Accepting The Fear That Comes With Womanhood

Last year something terrible happened. It started when I found a possum in my room, but don’t worry, it gets worse.

A lot of sketchy things went down in the house I was living in—a mysterious woman lived in a shack in our backyard, tampons occasionally sprouted from the roof and lawn, feces bubbled up from the carpet etc. We stayed because it was cheap and huge, not because it was safe or livable. When I turned on the lamp one night and instead of illuminating my book it illuminated the glittering eyes of a possum, the bargain no longer seemed worth it.

The next day I told my roommates and they laughed. I called my dad. He laughed and told me there was probably an entire family of them living in the house. I called my landlord who laughed then grew somber when I threatened to sue him. The handy man he sent to inspect the house found approximately thirty holes where a possum could enter. Everyone found this very amusing.

Six months later everything about my life was different. Instead of living in a crumbling mansion in Texas, I was subletting a small room in an apartment on a highway in Queens. The possum had become a symbol I used to demonstrate to the worldly New Yorkers I now associated with how deeply barbaric the place I had moved away from was. It was my response to the question, “What brings you to the city?”

What really brought me to the city was not a possum, but a cauldron mixture of spite and luck. I got a job, and so I moved.

The sublet was fine for a month until I began waking up in the middle of the night and hearing scratching sounds under my bed. I did not investigate.  I cranked the portable air conditioner and told myself to gut up. I was an adult. I was on my own. I was imagining things.

Then I started seeing rodents everywhere and realized I was not imagining things. The apartment was being taken over by mice. Adult solution: move out a month early.

The incident became an inside joke. Remember that one time Alikay bailed on that sketchy apartment and slept in MaryEsther’s bed for three weeks? I laughed and then promptly forgot about it until six months later when my TGITing was interrupted by my roommate’s quiet warning.

“Don’t freak out,” she said. “But I’m pretty sure I just saw a mouse.”

I did not “freak out,” but I did refuse to move from the couch until friends arrived with steel wool and flashlights to investigate the situation. After seeing it again, I fled the building.

It was my first rodent experience where moving out wasn’t an option. This time it wasn’t in a ratty mansion or shitty highway apartment. It was in my home.

We set traps. I performed holy rituals with peppermint oil and popped sleeping pills like Tic Tacs. I burned my hand on the radiator because I was convinced there was a mouse inside and had to check to make sure it was just warming up. It was.

My friends laughed at my fear because I made it the punch line of a joke. It was funny because I am not a skittish person. If we’re being really honest, I’m disgusting. I’m unfazed by spiders, germs, cockroaches, mold, and bees. But rodents left me paralyzed. In every shadow I saw a living thing. Every sound was claws scraping away at my sanity.

The mouse was small and I knew it probably wouldn’t hurt me. It didn’t matter. I was still powerless.

Lena Dunham once wrote that to be a woman is to know fear. Similarly, some dead guy once advised that we have nothing to be afraid of but fear itself. This is a funny kind of circular reasoning. You have nothing to be afraid of except being afraid so if the thing you are afraid of actually exists you should be terrified.  

I am afraid and afraid of being afraid and afraid of other people knowing how thick in my blood this fear runs.  

My roommates rationalized that even if the mouse was still in the house it had no reason to come into my room so I should not be worried. I rationalized that even if the mouse did come into my room, nothing would be worse than the possum. Eventually I weaned myself off of sleeping pills and stopped coating my body in peppermint oil. The sharpness of my fears deserted me, but there is a deeper agony that persists.

Here is what I realized about the fear that stole my sleep and peace of mind: it is the same feeling that clenches my stomach when I’m walking alone at night, or wearing a skirt in the presence of construction workers, or daring to dance in a public place.

New York is still shaking off its bad boy reputation, but it’s actually the safest large city in America. I know this. I’ve seen the statistics. But on nights when I walk past groups of wrinkled older men laughing and smoking against brick buildings, my organs wring themselves out and the veil is torn.

There is an image of myself I spend almost all of my energy trying to project. Strong woman. Independent person. Self-sufficient human. I have a job, I pay my bills, and I plunge the toilet when necessary.

This fantasy is secure until I run into the reality of other beings. Small, living creatures can wiggle into my home through a hole the size of a dime and claw away my security.

Any person on the street who is bigger than me (everyone) and male looking (half of everyone) has the ability to take this from me, which means, of course, that I do not actually possess this freedom I am trying so desperately to project.

I thought I was imagining a mouse before and I was wrong. The fear was real and rational and true. It’s estimated that 82 percent of American homes contain mouse allergens (caused by mice urine or feces).

It is not an irrational fear because every 19 seconds an American woman is sexually assaulted and 27 percent of women have been assaulted by someone in public. This is the fear itself.

What I mean when I say I am afraid of mice is that I am afraid to acknowledge that my independence is an illusion. Most men probably don’t care about my existence or my body, but if they did they are stronger than me and could do something with that strength, and probably go unpunished for it. Most mice probably don’t care about my existence or my body either, but they are here and so I am afraid.

My friends are not as unnerved by mice, but they each have their own peculiar anxieties. Cockroaches. Being alone. Confined spaces. Whatever punctures the picture of themselves they are projecting.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my bed when I saw a mouse run into my room. I was uncomfortable, but not afraid. I felt lucky, even, because it could have been worse. Instead of a mouse it could have been a possum. Instead of being yelled at I could be assaulted. I slept just fine that night. I am learning to accept reality.

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  • Thank you for writing and sharing this! I recently moved out from my parents’ house, and I didn’t realize how much I relied on them being around to feel safe. I never leave the apartment after dark unless my boyfriend is with me. I’ve had to learn to deal with spiders on my own, and when I realized how terrible my cat is at hunting, I got another one from the animal shelter that is much better at chasing and catching things. I’m wary of groups of boys or men and purposely avoid eye-contact whenever possible. There’s many things that I do and places I avoid that my boyfriend would never have thought of simply because the reality of it is that as a woman there are many more potentially dangerous circumstances for me to find myself in than there are for a man. I will, however, refuse to bring a knife into the bathroom with me for a shower. My boyfriend’s single mother has had the habit for years and I considered my favorite knife ruined when I found her one afternoon, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel, with my knife in her hand as protection.

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