it is 10.40pm and i am walking home from teeth where two women shared their poems about the fear of sexual assault. i walk halfway back with another freshman and then we part as i head off to pick up a book from the library before it closes. before we part i laugh about how annoying it is to be wearing the hood of my rain jacket, about how, with the hood on, my peripheral vision is basically non-existent because all I can see is the small triangle of the floor before me.
it is the kind of annoying that balances on the edge of being funny. or at least it is until i turn the corner to walk alone and i hear male voices and male bodies running swiftly up behind me. when your peripheral vision is non-existent and you cannot turn your head fast enough to catch a glimpse of what is running up behind you, a male body shaking with a chilling cackle is enough to make you seize up with fear. they pass and it turns out to be two college boys running from the rain, laughing at each other. they were the ones doing the running but as they dash across the street through blinking traffic lights i remain on the pavement and i am the one catching my breath.
even as i write this, it feels like paranoia, it feels like unwarranted fear – but how do i explain that i would not expect to have reacted in such a visceral manner to their presence, to his cackling by my side, how do i explain that when i seized up i shocked myself with how much fear i could feel from such a brief moment? how do i explain that i was walking on a road that was supposed to be safe, that i was just outside old campus, the gated community of freshmen suites, but that i still felt like my body put me in danger?
a week and a half into freshman fall i was just a few metres from the spot i was at tonight when a drunk middle aged man stared at me, moved towards me (i backed away) and then mumbled “sorry, i can’t help it, you’re beautiful”.
that same night (when i was still collecting myself from the encounter with the drunk man), a lady with only her incisors showing clutched what looked like a pregnant stomach and approached me, tearing and asking me for money to get food. she says, “i’m sorry i know i’m scaring you, i would ask someone else but-” it was clear why she’d picked me – was my vulnerability so obvious that night? how do i explain that i wanted to help but i was too scared at that point to know how to react, how do i explain why i just couldn’t respond until a female upperclassman saw how lost i was, passed the lady a dollar bill and pulled me away. how do i explain why the two other male upperclassmen who had seen me in the same situation did not think to do anything but thought to condescend upon the female upperclassman saying, “you shouldn’t have given her money, she’s a well-known regular and she’s been saying she’s pregnant for years” after she had stepped in to pull me away?
i don’t want to be angry – i don’t want to be angry at the male upperclassmen.
more importantly, i am not angry with the woman who approached me that night – living as a yale student in new haven means having to constantly reckon with the reality of social inequality that surrounds you. it is likely she did what she thought she had to do and the reality she has to contend with is one that i cannot at this point comment on.
but i grew up a fearful child – my most recurrent nightmare was one in which i struggle to hold on to the lock on the door as a man tries to break in; one afternoon when my sister’s ex-boyfriend came into our apartment to drop off his bag when i thought i was going to be at home alone for a few hours, i ran out at him with a penknife. i don’t want to be a fearful woman, i try to tell myself that i shouldn’t have to be scared, i don’t have to be scared (i am lucky, i am here, i am safe) but the fear continues to be a gut reaction i cannot shake. i continue to be reminded that my body is coded by the words “vulnerable”and “prey” even though i wish it wasn’t and i try not think so.
i don’t know how to end this post. i can only hope that the reminder that a woman’s body is still enough to make her feel unsafe on a street and the concession that i truly felt fearful tonight, despite not wanting to, are enough. i can only hope that these are more important than a neat ending to a age-long story that really hasn’t seen its conclusion yet.