Staring at a Sexual Assaulter, Staring Down a Sexual Assault
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because #MeToo is just the tip of a bigger horrible iceberg.
I saw him enter the CTA Red Line train compartment. The same self-assured gait and that movement of his left shoulder to flex his neck muscles. The platform was teeming with people returning home for the day. It seemed as though the entire population of Chicago had gathered to witness my discomfort at seeing the man who had marred my youth.
Wiping my sweating hands on my pants, I thought about getting on a different car. But pushing through the crowd while battling the sudden onslaught of palpitations did not seem enticing. I was already late for a social gathering. Trains are less frequent during the weekends, and I could not wait for the next one. Fortunately, I was able to find refuge in a corner farthest from him.
My school back in India had been run by missionaries, and we were expected to adhere to strict rules. Some days I felt like a prisoner, staring at the streets through the imposing bars of the balcony. The only time when we were allowed freedom was during interschool festivals. That was where we interacted with boys and indulged in flirtatious courtship rituals common to teenagers worldwide.
“This is why we want you to behave like ladies and wear longer skirts. Things like these can be easily avoided.”
On one of those days in 2006, my friends and I had gathered in front of the main stage, awaiting the guest performance of a revered Pakistani band. That area had minimal lighting, and I was distracted, vying for the attention of a handsome young man from one of the competing schools. I felt the slight brush of a thumb on my leg. Turning to my right, I found the empty spot where my friend was sitting a few minutes ago. On my left was a guy, seemingly older than all of us, and conventionally attractive. He jerked his shoulder, looked at me and smiled.
“Isn’t this band amazing?” he said.
I did not reply. His smile was charming enough to melt the heart of any other 14-year-old, but his eyes had a sinister gleam. I turned away, and within a few minutes, his hand began to graze my thigh, toying with the hem of my school uniform. As he reached under the skirt with a finger, I jumped up, frazzled and scared, and began walking to where a few other girls from my class were standing.
I turned around to find him following me. I increased my pace, despite the dark spots threatening to take over my vision. My classmates noticed the sweat clinging to my face and possibly the dread in my eyes. They instinctively moved closer, forming a protective circle. He was now nowhere in sight.
As the evening progressed, the girls gave in to the music and broke away from the group. With my fear momentarily assuaged, I too had begun to sway to the rhythm when a hand roughly cupped my rear. Panic engulfed me. I knew I needed to leave. As I started walking away, I stole a quick glance to ascertain that he was not following me. He simply stood there. Staring.
Instead of going home, I went back to the school. I was not prepared to face the deluge of questions my parents would have. Moreover, in my haste to escape, I had imprudently decided to walk alone, and the festival venue was closer to the school than my house.
The teacher who organized all the extracurricular activities was still there. Her presence afforded me some relief since she was my confidante. I told her everything. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. A part of me was already wallowing in guilt, but nothing could have prepared me for her words.
She held my hand.
“This is why we want you to behave like ladies and wear longer skirts. Things like these can be easily avoided,” she said.
That night I cried myself to sleep. Even though I never spoke about the incident to anyone, I became overly cautious when leaving the house. The world had finally turned into the big, bad place that every adult claimed it was. I always knew I would have to face him someday. I wanted to confront him. Instead, I felt myself drowning in a swirl of unfathomable emotions.
He still looked the same, save for the few strands of silver near his temples. Our eyes met. I felt terror rushing through my veins, and I waited for a flicker of recognition. But there was none.
The train stopped at Loyola and he prepared to leave. Just as he was about to step out, I moved toward the door since the next stop was mine.
A beautiful woman with a little girl greeted him. He picked the girl up and blew raspberries on her tummy. For a few seconds, he ceased to be the predator who had taken advantage of me — he was a regular man who loved his family and made his daughter explode in peals of laughter.
Right before the door closed, the little girl caught my eye. Her face lit up and she waved at me. She had his smile.