“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
The man I had seen in the same café the day before passed by on his bike. “Can I help you get somewhere in particular?” Bashful, I replied, “No, thanks; just trying to get my bearings, is all.” He poked his head toward me. “Huh?”
“I’m trying to get my bearings.”
“You mean, find out where you’re at?”
“Oh. Good luck with that.”
He pedaled away, leaving me alone with my map.
You can’t find your way around if you haven’t decided where you’re going.
The first logical thought is that they’re there to show fabric transparency and thickness. But are there that many women who go braless that the nippled mannequin is necessary? And if it’s a question of pert nipples potentially ruining your next family photo, why don’t male mannequins have nipples?
Do they up the resale value?
In case of emergency, use mannequin torso to break glass?
Perhaps they’re the product of a 40-year-old virgin at the mannequin factory on a dare:
“Say Mickey, there’s rumors flyin’ around that you’ve never had yourself a dame.”
“Screw you Tony, I been with plenty ‘a broads. Look, I even know where the nipples go.”
Or is it a shoutout to all those dadboners out there, to throw them a piece of PG eye candy? You know the kind of male specimen: uptight, high-strung with ergonomic sneakers and high-waisted jeans, responsible polo shirt and fanny pack, keepin’ it Christian. The ones that hate their job, but love their family… at least, when they’re not dreaming about what they could have done with their lives. The kind of male specimen that accompanies his wife while shopping, holding her bag, waiting patiently for her while fantasizing about revving the station wagon engine and leaving her nagging ass in the dust. He’s sitting like a good boy, when out of the corner of his eye, a tight little number catches his eye. A quick glance around confirms, nobody’s watching. He lets his eyes dip down to admire the pert perfection of the daringly stylish mannequin. He admires her figure, reminding himself that it’s not infidelity if she’s made of plastic. His heart beats a little faster, he licks his lips, and dusts off his former signature move; coquettishly, he winks at her. No response; she’s playing hard to get. No matter, he thinks. I’ll be back next week, my sweet.
Hey, everyone deserves their little slice of happiness.
And that’s why mannequins have nipples.
The story begins on the main boulevard of Angers. I’m walking to the train station after a long day of work, and a couple of salty-looking French men are walking my way. They stop, they ooh and ahh, and deliver some uncouth pickup lines. Standard catcalling fare, the kind that women are very familiar with.
T’es bonne! (You’re sexy!)
Oh, là là là, salut ma chérie! (Hey, sweetheart!)
C’est quoi tes origines, là? (Where’re you from?)
Their use of tu is what struck me. In French, the informal tu and the polite vous are clear ways to express distance or familiarity to the person with whom you speak.
I understand; scratching your nuts and grunting at a woman isn’t exactly the time for politeness. But the way these men referred to me as tu indicates a familiarity with which I didn’t ask for, and certainly didn’t need or deserve. Women know this feeling all too well. The way men like this invite themselves into your space, then feel you owe them something while they’re there… How egregious!
Of course, not responding to these terribly suave pickup lines can then invite an alternate ending: some men just have to have the last word, and my ears sting as they throw me one last insult to injury, for the road: Bitch. Conne. Salope.
Now, imagine the presumptuousness of someone stomping onto your front porch and demanding a cup of tea, then insulting you when you don’t comply. The trouble is, we never know if that guy will slither away and retreat, or if he’ll try to break the door down to get some tea. The majority fall into the first category; the rare times you meet someone from the second are those that burn into your memory.
This kind of discussion often comes back to female culpability. The question isn’t “What the fuck is wrong with that creepy guy?” No, the question is “What were you wearing?” In other words, what did you do to invite this onto yourself?
It brings me back to being in middle and high school, right back to those good ol’ days where my bullies understood my silence as tacit consent. Interfering in my space was considered a right, and I had no say about it.
At home, the response I got was “Well, don’t let them do it!” But as a girl, I didn’t understand how not to let them do it; it felt like I was doing something wrong, that maybe it was my fault. I allowed it to happen, so therefore I was the guilty party. The bullying later evolved into sexual harassment, and I learned that my words were ineffective. Others had words that could hurt, but mine were worthless.
