Until it happened, I always said that if I were ever raped, I would kick and scream and hit. Before the Me Too “movement” (hate that word). Until it happened, I always said that I would raise such holy hell that my attacker would have marks to show for weeks to come. Sexual assault can be defined so many ways, but if I were ever sexually assaulted, my attacker would pay, dammit.
This was considered by some to be risky, dangerous, even; some said that survival was the goal, and acquiescence was the key to this. Keep in mind that this was way back in the 80s, before NYPD Blue, before Law & Order: SVU. Hell, it was before Me Too.
But I was a smart, savvy and sassy high school student, newly aware of my body, my sexuality, sure that I was up to fending off anyone, under any circumstances. I was woman, hear me roar, and all that.
God, I was so young.
Of course, I’d heard about people who, during an assault, became voiceless and inarticulate, unable to make the smallest sound of protest or cry for help, as if someone might happen upon her (I’m a woman, so for my purposes I’ll go with “her,” though of course anyone can be a victim of assault) and her assailant and say, “Why are you letting that person do that to you, hm?” Obviously, this was before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. And obviously, it was before Me Too, which almost sounds quaint, given the whole Brett Kavanaugh shitstorm.
This never made any sense to me at all.
At least, it didn’t until the winter of my junior year in high school.
I wasn’t raped, not even close, but I might was well have been. I felt like I had been, and even though I was surrounded by hundreds of people, I felt completely powerless and unable to fight back.
I was in Japan, visiting my family, and my cousin and I had spent the day shopping in Shibuya, a part of Tokyo which was about twenty minutes away from were we lived. It was so cold, with a biting wind, and as the last of the gray day faded, we boarded the local train which would take us, with one transfer, home. We had been hoping that the local would be less crowded than the express, since it stopped at every station, and was much slower, but apparently everyone had the same idea, because by the time the doors closed, all I could see around me was a sea of black-haired heads, which began to sway and bob as the train began to move.
Since the train was headed away from the center of the city, it was packed with office workers going home, and within seconds it became stifling in the car. I couldn’t move my arms or my body at all. My packages were squashed against me in the front, and I couldn’t even tell if I was still holding on to them. It was like a moving sauna, and the windows steamed up to the point that I could no longer even see outside. The air was redolent with the smell of the pomade that most Japanese businessmen put in their hair, and the fragrance of at least twenty different kinds of perfume. These smells, mixed with the smell of wet wool, stale cigarette smoke, and the breath of those who had decided to “have a few” before heading home, combined with the heat and lack of oxygen to make me feel light-headed and more than a little nauseated. My cousin’s face was pushed willy-nilly a few inches away from mine, and she smiled and shrugged, indicating that it couldn’t be helped, and that we’d be home in a few minutes.
When I first felt the hand on my butt, I was so startled that I tried to turn around and see who’d done it, sure that I’d get a profuse apology. But of course I couldn’t. He’d probably been counting on that. I stood in shocked terror, trying to figure out if I was imagining it or not, when the hand began to move.
I was wearing jeans, which at least meant that he couldn’t get to my skin, but I could feel everything he was doing just the same. It was so incredible to me, so unbelievable that the hand of a stranger could be touching me—on my butt, my thighs, between my legs, and not just touching, but pushing, like he wanted to put his fingers inside me and was irritated that he couldn’t.
I couldn’t move. I was afraid that if I did, he would think that I liked it, and that would’ve made some kind of mental, emotional connection between us, and I couldn’t have borne that. Maybe on some level I felt like if I didn’t respond, then it wasn’t really happening, I don’t know.The greedy hand continued to roam, sliding restlessly down the inside of my thigh, then around and up the outside.
The train car was packed, and utterly, completely, silent, in the way that only hundreds of complete strangers could be. Looking back, I think that my attacker probably didn’t know I spoke Japanese. I am ha-fu, the Japanese word for “half;” my mother is Japanese, my father was American, and Japan is one of the few countries on earth where I could be spotted as a foreigner immediately. I certainly didn’t blend. I often wonder if the whole, horrible nightmare could’ve been avoided if I’d just asked my cousin something innocuous in Japanese, like what we were going to have for dinner?
