It was during my gap year: I was in Munich. I’d gone to a museum that was the size of a park. I don’t remember the museum or the park for that matter. What I remember was that there was a sidewalk and long wall—quartering off the museum grounds, I suppose. I turned the corner and there was a man with a moustache. He was the kind of man my grandmother—the one on my mother’s side—would have called “swarthy.” He asked me something in another language. I can’t remember if it was German or something else because I was too busy remembering other things—the eye contact that looked like he was purposely trying to dial it down a notch, as if he resisting the urge to narrow his eyes. The way his head didn’t move when he spoke. The way his arms hung stiffly at his sides. He looked like he was trying to slow down time just by willing it to happen. The only word I understood was “coffee” which is basically the same word in all of Europe. It was broad daylight and the museum bordered a side street. No cafés, no other tourists, and this man was inviting me out to coffee. Somewhere in my reptile brain I understood that in what should be a benign exchange, this man thought he had the upper hand. Maybe that was the biggest tip-off of all. Because when a man extends an invitation to a woman, he knows that his best chance for a “yes” is letting her believe that she has the power. I answered in English, snapping loudly with the mean-girl disdain of an ugly American. His demeanor changed immediately. He apologized and disappeared so quickly it was like he was never there. And I understood that he had mistaken me for a different kind of brown girl. The kind who might hesitate. The kind who might even accept his offer. I turned back to the way I’d come, hearing the sound of my grandmother’s voice, the one who died years before I was born. “Brava, mija,” she said proudly. “That’s the best way to escape from the inside of a van.”
-- Janine Kovac writes about power dynamics and women's bodies. She is the author of two memoirs, SPINNING: Choreography for Coming Home and THE NUTCRACKER CHRONICLES (forthcoming from She Writes Press in 2024). Her distinctions include: the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship, the San Francisco Foundation/Nomadic Press Literary Award for Nonfiction, and the Calderwood Fellowship for Journalism from MacDowell.