Trigger warning: sexual assault and violence.
“But nothing actually happened to her. It was just an attempt.”
I stood in front of the television in the living room, hearing my eight-four-year-old grandfather speak these words with such impersonality. The screen blurred. The rest of his speech hit my eardrums and registered as the muffled dialogue of an audience awaiting the movie to begin at the theater. The film began.
Standing projected on the screen of my mind: an image of me, nineteen years old, commuting over an hour to my community college. Tired after an hour and a half commute and a three hour night class, I stand waiting at the Downtown Berkeley BART station. The black display in neon red letters reads: “DUBLN/PLSTN…13 MIN” and I slouch over slightly, defeated at the anticipated wait time. The commute home—including the wait, the train ride, and the car ride home—equates to approximately an hour and a half, door to door.
I decide to stand despite the weight of my schoolbooks in my backpack, insisting on standing instead of sitting next to strangers on a concrete bench that has likely been pissed on more than once. I remember reading an article somewhere about BART seats having trace amounts of feces and cocaine on every seat, no matter the efforts of the maintenance employees. I do not sit on the benches.
A man approaches me. He is asking me a question, I presume. I take a singular headphone out, prepared to give him directions, let him know which train to catch. The Downtown Berkeley stop has a characteristically disorienting way about it, as both sides are insufficiently labelled and look nearly identical in seemingly endless brick. I prepare to tell him which way to Richmond, which way to San Francisco. The San Francisco trains do not run at this time of night.
“You’re beautiful,” he says.
“Thank you.” I try to put my headphone back in. Take the compliment as a compliment and leave the compliment there. If I am nice, he cannot be angry. If I am nice, he cannot be angry. He cannot be angry. He cannot be angry, right?
“What’s your name?”
I reply with a name that is not mine. I fidget with the neckline of my T-shirt and zip up my coat to the collar to hide the nameplate necklace that reads, “CORI” in script. He makes a canned response that’s supposed to impress me about how beautiful my fake name is. I am not impressed, but rather, increasingly anxious. I immediately forget what fake name I am using, and consider the fact that I am trapped in an underground tunnel with a strange man who is definitely not asking for directions. I do not know what he is asking for, but then again, I do. I just want to go home.
A glance up at the screen, neon blood lettering, informing me that the train is nine minutes away. My options quickly whittle themselves down to, “Just be pleasant with him and make sure people can see you.” I actually walk and take a seat in between a man and a woman who are seated at opposite corners on the concrete bench. I do not consider the urine, the traces of cocaine, or human feces. I sit between the two people. This man continues speaking to me. He sits between me and the woman.
I do not remember the conversation. I recall glancing at red lettering, seeing numbers, praying that the train would appear faster than numbers dictate and that I would slip into the train-car gracefully, anonymously with the name that is not mine, and be on my way home.
The conversation was like dismantling a bomb, but time moved in the opposite fashion. When you’re dismantling a bomb, you pray for more time and less wires, but in this case I needed more wires, more routes of conversation, more lies, and infinitely less time than the lettering scrolling down the digital boards. His eyes were red like an animal photographed in the dark. Bloodshot. The lettering mimicked it. I do not remember his face, but his look is burned into my mind—a look not belonging to a person. A desecrate expression set out make graves, but not to kill.
Hold your breath. Hold your breath. Hold your breath. Hold your breath. I remember a self-defense class in high school, mandatory only for the sophomore girls. Something about the palm of your hand, their nose, a bone lodging itself into their brain, leaving them defenseless or dead—allowing for your escape. I examine the woman seated on his other side. She is on the phone, but I see that she is not actually on the phone. She is speaking into a dead receiver. She makes conversation with herself, mumbling small-talk too quickly for an actual person to reply. A defense mechanism I am all too familiar with. Talk to yourself on the phone and pretend it’s another—pretend it’s a man. The presence of man, imaginary or not, is still more powerful than the actual presence of a woman. They do not teach these things in self-defense classes.
The train is two minutes away, which means it is perfectly reasonable to stand up and wait for the train at the designated yellow platforms, according to BART etiquette. I am relieved. The train is approaching—safety is coming.
“Where are you going?” he asks as the sound of the Dublin/Pleasanton train echoes through the tunnel. I am familiar with the echo and anticipate its arrival in approximately ninety seconds.
