You were sitting next to each other at the counter in what was otherwise a completely empty bar, 8:00 p.m. on a weeknight, fists wrapped around sweating bottles of Bud Light. You turned on your stools to look when we walked in. We were five women passing through the doors one right after the other, and I know it must have felt like Christmas come early; like God had smiled down and personally delivered a bonanza of tits.
You had so many questions, right off the bat. Why were we wearing nametags? What were we doing? Why were we out? We patiently explained that it was the flagship meeting of our photography club; that we were walking around taking pictures and stopping at bars in between.
You offered to buy us drinks, and we smiled and said thank you, but no. We said we were going to pay for our own, and then continue our meeting.
But as we were taking turns ordering, we splintered. One of us sat down at a table while others went to the restroom or stood at the counter, and you took that opportunity to sit next to her. Being the good sport that she is, she managed several minutes of awkward, uncomfortable conversation with you before the rest of us noticed and swooped in to “save” her.
Our group retreated to one side and pulled in tight, but you both kept circling. “You going anywhere after this bar?” one of you asked, interrupting our conversation.
“No,” my friend said firmly. “We’re old married ladies, we’re tired and we’re going to go home after this.”
“You sure we can’t get you girls some drinks?”
“Maybe some shots?”
You returned to your seats at the bar, and we enjoyed our hard-won space for a few moments. Until you came back with one last question: “Would you like us to take a picture of you?”
We needed a group photo for the club, so we agreed. We handed you a cell phone and squeezed in next to each other on a bench.
One of you held the phone aloft and, swaying slightly under the neon sign, made a big show of framing the scene. “One… two…”
On three your buddy ran in from the side and threw himself across our laps like he was sliding into home base. It was total setup.
We reflexively laughed and kept our eyes locked anxiously on the camera, waiting for the flash to go off please just go off. And you said it was no good and you had to take another, so we stayed there frozen with a man in our laps, mouths curved upward to show our teeth, and it was only then that the alarm bell that had been ringing in the back of my brain got good and loud enough for me to hear.
Anger surged up from my stomach and into my hands, and I nearly used those hands to push you off of me. I wanted to stand up and yell that we just wanted to be left alone, but I didn’t, because we were in public and I didn’t want to cause a scene. So I stayed there, we stayed there, unmoving, until you gave us back the phone.
Immediately afterward we abandoned our half-full glasses on the table and fled, looking over our shoulders all the way back to our cars to make sure we weren’t being followed.
I would like to be the kind of person who recognizes when a situation is sliding sideways and shuts it down immediately. I would like to be brave, strong, outspoken. I’m not. I don’t like drawing attention to myself, or making anyone uncomfortable, or coming off as unreasonable.
But here’s what strikes me as most unreasonable about that evening:
- That a group of people couldn’t quietly enjoy its own company without two others constantly trying to ingratiate themselves;
- That some perceived standard of polite behavior prevented us from protesting an unwelcome stranger in our laps;
- That an unwelcome stranger making himself at home in our laps isn’t already widely regarded as impolite;
- Bud Light.
I realize now, of course, that my friends and I made several key missteps that likely left those dudes confused about our intentions. Like declining their drink offers, for example, and telling them we were married, and physically moving away from them. I see how these could all be construed as invitations to continue talking to and touching us.
I see, in retrospect, that we really brought it upon ourselves.
I see now that declining unwanted attention gently doesn’t work. So I’m going to just warn you now, future Dudes at the Bar, that next time I might come off a bit rude. Next time, I might make a scene.
Next time, I might wear a baggy shirt that says “NO” in big block letters, and when you ask me what it means I will shout “NO!” and hiss at you like feral cat. Next time, when you offer to buy me a drink, I might throw mine in your face. Next time, I might leave my hair unbrushed and my face undone, and if you still dare get close enough to touch me or my friends, I will whip a pointy fork out of my pocket and start jabbing it threateningly in your direction.
Extreme? Sure. But hey, whatever helps plant the idea in your brain that you should stay away.
Next time you can’t get mad, bro, because you’ll have brought it on yourself.