Trigger warning: sexual harassment, rape depictions on television
April 1, Day 14
The morning was spent enjoying a long breakfast. Sara and I cradled our coffee mugs. Our laundry was drying on a rack outside the window. Mel was still asleep.
“You know, that’s about the only reason I could think of why I might want to have kids,” Sara said. We were talking about feminism again, after I had found an article online about how the AFD wanted families to be heteronormative and schools to teach children they were wrong for wanting anything else.
“To raise them to be free and kind human beings,” Sara said. “Like, if they’re a boy they can have long hair and wear dresses and if they’re a girl they can have short hair and be really tough. But they don’t have to.”
“I think,” I said. “If we had kids (adopted of course) we should raise them together. I’m not a fan of schools but if they have to go to school they should go to the same school. Imagine us at the parents’ conferences. We would fuck shit up.”
“Ooh,” Sara said.”They’d be scared of us.”
“We would be unstoppable”
We spent a long time in this imaginary future where we shared a house with our partners: one grumpy, kind and beary dude for Sara, and a cloud of soft boyfriends for me. That’s how she put it.
“I just love the idea of a cloud of soft boyfriends around you,” Sara said. “And they all have long hair, and one plays the harp, and they all wear flower crowns.”
I laughed. It did sound nice. After we had said goodbye to Mel, we made our way over to Tee’s place. He had offered to host us for one night, and Sara was still very much sick, though at least she didn’t have a fever anymore.
“Where are we even going tomorrow?” she asked. None of the farms we had contacted had replied, and the one that had was all booked for April.
“Should we go to Grenoble? It’s not that far and further South and Swords said we could check it out for him.”
“Sure why not?” I said. A part of me was a bit reluctant, though. This was the city Swords would move to in five months. Would I see everything there with him in the back of my mind?”
“Look, it has mountains,” I showed Sara the pictures Google had spat out.
“Yeah. Let’s go there.”
But first, we had to get ourselves to Tee’s for another night in Lyon. He was a tall, beefy dude who had studied IT Science in Edinburgh. His place was spacious but dark, impersonal despite the collection of movies on his shelf. He had a flat screen TV and a sliding door to the bathroom.
Sara was hungry, so after dropping off our packs, we went out to search for food. Tee invited himself along, involved us in a long discussion on football in which he was the principal participant and finished an entire bottle of wine almost by himself.
“We kinda wanna check out whether we can find a café to write in,” I told him after lunch. “We keep travel diaries.”
“Sure, I can walk you to the station, there are cafés around there,” he said and brought us to a Starbucks in the middle of the crowded train station. It was clear he had no idea what we wanted to do. We let him go off into the mall and set out for the city centre in pursuit of an actual café.
I’m not sure about the exact moment we got the feeling that something was wrong about Tee. Maybe it was when he cooked dinner for us but didn’t want help, and instead of talking to us put on Rick & Morty, which we were then sort of forced to watch or pick another show. It wasn’t when he got out some beer and gave one to Sara, but maybe it was when he got out another bottle of wine for dinner. Sara still had her tea, and her beer, and yet he’d filled glasses of wine for us without asking whether we even wanted any. Rick & Morty was still on. In one scene, Morty almost got raped on a public toilet, slobbered all over by a weird slime creature who later turned out to be the king of the village Rick & Morty had vowed to help. After Morty killed the king, two villagers debated what to do with the evidence that he’d been a child molester. “Destroy it,” one of them said.
“Oh, this genius,” Tee commented. “Wait for it.”
On the show, the villagers erected a statue of the dead king, one hand on a little boy’s shoulder. “So genius,” Tee said.
“Uh. How is that genius?” Sara said.
“This is making me uncomfortable,” I said.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” Tee asked. “You should have a look at my DvDs.”
We were actually tired. Oh, it’s just one movie, I thought. Then we’ll go to sleep. So we had a look.
“Where the Wild Things Are,’ I said, pulling out the DVD.
“I’ve never seen that one,” Sara said. We made our way over to the couch, and Tee brought a bottle of rum, setting three glasses on the table.