The simple truth, though, which I’m willing to admit to myself now, is that I know she could’ve spoken to me, and I wouldn’t have been able to answer her. I could barely breathe, and I felt like I was going to faint; by then it was probably only the proximity of the other people that was holding me up.
At some point, I got my courage up enough to move; unfortunately, the only thing I could do was turn around. The thought of seeing the owner of the hand was terrifying, but I hoped that if he could see my face, he would take pity and stop. After I turned around, though, I realized that the train was so crowded that there was no way to tell whose hand it was, and this was somehow the scariest thing of all. I looked in turn at each of the male faces in front of me, and I couldn’t tell who was doing it. I even started to believe that I’d imagined it. Then I felt the hand again, faceless, disembodied, assaulting the front of me this time.
I remember thinking I was going to throw up, and feeling like I mustn’t, no matter what, that this would be so embarrassing.
Yes, you read that correctly.
To a sixteen-year-old girl who is being assaulted, embarrassment while vomiting was something to worry about, something to be avoided at all costs.
The hand found the zipper of my jeans, and for one horrifying moment I thought it was going to unzip my pants. I knew that if I felt the hand against my skin, I would die, but the hand moved on.
I tried to look out of the windows to see where were, but of course they were too steamy. Every time the train stopped and the doors opened, a little cool air would come in, but we were too far away from them to change position during the flurry of passengers getting off and boarding. It was like torture to feel the slow clacking of the train on the rails as we slowly made our way closer to the station where we would finally transfer.
Finally, I heard the conductor announce the station where we would get off and change to the line that would take us home. I turned around to face the doors, not caring if the hand thought I wanted to be touched in the back again, only caring that we were getting off. But even as I turned, I heard that same conductor say that there would be a brief wait outside the station while we waited for the express, which was behind us, to get in and out of the station before us.
We were on the local. We stopped just outside the station, and as the express rushed by us (to deposit its passengers first, I thought resentfully), I really thought I was going to faint.
My genitals were sore from all of the rubbing and pinching, and all I could think of was taking a bath. No, that wasn’t all I was thinking. I was thinking that the owner of the hand should have a heart attack right now, and he should die on this train with no one to help him.
The tracks curved a little where we were, and I could see the station, so close yet so agonizingly far, through the mist on the windows. The train moved forward with a lurch, and the hand grabbed my butt again, as if for balance.
Even after all of this, some small (and very stupid) part of me thought that I might have imagined it all. But as I stepped off of the train, the hand squeezed my buttocks, caressed it almost, like it was saying good-bye.
I stepped on to the platform, into the evening air, which no longer felt biting and cold, but rather refreshing and clean, took a deep breath, and was promptly and totally sick. I looked at my cousin and tried to think of how I could explain what had happened. It was so impossible, so im-fucking-possible, that such a thing could happen, especially in this country where I felt so safe, much safer than I’d ever felt in the States. I looked into her worried brown eyes and tried to find the words to explain this horrifying evil to this girl who was two years younger than I was.
“It was that man, wasn’t it?” She put her arm around me as she spoke, and led me to a bench so we could sit down. People parted and walked around us, oblivious. I stared at her, my Japanese cousin, two years younger than me, but older by far at this moment. She knew?
She knew about that man? She knew about these men?
I opened my mouth to respond, and burst into tears instead, mostly because of what had happened, but partially because of what I saw in her face: Horror for me, but awareness, resignation, that this was the way things were.
Me Too. Sigh.
That was the 1980s, and I now have a daughter who’s older than I was when what I’ve just described happened to me. She’s positive that such a thing could never, ever happen to her. She can stick up for herself, she can defend herself, she knows she can.
I hope she never finds out she’s wrong.