Stories for Lent: #31 A grown-up fear

The first time I was harassed on the street, I was running to the store. Literally running. I had clogs on, and a purple T-shirt. My breasts bounced underneath, unsupported by a bra. I was passing a construction site on the corner of our street when I heard it, loud and clear: “Nice tits, kid,” followed by rowdy laughter. The men taking their lunch outside had seen me and were showing appreciation.

I was 12.

I remember feeling confused and frightened as I entered the shop. While I stood in line, I thought of what might happen on my way back. Would they yell at me again? Would they try something else? What would I do then? While the other patrons placed their orders, I glanced at the door, anxious that one of the men would come after me. They looked Romani. The Romani were known to steal children sometimes. Was this it? Was I about to get kidnapped?

I was terrified. How nobody else saw that, I have no idea. I got the groceries and headed back to my grandmother’s house, this time mindful of how I was walking, holding onto the bag for dear life. I thought of taking a different route home, but they would see it and that would encourage them. I had enough experience with bullies to know that. My heart in my throat, I passed the construction site, and there it was again, the taunt.

Hurry, hurry, I thought, while making sure my steps were as careful and as measured as possible. My developing body, one I hardly paid attention to, had suddenly become dangerous. I had to be mindful of how I used it.

When I came home, I put on one of the sports bras my mother had gotten me, and I didn’t take it off, going as far as sleeping with it on some nights. From then on, I never ventured outside without one.

*

There were other incidents, in the years that followed. The most frightening one was when a man in Toulouse started following me on the street, calling “Mademoiselle” softly behind me. I forgot everything they had taught us, and then I suddenly stopped and he crashed into me. He went on his way, but not without calling me a “pute”. Once again, I was terrified – in broad daylight, on the middle of a busy street. Heart in my throat, I got on a municipal bike and cycled home, fearful that somebody was still following me.

They weren’t. Of curse they weren’t. They’d already gotten what they’d wanted – to intimidate me, to make me feel fearful. To put me in my place. (What place is that? I have no idea. The kitchen, probably.)

I put it to the side. It was powerful, it shook me to the core, but eventually the incident faded from my memory, like so many others. I replaced it with the feeling of cycling on the waterways at dawn, the taste of that perfect grating dauphinois, laughing with my colleagues over lunch, the rush of a job well done. My neighbor and I washing dishes, side by side, as I told him about what had happened to me, and him telling me I’d inadvertently passed through a street frequented by prostitutes. Not that it excused any bad behavior, but it gave me a strange sort of comfort, to share with somebody.

That first time, though. That first rude awakening, not necessarily to the ugliness of the world, but to the fact that I was now part of it, I’ll never forget, and I will keep coming back to. I’d been told I wasn’t little since my brother was born, and I had to be more mature, but it wasn’t until I got a taste of a truly adult fear – sexual harassment, the threat of sexual violence – that I truly realized. I’m not a kid anymore.

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