“No, thank you,” I said. Sara also still had her tea, and we had drank enough. Tee still filled a glass for himself. And another one. He was sitting too close to me on the couch. Oh, this is just how some people are, I told myself. They had different distances they were comfortable with. I tried to scoot a little closer to Sara and commented on how lame the kid in the movie was acting, destroying shit just cause he didn’t get enough attention from his sister. Sara and I agreed it was a way overrated movie.
Tee’s hand was touching my arm. He had his arms crossed in a way put his hand in a place where it might naturally bump into me. I thought I saw his head tilt a little to look at me. No, I was making that up. It was an accident, it was just because he was sitting so close. The wild things on screen lobbed dirt clods at each other in a stupid game that was supposed to make them deal with their feelings via violence. Tee shifted, his hand fell to the side next to my feet that were propped up on the couch. I could feel his body heat. His fingers on my foot. I could sense him looking at me again and now my skin crawled. What the fuck was this about? I can’t say anything, I thought. I can’t tell him to stop touching me, what if it’s an accident? I don’t want to make this weird. He got up and went to the bathroom.
“He touched my foot and my arm,” I turned and whispered to Sara. “I don’t think it was an accident.”
“What?” Sara said, scrunching up her nose.
“Yes,” I said. She observed him when he came back, and I watched her watch him watch me. He did not stop. The fingers were on my arm again, and Sara cradled one of my legs as if claiming me. It did not work. All of my body was tension, gearing up for attack. I wanted to stab him. I wanted to get as far away from this gross mountain of human meat that was invading my space as possible. I didn’t move. It was just a few minutes more. There were the credits.
“Yup, time to sleep,” I said. “Is this one of these foldable couches?”
Man, the guy was drunk. He fumbled with the thing for a good five minutes before he managed to prop it open.
“Thanks,” we said. “This is all we need.”
We unrolled our sleeping bags. He brought blankets.
Oh, we have sleeping bags. We don’t need blankets,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“I have blankets right here if you need.”
“No, we have sleeping bags.”
“I can give you the blankets.”
“No, we’re fine. We really don’t need blankets.”
When we went to the bathroom to brush our teeth, he followed and stood next to us, brushing his teeth as we were brushing ours. My skin was crawling again. He had put on a bathrobe and seemed to be wearing nothing else. Finally, he said good night an vanished to his room, but he didn’t properly close the door. Sara and I lay on the couch, in our sleeping bags. We held hands. With the other, each of us held a knife. There was a bottle of pepper spray under the pillow. For some time, we strained our ears for any sound that was coming from the other room.
“I just remembered,” Sara said in German, “we can speak German. We have a secret language. How didn’t we think of this sooner?”
We whispered to each other in the darkness, preparing for the worst. We have knives, I thought. But what if he has a gun? If he has a gun, we’re fucked. I have martial arts training, I thought, but he has more martial arts training. Also, how would I explain to the police why I stabbed him? We don’t speak French.
“Isn’t it crazy?” Sara whispered. “How as a woman in this situation, you have to prepare for the worst? And I don’t think men have any idea what this does to us. Like, to him this might only have been a harmless bit of touching, but we have to sleep here now and wonder whether we’re gonna get raped.”
“Yeah, I don’t know whether I can sleep like this,” I said, closing and reopening my knife with one hand, making sure I knew the movements.
“Me neither,” Sara said. “I keep going through scenarios.” We could both feel it in all of our muscles, pre-programming the grab for the spray the moment that for at the end of the room would open.
“And drunk people are unpredictable,” I added. What if he hadn’t planned to rape anyone, but now, after the wine and the beer and the rum, and with us sleeping here, it was just too convenient?
