by Philippa Garson
“I think I’m lost.” My daughter’s voice sounded sullen and small.
“But where are your friends?” I asked, trying to keep the shrillness out of mine. “And where are you?”
“They went off to another party,” she said. “And if I knew where I was I wouldn’t be lost.” Her adolescent anger rose as quickly and predictably as steam off a boiling kettle.
I felt my irritation rise to meet it but swallowed it down.
“Well … roughly where are you?”
Our 15-year-old wasn’t supposed to leave the neighborhood at night. Now her sweet, guilty secret was out, as tarnished as a piece of stolen candy pried from her hands. She had fallen victim to a snarled-up weekend train schedule and, after taking a shuttle bus heading in the wrong direction, was stranded on the other side of Brooklyn.
I noticed how differently my husband and I reacted to her sulky plea for help. I pictured her walking down a dark street in her tiny shorts, her face a smudged mix of tears and mascara, and wanted to drive immediately across the city to pick her up.
It would be far better for her to find the right shuttle bus and get back onto the subway, my husband argued coolly. Waiting for us to arrive would be less safe, he said. And sending her home in an Uber would be an expensive exercise that wouldn’t teach her anything.
How could he be so rational?
The incident sent me back to a night many years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I grew up. My friends and I were seeing in the New Year at the Oxford Hotel where our beloved band, the Cherry-Faced Lurchers, was playing.
Sometime after midnight, I headed to the bathroom. The white tiles began to spin. I’d had one too many shots of tequila. I sat down on the floor against the stall door, resting my head on my knees. A few moments later I got up and rinsed my face. Feeling fine again, I went back downstairs.
But the sea of boisterous, swaying bodies had gone; in its wake was a swathe of stained red carpeting strewn with empty beer bottles. The only other person around was a desultory hotel worker, loading up dirty glasses.
I must have blacked out for a couple of hours. My battered little Volkswagen beetle was a lonely sight in the otherwise vacant car park. My bag with my car keys was nowhere to be found.
This was 1985. Cell phones and 24-hour car services were a long way off. I went out into the still-dark early morning and headed in the direction of my friend’s house, where we’d all planned to end up. Walking quickly along the well-lit sidewalk, I felt invigorated by the cool air on my bare shoulders. The swish of my harem pants sounded loud and comforting in the silence.
Out of nowhere, a slight man appeared in front of me and grabbed my wrist. I stared in horror at the flash of a silver knife, glinting under the streetlight, pressed against my skin.
“Please don’t, it’s New Year!” I screamed pointlessly.
As he tried to drag me towards some bushes nearby I tried to pull away. We were locked in a tug of war for a few terrifying seconds. I screamed again. Abruptly he dropped my wrist and shrank back into the shadows. I ran panting down the hill, my vision a blur. The sound of my feet thwacking the ground echoed in the early morning quiet.
A yellow police van appeared on the verge and slowed to a stop. At first, relief flooded my veins, but as I neared the “mellow yellow,” as we sarcastically referred to police vans, it curdled into fear. In those dark days of apartheid, the police were more foe than friend to hippie college students like me. The “pigs,” as we called them, did everything to make our lives difficult, busting us for taking part in protest marches or smoking weed or whatever else they could pin on us.
He was a young, good-looking cop with dark hair and a tan. When I told him what had happened he squinted at me with a disparaging look. I was just another lowlife student-leftie wasting his time, now acting like a hooker running hysterically through the streets. “Get in,” he said. I saw the gun on the seat next to him and balked. Off-handedly, he moved it into the space behind the handbrake.
“Get in,” he said again, impatiently. I sat as far from him as possible. His eyes moved up and down my body. The stuffy air between us was thick with his sexual aggression. He reveled in my fear, doing nothing to dispel it. We drove the short distance to my friend’s house in silence. As I scrambled out of his van, he revved the engine loudly, its roar swallowing up the sound of my ‘thank you’. He was gone before I reached the sidewalk.
The small gate of my friend’s house was open. The garden was dark and quiet. The French doors leading into the lounge were open too, and I crept inside. There, illuminated by the warm glow of a reading lamp, was my friend’s stepfather. His bowed form on the faded floral sofa was a safe, reassuring sight, like the silhouette of my own father. As I approached him, I began to sob. The full impact of the ordeal suddenly ploughed into me like a truck, knocking the air right out of me.
He sat me down next to him on the sofa and put a strong arm around me, comforting me until I could breathe again. As I spilt out my story in a tumble of words and gulps he hugged me and stroked my bare arms. We sat together in an awkward embrace.
But then his grip got tighter and the soothing strokes quickened. Alarmed, I squirmed out of the taut circle he’d made around me and stood shivering. I stared at the floor. Fleetingly, I caught his expression – a sour mix of dismay, disappointment and shame – before I turned and ran.
As I hurtled out into the garden, with no idea where I was going, I almost tripped over the sleeping form of my friend in his makeshift bed in the courtyard. There he was, snoring away, dead to the world. A lover of stars and the outdoors. I crept under the duvet with him. I don’t remember how long I lay clinging to him until sleep came, but it was dawn and the birds were singing. Not even their noisy, hopeful chorus could still my beating heart.
I never told my friend what his stepfather had done. And when I encountered him (the stepfather) we exchanged the usual pleasantries as if nothing had happened. Over the years I barely spoke about the incidents or even thought about the fact that all in one night, three different men had violated me in three different ways.
But that night came rushing back to me when my husband and I compared our responses to our daughter’s predicament. By then she was safely home. She’d got onto the right shuttle bus, taken the subway, and he’d met her at the exit, a few blocks from our apartment.
I told him about that New Year’s Eve and he listened and said he understood. But I’m not sure that he really did – or that he ever really could.
Image by Burak Kebapci via pexels.com