Fear

I regretted agreeing to let Rob drive my car. But I had a migraine.

He has been driving for only a few years now – having learned while in his 30s. And he tends to drive shorter distances than I do. The car seats make his back ache. After 20-odd years, I am confident  on the road and quite enjoy driving. But I still make mistakes. Everyone does.

This wasn’t actually a mistake. There were two motorcyclists weaving through the heavy, holiday traffic as we approached Manukau. They were shuttling down the white lines and passing between cars, despite the fact that everyone was moving at full speed. They were clearly trying to get one up on each other. Also enjoying the drive.

Rob needed to merge left as we approached the offramp. He accelerated a little to ensure he was ahead of the motorcyclist on that side. He put on his indicator for several seconds. And then he merged.

I don’t know whether the motorcyclist either wasn’t paying attention, or was just driving so aggressively that he didn’t want to allow a gap for another car to merge. He accelerated a little and then had to brake when Rob moved the car left. It happened in a fraction of a second. He then laid on his horn. Then he and his friend darted around us, again both weaving between cars all going 100kph. They deliberately swerved in front of our car to try and spook Rob. They both flipped him the finger before speeding on ahead. Then one slowed down and waited for our car to catch up (as it had to, trapped on the motorway as we were), just so he could give us the finger again and swerve in front of us again.

The reason I regretted letting Rob drive my car is simply because I wouldn’t have had to add a feeling of guilt to the whole situation. Rob ranted about the cyclists’ stupidity and arrogance. He laughed at them. The rants aren’t uncommon – he tends to drive more aggressively than I do, and he has little forgiveness for others’ mistakes.

But again, this wasn’t a mistake. Just a bad driver getting angry and trying to make a near miss into an accident.

After about 20 mins, I had to ask him to just stop talking about it an let it go. And I felt bad about that too. Because his coping mechanism when faced aggression is take a confident, mocking style. You want a piece of me? Really asshole? Okay, let’s go… My coping mechanism, however, is sheer, gut-boiling terror.

I’ve met road rage before. If you drive enough, inevitably you’ll encounter someone who is also unforgiving of mistakes, or who (like these chaps) simply wasn’t prepared and wants to make that your fault. I’ve never had road rage turn into an actual altercation – although I once had a very angry man chase my car out of a supermarket carpark because he mistook the heavy clunk of my door latch with the sound of me hitting his van with my door. No, I didn’t hit his van, but I think he was on meth or something. In any case, I peeled out of there before he could tell me all about his drug problem. He had his little girl in the van too.

I also then drove straight home, hid my car from the sight of the road, went inside, locked all the doors, closed all the curtains, armed myself with a bat, and burst into tears. Because, you know. Terror.

I know that Rob doesn’t understand why I react like that – just as I don’t really understand why he’ll meet aggression head on. I’m sure his response is more successful. But it is as unfathomable to me as my fear is to him. I don’t think we’ll ever meet each other in the middle.

I’m not sure if I used to be different, or if this is just something that became a more prominent feature of my personality as time went on. I got bullied a lot at school – and I didn’t stand up for myself all that much – but I do remember a few incidents where I chased off other kids, usually with my fists or a weapon flailing. When one boy told my classmates that he’d seen me naked and felt me up (it was all in his imagination, we were eleven) I whipped him with the bamboo cane of a skyrocket. When another got his friends to pin me down on the school field, so that he could feel me up, I managed to slip a foot out of my shoe and knee him hard in the groin as he lay on top of me. At the time, neither of those incidents was as traumatic as little clusters of girls glancing my way and whispering and giggling. That shit happened every day.

But I have to accept that I am a different person now to the one I was then. In the interim years, I learned that I am a coward.

See, we don’t always react to events the way that we think we will. I had to learn that too. In my 20s I thought that I was a strong, confident, no-nonsense woman. People both loved and detested me for it. In my imagination, I would stand up for what’s right and vanquish the bad guys and never ever be a victim… But then I found that, at the worst possible time, I was paralysed with fear. I didn’t scream. I didn’t fight. I didn’t even knee him in the groin (which might have been more successful). I just let it happen… and then I just kept on not-fighting.

Except that’s not really fair. It was enough of a fight to just drag my ugly, dead body out of the door. It was enough of a fight to watch all those people, who once loved me for being strong, flee from me the moment I showed such vulnerability. The fight I fought was the fight I took to fear. And after ten years we have reached a detente. Yes, I will be afraid of angry men who cut us off in traffic and give us the finger. But I will not be afraid of all men, or windows, or my own breasts. It is a small but significant victory. And one day, I may react differently again. If I can surprise myself in a negative way, then maybe I can also surprise myself in a positive way.

And perhaps it seems strange after sharing my excerpt yesterday. I spent years carefully crafting a book where such horrible things happen that I assume no one wants to read it. It’s a nasty business – far from the end of the novel, but the last piece I will share for now. But that is Darbi’s story and most distinctly not mine. It’s important to remind myself that I actually wrote the original story before I was assaulted. All my assault did was give me more realistic details.

And it’s the details that are so important. For the people who’ve emerged from sexual assault, it’s the details that both empty us and bind us together. It’s the details that show us the truth. When cases like Bill Cosby’s hit the news, people question the veracity of so many stories that are so similar. How can they all be the same? That looks suspicious – like all the accusers are following a script. But many criminals have a practised modus operandi. And the fact is that many people react to sexual assault in exactly the same way… and it’s not the way that you see in movies. It’s the details that help us to believe them. Because we see ourselves there. They are telling our secrets.

I’ve been avoiding it for 24 hours or so, so I’m not sure why I sat down tonight and read the viral story of a young woman who was sexually assaulted at Stanford University, and who then shared her victim impact statement with the world when the man who did it was sentenced to a miserly 6 months. It’s not as stomach turning as I expected it to be, but I was struck by how (when I read it) I just kept nodding my head and whispering “yes”.

You wanted to take off your own body and leave it behind like and old coat? Yep. Been there.

You lied to the people closest to you so that you didn’t have to admit what had happened? Yep. Been there too.

You knew instantly that what he did was wrong but it seemed like nobody else did? Yes.

You can’t sleep in the dark and end up awake all night? Yes.

You need to cool down your puffy, cried-out eyes every morning? Yes.

You just want him to take responsibility for it? Oh yes…

So many yeses. But I’m positive that none were the ones that he imagined. They don’t exist anywhere other than in his twisted conscience.

With this young woman, I will share a thought: it’s not that it gets better, but eventually you will cry a lot less. Eventually you’ll be able to sleep in the dark sometimes (but don’t feel bad if, like me, you fail at that much of the time). Eventually you will like and be grateful for your body again – and most importantly, eventually it will feel like it’s yours again. Eventually this will stop feeling like the sole, damn defining feature of your life. Eventually you’ll laugh with your friends again until you can’t breathe and you’re crying the good tears. Eventually people stop asking if you’re okay, and just let you get on with life because either they’ve momentarily forgotten or they don’t know. And those are the times when you regain a glimpse of the ordinary, unfiltered life that you had. Before the people you love started treating you like you’re made of glass.

That young woman is much braver than I. I never put myself through the public roasting of a trial. There was no strength left in me for that. And no confidence that he wouldn’t just destroy me in a more public forum and still walk away. Perhaps others don’t, but I fully understand why some of us (most of us) choose to keep these things to ourselves. It’s easier to forget that it ever happened. It’s much easier when your name is not tied to his forever.

And that’s why I won’t give him a name here. Not even after 10 years. Not to protect him, but to protect me. My life is my own, and he has already occupied far too much of it.

 

 

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