In September of 1999, I was traveling thru London. It was rainy, then sunny, then rainy again. One night, I decided to see what the London nightlife was all about. I went to call a cab since I wasn’t all that familiar with the Tube. Turns out, I couldn’t make outgoing calls from inside my hostel, so I left to find a phonebooth. It was 10 p.m. I was alone. I headed towards the little red phonebooths outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral. They were a few blocks away, down a long, cobblestone street filled with random wine bars and the such; mildly populated. Up to that point, I was fearless. I was a Chi-town, street-smart cookie. Besides, I had just traveled to Paris by myself and I was careful, I watched my back and I always trusted my instincts. Up to that point, they served me well.
When I reached the phonebooth, I opened the door and went inside. I shut the door and began dialing with my back towards door, with my back towards the door. This is when I heard a noise; a boom-like sound. It was startling. I turned around. A man was pulling the door open. He was white. He had long, curly hair and was wearing a parka with black jeans. His eyes were black, saccadic and wild. He attempted to pull me out by the lapel of my jacket and he didn’t say a word. His silence frightened me. I had no time to think and just enough time to react. I watched the phone drop from my hand in slow motion when this voice came from my mouth; a shrill B-horror movie scream. I’d never heard it before and haven’t heard it since. And then my words: “What are you doing? What are you doing? Get off of me! What are you doing?” And then it happened; my fight mode kicked in. I lifted my hands and gave the guy one solid push to the chest. He barely flinched. I pushed again; harder this time. He flew back, feet in the air and all, and that’s when I took off running back to the hostel looking back the whole way; warning other women of a predator near the phonebooths.
When I got back to the hostel, I told the front desk what happened and they called the police. They came and took my report. They said if my attacker wanted to do something, he would’ve done something, but I disagreed. My fighting response startled him, almost as if he never anticipated it and I think this is what saved me.
I used to think my fight response came from growing up in Chicago. I was taught to always make scene, to scream fire instead of help if anybody ever pulled me into a dark alley, to fight no matter what and that’s exactly what I did. Could my fight response be cultural? Maybe, maybe not. I now think my fight response was instinctive. Where that instinct came from, I don’t know. Looking back, I’m just glad I had it.
I continued to travel from London to Krakow without any other incidences, but I was on edge after that; especially when I was in a phonebooth, when somebody that looked like him passed nearby, or if I was the only woman on the street. For a long time after, I saw that guys face in my head when I lay down to go to sleep.
The good news is that nothing physically happened to me. I am still here, alive and doing well. I protected myself the best way I knew how and for whatever reason it worked. I don’t ever think about what could have happened and in a lot of ways I have moved on, but I would be a fool to say that it didn’t scar or rob me of that safe feeling we’re all supposed to have.
Before this incident, I felt fearless and after, I was afraid to venture out in the dark alone in my own city. To this day, I’m always afraid of what could happen. I know that some people may view this as silly or stupid even, but I was the one who lived through it and in some minute way, I feel that I can control this from happening again if I’m cautious enough. Of course, I know this is just a false sense of security, but it gets me through the day. And now a cliché thrown in for good measure: I never thought it could happen to me, but it did.
Although I wish this never happened, it helped me realize what kind of reaction I would have if I were ever attacked again. I’m positive that I would fight. Do you know if you’re you a fighter or do you freeze when you feel threatened? How do you know?
For years, I retold this story in a humorous way, but it’s not humorous. It’s scary.
I’m not telling this story now to warn people to watch their backs, although I think everybody should. I’m telling this story because I think it’s incidences like these that you can pull from and use in your writing. I’m not talking about the actual account, but the feelings and emotions.
This is the epitome of, “write what you know.” It’s not writing about a specific incident that happened to you, it’s writing about the emotions surrounding those situations: the fear, the rush of adrenaline, the idea that somebody you don’t know is trying to harm you. These are the things readers relate to. These are the things that make your writing authentic. It’s the reading and knowing that you’ve felt those same things that is reassuring and appreciated by many readers.
To all the writers out there, use what you have and what you know. Dig those memories out of the recesses of your mind and put your feelings to the page. It’s your turn to create explosive pieces of art.