I have always felt like someone is watching me.
I feel it less palpably and less often now in DC and in other east coast cities where I’ve lived. But when I visit where I grew up in Michigan’s northwest lower peninsula, it comes right back to me – that feeling, I think it started in middle school, of always being watched.
Through my bedroom windows when I’m changing or just puttering around the house. Riding my bike, walking in the woods or through a parking lot at dusk. Someone always out there, keeping track of my movements, watching me. Some man.
Three summers ago, my partner and I visited my mom’s lake cottage in northern Michigan together for the first time. I hadn’t been there in years. My parents stayed for a week, and left a few days before we did, to go back to work and give us some time to ourselves.
Right after they left, the feeling started up – the lurking feeling. Like someone was just outside our windows, watching and waiting.
The feeling intensified. P went out back to chop firewood and returned after just a few minutes – said it felt like someone was watching her from the woods. Late our last night there, I felt someone lingering right behind me as I vacuumed. My shoulders shrugged up to my ears, a feeling along the upper spine.
P suggested we go for a walk. “Let’s shake it off.” But I couldn’t. We lit a fire by the water. Hunched and anxious, I sat with my back to a tree. When it was time to turn in, we held hands through the house.
Early the next morning, still dark, in cold rain and mist rolling off the lake, the feeling persisted. As I loaded up the car, alone, some force charged up behind me – who? I spun around. No one there.
Hours later, I called my mom from the road in coal country Pennsylvania. Our trip was going fine, I said, but she might need to sage her house.
“Oh. Grandpa,” she replied, referring to her father who had lived for years and died in the lake house over a decade before. “Yeah, he was always lurking around. . . back by the garage, out in the woods. That was just him, ya know? He was a lurker.”
P and I go to Michigan every summer now to stay at the lake cottage for a week or two. While we’re there, eagles perch in the tall pines outside my mom’s house and soar over our favorite, blanched beach on Lake Michigan. Coyotes – a whole pack of them – cry and yip at night, as epic sunsets stain the water orange and purple. So far north, almost at the 45th parallel, the sun takes sweet, transcendent hours to set. Owls make strange sounds in the dark, and the stars begin to show themselves one at a time in the swelling cold sky.
While we’re there, white men – mostly locals, but some tourists – rev their trucks and spill out their windows, leering at us, mostly at me, the white, extremely femme, blonde girl. The nice lake-goers are annoyed with this display but say nothing.
Confederate flags are not un-common, and American flags are everywhere – small ones punctuate the hedgerows and windows of houses and businesses, huge ones fly at the end of docks or trail boats across the lake.
When my parents are around, we feel safe. Maybe not safe to be in a gay bi-racial relationship in northern Michigan – but safe to eat and shop, to hike and swim and be amazed with natural beauty under their loving white, middle class wing.
If we go into town without my parents, even men with wives and girlfriends ogle me – mostly tourists, some locals – their mouths agape, eyes intense and unapologetic. It’s surreal and constant and uncomfortable as fuck. Sometimes I stare back and say “Stop fucking looking at me.” They do look away but are not ashamed. And no one around seems to notice. It’s as if everyone has agreed that this is socially acceptable, for men to become bug-eyed and aggressive at the sight of a woman in shorts.
I don’t mean this with any hyperbole whatsoever – it’s as if those staring men think. . No, it’s as if they truly believe that they own me.
P and I don’t hold hands in public much up there, and it’s not because we’re afraid of making people uncomfortable. Everybody notices P already – black and light-skinned, lean, with an athletic, graceful body and beautiful curly hair. If we acted more affectionately, more how we usually behave, they would perceive me as “the girl” in the relationship. And therefore P would “own me.” And therefore P would transition from a tolerated oddity to an outright threat. And what would happen then?
This summer, my parents left the day after Charlottesville.
We were on vacation time; the news was coming in slow. So we didn’t know to be worried about being alone until just a couple hours before they left. We began to read, all separately on our electronic devices. At first we joked – tiki torches. And then we learned someone had died.
Anxiety came over me in waves. I thought about the big truck that raged past earlier that day, wondered if he saw me and P cuddling as we sunned ourselves on the dock, or if the neighbors noticed flickers of intimacy pass between us while we ran or walked by, some sign that the girls with DC plates are more than friends.
I thought about how after a burst of violence, smaller acts of follow-on violence trickle out, and that white male impunity is contagious.
I felt the person, the man, watching outside our window. Would we wake up to torches outside?
Probably not. But that is my worst fear.
Familial and community knowledge passes in strange ways, leaks in sideways when you don’t expect it.
No one told me, for example, that northern Michigan is a hotbed of white supremacy. I just happened to google “neo-Nazism, northern Michigan” on a whim, years after moving away, and promptly landed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.
I knew that boys in my high school became neo-Nazis, and when a boy came back to school after taking a bullet, some news trickled down to us that tension had erupted over competing white supremacist sects or ideologies. None of the adults talked to us about it, except for maybe my father, who was at heart a working kid from the Detroit area and had enough sense to condemn such things. Many of my peers distanced themselves from these boys, but many did not, and if the school tried to intervene in their lives, I do not know about it.
Maybe they thought they were protecting us – neo-Nazism on a need-to-know basis.
“. . . Somebody like Donald Trump, who does not give his daughter to a Jew.”
