Being Female: An Unwelcome Reminder
When the Kathleen Jo pulls out of her stall at noon, I am there to see them off. My five year old shipmate waves wildly through the starboard window. As soon as they turn the corner, I begin the trek to my new home, eager to get settled in a private writing space. Mike’s sailboat lives in the neighboring harbor, the first harbor I called home as a child but have rarely visited since. It’s a panting raven kind of day, corvids parked in the dusty lot with their beaks hanging open, oil-slick feathers radiating heat. I stroll down the main float with sunburned shoulders and a broad smile.
A smile that freezes as two men approach me.
I know these men. Sammy, a golden can of Coors clutched in his hand, worked at a local business until drinking cost him his job. The other is Carl, a man I crewed with a lifetime ago, then re-encountered last summer. A man who’d expected that sex would be part of the package, working with a woman.
Both men move toward me with the ursine lumber of the wasted. Maybe it’s freshly achieved today, maybe it’s the result of lifetime pickling; I can’t tell and it doesn’t matter. Their blurry gazes sharpen.
If you’re a woman reading this, you and I know how to do the same math. With a single sweeping glance, we can measure a sidewalk, dividing width by threat. Where am I? What time of day? Anyone else in sight? The research that says female students test lower in mathematics doesn’t consider our aptitude for equations like this. Painfully practiced, we’re at the top of the class.
Here, though, standard calculations don’t apply. A dock is not a sidewalk. Crossing the street is not an option. The water I usually look upon as a friend is now an oppressor.
This harbor’s wooden walkway is generous. There’s ample room for two people to pass comfortably if both follow the rules of personal space. But this equation involves three people, two of them, one of me, and Carl is not following the rules.
I step to my right, hugging the far side.
Carl steps to his left.
I veer to my left. No. Not that way – don’t put yourself between them. I overcorrect back to the right.
Again, Carl mirrors me.
In another place, using different math, this awkward step-shuffle-step would make me laugh. “Go ahead!” I’d grin, and my accidental dance partner would sweep their arm out, “No, please, you!” Here, I am not laughing. Here, Carl stands before me, blocking my path.
His voice is raspy, words spilling quick and loud. He asks if I know Sammy. “I been telling him how I worked with you when you were just 20 – goddamn, that was 15 years ago! – and I gotta tell ya, Tele, I do a lot of crazy shit, but I never meant to disrespect you. You know, like when I got you that T-shirt from Rosie’s?”
An Alaskan legend, Rose’s Bar sells clothes emblazoned with her red-hot ink urging, “Take Your Pants Off… Let’s Have a Party!”
My words step out slow, several pitches lower than usual and balanced on the center of my tongue; they are careful not to rock this boat. I tell Carl no worries, dude, I don’t even remember, and it’s true. I don’t remember anything about that season, other than how it ended.
Sammy tugs Carl’s arm. “C’mon, man, let’s go. Let her walk.”
I wonder if Sammy is perhaps not as drunk as I’d thought. I wonder how far I can count on him, a man so slightly built he could practically fit in the pocket of Carl’s Hawaiian shirt. I wonder why I’m looking to a man for an ally.
Carl shakes loose. “Nah, man, I’m talkin’ to her! I got important things to say.”
His eyes are overly intent on mine, shining too bright, as he admires my tattoos and claps my shoulder. Skin, burning skin. I will myself to become part of the dock’s weathered wood, to hold his gaze, hold my center. To not flinch.
Sammy prods Carl again. In his distraction, there opens a window. I move around him, circling wide as the dock allows.
The cool dismissal tossed over my shoulder is remarkable in its nonchalance, but a new self-consciousness pilots my feet. Approaching the sailboat that had been such cause for excitement, all I see now is its isolation. I take care to memorize the stall number. I make a show of knocking on the hull, pausing for an imagined invitation to come aboard. I open the door with warm chatter, as if my friend is waiting inside, not headed out on his first longline trip. Not gone for the next six days.
Stop it, sweetie – don’t go down that road. Don’t feed your energy into those scenarios.
I am suddenly very aware that there isn’t a good way to lock the sailboat from the inside.
On my last trip on the Kathleen Jo, we caught 4000 pounds of halibut one day. Jeff mock-complained that he and his male deckhand had once put in a 9000 pound day. I teased him over our rockfish tacos. “Sorry we didn’t get more, Jefe. Must be my vagina.” He ducked his head, blushing bright. The next day, struggling to heave a 75 pound halibut onto the hatch, I cursed, “Dammit – if only I had a penis!” His wife and I delighted in teaming up on our captain, who wished he’d never said a word.
With these friends to whom I have nothing to prove, gender shrank to a joke we lobbed across the deck. Beyond our 53-foot sanctuary, it swelled into a grenade.
Tick tick tick… The captain whose black cod I helped unload, observing, “You’re sure pretty for this kinda work.”
Tick tick tick… The man on the VHF radio snarling that another fisherman had yelled at him on the drag. His outrage wasn’t over the exchange itself, but that it’d been “by a fuckin’ woman!”
BOOM. The commercial fishermen slapping bumper stickers on pick-ups, vowing that they’d rather have a daughter in a whorehouse than a son on a charter boat.
Dodging the shrapnel of encounters like these, I wonder how a person can find her greatest love and truest identity in a world that consistently says she doesn’t belong. How can I saunter these docks with more confidence, more certainty in who I am and my authority to be here, than anywhere else I’ve known?
Gender doesn’t matter here. That’s the party line. Men and women alike insist, “It’s about whoever can do the work.” Growing up fishing, it was easy to internalize that refrain – even when I knew better. The value of all things – all people – existed in their relationship to masculinity.
At 21, I crewed for a captain who, in more than 30 years at sea, had hired one other female deckhand. When I peeked into his logbook at the end of our first day, blue scrawl assured me I was “a fine hand, as good as or better than any man.”
Male was the yardstick, and I was determined to measure up. I drank the Kool-Aid: disparaging femininity, mimicking masculinity, unconsciously promoting the toxic thinking that constructed these binaries in the first place. Believing that “one of the guys” was the best me that I could hope to be.
Of course that was a lie. But it was a lie I inhabited enough for my own conviction. Even if the surrounding fishermen knew better, they allowed the illusion. Theirs was a gift of omission, wrapped in affection.
Carl shattered that illusion when I saw myself as he saw me: not as a crewmate, but an obligatory sex partner. Fifteen years later, he’d done it again. In cornering me on the dock, Carl effectively cracked that measuring stick over his knee and tossed it into the drink. He forced me to remember that in a culture where gender, power, and violence are all connected, even the strongest fisherman’s vulnerability is never as distant as she’d like to imagine.
Stepping off Mike’s sailboat and calling goodbye to the no one inside, I skulk back up the dock. The sun still shines. In the parking lot, the ravens still sit with their beaks agape. As if they can’t believe what they’ve seen. As if they don’t recognize me.
I feel the same way.