up my window but still heard the sunburned man yell at his coworker.
Why you no tell her anything? You just talk to me about her. You gotta make a move!
He walked up to my window and chuckled.
We’re just trying to make you happy.
I finally said something my inane need to be polite couldn’t control, “I don’t need y’all to be happy.”
No, we’re trying to make you smile.
My face remained expressionless. I wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.
You know you’re a beautiful girl.
As if that inspires a smile.
But this is only up until the day I write this. I’m still in my probationary period at work, yet the uncomfortable interactions with these men escalate each time they go outside of their clockwork acknowledgement of my presence and looks. In these few short months, I’ve grown accustomed to his remarks. I know the drill for Monday and Tuesday mornings: look as little made up as possible, practice your polite smile, don’t encourage either one of them, let them know you’re not flattered if you can. And I hate myself for thinking that way. I shouldn’t have to accommodate my behavior, that shouldn’t even be a thought. I should be able to express my disgust, or even pay no mind to this dialogue, but being the worrier that I am, my mind races to the worst scenarios. They could damage my car, or charge me more, or deny me entrance, or maybe even wait til I return after work and follow me home. In that parking lot, they have all the power. I’m just a prop in their little game.
Whatever this is, it saddens me to know that this is part of my weekly routine. As of right now, my only out is to find another place to park — even if it is more expensive or further away from my building. That, or I wear nude lipstick every Monday and Tuesday. It’s a good thing nude is in.
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Sarah Martinez is a proud Syracuse alum and digital editor at an alt-weekly in her hometown of San Antonio. For occasional shameless self-promotions and retweets she wishes she had come up with herself, follow Sarah on Twitter @smartinezwrites.