I was hot, with sweat pooling in the cups of my padded bra. I was also grateful to be entering the shade of the underpass to get to the other side of the road. We’d just gotten lost – not majorly, but enough to feel tired and a little cranky and like the boat ride across to the other side of town better be fucking worth it. It was inconvenient, the way the hairs on my arms suddenly prickled as I saw him. But something told me: pay attention.
“Yo’, stand here with me for a second,” I said to my friend, in amongst a throng of people in rush hour pedestrian traffic. From beside a stall selling leather sandals I watched his broad shoulders and the strap of his navy blue satchel disappear into the crowd. “It’s probably nothing, but that guy who was beside you – I think he was following us.” She craned to get a better look. “I’ll bet it’s just coincidence, but…” I trailed off, suddenly feeling really stupid. Like I was overreacting. Don’t we always presume it can’t possibly be as bad as we think it is? That it is us, not them?
“Hey,” she said, rubbing my forearm. “You’re right, it probably is nothing. But better safe than sorry, right?”
I knew what I felt, though.
We passed a minute or two, and agreed to press on. Shuffling along the passage, the light at the other end of the tunnel started to peak, and right there, in the middle of the steps, casually on his phone but sat with a view of every commuter passing by, he was. Waiting.
“It’s him,” I whispered, pulling her off to one side with me. “He really is fucking following us.”
We sped up, and then suddenly she stopped. Turning on her heel he was right behind her – as he must’ve been the whole goddamn time. The whole time around the market, down the winding, bending streets of old town, lurking nearby as we bought baklava at a roadside store and joked with the shopkeeper as honey dribbled down our chins and forearms and he handed us wet wipes like we were naughty kids he had to lovingly scold. I wanted to hide. Shrink. Disappear. I’d already seen an old man grab a young girl’s bum as he walked by her that day. I already wished I were more invisible. Less female.
“NO!” my friend yelled, clearly and unwaveringly in his face. “NO. YOU HAVE TO GO.” The man look mortified. Embarrassed. The tiniest part of me felt sorry for him, like maybe we’d gotten the wrong end of the stick. Isn’t that fucked up?
“Go!” she continued. “GO. GO. GO.” She continued to shout as I stared, unmoving, and he walked away into the crowd again. He glanced back twice, as if to see if we really meant it.
She asked me, eventually, after some stunned silence from us both, if I was okay. All I could croak out was, “It never occurred to me to stand up to him.”
It really didn’t. I thought my job in the face of fear was to run.
There’s not a single woman I know who does not have a story like this one. A story about being touched without permission in London, exposed to in New York. Followed in Rome. Assaulted in South Korea. Cat-called everywhere from England to India to America. Every female friend, work colleague, dinner companion I’ve ever had – every last one - has felt the touch of a stranger’s fingertips or sting of his derogatory words. Between us we’ve been fondled, coerced, intimidated. Worse.
They say a man’s greatest fear is that a woman will laugh at him, and that a woman’s greatest fear is that a man will kill her. I have a very real fear of sexual assault. I walk home with my house keys between my fingers. Seldom make eye contact on the street after a certain hour. Wear flats over heels because you can’t run in heels. I take deliberate steps to occupy less “space”, so that somehow I can convince myself I am less of a target.
What I have never done is speak up. Turn, like my friend did, and looked a man belittling me in the eye to say, “No. That behaviour is not right.” And doing that, being part of an exchange where I got to stand up for myself in that way – it’s changed everything. It took seconds to rearrange the faulty parts of my thinking that had me believe it is my fault if I feel uncomfortable. My fault for having red lips or light hair or a vagina.
I know what I will do next time – because, of course, there will be a next time. There will continue to be next times until we all feel empowered enough to say, when it happens, loudly and apologetically, “No. You do not get to do that to me.” That’s what I will do. Speak up. For myself. For us all. And I hope it does drawn attention to them. Embarrasses them. I hope that we can laugh in their faces, because if that's as real as their fear gets, they've gotten off so very lightly.
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