The Life of Susan
(is the life of Everywoman)
© 2017 Susan Newark
This is a little girl, circa 1968. Her name is Susan. She is eleven and thrilled because she has twenty dollars and it is the first year she gets to do her Christmas shopping alone. Her mom is also in the K-Mart but not within the immediate vicinity. Susan plans to buy her father a new pipe and her mother a scarf. She is strolling through the clothing area when calloused hands suddenly grab her and drag her between a couple of clothes racks. An ugly face leers at her as its owner rubs his hand all over her crotch and just-developing breasts. “Put me down!” she hisses in horror, pushing with all her strength against the hand invading her genitals and then against his other hand as she manages to unbalance the crouching figure and escape.
Forcing back tears and vomit, she finishes her shopping so her mother won’t find out. She will never tell. She feels dirty and ashamed and can’t bear the thought of how such knowledge would agonize her loving, overprotective mother. But sleep is a thing of the past. Every time she closes her eyes, she sees the crevassed wizened face whose eyes glitter with pleasure at her humiliation. Every time sleep approaches, she feels the disgusting hands that won’t stop touching her.
This is a teenage girl, circa 1970. Her name is Susan. She is thirteen and, though a straight-A student throughout her life, she now hates school. Her junior high math teacher seats all the pretty girls in the front row and conducts instruction sitting down so that he can spend the hour looking up their dresses. He sidles up to them every chance he gets and grades down those who resist. Boys can wear jeans to school but girls are not allowed. One day Susan dons a pair of Levi’s and casually goes to class. The teacher reports her to the male principal, who calls Susan’s mother for a change of clothes. Well-meaning, her mom digs up a pair of hot pants (dressy shorts), but they are last year’s, far too small and tight and normally worn with pantyhose, not bare legs. Susan feels indecent in them. The principal regards her with satisfaction and says she can go back to class.
This is a young woman, circa 1977. Her name is Susan. She is twenty and working at the California Franchise Tax Board. Every day during her initial training period, her boss had sauntered up to kiss the back of her neck, laughing at the good fun they were having. Now she is enduring the constant advances of a bedroom-faced creep who plops onto the corner of her desk after lunch, reeking of the stale sex he just had with a co-worker in his car and pressuring her to be his next “date.” He is one of her superiors. She can’t afford to lose her job because she is caring at her own expense for the baby boy of an unfit mother who has become a drug addict. When she won’t submit to the marauder, he infiltrates and sabotages her computer accounts.
This is a college student, circa 1986. Her name is Susan. She is twenty-nine and working on a B.A. in English at California State University. She now has an English professor whose Humanities course she enjoyed back in community college. He advises her classmates that she is brilliant, reads her work aloud, and says it offers a good example to follow. Then he takes advantage of their acquaintance to ask her out for drinks. She politely repels his advances but works hard in his class. He responds by attacking everything she writes, refusing to accept her work, and requesting constant rewrites on the grounds that the experiences she dutifully describes in her essays reflect anger, particularly at men. He calls her truculent. The following year, Susan slams smack into a similar male professor in the Creative Writing prose program. If she wants to do her Master’s as planned, this man will be her adviser for a full year. She loves prose writing. It’s her lifeblood. She switches to poetry.
This is a tournament bowler, circa 1993. Her name is Susan. She is thirty-six and bowls in three leagues and two tournament circuits. She averages 185-190. The Strike Force tournament director corners her and puts his hands all over her every chance he gets. The director’s wife/assistant sees and cheats against Susan on lane assignments and line-up positions. On one occasion, it costs her a $5,000 first place win. Susan files a harassment claim with the bowling association that licenses the tournament. She gets a token reply that the problem is out of their jurisdiction. Fellow male bowlers disbelieve her accusations and say she is prejudiced because the director happens to be black. A year later, several more women file claims. The tournament director disappears.
This is a small business owner, circa 1999. Her name is Susan. She is forty-two and has spent seven years building up a successful media store. She applies for an SBA loan to purchase the strip mall that houses her store so she can expand it. The male loan processor at her bank leers but turns her down flat, even though she more than qualifies. She changes to a bank with a female director and gets support, but the male SBA agent insists that Susan’s husband co-sign the loan. They have totally separate finances, and Susan’s gross income is currently higher. She threatens a discrimination suit and receives her loan.
This is a college English teacher, circa 2006. Her name is Susan. She is forty-nine years old and is returning to part-time teaching after a business-related gap. Her students trust her because she respects them. In response to an assignment to describe educational experiences, she receives a barrage of papers depicting abuse by high school teachers. The young women complain of sexual assaults and the young men of having been bullied and humiliated (frequently by the same instructors that the women are complaining about). One student explains that when she was sixteen, she shaved her head. Her parents were frantic because she was acting weirdly. They feared she had joined a cult or become a drug addict. She fell out with her family over this, and life was never the same. She had not told anyone until now, but she had shaved her head because her math teacher was sexually molesting her and she wished to look unattractive so that he would no longer want her. She is now the parent of two girls and asks to leave class a little early to meet them after school. A registered sex offender lives next door and keeps trying to lure them into his house. She is on financial aid and can’t afford to move.
This is a long-time businessperson, circa 2015. Her name is Susan. She is fifty-seven, has been in the media business twenty-five years, and owns a popular store that sells music, movies, video games, and memorabilia. Each week there are numerous men who swagger in and call her honey or sweetie or sometimes even refer to her as a girl. Recently a thirty-something solicitor walked in (ignoring the No Solicitors sign) when she was busy training two new nineteen-year-old male employees. The infiltrator appraised her rudely and then addressed himself to the young men: “Which one of you is in charge?”
This essay was previously published in The Occupation of Rooms Possessed: Stories and Essays, 2017.