Last night I was incredibly excited to "suit up" and start up my old exercise regimen, where I alternated fast walking and jogging around the neighborhood to the throbbing base of beloved music in my ears. It was something I had started 4 years ago and had helped me to lose 25 pounds, all of which I had since regained. I needed it. I needed to move, too, since being around a baby a lot doesn't lend itself to too much exercise. 30 minutes on the treadmill becomes 7 and then you leap off because she starts crying after accidentally smacking herself in the face with a toy.
As I was walking, though, I noticed this particular tension creeping up on me. It was surprising, because it was familiar but I felt like it was out of place. After all, it had been a while since I last exercised but nothing about walking should scare me, right?
Then I realized what it was, and literally stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. In the middle of Heart Shaped Box, and the irony of that fact was not lost on me.
I was waiting to be attacked. My body was tensed for another one based on my history.
I have always walked, outside my home in the mountains of West Virginia as a young girl, and around my neighborhood in Hershey, Pennsylvania. As a teenager in a suburb of Harrisburg, I took to walking a mile and a half around my neighborhood every night in the summers to clear my thoughts. I had always thought of the darkness as a sheltering friend. Me, a severely awkward introvert, could go out in to the world and experience it without the stress of having to deal with other human beings. It always felt like the night wind and the fireflies were mine alone, as the rest of the world was camped in their houses having dinner and watching TV.
It was on these evening walks that the first attack occurred.
I was perhaps 14 years old, and enjoying my walk immensely. I had walked down across the wide creek near my house to a beautiful spring house and watched it splash over the 200 year old stones it was constructed out of. This was the usual turning-point to my walk as the rest led up a steep hill with sharp curves and no sidewalk. It also meant I would walk almost exactly one and a half miles round trip from that point.
I was within 3 blocks of my own house when I sensed something moving in one of the yards and looked up. A tall boy had pushed out of the thick bushes and trees up the incline. At first I thought he was simply on his way home and cutting through the yard.
Then I realized he was adjusting his angle as I passed. And I also noticed that his eyes were on me. And his eyes, for lack of a better word, were hungry. I later came to call that look "wolf's eyes".
Realizing I was in danger I ran. I ran like hell the remaining two blocks, turning around on the corner to see if he was behind me. He was a block back, standing there staring at me. We had a stare down for several seconds as I memorized what he looked like. Then he smirked and walked off casually.
At that point I ran in to the house and immediately told my parents what had happened. For their part, they did immediately go down and check, but of course the kid wasn't around at that point.
Then they went to bed. Despite my protests (and to this day I do not believe they blew me off like this) they went to sleep and called the police in the morning. The police berated them mildly for "what might have possibly happened." -I informed the officer in no uncertain terms that I knew the boy meant to rape me, but he brushed it off saying again "What MIGHT have happened"- and then filed a report.
To the unknown neighbor's credit, they promptly cut down the trees and bushes, telling us that teenagers were prone to hanging out back there and often left beer bottles.
I was incensed that this was it, that I had nearly been hurt and the law and my parents shrugged and thought it wasn't anything, but I figured it was over. I was wrong.
Three days later I was with male friend in a comic book shop when I saw the boy there. He was with someone (a friend?) at the counter. And he saw me.
I panicked and told my male friend that that was the boy who had tried to grab me. His response "Well, go stand towards the back and get away from him."
I asked if he would tell the guy at the counter to call mall security. No, he said, he didn't want to make a big deal out of things.
So I did as he asked, and started to peruse the Sandman trades, trying to be very, very small.
Except the boy had already seen me, and had gone around my friend. He came up behind me, so close he brushed against my back. I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder to see his white, white teeth in a nasty smirk right at my eye line. And he just stood there, smirking, barely touching me. I was so scared I couldn't look at him. I looked at my male friend and he looked away, not sure what to do.
Then suddenly the friend called out "Leave her alone man, let's go!" and he then broke away, making sure to smirk at me as he once again slowly strolled out. My male friend rushed me out of the store in the opposite direction. By the time I got home and told my Mom, he was long gone and there was no way to track him.
Even though he had not touched me, I felt violated and dis-empowered. From that point on, afraid that I might run in to him again, I changed the route and didn't dare to walk that way again for another 2 years. I didn't venture far from my house, sometimes just circling the block to make sure I wasn't too far away.
That tension, and the hawk-like scouring of spots between houses, between bushes, under trees, was what sat on my shoulders with such saddening familiarity as soon as I crossed the street. 22 years later and I am still waiting to be attacked from the shadows by some boy who was allowed to walk away by everyone I had asked for and counted on for help.
I know if it happened again that I could defend myself now, as I've taken self defense classes since then. I could outrun him, I could report him and I could be persistent. But I could do all of these things because I realized what could happen and because I was forced to go through these things in the first place.
I do not regret learning how to become my own advocate and having the ridiculous notion destroyed that the world out there would help protect me. It has made me stronger. I am just sad that I thought I didn't have the right to be forceful with the police, or to make a scene even when I was asked not to.
In the years since then I have fought off 2 more rape attempts, this time by people I know. I even had to go so far as to file a restraining order because one individual began talking about how "a woman is a man's property once they're going out" and when I proceeded to try and extricate myself, choked me to show me how scared and weak I was. The rape attempt was the straw on the camel's back that convinced me I was going to die if I stayed.
I have been catcalled, called a slut, called a whore... I have been grabbed inappropriately. I have had managers belittle me for having two X chromosomes. I have been ignored for my thoughts and made fun of for being interested in things that were traditionally male-dominated. When I first began working as tech support at EarthLink (yes, that dates me a little) being a woman in the tech field was a rarity... enough so that I was virtually guaranteed a spot due to EOE laws. But I was constantly talked down to because I was a young female on the phone. "I want a man," the man on the end of the phone said more than once. Other times I was told by my boss to just finished teching the call when I put the caller on hold to report to him that I was being subjected to someone telling me what he wanted to do to me with his tongue.
Times have changed and we have more freedom to speak up about it, but this is my history. This is what I have had to deal with. I have always been advised I am less, I am supposed to be quiet, I am the property of another.
I am not sitting by and letting another generation grow up thinking any of this is acceptable. I have a daughter, and I swear now on any gods that will listen that she will not be subjected to any of this bullshit I had to go through. Until seeing the hash-tag I had just assumed I was an unlucky target. Perhaps, but it now shows me that it is endemic within our society. My daughter deserves better.
From this point forward at every opportunity I will fight for her right to walk freely, without fear. Not because it is an extraordinary thing to do, but because it is ridiculous and repugnant that this isn't already possible.
Tonight when I walk I will turn the music up and ignore the fear. I will be alert, but it will not control me. I will take back my nighttime realm of solitude, that I might share it with my daughter when she is older.