This piece is not a work of fiction. It’s a true depiction of a scary experience I had when I was 18 years old and traveling around Europe with my friend, Genevieve. All these years later I was finally able to unpack it a bit and realize the impact it has had on me. It’s just one small example of the many things I’ve experienced as a woman in this world.
I felt his shadow before I even saw it. Or maybe it was his presence. But in an instant I woke up and my entire body started to shake. For a split second I thought it was a nightmare, but then the chill in the huge Swiss hostel room hit my face and I knew it was very real. I was lying on my stomach with my head turned to the left, and I knew without a doubt that he was on my right. My heart slammed into my chest with every beat, almost like those old Disney cartoons where a character’s heart threatens to erupt from their chest when they’re in love, but this was not love. It was just as intense, though. I froze. In the exact same way I used to freeze in my childhood nightmares. For what seemed like hours, but was likely only 10 seconds, I willed myself to move. I felt the force in my mind telling my body to just MOVE! But I couldn’t.
It was in that moment that I remembered the flashlight. As a joke my mom had given me this odd, flat, plastic flashlight decked out with an American flag on it. My mom is a proud New Yorker, but we always teased her about her “American-ness”. For once, I was glad to know that this particular American flag was very close by. Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was premonition, but I had somehow remembered to hide the flashlight under my pillow before going to bed that night. It was likely due to the fact that the giant hostel room, with at least 10 sets of bunk beds, was so cavernous and foreboding that I wanted to make sure that I could see.
When I finally was able to open my eyes, it wasn’t much help. I’ve worn glasses since I was 10 years old and on a good day in the light I can see about as far as arm’s length, and even that’s fuzzy. All I could see was a giant, black shadow hovering above me like a dementor. I shuddered and felt a strange tingling sensation bring me back to life. My body acted without my mind this time and I grabbed the flashlight and in one swift movement I managed to turn it on and aim it straight at his face. And like some mythical girl who holds the power over demons with her screams, I let one rip – a guttural, animal-like sound that didn’t even feel like it was coming from me. In that moment I took my power back. I shifted from a meek frozen sculpture to a fierce lioness backed into a corner.
He leapt back and dashed out of the room before I could even see what he looked like. To this day, all he is to me is darkness. It was then that my roommates all woke up and crowded around me. I still couldn’t actually stand. My legs felt like wet noodles and tears streamed down my flushed face. Eventually I managed to tell them what had happened, even though I didn’t really know. I don’t know what he intended. I don’t know why he chose me, my bed. But I do know that once I scared him away and my fellow women gathered around me, I felt stronger. Some of them were total strangers to me, but it didn’t matter. In that moment we were all connected. We barricaded the door with a huge bench and spent the night talking and keeping each other calm.
The next day we discovered that the room next to us had had a huge group of German men who had gotten so drunk that they’d been kicked out of the hostel. I have no doubt it was one of them, but how would we prove it? We told the Swiss hostel manager and he didn’t do anything about it. I think that was the day I realized that women are often dismissed, that we aren’t truly listened to. That our fears don’t matter when it’s our word against theirs.
I have trouble with total darkness now. When I stay at my parent’s house in Metchosin where it’s quiet and peaceful and so utterly dark, I can feel a pressure on my chest, reminding me that I’m never totally safe. I hold on to my husband at night, his touch a comfort to me and I only feel truly safe when he’s there. I try to explain to him what it’s like to be a woman in the world, but he can never really know what that weight feels like. Only my sisterhood can and for that, I’m grateful. They got me through that night, and they’ve gotten me through many nights since.