Wailing Women

Wailing Women

By Rachel Davey

My stepmom told me about wailing women years ago. Not some fantasy shit — real women. Women who sang and screamed their pain to the world whether the world wanted to hear it or not. Women like Tori Amos and the Indigo Girls, whose lyrics resonated with my stepmom and her college friends so fiercely that they couldn’t stop listening. Someone outside their group of friends came up with the nickname as a cheap insult, but it only made them love them more.

When she first mentioned these women, I didn’t really understand what she meant. Still a child, I was too young to be aware of the fire that slowly rose within me each time I had to hold what I felt inside so I wouldn’t take up too much space. Finding and making your own space in the world as a young woman is  difficult in the time of “boys will be boys” and “that’s just college.” But we tried. That night, we tried to take the space that was rightfully ours. 

“Ten years old without a voice; I feel like nothing’s really changed, now I’m just a little older.” -Sky Ferreira

It was December; I remember because it was after the first snow and Boston was quiet, as if almost everyone was lulled to sleep by the blanket of white. But we were wide awake. We were going out no matter how cold it was. We were shaving our legs on the sink– Irene, Alex and I. We each had one leg up, carefully dragging the razor up our bare legs, trying not to scratch ourselves.

“This is definitely not worth it,” Irene said.

“Switch,” I replied as we all took our right legs off the edge of the sink and swung our left ones up. 

“Not worth it, but society demands it of us,” Alex lamented and we all sighed. “At least it feels smooth. Though I can’t tell if it just feels good because society tells me it should.”

“Fuck society, I’m getting drunk,” Irene told us as she took her leg off the sink and walked toward the alcohol in the other room.

“Sounds good,” Alex said as she followed. I stayed behind in the bathroom  and stared at my reflection. Pretty, but not as pretty as I could be if I had straightened my hair. Good enough. It would be dark in the party and I would be drunk and not care until I got back home alone and wondered why no one wanted me. I sighed and left the bathroom to go take a shot.

I’m sorry I’m not more attractive; I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike.” -SZA

“How are we getting there?” Mark asked. There was really only one house that hosted parties for our little city campus. It was boring to go to the same place every weekend, to see the same people, and to have the same conversations, but it was all we had. Even though it was too small for the amount of people that attended, and the floor was constantly caving in.

“We’re taking the train,” I answered, already shivering in the cold night.

“I feel super confident that you’re the one leading us there,” Mark laughed. 

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I demanded.

“Jesus, Rachel, it was a joke. You’re just out of it sometimes.”

“I have a 4.0, Mark, I’m not stupid.” I didn’t know why I was trying to prove myself to him; I knew I didn’t have to. But I wasn’t stupid and this wasn’t the first time someone had treated me like I was. The moment I joked around with someone became the moment I lost any possibility of being seen as smart in their eyes.

“Oh, wow, you’re so smart, you have a 4.0,” Liam chimed in sarcastically. I felt tears forming in my eyes. How did they reduce me to nothing so easily, these supposed friends of mine? Why did I have to cry at everything? It wasn’t a big deal. I knew I was smart. They were joking. We were going to have fun tonight; I didn’t want to ruin it. Ignore it. Be nice. Stay safe. Take a deep breath. Let that fire burn a little hotter. 

So I just said, “Whatever,” and walked back to the lobby of our dorm to see what was taking Alex and Irene so long. I reminded myself to breathe as I walked. I reminded myself that just because I didn’t come off as smart didn’t mean I wasn’t; I knew where we were going and wouldn’t get us lost. I typed the address into Google Maps to check. 

“Are you guys ready?” I asked them. 

“Yeah, let’s go,” Irene responded. “We’re taking the T, right?”

“I think so,” I said, even though I had been sure a few minutes ago. “That’s probably the best route, but I could be wrong.” 

“Nope, not wrong, honey. We took the T last time,” she reassured me as we all walked out the door to Mark and Liam waiting outside. 

“Lead the way, Rach,” Alex said.  We walked out of the building like Taylor Swift’s girl squad, killing it with our outfits, the cool night breeze flowing through our hair.

“We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time; it’s miserable and magical.” -Taylor Swift

The T was pretty empty for a Saturday night; we all got a seat except Irene, who offered to stand. Two men sat in the corner giving us lewd glances and whispering to one another. I inadvertently closed my legs and looked away. I wished I had worn pants instead of a skirt. I wished I had worn a looser shirt. My boobs were too big not to be noticed; they were all anyone noticed. Irene looked over to them and rolled her eyes. 