“Castro Valley,” I lie about my stop.
“No.” He mutters a name that is not mine, whatever fake name I had given before.
He grabs me. I feel his nails in my forearm through my long-sleeve shirt and coat. He moves his grip down to my wrist and presses tightly, beginning to dislocate my wrist. I hear the train approaching and assume someone will notice this man grabbing me—but people begin boarding the train without questioning him. I begin to yell.
At this point—the memory becomes a dream—a nightmare. A nightmare in which you yell and yell and yell and no one can hear you. It is hazy and foggy and I can only see open doors of the train leading back to safety and my home. I turn back to the man, faceless in memory, and continue yelling and dragging his large body in the threshold of the train-car as he tried to drag me out. No one does anything, despite my yelling, my clear physical struggle of my post-anorexia body pulling a large grown man away from me. I cross the threshold, his grip still firm, higher and tighter around my arm as he attempts to pull me back into the the station. The sound for the door closing dings and he jumps in, solidifying my fears, and I immediately gain a sense of absolute terror that drives me to push him on the chest using my opposite forearm back into the station while keeping most of my body inside the train-car. The door closes on my palm. I slip it out quickly and he is trapped behind the glass and metal of the car. I take a seat and no one asks any questions, despite the many seated passengers who witnessed me shoving a strange man off of me with all of my might while yelling for help.
Because “nothing actually happened,” I never reported it. Even though he had approached me, made advances at me without consent, grabbed me without consent, and began to use physical violence—I considered my experience so much less serious than what other people had gone through, so I told absolutely no one. And then I “forgot about it.”
What I thought that I had forgotten about turned into a period of agoraphobia that sent me to a psychiatrist’s office for almost two years. It turned into skipping seventeen out of thirty-two lectures in a semester for a single class. It turned into me contemplating how I could use a vintage metal lunchbox and a Hydroflask as a self-defense weapon if necessary. It turned into not listening to music so I could stay aware of my surroundings but keeping my headphones in my ears to avoid unwanted advances. It turned into silence. A dark, brewing silence—tea left to steep for too long on the counter. Bitter and cold. Silence.
“But nothing actually happened to her. It was just an attempt.”
I transported back into the moment with my grandfather. Suddenly something burst within me. That man’s face was still fuzzy but the pressure on my wrist was palpable. I yelled. I screamed an experience to my grandfather that I had never uttered before—an event that was so extremely repressed and blurred into the edges of my psyche that I did not even believe that it belonged to me. He asked why I never reported it. I said I was afraid. I ran up the stairs.
I did not feel valid enough in that attempted violence to report it, so I never did. And now, as I sit with these testimonies fresh in my mind, and the numerous allegations now coming out against brett kavanaugh, I wonder if that blurred face of a man had gone from grabbing me at that Downtown Berkeley BART station and had gone to some other place to grab another girl—
And then it wasn’t an attempt anymore.
Just because “nothing actually happened” doesn’t mean that the intention of violence was not there. And then, there was probably a future manifestation of violence that met some sick and twisted patriarchal criteria of validity.
And statistically, that girl still wouldn’t have reported it.
Without Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony today, this memory would have remained repressed in the depths of my subconscious forever, unless something even more threatening had brought it out. Without Dr. Blasey, I do not think I would have felt valid in my own experience with intended sexual violence. Without Dr. Blasey, we would probably have a second supreme court justice who does not stand for justice at all. (I’m looking at you, clarence thomas).
I am jealous of the men who can comfortably fall asleep on public transportation. I am jealous of the men who do not have to look into compact mirrors or selfie cameras or car mirrors or reflections or shadows to make sure no one is following them home. I am jealous of the men who can listen to music instead of a creeping, threatening silence to make sure that no one is breathing down their neck or making kissy noises or audibly obscene gestures at them. I am jealous of the men who can walk down a street in basic clothes and not have words thrown at them like bullets from a sawed-off shotgun. I am jealous of the men who consider safety a given.
If the unhonorable brett kavanaugh gets his seat on the supreme court, you can catch me and every other single woman who has been giving fake names chaining themselves to white house fences like Alice Paul in 1917, because after one-hundred-one years, we’re still in gendered purgatory.