There is an unofficial ritual that happens at the end of almost every shift. We'll gather, me and the other women who work at the restaurant, having a drink or a smoke, and we'll swap the strategies we use for getting home. Do you feel safe wearing both headphones? Do you carry your keys between your fingers? Do you trade your tips for a taxi ride or risk the walk? we ask, not looking for answers as much as we're looking for assurance that our constant vigilance is not unique. It's impossible not to talk about the ten or twenty minute journey home and the ways we've learned to navigate the dangers it presents, just as it's impossible not to admit that the threat of danger is the low hum that narrates every woman's life.
Once I got into an argument with a chef when he asked if I it was true that I felt safer walking on the streets in Brighton than I did the streets of South Africa. He was trying to support some racist argument and I responded, "I don't feel safe walking down any street that a man is also walking on". He was incredulous at this. A month before, I had asked a man to stop following me down the street after I'd already told him that I was not interested. He was immediately transformed. His hopeful, almost playful flirting melted into an immediate rage, and he began yelling at me that I was a fucking bitch that no one would want to follow, while continuing to follow me down the street. I saw then how fragile his desire was and how my rejection of him meant that his entitlement would become something uglier, something infinitely more dangerous. If his friend had not told him to leave me alone, if there were not a man there to hold him back, I don't know if I would have made it home that night. Every walk home involves the hope that this will not happen again and the knowledge that it might, and that this time I will have to be more agreeable, pliable, someone less likely to awake dormant rage, and maybe in exchange, I will make it home safely.
A few days after my conversation with that chef, another waitress will tell me she never feels safe on the streets in Brighton. What is it to move through the world without trying to anticipate the people who may hurt you?
There is no way to recover from a heartbreak although we all pretend there is. We say "time heals all wounds" as if there is a day where we will magically awake and time will have erased everything we have lost and our knowledge of it, as if time is a wave gently lapping at the shore of our memories, instead of something interminable and unfathomable, which somehow does not pass quickly enough, does not put enough distance between us and the devastation to remove it's immediacy, or moves too fast, six months and then a year having passed and not enough changed. I have tried to adjust to this new fear of hurt, tried to recalibrate it into my being, slot it somewhere with the other hurts, the other indomitable fears that I was born into or acquired. All I've managed is a shuttering of hope. Now, before I contact you, I anticipate the disappointment. It is physical, the way I shut doors within myself, and the impulse is driven by the same naked fear that makes me slip my key between my fingers or quicken my pace.
This is a loss of self I do not trust time to heal. What is it to love without anticipating the ways doing so may hurt me?
When customers ask if I like Brighton, I think I respond with an enthusiasm that shocks them. I love it, I tell them, and I mean it. Brighton saved me. So much of my life after college felt accidental. I had an internship that transitioned into a job, a flight that became love, a move and then another and another. Brighton was deliberate. I weighed the pros and cons of moving here, hesitated, fretted over it, and then finally came, even though it terrified me, even though I was so aware of everything I was giving up for something that was still unknown. And every day has been a becoming, a discovery. I could get a job, I could get an apartment, I could build a home. I could walk the streets and feel wowed and hopeful and filled with wonder. I could take care of myself.
It is the streets that I love the most. I spend so much of my time here walking: to and from walk, to the grocery store, to the pub and dinner and wherever my friends are, to anywhere and everywhere. Driving feels like something I have never done; buses depress me. In the day time, in the first moments when I venture from home, I am filled with such simple joy by everything I see. I am always chasing the light, and I will look for the way it is reflected on the buildings, transforming some bit of architecture or graffiti into something delightfully new.
There are nights, too, when the streets feel as if they belong to me, where I do not feel like a walking ornament, present only so that the men who are also walking can pass their judgment on me. Walking home from the theatre with my best friend, I will feel giddy at the fact that we have reached adulthood, and that have done it together, after so many years of stumbling -- that we are coming home from an evening of cocktails and plays to our shared living room, where we will drink wine and eat burgers and continue the conversation we've been having for fourteen years. Then the people on the streets will not feel dangerous but like a reflection of my own surprising happiness. A man will offer his onion rings, and I will take one, glad and sure of the goodness of strangers.
It is these walks that make the other walks, humming with an undercurrent of fear, worth it.
I call you and your "hello" sounds like "come home". It is these conversations that makes all the spaces between them, electric with uncertainty, almost worth it.