Nice Girl, Pretty Girl

I walk through the supermarket entrance, making a bee-line for the carrying baskets. As I pass an old man walking up to the information counter, I notice him dropping a twenty dollar note. The cashier notices too, and pauses briefly, obviously conflicted about leaving her booth or returning the money to the man.

I reach down, grab the note, smile at the cashier and quickly approach the man. “Excuse me,” I say. “I think you dropped this.”

He doesn’t notice me. It takes me a moment to realise he has very poor hearing and almost no remaining peripheral vision. He eventually notices, and seems very confused as I hold the money out toward him. I repeat myself, and after a very awkward few moments, I gesture back toward the cashier. “I think this is yours,” I say.

He finally gets it, grabs the money off me, smiles broadly and says in halting english, “Thanking you. Nice girl, lovely girl.”

Those words send me tumbling back in time.

I’m walking through a supermarket, walking several paces in front of my mother. I must be 13 or so. I suppose I hit first-puberty about the same time as everyone else, but I certainly didn’t hit it with any velocity. So at 13, I still looked quite androgynous – something which at the time simultaneously made me feel uncomfortable, and very pleased. My hair is long and I’m wearing what will become my pre-transition trademark of baggy pants and a t-shirt, hiding my body shape.

An old man passes me, pushing his trolly quite slowly. I step out of the way politely. As I do so, he stares at me, smiling broadly. He nods thankfully, then says, “Nice girl, pretty girl.”

My mother, seeing the exchange, looks like she’s about to say something, but then realises there’s no reason to. I just stand there, unsure what all the complicated feelings in me suddenly are. Why didn’t that feel uncomfortable? If you’d asked me five years before, I’d have known the answer, but by 13 I was beginning suppress it, so I didn’t let myself think the answer.

Way back then, I was secretly excited to be gendered correctly. But now, being a thirty-something year old woman, hearing a man call me a “nice girl” in such an infantilising way makes me feel almost embarrassed.

I smile at the elderly man quickly, hoping to avoid any conversation as he readies to talk again. I grab my basket and walk into the supermarket. As I’m selecting some fresh produce and planning several meals in my head, I keep thinking about the embarrassment, and how this whole exchange is something that’d be unlikely to happen.

I had picked up the money and was taking it back to the man before I’d even had time to consider what I was doing. Years ago, with dysphoria manifesting as an extremely strange form of social anxiety, the idea of having to interact with that man would have made me act like I hadn’t seen the money being dropped, and scurried off. I’d leave a shop empty-handed rather than ask an employee where something is. I’d give away something rather than return it, because returning an item to a shop would require talking to a stranger.

But now, returning dropped items, asking cashiers or retail workers for help, and talking to strangers at parties are things I do without hesitation.

Leaving me instead in the situation of being mildly annoyed at mild forms of sexism I get – and being torn between thinking “I am a mature fucking woman, don’t talk to me like I’m 13” and “Just accept it and be thankful that you now get gendered correctly”.