“Oh, she wants it,” one of the men — boys — said to the other. His friend laughed and smiled like a predator.. They were college-aged and very obviously drunk. They looked preppy — the typical white frat boy who thought they were hot shit solely because they were white and in a frat.

“I definitely do not,” Irene responded and looked away from them. Ignore it. Move on. Stay safe. Take a deep breath. Let that fire burn a little hotter. 

“You’re my girl. You just don’t know it yet,” the boy continued. His lips were slimy; he looked possessed. He slid a little closer. 

“Stop. I am not your boo. Leave me alone,” Irene said fiercely, and I gripped her arm. He and his friend were falling over laughing at that point.

“What’s your problem?” I demanded. 

“Just ignore them,” Liam said. All three of us, Alex, Irene and I, turned to him in shock. The train stopped and the preppy boys got off, without a glance back at us. Just another ride on the T. Just another thing for them to play with.

“We tried to ignore them and it didn’t work,” Alex argued.

“Irene rolled her eyes at them,” Liam defended. 

“Because they were staring at us disgustingly! How the fuck is this our fault?” I almost screamed. Fuck them! I felt crazy. I felt like I could cut someone in half. Was I crazy? I needed to calm down. I didn’t want to calm down. I was scared and angry and exhausted. I was almost always scared, angry, and exhausted. 

“It’s not your fault. They shouldn’t have done that. They just would’ve stopped sooner if you didn’t say anything. Sorry. I didn’t mean for it to come off like that.” Meanwhile, Mark sat quietly apart from us, neither defending us nor Liam. 

“They shouldn’t have started in the first place,” I said quietly, unable to continue screaming when I knew somehow the three women here would be the “crazy” ones. Ignore it. Be nice. Stay safe. Take a deep breath. Let that fire burn a little hotter. 

“Oh I wish I wish I wish I was born a man, so I could learn how to stand up for myself.” -Martha Wainwright

After a while, all the parties start to blend together — a blur with a few exciting moments standing out here and there. This party began no differently. We walked in late and were hit by the humidity from the dozens of sweaty bodies crammed in one small room. I breathed deeply, taking in the people around me. How did they do it? How were all of these people so comfortable talking to each other, touching each other? Every time I walked into these parties I became a fly on the wall, watching other people, analyzing their movements, pretending to dance, waiting to leave. 

Irene was the most comfortable out of our group, besides Mark and Liam. They were average-looking so they could probably get any girl here, no matter her beauty or personality. They waved to us and walked into the crowd without a glance back. 

“Heyyyy, Hannah!” Irene called, and was off, diving deep into the crowd and beckoning us to follow. I grabbed Alex’s hand and followed Irene into the forest of sweaty bodies, trying to keep my composure and not punch every man I saw. Not every one of them had done something wrong. Most of them were just complicit. 

When we got into the corner it took me a few minutes to get my bearings, but when I did, the alcohol hit. It was the peak of the night in which I was both within the world and outside it, hating men but wanting them all the same, wanting to be seen and flirted with and touched. I was spinning in circles, shaking my hips, grabbing random items off the floor and finding them hilarious. I grabbed a mop and began swishing it around the floor. I pushed my way into a circle of dancers.

“What are you doing?” A boy asked. He was cute, a little taller than me, a lacrosse player. 

“Just tidying up a bit,” I replied. He chuckled and took the mop from my hands.

“Where did you even find this?” He asked as if having a mop in a house was unheard of.

“Just over there.” I pointed to the corner where Alex and Irene were still dancing. I had the urge to go back over to them and dance like I didn’t give a fuck. I knew I’d have more fun that way and wouldn’t go home feeling like trash, but this boy was here, and he obviously wanted to talk to me because he was asking stupid questions that he definitely didn’t care about the answers to. And I hadn’t been kissed in so long, hadn’t been touched in any meaningful way. Maybe he’d change that. Maybe he would be an exception. 

That sliver of hope in me could never be quelled. The hope that I might actually find someone I wanted to be with. The hope that I wouldn’t be used or betrayed again and again. It was my hope that always hurt me in the end, because no one ever made it worth it. For now, I was willing to go along with the strange kind of flirting this boy was attempting. 

“When you’re done admiring it, I’d love to have my mop back, please,” I said. 

