Some of my friends—women of color, white women, cis women, LGBTQ+—regard their single years as a time of liberation and friendship and fun. And I am always happy to hear that. I am grateful that they had such a joyous opportunity to come fully into themselves and their lives.
And I certainly remember my singlehood in my early thirties as a time of exploration and self-discovery, renewed enthusiasm for life, healing, community, and profound joy.
But it is also undeniable that, for me, it was a period of harassment and stalking, of fear, of hypervigilance, of fierce self-protection, and of PTSD triggers that wouldn’t quit.
For many, heterosexual marriage still confers certain privileges on women. Certain basic rights that women do not have while we are without a partner, specifically a male partner. Some men treat a single woman, or even a woman they merely perceive to be single, in an entirely different way than they do a married (and seemingly) straight woman. And so the fallout from coverture laws endures.
* * *
One night during my first week on Midvale in north Seattle, my landlord Osho and my housemate Nick were having some beers in the kitchen. They offered me one from the fridge, so I popped the cap and took a swig and leaned back against the counter.
I don’t remember what we talked about that night, but eventually the conversation circled around to me, and I gave them general background about my work and education and my difficulty deciding whether to go to graduate school. As the conversation wound down, they commented about how my room did not have a door and whether I felt safe up there.
I said it was fine.
“It’s not like we’re going to go up there and rape you,” Osho said and laughed.
I rinsed out my beer bottle and tossed it into the recycling bin. “Sure,” I said. “Glad to hear that. Good night.”
* * *
I started sleeping on my friend Jonathan’s couch now and then.
Jonathan lived downtown in a studio, and it was awkward. But I told him I felt safer there, and I did. Marginally. I didn’t completely trust him. He had a poor sense of physical boundaries, going so far as wrestling me on my brother’s futon during my second attempt to leave Top, pinning me down, and laughing like it was fun.
And I’d never seen him date anyone but female coworkers who were in his lab for temporary assignments. He’d wait until they were two or three months away from their transfer back home, then sweet talk and date them until he got sex out of it. When they offered to stay longer, believing it was a real relationship, he always broke it off.
He was terrified of emotional vulnerability, of feeling anything real at all, and this was probably the only kind of relationship he was capable of. Fine. There are a lot of broken people out there, and expecting them to refrain from sex is deluded. But he wasn’t transparent about it with his partners. They always thought an actual relationship had developed naturally and believed that he was sincerely attached to them because this was what he presented.
But I knew he’d set his eye on them the moment they entered his lab. I knew because he told me. The same plan was set in motion, woman after woman, whether he found them intelligent or not, attractive or not. He was manipulative and cruel and unfeelingly selfish. Once I asked if he’d ever been in love with anyone, and he had nothing to say. It was easy for him to wound the feelings of others when he had no conception of the damage he was doing. Watching him with women was like watching a toddler torment a dying bird.
I knew he was dangerous and untrustworthy. But he was my friend, and like so many women with their male relatives and friends, I gave him a pass because he hadn’t hurt me.
* * *
One day I was waiting at my bus stop and admiring a man who looked rugged and handsome but otherwise not my type. I had my headphones on and had no desire to speak to him. I just wanted to enjoy the view. But unfortunately, he noticed. He followed me onto the E line and took the seat across from me. Then, he proceeded to mansplain drumming for the next 20 minutes.
At my stop, I excused myself and got up to leave, but he followed me off. The driver pulled away, and I was left standing alone on the curb with a man who by my estimate was at least 180 pounds and muscular. What had been mildly annoying on the bus now felt threatening. He followed me across the street and asked for my phone number.
I surmised, correctly, that refusing him anything at this point might result in retaliation. So I gave it to him. I didn’t want him calling a fake number on the spot and finding out, while still in punching range, that I had lied to him.
I was bright and cheerful and compliant the way I always am with anyone I suspect has the potential for violence. Then I said I had some errands to run, and he told me he’d be back in my neighborhood around this very spot about nine or ten that night and he’d like to come visit me.
Fat chance, was what I thought.
“Sure,” I said and smiled. “But I really do have to go now. Bye.”
And I ducked into a Taco Time.
He called promptly at nine. I didn’t pick up. He left an angry voicemail demanding why the hell hadn’t I picked up? He was in my neighborhood, and he needed to know what street I lived on and what my house number was.
I deleted the voicemail.
Ten minutes later another call.
Another voicemail. This one terrified me. He said he was going to find me. I’d made a commitment, and by trying to get out of it, I’d proven that I was a cunt. I was screwing him over. But he wasn’t letting me off the hook this easy. He was getting what he’d been promised.
Then he called again.
I turned off my phone, closed the curtains in my attic, and turned off the main lights. I plugged headphones into my laptop and watched a movie, knowing that if he started going door to door, Osho with his competition-level Jiu Jitsu skills or Nick with his Glock would answer, and that would be that. All these straight white men could sort out their own toxic bullshit themselves, thank you very much.
I hadn’t moved to a house full of men for nothing. Two in my part of the house, three in the basement apartment.
What was the constant hum of sexual harassment next to my physical safety?
Even a harassing, live-in landlord had his uses.
* * *
And the primary one was to keep Top off me. Top ensured that filing for divorce took as long as possible. He refused to split the cost of a lawyer with me, and I couldn’t afford one myself. So I had to become my own divorce lawyer. It took me months to read up on all the laws and figure out the cheapest, most efficient way to file on my own.
Top also refused to sign paperwork unless we met in-person, which meant accommodating his restaurant schedule.
Altogether, it took a year.
Top made the most of it. Once a month, he swung by the house where I rented a room. He brought Thai food, a scarlet Cheongsam, and assorted gifts. I took each gift, setting it aside for my housemates or my donations pile with a curt thank you, and asked him to please sign here. Whenever he tried to touch me, I began to speak loud enough for Osho to hear—nosy Osho with his door always flung open—and Top pulled away as if I’d slapped him.
Sure, the sexual harassment from Osho was tiresome. One morning as I shuffled down into the kitchen in my pajamas, my landlord asked me what kind of films I liked to watch. “Foreign,” I said groggily, hoping it would put an end to the conversation.
“What? Porn?” He pretended shock. “You like porn?”
“Foreign, foreign. Like other countries, dude.” I shook my head and put the creamer back in the fridge and shuffled back upstairs while he was still laughing at me, thinking he was cute.
But in the end, I got the divorce. And I didn’t get raped.
At the courthouse steps, after the judge had stamped our paperwork, Top gave me one last look and turned away from me on the sidewalk as he started to cry.
I stepped out into the street under the gray sky and felt nothing. Nothing at all. Pigeons ran circles around my boots. A homeless man huddled against a wall and cleared his throat. The piroshki shop next door switched off its sign.
It wasn’t as if I’d ever doubted that Top loved me in his own way, or my parents, too. They had. They all had. It just wasn’t a kind of love that was any good.
That May in 2012, I was 31 years old, and I was finally free.