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There is a year of safety between what happened and the writing of this, but recalling it, bringing it back into focus, makes it immediate again.
It happened while I walked back to my car after a particularly odd bachelorette party. I hadn’t wanted to attend, but as a bridesmaid, I wasn’t left with much of a choice. We began with dinner, then walked several blocks to the closest bar -- a dive that seemed more irritated than anything to have a bachelorette party in its midst -- and we ended at an upscale club for which none of us were dressed.
It was one of the last of the warm September evenings, though, and being on the deck with a drink felt good, despite the men who, seeing it was past 1 a.m., were making the rounds almost desperately, trying to get a girl into their bed, or at least into their phone.
When the club closed, the streets flooded with the drunk, tipsy, and tired. I walked back to my car, only a few blocks away.
What drew his attention? It could have been my outfit -- nothing I felt was too attention grabbing, just a high-necked tank top, shorts, and heels, but my long legs were visible, un-tanned as they were against the night, especially as I got further from the intersection crowded with bars and clubs. Perhaps I hadn’t thought long enough about it as I had gotten ready for the evening, should have been more attentive to how I appeared, what sort of message I had sent, was sending. Maybe I was a beacon, dressed the way I was.
Maybe I should have hired a cab to drive me back; the whole situation could have been avoided. He never would have seen me, or seen only a face in a window, blankly waiting for the ride to end.
It’s so easy to come up with things I should have done, ways I could have been smarter, but I had never known true fear before, never experienced anything of which to be afraid. I used to do laps around the Boston Common after dark, never once worried. Perhaps that was college freshman naiveté.
But even as I aged, I learned how to walk downtown with the assertion that nothing would happen to me, a face that declared that I was not to be approached. I would tell other people “Walk like you mean it." No one had ever fucked with me, so I believed no one ever would.
I was wrong.
About halfway between the club and the restaurant, just outside of the area monitored by the police for fights and public drunkenness, I was approached by a man in a car. Though the road he was on fed directly into the highway, he drove slowly, keeping pace with me. It was close to 3 a.m. and my phone was dead.
This man unrolled his window. He was older than me, in his late twenties or early thirties.
He began to say things to me. You look nice tonight. Where are you going? Do you have a boyfriend?
At first I said nothing; cat-callers, like bullies, tend to require your interest, some sort of reaction to feed on, to gain energy from. But my silence only seemed to breed insistence in him: Why was I by myself? Did I need a ride somewhere? He could take me.
I told him firmly to leave me alone without meeting his gaze, hoping to create a facsimile of bitchy dismissiveness. All the while, each step was one nearer to my car, a place with locks to take shelter, to get away if necessary. My façade didn’t deter him from pursuing me, and the road was long and straight – no exits, no side streets, nowhere to go but forward.
I broke my silence -- I told him that I had a fiancé. He asked why he had left me to walk alone at night. I told him to get the fuck away from me. He asked why, he wasn’t doing anything to me but talking.
And awareness spread over me:
You are a girl walking alone in the middle of the night. This man has a car, and you don’t know what’s inside of it. You can run in heels, but not faster than a car. He could lead you at gunpoint, threaten you with a knife. Your phone is dead -- you can’t call 911.
It was with that realization that he pulled away from me, picking up speed with a rev of the engine that startled me into realizing my tension -- my shoulders, neck, and chest suddenly unwound and exhaustion spread through me. I had been strong enough, firm enough, and he had left me alone, but there had been fear, fear that stemmed from being a woman, and I had never known such a thing could happen to me, that I could feel weak in the face of a man. The lack of control, the unease -- unfamiliar until now.
But he wasn't gone. Ahead of me, there was a parking lot for a children’s museum, and he had entered it from the far side so as to circle around and come out the exit nearest me. Halfway between the lot and the street, he parked, unhurriedly exited the car, and leaned against it, arms folded, waiting.
This was a situation now, a play where I didn’t know my stage directions, much less my lines. The only thing I knew was that showing weakness was unacceptable -- predators and scavengers can smell fear, and that’s when the teeth come.
I drew in a powerfully deep but imperceptible breath and drew up every inch of myself, heels and bare legs be damned. Over my face, I slid on the mask of a powerful woman inconvenienced: indifferent, but with eyes like Medusa. I am the woman to break you into a tiny thing, my eyes said. I would never deign to so much as touch you, but I will shred your entire life to pieces because of this.
Coldly, I approached the car, and, coldly, I walked around it, as if it were a filthy puddle threatening to ruin my shoes. All the while he kept speaking, but I can’t remember anything of what he said. All of it was blocked out by my inevitable decision to scream.
The decision did not come without shame.
I felt that I had failed to protect myself, that I had lied all along about my capabilities; I not only had the body of a weak, feeble woman, but the heart and stomach as well. I desperately wanted a tall, brawny man to materialize out of the darkness, willing and able to rescue me. I wanted a fatherly sort of police officer with a fatherly sort of partner to drive up and between my follower and me. One would ask him to step away from the car and the other would tell me to sit and rest. I so badly wanted to rest.
But no one came. My follower laughed every time I yelled "Help!" into the middle of the night, which only made me yell the louder, and still, no one came.
My refuge came in the form of a construction zone, where I could go, but he could not follow, not without leaving his car. He called something behind him that I cannot remember, and finally rolled up the window and drove past. I cannot say it was a merciful thing – there was no mercy in his actions. He had chased the fox till his horse’s mouth frothed, but it had gotten away, wiles beating out brunt force.
Like that fox hiding in the thicket, hearing the hunt frustratedly pass, I shook with the feeling of a fever newly broken. I repeated “You’re safe, you’re safe,” drumming up an other to comfort me, but the shivers flung the words off and they couldn’t sink in.
I was coming out of the construction zone, dazedly staring at the places my feet would go, when the police came. I was furious (where had they been?) until I realized that the whole of the encounter had taken less than fifteen minutes; maybe one or two had passed since I began to scream.
They stopped, they asked, and I told them, quickly pointing out his car at an intersection within quick reach. Now, something would be done. I was sitting in a police car; I was in a place of comfort – now the public questioning could begin, a charge bestowed, back-up called.
Instead, they asked where my car was parked, and drove in that direction, the opposite direction of my follower’s car, and, in clipped, memorized phrases, enumerated the dangers of walking by myself at night.
At the moment, I couldn’t say anything. I was shaken, and tired, and stunned, so I sat back in my seat, silent. I was silent when they dropped me at my car, and I silently slumped in my seat, waiting for my phone to charge, startled by the soft sounds of people talking on the porch of a house in front of me, or the sound of a car passing behind me. I didn’t want to be seen, especially when crying.
But I did want to be heard, and, more than that, understood, even though my lips had been sealed. Why don’t victims report rape? people wonder, and, though my follower never touched me, even the tip of the iceberg was terrifying. The shock binds you up, and you draw inward with your fear, wanting to seem small, invisible, unnoticeable -- and then no one can do it again. Or at least it was that way for me.
I don’t remember walking alone at night since then. I don’t try to live in fear, though I’m sure that’s a part of it. I think of it more as being unprepared; without self-defense training or some sort of weapon (even travel-sized hairspray), I feel like I’m making a bad bet.
So I stay in awareness and stasis -- comfortable being protected from outside dangers, unwilling to prepare to face them on my own. Someday I will feel ready, because I’m still the same walk-like-you-mean-it woman -- just not now. Not today.