“You still in high school, sweetheart?”
The man, wearing a tattered baseball cap and with a stomach that billows over the waist of his jeans, looks to be in his mid-sixties. He has crooked teeth and smells like cigarettes. I shove down my discomfort and force a reply.
“So, you’re eighteen?”
My insides fold, the summer air beats against my exposed legs, and I feel my waitress uniform press especially tight against my breasts. My blood gets hot and I feel the need to flee. More words spill from my lips before I can process them.
“Can I get you some more coffee?”
My own voice saves me by reminding me where I am. I realize I’ve been standing completely still, coffee pot gripped tight in hand, for too long. Noticeably long. I smile politely and gesture to the man’s cup, pouring the coffee slowly. The rings on my trembling hands catch the sunlight so bright that they sting my eyes.
He’s old enough to be my grandfather, with a rough voice, hungry glare, and tufts of hair that burst out of his nose. I’ve served men like him before. Some let their eyes linger over my body or allow their fingers to graze my lower back when they pass by. Others are less subtle.
I find refuge in the kitchen. I pull out a cutting board and lemons and slide the rings off my fingers to keep them dry. They’re an inconvenience at work─ I’m always careful not to get them dirty or lose them, and they catch on the loose strings of my apron─ but I’ve worked hard to afford this silver jewelry, and wearing it brings me a sense of dignity and pride that I need for days like these. On these days, especially humid days, with especially bloodthirsty men, I prefer to wear my rings.
When my mom is this age, she can only afford inexpensive rings. She’s a hard worker, paying her own way through community college, searching for a new job. She stops in different stores and smiles sweetly at the employees who hand her forms to fill out. She’s wearing the sundress that she wore to her high school graduation, colorful and flowing softly to her knees like petals of a flower. The woman at the front desk in one building meets my mother’s smile with a pointed glare that clasps her throat tight.
“Are you hiring?” she asks. “I’m eighteen, I’m looking for work this summer.”
The woman’s rigid lips coil to form a grin, and the rest of the employees in the office whip around to take a look at the applicant.
My mother takes an application to finish at home. Turning to leave, she forces the front door open and lets the humid June air rush into the frigid room.
“Stay here and fill it out,” the woman at the front desk says briskly. “The manager will be here next week. If you want the job, you’ll have to wait until then to meet with him. Or, you can take your application to Atlantic City and interview now.”
She pauses and stares intently at my mom.
“He’s going to want to see you today.”
My mom nervously drives thirty minutes to Atlantic City and is hired on the spot. The sundress she wore for the impromptu interview later becomes a modest skirt and blouse, but the manager’s attention never strays from her body. He lurks behind her desk at the office and notes the shape of her waist, touches her hair, and presses his hand on her shoulders, sucking the life out of them with every touch and comment. She smells rancid coffee in his breath and winces at the coarseness of his aged hands.
One particularly gruesome morning, while my mom sits quietly filing papers, the manager approaches her to ask about her relationship status. My mother lies and says she isn’t interested in dating.
He laughs sharply.
“Surely,” he insists, “you’re not as innocent as you look.”
My mother rushes home that night and seeks advice from my grandmother.
“He wants power over you,” my grandmother tells her. “That’s how men like this are. You need to take that power away.”
She equips my mom with an arsenal of words with which to defend herself. My mother learns that the harassment rises only from her boss’ desire to feel strong, and not her own weakness, so she begins to wear makeup and jewelry again. She takes pride in her femininity and uses her boss’ words against him in bursts of fiery confidence. She deflects her discomfort onto him and fights her battles with holy weapons of emasculation and assertiveness. She refuses to submit.
The manager slips by her desk in the morning and greets her with the same hungry eyes as always. “That’s a nice blouse,” he rasps.
“I don’t know why you bother,” she tells him. “You couldn’t handle me even if I’d let you.”
My mother teaches me to wear my womanhood─ my wit, my charm, my stride, my jewelry─ like a soldier who braves medals of honor.
I work with rings on my hands and wait in the kitchen, cutting lemons, and prepare myself to face the humiliating comments that wait outside. I wash my hands and make sure to keep the silver of my rings clean, drying them gently in the chaos of the kitchen. I retie my apron and swiftly take red-hot plates of food from the window. I carry the heavy trays on my shoulder and march into battle with poise. The man outside who smells like cigarettes glances at me up and down and smiles wide.
“Looks good, sweetheart,” he says. His words flow out like a thick paste. He looks at me the same way he looks at his food.
Through the silver rings on my fingers, I can feel generations of women before me who have worked hard, who persevere, who rise above ignorance in heroine defiance. I keep my gaze steady and my face unchanged, with my shoulders back and eyes bright.
The words of my mother, her mother, and her mother before, sound in my ears clearer than his.
“Keep on looking,” I say. I hand him his check early. “It’ll never happen.”