Suck Me Off
by Katherine Sharpe
Running late as usual on my way to meet a friend in Midtown, I managed by dashing up the station steps at 6th Avenue and 14th Street (in one of those stunts that the MTA warns will lead to a broken neck) to squeak through the last doors of an uptown F/V train as they were sliding shut.
Breathless, I took a seat. The train was older, its seats dull orange. A man across from me and one seat down rested a boom-box on his knee. It emanated hip-hop beats. Pretty loudly, I noticed, with a twinge of annoyance: I already had a headache.
Soon the sounds of the music resolved themselves into words. "Baby," then a few garbled syllables, "just put me in your mouth, and suck me off," blared the box, again and again. A wave of hot and prickly adrenaline passed through me. It felt like the instant you know you’re going to be sick, and need to make that lurch for the door.
I glanced around. I was the only woman in my part of the car, which was sparsely peopled by worn-out commuters. I regarded my antagonist. He lounged, gazing frontward, statue-like except for a slight nodding of his head to the beat. He had three companions and a child with him; together they occupied the square marked out by the two rows of facing seats nearest the doors, and the two perpendicular rows. Except for the small boy, who wriggled and climbed, the others were also still and quiet.
"Put me in your mouth, and suck me off." I longed to say something. It would have to be perfect, curt and devastating like in a movie. I wanted a cinematic flash of empathy: I’d say the right thing and, shazam!, he would feel what I felt, and be sorry. But I knew, if I said anything, how I would seem: humorless, uptight. Imperious and WASPish.
So I kept quiet and only stared. Wondering.
Then the child (whom I had come to think of as the son of the man with the box) stood up on the seats and looked at me over the back of a protective adult shoulder. He must have been between six and eight, and he was cute, destined for handsomeness someday. While he looked he took up the chant, and our eyes met as he belted, "Put me in your mouth, and suck me off!"
A shaking in my chest burst upward and my head wagged back and forth in the international symbol for No. No way. Uh-uh. Words came: "Don’t talk to me like that." Loud enough for his father to hear, and our impassive neighbors.
"I wasn’t talking to you," the child fired back without missing a beat. "It’s the song." He crossed the car and hoisted himself up next to the boom-box man. I watched him, then looked down at my book. I wanted to check the faces of the other passengers, to see whether there was sympathy, and I had done the right thing. But a hot blush was spreading across my face and by the time I controlled it, the travelers’ faces were politely blank. The music went on. I began to wish I’d had the courage to address the grown-ups instead of the kid.
But riding up the escalator at 57th Street, buzzing inside like a tuning fork, I still could not think of a good thing to have said. I hadn’t felt physically threatened, but something about the callousness of airing those lyrics in public space had overwhelmed me. Could I justify my anger to someone else?
In the train I’d felt my prized capacity for acceptance grind to a sickening halt. The feminist and the free-speech wonk who live in me, usually as friends, were locked in a knock-down, drag-out wrestling match, and rolling ever closer to a precipice that looked like the edge of my cozy, liberal-relativist earth. Below its crumbly edge lurked pure terra incognita.
I broke into an up-stairs jog towards the surface, and familiar light.
Katherine Sharpe lived in Brooklyn and is currently a PhD student at Cornell University in Ithaca. She sporadically maintains a personal website at toomuchkatherine.com.