A summer night in Rome feels strangely vacant. After the last of the taxis and weaving mopeds careen into oblivion, a breeze ripples through the dry air, over your face and arms, the streets newly emptied, the graceful brick buildings and streetlamps pouring out amber light. Then comes the sense of complete stillness as you listen to your footsteps’ tap, echo, tap, echo. It’s as if civilization has abandoned you.
I’m walking down Via Andrea Doria with my flat-mate, Cara. It’s after midnight. We’ve just returned from a farewell dinner for the professors and students in our month-long Temple University seminar. Normally, Cara and I would not be walking back to our residence, which sits on the Viale delle Medaglie D’Oro, the Avenue of Gold Medals, halfway up one of Rome’s infamous hills. The Metro has stopped running, though, and the bus from the restaurant to our neighborhood only gets us within seven or eight blocks of our apartment. We walk quickly, neither of us acknowledging the silence that’s descended.
Up ahead, a pool of light appears, and we find our path blocked by a crowd of young Italian men congregated around a café. Their laughter travels down the street in bursts. A few pace the sidewalk in tight circuits, gesticulating with bottles or wine glasses. As Cara and I approach, the ambient chatter dies down. I assume all eyes are trained on us, but I can’t say for sure, because I’m working hard to block them out of my visual field. Over the past month, I’ve developed a knack for putting off the advances of Italian men: stare past or through them, tune out their voices if they try to strike up a conversation, strap on those mental blinders and keep walking or eating or reading no matter what. Any attempt to communicate, even to say fuck off, counts as encouragement.
Cara never learned this. She’s just 21—the only undergrad in a graduate-level course—and she hates backing down when guys start hassling her about her size-DD chest. Tonight, she simply seems unnerved. She keeps her eyes down, with one hand shielding her face from onlookers. Because she’s eight years younger than me, I feel maternal toward her, so I take it upon myself to steer her onto the street and around the knot of meat and testosterone. Talking resumes once the café is behind us, but Cara is still fidgety.
“God, I hate getting that close to so many drunk men.” She crosses her arms. “I would’ve made us cross the street if the light was better on that side.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re fine.” I want to give her a friendly shoulder squeeze, but I don’t want to seem condescending. “As long as you ignore them, they’ll leave you alone.”
She shivers. “Yeah, but I always worry that one of them’s going to follow me and jump me later on.” Another shiver. “I’m really sensitive about getting raped.”
I don’t respond. The word becomes a physical presence between us from the moment it’s embodied in sound.
“I mean, I have three really close friends,” Cara continues, “and two of them have already been raped. I keep feeling like I’m next.”
Then she starts giving me details. One girl went to a party, got drunk after taking an antidepressant, rode the New York City subway home, and got off at the wrong stop. The gate to the street level was locked. As she waited on a bench for the next train, a man came up behind her and forced her onto the ground. Raped her. Walked away. When she got home, she couldn’t figure out if she’d really been assaulted or if she’d just had a stress-induced hallucination. She got in her car and drove around for a while until she got up the courage to go to a trauma center. Sure enough, rape.
Cara’s other friend had a more familiar experience: date raped by a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend in his pickup. I find myself only half-listening to this tale. A larger, protective part of my psyche has kicked in. One that tries to ward off any maliciously ironic spirits that might be trailing us in the musty darkness. I worry that we might be calling evil into our midst, as if the sound of that single syllable were a contaminant.
Plus, the fear Cara confessed to, I’m afraid I might be next. I want to be the reassuring older sister, dispelling my friend’s anxious superstitions even if I couldn’t let go of my own. So I don’t tell her what she just said is what I’ve lived with for most of my life, a phallic sword of Damocles dangling close to my scalp. I’ve always believed I’m next.
I remember a summer afternoon, walking with my mother on the grounds of my grandfather’s hunting lodge. I don’t remember how old I was—maybe seven or eight. I outgrew my five-foot-tall mother at age ten, but in this memory I sense her height even when I can’t see her. She has the stature of a grown-up. Her body eclipses mine. Her voice originates somewhere over my left shoulder and hovers there while my eyes focus on the long stretch of grass that leads to the salamander pond. We are surrounded by green, made more brilliant by the last heavy, golden rays of sunlight: neatly trimmed lawn, deer pasture stretching up the side of the mountain, dense layers of Allegheny forest blocking out all sight and sound of a lonely two-lane highway nearby, coiling toward Sandy Ridge and Philipsburg, the only paved road for miles.
