Jeff Phillips: In Defense of the Tired Girl

tired girl 2

The other day I rode the Brown Line to meet my fiancé for dinner. As I sat down and pulled out my reading material, I noticed a skinny guy stand up just a few rows up from me. He had on a long green pea coat, and a silver fox fur Russian ushanka. He was about my age, early 30s. He started to pace up the aisle in slow motion. I couldn’t tell if he was being cautious because the train was in motion, or if he was putting on an act. He swiveled around and took a seat on one of those single seater rows they have on the Brown Line trains in Chicago. Then he turned abruptly to face the young woman sitting in the single seater behind him.

“Girl,” he started. “Why you look so mean?”

She paused for a moment, taken aback. “I’m just tired.”

“Girl, don’t get me started on being tired. I’ve worked some jobs you would never work. My brother keeps trying to kill himself…”

The guy’s monologue went on, but I lost track of what he was saying, because I was considering his tone, and if maybe I should step in and stick up for this girl. The guy was directing such venom at her, as if he’d been waiting all day for someone to make a minor complaint so that he could unleash whatever he had pent up in him and make them feel like shit, so he had to stir something up. I didn’t necessarily think she was in danger of being violated or attacked by this guy. But he was making her uncomfortable, it was obvious. She was shifting in her seat; the impulse to relocate was firing, but dissipated by nervous laughter.

I thought, maybe I should be a good citizen for a change, instead of sitting and watching it all happen. Even if that means getting in someone else’s business, because he was getting in someone else’s business. This guy needed to lay off, let her get back to a peaceful ride, let her decompress. This guy’s speech was rubbing me the wrong way and I felt such repulsion toward his bitter righteousness. Maybe I should speak up!

But then he stood and started walking up the aisle. And I wasn’t sure if he was going to pick out someone else to put on the spot and lecture. Maybe it would be me. He turned back to the girl, and said “My mom is 63 and she ain’t tired. You gotta get your life together.”

At that point, to punctuate his closing statement, we arrived at the next stop and he departed. The situation had diffused itself.

I thought about his strange breed of accusation and urging, that she should get her life together. I thought about this the next morning, when I felt tired myself riding the train into work. Three quarters of a cup of coffee down, and I was still on the groggy side. Did that mean I didn’t have my life together? All because I was still waking up, because I enjoyed a little wine with dinner, because I stayed up a little later than usual to enjoy the company of my fiancé on our anniversary? Because it was the end of the work week: I had worked hard at my job, resolved some complicated customer issues, put in some extra steps on my Fitbit beyond my daily goal to keep up with the competition in a Work Week Hustle, put some work into a new novella, and got caught up on some household chores. So I was feeling a little tired. However if that guy were to come my way and judge me according to his benchmarks, he’d determine that I’d need to get my life together, that I was somehow not a productive member of society.

And that was my week, which is an easy one in the grand scheme of things. Now, the girl he was so fired up with because she was tired, what was her week like? Maybe she was taking care of a sick relative? Maybe she works 3 jobs to support 3 kids on her own? Maybe she’s getting over the flu? Maybe she recently found out she has cancer, maybe she’s on her way home from her first bout of chemotherapy? Maybe she just had an ordinary day, and how dare she, feel a little bit tired?

But he didn’t consider such scenarios, he didn’t stop and ask why she felt so tired. He only wanted to know why she was so mean looking, which may be a roundabout way to tell her she was ugly? He wasn’t there to get to know her, or even offer unsolicited cheering up. He only needed to ask a quick question so he could launch into castigation. Clearly he’s going through some shit, he outlined a few things, but his public response to this is forcing some girl, minding her own business, to go through some shit. Because of this, I don’t feel like considering at all what he’s going through, to give him any ounce of a benefit of a doubt.

As I replay that scenario in my head, I feel some intense outrage swish my blood, and suddenly I want nothing more than to see this guy come up the aisle, pompous, and in slow motion, lock in on some other unsuspecting girl so that I can whirl in on him, grab his fucking fur hat, toss it out the door at the next stop and scream “go chase the dead animal you like to wear on your thick fucking head, because you’re so fucking awake, huh?! You’re not too tired, huh?! Because you got your shit so together, huh?!”

Maybe the reason I’m so incensed from this incident is because there is a tired girl in all of us. I have a clear middle school memory of a day when two kids in the front of the room were chattering, they laughed, then turned back to point at me and said “if anyone needs coffee it’s him!” They continued to laugh. This was a good window into what they thought about me. Their image of me, as relayed to me, was that I looked lifeless. And that didn’t feel like an attractive look. And to have my life-force, so to speak, judged felt a little, I don’t know, blasphemous for lack of a better word. If there is a greater power that circulates and snuffs such a delicate thing as being alive, who the hell are you to comment and snicker?

Perhaps my cry of injustice here is driven by reverberations of disappointment in myself, as only a couple of years after being called out by my peers in class, I did the same thing with some friends, behind a girl’s back, as we referred to her in secret as “sleepy girl.”

I know my fiancé has expressed irritation and offense when even close friends of hers’ have told her “you look tired.” What a strange comment that gets under our skin. Even when it seems harmless, someone only meaning to convey concern, “you sleeping okay?” And how, I wonder, in my own self-righteous gut reaction to defend anyone that is called out for being tired, do I lash out at the good people? How can I seethe at their seemingly innocent observations, without being told to calm down and get some rest myself?

The dissonance that surges out of my adrenal glands soon calms, but I feel awake. I don’t feel so tired anymore, and feel alert enough to keep an eye out for such guys that are on the prowl to pinpoint and preach. I feel the calling that I may be the watchdog that answers to unwarranted derogating so that lone girls can be tired on the train without being cross examined.

I’ll feel this way until I’m too tired to answer the call to defend the tired girl. And to tell you the truth, I’m getting a little tired of thinking about that fucking guy and the many iterations of guys just like him.

 

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