This is my story of sexual assault. It happened in my fourth year of college, in Bucharest, Romania. I remember some important details about that evening but not others. Such as the exact date. It could’ve been anywhere between October 1998 and March 1999. After it happened, I didn’t think to memorize that certain date so that each year on the day I could revisit this story.
“It’s — just basic memory functions. And also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that, sort of, as you know, encodes — that neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus. And so, the trauma-related experience, then, is kind of locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.” (from Christine Blasey Ford’s statement during the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 09/27/2018)
I remember it was evening, and I was coming back from school with two other girls, talking about assignments and next classes. I was wearing jeans and a sweater, maybe a jacket, too. I was walking in the middle, on the wide path between the Polytechnic Rectorate and the bridge over the River Dâmboviţa that led to the students’ dorms. The campus fence was on our left and a swath of tall trees on our right. It was after sunset, the color on most things a purple-gray.
I remember two men—young men, judging by their gait—coming toward us from the direction of the bridge, two dark shadows, one taller than the other. They were walking straight at us, and I remember wondering if I should clear the path for them or just continue like a civilized person on a university campus—
Before I knew it, the two men bounded toward us three, my friends scattered, one left, one right, and I was in the grip of the taller one of the assailants, who dragged me toward the thicket of trees, while the other followed us with an excited bounce in his walk, looking over his shoulder.
I remember thinking that this was not really happening.
I remember thinking that this was really happening.
I struggled, but I could not loosen that man’s grip on my arms. Now there were trees all around me. Maybe my friends ran to alert other people.
I struggled but I wasn’t able to free myself. The dread felt like frozen water through my veins. I don’t remember what the men said to me or to each other, but I opened my mouth and I screamed like never before in my life. I screamed. I screamed and screamed.
My aggressor yelled at me to shut the fuck up.
I screamed and struggled.
And then he hit me over the head. I remember the blow like a block of solid pain. His right hand or fist over my left ear.
But in that short moment, he had loosened his grip on me, and I twisted away from him and ran. I ran back to the main path, not looking back.
And there were my friends, waiting for me a few feet away it seemed, frozen.
I remember walking back with them, over the bridge and into the dorms, crying, the echo of my sobs loud on the stairwell under the neon lights.
Night had fallen by the time I reached the campus police station. The officer on duty asked me if I had seen the two men’s faces.
It was dark, I said.
Then what did I want them to do? Next time, have some pepper spray in your purse.
Where would I even buy pepper spray?
Try the black market, he said.
I left the police station and called my father, who was back in my hometown. I remember the prepaid card inserted into the orange public phone under a bright streetlight. I cried and yelled into the battered receiver and asked for a pepper spray, I didn’t care where from.
I never thought to ask my father, who died in 2014, how he had felt that night, hearing me cry like that, from so far away. How powerless he must’ve felt. How angry.
Back in my dorm, I realized I couldn’t quite hear on my left side. When I took my first shower, I screamed when water got inside my ear. I remember that pain like a hot knife through my brain.
A broken eardrum, the campus doctor said. It would heal in time, and I would recover my hearing, too. Just keep water out of that ear.
The next week, I had a pepper spray in my school backpack. I carried it with me everywhere I went, but also wondered what would happen the moment I used it on someone. Would I miss my target and enrage my attacker to the point of his killing me? I used some of that stuff on the back of my hand and soon realized that if I ever pulled that spray out but didn’t use it flawlessly, I would have it used on me, would get my eyes burned out for sure.
And would I really have had time to pull out a pepper spray that evening, before my hands had been restrained?
My story is not the worst that can happen, but it marked me for life. In its wake, I developed an extra sense: keeping track of everybody around me on the street, a skill that helped me many times since, and once even helped a stranger when one day I was taking a walk through my neighborhood in Seattle and found a wallet on the ground. I looked at the picture on the ID and remembered that I had seen that particular woman a few minutes before, knew which way she went, ran after her, and returned her wallet to her great surprise.
My story is not very interesting compared to others’. And it’s not my only story of this kind.
The first time something like this happened to me, I was fifteen or so and riding on a crowded bus in my hometown. It was evening. Something warm and moist touched my hand. I looked down, and realized that it was a pink-purple erected penis belonging to the man sitting in the chair I was stuck against. I pulled away with nowhere to go. But I didn’t scream—I was in shock. I had never seen that kind of thing before. As the doors opened, I pushed hard against the other people and got off the bus. I was one stop away from home. The man got off too. I was sure he was coming after me, so I ran as fast as I could until I reached my apartment building.
Then in 1999, a few months after the attack, I remember one morning riding the subway in Bucharest with pepper spray in my backpack. The stop for my work was at the end of the line. I remember the dread I felt when the doors closed and I realized that I was alone in the car with just this one other man.
He looked at me from the other end of the subway car.
Then as now, my body stiffened and I swallowed hard.
There were only two or three minutes until the next stop.
He stood up, opened his pants, pulled out his penis and started walking toward me while rubbing it.
Two minutes and then the doors would open.
I was afraid to reach for my pepper spray. He could have wrestled it from me. He was large and could have obliterated me with his fist.
I managed to veer out of his way just as he ejaculated.
Then the doors opened and I ran.
Run away—that’s all I could ever do about it.
When I got to work, I was relieved there was no sperm on my clothes. At least I don’t think there was. I don’t remember cleaning up after that.
My story is not very impressive—not a lot of essential bodily fluids spilled—but I want it out there, one raindrop among others to bring down the rain.
“But what Time’s Up and #MeToo are helping to do is eradicate the shame. The gay rights movement succeeded with millions of gay people coming out of the closet, one by one. Now incredible numbers of women who have had this happen to them are coming out of a different closet, if you like, to tell people. The sheer numbers will make the difference.” (Roberta Kaplan, co-founder Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, in The Guardian, 10/06/2018)
Note: If you have a story of abuse you’d like to share on this website, please use the Contact form on my About page to get in touch with me.