On Friday, September 7, I put on a new red dress.
I’d just gotten a promotion at work, an article I had written would be published the next day in the Washington Post, and my boyfriend and I had plans to celebrate our fourth anniversary that night over sushi. I was feeling good.
At 8:15 am, I began my usual walk through the neighborhood toward a carpool lot a few minutes away.
The man came out of nowhere. He ran up behind me and muttered roughly in my ear, “Come here!” He grabbed my breasts in both hands, pinning my arms to my sides, and jammed his hips against me. Then he reached down to pinch my ass before turning to run.
My confusion turned to rage, and I began yelling at him. I looked around for someone who could help, but the street was deserted. I dialed 911 and dissolved into tears.
I tried to fix an image of the man in my mind, but already, I could feel my mind freezing and forgetting while I fought back. I told the 911 operator what he’d been wearing -- blue track pants, a tan shirt, a red baseball cap. He had been about my height, and I thought I remembered the scrape of facial hair on the back of my neck. I shuddered. I could still feel his hands on me. His touch was so intimate, so assured, as though he knew me. As though I belonged to him.
I remembered, suddenly, that as I left my house that morning I’d heard a whistle. It was the last day of the first week of school, and children streamed toward the elementary school across the street. I thought it must’ve been some kid clowning around, and I didn’t look up. Had that been him? Had he followed me until, several blocks later, I turned down the quiet side street?
I kept glancing over my shoulder for the man. This is where I live, I told the 911 operator. I walk through this neighborhood every morning on my way to work. If he was following me, waiting for the right moment, how could I feel safe here again?
The woman told me she would stay on the line until the police arrived. Idiotically, numbly, I apologized for taking her time, and she scolded me.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," she told me. I heard real tenderness in her voice, and strength. "I am sorry this happened to you."
Every woman has a story about being touched against her will. A stranger on the metro leans against you just a little too much for a little too long; or an anonymous hand reaches out on a foreign street; or a friend takes an inappropriate joke too far. Was my experience so unique?
The answer, it appears, is a resounding no. According to the police, the assault against me was the first in a series of 14 unique attacks against women in and around my neighborhood over the last three months. Police have released a sketch of the man’s face, but no arrests have been made.
My neighborhood is centrally located -- for a suburb of Washington, D.C. -- but the tree-lined streets of the community are quiet and peaceful, which is why we chose the neighborhood almost exactly one year ago.
Now, I check the locks on my doors several times a day. My morning walk to work had been my favorite part of the day. Now, I drive to the metro much more often. When I do walk outside, my neck swivels back and forth as I survey the streets behind and in front of me. I attached pepper spray to my purse, but no matter what precautions I take, I still feel vulnerable. I still feel myself stiffen when my boyfriend holds me in the same way as the attacker.
Perhaps the worst part is feeling helpless -- and feeling that helplessness expand upon itself, multiplying on ignorance and fear. My attacker could live in any of the houses surrounding mine, so he lives in all of them. He could be any of the men I pass in my neighborhood, so he is all of them. I know that I am being unfairly suspicious, but it is difficult to begin the healing process when I know that my attacker is still out there.
My friends tell me, in gentle tones meant not to offend, that I am lucky nothing worse happened. I am glad nothing worse happened. But I am not lucky. And I am not alone.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reports that someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and 54 percent of attacks are never reported to the police. Every day, women must endure catcalls, groping, stares, forced kisses, and other violations of their privacy. To truly protect the rights of women, we need to end the culture of rape, of regarding women's bodies as collective property.
As for me, I’m working through the anger, paranoia and helplessness that still seizes me every day. But I’ve also enlisted the help of a kickass personal trainer at the gym. I won’t give up the feeling of power my attacker tried to take from me -- not without a fight.