I learned that boys were bad. That male attention could hurt. That, given the chance, they’d stomp into your house, drag mud all over the carpet, then blame you for leaving the front door unlocked.
As women, we learn from these lessons and start locking the door. For me, I tried locking the door, barricading it, and pretending to be invisible behind. I couldn’t answer the door to anyone, and I eyed the potential burglar with the same suspicion as the puppy salesman.
With this charming backstory in my pocket, I grew into a woman and started getting the standard societal messages: male attention is GOOD! Male attention is affirmation of your worth as a woman! I was supposed to yearn for male approval while inwardly understanding that they are cunning and untrustworthy. We’re screwed with them or without them when we view things like this in black-and-white.
Fortunately, life brings about the good to balance the bad, and by fostering relationships with the good guys, things become less black-and-white. It’s here in France where I have more hetero male friends than I’d ever had before. It’s through these respectful, trusting friendships that I learned it wasn’t always necessary to blockade the door.
So when some jerkoff on the street invites himself into my space, the 30-year-old Me is simultaneously insulted and annoyed, but also feels a twinge of sadness for those 12, 14, 16, 19, 22, 24, 25-year-old Mes who were silent.
The difference is, I’ve got words now.
July is long gone, and now I’m face-to-face with another birthday.
I’m 29. One year before the big 30. On a side note: when I lived in Korea, 30 was the magic number: after 30, a woman’s shelf life supposedly reaches its expiration and you creep into that undesirable “spinster” territory if you’re unmarried. 30 is that round magical number where everything changes, and you’re supposed to have a fire under your ass, to get moving and accomplish those life goals you’ve been putting off until “later.” Well, as a 29-year-old woman, I’m acutely aware that this is the time of my life; I’m in my prime, and there is no magic switch that will be flipped in one year. I’m taking things at my speed, doing what I want to do at my own speed, with no one but myself to answer to. This is the freest and most empowered I’ve ever felt. If this feeling follows me into my 30’s, that’d be one of the greatest privileges I could hope for.
Around the time of the New Year and my birthday, it seems to be the season for reflection. Perfectly spaced, twice a year, the time to take stock.
In the past year, or indeed since I arrived in France a year and a half ago, I’ve learned to speak French, become a freelance English teacher, gotten PACSed (in other words, signed into a legal partnership), found a good job where my coworkers call me on my birthday to sing me Happy Birthday, rekindled my interest in writing and drawing, succeeded (FINALLY) at having an herb garden, and started to delve into cooking more seriously (as a seriously pleasurable hobby, that is).
I’ve also lost friendships, hit my lowest emotional point, rebounded from that point, and evolved more than I ever have before.
But most of all, I’ve learned how and where to educate myself outside of the classroom. I’ve learned that it’s okay not to be a complete island. And I’ve started to research my family history, which is so much richer than I could have imagined, as well as the complex and fascinating history of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Having an intimate knowledge of where my family comes from is both empowering and valuable. For me, learning about the history of colonization, political and even musical and culinary history is a responsibility that I hadn’t fully realized the importance of.
It has simultaneously cemented my heritage: I am, without question, 100% Latina. I come from a mixed lineage of Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, perhaps even French settlers and the Tainos. The first time someone told me I didn’t “belong” with my family was when I was 9 years old, and now twenty years later, I can say with assurance that I do, in fact, have a place. And it’s my job to claim it.
Now that I’ve got a clearer idea of who I am and what I want to say, it makes me more open to writing and sharing information with whoever is there to receive it.
Last night, shortly after midnight we saw the International Space Station zooming across the sky over France. A bright speck that moved so quickly from one end of our horizon to the other, that we barely recognized it before it disappeared. And I can only imagine, to the people onboard the ISS, we looked like a dark patch of night; to them, we were less than specks. Makes me think about my whole infinite-universe-gives-us-ultimate-freedom theory.