Only when we heard the regular sound of his snoring, we fell asleep. It was a soldier’s sleep, flat and tense. It was sometime between four and five when a sound shook us awake. Footsteps. Such a tiny sound, and yet the both of us were wide awake within a second. Tee was walking around in his room, rummaging around in a cupboard. Oh god, this is it, I thought. Duct tape. Gloves. Gun. Body bags. I peered at the door through the dark. There was a black shape next to it, right at the foot of the bed. I tried to remember whether it was a clothes rack. I was pretty sure I had seen a clothes rack there, or maybe not. Now it looked like a hooded figure hovering at the foot of the bed, moving its head slightly if I stared at it for too long. My heart was up in my throat, beating so hard it seemed it was trying to choke me. Some people saw Death before they died, didn’t they? Stay calm, I told myself. Stay calm. Breathe. The figure kept hovering there. I will not fucking die, I thought. And then: I’m not scared. I’m not scared. I’m not scared. There were still sounds coming from the other room. We gripped each other’s hands tighter. I’m not scared of death, I thought in the general direction of the black shape. But I will not die like this, in fucking France. I do not accept it. The sounds stopped. It seemed like he had gone back to bed, and I checked my phone which read 5:00. I shone it across the room. It really was a clothes rack.
“What a fucking night,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” Sara said.
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too, dude. Me too.”
“What about the next one though?” Tee had told us about expecting another couch surfer after us, that she was a girl, travelling alone.
“Oh, shit,” Sara said. “You’re right. We should warn her.” We made a plan that we would pass her a note if we still get to see her. It was a vague plan but it was better than nothing.
“I hate that I didn’t say anything,” I told Sara. “But it was that fucking grey area where you can’t say anything cause you’re not 100% sure you’re not imagining it and you don’t want to offend anyone but it’s stupid cause I was pretty sure he was doing it on purpose and even if not we should be able to say when something makes us uncomfortable.”
Sara nodded. “But that also takes time, dude, and we never get taught to voice this, but to be agreeable and accommodating and nice and it takes time to allow yourself to speak up. That’s tough.”
I lay there feeling like a hypocrite. I knew that by staying silent, I had been permissive. That silence was what enabled men like these to play their shitty games that had no consequences for them as long as we kept silent, and all the consequences for us. We were worried for our lives.
“Should we confront him in the morning?” I asked. “Before we leave when we don’t depend on him and he can’t do anything.”
“Do you want to do that?”
“Yeah I think he should know. He should know that this is not okay.”
“Okay. If you do that, I will support you,” Sara said, squeezing my hand.
“Thank you. Thank you for being here.”
April 2, Day 15
The atmosphere during breakfast was more than tense. It was heavy. I drank my coffee in dark silence, not feeling like I owed this man anything anymore, least of all making pleasant conversation. We did not take a shower there. While he ate, I looked up how to report people on couchsurfing. Only when we were done packing and had put on shoes, I felt the need to address him. I sat down at the table. Sara sat down next to me.
“There is something I wanted to tell you,” I started. “Because I think you should know. I felt very uncomfortable with the amount of alcohol you drank last night.”
“Oh,” said Tee, his face falling. “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t let him deter me.
“You sat way too close to me on the couch, and you touched my foot and my arm and that made me super uncomfortable but I didn’t feel like I could say anything because it was in that way that it could have been an accident, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. And this is not acceptable for couch surfing. When you offer a space to sleep for people, there is a power dynamic, and especially as a woman, when you are dependent on this place to sleep, you can’t really say what makes you uncomfortable.”
“Also, you know, it’s always good to ask for consent,” Sara added. She had heard me go breathless and grabbed my leg under the table.
“And if you want sex or dating,” I said, “there are other apps for that. Where people don’t depend on you. If I had been alone yesterday, I would have left and slept on the street. And I think it’s important that you know that.” Finally, I took a breath, and during that breath I took a look at Tee. I’d been looking at him the entire time without seeing him, instead reading the words I had prepared from an imaginary teleprompter. He looked unsure, a little shaken. Good, I thought. Then he tried to defend himself. There was actually a thin line between dating and couch surfing for him, he was just a touchy person, he had siblings.
“It doesn’t matter what your intentions are,” Sara said. “We don’t know you, we don’t know your intentions. So we have to expect the worst.” This at least, he seemed to understand. He was sorry for having made us feel uncomfortable. We said goodbye. He unlocked the door, having carried the key in his pants pocket the entire time. He had locked us in, we wouldn’t even have been able to leave during the night.
I sent a message to couchsurfing relating what had happened and asking them to notify the girl who was about to stay with Tee. We were glad to leave Lyon behind, but so far had no place to sleep in Grenoble either, and Sara was still sick. We agreed we really deserved a break after this. Why did it have to he so many trials?
