Black candle against a black backdrop

Black Candles for Bad Men

by | January 12, 2023

Most of my shifts began or ended in the parking lot. I made my way to the back corner to gaze at the sunset, dreaming about the opposite of labor. Cruising and smoking weed with my friends. Twerking. Watering my plants on a hazy morning.

During especially bad shifts, I smoked a cigarette.

While walking from the basement parking lot to the main floor, one coworker, a woman younger than me, brushed past me and said, “God, Brad is being such a fucking creep today!”

“What’s new?” Brad’s gaze tended to linger on me for too long. He also joked too enthusiastically about making me his sugarbaby.

My co-worker said, “He keeps buying me these granola bars and Starbucks coffee things whenever I open. I don’t even like that shit.”

“And here I thought I was special.” I was testing my footing with her. I’d recently graduated from a liberal arts college where it was common to see Consent is sexy! posters plastered across residence halls. Now, I was working at a grocery store where sexual harassment happened daily.

I was unsafe in so many ways. As the pandemic raged on, the Kroger company discontinued our hazard pay. They also failed to give us proper PPE, pushing us to reuse masks and gloves. I constantly looked over my shoulder, never able to relax. I had no one to talk to about it. When I brought up “sexual harassment” to coworkers, they either dismissed or trivialized what I had to say.

My coworker’s body language was telling me that she could be trusted. I said, “He does the same shit to me too. Honestly, sometimes I could use the coffee at 6 a.m., but I don’t really care for the attention.”

Brad would usually hand me the coffee at the front desk, muttering “Here ya go, sweety.” Or he’d leave it there for some other manager to tell me that he did the courtesy of buying it for me. One day, after I gave him the evil eye, Brad said, “Well, at least you get something. Some people don’t get shit.” Oh, if only I could be so lucky.

“Yeah, it’s honestly so fucking annoying. Like, I don’t even drink this shit.” She held out an unopened vanilla-flavored Starbucks coffee, liquid dripping along the sides from being out of refrigeration for too long. “He always talks about how I’m his favorite but honestly that might start to change.” She laughed in that hesitant kind of way.

“You’re funny. I don’t think he could ever forget you, at least according to Ava. I’m la sancha compared to you.”

“Yeah, I think he likes me because he thought I was a teenage girl.”

“Like a minor?”

“Yeah, he kept asking me for my age. He was excited when he didn’t know it. I think he likes teenage girls.”

“Like a pedophile?”

“Yeah, when he found out I was nineteen he sounded disappointed.”

“Ew, that’s fucking disgusting.”

“Yeah, anyway he’s so fucking annoying. Sometimes he’ll scream for me on the intercom and call me to the front. And he’ll be like ‘Oh, why didn’t you drink your drink I bought for you?’ I literally want to scream at him that I don’t fucking drink that shit.”

“Yeah, believe me, I get it. Like we don’t got shit to do.”

“Yeah exactly, I swear.” Leaning into me, she said, “One day I’m gonna fucking kill him.” After laughing, she added, “I’m only joking.”

“I’ll help you,” I said.

“Hah! I wish!” She smacked her lips, “I swear once I leave this job, I’m gonna get one of my uncles to come here and tell him to stop being a fucking pervert.”

“Let me know if that happens. I’d like to see his ass get roasted. I mean someone has to fucking tell him that he can’t be doing this shit.”

We parted ways, and I felt instant relief knowing I wasn’t alone. But a part of me also felt sad that conversations like this were reserved for darkly-lit hallways on the way to menial work duties.

There’s a tweet I came across by a feminist writer, Myriam Gurba Serrano. She wrote, “Imagine if there was a monument placed everywhere a woman has been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted in this country. Imagine if there was a monument placed where every femicide has been committed. The landscape would be so packed with monuments we wouldn’t be able to move.” I think about that a lot, how many of those monuments would be mine, or ours. How many would there be at the Glendale Ralphs on Colorado Street?

If you know anything about older Southern men, they can walk the delicate line between friendly and predatory with skillful precision. To cover their tracks, they love to claim, “Oh, but I was just being nice.”

The store manager was from Texas. If you know anything about older Southern men, they can walk the delicate line between friendly and predatory with skillful precision. To cover their tracks, they love to claim, “Oh, but I was just being nice.”

I got in my steps running away from my manager but couldn’t always steer clear of him.

He had written the schedule and seriously messed it up, scheduling me until 1 am, which was a no-go. I don’t have a car, and it isn’t exactly practical to walk or take the bus home at that hour as a woman. Knowing that I had to get this resolved sooner rather than later, I found him on the sales floor and told him my issue.

He said, “Mhm, yeah, I’ll take care of it, don’t worry.” He shifted, moving his body closer to me. “You know your name, it’s not very typical. What’s your background?”

“Greek and Guatemalan.” I could have rolled my eyes. Never have men asked me my ethnicity more than when I worked retail.

“I’m Guatemalan too! We really have to stick together.” He winked at me.

I laughed uncomfortably.

He wouldn’t stop staring at my boobs.

“Yeah, you know before this I used to be in real estate, so I know a lot about setting up young people like yourself for financial success. I can give you some tips one day. I do this a lot for people your age.”

“My uncle knows that kind of stuff. He can help me.”

“Just let me know. And don’t worry about working until 1 am. If you ever need a ride, tell me. I live a few blocks away, so just give me a call, I’ll be happy to pick you up and drop you off at your house. Here’s my number.”

