Recently, a friend shared an article giving advice to men on how to approach a woman wearing headphones. The content was exactly what you would expect. Some man telling other men how to approach “unapproachable” women, giving male readers instructions on how to intrude upon a woman’s solitude to talk to them and ask them out. Why? Simply because these men feel they are entitled to do so. I mean, aren’t all women just there to serve a man’s purpose? To keep him from living in a dirty house & reduce his need for masturbation? (Sarcasm noted?) My first thought was that If I could talk to the writer of How to Talk To a Woman Wearing Headphones, my advice would to them would be, “Actually why don’t you just fucking not?” My second thought was the kind of psychotically entitled male that read & utilized the tips from the article, is probably the same type of guy that assaulted me on a bus when I was a young woman.
In my early 20’s, I attempted suicide. I’ve written about this a lot here. As many of you know, I nearly didn’t survive and was involuntarily hospitalized by my parents. My professor, Bernhard, came to visit me in the hospital and rightly assumed that if I was released to my parents’ care, I was probably going to finish the job. I had crafted plans to gas myself in my family’s garage. Garage door closed, car running…hose from the gas pipe into their car, while I laid there peacefully in my pink skirt, boucle jacket. One final grey sleep. Fearing the hospital was just a layover to my next suicide attempt, he invited me to live with he & his wife, Simone instead. In my addled brain, I decided that I have my whole life ahead of me to attempt suicide again, might as well take one last chance on life. I accepted and spent the summer helping them move & renovate this Victorian monster of a house they had purchased together in the town where I was going to school. I always tell people that that summer was like waking up on Christmas morning every day. I took care of their beagle-dachshund mix, Java…walking her around the neighborhood, marveling at how bright the world really was after weeks in that dim hospital, over-medicated. I followed a healthy, vegetarian diet with them & lost a shit-ton of weight. I felt good, was thin for once…pretty…a new, startling experience for me. Simone would take me shopping for groceries, for fun. We loved making the cashiers uncomfortable with our jokes. Straight-faced with no affect, I would ask about them where to find douche…or extra-large condoms. Simone would just laugh, her way of encouraging me to re-join the living. We would go to get Chinese buffet and I would pretend to be blind, yelling for her and insisting she assist me and lead me around at an embarrassingly loud volume-while I pretended to grab shrimp off the buffet line with my bare hands. At night, we three kings would work on steaming wallpaper, sanding floors, painting walls & doorways while listening to Beethoven symphonies. We made our ways through all the symphonies in the course of restoring the floors and walls. Sometimes he would sing the French horn lines from the top rung of the ladder as he steamed the walls, while Simone and I would giggle girlishly and beg him not to fall off. They would regale me with stories about watching Bernstein conduct and about their early dates. Simone and he attended a conducting workshop & she asked if someone could show her how to get to Foodland, he volunteered. They found Foodland and happiness as a couple after that. They showed me their wedding video and I found their dating scrapbooks…. she had saved cute little doodles he had sent her and they had photographed their whole courtship. It felt like swallowing a sunbeam to flip through the scrapbook. After housework was done, we would watch baseball together—where I was told I could cheer for any team but the Yankees. (They were Atlanta Braves and Mets fans who passionately hated the Yankees, almost as much as they loved their teams.) I chose Detroit Tigers because Magglio Ordonez was having a killer fucking year. Simone would often retire early & Bernhard I would sit there, eating peanut butter filled pretzels & having heart to heart chats about my future…. Talks about healing my past. I trusted Bernhard more than anyone in my life and I confided things to him I had never told anyone. I felt safe with them….loved, cared for. And slowly, slowly I got better.