“Let’s put a wish out there,” I said. “Let’s ask the universe for a good place to stay, until you get better, with nice people who don’t harrass us. I mean, we really had bad luck recently, but it can’t keep going on forever. And if this was a trial, I think we mastered it really well. So we’ll be rewarded for that.” It was true that we had been rewarded a lot in the past. I didn’t want to forget about this. Sarah, Cecil and Ioannis, Lea and Gabrielle, Max. Sometimes it was receiving, sometimes it was giving. And if everything was happening for a reason, maybe the reason was that we had been in the right place at the right time after all, and we hadn’t been sent here to have a good time, but because two people needed us. Maybe Tee had really needed to hear what we had just told him.
“Yeah ok,” Sara said. “I’m willing to wish for that and trust. That is some great character development right here. You hear this, universe?”
Whether or not this line of reasoning was true, it was what I wanted to believe, and I knew that by choosing to believe in it, I was constructing a narrative for myself that would make me stronger and happier than if I didn’t look for a reason in anything. Faith was a tool. I had lived without it for so long and found that there was no virtue in not using it, the same way that using stone tools rather than kitchen knives to cut vegetables didn’t make anyone a better person. And using the more effective tool didn’t make anyone worse or weaker.
The bus ride to Grenoble was short, half of it spent messaging more people on couch surfing and Trustroots and the other half spent listening to Nahko on my phone, Sara and I sharing a pair of ear buds. I was praying, putting our wish out there and looking out the window, observing the changing landscape. It was all green now, we had reached the South of France and the forests had already come alive. Then, the mountains appeared in front of us. Huge, rocky, beautiful, topped with snowy crests shining up higher than either of us had ever hiked before. Magnificent they sat there, stone giants that seemed older than time itself. I started crying with awe. Grenoble 20km, a sign said. Something about all of this felt right. I knew we were supposed to come here. We had never planned to. But this was right. It had to be. We were stunned by the sheer beauty of the rocks before us.
The city didn’t receive us as warmly. It being Sunday, the streets were deserted and dystopian. We spent a good hour in search of a café, found one that had free WiFi, drank a hot chocolate and slowly began to panic as people’s messages came in, declining our requests. It was past four, and the sun was going to set at some point, and it was going to get cold. We reasoned we should probably head to the mountains, give up on couch surfing and find a place to pitch the tent. The battery of my phone was almost dead and there was no sun to charge it. Sara’s phone didn’t have Internet. Neither of us felt good about this. In fact, we were exhausted. Still tired from the rough night at Tee’s, sick, still sore from the boulder hall. Sara looked like she might keel over when we’d only reached the foot of the mountain, and it was all rich suburbia from here: asphalt slopes past ugly villas and dogs barking at us from behind garden fences. I had Nahko lyrics stuck in my head, one line, just looping forever: At the moment I am struggling to trust the divinity of all the gods, and what the hell they have planned for us.
“I hate all of this,” Sara said, “The universe isn’t listening. The universe doesn’t give a shit.”
Back in the city, I had toyed with the idea of just approaching random strangers and asking for a place to sleep. Where were my people? All the dirtbags, the anarchists, the activists, the hippies? If we could just find my people, I thought, we’d be fine. But here we were, halfway up a mountain and we couldn’t even find a place to pitch the tent. We stopped to lean on a guard rail. We were drenched in sweat, our shoulders were killing us. A couple of dogs were barking incessantly at us. I let out a sound between a scream and a howl and they stopped for a second before they started again. The universe had deserted us.
“I don’t accept it,” I said.
“What are you doing?” Sara asked.
“Turning my phone back on,” I said. I only had 18% of battery left.
“Is that wise?” Maybe it wasn’t. I watched as the screen turned blue and the Fairphone logo flashed across it. In the top left hand corner the couchsurfing icon appeared.
“Dude,” I said. “Dude. We got a message. Her name is Anna. She has a place for us to sleep. Dude. It’s the Anna I couldn’t message for some reason. She lives in a squat. Here. She gave us her phone number. Write it down! Write it down before my phone dies!”
