I was sitting in the passenger seat when it happened. My friend Chuck and I were going to a meeting. Chuck’s the kind of guy that women flock to. I’m not. I’m more of an acquired taste, kind of like dark chocolate or coffee whereas Chuck is like dessert and everyone has a sweet tooth.
We were somewhere in the middle Hollywood, in the middle of the day, in the middle of summer, in the middle of a conversation when my lesson walked by. We were waiting at the stoplight. She was strolling through the cross walk going from left to right wearing a floral dress with gold accents, gold pumps and a green purse. She took long, elegant strides. Suddenly, she was moving in slow motion. At least, to me, she was. Whatever we were talking about, however important it may have been at the time, wasn’t so important anymore.
The conversation stopped and so did our eyes…on her. My stare lasted only moments. I was self conscious not wanting to offend her. Chuck’s stare lasted quite a bit longer. It didn’t stop. In fact, when she was directly in front of our car, he tilted his head down, lowered his sunglasses and stared over the top of them. The longer his stare lasted, the more uncomfortable I became.
“Everything but the shoes” he said.
He didn’t say it to me or to himself even; it was more like he said it to the air around him. I was incensed, not because she objected but because I thought she would and because I thought I should, because, in truth, I thought she’d want me to be.
I broke the silence: “Chuck! That’s rude! Stop staring!”
He wasn’t moved and he didn’t stop. I persisted. In the middle of looking at him and then her and back at him, I scolded him for being so visually abrasive. Finally, he responded:
“What? She likes it.”
“No she doesn’t!” I protested. “It’s rude and insensitive and she certainly doesn’t like it! No woman could possibly like that!”
My mother raised me this way. She raised me to think women didn’t like sex, that they did it begrudgingly and out of obligation but certainly not out of pleasure. It’s not that my mom actually said that. She didn’t have to. It was understood by her tone and an avoidance of all things physical. She didn’t even like my kissing her on the cheek. “Bushwa” or “Bastante!” (“enough” in Spanish) she’d say. You can imagine the confusion and conflict this caused. So much so, I used to love the occasional visits of an aunt, just because she’d give me a peck on the lips whenever she said “goodbye.” In all fairness, the message my mom taught was probably the message she was taught and I’m sure it eventually confused her too.
I carried on with my verbal assault and Chuck carried on with his staring, now turning to his right to see her as she passed. Believing this visual violation was finally coming to an end, I hurried her along with my eyes, hoping she’d be free of harm’s way, Chuck’s way. She stepped onto the curb and I was relieved. Just as I was about to turn back to Chuck, she did the unthinkable. She didn’t run or scream or scold like I did. She…
I was gobsmacked and completely shocked! I couldn’t make sense of it! How could this be? How could this beautiful, innocent, frail (or so I thought) woman be flattered and not insulted by what I was sure was unadulterated objectification?
“Wait a sec. What just happened? Why wasn’t she offended?” I queried.
“See Pete, there was no cat calling, no whistling, no acting like an idiot. There was just staring, quietly, peacefully, praising her with our eyes as we basked in her beauty. What woman wouldn’t want that? What woman wouldn’t want to be appreciated?”
“My mother,” I thought.
I stood, or rather sat, corrected. In retrospect, I wish I knew where this woman was, not because I’d like to see her again (I would) but because in striding by, this woman, this floral lesson, untaught in one walk what my mother taught and confused me with all throughout adolescence. I’d like to thank her.