I remember it clearly and, at the same time, I don’t remember it at all.
I guess an objective third party would say that I don’t have a particularly good recollection of what happened: I simply fixated on a small collection of details.
He wore a grey T-shirt, the fabric emphasizing his pot belly.
He had narrow eyes, red patches of skin across his nose and cheekbones.
He barely had any hair, although I’m not completely positive he was bald yet.
I doubt I could be able to recognize him if I saw him on the street. I reckon not knowing is a certain kind of bliss.
I was seventeen, riding the last train from Dundas to Main Street in downtown Toronto. It was one of those warm August nights. Another details I can’t seem to forget? I was listening to Madonna’s hits from the eighties, and I wore my maroon tanktop and my (then) new jeans. I had gone to visit the Niagara Falls just that morning and was now returning home from an afternoon of shopping and chilling with my friends.
I noticed he was looking at me, smiling. I pretended not to notice, but everytime I checked his eyes were still on me, a grimacing expression still on his face. I shrugged it off. However, when I hopped out of the train, I felt restless. Main Street was, apparently, his stop too, so I trusted my guts and pretended I had gotten on the wrong train. I went up and down the stairs just as if I were to ride the train back to Dundas and, after a couple of minutes, when the subway station was filled with people and I couldn’t see him in the sea of faces, I went up again and exited the building.
It was raining. I was still wearing my headphones, listening to oldies.
Again that restless feeling. Maybe I did hear something or maybe I didn’t. Memory is weird in that way; we can’t 100% trust it. What I know for sure, though, is that I paused the music but I didn’t remove my headphones. I wanted to pretend I was still sort of deaf, still immersed in my own thoughts.
I heard steps beside me. Maybe it was the cadence of those steps or maybe it was something different altogether, but I knew I was being followed. I just knew, and my body entered in emergency mode. My mind was simply blank. The only thing I could concentrate on was the noise and getting home.
A couple of steps. A couple more. It seemed like a million, but the subway station was still close. Then I heard nothing but the rain, and I did something stupid: I stopped trusting myself.
I conviced myself I had been exaggerating. I convinced myself I had been just a vain little brat and that nobody would be interested enough in me to follow me all the way from the station.
It certainly tells something of our society and my own naivete the fact that I still thought of sexual assault as a damn compliment! Stupid, stupid girl.
The moment I stopped to open my umbrella was the moment he addressed me. When I remember it now, I picture him leaning on the wall of one of the buildings of the neighborhood, me not being sure how he was there without me seeing or hearing me. I don’t know. There are a whole load of details either blurred or missing from that night, and in a way I’m glad it is like that.
In a few words (it probably all happened in a few seconds, too, although to me they felt like hours): he grabbed me, he brought me closer to him, he grimaced, he asked me if I was a virgin. Emergency mode again. Quickly, quickly, I recalled a conversation I had with my older cousin two years ago. She’d just taken a course on self-defense, but merely to destress after a long day of work at the prison where she worked as a nurse. Sexual assault was very far from our worlds then. Quickly, quickly, I recalled my cousin’s words. She’d said that, should the situation arise, you’d have to be very, very fast and very, very brave. Contrary to what we may initially think, sexual predators are attracted to weakness and selflessness. Because they carefully choose their victims to be submissive to them, they tend to freeze when the victims fight back instead.
Barely five foot four tall and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, I was no boxer, but I did not back off.
‘What the fuck you want?’ I shouted, and the surprise made him release my arm. It was my opportunity. Although there were quite a few cars, I crossed the road without bothering to look. I just needed to get out of there, and maybe there was a guardian angel looking after me after all, because I got to the other side of the road unharmed whereas my assaulter found himself unable to run after me: a sudden influx of cars prevented him from running after me.
And running was what I did. Although I’d barely eaten that day, I ran for my life and I only looked back once. After I saw my assaulter on the same street as me, getting nearer and nearer, I decided to only look to front until I got home. I was going to get home, but in order to do that I had to think quickly.
I mentioned guardian angels before, and on that night, I reckon, angels were quite physical entities. A couple of meters in front of me there was an old Filipino man walking his dog. I did not think twice: I ran towards him and, panting, I told him that a man had been following me from the subway station and if he could please pretend to be my father and take me home.
It must have been a sight to see: a very skinny, very wet girl with some kind of breathing problem and a slight Spanish accent.
The man, however, didn’t judge me. He took my hand, told me to get closer and asked me the directions. When I asked him if there was a man following us, he quietly gestured yes.
The assaulter followed us until we got home, but I survived. And I survived the following day and the next and the next until I finally convinced myself that I was going to be safe.
I had not allowed myself to cry until I had a shower. Then, when I told my host mum (whom I had considered one of the coolest people ever) I had my first disappointment: she brushed it off, said things like that happen all the time and that the man must have been lured by my smile or my cleavage.
I felt dirty, stupid, provincial. I told no one except my best friends.
Cue to three months later: I’m eighteen, a college freshman recently diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, lost. I’d go clubbing three nights a week, binge drinking on an empty stomach and having sex with just about anyone. I couldn’t feel anything, but I was determined to not let the assaulter rob my sexuality. I was trying to prove myself that I wasn’t broken, that I was exaggerating. After all, I hadn’t even been assaulted, right? It has just been an “almost”.
I didn’t allow myself to accept I had a problem even though I couldn’t remember most nights; there were my friends the ones who were concerned, telling me of the strangers I’d taken home that night or the strangers I’d straight up fucked in the restroom of some night club.
I don’t think I really realized just how broken I was until I started dating this guy. Once, as we were doing it, he asked me what did I like. He said I was way too submissive, like I didn’t care what he did with my body, like sex was a one-player game.
That opened my eyes. I wasn’t having sex for pleasure, just like everyone else, but to prove a point. I was having sex to scare my trauma away.
That was the first step of the long, long journey of learning to love myself again.
Since, I’ve broken up with my boyfriend. I’m 22 now, still recovering from eating disorders but no longer anorexic. I’ve had seasons of complete celibacy and finally I’m learning to take care of myself, to love me fiercely and to love others without fearing they will hurt me.
I won’t lie, I’m still afraid of going out at night, of late trains, of stranger men, of blind dates, of first times with guys… it’s like I discover I new fear every day, but I don’t mind. I’ve realized that being afraid doesn’t make you a coward; what decides how brave you really are is how you react when fear comes.
Sometimes I still think I’d gladly give up sex for the rest of my life, but mostly I believe I can lead a completely normal life. I don’t open up about my experience, though. In fact, this is the first time I’m telling the whole story. Not even my best friend knows as much.
“Almost” is still a scar in my skin and my mind. If people judge victims of sexual assault so harshly, how will I be judged? I know many people (mostly men) will call me hysteric, say I’m exaggerating or that I misjuged a situation.
I don’t care, mostly. Here’s the truth: you don’t decide if you’re going to suffer trauma and other people certainly don’t have a say on whether you have a right to suffer that trauma or not. I was almost a victim of sexual assault and that sole experience took a toll on my mental health and my sexuality.