Before leaving for New York City I decided to go to the nail salon on a whim. The salon staff moved in short dashes from here to there, bustling through space in their black uniforms. I turned toward the wall of polishes and for the first time in the sixteen years I’ve been married, I was struck by the urge for red. I considered the rows of tiny bottles, colorful and perfectly uniform like a kick line of Rockettes from Radio City, and picked up a bottle of shimmering garnet. The name of the color was “I’m Not Really a Waitress,” which seemed to suggest a ruse or a mystery—the woman associated with this color was more than she appeared. I brushed a small swatch of it on my thumb, admired how it contrasted with my pale skin, and made my decision.
A few days later, a photograph of these nails appeared on the internet. It was late at night and they were giving Trump Tower the finger. The caption read: Trump’s Tower, Cristina’s finger. Within an hour or so, the image had generated as many likes and comments as anything I ever posted on Facebook, but still a backwash of nerves and shame at having posted an image so lacking in decorum convinced me to pull it.
This is the story of the woman who pulled that image, told by the woman who put it back up online.
Late in the afternoon on my second day in New York City I needed to meet my husband downtown. It was rush hour and the traffic was bad, so I decided to take the subway. Sunlight slanted across the green scalloped lampposts as I headed to the station at 57th Street and 6th Avenue, a familiar stop from the years I lived in Manhattan. Trucks and buses belched their way down 6th Avenue, pedestrians scuffed along the sidewalk, and I felt a little heady with the memory of my life as a bonafide New Yorker. “I’m not really a mother taking her three daughters on a long weekend trip to The Big Apple,” I thought to myself, “I’m a woman who has lived and earned in this city.”
I noticed a man in front of me who also seemed also to be headed to the station. He had a gray clumpy beard and khaki pants that sagged. He moved with unpredictable jerks that made him seem off-kilter—mentally ill or drugged maybe. Every few steps he turned around toward me and snapped photographs with a blue digital camera. My momentary elation in recalling my past in Manhattan was eclipsed by the sudden vigilance that snaps to attention when one is unwillingly pulled into someone else’s narrative. I hoped he was not headed to the subway.
When I saw him peel off to the left, I felt relieved and in the movement of clench and then relax, a door of memory popped open. As I descended the stairs into the subway station I walked into a silhouette of myself.
My young legs. The black leather tote bag I bought with my own money at Barneys, expensive but a good price for such a bag. I am unto myself, people and sound retreat. My young legs. Feet meeting the ground, legs bearing up below me. And then an upward cringe shoulders to jaw, belly to throat, queasy retreat from a hard punch between my legs. Did I just run into something, a bollard? A pole? I turn to look over my right shoulder. A man’s eyes on me, his mustached lips hissing, “I bet you liked that.” Far away words, underwater words. Did that man just grab my crotch? I sail along in a current of heads and shoulders away from the man with the mustache onto the train that will take me to work.
It had happened so long ago, but at the bottom of the stairs of the subway station, I was struck by the quality of this memory, its potency and timelessness, the way it hovered latently and then under the circumstances of sunlight, sound, and brief threat, came alive in the present. Recovering from this its trance, I looked around for the familiar architecture of a subway station to orient me, the turnstiles, the ticket booth, the next set of stairs to the rails below, but was surprised to see that all that had changed. Turnstiles had been replaced by a cage of bars that I suppose ended the scam of turnstile-jumping; no more stealing a ride off the city. And the booth had been replaced by a vending machine, which struck me with a particular sadness, for without a booth, there would be no woman behind the plexi-glass who would sell me my metro card. There would be no opportunity for our hands to touch in the silver bowl when she passed me my metro card and my two dollars of change.
Instead, I found a red vending machine pushed up against the wall. I turned my back to the station and released my American Express card into its mouth, unable to see who else had lined up behind me.
The fifteen-minute ride to Lafayette and Houston was quiet, quieter than I remembered the subway being. There were no rustling newspapers, no small conversations. The light was not syrupy and yellow, as I remembered it from my city days. Instead it was bright and clear, illuminated by rows of incandescent smartphone screens which transformed the subway car into a tube of blue light.
As the subway barreled south I continued to collect myself. Just two months prior I had read a New Yorker article by Mary Karr. In it, she described her own experience with this kind of assault, and until reading her piece I had never imagined that the “crotch grab,” as she called it, was a thing, a category of assault unto itself that other women had experienced. Lacking common language and dismissed by my own need to believe that things like this didn’t happen to educated women who made their own way in New York City, the experience persisted in my body as a lone internal satellite. For twenty years it had orbited along a dark, wordless path, a shameful personal oddity made unimportant by both my own need to carry on and a lack of cultural reflection.
