Several years ago, I was taking the J train home late one night from Brooklyn when a man approached me on the train platform. He said something to me that I don’t remember. Something about it being a nice night or whatever. I mumbled something noncommittal back. The train arrived shortly and we both got on.
Our car was empty. I sat down on a bench on side and he sat down across from me. And that’s when he told me he was going to fuck me. The casual look on his face did not match the intensity of his words at all. I thought I was having a stroke, because the visual didn’t not match with the audio at all. For a few minutes he let out an uninterrupted stream of consciousness speech about violently raping me.
I stood up and went to the next train car. This is technically against the rules and I can sometimes be a bit of a stickler for the rules. The sign always said that walking between train cars was for emergencies. This was officially an emergency.
The man quickly followed me, humming a tuneless little song to himself. There was no one on the next train car, either. So I went through two more train cars. And the man followed me the entire way. Finally, I looked through the nested little windows into the long line of train cars and realized that as far as I could tell, we were on the train alone.
I turned back toward him. That’s when he showed me his knife. He didn’t point it at me. He didn’t specifically say that he would gut me. He just showed it to me and winked. Then he started doing push ups in the corner of the train car, only pausing to verbally harass me at random intervals.
My first thought was to get off the train at the very next stop. But then I realized I’d be at an unfamiliar train stop in Brooklyn on a dark night. If he got off with me, I’d be at an unfamiliar train stop in Brooklyn on a dark night with a man who would probably kill me. At least the train was brightly lit and someone might actually get on at some point. At least I was moving closer toward home.
When we pulled into the Jamaica station–the last stop for this particular train–I bolted through the doors and ran up the stairs to the surface street. I knew that there would be a long line of buses and crowds of people at the top, no matter what hour it was. As I half walked/half ran away, I heard him yelling out things about my butt and what he wanted to do with it.
Up on the street, I was so relieved to see about twenty or thirty people milling around the bus hub. I blended in with the crowd of riders waiting for their buses. My bus was right there for once so I got into line, boarded, and found a seat next to an elderly woman. It was only then that I pulled out my phone to text my husband that I was almost home.
Just as I sent the text, I heard a voice whisper in my ear from behind. “Who dat you textin’? Better not be cheatin’ on me.”
I didn’t turn around. I knew it was him. I felt the fear well up in my throat and it tasted a lot like vomit. I thought about alerting the driver. But what could I say had happened? A man had taken the same train and bus as I had? He had said some disgusting things to me but had never put his hands on me? On what day, on what corner of New York City is that not happening right now? I was going to look like an idiot.
Or maybe I should have just gotten off the bus. But it was the same problem I’d had on the train. If I got off in an unfamiliar place and he followed me, I’d be in more trouble than I felt right at the moment. Then I remembered that in just a few minutes my stop would be coming up. When I got off the bus, I’d have to walk five or ten minutes through dark, empty streets and then turn down an completely unlit alley to get to my basement apartment. If he got off the bus with me, it would be the perfect place to do all of the things I’d be afraid of on the train.
Not only that, that text I’d sent my husband was just from habit rather than an actual safety measure. In the twenty first century, he was the only person I knew who doesn’t keep up with his phone. He rarely texts and he barely answers his phone. At that time of night, he was probably unwinding from a long day of work with a Call of Duty campaign. His phone might not even be in the same room as he was in. His phone might not even be inside the house.
Then I remembered that we had a friend temporarily staying in our guest room. I quickly texted her that I was on the bus home and scared for my life because a man had followed me home from Brooklyn. Then I asked her to go into our living room and tell my husband I needed to be walked home from the bus stop.
Or at least that’s what I intended to text her. I don’t actually know what I sent because I was typing all of this without looking because I was afraid that if I raised my phone screen high enough for me to see it, he might also see it, And then he would pull out his knife, and attack me right there.
I realized this might end up with me fighting for my life on a dark street steps away from my Queens basement apartment. I arranged my keyring into my closed fist so that the keys stuck out at the knuckles. At least when I punched him, it would hurt more that way. Also, I would make sure to aim for his eyes. I’d read that in some stupid women’s magazine somewhere years and years before and it had stuck with me. I looped my bag handle over my head so I wouldn’t have to worry about it falling off when I had to run for my life. I prepared myself scream, even though I was very sure no one would ever hear me or care if they did.
My bus stop approached. I pulled the rope to tell the bus driver to stop. I stood up to get off. He stood up to get off, too. I walked to the front of the bus. He trailed behind me, humming again. When I turned to exit the bus, I was greeted by my husband standing on the sidewalk, hastily dressed in his pajamas, my house shoes, and a jacket. “Are you OK, Princess? What happened?”
I stepped off the bus. The man did not get off the bus. The bus closed its doors and sped off.
And in that moment, before I could even explain anything at all, I started sobbing big fat ugly tears as I collapsed in my husband’s arms. He had to pry my makeshift key weapon out of my hands because my body was shaking too hard for me to disengage it myself.
When you are in the moment of something like this, you have no idea what you would and wouldn’t do. Even as a relatively intelligent, tough woman, I hesitated in telling someone that I was being harassed because I was worried about being believed. I was worried about jumping the gun, even as I feared for my own safety. I was worried about what people would say.
And before you ask–because I know some of you will ask–I was wearing a pair of jeans and a graphic tee shirt under a jacket. And you should also know that I am overweight and plain looking. I’m also tough, in case you thought I was some shrinking violet who might piss her pants if some stranger gave her a wrong look. I’ve traveled and lived all over the eastern and southern parts of this country on my own. I’ve traveled internationally alone. Regardless of my fatness and plainness that I just mentioned, I’ve experienced harassment on the streets, in the workplace, and online. I would probably describe myself as someone who has a thick skin about the evilness of the world. I cried that night from relief, not from weakness.
And just for the record, none of those things matter. Harassment and assaults happen to the modestly dressed ones, the fat ones, the ugly ones, the tough ones, etc. There is no thing you can be to protect yourself from it because it’s not about you. It’s about the perpetrator. It’s about opportunity. It’s about power.
I’ve told this story several times in the past few years. Most often, I’ve told it in ways that diminishes the terror I felt that night because I know it makes people feel uncomfortable. But today I want to make sure that you feel the discomfort. I wanted to tell you this story in this plain and frank way so that you know that something like this has happened to me, a person you perhaps believe is immune from these types of things.
No one is immune. There are those whose stories ended in much different, life changing ways. We need more stories about this. We also need to remember that just because you haven’t necessarily heard the story, doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. And so today, as so many speak up about harassment, assaults, and rapes, I want to add my own voice and say “Me, too.”