I work in a little shop that stays open late, until 1130 at night. The daytime shift tends to be much different than the evening shift, as one might expect. The music is a little louder, a little more raucous at times, the clientele is sometimes a bit more weavy, having just stepped out of the bar next door, or from across the street, or down the way. It’s late night, after all. All in all, a good crowd, the reverence of a bookstore with a famous cat demands a certain amount of respect, even among the late night crowd.

There are regulars aplenty, they come in all forms, some chit, some chat, most are pleasant and made to feel welcome, that’s kind of our thing. I’m fairly new to the scene, there are regulars who’ve been coming in the store for a long time, and feel comfortable enough to make themselves at home.

Tonight someone came in who isn’t one of my favourites. A precedent has been set for him in the past where he feels comfortable going into staff only areas, such as the storage closet where we keep our bags and coats, and resident cat has a hidey hole. The garage at the back where we store books and dvds that haven’t gone out yet, along with other personal items. Even the small cupboards at the front of the store where we stash holds for people to come and pick up. Little kids know better than to go into these places, but a grown man with permission from one employee translates to permission whenever. I’ve asked him not to go into the cupboards, pointing out that if there’s something he wants from there, he can ask me and I’ll get it. He’s pointed out ‘so and so said I could’. I pointed out that they aren’t here and I’m not sure that it was okay for them to do so. He pushed a boundary, but in this interaction? I’m the bitch. I’d better not get so and so in trouble. He didn’t outright call me a bitch, but he didn’t have to. I think he is well aware of when I’m working because I haven’t seen him for a time.
So tonight when he came in it was busy, there was lots going on. I’d washed the mats behind the counter, and he was standing in the spot I needed to lay down the freshly washed still somewhat wet mat. I asked him to move and he did so. The moment I put it down, he stepped onto it. Did I say anything? No, because I know he already thinks I’m kind of a bitch. Why do I care? I don’t, but I’m so so so so so so so accustomed to being quiet. I know that being quiet is the path of least resistance. I’m so so so so so trained to take the path of least resistance.

Is it any wonder I’m so so so so exhausted all the time?

At any rate, he wandered off, and when I went to the back to get the rest of the mats, he was in the garage, looking through stuff that hadn’t been priced yet. Beyond a door clearly marked staff only. I said, I’m not comfortable with you being in here. My co-worker was there and said, I told him it was okay because he said that other co-workers have let him come in here before. I tossed out a passive aggressive, ‘whatever, I don’t care’ in a tone that very much did suggest some caring, and continued moving mats back behind the counter.

And here’s where it gets weird. Weird as in, I didn’t expect this.

My co-worker followed me. I immediately apologized for “being a bitch about it”. He said, “you don’t have to apologize. I’m sorry. I didn’t consider that it might make you uncomfortable.” And then he listened, he listened while I told him about how difficult it can be to navigate the world knowing that my personal space, my body, even my goddamn smile belongs to the men around me who feel entitled to it, at any given point in time. If I walk down the street and someone tells me to smile, and I don’t, I have no way of knowing if it will be shrugged off or if I’ll get yelled at, threatened for not giving him something as “simple” as a smile. And so if I wander the world, fully cognizant of how unsafe I am at any given point, imagine how devastating it is to come to work and discover these “staff-only safe spaces” are up for grabs too. I was sweaty, I was shaky, and I don’t know how much of that was the exertion of moving the rubber mats back in place. Even just bringing it up, there was a ridiculously large part of my brain that was trying to convince me to stop talking, that I was overreacting. And what did my co-worker do?

He said, you don’t have to justify how you feel. I’m happy to let the rest of our male co-workers know that they are creating an unsafe space by allowing people who aren’t staff access to these spaces.

When the regular in question returned to the front counter, having perused the stuff in the garage to his heart’s content, he apologized to my co-worker, for getting him in trouble. Not to me, for making me uncomfortable. Honestly, I don’t think it entered his mind that he would have. I was just being a bitch, as usual.

After he left, it was quiet and close enough to closing, so my co-worker and I talked about it. We talked about what it is to be woman, what it is to not have a voice, to be afraid to take up space, to be so conditioned to make myself small, to put my comfort aside rather than risk being impolite. I kept looping around to a place where I came up with logical business reasons why staff-only spaces should remain so, and he stopped me from doing that every time.

“Your feelings are valid.”

He reminded me that we’d been talking about a book he’s reading, wherein a woman who is a food writer happens to murder and cook men. I had laughed and said, if the genders were reversed, I’d be disgusted but I find that scenario palatable, so to speak, which ultimately is one of the points the author is trying to make, that women are denied the right to anger, to homicidal rage. We expect that serial killers will be men because women are too polite.
Even now, writing this, that I consider a young man had to remind me to stop negating and undermining my feelings, there is an undercurrent of shame. I should know this stuff! But like my very kind and wise co-worker reminded me, “I don’t have to justify anything.”

I have to say, I didn’t even realize how amazing it is not only to have someone listen, but hear what I say. He thanked me for being transparent and honest with him. He thanked me for broadening his perspective on what it’s like from this side. I genuinely don’t know when in my life that has happened. He said he’ll talk to the others, the regular, the manager, whoever or never mention it again. He told me to take some time, and think about what works best for me, going forward.

Whatever I want to do. I said, I’d like to finish vacuuming, so we can close and get out of here, and then smash the patriarchy, if that’s cool. He said, yeah, that’s cool.

There is so much happening that makes me wonder if anything will ever be alright, ever again, and then there are moments shared with really incredible people that make me think we’re going to be just fine.

Although, maybe we should smash the patriarchy first, because I’m sure it’ll leave a mess and we’ll just have to vacuum again.