© Julie Bolitho 2018

Smile

1 Aug 2016

A spoken-word poem performed at the Catholic Chaplaincy in Oxford University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Smile

by Julie Bolitho

 

Thursday.

I’m walking down St. Aldates with my fiancé.

It’s 8am and we’re passing a two litre smoothie jar between us –

something homemade with mango and banana.

Two men in unclean clothes pass.

“Smile” one says, looking at me as the other snickers.

Vikram turns to me and says, “What? Why did they say that?”
I still have smoothie in my mouth,

but manage to swallow and say loud enough,

“I fucking hate that.”

And I do… but I’m not sure what more I can do,

other than swallow and spit out words like ‘fuck.’

Two blocks later and I’m still thinking about that man’s teeth

and how I would never want him to smile at me.

Somehow contemplative, I say to Vikram that it’s the first time that has happened when I’ve been walking with a man.

He still doesn’t understand.

“Why would he ask you to smile?”

He didn’t ask.

 

Monday afternoon.

I’m walking down Cornmarket

and a black man with dreadlocks and a large belly

draped in a Marie Curie charity pancho says,
“You have a beautiful face. Smile!”

I walk past. Stop in the street

and feel unexpected tears forming behind my oversized sunglasses.

 

I come back to my feet,

make them walk to the bank,

while all the while I’m wondering what words I could say,

wondering if I should go back and get his name,

tell the charity honoring the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize

what one their representatives is saying on the streets.

Inside the bank, the teller is female.

She smiles at me and I keep my celebrity sunglasses glued over my eyes

because all I want to do now is cry and tell her that she is so beautiful.

I want to apologize to her for anyone who has ever told her to smile.

 

After seeing the teller,

I go back to Cornmarket. I watch the rotund yellow sun moving about the street

and I stop behind him, wait for him to finish his speech about cancer care to a couple.

When he turns around, he puts his hands up like I have a gun.

I say to him, like a good girl,

“I don’t want to fight with you” (and really, I don’t)

“But what you said to me – to smile and that I have a beautiful face-

you would never say that to a man.”

His Afro-Caribbean accent enters the air

and he tells me that he would.

I have my doubts…

but I so desperately want to believe him.

He takes my hand.

Tells me that his name is Steven.

He’s a teacher. He tries to always remain in a vein of gratitude.

My doubts almost dissipate until I’m walking away

and he says, “I’ll be here later if you want to get lunch.”

 

Back at Pembroke, I fall into Nick,

hugging this gay friend because honestly,

he is one of the only men I can stand to have look at me right now.

 

Monday night.

Vikram and I are rushing after a faculty meeting,

quickly walking through the streets

the weight of words and photographs in laptops slung over our shoulders.

We pass two South Asian British men… boys.

“She’s fit, bruv. Yeah?”

“Yeah, she’s fit.”

My sunglasses seem to instinctively slide from my crown,

because what’s worse is that now I don’t even know if they’re joking or being serious…

or if they’re somehow racist

and have a problem seeing a cappuccino couple walk by.

Vikram turns back to them

and in all his glorious innocence says, “What?”

“Nothin’, Bruv. Nothin’.”

“No, you said something? Was it to me?”

He is incredulous… and naïve.

He didn’t hear them and now all they can say is,

“Naw. I thought you was my mate.”

“Fucking assholes,” I say.

We keep going and I later wonder aloud what he would have done anyway,

if he had heard them.

You can’t defend honor from the dishonorable.

 

Tuesday. Today.

I hate that there is some kind of hate brewing in my veins.

Marianne Williamson says that what isn’t love is fear… and am I really afraid of these men?

Maybe yes… but maybe I’m afraid of something far more sinister.

 

I overhear one of my students say today,

“I shouldn’t. I’m supposed to be on a diet.”

Suddenly, I want my sunglasses again because all I can see is a beautiful young woman

who to me is not supposed to be anything other than her own brand of beautiful,

but then again, here I am, just over thirty, supposed to be a yogi,

and I weigh myself today for the first time in two months.

In two years, I have gained ten pounds.

In two years, I have fallen madly in love with a man who also loves food

and has a metabolism that could fire a small engine.

I have fallen madly in love with a man who takes photographs

for fashion magazines, of sometimes scantily-clad women,

who, to me, often appear diseased,

plagued by a need to be something other than just slender.

 

A friend said to me recently,

“So, what is it like to have a Vogue fashion photographer tell you you’re beautiful?”

“It’s like having my best friend tell me I’m beautiful,” I say.
She meant well

but I know there are people who wonder—

some shallow, some not—

about how a man who spends his career photographing so-called beautiful women

has fallen in love with a US size 10

who spent her childhood being bullied about her weight and the complexities of her brain.

 

When I was ten,

before I really understood rape,

I prayed to God that I would be raped

because I thought no one would ever want to have sex with me.

 

Let me repeat:

When I was ten,

before I really understood rape,

I prayed to God that I would be raped

because I thought no one would ever want to have sex with me.

 

Somehow at ten,

I hadn’t yet internalized the violence and catastrophe of violation

but I had already understood that my body was wrong

--my body that had functional bones and organs,

muscles that moved and grew—

wasn’t worthy of a man.

That’s what I knew then.

 

And today, hate pushes its ugly way through my healthy, vegan veins,

through my bendy, yoga body,

through my scars that tell of old stories of cancer and triumph—

hate somehow has pushed its way into all the beauty

hate toward all these men who think I am unworthy of them—

who think I should smile for them

because they said so

because they have dicks between their legs

and somehow they too internalized a lesson in life--that having a dick meant becoming one.

 

And I’m not always so vulgar

and I’d rather use other, more couth and smartly chosen words

but this is where rage has landed me

        this is where rage has landed us

at fuck you’s

and the mercy of cursing because there is a glass ceiling

and nothing else is even putting a chip in it.

 

I want to shatter that roof

for the chandelier to break over every head

and for every girl with a “resting bitch face”

to run into the streets and stare at all the eyelashes dripping with blood

from crowns that have been cut,

from shards that say, “No more.”

 

I want every fat girl who has been told she has a beautiful face

to take off all her clothes

and to demand that she be told her thighs are beautiful.

To hear that her belly is beautiful.

To know that her life is beautiful.

 

I want there to be more than fuck you’s and poetry.

I want there to be faith running through my veins again.

I want there to be something other this.

But all I can say is,

Please be it.

Please be it.

Please be it.  

 

And don’t you dare ever tell me to smile.

 

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