Long before the train took us directly into Manhattan, the only way to get into the city from where I lived in New Jersey was to take the commuter bus. It was a long haul going in during rush hour but, usually, I was able to find a seat. Standing for an hour on a bouncy bus was never fun and I dreaded those days when my stop – one of the last before we hit the highway – yielded me no seat and I spent my travel time doing my best balancing act to keep myself upright without falling into one of my fellow commuters’ laps.
On this day, so long ago, I found a seat in the back. It was a different bus this day. Not the usual coach with just two seats on either side. This one also had a bench row in the back and that was where I ended up. Squeezed into the middle of the bench row in the very back, two people on either side of me. It was a sunny day, but it had to have been late fall or winter because I was wearing a heavy coat. I had layers of protection in between me and everyone else.
I was a young girl back then. Newly married and in my late 20s. I was still so naive and, despite my journey to that point, I was still in my infancy. Just learning how to crawl and certainly not yet pulling myself up to stand. On that day, in the back row bench seat of the bus, it took a while for me to realize that the creepy man in the trench coat sitting next to me with his arms crossed in front of him and his briefcase on his lap had subtly inched the fingers on his left hand towards my side. We had been on the road for a little while before I felt the odd sensation of something brushing up against my torso, through the thick shield of woolen coat. I delicately adjusted myself in my seat assuming it must have been me invading his space. Trying hard not to be obvious, attempting to disappear into my own little area, I ever-so-slightly shifted my bottom millimeters to the right, hoping to cocoon myself inside my protective barrier. Then I felt it again and I shuddered. For as much as I had moved to the right, he extended his fingers just a little bit further in order to make contact with the outermost portion of my being. I shifted again, this time less subtly, in hopes of indicating that I was aware of him invading my domain and encouraging him to return his hands to his own self. But, he persisted. There was no place for me to escape to and it would only be another few inches before I would be pushing against the person on my right side, committing a similar violation.
I had no voice. Inside my head I panicked. I knew this man was out of line and, as benign as his inappropriate little touch might be, I knew I was not supposed to let this happen. I was supposed to stand up in the crowded bus and yell “pervert!” Instead, I sat there quietly. I allowed him to strum his fingers against my coat, like I was his instrument to play with. I allowed him to breach my safety zone. And, aside from my squirming, which I actually think he enjoyed, I made no effort to force him to leave me alone. I had no words to vocalize my discomfort and, thereby, was incapable of making him stop. I was paralyzed.
A battle was waging in my head as I kept telling myself to say something or do something but I simply did not have the courage. Yes, he was creepy but certainly not dangerous. We were on a packed bus so he could not overtly harm me. I knew he was just trying to “cop a feel” but I could not understand why I was his target.
Did he see me coming from a mile away?
Did he know that I had been silenced long ago in the house I grew up in being an object of abuse every single day?
Did he know that I quietly acquiesced as I was scrutinized, scorned, cast aside, rejected, abandoned, humiliated, manipulated, demeaned?
Was I wearing a sign on my chest that indicated that I would not yell, I would not budge, I would never object? I would simply sit there and take it? I would allow him to do what he needed to do because I did not have enough self-confidence to stand up for myself?
It must have been like pheromones that radiated off of me. I was a glass house. You could see all my internal bruises so clearly. If you had the right set of glasses, all you needed to do was take a look and you could find the perfect target. She’s easy. She’s broken. She’ll take it.
After I don’t know how long, I finally, in the mousiest of voices whispered in his direction, “Excuse me…” He knew I caught him. He knew I was aware of what was happening. And with my mild exclamation, he was validated. She’s not going to fight back. She’ll fuss a little but, ultimately, will comply. He moved himself away for a moment and then continued, barely grazing his fingertips in my direction but I could feel it. I knew he was there. Now, I was terrified. More because of my powerlessness than of his power over me.
When we finally arrived in Manhattan, I raced off the bus but kept looking back to see if the man was following me. I suspected that he was not the type to try to inflict any major harm but, merely, a pervert looking for some illicit titillation. He got what he needed for his morning commute. I, on the other hand, was torn up inside. I was ashamed both by my inability to stand up for myself and my continued belief that I was not worthy of more. In some way, I felt I deserved it. It was my lot in life. I went into my office at work, shaken and disturbed, and told my boss what had happened. I downplayed it as she sat across from me outraged and disgusted. She worried about me. She wanted to make sure I was ok. She wanted to go back to the bus and beat this man to a bloody pulp. She wanted to stand up for me when I was incapable of doing it for myself.
Then I had to go home and tell my husband. I had to admit to him that I allowed this man to get near me. That I did not get up and move to the front of the bus and tell the driver about the man who was inappropriately touching young women in the back. I was humiliated that I had let him down too. It was not just me that was violated. I let someone get close to his wife. I allowed his bride to be scorched just a little bit more.
It took months – maybe even longer – for me to feel safe and comfortable on the bus again. Every man in a trench coat reminded me of the creep. I felt vulnerable and scared and I hated myself for not being stronger and advocating for myself. I struggled to figure out how I would ever find the courage I needed to stand up to others.
Fast forward the clock 20 years. I have not forgotten one detail of that day. In my mental scrapbook, it has a page of its own despite the insignificance of the incident compared to so many other events of my life. However, the symbolism of that moment, of that experience, of that trauma is great. I was a child without a voice. A girl without self-esteem. A victim of myself and those around me. I crawled from place to place, trying to learn how to walk, how to run. I didn’t even know that I couldn’t walk. I just felt the weight of myself dragging behind me. The legs that didn’t work, the voice that couldn’t speak, the psyche fractured from continual wear and tear.
The good news? That’s all changed. That is not who I am today. I walk upright. I speak loudly.
I’m not sure when it all shifted for me. I’m not sure when I found my voice. Last year, though, I had a run-in with someone I consider to be a bully. A grown-up who preys on others to act out their own demons. Someone who lashes out because they are suffering so deeply inside. I can now spot these people from a distance. They have a special color to them – an aura around them that is so clearly visible to me. When this person engaged with me in what I believed to be a very confrontational way, something snapped inside me. I could feel the usual build-up of tension and the typical absorption of it ready to come. However, in this instance, instead of just taking it and then walking away to lick my wounds, I opened my mouth. I screamed loud in their face. I didn’t love the way I handled it but I felt proud of myself for standing up for ME. I knew I was done taking it. I knew that no one could inflict that kind of pain on me again. Surely, long before that day last year that I snapped, I had found my courage, I had cleared my throat and heard myself speak. But, that day, I worked out the kinks. I took it for a test drive and it feel really, really good.
Usually, I like to try to find a silver lining to all of the most challenging experiences in my life. Unfortunately, the man on the bus offered no silver lining. It was merely a reinforcement of how broken, how damaged, how dismantled I was. Today, I’d rip his head off and let everyone between New Jersey and New York City know what a creep he was but these are different times for me. I store this memory in the bank with the others to remind me that I wasn’t always this person and that there are many struggling to find their own voice. Maybe I can help them to locate theirs.