What I did recall in language lived on in me like a mantra—black clogs, black tights, black Marmot rain slicker—black clogs, black tights, Black marmot rain slicker—the repeating loop of items a baffled answer to the internal question had posed myself over and over again. What had I done wrong? What had I worn that had invited this mustached man’s attention? As a young woman in New York City, I wanted desperately to know, as if the knowing would have given me a way to regain control of my boundaries, to declare myself sovereign and at the helm of my life in some basic way. But no answer ever came (because, of course there was none), and the mantra attached itself to the orbiting experience like a comet’s tail, a spray of recognizable words trailing behind the main thing for which I had no language.
It was only after reading of Mary Karr’s piece that I caught a glimpse of this wordless vacuum and began to wonder at the fact that I had never felt angry about having been grabbed by a man on my way to work one morning when I was in my twenties. After she called it a “crotch grab,” ran down Ninth Avenue in pursuit of her grabber, and declared, “Not today, not this bitch. You’ve fucked with the wrong woman today!” I noticed both the mysterious lack of my own anger and, at the same time, its quickening.
My third day in New York City was Friday, October 7. The morning air crackled with fall sunlight. Outside our 59th Street hotel buses heaved and hissed, yellow taxis honked, clusters of pigeons swooped to land around a hot dog stand on the corner. My three daughters, all California natives, burrowed in their down jackets and leaned into the 58-degree wind as we hauled ourselves down Fifth Avenue to MOMA. It must have been past ten, and though I hadn’t been much on my phone all morning the sound waves were alive with the latest from the Trump campaign. The sound bytes about his lewd behavior were inescapable, the phrase “pussy grab” gurgled around us.
As we passed 57th Street our middle daughter looked up to the eastern sky, “Eeew Trump Tower!” Her sisters looked left as she pointed. The massive gold letters that spell Trump Tower hulked overhead. I looked left myself and though I’d passed the building so many times in my life, it was the first time that I noticed Trump announced himself twice on his 68 story tower—on the second floor his name appeared in gold block letters that stood half a story high, and then again in block letters along a gold band at the top of the first floor. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the building directory: Trump Grill, Trump Cafe, Trump Bar, and Trump Ice Cream.
I have no memory of Manhattan without Trump Tower. I never knew the old Bonwit Teller building or its art deco panels which Trump destroyed to build his skyscraper. Instead, I have a collection of girlhood memories that recall accompanying my mother to have her hair done in the city. Her hairdresser, Ron, worked in an upscale salon located on a mid-level floor in Trump Tower. He commandeered over a corner station where women wearing gold watches and diamond earrings would sit three or four across in black smocks with their hair teased up into carefully folded foils. They laughed while Ron in his bow tie gossiped and criticized their hair in advance of receiving his magic. It was the eighties and Ron had fashioned himself into the reigning king of blonde. He appeared in Vogue and had famous clients. My mother and I were both impressed. At eleven or twelve I remember the feeling of being admitted to the backstage of womanhood, the sense that I was bearing witness to secrets having to do with power and desire.
These were happy memories. In those days I did not think about Donald Trump, the man. But walking down the street with my three daughters the day the pussy grab tape was released, I saw that I was raised to become a woman in the product of Donald Trump’s imagination. The influence of his ambition, his vision, his pussy-grabbing misogyny were inextricably braided into what I believed it meant to be a woman. And it wasn’t even a metaphor.
Walking down Fifth Avenue that morning, I huddled my girls close me and hurried us along. I wanted to put distance between us and the tower, as if the dark slot of its height against the blue New York sky might somehow infect them.
That night Graham and I went out for a drink at a hotel bar down the street from where we were staying. We huddled together beside a walnut table in a dark corner of the bar. We ordered Manhattans. A group of twenty-somethings clustered at the table next to us colorful and chattery like a small flock of parrots. They debated which hotel ballrooms were best for a wedding reception. We looked on from our table, content to bob along on the froth of their conversation as we sipped down the sweet burn of our cocktails. When we got around to talking to each other, we talked about Trump and tic tack and the pussy grab.
Perhaps it was the loosening of a drink, the friendly but spirited debate at the table next door, or, though it bothers me to say it, my own husband’s upset at Trumps vulgarity, I felt a sizzle of rage.
“You know that happened to me.”
“What happened to you,” he asked.
