Blog / 2018 / Someone Left Their Hand on My Lap. Does Anyone Know Who It Belongs To?

February 1, 2018

It was a faint tickle on the skin over my ribs. The touch itself was innocent enough, but the context lent it a sinister feel. I was in a darkened movie theater, and a stranger had just sat down next to me.

I knew immediately that he was trying to grope me. I knew it in that way that you always know these things; I denied it in the way that I always deny it at first when someone is violating my boundaries. It’s like a light switch in my brain. It flips automatically to the stark clarity of “danger” but everything in my upbringing forces the lever back to the gloomy muddlement of “this is not happening” that is also known as “you’re overreacting.”

I leaned away from the stranger, towards K. Our friendship was still pretty new. It was the second time we were out together, just the two of us. Twenty years old and living in Paris for a semester, K and I were eager to enjoy the superior cinema that the City of Light had to offer.

When we’d entered the theater a half hour before, pairs and singles dotted the seats here and there, with plenty of space isolating the separate movie-goers in that nice way that keeps things comfortable in a darkened room holding a handful of strangers.

There it was again: a faint tickle. On my bicep this time.

I scooted a little more towards K, completely taking over the armrest between her seat and mine. If she reacted to the encroachment, I never noticed. I was too busy fiddling with my internal light switch, my whole right side alive in anticipation.

When the weight of his hand landed on my thigh, it startled a memory to the surface of my thoughts. “If a stranger touches your leg when you’re at the movies, just say really loudly: ‘Someone left their hand on my lap. Does anyone know who it belongs to?’” How old was I when she’d told me this? Ten maybe? And who was she anyway? An older kid? Someone who’d experienced a moviehouse molestation?

I stood up, stepped over the stranger, and exited the row. After pausing for a moment in the aisle to be sure he wasn’t following—to see if K was?—I started a new island of personhood in the ocean of seats closer to the screen. For the next two hours, I stared at the projected pictures, watchful but not watching.

K would tell me she had had no idea why I moved. She’d explain that the stranger took off soon after I did and that she didn’t connect my actions with his. I was astonished that she hadn’t thought to follow me, and she was flabbergasted by my astonishment. Our dueling disbelief left little room for discussion, so we changed the subject.

painted portrait of a powerful woman
Gwenn Seemel
Self-portrait
2004
acrylic on canvas
48 x 34 inches

Like so many bad films, this little drama has had multiple remakes. I’m talking about all the times women in my life belittle my experiences with misogyny. Sometimes they do it directly, saying out loud the things that are already floating through my mind. “It didn’t really happen that way” or “you overreacted.”

But mostly the snub is more subtle: they just don’t care. They’ve experienced worse or they’ve never experienced anything like it. They’re unimpressed or unaware, bored by my explanation or scared that what I’m saying will require them to alter their understanding of the world. Either way, they definitely don’t want to talk about it. So we change the subject.

But I remain painfully aware of the hand in all our laps. I know exactly who it belongs to, and I’m not walking away from it anymore.

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