“Un ta scantari,” a young man shouts in sing-song Gelese accent.
The car drives at a crawl.
“Don’t be afraid.”
The tires brush the sidewalk. It’s early afternoon and the street is deserted. I glance at the car. The driver is alone, which reassures me–a little. One hand on the steering wheel, he leans out of the window and laughs out loud, throwing his head back. His mouth is wide open, voracious. One hand snakes towards me to lure me inside the car. I stare ahead, speed up my pace. The screeching of the accelerator trails behind and I sigh in relief at yet another narrow escape. At fourteen, I have reason to be afraid. My fear is instinctual, pre-verbal–a tightening of the neck, a stiffening of the back, hands that clench, legs ready to bolt.
When I leave the house in the afternoon, I feel that fear as well as the thrill of freedom from rules–at least some rules. Because my father naps, I do not need to ask for his permission, always harder to obtain than my mother’s.
I walk fast, past the pastry shop where my best friend and I flirt with the son of the owner who gives us free pastries for weeks, until his father‘s stern face appears from behind the counter. I pass Nunziatina’s hair salon, where I get haircuts and read photo-novels populated by dark-haired, handsome centerfold characters played by the likes of Franco Gasparri. Or vicende vissute, real-life stories of tortured loves and unforgivable betrayals, printed in small type in women’s magazines like Intimità and Confidenze. I don’t slow down to look at the displays in the windows of the closed stores. I don’t look around for friends. I am all business because at this time of the day, when the streets are mostly empty. a girl alone is more susceptible than usual to catcalls—or worse. Young men lick their lips and blow kisses. They grab their crotches and wink with assumed complicity. Their faces come inches away from mine.
On the street, I am afraid, not only in the afternoon, when I go to visit my grandparents or a friend, but also in the evening, when I walk back home after the ritual evening passseggiata on the Corso, the main street of Gela. On the moving stage of a passiata ‘ndo Cursu, girls rehearse the old though updated ways of Sicilian womanhood. It’s the early 1970s, and unlike our mothers and grandmothers, we are allowed to walk without chaperones, but only with girls who have received our parents’ approval. Up and down we go, parading new clothes, up and down, stopping briefly to chat with girlfriends. The men, and the boys who emulate them, stand in clusters outside the bars that line the Corso. They smoke. They talk politics, soccer, motorcycles. Their hungry eyes follow us as we pass by in twos or threes, arm in arm, undulating our hips, and pretending we’re indifferent to the gazes, the whistles, the taunting.
For girls, outings other than the passeggiata on the Corso need a purpose: running errands for our mothers, going to a schoolmate’s home for a school project (in the afternoon—never in the evening—and the schoolmate must be a girl), or visiting grandparents, aunts, or girl cousins subject to the same strictures. We must be giudizose, our parents tell us, exercise good judgment, in our choice of friends and attire, and in our demeanor. We must walk looking straight ahead–no sauntering, no running. We must never respond to the men and the boys who shout obscenities at us.
There’s an older man who is a fixture in the section of the Corso outside the perimeter of the passseggiata, between the Villa Comunale and I Quattro Canti, though sometimes he appears elsewhere. We call him “il maniaco.” Summer and winter, he wears the same faded baggy brown jacket with long sleeves that half-cover his hands. He doesn’t saunter. He walks fast, with purpose. His arms, long and stiff, swing robotically. His face is expressionless, except his lips, turned upwards in a creepy half-smile. He nods at us, a barely perceptible nod. When we see him, we move to the edge of the sidewalk, even step down on the street. At the last minute, though, he veers in our direction and his hand brushes the body of the girl on his side. When we see him coming from the opposite direction, we cross the street. Yet at times we feel something stroking our backsides, like the paw of an animal begging for attention, or the wing of a bird freefalling. The touch is sudden, deliberate, intrusive, though light, almost gentle. We turn quickly. There’s no one behind us. But “the maniac” walks speedily ahead of us. Those hands hang from inside his sleeves like dead animals.
We aren’t safe even from younger boys. During the passseggiata on the crowded Corso, pre-pubescent boys sneak up from behind while we walk arm in arm and slap us hard on the ass, then run away to rejoin their peers. They stand from a distance and point, laugh, bending forward and pressing their sides. In the summer, they lift the miniskirts we have finally convinced our mothers to let us wear. Women raise their eyebrows and shake their heads in disapproval. Once in a while, a man yells at the boys in Sicilian, “malarucati!” Yet no adults approach us to ask us if we’re okay.
Unlike most girls, I don’t take the slaps or the lifting of my skirt quietly. I don’t blush. I don’t hide my face in my hands. I don’t look around, hoping no one noticed. I shout insults and chase my young aggressors, but they are so many and so fast that they always elude me. Except once, when I keep running after I lose the heel of a shoe and twist my ankle.
There I am, weaving through back streets after my attacker, who can’t be older than ten or eleven. When I see him turn left onto the street where one of my friends’ lives, I slow down. It’s a dead end. Catching my breath, I close in on the now terrified boy, grab him, by one arm and slap him on the ass, hard–once, twice, three times. He sobs. His hands reach behind trying to cover his ass. He cries for his mother and pleads, “Basta, basta, basta.” But I don’t stop. I scream at him. Stronzo di merda. Porco. Piece of shit. Pig.
He’s all the boys and men whose words and touch I have had to suffer. He’s the reason for the fear that grabs me on the street where I am prey to any male, young, old, even a child, this child.
Finally, I let him go. He stands in front of me, wiping snot and tears, looking at the ground. He’s almost my height but I tower over him. The humiliation has beaten all bravado out of this boy.
I leave him and my fear in that dead end, and walk towards the town’s center, ignoring the people who stare at me. I don’t straighten my clothes or smooth my hair. I limp back to the square, where my girlfriends are waiting for me.
One hands me the heel of my shoe.
Edvige Giunta is the author of Writing with an Accent and coeditor of Talking
to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Fire (forthcoming). Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Assay, Barrow Street, 100-Word Story, Mutha Magazine, The Citron Review, Jellyfish Review, and other publications.edvigegiunta.com.