“A pussy grab. A guy at the subway station, when I worked in the city. He grabbed me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Totally. It just seemed gross and weird. I didn’t forget about it, but I just kind of let it pass. Like it was one of those weird things.”
“Oh my god.”
“I know. But to hear that Trump did that, like just did that to women. It suddenly doesn’t seem weird anymore. Like this has been happening to people. It wasn’t just a bizarre thing on the train one morning. It’s crazy.”
“That is crazy. Honey, I’m sorry. That’s really fucked up.”
When we left the St. Regis, I felt spicy. The drink made me warm and the conversation about Trump and pussy grabbing had revved me up. I walked down the street buzzed on rye and self-righteous anger. I was forty-four. I was married to a decent man. And while it bothers me that being married mattered in that moment, it did. It meant a few things. It meant I was no longer young. It meant I had made commitments and was answerable to responsibility. And more than both of those, it meant I was no longer alone. Because more than anything, an angry woman is at risk—at risk of being considered crazy or shrill or unreasonable, at risk of being outcast and dismissed—and I had a man with all of his privilege backing me up, validating the sexist fucked-up-ness of things. I would be lying if I said that did not matter.
We walked up Fifth Avenue on our way back to our hotel and passed in front of Trump Tower for the fourth time that day. Black suburbans with dark tinted windows lined up on 56th Street. Armed police officers stood in front of white blockades that protected the entrance of Trump Tower from the traffic on Fifth Avenue. Graham and I stopped in front of the entrance and stared at the double row of gold Trump signs.
My pulse throbbed in the crease of my elbows and my heart hammered against my ribs. I thought about how normal it is for the female body to be insulted, assaulted, groped, raped or harmed and how often this reality was minimized by phrases like “locker room banter” and insufficient follow through or lack of belief. How American women were raised to believe that they had sovereignty over their bodies, or were supposed to have sovereignty at least in theory, but lived in a reality that offered one rebuttal after another. Worse, I, myself, had been willing, even eager, to believe that my own experience was an isolated incident, something odd and meaningless. And it had been that very day, because of the very man who had built the obnoxious tower in front of me, that I had no choice but to come to the conclusion that my experience was part of a larger pattern of widespread misogyny that informed my own gender.
It was in that moment that I stood in front of Trump Tower and gave Mr. Trump (who was, in fact, home that night) the finger. It was an iconic image. My middle finger stood tall in front of Trump’s gold entrance. They red edge of my thumb nail wrapped in front, my wedding band rising off my fourth knuckle. My heart pounded so hard I thought I might choke on myself and I was short of breath. For a second I felt like I might float away, that some part of me would dislocate and peel off, but instead I felt my feet plant on the ground next to my husband’s. I was not alone. There was no reason to flee. I heard Mary’s Karr’s words in my head, “You picked the wrong woman to fuck with today.”
For a minute I felt elated.
Graham posted the picture on Facebook with the caption, “Trump’s Tower, Cristina’s finger,” and tagged me. It was near midnight in New York, but 9PM in California, and people started liking the picture right away. By the next morning over eighty people had liked the picture. It had been shared. My friend Julie had written, “That’s a terrific finger. Truly the best. Everyone says so.” Graham’s friend had commented, “Of all the collective words wasted on that man on the Internet, this set of four is among the most clear…and the image is another 250x them.”
In the wake of all this attention, I did not feel victorious. Instead I felt nauseous. No longer strong, angry or fed up, my heart rattled and sweat formed in my arm pit. My breath shallowed. It was an anxious fear, not of Trump, not of the armed police, not even of the notion of that I might have another run in with a grabber on the subway. No, I was afraid of the people I know, my Facebook friends and my real friends who would not like the photo, who would cringe at the visual of me giving Trump the F-you.
I thought of my very good friend who is a Republican. This kind of raw expression would certainly make her uncomfortable and probably embarrassed. Thought I know she loves me, I could feel the question rise in me about whether she really still would, and with that I wondered who else might stop liking me for this picture. I thought of my Zen teacher and how giving the finger is a gesture of violence. Wasn’t the instruction not to bite, not to grasp, not to cling? And wasn’t my finger waving in front of Trump Tower clinging to my own anger. Giving the finger was not a way to end wars, but to start them, a clear way of taking a side. Mine. And I thought of my youngest daughter’s Kindergarten teacher. What was she going to think? What did it mean that this week’s volunteer reader was wagging her middle finger around on the streets of New York City?
