I hadn’t ever seen a penis the way the man in Paris wagged his at me. Years later when I read that the Bois de Boulogne was well known for prostitutes and the more “unsavory” types it all made sense. I was a young, twenty-year-old female sitting on a bench in the second-largest park in Paris. It was once part of a forest known as a hideout for thieves, and was trampled by the British and Russian armies after Napoleon. In spite of idyllic stories of winter ice-skating and spring gardens and the Chateau de Bagatelle, it’s still a place where every tourist website says steer clear after dark. This was broad daylight, but still…why should I have been surprised that a man would want to shake his penis at me?
I hadn’t personally experienced, until moments that semester abroad, the reality of an adult world where people aren’t just generally decent. Where some people can be horrible. Where people threaten others and hurt others just because they have the power to do so, in ways that seem subtle and less obvious. I hadn’t ever understood that to be a twenty-year-old female sitting alone in a park in a city where the language most frequently spoken was not my own could inherently place me in the middle of a bright spotlight. Did I look foreign to this man and his penis? In my sunglasses and denim jacket? Did my shoulder bag and journal give me away? Could I escape without him following me, shaking his appendage at my back?
The narrow scar in the crook of my left arm is approximately one inch long and has fourteen little dots surrounding it, seven on each side for the stitches I received closing it up. It happened in 2003, after I returned from the semester in Europe, where I felt I’d left a part of myself behind.
No one really prepares you to return to the place from whence you came after that kind of experience. I had fallen in a sort of teenage love in the Netherlands, had given my body away. I had become reliant on sweet liquor and Dutch beer, on the emotional high that comes with a good time dancing with your friends in a loud bar in another country. When I flew back I left it all behind and traveled cross-country with a man who brought another woman to our hotel room one night. I could hear her purring to him on the couch while I pretended to sleep. I flew home and got back together with my high school boyfriend. And when my high school boyfriend made plans to visit me in Boston with the intent of proposing, I cheated on him. No one can prepare you for the emotional toll of being so lost, so confused, that you become self-destructive in every sense of the word.
At the hospital I told the nurse I was holding a vase, a very thin vase, a very fragile vase. That I was carrying many things and the vase shattered in the crook of my arm. That the gash I’d applied gauze too, conveniently out of sight from most eyes, was from the vase.
I got to the hospital by taxi after midnight, paid for by my roommate, who took one look at my arm and called her father and said we needed to go. I was 21. I am sure the nurse could smell the sticky, pungent aroma of alcohol on my breath.
It wasn’t a very thin vase that cut my arm. It wasn’t a very fragile vase. It wasn’t a vase. It was a knife. Or a pair of scissors. The instruments of my bodily self-destruction varied back then. In the midst of college, in the midst of finding and losing my identity, in the midst of feeling a gaping black hole in the center of my soul, in the midst of the internal crisis we call life, I sliced my arm to feel something – anything – other than the aching, dull pain of misery in the center of my chest.
After that roommate, and that apartment, I moved to a studio in Beacon Hill by myself. I kept company with mice who scurried in the gap between the hardwood floor and the baseboards. My apartment flooded every time it rained, water leaking from the roof down three flights to my first floor. I painted the bathroom a nauseous Pepto-Bismol pink to go with black and white tile. I painted a lot, and smoked cigarettes a lot, and drank a lot. Most of my college friends had moved away and the few that were still local lived too far away on the train for me to afford a taxi ride home at the end of a night out. Plus I was the girl who cut herself, and not the most exciting to be around in those days.
I painted and listened to Pete Yorn and watched romantic comedies and chain smoked and cried. I got drunk and fell asleep under my rug waking to a hot stovetop with an empty pan, the water for late night pasta having boiled off. I sat in the Pepto-Bismol bathroom and scratched at my legs with multi-colored kitchen knives and then called my mother, overcome with shame and guilt that I couldn’t get a grip and be a self-sufficient healthy adult. She listened and told me she was getting on a plane, which I vehemently rejected. I wasn’t going to bring her physically into this. I had only called her out of child-like guilt. She didn’t need to come here to witness her daughter’s addiction and depression in person. I didn’t need her watching over me like a hawk.
The scars on my thighs are from that apartment. A criss-cross patchwork, thin and pale white. They’ve faded and are nearly out of sight. The ones inside have healed enough for me to be able to write this a decade and lifetime later.
When my landlord sold the building I lived in I moved two blocks over to a space that had less square footage and more walls. It was half underground in the back of the building and the windows had security bars on them. I only ever got a sliver of natural light in the spring when the angle of the sun aligned perfectly with the angle of the back alley behind my building to allow a fraction of glowing beams through the rusty metal bars into my bedroom.
