It’s a matter of consent

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

The difference

I just spent an evening – together with several other women – trying desperately to explain to a man why #metoo matters and why he was wrong to obstinately insist, “yeah yeah yeah but MEN, let’s talk about the men” in between snippets of “and I’m an ally, look at what I said HERE and HERE and HERE.’
One thing he simply couldn’t get. There are many kinds of men. Some are with us and some are against us – but we don’t know which are which. It is often really hard to tell because it isn’t what they say that matters; in the end, it’s what they do.
Let me tell you two stories, about two different men.

Story #1

The flight I was supposed to be on was leaving from Belgrade and we had all been herded into this single small room and left there to stew while the flight was delayed and delayed and delayed again.
There was an agent podium in the room but no agent at it. When one finally arrived, I took it upon myself – because I spoke Serb and most of the others didn’t – to go up there and demand, unsuccessfully as it turned out, an update and explanation.
When the fllght finally boarded after a several hours (still unexplained) delay, I found my seat. A small dark man sat down next to me and informed me that he had paid the hostess to change his seat so that could sit beside me because he had watched me deal with the agent at the gate and “loved feisty women.”
As we taxied out, he showed me pictures of a lovely house he owned in Cyprus.
He then asked me to marry him.
As a Muslim he was allowed four wives, he explained. He assured me that his senior wife wouldn’t mind and told me that I could have the Cyprus house for my own (and he’d just come and visit me there, I suppose…) I told him I had no plans to get married. He took the book I was reading and wrote his name and phone number on the front cover — in case I ever changed my mind.
It was a short hop, but it was the longest flight of my life. I waited for him to leave, pretending to be busy with my possessions. I left the book – which I had not finished, but which I really didn’t want to own any more – in the seat pocket when I finally left the plane. I sneaked out of the airport looking over my shoulder, hoping that he hadn’t hung around to accost me, hoping he wouldn’t see me catch a cab, follow me elsewhere.

Story #2, about quite a different kind of man.

I was in Heathrow airport, and once again the flight I was supposed to be catching to Cape Town was delayed and delayed and delayed.
There came a time when I had read everything I had to read, even the small print on the back of my ticket (for once in my life I knew all the terms and conditions of my carriage on this plane.) I finally gave up the struggle and dragged my baggage to the concession store. I found a new novel by a writer I quite liked – but all I had left of the local currency was a pocketful of loose change. And what I had wouldn’t stretch to the price of the book. I turned my coins over and over in my hands but they obstinately refused to come out to the right amount.
Finally this amused male voice behind me said, “Okay, how much do you need?
Twenty bloody P,” I snarled, and a hand came snaking over my shoulder with the required coinage.
Please take it,” the voice said, “I can’t bear to watch.
I took it, and bought the book. I ended up not reading it, because I struck up a conversation with this guy. We sat chatting for another two hours before the flight got off the ground, and because we’d got on so well we made plans to try and swap out seats with people next to us when on the plane so that we could sit together and continue talking.
When I claimed my assigned seat, I realized I couldn’t do anything about this because I was in a family knot – two parents and three children, and me in the last seat that made up those two rows. But then I saw him waving at me across the plane, and I picked up my stuff and made my way over there.
He informed me triumphantly that he had just arranged for us to do what we had planned… and then his face fell when he realized that he had made this arrangement not with the passenger sitting next to him but with one sitting in the equivalent seat in the row BEHIND him.
The woman who was sitting in the seat that we needed was sufficiently entertained by the fiasco to volunteer without being asked to swap rows, and so there we were, my new friend and I, finally ensconced next to each other, laughing and in a breathlessly good mood not often found on long flights.
Turned out he was “in diamonds”, and he inspected the ones I wore on my hands and told me fascinating stuff about their caratage and quality and how diamonds were rated and made and valued. We talked for hours about that and all sorts of other things. And then I began to yawn and squirm in my seat trying to get comfortable – an impossibility because I have never been able to become comfortable in economy class seats on long flights. He watched for a moment and then lifted an arm, patting his shoulder with his other hand. It was a wordless invitation – not an entitlement, not an expectation, just this: if you need a shoulder to lean on as a pillow, here I am.
So I did. And he held me, in security and comfort and trust – because he ASKED, and I CHOSE TO ACCEPT, this was the ultimate code of consent.
It might have been the best night’s sleep I ever had on a long uncomfortable flight. If he felt stiff or cramped he never said a word, and when I woke and sat up he released me, and we had breakfast, and then the plane landed, eventually, in Johannesburg, which was a transit stop, and the place where he got off. He gathered his stuff together, we smiled and said goodbye. He walked down the airplane aisle, his briefcase in one hand, his coat folded over his other arm.
Then he stopped, turned, and came back. He leaned down and kissed me, gently, lightly, just a brush of lips. He smiled again, a smile of farewell. And was gone.
I have tried very hard to forget that first guy. I have never had any trouble remembering the second one.
It was all wrapped in consent, that second encounter; it was a man who was being a friend, an ally, someone I could trust who never once did a single thing to abuse that trust. He held a stranger for hours while she slept, and protected her, and kept her safe and completely secure. I think that when he turned, as he left, if he had seen anything on my face that gave him the impression that I was done with him, he would have walked on. But I was still watching him, and I was smiling. He understood that at face value He knew he was entitled to claim no more than that light kiss, but he claimed it. And I freely gave it. He DESERVED it.
For anyone who wants to understand… there it is. The difference between a #metoo story and a cherished memory. If you are a man and you ever want to know what you can do, how you can help… take what lessons you can from these two stories.

Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman
More from Wired HERE
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