A Woman’s Place
A Woman’s Place
Jane and I stood expectantly in a huge line in front of the halls of congress. Due to her travel vouchers and connections, we had an almost free week of wandering Washington, DC during cherry blossom time. The presidential city was circled with pink blooms and reflected in the pools and rivers that described it’s boarders.
“Now Marlene,” she said, grabbing my arm, “Do you know where you put the passes?”
I pulled them out of my bag. She’d gotten almost motherly about escorting me around the city and it was wearing a little thin. I handed them to her. “Right here.” I said, taking it off my plate and putting it back on to her.
“I had to write the senator for these. You can’t just walk into the senate,” she reminded me. Her original major had been political science. This was a hall of wonders for her.
That wasn’t to say it wasn’t exciting for me either. Both Nona and my mother voted as a religious obligation. My mother, always looking for a better advantage used to say, “A woman’s place is in the house and in the senate.” I didn’t feel any personal need for office but I do appreciate representation from women like myself, more than the tired old men who seem to want their comforts and powers unchanged and unquestioned.
We’d spent the morning in the National Garden, wandering through the roses. A short lunch at the capitol cafeteria bolstered us to stand and wait for the tour of the Capitol building proper. We crept up the line. Finally our group was slipped past the velvet rope and into the building. I took off my dark glasses, trying to adjust to the light. I looked up into the eye of the rotunda, at the Apotheosis of George Washington, a picture deifying our first president. I wondered what this humble man, a member of the order of Cincinattus, thought about being encircled with muses and Grecian goddesses.
Our tour guide gathered us up and on as a group. Jane kept pace, but I found myself straggling at the end of the group, constantly fascinated by one picture or sight after another, taking a moment to look just a bit longer when everyone else had gone through.
Finally I saw a most welcome sight that said restroom. Everyone else had gone before me. The woman’s line was still stretched down the hallway. But the men’s was clear. I looked around. No one was watching. And I really couldn’t wait. I slipped into the door of the men’s.
It was completely empty. I walked past the urinals to the stalls. The floor was a bit more sticky, but any port in a storm. As I sat resting a moment, I thought I heard someone banging on a pipe. There was a rhythmic clank and the sounds of a struggle. A girl whispered desperately, “No, please no!” I was at the end of the stalls and I poked my head out. I still could hear the struggle, the tear of clothing, a slap, a moan of pain. But I couldn’t see anyone there. Again the cry, louder now. “Please no!” and the sound of flesh hitting flesh repeatedly. I looked into the mirror at the head of the room.
I could see a man holding a woman down, pinned at the sink, him behind her, his face a mask of fury and disgust, his trousers at half mast. He was thrusting into her violently as she silently cried and lay limp under him, afraid to struggle, afraid to fight. He’d torn her gown, but from the tatters I could see it was from the 1800’s. The bits of torn apron around her declared a servant, or perhaps a slave. They were both ghosts, visible only in the mirror.
She saw me reflected as well. She reached up to me and said, “Help me!”
How do you stop a ghost? They have free will. They’re bound by no one and nothing. However you can sometimes shock them and distract them. I did the one thing I could. I bundled up my fury psychically and lambasted it at him, screaming in my head, “YOU STOP THAT!”
For a moment he was startled. He lost his grip on her. She fled through the mirror, dissolved through the glass, out of his grip, mouthing the words “Thank you!” at me. He turned to face me in fury for what he’d lost.
If I could do nothing to him, there was nothing really he could do either to me. I wasn’t afraid of him. He was disgusting, but he had no real power, except in that memory where he took power for pleasure and hatred against a woman of color.
“It was my right! A woman has no place in the halls of power.” he screamed at me. He tried to reach for me, to bend me to my harm. His hand went through me. Shocked and frightened at his helplessness, he dissolved into the mirror himself.
I found myself shaking with rage. Even after the fight, my disgust for this man was pumping through my veins. I staggered out the door, to find Jane searching for me.
“Where did you go?” she said angrily.
“I met some people in the bathroom.” I said, limp from the fight.
“In the men’s room?” she said derisively.
“The line was shorter. Actually they’ve got a problem in there.”
“So call nine one one and let’s catch up with the tour,” she said. “Or we could go get the guard,” she suggested.
“I don’t think it will help. There’s a dead man raping a ghost in the bathroom.”
Jane raised an eye brow and crossed her arms over her chest. “Stop it, Marlene,” she demanded. “That’s not funny.”
“No it’s not. But it’s happening anyway.”
She pushed against the men’s door, and peeked in. “No one’s there.” She said. “Don’t be silly. You imagine this stuff.”
