From all sides

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Rob offered me a third congratulatory cigarette. I hesitated.

“Come on,” he coaxed. “You’re on vacation.”

I didn’t need a lot of convincing – Germany had just won the World Cup. I was in South Africa for the first time. We were in Jeffery’s Bay at the start of an international surf festival. Plus, I loved to smoke on vacation.

We sat on top of a picnic table outside Island Vibe, a popular bar that overlooked the Indian Ocean. I stared out in awe as he handed me his lighter. I had just met Rob that night, but already he’d offered to show me around and teach me to surf. As one of the locals, he assured me he was just being friendly to a tourist. But as I finished my smoke, he presumptuously put his arm around me and pulled me into him.

“I want to kiss you,” he said.

“Oh sorry,” I replied. “I, I’m only here for three weeks. I’m not looking to get involved with anyone. I hope I didn’t lead you on or anything.”

“No, no,” he replied and let go of me. “I actually kind of respect that.”

He smiled and pulled me in again for a side hug.

“Come, I’ll buy you a drink,” I offered and playfully added, “I don’t owe you anything if I’m the one who pays, right?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said in his soothing South African accent. “Of course you don’t owe me anything. And please do come surfing tomorrow. Just friends. No expectations.”

I didn’t take him up on the surfing lesson, but the next night I did run into Rob again at one of the festival after-parties. He grabbed me in what I learned later was a South African greeting: he lifted me into the air and spun me around, before pulling me onto the dance floor.

The greeting was different, but the grinding was the same. His hands started on my waist, but slowly and methodically moved lower. I placed them assertively back on my hips – and again, they sunk lower, eventually hovering dangerously close to my private parts.

I could feel myself disengaging. I was Zombie Raquel: I wasn’t into it, but I wasn’t protesting either.

“Are you okay?” my girlfriend asked, concerned about the sudden PDA.

“Yes,” I lied.

After years of being routinely felt up, groped and otherwise touched at bars, this had become my automatic response. Along the way, fighting off unwanted advances became too much work – and there were consequences, like being called a prude, a cock tease, or a rude bitch, and humiliated in front of a crowd or among friends. It was easier to ignore it – pretend I was comfortable, even if it was apparent to those most discerning, like my girlfriends, that I was anything but.

Whereas he had said he respected me only the night before, Rob was now persistent in asking me to kiss him.

“I think you’re making too much of it. It doesn’t have to go further than that,” he said, trying to convince me he was respecting my boundaries even though his hands on my ass betrayed him.

At the end of the night, he offered to drive me back to my hostel, which I accepted knowing he would also be driving another girl. I was the last one he dropped off and I was a little nervous to be alone with him. He got out of the car and gave me a hug. And asked for another kiss.

I kissed him on the cheek, “Thanks for being a nice guy,” I said.

I’m not sure, but I think he rolled his eyes. I never saw him again.

Thanks for being a nice guy? I thought when I got into my room. Was he really, though? He didn’t push himself on me, exactly, but he certainly didn’t go out of his way to make me feel comfortable. Was I supposed to have walked away? Why didn’t I? What game were we playing?

The whole scenario made my head hurt, and I felt guilty about what responsibility I had in leading him on.

Two weeks later when I was back in Canada (where the men are less aggressive, right?), a friend and I went to a show with a band I’d been looking forward to seeing. We ran into a guy I only knew from Twitter.

Ten minutes into our conversation, he offered to buy me a drink. I accepted reluctantly – I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, and I made a point of insisting I’d get the next round. I tried to be friendly, but not too friendly. Even so, I could feel him moving in closer to me as the night progressed, finding excuses to brush into me as we danced. Even when my friend and I moved in closer to the band, at set change, he found us again.

At this point we were all a few drinks in and he was more obvious in his advances. As I danced and tried to socialize with other people, he put that presumptuous arm around my shoulders. He kissed me on the cheek and then on the forehead.

I shutdown. I was Zombie Raquel again. While I had been fun and energetic all night, now I was stone cold, silent and unmoving. Whether he was just too undiscerning to register my discomfort or he didn’t care, he didn’t quit touching me. He started at my head, playing with my hair, and then moved his hand down the back of my body, seductively cupping, then fondling my bum, pushing the boundaries I suppose, of how far he could go.

I skirted away from his hand and ran to the bathroom. I was panicking. I wanted to cry. Pull it together, I scolded myself. I was wearing a pretty conservative dress that fell to my knees and covered my shoulders and I had leggings on underneath – and still I felt like I wasn’t wearing enough clothes. I felt like I’d been violated and had been too slow – and too afraid – to stop it. I didn’t want to leave the bathroom, knowing he’d find me.

And it was only a matter of minutes after the lights went up at the end of the night, he was there again, beside me, and standing much too close.

“Can I have your number?” he asked.

“Uh no,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

He looked angry. “Your friend told me to ask you for your number. I assumed that meant you were interested.”

Oh no, he thinks I’m playing hard to get, I thought. I motioned at my friend. “I’m sorry again,” I said as we left.

He followed. “Why won’t you give me your number?” He persisted.

“I don’t know,” I lied. Why can’t I just tell this guy off? I asked myself, but deep down I knew the answer: we were standing outside a bar in a poorly lit alley; he was bigger and taller than me and he was already being pushy; how aggressive would he become if I initiated a confrontation?

He stepped into me, into my personal space. “Tell me why you won’t go out with me.”

I felt accosted. I pushed him back. “Because I don’t want to. And I don’t think I need to explain myself to someone who’s being aggressive with me,” I yelled through tears. I ran in the direction of my car, half expecting him to follow me. I reached the drivers’ side door, pulled myself in as fast as possible and quickly locked it. Then, I put my head in my hands and wept. Maybe I should thank him for not following me. Maybe I should go find him and tell him what a great guy he is for not assaulting me.

A couple weeks later, I promised myself I would not let zombie me come out again. However exhausting – or frightening – it was to fight for men to keep their hands to themselves, I was not going to act defeated.

I came to that resolution, but I didn’t think I would need to use it, as the only event I planned to attend that weekend was a friend’s private going away party at a local pub. It was a dinner event, but a group of guys arrived a bit later than the rest of the guests – and a bit drunker.

“Hey Raquel,” one of them said, a little too exuberantly.

I was sitting at the table talking with friends. I acknowledged him and he remained standing, hovering over my chair. He tousled my hair. I ignored it. He did it again. Then he moved my hair off my shoulder and leaned in, kissing my neck.

“Don’t!” I said firmly and swatted him away.

“Oh, Raquel hates me,” he whined loudly to the group at the table. “Raquel hates me.”

Everyone ignored him.

Driving home at the end of the night, I felt a well of anger overflowing. How dare he? I was supposed to be with friends. I was supposed to be able to have a carefree night and not worry about this.

But it was three weekends, three guys, three uncomfortable situations. No one will even believe that I get this much attention. They will blame me. They will say it’s because I was a zombie – they will say it’s because I didn’t fight back hard enough.

But why do I have to fight at all? Why do I have to say “no” or “stop”?

By then it’s already too late. By then you’ve already made me feel uncomfortable. Why don’t you realize how painful this is for me?

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