As one face after another passed through my mind I became aware that the way I expressed my anger and my need to be liked could not be contained in my body at once. I was suddenly ashamed of the finger and ashamed at being ashamed of my finger. I tried to figure the right calculation to put the two to rights with each other, but I couldn’t do it.
I asked Graham to untag me.
By the time I returned to Palo Alto my I’m-not-really-a-waitress-nails were chipped. They looked tattered and worn out, as if the secret identity of the waitress got leaked, and it turned out she was just a regular woman with a lot of dishes to do. Outside it was hot. When I sat down at my desk I felt trapped in summertime and thought hopefully of winter rains.
I reconsidered the unsolvable calculations I’d churned through before asking Graham to untag me. My thirteen-year-old German Shepherd was curled up at my feet and the linen curtains in my office were spread out filtering the morning light. The piece of art I had chosen for myself, a photograph of the word “fearless” written in neon light stared down at me both an admonition and reminder of why I had hung it there in the first place. In the privacy of my own space, outrage at crotch grabbing—by a presidential candidate, by the man who had grabbed me, by all the individuals who take and take with impunity—struck me as a totally sane and correct response. Maybe giving the finger wasn’t the most strategic, effective or socially acceptable way to express it, but surely outrage was warranted, deserved—my right.
And with that thought, a new depth of rage rose up in me. For the first time I understood how riots explode, how all of that frustration in a neighborhood could mount up like a wave and suddenly crash as sane people pushed to the brink punched out windows and set cars on fire. And while a rational part of me understood this kind of violence to be wrong and unproductive, another primitive part of me slipped through the crack. Heat rose behind my nose as I tilted my head and looked left, toward a spot of nothing I often stare at while I wait for thought to form.
I was hit by a fantasy so shocking, it felt more like channeling a curse than forming a thought. On recalling it, I see myself possessed momentarily by the furies, those greek goddesses with their snakes for hair, their insistence on retribution resounding through the ages. There, emblazoned in my mind’s eye was a vision of Trump, naked and skewered through every orifice, his mouth stuffed with bags of sand.
If giving Trump’s Tower the finger seemed to cross a line of decorum or likability, this rage fantasy was downright troubling. It exposed me and at the same time challenged me. The woman I knew myself to be had practiced as a Christian and a Buddhist. I was a believer in non-violence. But now there was this. I was back into the corner again, trying to fit my impulses to the shape of who I thought I was.
Not knowing what to do, I looked to my bookshelf for assistance. I had a recollection of reading something by Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher, about anger. After flipping through a few books, I found the passage I had in mind:
“You don’t stop the anger, you just are the anger. Anger just hangs out as it is. That is relating with the anger. Then anger becomes vivid and directionless and it diffuses into energy. The idea of relating with it has nothing to do with expressing yourself to the other person. The Tibetan expression for that is rang sar shak which means, “leave it in its own place.” Let anger be in its own place.”
It had been a slow stuck day of writing so I left my office. I walked back to the edge of my postage stamp yard, where I took a seat on a step that rises to a small round patio. I looked back at my house, my one-story garage-office, and the old oak tree that grew between the two. The tree stood two stories higher than the house. I’d been told that this California Coastal Oak, a species of tree protected by our town was nearing two hundred years old.
The day had stretched into afternoon. Gold light painted the treetop and small sparrows darted in and out of its highest branches. Brown thorny leaves fell onto the roof of the house and my office both. From this distance I saw that the gutters of my office were clogged with the oak’s leaves, and made a mental not to get them cleaned before the rains started. I took a few minutes of sunshine on my face and let the warmth drench my tired forehead. There had been too much thinking today. The dog sidled up. I tossed her red frisbee and she hobbled after it. We repeated our fetch a time or two, which is as much as she can handle these days. Then it was time to shift sets. My daughters would be home soon. There was dinner to prepare, homework to do, baths to run.
I walked back to the house and crossed under the oak, noticing, not for the first time, that the limestone patio near its trunk was cracking. Nothing had come loose yet, but the pressure of the oak’s roots was slowly breaking the tiles we’d put down just ten years ago. The rhythm of clean cut rectangles was coming apart into odd-shaped triangles and trapezoids. Cracks that first appeared as thin as hairs were widening and growing longer, more visible. New cracks were forming. As I stepped back into the house, I wondered how long this stone patio would last.
Cristina Spencer is a writer who lives in Palo Alto. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. She is currently enrolled as an MFA student at the Bennington Writing Seminars. You can read more of her writing at www.cristinaspencer.com