We heard a scuffle and some banging start up. I opened the door again. Instead of the fat old man raping the woman, there was a taller, younger man, in flannel trousers and a summer suit bending back a small boy over the sink the child’s legs dangling in the air. “Help me!” the child cried.
Jane couldn’t see it, but she could hear it. “Do I call nine one one?” she asked in a stage whisper. I heard her gag softly in disgust.
“What do you think, Jane?” I answered her on the edge of satire, fueled with panic. “Is the guard going to arrest the guy? What?”
I walked into the room, whacking my purse into one of the stalls. The room shook with the boom.
“STOP IT!” I screamed as I threw my psychic weight against this man.
The man looked up at me. Licked his lips. “No.” I said. “You’re dead. Nothing you can do. You can relive this atrocity endlessly, but there’s nothing you can do to me. You’re dead. Lie down.”
His image in the mirror rippled, wavered, shrank a little.
We see you,” I said. “No corners. No hiding. We see what you did.
But you’re dead. Nothing you do now matters.” The man dropped the child who crawled under the sink.
“We see you,” Jane echoed me. It was an indictment.
“We see you. We see you dead and powerless,” I continued.
His image shrank at the reality. But he had to fight back somehow. He said, “You’re just women. You can’t stop me. You can’t stop me. You can’t stop me.” The words repeated, but they were false. We had stopped him.
The boy ghost looked up at me.
“Am I dead too?” he asked me.
“I’m afraid so.” I said cooly. I sat on the floor across from him. Jane leaned on the outside door, as if to hide. Or to keep others out and give me space to work.
“I’m not a pansy, you know. I can take care of myself.” He was whistling in the wind. He had to tell himself that. Anything but be a victim. Helpless. Hurting. Hopeless. He puffed himself up with a deep breath into the body of the fat old man I’d found savaging the woman earlier.
Startled, I felt my gorge rise. And stuffed it back down. This was like vampires. The monsters were all victims no one bothered to try to save.
“Really,” I said mildly. I looked him up and down assessing him.
“No one will hurt me like that again,” he insisted.
“Really. It doesn’t hurt to become a rapist? I can’t imagine something more hurtful to be. What kind of man rapes people to prove he’s strong?”
The man’s shirt didn’t quite stretch over his belly and gapped around the buttons. His hair stood up in a confused cloud. His face was a map of broken red veins. His face flushed red as I spoke.
“I would think it would be a mortal dread to find yourself needing to force people like that,” I continued.
“That woman questioned me.” The old man declaimed. “She had no right.” He was arguing not with me but with someone else long ago.”
“So if she was outside her place, she should be punished?” I asked for clarity.
“She was pushy. She wanted all kinds of rights and new laws. For God,’s sake someone taught her to read! I showed her who was in charge,” he defended himself. He lifted his chin as proof of belief.
“Like that man showed you who was in charge?” I asked.
Suddenly,the man dissolved into the image of I at the boy again. “No one does that to me any more,” he declared.
“Instead, you chose to repeat it over and over.” His chin fell. I continued,“He was a monster. He made you a victim. You made yourself into a monster like him.”
“She didn’t know her place!” he insisted.
“Where are we? Are we in America?” I asked mildly.
“Well of course!” he’d slid back into his fat old self.
“What is a woman’s place?” I asked, baiting him, setting the trap.
“Safe at home!” he demanded. “Where they can be protected.”
“Like you protected this woman? Is safety only for white women? Or quiet women? Biddable women?” I let that sink in. “What should women do? What is their place?” I asked.
“They should be homemakers,” he mused. “They provide a stable home life for their husband and children. They set the moral standards.” He was at least from a hundred years ago. I could see why he took his stance. But I wasn’t going to let it stay. “If they are out in the world they’re asking for it,” he declaimed.
“Did you ask for it?” I asked, refusing to let go. He was silent.
“How did we stop the man from raping you?” I left him with the unthinkable answer.” Woman support men most by telling the truth. By bearing witness. This is exactly a woman’s place. That is woman’s work.”
He started to shrink, first in the mirror and then in my sight. But the boy was the one I saw last in the mirror. He rubbed his bruises, shook off the pain and collected himself. He finally worked past his rage at being stopped to realize he’d been rescued. He mouthed the words, “Thank you,” as he disappeared from the mirror.
“ Jane,” I looked at her steadily and she looked away, somewhat daunted. “You’re not going to tell me I make this stuff up again, are you?”
“Uh, no,” she mumbled.
Another tour group rushed down the hallway on the next tour. Jane and I blended in with them, ready to leave the hallowed halls. A woman’s work is to tell the truth, even if the stars fall. A woman’s place is in the house. And in the senate.