The sky was a steely gray the morning we arrived in Brussels. It was a little past 7 a.m., and we had just taken an eight-hour long bus ride from London to this place so famous for its chocolate and waffles. It was cold but not too cold outside, and nothing was open yet, so we decided to walk around and take in some of the sights. It was just two of us--two young girls, wandering the city alone--but we weren't worried, because we were too tired to be worried but also because we didn't think we had any reason to be. Not at seven in the morning, not in the center of Brussels.
We were walking along a main street when we saw two men walking towards us. One stopped in front of us, said something in a language I didn't know. Maybe French?
I said, Sorry, what?
And he said to the both of us, You're beautiful.
We looked at each other, uncertain.
Now, there's a question that everyone thinks to ask at this point in the story, a question that no one has any right to ask, but I'll answer it anyway: we were dressed for the cold, with jackets and boots and layers. We would change into contacts later, but at the time we had on glasses. We were exhausted from sleeping badly on the bus.
I did not feel beautiful.
But I also didn't feel scared. Not yet.
At last, my friend said, very quickly, Thank you.
We started to walk past him.
He took a step closer. There was a wall to our left. His friend moved to our right.
My heart was beating too quickly in my chest. Even as I am writing this, my pulse is racing, remembering.
There was a sound from behind us. An old man was shouting something at them, maybe also in French.
In reply, the first man said, Don't touch them.
I was confused for a moment--the old man had made no motion to do so, and why was he replying in English?--and then the man reached for me.
It happened very fast. He put his arm across the front of my shoulders, gripped me. I think the other man made a motion for my friend, but I couldn't see what was happening, couldn't see anything besides right now.
I tried to duck out of his grasp, to pull myself away. He released me a few moments later--moments that were long enough for me to wonder if he would let go, to wonder what I would do if he didn't.
I stumbled forward, and my friend and I locked eyes. The two men were arguing with the old man, I think, but all I could process was that they were no longer focused on us. And so we left. We did not stick around to see what happened next, and I tried not to wonder what might have happened next if anything had gone differently.
Thinking about that morning, yesterday morning, still scares me. But it also makes me angry.
I'm angry that when I think of my trip to Brussels, the first thing I will remember is not the two hours we spent on a chocolate tour or the panoramic view from the top of the Museum of Music, but two men who grabbed us at seven in the morning. I'm angry that the first word that comes to mind, remembering what had happened, is lucky, because it could have been worse. A man grabbed me and all I can think about is how grateful I am that he did nothing more.
Studies show that one out of five college women are sexually assaulted. I don't know what they say about the other four women, but I wonder how many of them, like us, were near misses.
You know, I'm not an expert on these issues. I don't have all the answers.
I just have a question.
How long will we let this keep happening?