“Try and take it from me,” he said playfully, holding the mop over his head as if I couldn’t reach it, as if he was feet taller than me rather than a few inches. This type of flirting was reminiscent of middle school, when I would pretend to be small, pretend like I couldn’t easily grab the mop from his hands, or just as easily walk away and never think of him again. Back when I pretended I didn’t need more intellectual stimulus than this. 

But it was a party and I was drunk and I wanted him to like me, to think I was fun and could have a good time, even though I wasn’t as interested in one-night stands as I used to be. So I reached up for the mop slowly, jumped lower than I knew I could, and tried to take the mop from his arms. He pulled it away quickly and laughed.

“You’re gonna have to be faster than that,” he teased. I was already bored. Bored of decreasing myself to something boys might want, but what could I do? I had no other option but to play along. I didn’t want him to feel inept. I didn’t want to be alone forever.

I tried to reach for it again, but this time when he whipped it away, I grabbed his arm, knowing this to be the next play in this little game he had created to bolster his own fragile masculinity. I tried to pull his arm down, but he held strong and grabbed my waist with his free arm, pulling me closer to him. 

A breath and I was afraid. I was afraid that now that he held me he wouldn’t let me go. I was far from Irene and Alex; they couldn’t help me now, but I knew they wouldn’t leave without making sure I was okay. Still, I wanted out now. Was it too late to turn back? It would surely injure his pride if I walked away now. I could play this off. 

I sighed and flirtatiously said, “Ugh, I’m over it. Go ahead and clean if that’s what you really want to do.” I spun out of his reach quickly, not giving him time to realize I was leaving. I blew him a kiss as I weaved through the crowd back to my friends and breathed a sigh of relief. 

“RACHEL!!” they yelled and hugged me. 

“Where were you?” Alex asked.

“Trying to escape a man!” I yelled over the music.

“Ah, the usual! At least it’s over. Let’s dance!” She grabbed my hand and we began spinning in circles, laughing and singing. It felt like a dream but I reminded myself that I was there. I was real. This was real life when it wasn’t clouded by what was expected of you. This was real life when it wasn’t watched by men on the train with lewd stares. This was empowerment. This was freedom. 

I waved my hands in the air, dancing horribly, but not caring. He grabbed me before I saw him. He had his hands on my waist before I even realized he had found me again. I twisted out of his grip and tried to walk away, but he had my wrist clenched tightly in his hand.

“Just wait, Rachel,” he said as if I had the choice to walk away with him grabbing me. 

“What?” I asked, indulging him, letting him hold me as if I were a toy and he was a two-year-old baby boy who didn’t know how to play with others. Because boys never had to grow up. Because the world never made them grow up like it forced young girls to. Because most of them had never been handled like an object, forced in a moment to take a deep breath and figure out how to escape their situation without causing a scene. God forbid we cause a scene.

“Why don’t you wanna dance?” He asked. Take a breath.

“I just wanna dance with my friends, OK?” I prayed for this answer to be enough. I prayed to anyone, to anything, that I wasn’t as invisible as I felt in this moment. 

I felt someone grab my other hand. Relief. It was Alex, anchoring me, and as she looked over me to make sure I was okay, Irene walked around to the boy still gripping my wrist. 

“Let go of her!” Irene demanded and I tried to wrench my wrist out of his sweaty hand. The boy simply held up his other arm and smashed Irene into the wall. 

And that was it. The whole night came flying back to me. I could take a breath. I could let this go. I could get out of his grip and walk away and just leave. But when I tried to breathe, I couldn’t. When I tried to think, I couldn’t. All I heard were the wailing women. The women who could no longer keep their screams inside. The scream that builds in every single woman every time they are slighted, thought of as less than, and forced to prove themselves while men are already seen as capable. And I just couldn’t hold it in. I wouldn’t hold it in.

So I took my right hand out of Alex’s and swung it at his face. I didn’t care if I broke my hand. It would be some proof that I had fought back. That all the times I had turned my cheek had not meant I would not fight back. 

“What the fuck?” he yelled and his grip loosened as he put his hand to his face. I pulled my arm out of his reach as people turned to look at us. Of course they had heard his scream and not Irene’s when she had told him to let go of me. People were programmed to hear men’s voices; they had to be trained to listen to ours. 

“What just happened?” a girl asked. Jenna. The owner of the house.

“She just punched me in the fucking face!” the boy whined. 

“He wouldn’t let go of me,” I told her, hoping she would understand the fear that came with being held, trapped. But I saw in her eyes she did not. Or she did and couldn’t say anything, wouldn’t say anything, because this was her house and she just wanted as many people as possible to have a good time, even if that meant ignoring what she most certainly knew was true. And my heart broke, a very real pain filling my chest. I knew that we would have to leave the party. I knew that we would not be invited back. I knew many boys wouldn’t talk to me for fear of being associated with a feminist. 

