There is a lot of controversy over the #MeToo hashtag that’s currently proliferating social media. I know that I don’t owe the internet my story, nor do I think that it should be the responsibility of women to explain to men why they should care. I do think there’s value in sharing these stories with other women in the hope that it somehow breaks a cycle or tears the shame away. To anyone who has ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, you’re not the one who should be ashamed.
The first time I was harassed was just before my eleventh birthday. An elderly man, a complete stranger, corners me in a public place. I’m wearing an oversized Minnie Mouse t-shirt and khakis, my blue coke bottle style glasses slipping down my nose. The new braces on my teeth aching. I’ve never told anyone. Why? Even as a ten-year-old, I was sure that I must have done something wrong. I somehow knew to internalize that shame. Twenty years later, that memory still burns.
But we all have these stories, don’t we? You reach a certain age and it becomes an almost regular occurrence. The unwanted attention, the words, the moment of fear, the looks, it all becomes normal. So normal, that I was asleep to it until about a year ago when something happened… I’m lucky that my #MeToo story isn’t worse.
October 2016: One of the other blogger’s is hosting an event in Harvard Square. It’s just one T stop away, and a weeknight, so I figure I’ll go and say hi. It’s an excuse to wear my new, suede knee-high boots. On my way home, around 10 PM, I wait for the Red Line. A couple of people around on the platform. It’s funny how you always feel it first. It’s like someone has you in their crosshairs and suddenly the air is uneasy. My whole body stiffens as I realize a heavy-set man, about four inches taller than me, obviously drunk, is leering. I straighten my back, clutching my phone, and purposefully stride closer to the other people on the platform. The next thing I know, he’s right behind me, breathing on my neck. I shoot him an angry look and very clearly walk away.
The train finally pulls up, and I get in two cars away from where I’d been standing to put space between us. A couple of college kids on one end, an older woman across but mostly empty. I sit directly across from her, with plenty of open seats. The doors close and I take a sigh of relief.
But the train doesn’t move and the doors re-open, just as he lurches into the car. I swallow hard and avert my eyes. I take a deep breath and he squeezes into the seat next to me. I freeze. Any sensible person would jump up and walk away AGAIN, right? But I can’t. I’m frozen and staring hard at the floor. I’m suddenly aware of my sweater dress, my dark lip stain, my tights, and those beautiful suede boots. His hand brushes my shoulder and he leans in, “Hey.”
I don’t say anything. I turn my head. “Sorry. I’m a little drunk,” he says. I’m still frozen. That’s when he reaches down and slowly strokes my boot from ankle to knee. This snaps me out of it. I croak, “Stop!” and leap out of the seat. It’s only one stop but this ride seems to be endless. I stand by the door closest to those college boys, hoping one of them will sense my distress or at least be a deterrent to this man.
Finally, FINALLY, the train stops, the doors open and I literally bolt from the train. I run up the stairs, across the inbound platform, and halfway up the towering escalator. I stop to catch my breath and happen to look down, behind me. Guess who else got off the train? He’s staring at me, from the bottom of the escalator, and my eyes fill with tears. “You’re overreacting,” I tell myself, “This is probably his real stop too.” But I can feel his eyes drilling into me. I make it to the top, into the lobby, and look desperately around for a MBTA worker. There is no one else here and I have another escalator to go before I’m outside. “Hey, hey, baby, c’mere” I hear behind me.
I’m terrified, in full panic mode. I run. My apartment isn’t far from the station. It’s pitch black outside. What if he follows me home? My street has one, sad lamplighter at the other end, my apartment has never had a working porch light. I imagine myself being dragged down that dark sidewalk. I can’t go home, I think frantically. “Hey! HEY!” He’s still yelling at me, he sounds angrier, and the thought that this man is actually, truly following me hits me like a truck. It’s the angry HEY that pushes me to run again, this time across the busy street, without a thought about oncoming traffic and into the 24-hour CVS. I literally hide in one of the aisles, as far away from the windows as I can get. I’m terrified. I don’t know how long I stay there, shaking, staring blankly at the baby formula.
Later, recounting this story over the phone, I hear, “Why didn’t you call the police? Why didn’t you tell someone? Maybe call them now?” It’s then that I start to doubt myself. Why didn’t I do those things? Am I just overreacting? Maybe he happens to have the same stop. Maybe he was yelling, “Hey!” and if I had stopped he’d say, “You dropped a quarter, miss” and go on his way.
I start to convince myself that maybe it was all nothing, just my imagination getting away from me. I don’t have any proof that any of this happened. The police would see that I have a well-documented case of panic disorder, so why would they believe me, especially when the person I’m telling seems to be doubting me as well? When I’m not sure I believe myself? And what could they really do, anyway? Maybe the doubt makes it easier to process because the alternative is just too terrible.
In the weeks afterward, a presidential candidate will admit to this sort of behavior and get away with it. Practically be rewarded for it. Every single time it’s referred to on the news, I flashback to that slow, sickening stroke up my bootleg. It was months before I could even look at those boots again.
I think I see him everywhere from the post office to the man behind the counter at the burrito place, and always, always on the train. I remember the hungry, angry look in his eyes. The way his tongue came out over his lips as he spoke to me. And the absolute confusion, and fear, and disgust that I felt. I didn’t imagine that. It was real. A drunk man, nearly twice my size, tried to come on to me, touched me without my consent, and angrily followed me when I didn’t react the way that he wanted. It was not my fault. That is what happened.
At the same time, I know how lucky I am to have not been subjected to violence, to have been safe afterward and physically okay. To mostly brush this incident off as an anecdote to modern female life, with an eye roll to disguise my fear. The funny thing is now, I look back at other things throughout the last twenty years and I realize how many times my friends and I have been harassed and, despite the sickening feelings, mostly unaware of it. So, yeah, #MeToo.