Walking with Alice
There’s a way she always pauses as we set off out the door, sticking out her elbow as an invitation for me to put my arm through hers. I slip my hand through the loop, taking up the support offered and rest my hand companionably on her arm. It’s a polite way to walk, formal and sedate, the walk of English ladies out for a stroll, although we are anything but your average ladies.
Stepping out into the warm summer night, as we begin our walk around the block, the air is pressing close. It’s a wetness on my skin, a hot intensity, a mix of my own perspiration and the humid moisture of the night itself.
We cross the road and there are a group of teenage girls standing at the traffic lights, they turn and stare at Alice then laugh in our faces. It’s not just the laughter, this could easily turn to push and shove. We hold our ground, return their looks and then walk on by.
At the entrance to the park there are the guys sitting and drinking on the benches near the gate as usual. I hate passing them when I’m alone, wondering what they will call out. Will it be compliments or harassment this time, and how do you pick between the two?
As we cruise through the park the air is viscous, flies buzzing, people lairy with the heat and booze. Physical space gets blurred and we steer through an obstacle course of snide remarks, catcalls and laughter. There is no separation between our bodies and the rest of the world. The night air carries a mixture of all of us, like a murky sexual fluid palpable with hostility and aggression.
We go to turn down a side street: a shortcut we often take, except this time there’s a guy standing in the road, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, he’s an obvious look out, his bulk blocking our path. There’s something going down that we don’t want to be part of. I steer us straight on, I don’t want to be funny, but sometimes it’s best to take the long way around.
Back in the home stretch, and from out of nowhere a group of teenage boys are behind us, they are moving fast, drawing alongside us and then we are engulfed. I’m so scared, I’m sure we are going to get hurt. I brace myself for whatever is about to come and then they overtake us and are gone.
Alice apologises to me when we are safe at home. She is sorry I get so frightened, she blames herself. I don’t like how scared I get, it makes me so angry how people behave and I hate myself for being a coward.
Alice says it’s like this at the same time every year, always noticeable with the change in the weather.
The level of tension on the estate has been a little high lately, when it turned really hot a few days ago the feeling of aggression on the streets was something else. I worried that I had lapsed into an insane level of paranoia; sometimes I think I’m just imagining what’s going on. Alice she mentioned she was happy to carry a ballpoint pen in her pocket and had been recalling techniques she had learned for using day-to-day objects as weapons.
Speaking of weapons, last week one of the teenage boys on our estate was stabbed while in the stairwell of our building. Then this weekend, that beautiful sunny weekend, someone was shot in the park next to my house. Just someone out having a barbecue, catching some sun, I’m sure they weren’t expecting to be catching bullets. It’s the sort of thing that makes me twitchy. I wish the teenage boys around here wouldn’t try to kill each other.
Usually when I’m out walking on the estate the most I have to deal with from the boys is a little sexual harassment. They’re a mix between pushing it and shy, cutting their teeth, seeing what they can get away with. And I am making sure they don’t get away with much. I grew up in this sort of place, people shot each other a little less in those days, but mostly I have to remember I’m NOT a teenage girl anymore and I can push back.
Alice’s walk: it’s jaunty. Depending on speed it can appear quite brisk and business like. Straight backed, arms swinging, it’s a sort of march, except with a little bounce to it. She walks as if she is moving forward into the world directly, determined, pushing some space out ahead of her. When she walks more slowly there’s a lithe grace that comes into how she moves. It’s an elegant casual strength, the movement of someone who clearly knows their own muscularity but is relaxed in that power, like a big cat.
My walk: well apparently there’s something of a strut, with a roll of the hips, head tilted back, some sexual aggression to it. It’s unconscious, something my body learned a long time ago as a way of getting through the world.
Passing, well there have been plenty of times I’ve complained about the invisibility of being a femme dyke and dealing with sexism, inside and outside of the queer community. That weird thing of being visible and yet invisible. In the straight world I’m visible as sexual and I deal with the shit that comes with it, but I’m invisible as queer. They just think I’m a slutty looking straight girl.
With Alice, her being visible as transgender and the harassment, sometimes I wonder how much of it is other people’s fear. That they don’t want to see her as sexual, that maybe they’re afraid of their own desire.
When I walk alone, there’s always sexual harassment in the street, it’s part of my day-to-day. I’m used to it, used to navigating. Out on the street it’s a matter of getting a feel for the energy, of giving yourself a bit of play with it. Knowing how to judge it. Whether to make eye contact or not, figuring out who might be dangerous, who it’s best to give something back to. Flirting can keep you out of trouble sometimes: it’s not always a case of telling people to fuck off.
Playing the line for safety, being able to sense it, deflecting or holding the energy just right. Sometimes I switch on the charm just to mess with people, a shift in stance, a look held a little too long, it makes me laugh to watch them respond, to feel the stupid power of it. Plenty of games I know how to play just fine and mostly I am not afraid in the street cos I know how to watch what is going on around me. Depending on the day I can voyage between a mince and a swagger. Except when I’m suffering from agoraphobia, then its eyes down, head down, hunched against the world.
The next day when we go out walking, it’s easier, some days it just is, it’s hard to see what has changed. There are those days when we walk together laughing it off, looking people up and down, giving menacing looks and spitting back.
Times when I walk beside Alice and dare people to say anything, giving them hard looks. I want to stand between her and the world, using my body as a buffer and offering her my protection. Is it really something we can control if only we can remember the right mindset? The other side of this is my anxiety, the expectation that people will behave badly and my fear in anticipating it.