He made me sit there and plug his number into my phone. I was flabbergasted because I knew he was not doing this out of the kindness of his heart but to get me alone with him. Why else would your male manager offer you a ride at 1 am when he’s never scheduled you to work that late? As I was looking down at my phone, I blurted, “It’s my cart hour” and practically ran away.

I felt outside of my body for the rest of my shift and couldn’t focus on my job. Something was in the way.

I recounted this episode to another one of the younger female coworkers, the only lesbian as far as I knew. I added, “Does this motherfucker really think I’d want a ride from him?”

“Girl, I’d rather walk, run, or fucking swim in a flood than take a ride from him.”

That one made me laugh real good. I agreed.

I began to cherish moments like this when the other young women and I exchanged stories of our encounters with our bosses. One told me that a boss had asked her for a blowjob and then claimed it was a joke. We didn’t trust the sexual harrassment reporting system and the sexual harassment training required for all male supervisors was a joke. We were each other’s witnesses.

Off the clock, I sought my own witness, engaging in an ancestral veneration practice during which I wrote letters to my late abuela, a Guatemalan immigrant who’d worked as a hospital custodian.

Dear Mama Ruth,

It must be something in the air—the hot July hellscape of southern California. I wonder if it’s the heat that makes men act like animals, or if I should blame the full moon. Two days ago, something happened at work that made me feel unsafe. I won’t spill the details (because the devil is really in the details), but I will tell you about the aftermath. I spent the rest of my shift that day in a quiet and fearful rage. My body trembled. If I hadn’t been “on the clock,” I would’ve grabbed a knife and pointed it at any man who looked at me wrong.

After I clocked out, I walked to the park by our house. I sent a voice message to my homegirl, telling her about what had happened. My heart was beating so fast, and I kept remembering the other times that I was made to feel outside my body. I’ve been going to this market since I was a baby. I’ve been to this market many times with you, yuela. I hate that I was mad at myself for not shutting him down and telling him off. I hate that I tolerated his behavior.

I’ve been groped, grabbed, prodded, stared at, examined, and smashed to fragments. I was 12 (or was I 11? See, I can’t even remember. I must’ve blocked it). I was 13. I was 18. I was 20. I was 21. I was 23. When I was younger, so that men couldn’t look at them, I wanted to rip my developing breasts off. Wherever I lay down in my bedroom, I reclaim myself. I cry out with pleasure, reminding myself that I exist separately from the men who’ve rubbed their eyes all over me.

12, 13, 18, 21, 21, 23. I’m thinking of tattooing these numbers on my body. Even the body can serve as a testimony, and thus it becomes an archive. Each number represents every nasty man in my book. I’ve always been a spiteful woman, yuela. I never had your edge for forgiveness, at least not when it comes to men. I see nothing wrong with revenge. An eye for an eye might make the world blind, but I’ve had to develop other ways of seeing. I can tell when a man is looking at me even though my back is turned. The gaze taps me on the shoulder, puts me on alert.

I admit, yuela, that the word survivor didn’t come easily to me. I resisted it. Surely, I couldn’t be like those “damaged” women, beyond repair somehow. I still fucked and tussled around with men. In fact, I messed around the most after getting assaulted in college. I downplayed what happened because I wasn’t penetrated. Surely, this meant I couldn’t find community with “real” survivors.

It wasn’t until my writing mentor read a poem of mine about the event and explained to me that I could call it an assault that something clicked in me. I felt discovered and validated at the same time. While I’ve been victimized many times, I didn’t like the word victim. I know something of victimhood, but I know even more about survivorship.

So here I lay myself bare to you, abuela, giving you my secret, one that has lain buried deep in my heart. Please help me take it away, madre. Let it leave me like the wind.

When I was outside putting away carts in the sweltering summer heat, he liked to stand by the entrance and check out my ass under the guise of “keeping tabs on his workers.”

I remember the week that he left.

He’d been getting a lot of calls from the union, and the company was considering sending him back to Texas. It didn’t occur to me that he might leave. I didn’t realize how much his presence affected me until the possibility of his departure came up. He liked to watch me. On cameras. When I was outside putting away carts in the sweltering summer heat, he liked to stand by the entrance and check out my ass under the guise of “keeping tabs on his workers.”

He wasn’t the only one. I was being sexually harassed by four of my male supervisors, and nearly all of my supervisors were men. Some of them outwardly hit on me. Others made comments about my body or how I dressed. One would pretend to trip so he could grope my shoulder or back to steady himself. He only did this to young women. I remember thinking, These men think they’re at the strip club, but even strip clubs have ‘no touching’ rules.

The Texan was the one I feared the most. He really wanted to get me alone.

I thought about submitting a testimonial to the union, but instead, I knelt.

I lit a black candle and prayed to my abuela. With tears running down my face, I cast my pain into the flame, pleading for him to be gone. I wrote his name on a piece of paper, and I threw it into the candle, watching it burn.

When I came back on Monday, I heard the news of his transfer back to Texas.

Whether his mistreatment of the other workers was his reckoning, I knew that my abuela listened to me and cast her protection over me. It’s as if she said, “Don’t worry about this one, mi’ja. You don’t have to do a thing.”

Ariadne Makridakis Arroyo is a Los Angeles-based poet, writer, and feminist of Greek and Guatemalan descent. They completed their Bachelor’s degree in Critical Theory & Social Justice at Occidental College in 2020. Her work has been featured in Twisted Moon Magazine, Evocations Review, Stellium Literary Magazine, Stonecoast Review, and Latin@ Literatures.