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TW: Sexual Harrassment

Since I moved away from home and into the city, walking has been my form of solace. One of my favorite writers Rebecca Solnit, once wrote,

“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind and walking travels both terrains.”

Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Granta, 2022. 

While walking, I’m searching the world for my place in it. I show myself to it. I can be alone while surrounded by people. I trick passersby into thinking that I have places to be when in fact I already am where I have to be. I try to find comfort in this.

On a day where I was feeling especially lonely and calling every member of my family just to hear their voices, I took to the streets with my tote bag and headphones. It was an uncharacteristically warm day for New England in November. 70 degrees and gray. People were outside holding on to the last moments of warmth before a brutal winter. As the clouds turned dark and the smell of rain permeated the air, I continued through the park, back towards my dorm, moving with undisturbed purpose. This was the calm before the rain. Such peace was short-lived.

A man who appeared to be in his early 40s, came up on my left. We locked eyes and I noticed his lips were moving but I couldn’t hear him. Stevie Nicks kept singing to me through my headphones. He had salt-and-pepper scruff along his jaw. He wore a gray t-shirt, faded jeans, sneakers, and carried a black backpack that seemed to be full of his things. His hair was wet. Once he got close enough, I heard him say, “Hey, honey. Talk to me.” I didn’t. He was mere inches from me when he went behind my back, looking at me like I was on display. In fear that he would grab me, I swerved out of the way, nearly tripping on the brick sidewalk, and picked up my speed. He started yelling and using his hands to make sure I knew where they could have ended up. On my waist, butt, head, throat. Stevie Nicks couldn’t drown him out. 

“You okay sweet thing? You need me to walk you home?” 

“Calm down, now, don’t be a b—–.” 

“I’m being nice to you honey, no need to be afraid.” 

I have been shouted at in the street before. I’ve had men lick their lips and gawk at me like hungry dogs outside a butcher shop. I’ve heard these men whistle and whisper under their breath. They’ve panted and pawed at me. They’ve begged and cried. During the day, at night, in my small hometown, in the busy city streets, from their cars, with their friends, with their kids, alone, from an alleyway, while smoking, while drinking, while walking, while sitting. As a girl, I learned that even if there is not much to see, they still look. But the man with the salt-and-pepper scruff was different from the others. His persistency was new to me. He looked well off, like he owned a nice apartment in Back Bay and had just returned from Equinox. Maybe he had children. 

To regain my power, I threw a middle finger over my shoulder. 

“Very ladylike, baby.” I turned my head around quickly to get one last look at him. All I saw was a blurry figure disappearing behind a patch of trees. 

I walk because it makes me feel independent. It’s fun to move through society while it moves around you. You feel as though you are a part of the city’s ecosystem. Another ant on the crosswalk. I’d like to think that it is a time for me to see the world but really, it’s an opportunity to be seen by others. Perhaps the real reason that I go out is so the world will look back at me and acknowledge that I’m there at all. The buildings, the trees, the pedestrians: they’re my audience.

I cried on the walk back to my building, I cried in the elevator, I cried in my dorm room (quietly as to not wake my napping roommate). While I sat in my twin bed, letting the tears drip onto my pillows, I realized that what I needed was to feel protected. And all I wanted, all I wanted, was to be held. Held and listened to and understood. But not by my girlfriends down the hall or my snoozing roommate. I wanted to be held in the arms of a man, the only thing that could make me feel safe. 

I became angry at myself for this realization. I want to be my own guard, my own protector. I want to be the independent girl in the city, with the headphones and the tote bag and the big boots. I want to feel safe on my own. 

I hated myself for a moment but couldn’t deny my skin’s hunger for a simple hug. A simple “I’m sorry that happened to you.” A simple “You’re safe.” A few more moments went by and I realized that it is human to want this. I’m only eighteen years old and sometimes I forget how scary the world can be. I’ve enjoyed the beauty of it but sometimes I cannot shield myself from the truth. The truth is that I’m a young woman with no upper body strength, no license to wield any weapons (not that I would want to anyway), who lives in a city with a population of over 650,000 people. And there is danger there, whether I want to recognize it or not. 

Worse things could have happened, I realize that. That man could have grabbed me. He could have stolen from me, chased me down the street, hurt me. And I’m lucky it wasn’t more than a verbal altercation. But the “what could have happened” was what scared me. I don’t like being reminded of what I should fear. Being a woman is such a magnificent thing until you recognize the danger in it. 

The next day, I left my dorm room again and went on another walk. I did the same thing the next day and the day after. On one of those days, my friend and I even ran through the entire park just to make sure we could get chicken tenders from the dining hall before they closed. It felt nice to run until my lungs burned. We got our chicken tenders too. The risk in walking as a woman doesn’t take away from the beauty of it. If there was no risk in beautiful things, they might seem dull. 

I will keep walking. I will keep running. I will be more careful and more vigilant, even though it seems unfair to me. I don’t want this to sound like a story of unbreakable strength and the overcoming life’s biggest obstacles. I’m not a success story or a cure for the fears of womanhood. I’m still upset by what happened in the park that day. I sometimes wish a man was by my side so that it didn’t happen. I blame the world and I get upset and angry that I can be harassed all while doing something so minute. This article will not be tied up with a big, happy conclusion that encourages you to conquer your fears and to keep doing what you love because it’s not that easy. I will not stop being afraid because it might save my life one day. I will continue to go for walks and tread about the world, but not without the sacrifice of my own peace. 

All I have to say to the women reading this is that I’m sorry this is our reality. I’m sorry we are born to be afraid. And to the men who might be (but probably aren’t) reading this, don’t act like women are obligated to hear your voice. They don’t care. Keep your mouth closed and your eyes up.

Hey, I'm Caraline!