Written by Ella Quinlan
Art by Lillian Anderson
Sleep is an indicator of my mental state. It’s 3 AM on a Tuesday, and the walls still haven’t spoken back. They drip of grief from a past life; the remains pool onto the floor in the form of dirty laundry piles and stacks of dirty dishes. Burli, the dog, prefers the piles over her own bed; she’s become accustomed to the expressions of my depression. Dogs, unlike people, adapt for the people they love. When my bare feet hit the floor, her eyes pop open and she shoots up onto her feet like I wasn’t just counting her snores instead of sheep. She knows when my silence becomes uncomfortable. I slide a pair of baggy mens jeans over my pajama boxers. Pick the largest, darkest hoodie from my closet, and pop the hood to cover my hair. I grab my old hunting knife sitting on my desk and slide it in my jean pocket where it sits comfortably. Armed with that, a big dog, and a pair of Doc Martens, I am a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
For a woman alone, it is safer to walk when no one can see my physique. Rebecca Solnit, in her collection of essays, “Wanderlust,” illustrates that women’s clothes are, “bodily confinements,” describing that, “high heels, tight or fragile clothes, corsets and girdles, very full or narrow skirts, easily damaged fabrics, veils that obscure vision – are part of the social mores that have handicapped women as effectively as laws and fears” (Solnit, 234). I have never felt the feeling of confinement that Solnit describes because I have never displayed myself in such a way. My clothes are rarely ever fragile, tight, or narrow – they’re the reverse: oversized, bulky, and sturdy.
The construction of my Manfit, representing the polar opposite of what I am expected to wear, is an expression of stubborness on my end, but also an acknowledgement of Solnit’s observation. I think I have made the same one: women’s clothes have been constructed for pleasure and control throughout history. Combining these feelings of control and pleasure in attempts to express femininity is part of what heightens the sense of danger for female identifying people among the streets. Typically, for example, it is when I’m dressed for the day that I get the most attention. “Oh you’re going to get me in trouble,” “smile for me my love,” and the shrill of whistles, heightens my awareness everytime I walk down a pedestrian populated street during the day. I try to learn from these types of encounters. In attempts to manipulate the social restrictions put onto me as a woman, I do everything possible to remove the sense of vulnerability that is inherently placed on female identifying individuals. My theory is that if I do not adhere to the social boundaries that have historically handicapped women in public, then I am not made a target by it, and therefore cannot be controlled by them.
It’s 3:30 AM and Winooski is still. Streetlights stand, looming over the sidewalk like giant guards, and the river shouts through the air, unheard by the sleeping city. I hear it. It is the only thing that has talked back all night – a conversation loud enough to lull the blabbering in my brain. Burli and I follow the river towards the dam. The swish..thud…. ting, of our clothing articles cuts through the stillness and harmonizes with the bellowing of the river beside us. Watching over us like noisy cameras, the lights that stand as guards lurk above us to create the path we are supposed to follow. Their construction abruptly stops at the top of the dam. Darkness sits comfortably on the rocky cliff that drops down towards the river.
Lately my core class has me thinking about physical space and the construction of it as a method of control. Yi-Fu Tuan in his book, “Space and Place”, particularly forced me to reflect on my walking habits living in Winooski in comparison to my hometown. He writes, “architectural space reveals and instructs” (Tuan, 114). When walking in the woods, there is no roadmap for someone to follow. Whereas in a place such as Winooski, the walking path is created through sidewalks, roads, and streetlights. The building of these lights that stand as guards have been a way for people to be controlled while at night. Streetlights instruct people on where it is safe to walk and where it is not. In my own observations I have found that streetlights are located where institutions want us to occupy; it is only the places the builders want us to be in. In my night walks with Burli, this knowledge is also ignored. I walk with her towards the darkness behind the lights illuminating the construction of the dam. We climb down into its depths without a second thought.
The people I love label my behavior as reckless, and they take it as a personal offense. Stepping outside, alone, in the early hours of the morning, armed with only an old hunting knife and a dog, is not considered an act of self preservation. It’s interpreted as an act of self-harm. History and true crime is to blame for this; a woman walking the streets at night is usually on a Death March. My self-inflicted medical history doesn’t help me either. I’m not ignorant to the potential dangers I carry every time I step foot outside, but truthfully, I would be more addicted to giving into my thoughts rather than running away from them if I considered walking as a symbolic act of self harm. It would be more reckless to lay awake and listen to my claustrophobic walls groan, and there’s a comfort knowing I can walk away when my room starts feeling like a coffin.