I suppose I’m a speck that accepts its speck-hood and wants to enjoy its speck-sized glory while it has the chance.
I think there are two groups of people reading this right now: those who read the title and wonder what exactly it is I’m going to nip, and those who are ready to mock me for fucking up the expression.
Come on, be honest: which group are you in?
It’s a mistake easy enough to make; maybe you learned the expression as a kid, just repeated it, but never thought about what that configuration of words actually means. Personally, I imagine getting nipped in the ass by a little dog whenever I hear someone say this. Ouch.
My point is, it’s one of those funny mistakes that even native speakers make. But I don’t want to laugh or point at the “Nip-it-in-the-butt” faction because I have belonged to that type of faction before. The “laughed-at-for-being-wrong” faction.
There will always be things for us to point out about other people that will separate us, and give one group the triumph of being “right.” Smart people and dummies. People who use taboo words and those who don’t. Those who argue for protection of free speech and those who argue for protection of marginalized groups from hate speech. People who say “nip it in the butt” rather than “nip it in the bud.” Whatever. People like being better than other people: it’s satisfying. But it’s always good to remember that we all get our turn on the side where the “right” people point fingers and lord that glory over us. I’m more in the camp of “this is a silly game anyway.” Why get caught up in the game when, in the end, we’re all just grasping at straws, and the game is just another way to pass time?
So, I’m learning to recognize my mistakes, my being misinformed on something, my many knowledge gaps, and remember that they don’t define me. It’s just a matter of acknowledging them, giggling at them, and then reminding oneself to pick up a book once in a while.
As a little kid, I used to look up into the infinite night sky and feel hypnotized; It was as confusing as it was magnificent. (Of course, my fascination with outer space had nothing to do with the fact that I was convinced aliens existed, and they were headed right to my bedroom to bring me to my doom…) At a time when I was trying to figure out the world around me, and discover what reality meant, the blackness of space was incomprehensible. Out in the infinite vastness, I couldn’t even see anything that looked remotely familiar from my science class. We learned about our solar system with coloful diagrams that showed the other gigantic planets in comparison to Earth. Yet when I looked up at night, I saw nothing but tiny pinpricks. The magnitude of the galaxy was stupefying, and also oddly calming.
I remember asking myself, “If space is infinite, and Earth is nothing but a grain of sand in comparison to everything else, why do we matter? Why do our mistakes, our stress, our rules mean anything? If we’re nothing but grains of sand, why can’t we just do whatever we want? In the end, it means no difference to the universe.”
This thought followed shortly after : “If the universe is infinite and we will never be able to explore all of it, then how do we know for sure that aliens don’t exist?” Hey, I can’t disagree with my little self—I still think I had a point. My parents, however, weren’t so amused with my logic and how it related to aliens—they just told me I had an overactive imagination. See what they had to deal with ?
But the idea that maybe we don’t need to be governed by rules or stress or obligations that we create ourselves is something I forgot along the way. I am now a grown-up governed by made-up rules, and more often than not, I forget to look up at night, relax, and reclaim a bit of comfort in feeling free.
This memory popped into my head during my French literature class, of all places. We were discussing the philosopher Camus and his interpretation of the meaning of our existence and its absurdity; we try to assign meaning to our existence through systems of belief, but it had no inherent meaning to begin with. We can become conscious of the lack of meaning of our existence, realize that this makes us free, and thus we can make the most of our time here by living with passion. Cool. As we discussed how this philosophy plays out in absurd anti-theater by Ionesco, my brain clicked. These guys were writing about an idea that resonated with one of my earliest difficult questions about life.
Of course, Camus wrote about existentialism and the Absurd after witnessing the horrors of World War II, and my little brain tickle stemmed from an irrational fear of killer aliens. So I can’t take any credit for originality, but all the same, it’s comforting to reintroduce myself to this idea, like I’ve come full cycle. I’m only a little less confused about this life thing than I was when I was a kid, and after all I’ve been through to get here, it’s funny how revisiting an old unanswerable question is enough to shed some light and give me hope.