Labor Day weekend, I got off an airplane and followed signs to the train. I had a bounce to my step; a glass of wine and reunion with a dear friend awaited me at my final destination.
“Excuse me,” a stranger stopped me short. “Do you know which way to the train?”
“No, but I can read.” I pointed to a bank of signs.
“Oh, are you going that way too?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“Maybe we can walk together.”
“Sure,” I responded curtly. I don’t like to talk to strangers, but I figured I should be nice. He introduced himself. A little voice in my head said “give a fake name” but I stumbled over what alias to use and ended up offering the real deal. He told me he’d just landed from LA and expressed frustration that time on the tarmac exceeded time in the air.
“Where you coming from?” he asked. When I said DC, he exclaimed over the length of the flight.
“Actually, I like having five consecutive hours when no one can bother me,” I said.
“Oh, am I bothering you?” he asked.
Yes, I thought. “No,” I said.
“Well, I imagine a beautiful woman like you is used to being bothered.”
Inward cringe. Outward smile.
Train in sight, I walked a little faster. He picked up his pace too. We boarded, and I grabbed a spot on a bench next to other riders, ignoring his effort to steer me toward abutting seats.
“So, I have a hotel at the airport,” he said nonchalantly. “You should stay with me tonight.”
A thousand voices screamed in my head while the people around me remained silent, lost under the influence of headphones or desire remain uninvolved.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m staying with my friend I haven’t seen in a long time,” I said, eyes glued to the transit map, willing my stop to come faster, but also scared he’d exit the train with me.
“I’m just saying, it’s a nice hotel and you’re welcome to join me,” he offered a few more times. He insisted I take his number in case I changed my mind. Three minutes felt like a lifetime. Mercifully, my stop arrived. He didn’t follow me but called out, “I’m in town ’til Monday” as I bolted off the train. While the car carrying him pulled away, I deleted his number and moved on with my weekend. But a nagging dread plagues me still. Why was I polite to a sexual predator? Why didn’t I scream? Cry for help?
As women, we are sadly accustomed to unwanted sexual advances and too often resign ourselves to abuse rather than fight off the abusers. We mostly endure the agony of our experiences alone, but this past weekend, social media witnessed an explosion of women sharing stories of their first sexual assault. Emphasis on first, because most of us have sustained multiple. These accounts were heartbreaking to read, but oddly refreshing to write. For too long I swallowed back pain, asked what I did wrong, hid incidents from loved ones, and let shame silence me.
My silence ends now.
These assaults were embarrassing, like when I was nine and my babysitter’s boyfriend’s uncle tried to put his hand up my skirt. These assaults confused me, like my freshman year of college when my dorm crush sweet-talked me into my first sexual experience, then refused to see me again, rendering my first time a one-night stand. These assaults were incomprehensible, like sophomore year when I was raped by a man who found me passed out in bed and senior year when I was raped by a guy who laughed at no. Verbal assaults, so-called “lewd” comments by “boys being boys,” number too many to recount. Trust me; “banter” is not harmless.
My experiences aren’t unique. They contribute to the sad “locker room” narrative of a society that enables assault and often blames the victim while asking her to smile, act nice and hug on demand. We must rewrite the script, and we can start by not putting a sexual predator in the White House.