Over the past year, I have been terrified for my safety and the safety of my loved ones. Paradoxically, I have also never felt so safe. My existence, which once involved traipsing about a city has been narrowed to my home and basically a 2 block radius. I see my neighbors as I walk my dog. I greet the woman who owns the breakfast place where I grab coffee. We see the folks at our neighborhood places when we pick up our takeout order. Otherwise, I have been home.
Being home means that I have not had to stand on a nearly empty subway platform gauging whether that guy is slowly inching closer or whether I'm just being paranoid. Or to then get into the subway car and have to extricate myself at the next stop when that guy then sits right next to me despite the nearly empty car. I have not been alone in an elevator with a man I didn't know trying to ward off weirdly inappropriate banter or feign obliviousness to unsubtle staring. I have not been subjected to either the loud and obtrusive catcalls or the ones that are just an unsettling whisper 3 feet after you've walked by that make you wonder if you really heard anything. I've not had to make the choice whether to voice my disgust and risk a confrontation and my safety, or to keep walking and let them feel like they goaded me into submission. I have not had to make choices about whether I walk my "safe" route home or pay for an Uber home because the sun is going to set. Or whether I should change my shoes or what I'm wearing to try and avoid attention or at least be able to extricate myself quickly if I must. I have not had to text my husband that I am heading out so he knows at what time he should start to worry. I have not had to part ways with my friends with the usual "text me when you're home!" and bug them when they are slow to confirm their safe arrival. I have not had to get into an Uber and share my location with my husband or get a panicky feeling in my stomach when the driver doesn't precisely follow the map.
It's been a strange realization of how much mental energy I expended in my daily life to try and avoid attention and stay safe. That absence of those mental calculations that all women know too well has been a surprising freedom I have found in the safety of my home.
I've now gotten one vaccination dose with the second one pending. My team Zoom calls are inching closer and closer to the discussion of returning to the office. I am on one hand grateful for the looming promise of immunity and the ability to gather with friends. I am also grateful for what that all means on a larger scale - more people vaccinated means that the tide is turning on the pandemic, that people whose jobs were obliterated by quarantine may see a return to work, that people who were isolated during the past year can enjoy the embrace of friends and family. But on the other hand, there exists within me a reticence to restart all my safety mechanisms.
I know I'm not the only one. The recent headlines of Sarah Everard in the UK kidnapped and murdered on her way home, by a cop no less, struck a nerve in women. The outpouring of grief at her death has been immense. As, too, has been the frustration that Everard did everything "right." She took the extra lit way home, she talked to her boyfriend and kept him updated about her progress. And still... And then the anger, that her death has been met with the usual refrains of "she shouldn't have been out alone so late" or other critiques about how she should have behaved so as not to get murdered.
The reality is that the safety mechanisms are a farce that we have to engage in, to believe in, or we might never leave the house. And, quite frankly, not leaving the house has been a relief. But if I really think about it, it's not that I am afraid of leaving the house so much as I know that my anger at the reality of my place as a woman in our world will once again bubble up and begin to choke me. I will have to swallow my indignation that I'm the one who is told how to behave instead of the world telling men not to sexually harass, assault, or murder women who are just trying to live their lives.
I'm not so naive as to believe that the world has changed in the year I've withdrawn from it. I just wish I would be proven wrong.