Something happened to me last night and I decided to write about it, instead of doing what I always do: keeping it for myself.
A man sits next to me on the bus going to London. It is going to be a long journey. I will not describe him because his age and ethnicity don't matter, he is just a person sitting next to me. I feel sick just thinking about the story, but it matters.
He asks for my name, I say 'Lola' as I always lie to strangers. My eyes are shut, I just want to sleep. He understands and stops talking to me. The bus goes dark and I fall asleep.
I wake up around midnight with his hand on my knee. I freeze and pretend I'm sleeping. I don't know what else to do. Last time this happened was in a taxi in Berlin, and I didn't do anything about it, because I thought we would either have an accident or he would stop the car and kill me.
He was the driver and he told me to sit at the front with him, and because I'm an idiot I didn't think it was strange at first. But of course, it was strange. And of course he stroked my leg the whole journey. I asked him to stop but he never did. In the end I arrived to the airport safely and just told myself what lots of people tell me...
"Forget it. This is the world we live in."
This is when things like that happen, and nobody does anything about it. People like me let people like them get away with sexual harassment, and in the end, they always win. But today I decided to write this post, because I realise my silence means their victory.
Back to last night.
I thought maybe he was asleep and didn't mean to touch me, but his hand moved slowly up my leg until it was too much. I jump, I'm horrified, and at the same time I freeze with fear. He withdraws his hand and pretends to be asleep.
30 minutes later he starts again and I move right against the window, but I am still incapable of saying anything. He puts his hand on my chest multiple times even though I cross my arms. I can't believe what is happening. And I keep thinking...
'Aglaé, why aren't you doing anything ?'
And suddenly I feel the adrenaline kicking in, and I start picturing all the things I could do to hurt him, and I am actually looking forward to the next time he dares touching me, because now, I am burning with anger. I'm not scared anymore. I want to hurt him so bad. For all the women who stay quiet, wishing, like me, they could defend themselves.
Around 1am the bus stops and everyone goes outside for a little bit. My heart is beating so fast. I find the driver and tell him what's happening. He doesn't seem to care much at all and tells me to sit at the front. The bus leaves the petrol station. I walk to the back of the bus and see the man.
'You were sitting next to me, right?'
He pretends to be confused.
'You should never touch anyone against their will. It's unacceptable, you know that, right?'
He whispers 'sorry' and goes to the bathroom. People around look at me, confused. I feel like an idiot. I sit down. I didn't say what I wanted to say. Not even half of it. And he is still winning.
The adrenaline kicks back in and I start shaking with anger. Eventually the man comes out of the bathroom. I am so full of violence and rage. It's so hard to contain. I walk towards him. He ignores me.
And so I start.
It comes from the heart at first, then from the guts. It's loud, it's everything I ever wanted to say to people like him. And it is the best feeling in the world.
'You should never touch anyone against their will. I hope you are ashamed of yourself. Look at me.'
He keeps his head down and starts apologising.
'Look at me.'
He looks at me.
'Do you know what happens to people when you touch them against their will? They freeze. They freeze with fear. With horror. With disgust. They start doubting themselves first, before the situation itself. They wonder if it's their fault, if maybe they are wearing something, or did something, that justifies your behaviour. If the world goes to shit, it's your fault. People like you are responsible for the trauma and terror so many people experience in their life. Do you realise that?'
The bus goes silent. His head is down and he keeps apologising.
'Look at me.'
He looks up at me. His eyes are shining with tears and I can't quite believe it. I get closer to his face and stare into his eyes, for a long time. I can see how much he wants to look away. It's so hard not to hurt him. But I know there is no point being violent.
Suddenly I feel calmer. Stronger. Proud. So proud I stood up and talked, for the old me, for all the times I didn't, and all the people who never did.
'Now, promise me this is the last time you touch someone against their will.'
He nods in silence.
'You will never do this again. Ever. Promise me.'
He whispers: 'I promise. I'm so sorry.'
I maintain our eye contact for longer. Someone behind says: 'Tell the driver' and I reply: 'I did, and that's what he did about it. Nothing at all.'
I look down at the man one last time before walking away.
I know how decisive this moment is. For the rest of my life.
Of course, I'm thinking, what if this man follows me to take his revenge, what if he kills me, was it not better to stay quiet? But I would rather die because I stood up and talked than spend my life in silence.
This is why I write.
So that when I die, whoever reads this remembers to fight. We must all fight.
For women, for men, for freedom, for human rights.
And remember, you are not weak. You are not wrong. They are.
So, stand up and fight.
(photography by David Wheater)