I’ve only ever panicked twice in public.

The first time was when I lost my wallet. It was in a library, which I suppose is only to be expected of me (though it doesn’t make it any less stupid). I had it in my hand, along with the pile of books I wanted to borrow, and as I was scanning the shelves, I put the pile down with my wallet next to it. Except when I went to pick up the books again, I forgot to pick up the wallet as well.

I continued browsing for several minutes and only realized my stupidity when I went to get my library card. What followed was a good, sixty seconds or so of me rotating the library, eyes running madly over every shelf hoping I’d be able to spot my blue wallet. I don’t know how calm I appeared to be, but it must have been infinitely more so than how I felt inside – which was this dizzying whirl of feelings, coupled with alarm bells and the weighing realization that I was a colossal idiot.

The second time happened a few weeks ago.

I was at the bus stop, when a man came up to me, asking which bus he could catch to the mall. I told him, and then when it arrived, I got on as well. For some reason, I didn’t like him, and I made sure to place the bag I was carrying on the seat next to me. There were plenty of empty seats on the bus but I wanted to eliminate that one. It was ok, because he kept walking down the aisle, choosing some seat in one of the rows behind.

But after awhile, from the corner of my eye, I saw him move to the seat across the aisle from me. I kept my face turned to the window, and when the bus reached my stop soon after, I got off, walking to the crossing lights. I could feel him behind me, but I hoped he’d walk on. He didn’t. He stopped at the traffic lights, and thanked me for my help.

I said it was no big deal, and pretended to look through my phone, trying to discourage conversation.

He then proceeded to compliment me, and after I told him I hadn’t asked (which he acknowledged) his comments turned vulgar.

At that point, the pedestrian light turned green, and immensely relieved, I strode off. He shouted something at me, but I couldn’t hear due to the blood thundering in my ear, and the fact that thankfully, thankfully, he hadn’t decided to follow me.

The bizarre thing was, it was only after it happened that I felt that whirling sense of panic course through me. And it was only afterwards that I realized how truly helpless I’d felt. We’d been in public, in relative daylight, though it was early evening, and there were people milling around. Nothing serious could have happened. But at that moment, it was just me and him, and despite the anger and revulsion that I felt overwhelming me there was really nothing I could do besides say “I didn’t ask” for his compliments or comments, and then walk away when he didn’t stop.

What would I have done if he had kept following me?

How would I have attempted to solve the problem?

And would I have been successful?

It was only one comment, disgusting as it was, and looking back now, I almost can’t believe the degree of panic and helplessness I felt. I remember as I finished crossing, making eye contact with someone working in a store, and I wonder if I looked as wildly desperate as I felt. Would I have been pushed to seek the help of a stranger?

And ridiculous as it may seem, once I entered the mall, I made sure to float around several different shops before making my way to my actual destination, in the hopes that I’d somehow “throw him off” if he had decided to follow me. Once I had found my friend, I remember seeing someone who I thought was the same man from earlier. I remember being unable to concentrate on what she was saying. I remember the way my belly clenched for several sickening seconds.

None of it was really rational – but neither was the rising panic and hate that made my chest work so hard, or my fingers tremble like that. I remember my face was on fire, but whether from embarrassment or hate, I can’t tell. Maybe it was both.

And yet, I know women face so much worse. I’m not someone who’s had their head buried in the sand – I know the reality, but it boggles the mind that women have put up with this filth for so long. Or that they continue to put up with infinitely worse.

I think of my sister, eight years younger than me, and I wonder, is this what she has waiting for her? Has she already experienced something like this? It makes my stomach turn.

I cannot believe there are people out there who think this kind of behaviour is ok – who have the audacity to walk up to a completely strange woman and say such things. Is this how they expect their mothers, their sisters, to be treated? Do they not respect the women in their own lives, that they are driven to such behaviour?

How dare they?

At the end of the day, though, it’s mostly How dare I? How dare I feel so powerless? How dare I avoid his eyes, and scuttle away, as if it was I who was in the wrong? How dare I panic so much when that base human should have been made to swallow his own filthy words?

But even as I write this, I can feel myself getting worked up, the anger and the frustration that I felt then risking back up again, palpable as it was that day and not only a faint echo, and I know, were the situation to repeat it itself, my reactions would, too.


6 thoughts on “Panic

  1. Beautifully written. It's not fair that you were made to feel that way, and you shouldn't be mad at yourself for not being ready to deal with him. No one expects to be hassled liked that, which immediately gives him the upper hand unfortunately.


  2. Well said. I've been in a similar situation, unfortunately. I was “propositioned” I suppose at a bus stop when I was leaving work late at night. There were a few other people around, but I do wonder to this day if anyone would have come to my aid if it had escalated. And I definitely worried that he might follow me. Terrifying.

    On that note, though, there is a movement that I've been following called Everyday Sexism (twitter handle @EverydaySexism) where women AND men can share stories where they have been hassled or catcalled or anything related. It is disheartening to see it so common, but it does help us know we're not alone and gives many the strength to speak out and let the offender know it is NOT OKAY.

    It gives hope that progress is on the horizon and soon it won't be overlooked. Thank you for being willing to share, although I'm sorry you experienced it at all.


  3. Ugh, I'm so sorry you went through this. Perhaps the only way to prepare is to know what to do in these types of situations – asking other people for help immediately if someone acts suspicious, moving to public areas, maybe learning some self-defense just in case. It really is unfair that women have to put up with this though: one of my best friends at college always is afraid to leave her dorm without a friend at night because she's scared of getting attacked, and while I have an ounce of fear that might happen to me too, being a guy alleviates the load and that in itself is stupid. Really, though, I do not think any of this was your fault and it's horrible that that guy made vulgar comments toward you. Glad you're able to express yourself here so eloquently and that you're thinking about your sister on top of all of this.


  4. Oh no, that sounds horrible. “Late at night” is worse, so much worse. I'm so glad it didn't turn into anything more.

    Thanks for letting me know about that. I just looked up the site, and it seems like a good opportunity for many people to let out feelings that they wouldn't otherwise talk about. But you're right – it's horrible that it's so common.

    Thank you for your comment.


  5. Yeah, I think finding out how others deal with this will help. And I am considering taking up self-defense classes. The worst thing was feeling so powerless, and it was only verbal this time.

    Yeah, I know what you mean. Being alone late at night is not always the best thing, but it's ridiculous that it has to be worse for women – but it's become such an accepted part of life. We have posters around campus that highlight the main walkways people should use after dark, and advises girls to go in groups or have their guy friends accompany them. When I see those, I always think of what would happen if there were posters that said “Don't rape.” Ugh.

    Thanks for your comment, Thomas.


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