I make very little money at the insurance firm, around $16,000 a year. My co-workers eat out every day. No one ever asks me along, which is fine because I can’t really afford it. Instead, I bring a turkey sandwich from home and take hour-long walks on my lunch break. A friend gives me every episode of This American Life on a nifty new invention called a flash drive. I upload the episodes – all 300 of them – to my iPod (this leaves no room for music, but I don’t care). Over the next year, I walk and eat my sandwich slowly so that it feels like a real meal, and I listen to every single episode in order. This is the extent of my workday socialization.
In May, I’m out at a nightclub celebrating a friend’s birthday. All of the walking has left me lean, and I’ve made a rare purchase – a new dress. It’s green and white paisley print and very low cut, and when I wear it, there’s a ceasefire on the continuous war waged between my body and myself.
My friend has reserved a spot in the V.I.P. section and another friend has paid for bottle service. I’m the designated driver, which means I have one Grey Goose and soda before switching to Diet Coke with lime. Behind the stanchions, I don’t feel like someone living below the poverty line. A member of a popular boy band shows up, and everyone sneaks glances while pretending not to look.
I have to pee, so I head to the bathroom. When I come out, there is a man I don’t know waiting for me in the empty hall. He pins me against the wall, and without saying a word sticks his hand up my dress.
I open my mouth to scream. Indeed, I think I am screaming before I realize the sound is caught in my chest, beating against my sternum like a wild animal. The man’s hand is trying to push my underwear aside, so I pivot my hips away, try to sink through the wall back into the bathroom, away from his body and his hands. I manage to get one arm free and crack him hard across the face with my fist. To my horror, he smiles at me. Then he steps back and allows me to pass.
They say you should never run from a predator, but I run.
I find my friends, who are drunk and dancing. When I tell them what happened, they stare at me blankly. “Don’t ruin this for me,” says the birthday girl. Another suggests I tell the manager. She goes with me, and at the time this feels like the right thing to do: Find the person in charge and make a formal complaint. Maybe they’ll call the cops.
The manager comes out. I tell him what happened. His eyes sweep my body. I feel his gaze come to rest at the v of my neckline, which ends a couple of inches above my navel.
He shrugs. “Did anyone else see him touch you?” he asks. “If they did, I guess I could throw him out. Or you could leave if it’s a big deal.”
I go back to the V.I.P. section and sit there, alone and terrified, until the lights come on at 2 a.m.
In ten years I’ll make more money and my friends will be better feminists. Because everyone I know is aware, I will think, or perhaps hope, that the world has changed. But in the end, the decade will stretch between me and my assault like a velvet rope, a false boundary providing no protection.
Stephanie Rizzo is a writer living and working in Winter Park, Florida. She holds an MFA in Fiction, but lately she’s been trying to tell the truth.
Stephanie urges you to learn more about Stop Violence Against Women (STOPVAW). A project of The Advocates for Human Rights, STOPVAW is a forum for information, advocacy and change in the promotion of women's human rights around the world. Visit www.stopvaw.org.