We are waiting outside buildings. Our father is inside with our younger sister getting milk and vegetables. Our legs are sore so we are standing outside the supermarket bending one leg at the knee and planting our foot on the wall, swapping every few minutes. Two men walk past and one says ‘How much, love?’ and sucks his teeth and the other one laughs. We don’t tell our father. It’s the 1970s and every adult holds almost as much authority as our own parents and we accept what they say without question. We mention it years later and our father says if it happens again we should crook our little finger and say ‘a good few inches more than you could ever manage’. And although it does indeed happen again, we again say nothing, because all words can be twisted to sound like invitations.
We are at the local library. It has a long verandah that runs the length of the facade, wraps around the side and becomes a ramp that leads to the car park at the back. There’s a low sloping wall but it’s covered in bird shit so we’re standing on the ramp waiting for our mother. We’re alone except for a boy about our age who keeps appearing from the verandah, walks past us, down and up and the ramp and disappears again. We don’t pay him much attention. Our mother doesn’t like the small spaces here so we’re watching out for her car so we can run over and she won’t have to park. The boy comes down the ramp again and sits on the low wall. At first we just think eww he sat in bird shit and he’ll cop grief from his mother for ruining his pants. But things aren’t adding up. Like us, he’s in school uniform, but one we don’t recognise, and he has no bag, which is strange. He’s either waiting to be picked up, in which case he should have his bag, or his bag is inside the library, in which case what is he doing out here? He’s right in our line of vision but we don’t look him in the eye, it’s unlikely there’ll be an expression there that will make us feel better for it. We keep our eyes on the driveway, willing our mother to appear. The boy stands up and heads up the ramp again. But at the last minute, just as he is passing us, he turns and grabs our left boob. ‘Suck my fat one’, he says, but we almost don’t catch it because nerves get the better of him and he forgets to let the words go. He tosses them over his shoulder as he races around the corner, disposing of them in the nearby bushes.
We are walking down our street to the bus stop. As we pass a car, a man knocks on the window from the inside. He is lost, we think. We walk over to him and he is wanking in the driver seat with a fat grin on his face. We want to smash the smile off that face with a rock from the neighbour’s yard, but as angry as we are, we know we cannot afford to make him angry too. Maybe he has seen us walk out of our house and knows where we live. Maybe he will come back tonight. It’s before the age of camera phones so we think of standing in front of his car and making a show of writing down his number plate for the police. But we remember the time our sister was assaulted in the City Library, trapped between the bookshelves while fingers pushed inside her. And how, as he ran through the library, she chased after him, crying and screaming for someone to stop him but no-one came to help until her legs gave way and he was long gone. And at the police station the bored officer filled in the form with one arm bent on the table propping up his head and when he got to the question about Value of Property he finally looked up at her, and then down at her crotch, and said ‘So, what would you say your property is worth?’ So we walk away.
We are on trains: to the city, the movies, a concert. Men sit opposite us and flash us, or rub their groins. One sits next to us and pretends to sleep with his hands tucked up under his armpits. When the train lurches at each stop, his fingers grope for our breasts. We tell him to keep his filthy hands to himself. He is not the least shamed. He opens one eye, grunts and closes it again. One leaves a trail of semen dripping down the seat and a woman gets on with her child and sits down on it before we have time to warn her. On a train in Italy a woman next to us opens a large piece of cloth containing lunch for her children and she beckons us to join them. Italian people are beautiful, we think. We would like to come back here and stay a while. As the train pulls out of the station we eat the sandwich we have been offered and look out the window to take in the countryside. There’s a man at the end of the platform, one hand rubbing his penis, and the other on his forehead saluting us.