Sandy Ridge was where my grandparents lived and, for a little while, my aunt and two older cousins lived there, too. Throughout my childhood, our entire family made a seasonal pilgrimage to this snug, green valley, known to us as Camp. Other families who belonged to the lodge would often stop by during our week, many of whom were also residents of Sandy Ridge or a neighboring town, many of whom I took very little notice. When your mother grows up in a village of only a few hundred people, you learn to keep quiet when company arrives, let all the total strangers that your mother has known for years tell you how much you’ve grown and how they remember you from when you were this big! holding their hands a foot or so apart, touching your now hypothetical infant head and toes.
One of these people visits us that afternoon, right before my mother and I start walking toward the pond. A woman about my mother’s age, stocky build, dark eyes, short, brown hair swept away from her face, which is round and pleasant and nearly identical to almost every other stranger who can measure my former body with her hands. The woman and my mother have just had a perfectly ordinary conversation. Not much to say to me. The woman makes the dutiful this big! hand-motions, then waves goodbye and starts walking to her car. My mother takes me the opposite direction, further into the forest. Then, she tells me the story.
“I knew that lady when I was working in Bellefonte with Miss Wolff.” My mother has already told me a lot about Miss Wolff, her supervisor at the county child welfare office. My mother’s voice takes on that hushed tone that accompanies all the legends she tells me of Before I Was Born. “That lady had a daughter, too, a little girl about twelve or thirteen who was on the swim team. One night she decided she wanted to walk home from practice, and the school let her, even though it was dark out. She took a shortcut because she wanted to get home sooner. But she never made it home. They found her body in the creek a day or so later. She’d been raped and murdered.”
My mother pauses. Her voice has stayed calm and soothing throughout the whole story, but now that phrase hangs between us like a gunshot blast. Raped and Murdered. I’m looking up at my mother now. She’s slowing her pace a bit, staring off into the trees. “All this happened right after I had you. She came by the office the day I was there taking you around, showing you to people. She knew how excited I was to have you. How long your daddy and I waited for a baby. I remember that day she took you in her arms and looked down at you with the sweetest smile on her face…” Suddenly, my mother’s voice is strangled, struggling through a sob. “…and I felt so bad…”
The two of us keep walking, but now my mother is crying and I’m keeping my eyes on the dizzying ocean of grass that spills out around us. I can never stand it when my mother cries. This time, though, I let her story sink in instead of trying to block out her continuous weeping. I fill in what my mother hasn’t said. The woman with the Raped and Murdered child had held me, smoothed my hair, played with my fingers, looked down at me with the pleasure she might have reserved for the first days when she’d cradled her own tiny daughter in the crook of her arm. The message, to me, is loud and clear.
You will be Raped and Murdered.
No place is safe.
Not home. Not school. Not the sidewalk near your house.
That was the only time I got to hear the story of the Bellefonte girl. My mother probably knew she didn’t need to tell it twice. Ever the dutiful student, I rolled the story over and over in my memory, like a rock in a tumbler. I reconstructed the girl: small, energetic, a skinny tomboy with a mop of blond curls. I recreated the scene and watched that fragile figure bound up an unmarked alley into the waiting arms of Rape and Murder. For me, having this image playing on a continuous mental loop wasn’t obsessive or unwelcome. It was a training exercise. Since I knew Rape and Murder were monitoring my every move, and, really, it was only a matter of time before I made my fatal mistake, I taught myself how to stay on my guard all day, every day. It didn’t matter that I lived in a university town in central Pennsylvania—Happy Valley—one of the most stress-free, livable areas in the state. No place was safe. A perky, upbeat name couldn’t change that.