As for the question of my physical safety, my long history of not being able to sleep has groomed my street intelligence to nightlife. Turns out that the streets are still legible at night if you’re literate in human behavior and construction. There are places that I have deemed unsafe – either through experience or observation – which I avoid. Walking like I do doesn’t leave room for mistaking situations as safe, therefore, avoiding all situations after a certain hour is preferable. I keep my head up, but I don’t make eye contact (hoodies help with this), I don’t speak if spoken to, I never stop for extended periods of time after 2 AM, and I cross the street if I notice an idled car. I don’t consider my behavior reckless in the same way as my family because, I know how to read a street. I’m not sure though – this may just be another expression of my stubbornness.
I do my best to avoid it; this does not mean that I haven’t been in danger (or have perceived one) while walking alone before, but, in my adulthood I am recognizing that my ability to sense danger has been weakened. Growing up in an unsafe environment has normalized the feeling of fear, which now has carried into my ability to gauge situations (or actions) as dangerous. My relationship with danger gives me confidence on foot that I know others do not have, which can easily be interpreted as recklessness. Most of the time it is solo men who make me feel the most uneasy. If they seem as if they are higher than myself, I try to avoid anything that may insinuate friendliness or an invitation. The uneasiness is clearly caused by PTSD. Finding a man talking to himself on my way home at 4:30 AM on a Wednesday is no different from what woke me up while I slept on my mother’s couch. Now on my walks, witnessing something like that doesn’t impact me much, besides having to acknowledge Burli’s signal and us giving the man the space he needs to sort out his demons.
During the day I have a harder time avoiding this than at night: my theory is that there is privacy expected while in darkness. If one chooses to commit their vices while everyone else chooses to sleep, there’s an amount of shame that prevents one from initiating real interactions. There’s an understanding that we’re all running from something, and it is none of each other’s business. Simply existing as a woman during the day stimulates unwanted encounters, and I’d rather avoid it. I admit, I understand why my behavior can be seen as unsettling. I don’t know any other female identifying person who would prefer to lurk in the shadows in men’s clothing over walking in the safety of daylight.
It’s almost 4 AM and each time my foot hits earth, a rock goes crumbling down further into the darkness below. I know this spot well: I’ve climbed up and down this rock face with Burli enough that it’s not intimidating in the dark anymore. The bottom of the face – known as the Salmon Hole – is where my conversations with the river project the loudest. I let Burli off her leash and she takes off into the tall sandgrass, looking for a stick that I can throw for her. I walk away from the sand and towards the edge of the land where massive rocks gather, to feel caressed by something more forgiving. The water laps over the rocks and itself, while gurgling of a spirituality I am not mature enough to understand – but I listen anyway. I crouch lower towards the ground and reach out to touch the water. The current, although seemingly violent, quickly forms to my fingers; curling and stirring between my skin. Observing the water form effortlessly around me, I realize the water is more accepting than I will ever be. Will I always be this stubborn? Just a finger inserting itself in the current?
The water is cold on my fingertips but I let them soak it in. The cold is a harshness I see as necessary in trying to understand what it’s like to feel sensations outside of the ones we make for ourselves. I let these thoughts flow along and drown in the sound of the river’s chatter. Learning how to drown thoughts is part of the art of walking when you can’t sleep. That is why I risk walking in the first place. The reward of the destination, the reward of losing oneself for half a moment, outweighs whatever risks other people may pose. Like a true addict, I prioritize the reward over the possibility of danger.
I walk back into my apartment and throw my keys back onto my kitchen table. The clock on the oven reads 4:57 AM. I unclasp Burli’s leash and she immediately curls up in my dirty laundry next to her bed on the floor and closes her eyes again. She tolerates my habits, but her internal clock is more in tune than mine; she’d rather be sleeping, too. Within minutes, she’s back to snoring away. I take off my jeans that are four sizes too big and remain in my boxers and my largest hoodie. The hood is still holding back most of my hair. Although sleep feels more manageable, it is not a task that I am ready for just yet. I open the window in my bedroom and listen to the river as I rip the bong that dwells in the windowsill. Maybe I’m the reason why I can’t sleep; maybe it’s the weed that I claim helps me sleep; maybe it’s both of us contributing to the issue. Clearly neither one of us is truly helping.
After the smoke heats my lungs and dulls the sharpness of early morning thoughts, I lay back in bed and stare at the ceiling. Burli snores peacefully below me. I count each snore as if they were sheep.
walking fearlessly – two.
Does not mean – three.
I can’t be trusted – four.
To walk on my —-