I tried to re-build relationships while living in that apartment, feeling that having acquaintances was better than being alone. I went out and drank, met friends at their apartments, forced ties through alcohol assuming that meant they were real.
For a moment I actually forgot his name. Then it came careening back. He worked with my friend at a restaurant and I thought that meant he was a good guy.
Some time later he was gone. I can’t remember the exact events behind his leaving, just drunken crying and the word no, but nothing more. And a decade later when I listened in on trainings to the talks that defined consent, when I heard the stories of women who couldn’t really say yes and know what they were agreeing to because of how much they’d had to drink or the circumstances behind their situations, I learned that those moments too, more than the myths of men jumping out from behind bushes, are sexual assault. I learned that I had been sexually assaulted and had never known.
When waiting for the Metro in Washington D.C. one morning in January 2016, I observed a man in a black trench coat and winter hat. One moment he was standing a safe distance away, at least a dozen feet, while I, a tourist in a new place, stared at the Metro map and light-up signs telling me the arrival time of the blue and orange lines. When the man walked closer, when he walked past me, I tightened my core. A low inhale of breath, flight or fight response ready, cell phone gripped. My eyes stayed straight but my focus followed him in side view. I mentally berated myself; I had given away my identity with the printed map of the Washington D.C. transit system. My map, my travel bag, my cell phone – these collective signals told a story about the person I was. “I am new here,” these things said about me. “I know nothing of your city.”
Someone could look at me and think I was a person who could be taken advantage of, a person who is impressionable, with her tourist materials. He might think I was an easy mark, this man who sauntered closer, stopping to stand within six feet of me, a distance that I considered to be within my personal-territory, the unspoken bubble of safe and appropriate space given there was no one else on the platform.
Making a show like I was scanning the surroundings for something – signage, a defunct payphone, anything at all – I meandered a few feet away and shoved the map into my bag while gripping my phone tighter. Why had I thought to put a security code on it? It would take way too long to dial my passcode if I really needed 911. Not that that would work; have you ever called 911 before? First they ask you your location, and then they transfer you to your local 911 dispatch. In the 3 seconds that it takes for a crime, you’ve barely even been able to listen to them tell you you’re on a recorded line.
A few moments later, trench-coat-winter-hat man wandered in the same direction. Annoyed now, I walked past him to the other side of the platform behind a column where I couldn’t be seen but could keep watch out of my peripheral vision.
I’ve learned I can be paranoid during certain hormonal times of the month. I can be imaginative and narcissistic. But I am a woman and – at that particular moment – I was a woman, alone, in a skirt, standing on a train platform imagining I looked like an out-of-towner, and this guy – whether intentionally or not – was following me. I moved closer to a crowd of what looked like actual tourists who had just come up the escalator, and put my back against a covered bench area. I kept an eye on trench-coat-winter-hat-man when the train finally pulled into the station, and made an effort to get on a different car. While riding to Metro Center I scanned to see if he was in view. I lost sight of him but imagined a situation where he’d reappear, like the classic villain in a horror movie, and follow as I exited the yellow line to transfer to the red line, a process I hadn’t thought about needing to do until faced with it, regretting my haste when realizing I could have waited two more minutes and taken the blue line directly to my destination, and presumably been on a different train than trench-coat-man.
This is what happens sometimes, to women, to people—to me—because of the nature of things. Because in spite of what research tells us about sexual assaults happening by people known to the survivors, they still happen every 107 seconds. Because you never know when someone is watching you, sizing you up, ready to alter your perception of the world. Because my mother still watches me like a hawk even though she lives in Minnesota.
I once told a class of peers that there is a certain generation and a certain gender that “know things about things.” This was my response to a classmate asking why, in a story we were critiquing, a young girl felt so worried by the older man following her from one empty floor of a hotel to another that she ran from him and lost a shoe in the process. All I could think was of course she would be worried – I would be. Women know things, right? Women are taught things. We hear stories and watch movies and are given lessons. We are storied and lessoned until we believe, inherently, that one should not walk too far when she’s alone in a park in the middle of a foreign city and one should get away—immediately—from the man who stands too close to us and then reappears some time later when we least expect it, just when we think we are safe. In spite of the studies and the data about predators and stranger-danger not being the cause of most assaults, we’ve been raised on fairy tales, legends, and rape myths; and fear persists in spite of fact.