Near the end of the summer, I decided to go home for a visit. For my return to Bernhards’, I had to take a bus from Syracuse to Rochester. In Rochester, I had a layover & then would get on a different bus to Buffalo. At Buffalo, I would have a 3 hour layover and catch another bus into Fredonia. All in all, it could take up to 7 hours—despite actually going to college only 4 hours away from my home. I had had issues before traveling on the bus, with people harassing me, and had discovered headphones were the best way to shield myself from unwanted male attention—cocooning myself in music & self-involvement. On this trip, however, there was a man who kept trying to meet my eyes. He kept twisting himself around in his seat to look at me, like a sheet on a clothesline, twisting in a gale wind. When I eventually looked up, he gave me a wolf-toothed smile, that made my guts feel greasy. It was a smile full of dirty ideas, arousal. Feeling uncomfortable, I got my notebook out and put my earbuds in—hoping to give the appearance of withdrawn, busyness. When the smiles were not returned and had not earned a minute of my attention, this man came over and gestured for me to take my earbuds out by pantomiming pulling imaginary earbuds out of his own ears. Looking back, I wish that I had kept them in—that I had just shook my head and looked down or pretended I was confused. But, when we’re young, we are taught that women can be a lot of things, but we are never allowed to be impolite or ‘not nice.’ The tug of fear over being called a bitch pulled me over to his side and I took my earbuds out. He asked to borrow a pen. I handed him one and went back to my pretend-journaling, hoping this was the end of the interaction. A few minutes later, he came back to return the pen and he forced me over into the inner seat, sitting down next to me. I had the first flicker of fear over his intent at this moment….
He started off innocently enough, Cotton Eyed Joe conversation material…You know. “Where did ya come from, where did ya go?” I just told him I was going back to my professor’s house, that I was staying in an apartment in Bernhard’s house. But after the niceties, after the small chat, he began to tell me how beautiful he thought I was. How sexy I was. I put my hands down on my lap and looked down, ashamed…like a kid caught cheating on a test in class. My cheeks, lit flares, burning…. He began to tell me all the things he would do to me if he were my man. A play-by-play of his sexual fantasies. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to ask him to stop. I was afraid of him and too embarrassed to ask a nearby passenger for help. I didn’t know if he would hurt me for refusing him, so I told myself that I would lose him at the Rochester connection and all I had to do was make it to that bus stop. And so, he basically verbally jerked off into my ears all the way to Rochester, as I sat there frozen.
When we got to Rochester, I bolted off the bus and into the bus station to lose him. Just a slip of a girl in a polka dot dress…polka dots blurring into stripes, as she ran through the crowd. There happened to be a mall at the bus station, so I ran in the nearest store to hide and wait out the layover. I couldn’t even shop, I just quaked behind a rack of clothing, trying to gain control over my breathing and queasiness. When it came time to board the bus to Buffalo, I looked for him. No sign. The bus was packed & I found an empty row to sit in, exhaling the fear & tenseness from my muscles. The bus was just about to take off, when I saw a familiar figure daddylongleg his way up the bus steps. No. No. No. The only available seat on this bus was next to me.
He pushed me into the window and sat down next to me, grinning.
Hello again, you.
He wasted no time in grabbing my hand and pulling it onto his lap, placing it on his crotch. Memories of being abused in my youth returned to me, recalling my uncle’s perverted puppetry. My uncle always pulled my strings, forcing me to do things I didn’t want to do. Images of my uncle and the deviant on the bus fused together in my mind and I struggled to keep from screaming. Instead, I let my hand go completely limp. Dead octopus. If he was going to make me jerk him off, I wasn’t going to participate in any voluntary way. In my terrified state, my plan was to play dead….Roadkill on his dick. When my hand went limp, he changed tact. Or maybe he realized he would have to unzip and people would notice what was going on. He moved his weasely hand to my knee, stroking it. I pulled away, hugging the window. Anxiety like bees swarming in my chest, as his hand moved higher under my dress. Higher. Panic. Feeling my uncle’s hands. I tried to pull his hand out from under my dress, but he was stronger and determined. Even though it was the summer, I felt my teeth chatter. I tried to make eye contact with other people across the aisle to maybe convey my distress—but ironically, they had their headphones in and were reading, unaware of my predicament…what I would have been doing, had I just continued to ignore him. Unfortunately I was being overpowered as he tried to grope me. Even as I struggled, he never missed a beat, just kept talking calmly and lowly, in a way that didn’t acknowledge I was trying to fight him off. That aspect, perhaps more than anything, was one of the more unnerving parts of the assault…. That and the fact there were so many people around us and it still occurred, on the back of a crowded bus in daylight… He began talking quietly in my ear about how Bernhard must want to fuck me all the time. “How could he live with you and not want to fuck you? He must think about you naked. Think about taking you. In every place he can. I bet he fantasizes about it. God, the fucking filthy things he must want to do to you.” Felt the acidic splash of vomit in my throat at the thought of Bernhard thinking about me like that…My one safe place being torn to confetti, and cast to the ferocious wind.