We are on a train between Belgrade and Greece. It’s a fourteen hour trip and the train is overcrowded. We are sitting on the floor in a small alcove in the vestibule. A boy and his friend sit near us. We know a few words in his native language. Enough to introduce ourselves. Enough to learn we are both headed to the same destination. This is nice, we think. What an unexpected surprise. After four hours we hold hands. After six, we kiss. We disembark and get the ferry to Santorini. We have an upset stomach when we arrive. The boy rubs our back while we are sick onto the black sand. He takes a water bottle from his bag and empties it onto the beach then heads up to the promenade. When he returns it’s bulging and warping with hot tea and lemon he has begged from a restaurant. When we are feeling better we walk on tiptoes across the hot sand down to the water’s edge. We all swim in a circle facing each other as the sun sets. The boy floats on his back trailing his fingers through the water and doesn’t see his friend grab us and try to force his hand in our bikini.
We are late. It’s 2am. We have been at a work Christmas party and said we’d be home around midnight. Our boyfriend is between jobs, between homes, between emotions. We are very drunk and fumble for ages trying to get the key in the door. By the time we get it open our boyfriend is waiting in the hallway for us. Where have you been, he yells at us. Who have you been with? He is naked and is standing with his legs apart and his arms akimbo. He is so angry that when he yells his body shakes and his penis slaps against his thigh. This strikes us as highly amusing and we laugh. This makes him more furious and he tries to block us from walking down the hallway and into the lounge room. For the first time in any relationship we’ve had, we start to feel uneasy. But we have another pressing problem, we are about to throw up. We push past him into the unit and get a large bowl from the kitchen and place it by the side of the bed. While we change he comes into the bedroom and starts yelling at us again. He wants to know where we’ve been, who we’ve been with, and what we were doing. As we try to get into bed, he jumps in from the other side and pushes us out. Our foot slips in the bowl and we fall backwards and hit our head against the wall.
We are in cabs. One driver asks us if we are going out or going home. He has a baseball bat under his seat. He says girls should not be out this late. Only one type of girl is out this late. He shows us his bat. He tells us how he uses the bat. We tell him we are going home but we give him an address in the next street.
We are in a cab with our sister. She is sleeping against one window. We are leaning against the other. When we stop at the lights we open our eyes. We see a male driver pull up in the cab alongside us. He looks at our female driver and she nods her head in our sister’s direction. It looks like a signal, the nods tells the other driver that she is dropping us off separately, that our sister is first, and that he should follow close behind. We don’t tell our sister what we saw. We don’t tell her to come home with us instead. That would mean another taxi ride home in the morning, making her late for work, for something we have likely imagined. We let our sister get out of the car and go into her house. We don’t even call when we get home to check she is safe. It’s late. We will wake her flatmates if they are home. If no-one answers do we assume she is safely asleep or do we get another taxi over to check she is OK? We are being paranoid. Surely we are just being paranoid.
We hail a cab and one brakes in the middle of the main road and cuts across three lanes of traffic to screech at our feet on the curb. He’s keen for a fare, we think. We put our face down to the passenger window and recognise the smiling driver as a student at the university in which we work. We get in the front seat. It would be rude to sit in the back, we think. We take off and he locks the doors from the central control on the driver side. He puts his hand on our thigh. We push it off and tell him to cut it out. The hand keeps returning and he is grinning, always grinning. We don’t say anything further. He knows our address, we gave it to him as we got in the car, it’s no use providing a fake one now. It’s a short trip home and we keep pushing his hand away. When we pull up outside our house he says he will unlock the door if we give him a kiss. He knows where we work and now he knows where we live so we hold our cheek out for him to kiss, hoping this will be enough. He doesn’t think it is. He gropes for more. Let us out. Let us out now, we say. And he does. But the next day he comes up to the office and screams at us in front of the staff and students. He produces a long angry note asking what type of woman we are who would embarrass him in this way. We say and do nothing. Entitled men do not take kindly to further perceived emasculation. And he has our home address.
We were silent, angry, frightened, disgusted, frustrated. We were in denial. We slapped. We yelled. We felt impotence seep into our skin and bond to our bones. We have been curious, particularly about the schoolboy. We wonder if he ever did it again. If he is now married, perhaps with a daughter, and this is the only reason he thinks of us now—not with regret, not even recognition—but solely in relation to his own feelings of powerlessness in protecting her. We wonder how long he planned it. And if it played out the way he imagined. And how he felt later, when the thrill had died, and all he had left was who he was reduced to in someone else’s eyes.