It is a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. It is the end of summer so even though there is not a single cloud in the sky the sun doesn’t burn on your skin anymore.
We are on our bikes playing just behind the houses in the large carpark. We have been also racing around the streets. However, always on the footpath. So we ended up going in a square taking us around four streets. I would race ahead trying to get my sister to keep up. There are a few people outside. Embarking on or coming back from their Sunday afternoon walks. Families with strollers, dogs on leashes. Going around the last corner of the square, before ending up again in our street, a man seems to enjoy the sun taking a rest on the bench at the corner while smoking.
I am the first to arrive back at the carpark behind our house. It is a big carpark which fits 20 cars. When entering you go down a slope. It is fun on your bike as it gives you extra speed. On that Sunday there aren’t that many cars around. This leaves us plenty of room to go in circles, to go passed each other clapping hands or trying to drive the shape of an eight. Our parents are inside and there aren’t any people sitting on the balconies. The apartments of our house actually don’t look directly on the carpark. But you can see bits and pieces from some of the apartments. The houses close by also have a view on the carpark. But no one was looking.
I don’t realize he has entered the scene until he is fairly close already. My sister is at the other end where steps are leading up to the entrance of our house. I am on my bike, having looked in her direction, just where the slope becomes even again. Realizing he is approaching me, I am standing up, but still having the bike between my legs.
“Where can I find house number 2?”, he asks. He is taller than me, probably in his fifties. He has dark black sunglasses on and is wearing a leather jacket. I realize that he is the man we have seen earlier when racing that square. He has been smoking on the bench. Strange that he is wearing a leather jacket. It is quite warm, I am thinking.
“I don’t know where number 2 is. Maybe further down the street or on the other side”, I say. Our houses have the numbers 2a to 2d. But no number 2. “I am sorry”, I say. “Try the other side.” I am pointing behind me in the direction of the street.
First I think he is leaving. He seems unsure. I get down from my bike and start walking towards my sister who is still waiting at the end of the carpark. Then I hear steps behind me. I turn around and see him approaching me once again. This time, however, his steps seem steady, no sign of insecurity. I don’t know how it happens, but the next thing I know is, my bike is lying on the ground and he is grabbing my upper arms with his hands. He is saying lots of terrible things. The only one stick in my head is: “Streichel mich mal zärtlich, Kleine.” His breath stinks of alcohol; I can smell the smoke on his clothes.
I am in shock. It has only been one or two years that I have been in the course on self-defense for girls. I was ten years old back then and we had learned to scream “Fire!” or “Rape!” instead of “Help!”, because people don’t react to “Help!” that much. I had learned to fight, to poke someone in the eye, to kick. At the moment all I could think of is saying: “Let me go.” I am even using the polite form – as if he is an adult I need to address with respect. But he is holding on to me drawing me closer to him.
My sister who has seen it all from further away comes closer saying: “She is not lying. She doesn’t know where number 2 is” – believing he is attacking me because I gave him the wrong direction. How should she know? She is only 10 years old. But a bright 10-year old girl. She sees me struggling in his arms, comes up and with her body, she leans onto his arms. It is too heavy and he has to let go. Still shocked and confused I am tumbling backwards. My sister and me are making our way to the steps to get inside. He is thinking, then comes up a few steps forward towards me again.
My sister looks at me in fear. “Run. Get mum and dad!”, I tell her. She doesn’t look convinced, doesn’t want to leave me alone. He is coming closer. “GO!”, I yell at her and she runs up the stairs. As soon as he realizes that she is going to get help, he stops. I remember standing in front of him, maybe about five meters apart, staring at him and thinking: “Yes, that’s it. Someone will come for you”. Maybe it is the expression on my face or he doesn’t want to push ‘his luck’, but he turns around and runs away. At the end of the carpark he turns right.
It was only then, after he is gone and just before my dad comes out that I start crying. It is then that to the shock and confusion, fear and shame come in as well. I can’t stop crying. My dad tries to get me to tell him what has happened. I can’t speak, I can’t move. I can only cry and tremble.
In the aftermath
When I could finally talk again, my dad ran after him – of course, he was gone. We had the police in and I had to tell the story. I was so embarrassed, because after all, nothing had happened. It is not that my parents didn’t believe me or didn’t take it seriously, but I also don’t remember any kind of talking through it. A couple of weeks later my mum asked me if I needed a therapy. Of course, I said no. After all, nothing had happened.
Apart from the nightmares and fear he would come back, climb up the balcony and enter my room – to finish what hadn’t been completed.
Apart from the fear that was building up when I was walking down the street and a man or a group of boys would come my way. I would cross the street – every single time.
Apart from the stupid comments and being mocked by the class after I had shared the story rather bravely with them – my teacher had asked me to.
And I remember that one afternoon, on my way home from a sleepover at my friend’s place, carrying a backpack and a sleeping bag taking the normal route home I suddenly pass this man and I knew: it was him. I ran the whole way home.
You might be relieved to know that I did identify him successfully on a photo at the police station. He died, probably of drugs, before it became a court case.
I still remember. I remember my sister being my hero. I remember my shock – this was my home, my safe haven. I remember feeling vulnerable and helpless. I remember feeling aware for the first time what a man might see in me and wanted to do with me. After all, this always happens only on TV or you read about it the newspaper. I remember thinking: why? Why me? I was twelve years old.
Now, over a decade later, I can tell my twelve-year old self: There is no answer that we will understand as to why some things happen to us. But you will be okay. It was not your fault and maybe not even his. Yes, he is responsible, but is he guilty? He is gone, but you will go on. You will remember all of it, but you are so much more. There are so many people and experiences waiting for you that shape who you are. You will be okay.