My right nipple bears two scars for two different reasons. The smallest that makes it looked pinched at the edge is the remnant of a pea-sized fibroadenoma, a benign lump. I have lumpy boobs is what the doctor said. I get them from my mother’s side of the family. The other scar is pale yellow and looks full of fluid, though it’s not. It’s the daily reminder of the struggle of breast-feeding; the bad latches, the stinging sores and acid-like sensation when trying to feed my child. The reminder that I lugged a pump on Boston’s Orange Line train every day through seven months of my daughter’s infancy for less than four ounces of milk a day. It’s a traumatic reminder of the pain that no one tells you about—by far the worst experience I had of them all when recovering from childbirth, and the most frustrating one when everyone tells you breast is best, that it’s the most natural, the way your child will get all the nutrients she needs, but only if you can produce enough milk and only if you visit a lactation consultant who will push and squeeze your tits into your infant’s mouth and say, “That’s the way!” which won’t actually be the way you are able to do it when you get back home.
The scar across my abdomen is the one I thought I’d hate the most for being the largest but it’s the one that gave me the best thing I could have ever asked for. It’s human nature to judge one another and pregnant women feel judgment from everyone and everything, whether it’s real or imagined. When I discovered, at 38 weeks pregnant, that my baby was breech, I received all sorts of unsolicited advice about chiropractors and techniques and stretches and procedures. I had been prepared for a “natural” childbirth, had done the scary readings, had put my mind in a place where I knew I’d be shoving a baby out of the area that a baby comes out of. All along I’d thought it was interesting that I felt kicks in a location where other pregnant woman didn’t, and my baby’s hiccups were always low and not high in my stomach. Jump to a week before my due date and an OB using the term external cephalic version to try—quite literally—rotating my baby around inside my stomach.
They prepared me for the version with a caesarian as plan B should it fail. A half-dozen doctors clad in blue with surgical masks covering their mouths stood around my body, flat on its back, arms stretched out and fastened perpendicular to my body while my husband sat beside me, shell-shocked as they pushed one way then the other, then declared my child’s head stuck under my ribs and time to open me up.
I could see them moving behind the blue curtained barrier they’d erected across my neck. They hovered around my stomach as they drew a scalpel across my pelvis and proceeded to extract my child, feet first. I had an immense amount of discomfort in my chest and upper back while this was happening, and was forced to stay still, fastened to the bed like Jesus on the cross as they pulled my child out. It took a good minute for her to cry, and then they called my husband to clip the umbilical cord and my Avery Rose was with us.
Years later, after my second daughter, after the surgery that removed one ovary that had ballooned to the size of a softball, and then the follow-up surgery that removed many other things a woman requires for child bearing, my stomach is sagging and wrinkled, bearing the marks of a surgical game of laparoscopic tic-tac-toe. Too quick back on my feet has caused buckling so that my scars are neither flat nor perfectly straight, but they too are fading, like the memories of penises and scissors and loneliness.
I often think about the pressures women put on themselves; that I put on myself. The expectations I make that maybe others don’t. I am especially annoyed when people look at me in awe and ask how I do it all. How I work full-time and pick up my two children; how did I manage to teach part-time while finishing a master’s degree when I only had one child and a husband and a house and a dog? How am I managing? How am I doing?
I laugh, either impishly or self-deprecatingly or sarcastically, depending on the situation and the role I feel I have to play in contrast to the person asking me these questions. They want to know how I find the time; they are amazed. I want them to know I’m fucking tired. That my favorite part of any month when I was in school and teaching was when my homework was done early and my class lesson was prepped and I didn’t have essays to grade and my only child was sleeping soundly in her bed and I was alone, finally. Without eyes watching me, or expectations, or the never-ending to-do list of tasks and alarms ringing from my phone. When I can be alone and unseen, I can just be.
Life makes it hard for me to find time to talk to my family from Minnesota these days. When I’m not at work or trying to write or running from one pick-up to another, I’m probably cleaning or maybe eating. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, I pretend I’m three blocks closer to picking up one of my daughters than I really am in order to cut the conversation short and enjoy the silence. Sometimes when there feels to have been no reason for a call I think, that was five minutes of quiet time I’ll never get back.
I’m tired and sometimes I just like to be alone.
But I don’t say things like that to the people who stare wide-eyed. Admitting it aloud might trigger my downfall. It would name the truth and I’m not sure I’m ready for that. The scars have faded and life is better this way.
Alayne Fiore is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies, a Certificate in Literary Publishing, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She is the owner and operator of Rozlyn Press, a small press for female-identified fiction writers. Her works have been published with Gravel Magazine and Haunted Waters Press. She works in the Division of Diversity & Inclusion at Emerson College and lives north of Boston with her husband and two daughters.