I am walking along the pavement, headphones in and full of thoughts, when a hand closes around my arm and spins me round hard. “Hey girl”, a stranger with a leering smile leans into me. I tug myself from his grip and spit some curse words in his face.
But he caught me off guard, and that hungry look on his face jolts me back several years.
I was in that caravan again, with its sparse furnishing and worn carpet under my feet. A square of material covered the solitary window, casting an orange hue over the small space and allowing a slither of daylight to creep in. It was cosy. Too cosy. My insides were screaming at me to get out.
And I was tripping out of the caravan and tearing across site to my room – trying to rip from my mind the dark shade of his eyes against his tanned skin, pushing his name down beyond my haziest recollections. Rachid Rachid Rachid. Frantically yanking off the stripy top and denim shorts that I had haphazardly picked that morning, wishing that I’d instead chosen the shapeless trousers and baggy t-shirt that I quickly covered myself with instead. And I was wrapping myself up in layers, my boyfriend’s hoodie on top of mine even though the sun was beating over 30 degrees that day, curling under the covers, trying to stop the shivers. “I was lucky. It could have been a lot worse”, I convinced my shaky self.
Barely out of college and with more naivety than sense, I was volunteering with the homeless in Italy over summer. My first solo trip; not a clue what the next few months held and no desire to know. After many years in education, it was new and it felt good.
We all lived, slept and worked on site: us being a mash of volunteers alongside a homeless community. The organisation not only provided a home and a job for those that had struggled to take care of themselves on the Italian streets, but also a support network of ‘companions’. We all worked alongside each other.
That morning I had been placed with Rachid at the bottom of the site, sorting people’s junk into the various recyclable piles. Tall and athletically built, he had an unfamiliar melodic yet slurring intonation to his accent. It was difficult to understand and I found myself nodding along cluelessly most of the time. He kept gesturing to his caravan. I just smiled and dismissed it. I didn’t entirely trust him. I couldn’t say why, it was just a feeling. But after an hour of these mimed invites, I caved. Ignoring my instinct and telling myself that I shouldn’t be so suspicious, I followed him in.
He motioned around, the rapid and musical Italian tripping from his tongue. Yet the usually-desirable melody of the language didn’t feel so right this time.
“Do you like it? Intimate isn’t it?”
He purred whilst moving closer. I nodded in fake approval at his bare home. The orange light, the minimal furniture and the confines of the space added to my apprehension. Finally listening to the uncomfortable feeling filling my insides, I turned back towards the sunlight.
As a child, I’d always been told to yell if anything happened, to scream at the top of my voice. Even if I couldn’t run, I should make myself heard. I’d always thought that was fairly obvious; of course I would shout. Surely that’s instinctual?
But as I felt his hand suddenly wrap around my arm whilst he yanked me sharply to him, not a sound was made. It knocked me off balance and before I could do anything more, he’d steadied me with his lips pressed too hard upon mine, forcing his tongue into my mouth. He was too strong. He had my arms pinned down and yet his hands were everywhere at the same time, the touch forceful and painfully invasive. It felt like whole minutes passed before I processed what was happening to me. Survival instinct finally took a hold, and I was resisting, kicking, scratching and pulling my hands from his tight grip, then sprinting all the way to the safety of my room on the other side of the site.
I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t know who to trust. I didn’t even trust myself, my ability to reliably judge others shattered. Most of all, I believed that I would be blamed: for not understanding his suggestions, for the clothes I wore, for giving off the ‘wrong’ signals. The ‘what ifs’ circled like vultures above me, filling my head with self-doubt.
I blamed myself for his advances so why wouldn’t they?
Besides, voicing it out loud made it too real. If I didn’t speak of it, maybe it could be buried, so deeply that I could forget it ever happened. And it worked for a while. It was easy around people who I had only just met, who had no former knowledge in which to compare my behaviour. The fact that I shied away from anyone’s touch, that I wore jumpers upon jumpers despite the heat, that it took me a second too long to laugh at jokes, didn’t mean anything to them; they had no idea that these were new traits.
My boyfriend joined me two weeks later. Less than an hour after his arrival, the two of us were taking a walk out of the site down the empty Italian country roads as he pressed me to talk. Finally, the words flooded out. Along with the tears, all those tears that had been imprisoned within me, as I allowed myself to remember. And it was real; it was too real, and it hurt. But I wanted to hear someone say that it was not my fault, to tell me that everything was going to be okay; not just anyone, I needed to hear him say it. I thought that would ease the dirty, gaping wound that had opened internally. And maybe an embrace would then feel normal again.
But looking up at him through my wet lashes, I saw none of this. He just stared, the face that I knew so well suddenly scarily unreadable. Miles seemed to stretch between our bodies and I found myself wishing to be alone once again. Any hope of relief at releasing the previous events were extinguished as I gulped down the rest of the tears, yearning to also swallow my words.
I finally choked out, barely audible.
At this plea, a rage overcame his features that I had never previously witnessed on him. He was roaring. And it took a few seconds to realise that this anger, this incredulity at having to explain himself, this repulsion, it was entirely directed at me.
Because, after this man’s touch, I disgusted him.
Because I had essentially been unfaithful.
Because how was I unable to stop this man?
Because I must have wanted it.
Led him on.
Done something to provoke it.
Words poured from his mouth that I now long to erase from my mind. But we never forget moments such as this.
It took me a long time to realise that the events that befell me in that caravan were not my fault. It took me longer to forgive my ex-boyfriend, and even longer to forgive myself. It is easy to blame him. I did for a long time. It is simpler to assume that he was a bad person and no one would ordinarily react in this way. But I do not believe that. He was caring, kind and he loved me, in the intense and idealised way that adolescents do. We were young, so foolishly innocent and young. Yet, something vanished on that day. Who we were, and what we felt towards each other, and what we had planned together, and the trust that we held in one another, that I once imagined would never wane.
At this, my thoughts abruptly surface from these memories.
I blink to the present, to see the man that prompted the unwelcome return of these recollections still stood before me, his hunger transforming into a nauseatingly gleeful hope at my pause. My jaw hardens as I glimpse Rachid in the shadows of this stranger’s dark eyes; rage seethes at the sense of entitlement that these strangers carry with them, and the lack of power I hold to change that. Hissing more curse words in his direction relives this anger a little. I spin on my heel and quickly walk away, returning to my music and shaking my thoughts back down to the bottom of my mind.
But not before I hear “frigid bitch” yelled at my disappearing back.
Image credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight
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