“You could’ve just asked him to let go,” she informed us.

“Oh, wow, thank you! If I knew it was that fucking easy I wouldn’t have sprained my hand punching him in the face,” I fired back furiously. Tears were coming. I could feel them prickling at the back of my eyes. I didn’t care. There was no way out of this shit. I’d be hurt again and again from the hope for something better that never seemed to leave me even when my heart broke endlessly. I’d be eaten alive taking breaths and walking away and staying quiet. Part of me wanted to give up, wanted to just apologize to the boy and leave without a scene. It would be easier. 

“You don’t have to be such a bitch! I just don’t want any fights started at my house,” Jenna said. 

“We didn’t start this! We were just dancing and he came up and grabbed her!” Alex screamed. 

“Why would we just randomly punch a guy in the face? He threw me against the wall!” Irene added.

“That’s what happens at parties! Get over it!” Normal. This was normal. We were the ones throwing it off. But what if we all threw it off? The chains, the norms, the misogyny? 

I laughed. I wanted to hit her, too. I wanted to fight the whole world. I wanted to tear everyone apart. But I didn’t. Because it wasn’t her fault. Or maybe it was, if she knew better. But we were all each other had. All women had were each other. I had Alex and I had Irene and I truly hoped this girl in front of me had some female friends in her life as well. 

So I just took a step toward her and said, “Do you know how powerful we could be if we stood together? Do you know what we could do if we believed each other? So much. We could do so much.” She just stood there and stared at me. I was being dramatic but I didn’t care because I was on a high that had nothing to do with the shots we had taken. It was the high of being a woman in the movement. 

Alex, Irene and I grabbed our jackets and walked out the door without looking back. It was snowing outside and it felt meant to be. The moment felt so right. We were supposed to be here, in this city, together, fighting. We were quiet as we walked through the peaceful night feeling anything but calm.

“What now?” Alex asked. I didn’t know. I felt like throwing a snowball at that boy’s head, cracking his skull. I felt like destroying something. I felt like screaming. 

So I did. 

“FUUUUCCCKKK!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!” I kicked the snow on the ground. I felt so trapped. There was no way out. I was out-of-my-mind angry. Flashes of memory struck me — each moment that had built this scream inside of me, that I had not been able to let out for fear of being too loud, too aggressive. For fear of taking too much space. 

“AHHHHHHHHH!” I yelled again. And Irene and Alex began screaming too. 

A flash from middle school when boys created “Slap-Ass Friday” and girls were sent to the office for allowing themselves to be slapped, while others went home crying because their butt was unworthy of male attention.

Breathe. Scream.

And the boy at the bar who told Alex no one would want to be with her because she was too tall. She just took up too much space. How do these people who don’t matter cut us down so easily?

Breathe. Scream.

And your own fucking friends make you prove you’re smart and you take the bait and try to laugh less, joke less, because a girl cannot be bubbly and smart at the same time. She cannot be complex. Even your own fucking friends.

Breathe. Scream.

And when you turn a boy down you’re supposed to apologize to them because you’re doing something wrong by simply not existing for them. Apologize. Apologize again.

Breathe. Scream.

And all the women who are not believed when they try to speak up. All the men who do all this shit with no consequences, who are still loved and respected by the world. The women who are still treated as outcasts and witches after all these years.

Still, after all these years.

“I don’t know how I don’t just stand outside and scream; I am teaching myself how to be free.” -Florence Welch

I screamed one final time at the top of my lungs, a banshee warning of imminent death. Perhaps my own, if the scream sitting inside of me wasn’t set free. 

Because, as women, we do that. We put ourselves aside to abide by the rules society has set for us. We choke on our own breath when it comes too fast because we are gasping for air. We are killing ourselves trying to be sweet but sexy, fun but pure, smart but not too smart, and a billion other things. Why can’t we just be who we are?

Tears were streaming down my face then, but I felt freer than ever. I couldn’t remember how many moments I had held tears like this in, imagining myself standing at the edge of a cliff, howling into the night. And so we stood there screaming, the next generation of wailing women, speaking out and making space for ourselves. Despite what would come next, what would make us want to scream again and again, in that moment, on that night, we were free.

“I’m not trying to get by, I’m trying to get free.” -Mereba