That and our own disbelief when we see how nice people can be. I get really pissed off at my own gratitude for people treating us like human beings. The fawning pleasure at being treated ‘normally’ is accompanied by a burning anger.
Sometimes I envy Alice, the days when she walks through the park and just flips people ‘the bird’, the wit and grace she carries it off with. Her physical strength, her experience and training in martial arts.
Sitting on the top deck of the bus we are looking down at the guys outside below us. They are gesturing at us and issuing threats, like small dogs yapping safely from behind closed doors. Alice looks at them carnivorously and speaks of breaking wrists, she tells me ‘I know exactly where to grasp those bones to snap them effortlessly, I can just hear the sound of them breaking’. I regret my own smallness, my lack of physical strength, my fear of being involved in violence ‘because of her’.
Sometimes when I am alone fear rises up and crushes me. Fear, cringing from peoples looks, being afraid of having people see me, the pain of it, the shame and terror. How I wish I could slip invisible through the world on those days, when I am never able to get my clothes, my face, or my body ‘right’. When I am unable to walk in the street without feeling an overwhelming desire to keep to the shadows of buildings, to press myself against walls, to dart from doorway to doorway, as if avoiding a sniper. Each movement in open space a hell of fear. I keep my eyes down, away from the judging stares of others.
But my agoraphobia is real, those times of having difficulty leaving the house. Girl socialisation is to be good and quiet and stay at home, because outside is dangerous.
Walking across the park back to the estate, there is a young guy walking in front of me: shirt off, jail-bait/gangland tattoos across his back. In my usual horny, dick for brains mood, I am idly wishing to myself that all these badass neighbourhood boys were trans-guys. It’s a shitty mixed-up stereotyping on my part. I objectify these guys and then freak about the reality, somehow I want trans-guys to be different.
He’s beautiful, there’s a gloss on his tattooed skin and I feel as if I can almost smell that sweat and heat.
Walking close behind him as we reach the gateway onto my estate, I’m so close as we pass through the gate I could reach out and touch him. He pauses to exchange a few words with two lads already on the estate.
Next thing I know, punches are flying, inches away from me. I feel the rush of air, it’s so close. Then they are on the ground fighting. They hit each other so hard, the sound of punches hitting rib cages resonating. A complacency of physical strength that amazes me. I hate feeling that I don’t know what to do in these situations, except move the fuck away and hope that no one pulls out a knife or a gun.
I stand for a moment, then I realise this is stupid. I can’t stop the fight and its best I don’t stand there waiting to be noticed. I step away and walk quickly back to my block. As I’m walking the two lads run past me, they pause on the corner and then double back, jumping over a fence to cut back to the park. I get inside my flat and stay there. I don’t feel like going out anymore today.
Twenty minutes later, there’s a police tape cordon out in the park. The police are walking around the estate peering into bushes in the community garden checking out the hedgerows looking for ‘evidence’. Seems like the fight got taken up again and one of the boys was stabbed.
Walking past the pools of dried blood the next morning, I wish I had the energy or brain to know how to deal with this. I don’t need to read a theoretical text to see the politics in everyday life but what the hell do you do about it? Inside me there is such a confusion, filled with the ideas and behaviours I learned growing up. I would like to say that growing up surrounded by sexism and violence hasn’t heavily influenced the ways I relate to people, especially my intimate relationships, but it has.
I have a love affair with London, I feel at home here, funny to say but for a city of millions of people it can feel so quiet and peaceful. It can be a rough place but that only makes its moments of gentleness seem all the more intense. Walking home from the bus stop, arriving back in town after a weekend away, Alice and I relax into the familiarity of this city, the neighbourhood, familiar roads and bricks and stones.
As we cross under the bridge just about to walk onto my estate a car slowly cruises past us, a flashy silver car, city boys out living it wild. One of them leans out the window and shouts ‘Tranny’. I’m pissed off, who the fuck do they think they are cruising into my neighbourhood with their smart-arsed remarks. I turn in their direction, slap my crotch and yell back ‘Suck my dick motherfucker!’
Then my heart freezes, because instead of driving on they stop the car and start to reverse back towards us. I’m scared. They pull up next to us, lean out the window and ask ‘What did you say?’ All my bravado is gone: nonetheless I lean in close towards them and reply ‘I said suck my fucken dick.’ Then I turn and walk away. I hope they can’t see me shaking.
Alice is still standing there by the car, she doesn’t seem as intimidated by them as I am. She is calm, while I, in all my rage, am terrified. Terrified of what might happen and that this is all happening right here on my estate. I don’t want them to know where I live.
The boys lean further out the window of their car and ask Alice with curiosity ‘Does she really have a dick?’ Alice turns to them with a wink and replies ‘Yes she does, quite a big one in fact.’ The boys pull their heads in and drive away. Alice is chuckling to herself. I also laugh at having passed in quite another way, but this time I didn’t like the threat of violence my ‘realness’ brought with it.
Once we get inside it takes me a long time to stop shaking, for my heart to stop hammering in my chest. And I feel like a traitor, because for that instant I would have given anything not to have their attention focused on me, not to have them think I am like her. I would have happily sold out for the promise of invisible passing safety.
I remember the first time I went out with Alice in public, outside of our world. I saw the looks people gave her, it was a shock. I wondered what other people saw. Was it something different from what I saw? I hated those looks, driving a wedge of fear and shame between us and I hated myself for feeling that way. Without Alice maybe I wouldn’t have to put up with those looks. But that’s not true, I’ve had it all my life, those looks, even when I am invisible.
I am not what they see, they never really see who I am.