I moved through my surroundings like a soldier in a jungle. At night, my parents had to pull all the curtains in the house because my jumpy, watery reflection in the window would spook me. I had hazy half-asleep visions of a Grim Reaper-style skeleton entering my room and standing at the foot of my bed. I became a sleepwalker. When I was ten, I went through a phase where I was afraid of being left alone at night, in any room, even with every light bulb blazing. My own room was a nighttime battlefield, no matter how well lit. Darkness brought the skeleton sentinel. The overhead light showed me a gallery of doll eyes watching from my bookshelf. Their shiny plastic irises seemed to glow orange, like burners on an electric stove. They terrified me when I was far too old to be afraid of the dark.
Of course, sometime before I entered my teens, I stopped being afraid of being left in the company of dolls. But my mother’s warnings about Rape and Murder only got more strident, more detailed, more assured. An ever-burgeoning list of directives that, if ignored, would result in my grisly death.
Do not move to Miami. You will be Raped and Murdered.
Do not move to New York. You will be Raped and Murdered.
Do not walk the streets of a city after dark. Cities are hotbeds of gang warfare. You will be Raped and Murdered.
Do not walk alone in the dark ever. Always have an escort to get you where you need to go. Otherwise, you will be Raped and Murdered.
Do not enter a strange man’s house. You will be Raped and Murdered.
Do not go near a fraternity house. You will be Raped and Murdered.
Do not lose yourself in the stacks at Pattee Library. You may feel comfortable surrounded by books, but you have to remember most of these floors are deserted no matter what time of day. Each numbered aisle forms its own dark alley, minus the dumpster and the smell and the newspapers decaying over wet sewer grates. You will be Raped and Murdered.
Do not spend a lot of time in your backyard after the sun goes down. Someone could gag you and tie you up in your own clothesline. That’s what happened to my friend who was raped. You will be Raped and Murdered.
School safety films, the news, and primetime TV issued their own slough of lessons on the consequences of letting your guard down, particularly if you’re female. Other women—high school friends, yoga instructors, gossipy co-workers—filled in the rest. Many of their cautionary tales were based on personal experience. Some sounded like bald-faced scare tactics, but you could never discount them entirely. It wasn’t safe not to listen.
Do not wear a ponytail when walking home alone. Rapists will search for a ponytailed head so they’ll have a good handle to grab onto when they attack.
Do not allow yourself, when on foot, to be followed in a car by a strange man. If this occurs, turn around and walk the other way. This will disorient your stalker.
Do not return to an empty house if you think you’re being followed. Always retreat to a crowded place, like a supermarket or a shopping mall.
Do not answer the door or the phone if you’re home by yourself. Keep the curtains closed. If someone rings the doorbell, don’t make sudden moves, like flipping off the TV. Curl up on the floor, and stay perfectly silent and still until you’re sure your visitor has left. Then wait an extra fifteen minutes.
Do not go jogging after sunset in a public park.
Do not go jogging early in the morning in a public park.
Do not drive long distances at night on empty highways in sparsely populated areas, even if it’s the only way home.
Do not stop to change a tire. Anyone will have access to your body, even in broad daylight. Passing motorists will be driving at speeds that don’t allow them to give more than a millisecond’s worth of attention to their surroundings.
Do not sit in a disabled vehicle and wait for a tow truck. You’ll have no means of escape when a sexual predator comes to pluck you from your leather bucket seat.
Do not trust your dentist. Anything could happen when you’re under the gas.
Do not allow a male acquaintance to lure you into his jeep at a late-night keg party. Once you enter his vehicle, you’re at his mercy. His warm Midwestern smile won’t save you.
One in three American women will, at some point in their lives, be raped.
When will you be next?
All these warnings, alerts, admonitions, and omens I spun into rules, which I wound around my body until I could barely move. I grew up this way, through my tweens and teens, monitoring the world from within the rigid sheathe of my cocoon. It didn’t make me feel completely safe—nothing did—but it was the best protection I could come up with in a world where I couldn’t trust anything or anyone, including myself. My time was divided between home and school, with a few hours left over for socializing. I kept my circle of friends small. My parents had to drive me nearly everywhere until I was eighteen, when I took my first solo trip to band practice, two years after getting my driver’s license. I had no desire for the freedom a car represented. Freedom meant puncturing my fragile bubble of quasi-safety, crossing into unstable territory with no map, no plan, no physical or emotional safeguards. Freedom was unpredictable, therefore dangerous. And I had to devote all my extra energy to warding off the chaotic forces of Rape and Murder for as long as I could.