- Christopher Cantwell, white supremacist speaker, Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally
White men think they own my body. Or, many white men think they own me. It’s a race thing.
My white ex-girlfriend often noticed white men getting confrontational with her when we were together. My Asian ex-boyfriend experienced the same.
When good ol boys from Virginia or Maryland invade DC on Friday night, they interrupt us –are you two lesbians? – or leer at me from across the room for half an hour, and then, when we confront them, pretend they were not. She was looking at ME –
Once two very broad, tall white men sidled me at the jukebox, their stomachs grazing my upper arms – I am not tall – Do you need help picking music? What why don’t you wanna talk?
More than once a middle aged white man has pulled over, opened his car door, smiled at me and said get in.
Men of all kinds harass me. White men have a special knack for it.
Watching, leering, hovering over, lurking, imposing – these are ways that white men assert control over female bodies without ever enacting explicit violence and so maintain that they are doing nothing of the sort. And so face no consequences. Remember 45 hovering behind Hill at the debate?
The violence though is always implied and imprinted, so much so that bystanders (e.g. nice lake goers) seem not to notice or understand that they are consenting to it.
It’s time consuming. I’m almost 35 years old. This has been happening for most of my life, since puberty at least. It’s an emotional drain. It accumulates. I wear it, it wears me down. It sharpens me, too.
I have always felt like someone is watching me.
Familial and community knowledge passes in strange ways, leaks out sideways unexpectedly.
My brother and I approach the question of our grandfather’s character somewhat gingerly when it comes up.
We know he was a true Christian zealot, that he had a mean streak and punished his children, especially the three girls, with religion and religious fervor. We know that he intervened in and controlled their relationships. We know that he “had a thing for” and watched my mom’s childhood friend.
My brother came home to the lake this summer before deploying to Iraq. Things have been tense between us since he announced his deployment.
The last time we were there together, two years ago for our step-dad’s 70th birthday, sitting around a late fire under a spell of stars, I told him it felt like the beginning of the backlash cycle – the Charleston church shooting a week earlier, so much debate about the Confederate flag, so many trans women and black people murdered already that year, white men on the street quietly aggressive with P when we were out together – They’re fucking lucky I wasn’t there, my brother interrupts. This was a month before Sandra Bland, which wrecked me – she’s small like P –, a year before the Pulse Orlando shooting, which wrecked us both – those are our queer brothers.
I told him I was worried, and he told me it would be fine.
I could see it sifting through though, through the chinks in the armor that asserts My sister cannot fear for her safety. This cannot be true..
Lake country exudes a quietude that I long for when I’m in the city. Every night, P and I are the last to go to bed. We stay out by the fire, breathing the cool, fresh air, watching other peoples’ lights go out, and I am amazed that anybody gets this much darkness.
I am not a ghost person, but I’m convinced now that the woods behind my mom’s cottage are teeming with spirits. There are native people who walk the woods all night. A little girl sits on the steps in the garage, and I am not strong enough yet to really look at her. I feel in their restlessness generations of unspoken betrayal.
I want to say something now about growing up in the cold cultural silence of the Great Lakes region. How Christianity and patriotism and bitter winters ingrain in us great stoicism. How so few want to trouble or even bring up the white supremacy / misogyny there. How the little acts of hatred slipping through the cracks are not an undercurrent but an atmosphere, and that I knew it – I have always felt like someone is watching me.
I want to repeat what feminists have said for years – that the act of observing changes she who is being observed, that constant looking is a type of policing, and that the entitlement of staring robs us of privacy and peace.
I’m not saying Michigan is any worse than say, Missouri. I’m just telling you what I know.
We are not ghost people. We are not ghost people, yet the malevolent grandfather ghost visits my brother and his girlfriend several times – pops the bedroom door open loudly, drops a quilt from a high shelf onto my brother’s head. They both have that ghost feeling hovering behind them.
Later in the car, P interprets: “Your grandfather’s after her,” referring to the girlfriend. Nausea pits my stomach.
When we get back to the cottage, I work a protective spell around them and their room. (I’d already done one for the rest of us, who had arrived earlier.)
I light candles for and invoke my grandmother, whose warmth I can sometimes still feel on sunny afternoons in that house. She is golden light streaming through the windows while the lake glints blue and the waves lap and the monarchs alight on tiger lilies.
I think about our childhood friend who will come over later with her daughter, a wild, funny little person who’ll tear through the house and play, like her mother did.
I think about P’s sisters and our nieces and nephews who will visit next summer for our wedding.
The ghost is coming up behind me and I wonder what it’ll take to cast him out and where he goes next and if we will ever be un-haunted.
I start to chant
This place is safe for all women and girls
This home is safe for all children
Make this home safe for all women and girls
Protect all women and girls who visit this home
I chant. Tears stream down my face fast. I motion with my arms like trying to cast something off, crack the protective shell that binds my shoulders tight.
This home is safe for all women and girls
This home is safe
All women and girls are safe
All women and girls are safe
All women and girls are safe
May it be so
I go outside and yell to my brother, who peers out over the hammock, waiting for my report. “Grandpa’s in the bathroom,” I yell to him. “Go and tell him he has to get the fuck out.”
Corinne A. Schneider writes anti-love poems, femme anecdotes, and other ephemera in the House of Sex, Death, and Taxes. Her work is recently featured or forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Horse Less Press, and So to Speak. She has her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College in New York City. Corinne grew up in Michigan.