Just like most Saturdays, Mark had been sent to spend quality time with my in-laws and Feng was shopping around or sitting at McDonald’s with a large iced coffee—whatever works, as long as both guys get out of the house and give me a chance to complete the weekly cleaning chore.
I rinsed the sponge, put the mop away, washed my hands and headed out for a walk.
Just past one the small parking lots used by customers of Cassini Cash (pawn shop), Howard2020 Pawn Shop (another pawn shop option), Tina Takahashi Martial Arts Training (possibly related to the pawn-shop business model) or just your regular drug dealer, a car stopped next me.
“Eh Juliette, it’s me!”
“Oh, sorry Feng! I didn’t see you.”
“I honked at you and you didn’t even slow down!”
Ah, ah. That’s cute.
“Feng… I hate to break it to you, but I’m a woman,” I replied. “Men honk at me often enough. Sometimes, men shout things at me on the street or from their car. So no, I don’t usually slow down when I hear a car honk.”
Yeah, “oh.” Welcome to life with boobs, even a very modest cup size.
It’s not fair but it’s just the way it is—if you’re a woman or identify as one, a number of safety or sanity tips apply. You can take your anger to social media or quietly work on destroying patriarchy (my preferred option). Either way, things don’t change that fast.
I have hope, by the way. I find the world is a much less dangerous place than the media want you to believe. As a female traveller, I’m usually treated with respect. My male friends and relatives treat women right. Gender stereotypes are irrelevant at home—Feng changed as many diapers as I did and if something heavy needs to be moved you can be sure it’s for me.
Yet, I tend to walk with purpose. Sometimes, I put on a sweater or a pair of jeans and it’s not because it’s chilly. I ignore catcalls and walk away if I don’t feel safe enough to suggest the offender to fuck off or put his dick back into his pants. I learned to say “no” without elaborating. I don’t engage in small talk with people who give off bad vibes. I’m quick to mention “my husband” if needed.
I may have missed a few interesting chats with harmlessly awkward guys and acquaintances occasionally complain I didn’t wave back but I can live with that.
Because sometimes, things can go wrong. Very wrong.
Last month, I was on my way to Chinatown when a white SUV slowed down and stopped even with me. I couldn’t keep on walking and pretend I didn’t see it—the long residential street was dead quiet.
“Hey! Do you live around here?” the driver asked, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“Do you know if there’s a Tim Hortons around?”
I relaxed. This was a normal interaction and a very normal Canadian question. The driver was a clean-shaven guy in his late thirties or forties. I immediately assumed he was a contractor—summer is construction season and he was very tan, just like someone who had spent the past few months working outside. And if he was, it also made sense he wasn’t familiar with the area—he was probably coming from a new job site, fixing potholes on Carling Road or a roof leak in the neighbourhood.
“Oh, yeah. At the end of the street, turn left onto Merivale Road. It’s a two-minute drive, Tims will be on your right.”
And I resumed walking because that’s kind of what you do after giving directions.
Two days later, in the same street, a car pulled up opposite me.
“Hey, remember me? You helped me find a Tim Hortons!”
The same guy, again with an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Different car, though—this time, it was black.
I smiled politely.
“So I owe you a favour,” he added. “How about I buy you a coffee?”
“Sorry, I’m busy.”
“When will you be done? I can pick you up later.”
And this is precisely when he crossed the line between “stranger asking for directions” and “creepy guy.”
“I’m definitely not the right person.”
Why did I say that? Why didn’t I say “no, I have zero interest in grabbing a coffee with you?” Mostly because it didn’t feel right to antagonize him considering I was “trapped” alone with him in a quiet residential street.
I resumed walking.
He did a three-point turn and followed me.
“How about that? I drive you wherever you’re going and we stop for coffee on the way.”
I’ve hitchhiked abroad, I’ve hopped in the back of countless pickup trucks, I’ve slept on beaches and bus stations, I’ve explored “dangerous” places and I often wander around cities after dark but I would have never climbed into the car with him—even in broad daylight, even though Ottawa is a safe city and even though Canadians (at least when they’re not playing hockey) look very non-threatening.
I trust my instinct.
Several innocuous and probably completely explainable details made the situation creepy—the fact he was driving a different car, his careless attitude, the unlit cigarette he seemed to use as a prop, the way he was cornering me.
I didn’t reply and kept on walking. One block further was a major road with plenty of traffic. It was safer there.
Feel free to contradict me, but I can’t picture the same creepy vibes if the driver had been a woman or if I had been a guy.
And this is why, if honk at me, I probably won’t stop. If we know each other, we can always catch up later.