Now that I’ve safely reached adulthood, I’ve debunked for myself many of the beliefs that filled me with dread as a child. Years ago, after I left Happy Valley and moved to a metropolitan area, I learned that setting foot in a city after dark will not result in instant bodily harm. My husband laughed and laughed the first time I mentioned the roving, ultra-violent gangs and inner-city warfare my mother warned me about. I’ve made dozens of road trips on my own, sat on a highway in a broken-down car, gone on solitary walks through library stacks, all without incident. I’ve even come to appreciate the city landscape on rainy nights when fog winds around skyscrapers and mine is the only hazy shadow creeping along the sidewalk. As with fine wine, I’ve picked up a taste for urban darkness.
Still, my life is shaped by old fears. At night, I scurry from my car, because I’ve heard rapists prey on women who, after they’ve parked, linger to rummage through their purses or balance their checkbooks. Before I drive off, I check the back seat to make sure no attacker has hidden himself under the debris. (As if anyone over three feet tall could lie undetected on the floor of my Geo.) I often leave a few lights on when I’m the only one at home overnight, and even with my husband asleep beside me I still monitor the house for unusual pops and creaks.
As far as rape goes, the subject, the word itself, is rarely discussed in my presence. I leave the room when my husband flips on Law & Order: SVU. My mother, who now works with the elderly, still has her stories, but whenever she gets that faraway look and begins in a hushed voice, We’ve had a hard case this week, a woman in a nursing home. She was…raped, I interrupt and make my mother change the subject.
So the fear remains. But underneath the fear is anger. And there is so very much to be angry about.
I’m angry that as a young girl I was forced to listen to my mother’s rape stories.
I’m angry that I live in a country where parents have to keep their kids safe by scaring them into paralysis.
I’m angry that TV offers up rape as nightly entertainment.
I’m angry that since time immemorial, society has convinced women that an assault on their vaginas is tantamount to losing their humanity.
I’m angry that I grew up with the burden of being the next victim in a infinite chain of brutalized women and children.
I’m angry that for me, no place was, nor will ever be, safe.
Not even in Rome, in the Piazzale degli Eroi—the Plaza of Heroes—where Cara and I make our final crossing before heading up the hill toward our residence. No cars impede our progress. The big iron fountain in the center of the traffic circle stands dry and silent, a powerless sentinel in an area dedicated to the city’s protectors. Despite my earlier concerns, Cara and I have arrived intact and unapproached. We will not encounter any danger when we reach our building. Only our own clutter will be waiting for us inside our flat. Our conversation has even shifted; now, we’re discussing the gray areas of sexual engagement. When a woman decides she’s been assaulted only after her lover has refused to make any commitments to her the next morning. When that twinge of panic as the beautiful man on top of you pins your arms above your head gets you off faster than snuggly, happy intercourse. We are back in the realm of the controllable, the known. But our fate could have been different, even in the Plaza of Heroes.
Meanwhile, battalions of Raped and Murdered souls gather at some distant point in the universe reserved for the wrongfully dead. Their rage is immeasurable. The smallest and weakest among them release waves of fury strong enough to blow galaxies apart. In a sane reality, they will all be reincarnated as predatory cats: panthers, lions, snow leopards. Sleek and muscular, they’ll learn to move in tall grass, bellies low to the ground. They’ll lock onto one timid creature in a herd and, when the time is right, fly like torpedoes into the scattering, frenzied mass, teeth and claws primed to rip open a jugular vein. The rest of the universe will hover anxiously over these scenes, watching, hoping such ungovernable acts of violence will serve as restitution. That having power over something fragile will be enough.
This essay first appeared in Mid-American Review.
Melissa Frederick is a writer and blogger from suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including the Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, The Cream City Review, Kalliope, Strange Horizons, Frogpond, the Mid-American Review, and Helen: A Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Moon City Review. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @msficklereader.