I never really understood that expression, “As pale as a ghost,” until I saw Katie walk through the door of Coyotes. All of the color had left her face. Even her freckles had disappeared. Her eyes were dark and beady and she was biting her lower lip. She walked over to our table in a cloud, unaware of the noise, the fluorescent lights, the drunks sitting at the tables around us, or my voice calling her name over and over again. Katie! Katie! What’s going on? She sat down on the bench across from me. She was shaking and silent. The inside of me felt cold.
“Use words,” I urged her. She started crying.
Fifteen minutes earlier, she had been sitting with us. We were at our favorite late-night Mexican neighborhood spot, only four blocks from the apartment Katie and I lived in for two years. She now shared it with a different roommate because I had left to move in with my boyfriend, Westin. I missed living with Katie and I missed the apartment, so I was over there often to hang out. That night, Katie, Westin, Nora and I had been drinking for hours. By the time three o’clock came around we were eager to get some Mexican food, our usual after-drinking food.
We were all tipsy, but Katie was drunk. The kind of drunk she didn’t often get. The kind of drunk that was routine for freshman and sophomore year of college. The kind of drunk we had kind of grown out of, but saved for special occasions. The kind of drunk that left me giggling hysterically.
As we walked down the street to Coyotes, I took pictures of Katie posing on the sidewalk, laughing at how ridiculous she was, cheering about Drunk Katie because Drunk Katie was my favorite. She was silly and goofy and had a big smile plastered on her face and seemed SO happy. But once we got to our destination and sat down in that red plastic booth at Coyotes, the drunkness started to sink into her. It weighed her down. We ordered and our food took a while to come. Katie grew drowsy. Her eyelids flopped down over her eyes and her words slumped into each other.
“I just want to go to sleep,” she said, as she tossed down her quesadilla, almost uneaten. She put some cash on the table to cover the cost of her meal.
“Alright, girl,” I said. “Are you okay to walk home?”
She stood up and grabbed her things. “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.” And I was sure she was. Yeah, she was drunk, but it was getting to be that point past drunk when she was irritably tired and just wanted to go to sleep. Plus, it was only four blocks to her apartment. Four blocks that we must have walked hundreds, if not thousands, of times throughout the two years we’d lived in that apartment. Besides, how many times had we managed navigating through Chicago in a drunken state? Taking the red line to the pink line, or the Ashland bus heading south?
It was fine. This was our home.
Sometimes I still get mad at myself for not knowing better, for not walking home with her that night. Sometimes I’m convinced it never would have happened.
At first, I couldn’t understand what she was saying through the tears. Choppy words spilled out of her. Nora, Westin and I were fixated on her. Waiting. Still.
“I was attacked,” she said. She started shaking harder and the tears welled up in her eyes. She was surprised by her own reality. The story came out in bits and pieces: some dude, yelling at her from across the street, following her, he was drunk, she told him no, told him to go away, he was right behind her, he had his hands on her throat.
“I can still feel them there,” she coughed, putting her hands to her neck. “I can still feel his hands on me.” She fought him, ripped his hands from her skin and ran back here, to Coyotes, to us.
“Thank god I’m so strong,” she said, and repeated this over and over, because it was comforting. Because her strength had saved her
Nora, Westin, and I must have had the same worried, disbelieving expression stamped on us. Crossed eyebrows, hard lips, swollen eyes. We made eye contact with each other and looked away. It didn’t feel real. Was this a movie? We wanted our cue cards. We didn’t know what to say. We hadn’t expected a tragedy to strike like this. How are we supposed to react? What are we supposed to do?
I repeated the same things over and over.
“Oh my god.”
“I’m so sorry.”
There was a tide swelling inside me. So much anger and blame. I could feel my eyeballs getting warm and wet. I wanted to scream about how unfair it all was, wanted to throw the rest of my burrito across the restaurant and yell. It’s not fair that my best friend should be attacked by a stranger two blocks from her home. It’s not fair that this had to happen now because it didn’t have to happen at all.
Nora said we should call the police, but Westin and I shook our heads. There was nothing they could do about it, nothing they would do. How many women get attacked in this city every Saturday night? Katie said she couldn’t even remember what the guy looked like anyway. What was she going to tell the police?
It’s disgusting that we should live in a world where you can’t even report an attack to the police because what’s the point? We didn’t have any evidence. Even the women who have DNA evidence don’t see a conviction. It’s “normal” for this to happen. Every day, every hour, every minute, some woman you know is being harassed by someone she knows or doesn’t know. And women have learned it’s easier to shake it off than to fight back.
When I was fifteen, it was easier to ignore the sexual advances of my boss at my very first job than for me to stand up for myself. In high school, it was easier to shave my legs and armpits than to undergo the constant battle waged on me by peers when I went a period of time without shaving my body hair. In college, some dude in a bar took me back to his apartment to take off my clothes and when I managed to leave his place and get a cab across town back to my friend she told me that guys in bars will always take advantage of me and it’s just one of those things I should get used to. When I lived in Wringleyville . I had to wade home through drunk Cubs fans and I would get pinched, squeezed, handled, grabbed by men I didn’t know. When I walk my dog, when I go grocery shopping, when I’m picking the kids I nanny for up from school, I get whistled at, yelled at, stared at. And all I can do is sigh, swat them away, ignore them, crumble, fume, scribble in my journal, all the while knowing that it could happen tomorrow or next week or month or all of my goddam life.
I put Katie to bed that night. Pulled the covers around her like she was a child. She was still shaking and crying and saying, “I can feel his hands around me. I can feel them on my neck.” I felt a ripping inside of me, tearing through me in a long echo. I had no words to tell her. I wanted so badly to erase the last two hours of her life, to rewind and go back to the part where she left. In my new version of things, I stand up as she stands up. I walk her home. We get home safely.
But the reality is not so safe and I feel guilty. So quickly, the blame is put on us. I let it blanket me as soon as she told me what had happened. It was my fault this happened. I could have stopped it. The blame swept over Katie too. She blamed herself for being drunk, for walking alone, for responding to his calls the first times he yelled out to her. And the more we kept apologizing to each other, the more angry I became. We had done nothing wrong and we had nothing to be sorry for. Why is it always the victims who need to defend themselves, who somehow blame themselves for the larger problem?
Katie would recover. The next morning she texted me, “I still feel weird.” I called her and we talked for a while. She told me she could still feel his hands on her neck. I wondered if those ghost fingerprints would ever disappear.
Once a week had gone by, she started shrugging it off. She said things like, “I’m just surprised it didn’t happen sooner. This kind of thing happens to everyone, doesn’t it?” She was so quick to brush it away from her, to acknowledge it as something that all women experience. As if being assaulted and humiliated is some rite of passage all women must go through.
It was not an isolated incident. It was a story that could be told by so many women. And yet, this is a story that is continually denied, that is deemed unbelievable or fabricated, that is buried under police reports, that is never brought to trial. This is the story that claws inside of you, roots clinging to the deepest parts of you, crumbling the trust you had in strangers, in walking home alone.
The night I got home from Katie’s house, I rummaged through my junk drawer and pulled out a pink pepper-spray key chain that, ironically enough, was given to me by Katie’s dad. For two years it had sat in my junk drawer. But that night I took it out and attached it to my keys. A reminder that, as a woman, I’m never really safe, that I can always be prey.
Virginia Baker is a writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has work published in Whiskey Paper, Hypertext, Ms Fit Magazine, and Chicago After Dark. For more of her words, find her blog virginiaildabaker.tumblr.com