Editor’s note: This piece discusses rape and sexual assault.
Nicole politely offered me a swig. Her friends were as handsome as I imagined.
Afterwards, she quivered beside me outside until my bus arrived. Our breath danced in front of us in the dark, in the cold – just trying to keep up.
‘You’ll be fine. We’re in Denmark!’ she laughed, waving goodbye as I staggered up the burnished stairs of the empty bus. No WiFi, no SIM card; just a fleeting woman in a pair of laced-up dress shoes, gazing out a window at not much at all. Female, tan, early twenties, slender-build. Travelling alone in a time zone eight hours behind her mother’s. Last seen in a vacant bus after midnight, somewhere just north of Copenhagen.
The bus came to a stop outside a few quiet university ovals – which didn’t at all resemble the stop Nicole’s friends at the party insisted was mine. I tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear and looked around nervously, trying to get my bearings.
When Emma Sulkowicz heaved the mattress she was raped on up the steps at her graduation ceremony, we saw a woman first. When a CCTV-pixelated Jill Meagher asked for a cigarette outside a boutique bridal store on Sydney Road, we saw a woman first. When Rihanna threw the car keys of a rented Lamborghini out of the window, only to end up a vision of redness and hurt on the concrete beside them, we saw a woman first.
And so, when a stranger with kind eyes and a green lanyard around his neck (made especially fluorescent in the glow of his headlights) approached me at the bus stop, I had already memorised my own synopsis. I was a woman, first.
When a stranger with kind eyes and a green lanyard around his neck approached me at the bus stop, I had already memorised my own synopsis. I was a woman, first.
But (as every Jane Doe silhouetted in the newspaper cut-out would have reasoned) this stranger was considerate. He had four wheels and I needed a lift. My Australian accent was a dead giveaway: a lonesome female traveller practically begging to be made immortal on dedicated Facebook pages. Ex-lovers will look for things to apologise for. Colleagues will awake from grotesque nightmares every so often. My father will find somebody to blame.
In 1963, Canadian writer and sociologist Erving Goffman described women as ‘open persons’ – living, breathing, social phenomena that are ‘invitational’, if you will. Open persons are – as the title accurately describes – perpetually ajar. The sort of people that get asked for directions, a light, a hand, or a smile. Catcalled with eagerness. But being open is taxing. Homes, with open windows and doors, struggle to retain their warmth come winter time. Deep wounds unstitched cannot ever properly heal. The longer ‘open’ signs are attached to women’s blouses and foreheads, the harder it is to carry on.
‘I wouldn’t usually do this.’
In the passenger seat of his car, my words unravelled quickly, falling from my mouth as if too heavy to hold. The man with kind eyes and a green lanyard around his neck put his indicator on and told me not to be too wooed by Scandinavia, that just last week a car full of men – with lust tattooed like song lyrics and sparrows to the inside of their hands – raped a lone female cyclist.
‘She probably screamed,’ he sighed.
I wondered how hard I’d have to claw to get enough of his flesh under my fingernails. I wondered how unyielding my bite would have to be for him to let go; how much hair on his head I would have to pull. I wondered what photograph they’d choose. What my mother would say. I rehearsed strategies in my head in hot silence. I counted lampposts. I noted food scraps on his dashboard and memorised the fragrance of his car.
By the time we arrived at the campus village, it was 2am. He wished me safe travels before continuing on, his tyres collecting snow as he left.
This is what it is for women to imagine themselves slain, for women to make sense of themselves as something fleeting. I am a combination of wearied interactions. Over-the-shoulder checks. The shuffling of keys between clammy fingers.
I am a combination of wearied interactions. Over-the-shoulder checks. The shuffling of keys between clammy fingers.
The fear women know does not rely on context or atmosphere – like cabin-stories, or horror films. Graveyards and ouija boards. It doesn’t have a soundtrack or a credit roll. Or perhaps, in some way, it does; the context being she, a gendered thing choosing to exist in a public space, with an eager audience dedicated to interrogating her every move.
I am no better. I too always wondered why Nancy Thompson and Glen Lantz insisted on falling asleep in A Nightmare on Elm Street, knowing full well that Freddy Krueger – with fishing knives for fingers – would be grinning madly in their dreams. But these women are human, too: with sleep cycles, nauseating fatigue, and unrest laced into the palms of their hands.
In 2012, Daniel Tosh – a smug cartoon cut-out of a classically obnoxious male comedian – hand-balled rape jokes like goodie-bags out toward his audience at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, only to be met with a heckle from a frustrated woman in the audience – ‘Rape jokes are never funny.’
‘Wouldn’t it be funny,’ he responded, ‘If that girl got raped by like, five guys, right…now?’, a comment Elisa Bassist of The Daily Beast described not as a joke, but as an invitation.
The incongruity is this: men, like Daniel Tosh, know rape, violence and fear like you and I know A Nightmare on Elm Street. An hour and 41 minutes, give or take. The Director’s Cut. A 1984 cult classic. Buttery fingers in bowls of microwave popcorn. A punchline. And something that, if we’d rather not deal with crude 80s gore and Krueger’s gummy smile, we can avoid if we want to. There are always multitudes of films to choose from. But women know fear like Tina Gray knows A Nightmare on Elm Street. Boiler rooms, slashed nightgowns, noises in alleyways getting trapped like echoes in ear canals.
In my entire tumultuous European adventure – one laced with heartache, solitude and copious amounts of ‘snus’ (well worth the Google) – not once was I ever hurt in the injurious ways I often anticipated. Even last night, hurling lemon-scented bin bags over my shoulder in the dark stillness of my street, no lurking predator thought to capture me. I wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. All that remained was a detached bark from what sounded like a beagle, anxiously waiting for his family to arrive home and scratch his belly. The faint cry of a baby, even.
My ailment has only ever been that: a feeling. A sneaking suspicion in the shape of cautionary tales, that manifests in the nook of my chest.
And my ailment has only ever been that: a feeling. A sneaking suspicion in the shape of cautionary tales, that manifests in the nook of my chest. The haunting knowledge that, before anything else, I am a woman: no different to she who carries the weight of a bloodied mattress on her shoulders. The mattress is heavy, and – like us – the memory foam is punctured and bent. But it never forgets. This is how it functions; this is what it’s like for women, to imagine ourselves slain.
I will continue participating in the world the way I should freely be able to. There are many cars to hail, airports to frequent, alleyways to walk through. There are comedians still left to jeer and taunt. But – like Tina Gray and her peers – I know not to close my eyes. The nightmares may be just that, but they’re still terrifying.