We made our way back down the mountain, using the last of my battery to ask Google Maps for directions. At the train station, we ran into two women our age carrying the same heavy monster type of backpacks, wearing colourful rain jackets. We recognised each other instantly. The two of them waved at the two of us. They were carrying a piece of cardboard.
“Hey!” they shouted. “Where are you from?”
They had hitchhiked all the way from Iran, and now they wanted to travel Spain, and be in Berlin within two weeks.
“Motherfucking Iran,” I said to Sara after we had separated.
“They hitchhiked from motherfucking Iran and they’re out here travelling. Two women. From Iran.”
“I know right? So badass!” Sara said.
It took us an hour to walk to the squat that was marked by a red flag sprayed with the occupation symbol dangling from the balcony. The front gate was locked with a metal chain. There was no one home. We sat down for a few minutes and I got out the Ukulele to play a few sad chords before Sara got too cold and we walked back to the city centre.
“Why does it have to be all trials?” she asked. “Why does it have to suck all of the time?”
“Anna said she’s gonna be home in three hours,” I replied. “We just have to kill time til then.”
It was strange to be in a city you had nothing to do in, to just walk around because everything was closed, to not really belong, to not really be going anywhere. Around nine, we were back at the squat.
“I’m really excited to see how they live,” I told Sara. Would they have running water? Probably not, but who knew. We rang the doorbell in front of the barred gate that was less of a gate and more of a corrugated metal sheet someone had converted into a door and cut a hole in to fix the iron chain and padlock through. A man approached on the other side. He said something to us in French.
“We’re Anna’s couch surfers,” we said, hoping that she had managed to tell people we were coming before we barged in there. She wasn’t home yet, but Fabian let us in. He was tall and lanky, older than us, and wore that sweet and rugged anticapitalist look of pants torn at the leg end, long hair of questionable cleanness, and a vibe of getting shit done. I decided that I liked him. Behind him, on the stairs to the front door of the squat, another person popped up. Her name was Blue and she walked like a Cowboy. Her shoulders were broad as a man’s, her hair dreadlocked and tied back, her face a mixture of Kristen Stewart and Clint Eastwood. I suddenly remembered how gay I was. Blue didn’t speak a word of English, but we managed to get by communicating with hands and feet, and a piece of paper to draw on. She led us into the house and up the stairs to the kitchen/common room. It was beautiful. The squat’s layout was perfect, as if it had meant to be occupied and host a dozen people. Three storeys high, it had several rooms, toilets, balconies, and a roof to sit on or hang up laundry. One corner of the building was round and consisted of a window front, the same corner the kitchen was in. Every morning we’d make breakfast on the kitchen island as the sun shone in through those windows, then we’d sneak out through the door to the balcony and drink our coffee in the open, looking down at the garden some people were trying to clean up and on the adjacent street that was always bustling with cars and people going to work. The squat had both running water and electricity.
“Where do you get the electricity from?” I asked Anna when she got home from work. She worked at a homeless shelter.
“From the city,” she replied cryptically. Not only did they have running water, they even had hot water. And hot showers.
“You can sleep in my room,” Anna told us. “I have a bus outside that I prefer sleeping in.” Her room was about as large as the one I had had at home. One side was all windows, to the right, the wall was a large wardrobe. Below the window sat a mattress with a floral pattern spread and the middle of the room was occupied by a low makeshift table that reminded me of Japanese houses. So did the sliding door.
“It’s so nice that she gave us her room!” Sara said. Most other people seemed to sleep in one of the large shared sleeping chambers. Libi, a girl from Israel who was another of Anna’s couch surfers took the female only room on the second floor, which she seemed to have to herself.
“How many people live here?” I asked Anna.
“Around 15.” Not many of them were home right now. We brushed our teeth in the bathroom. It had a cracked sink, a round window reminiscent of a large bull’s eye, a tub and a boiler which was leaking and under which someone had placed a bowl to catch the water.
“It all worked out in the end,” Sara said when we’d settled into bed. I sent out a Thank You to the universe.
“We got everything we wished for.”
Maybe even more.