He felt my body trembling and mistook it for being wired with an electric fence of excitement, “Would you like that? For him to fuck you?” I shook my head no. “Come on, I don’t believe that.” He kept badgering me till, exhausted from fighting him off, I lied that I wanted it from Bernhard. I immediately felt a sense of disgust with myself, like I had betrayed Bernhard and Simone. Like I had stepped into a future that was already ruined by what I’d said. I thought maybe once he got that answer, he would leave me alone. He kept asking me to tell him my sexual fantasies. He wouldn’t believe me that I had none, and I didn’t want to explain that there are some of us who are damaged enough that they don’t have sexual fantasies- other than being left alone. Finally, to shut him up, I weakly told him “If my partner is happy, I’m happy.” But it was not enough. He kept asking and asking and asking…till I bottomed out on my own shame, and, responded to whatever he asked, albeit in a state of complete thousand-mile-stare detachment…Meanwhile, his hands in places they shouldn’t be.
When we finally got to Buffalo, he asked me to kiss him. I don’t why I felt like I had to make an excuse. It should have been alright for me to say no to such a request, but I felt like I had to explain myself. Or maybe I was trying to outwait him, talk long enough that he was shuffeled towards the exit by the other passengers. With a voiceful of Novocain, I numbly said, “I just put lipstick on.” He grinned, “I’ll take it offa you.” “I don’t know you,” I countered. “Come on, baby, just a little peck on the lips.” I shrunk backwards, but was cornered. He leaned in and shoved his tongue in my mouth, deep towards my throat, as I tried to push him off. He got up, turned around smiled at me one last time, then disembarked.
The other passengers around me kind of stared at me for a minute before returning to their music and phones and devices with their headphones on….as I just sat there horrified…too embarrassed to make more of a scene by wiping my face that he had slobbered on. Had I had a smartphone, I’m sure I would have spent the rest of the ride googling what diseases you could catch from kissing, because that’s what I perseverated on for the rest of the ride. That and whether Bernhard had actually ever thought of me in a sexual way.
When I got off the bus, I walked home, crying with complete humiliation most of the way. I pulled myself together before walking in the door. At first, I was so disgruntled and disturbed by my ride, I didn’t even notice the other man that was with Simone & Bernhard. “How was your ride?” Simone asked. “Fine,” I mumbled. She could tell something was wrong and pressed. “A nasty stranger put his tongue in my mouth,” I blurted out, finally, upset. Bernard joined the conversation at this point and Simone told him what had happened on the bus… at least the scant details I told her. “Did you …want that to happen?” he asked, stumbling over words “NOOOO.” “Did you kiss him back?” “What?! No! Wtf, Bernhard.” “I DON’T KNOOOOW. Sorry, you caught me off guard there. Uh… so, this is our friend, Daniel…who is in town visiting us. Daniel, this is Roxy.” “Also known as the girl who strange men non-consensually kiss on the bus,” I muttered sarcastically. Daniel waved, awkwardly, “….hi.” Even though they had done nothing wrong, I felt myself eyeing the 2 men suspiciously…. especially Bernhard… Which I hated.
I still wonder how all of that would have played, had I just respected my own intuition, followed my instincts and kept the fucking earbuds in….
So, if you’re a man reading this: How do you get her to talk to you if she has headphones on? You don’t. Just fucking don’t. Leave her alone to read, write, work out, do whateverthefuck she wants to do in peace. Some of us are wearing are headphones because we DON’T want you to approach us & that’s our way of sending that message. Some of us have had bad experiences with bad men and are afraid to interact with men we don’t know & this is how we protect ourselves. And yes, we know it’s not all men. The problem is we don’t know which ones “they” are…so let us do what we need to do to feel safe in public…Let us keep our headphones on. You know, it’s really not that difficult.
A photo of me taken by my brother, the morning of the harrowing trip, described in this entry.