by Ashley Bales
I was at my least constrained on the subway. My mother would drop me at the Wonderland Blue Line stop and my high school’s van picked me up at the end of the Red Line. In between, I was as physically and socially liberated as I’d ever been. I was 14 and getting my first taste of the freedoms that would come with adulthood.
It was that critical moment of early adolescence when you begin to see yourself as socially independent from the nurturing institutions of family and school that up to that point have allowed you to move through the world without being aware of it. And thus the conflicts of adolescence are born. These same social institutions are not ready to give up their control, while the adolescent’s burgeoning independence stretches their limits.
I would put on my headphones—riled by the anger and energy of early aughts metal and grunge—and stare at people. I thought I was challenging them, judging their meek adult choices. They wouldn’t even return my glance, or would look away. I cherished those averted eyes like victories; sure I’d won something in the exchange. Now, if I picture myself then, my stares would have looked only like a child’s: unselfconscious and ignorant of social norms. I was challenging no one, except perhaps myself—to engage with the world in the meekest way I could, by looking.
But at some point between 14 and 15, something changed. Sometimes, not always, perhaps not even often, but often enough, men looked back. When they did, my vulnerability was unquestionable, even to myself. I stopped looking.
I was a late bloomer. Apply that as broadly as you like. At 15 I’d only just gotten my first period and was not yet sufficiently endowed to understand the benefit of bras. What changed my stares from being a child’s to an adolescent’s was all in the styling. I’d made timid inquiries into my peer’s social graces and begun putting mascara in my eyebrows, along with anywhere else that seemed appropriate.
The first time a stranger told me to smile I was transferring at South Station. I smiled, surprised to feel seen. The same man would tell me to smile repeatedly over the next year and I learned not to look at him.
The only thing unique about this story is perhaps the degree of social freedom I felt possible at 14. A more socially adept 14 year old, one better enculturated into the expectations of girlhood, would not have been so surprised at the attention. And even for me, it was a lesson quickly learned--my desire to stand out tempered by a growing understanding of what it meant to be seen.
That same year I had my first kiss, my first boyfriend, had sex for the first time and none of it was as empowering as riding the subway and looking freely at the world around me.
Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.