My sister turned seventeen today. I cannot imagine this girl, nine years my junior, reaching an age of such autonomy. I remember the days I was able to hold her in my weak 11-year-old arms. I remember taking her on ice cream dates when I got my first job. And as we grew, those intimate days faded into ones of distance, heartache, and angst. And now we exist on opposite sides of the state and I don’t call enough. I am wary of the intricacies and pitfalls that exist in our family dynamic and from Boston I wonder, “Have I taught her enough?”
I have been back from Israel for six months. I have settled down, as much as I am capable, in an apartment, in a job, and with a boy whom I love. Behind the scenes, the consequences of outing the Route 9 Diner have continued to play out. For the first time in years, I feel satisfied and sure.
But something happened last week:
I had been saying for months that I disliked the leer of one of the cooks at my new job.
“He’s harmless,” my manager told me.
“He’s lecherous,” I always readily responded.
And for months my manager was right. Or at least, we were both right.
In the last month, he stopped eyeing me and began speaking to me.
“Fea,” he’d say as I dropped off dishes out back.
“Fea,” as I collected silverware to be polished.
“Fea,” as I exited the restroom.
Fea, Fea, Fea, Fea.
As much as I disliked these unsolicited comments on my appearance, I accepted them as harmless and allowed him the liberty to continue making this joke although it was at my expense. I told him he was rude, he laughed, I left the kitchen. For weeks this persisted as background noise. But last week, the tone changed:
“Fea, you have Facebook?”
“Yup,” I prayed he wouldn’t send me a friend request.
“I see your Facebook,” he tells me.
“Yeah, you saw pictures of me and my novio?” A warning.
“You novio es feo!” he spat before offering his reassurance, “but you look good.”
At first I didn’t realize that he openly admitted to snooping through my Facebook photos in his spare time. And the truth is that I may have missed this entirely, had I not had a second encounter with him that day.
“Fea, get me a coca,” he told me after coming into the dining room at the end of his shift.
Unbothered, I acquiesced and bent down to reach into the fridge for his soda.
As I handed it to him he sauntered towards me and gently swatted the back of my thigh with the rag in his hand. “Estoy mirando,” he said quietly, “you’re beautiful.”
Taken aback, I mumbled a quick thank you, hoping he would leave.
I stood in stunned silence, angry and ashamed. For a moment I had been brought back to working at the Diner and felt powerless to the cook’s blatant harassment. I contemplated brushing off the moment and ignoring my discomfort. I considered the repercussions that would be dealt to me in retaliation. I feared reporting it to my managers and being brushed off; what if my habit of being so outspoken about matters of sexual harassment has backfired and I am not taken seriously because of my willingness to cite any instance?
I have spent the last six months calling on women to speak openly of their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I have advocated for an end to silence, yet I still find myself gagged with the fear of the consequences of my voice. Someone is bound to notice I’m the common denominator in all these instances, I tell myself. But this is not true: the common denominator is this pervasive culture that this sort of behavior is not only tolerated, but acceptable. This is why we must break our silence.
Have I taught my sister enough? I don’t know. Even I fall victim to my own apprehensions and reticence. But we are in this together.