One winter day almost 20 years ago, I was walking along a partly shoveled sidewalk in Queens. I got stuck behind a man: a tall, broad-shouldered guy, probably in his 30s. Not wanting to tailgate, I passed him when we reached the intersection.
I guess he didn’t like that. A few moments later, he accelerated behind me — I could hear and feel him coming like a speeding car — and maneuvered his way back into the lead. As he marched ahead of me on the next block, he held one arm high, giving me the finger. He kept that arm raised until he turned at the corner and disappeared.
For a long time, years, really, whenever I thought of this incident, I would feel angry, even enraged. Even if he were convinced that I would walk slower than him, and therefore felt he had to overtake me, why did he feel the need to flip me off?
I can think of one reason: Because he could. He could be fairly confident that a young woman, half his size, was not going to shout “F—k you” back, retaliate with some sort of pedestrian road-rage move or challenge him in any way. If I’d tried and things went wrong, he would’ve quickly overpowered me. He had many advantages, and that meant he could vent his anger — justified or not — while I couldn’t express mine.
In the years since, I’ve experienced similar episodes that seem minor, yet trigger intense emotions. Often, they take place in the subway. More than once, I’ve been nearly knocked off my feet by a man running down a staircase or across a platform. I’ve also witnessed other women in near-explosive encounters, and though the details are different, these conflicts usually share one aspect in common: The woman backs down or walks away, unwilling or unable to express her rage.
I know, or at least can guess, where she’s coming from. Maybe she’d been raised, like so many girls are, not to give voice to her anger or even to truly feel it. Or maybe she thinks she’s just being realistic, like I did that day in Queens. Maybe, after assessing the man who just shoved her or intruded into her space, she decided that the risks were too high. He might be violent; his already aggressive behavior might get far worse. And so she swallows her anger.
Yet the need to hold back adds to the reservoir of rage that so many of us carry around — and which, during the next seemingly minor confrontation, might find its way to the surface. For me, that moment came at a local diner. An older man was there with his wife, and I was there with my twin daughters. There were no other customers. It was my girls’ last day of preschool and I’d ordered ice cream. They clapped and let out a “Yay!” when it arrived, and the man shouted from several tables away, “If you don’t shut up those kids, I’ll do it myself.”
He was glaring at me. I felt a surge of fury, sparked by the threat in his words and his voice. But along with that fury came an unexpected thrill. In that adrenaline-fueled moment, I understood that this time, I would not hold back.
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I walked over to the man. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I stood over him, slammed my palms onto his table and demanded, “What did you say?”
I don’t remember his response. I could hardly hear anything over my own racing heartbeat, and I was caught up in the feeling of triumph at having stood up for myself and my daughters. I’d wanted, maybe even craved, the power of freeing myself from boundaries. Just once, I wanted to feel like anything could happen, that I could do and say whatever I pleased.
But my daughters were calling to me: “Mommy, mommy!” And then I glanced at the man’s silent wife. Her resigned look said she’d been through this before. As reality set in, I saw myself: I was yelling at an older man — at someone who, it was now clear, posed no physical threat — while my young daughters watched. Any pride or release I felt was instantly undercut by the awareness that now I was the one directing aggression toward someone weaker.
I returned to my daughters. They finished their ice cream while I sat there, shaking, my hands trembling with the aftershocks of my not-quite-spent anger.
Why did I choose this time to fight back? I wish the answer were simple: I’d been pushed too far by a threat directed at my children. But I made a calculation, one that I’m not proud of, considering the man’s age. When I jumped up from my seat, I did what I couldn’t all those other times, when the risks were too high. This time, the advantage was mine. But I realized there was nothing powerful about taking it.
Jennifer Kitses is the author of Small Hours.