Over the course of the summer that I turned 20, I was assaulted three times.
It’s not something I talk about much, partially because it doesn’t define that 20th summer. By the time August rolled gracefully into September, I had collected an entire menagerie of beautiful, colorful memories that existed apart from and untainted by my three brief encounters with violence. So later, when classmates asked about my summer, I skipped both apexes and nadirs, sharing only the happy median of my experiences:
“It was nice! I learned a lot.”
This is my rap, my automated reply. It’s honest, and I can elaborate on it without disclosing any uncomfortable details. I can talk at length about the exotic desserts I tasted, the friendly beekeepers I met and the political graffiti I saw, all without mentioning assault.
Mentioning assault invites a horde of questions that hurt to answer.
“Why would you sit in the front seat of a taxi?!”
Disbelief and exasperation and fear competed for control of my friend’s face when I told her the news a day after it happened. Her question brought me back to that moment — the oppressive seatbelt pushing into the skin of my neck, sharp metal keys in my left hand. I had known it was a mistake to sit in the front by the time we started moving and I caught the cab driver glancing from my lap to the road to my lap, but by then it had been too late to leap out. My door to freedom was locked. His car smelled like tobacco. His hair looked like wolf fur.
I tried to answer her question about my faulty reasoning, but when I thought back to that night, I found that the memory of sinking my deadbolt key into the soft skin between his thumb and index finger engulfed all other memories. The violence of my escape left little room for other memories.
“At my university, we all pile into taxi cabs when we go to parties,” I explained to my friend, “and someone always has to sit in the front passenger seat because of how crowded it is. That’s what I’m used to.”
Later, I said, “I’m from Clarksville, Tennessee, and we never really take taxis there. I don’t have much experience riding in them alone.”
“I was in a different country,” I defended myself to an acquaintance at school. “I didn’t know the cultural etiquette.”
One night, I typed the details of my second attack into a Facebook message and pressed the Enter key.
“Are you okay?” came the reply, only seconds later.
I wrote that I wasn’t hurt.
“Are you alone? Do you have a weapon?”
I wrote that I lived alone, but that I had several kitchen knives.
“I meant real weapons. Why don’t you have pepper spray?”
Maybe it’s a problem with my gut. The night I was mugged, I didn’t feel threatened until the very last moment. The man walking next to me wore nice clothes and a friendly, fatherly smile. On the walk back to my apartment I usually held keys between my knuckles, extended like Wolverine’s claws, but with this man walking beside me, I felt safe enough to put away my keys and pull out my cell phone.
His name was Dardan. His English was much better than my Albanian, so we were able to make small talk about my education and family. His English was much better than my Albanian, so I knew he understood me when I yelled, “STOP.”
I’m still not sure if Dardan wanted to rape me, or rob me, or some combination of both. His right hand grabbed my arm, wrenching me off the street and onto a little grassy patch of darkness. His mouth found mine, kissing me like he wanted it to hurt. His left hand reached for my phone while his right pushed my face into his. His feet carried him away into the night, leaving me alone on the ground.
I explained the oddness of the assault to a friend at school, months after it happened. Dardan’s odd behavior: he took my phone and camera, but not my wallet and money. He could have raped me, but only kissed me. And my odd behavior: I could have run for the police, but I chased after Dardan instead.
“Were you hurt?” my friend asked, visibly distressed by the story.
“I had a bruise and scratches from being pushed down, but nothing else.”
A relieved sigh. Then: “You shouldn’t call it a mugging if you weren’t hurt! That makes it sound really bad. I was so worried. Brenna, you have to be more careful! Like, why were you even walking with him in the first place?”
I’ve been told that I was very lucky in each of these three instances, because I sustained no lasting injuries. I’ve been told that I was very naïve, and I know that’s true too. Believe me, I recognize that in all three cases, I could have acted more cautiously and wisely; I’m embarrassed by this now.
Yet somehow, thankfully, I can still look back on those months with the strength of hindsight and say, “My summer was nice, and I learned a lot.”
I learned that foreign desserts are surprisingly sweet, that some beekeepers like dancing, and that political graffiti can be powerful.
I learned that mentioning assault leads to hundreds of concerned questions (why would you sit in the front, why didn’t you have pepper spray, why were you walking with a stranger, etc.) but doesn’t lead to any real answers.