by Amy Tiong
Trigger Warning: sexual assault.
When one of my high school friends told me that every other day they see someone completely new on their college campuses, I laughed. Being at NYU, and in New York City, I see someone new almost every moment of my life. When I pass by groups of people, I not only ignore them— I actively ignore them.
However, when I was 16 and came for summer classes at Barnard College, commuting each day via the subway, it was my first time traveling the city alone. I was still very much alert of everything that surrounded me, including the people. I wanted to know everyone and yet no one really seemed to want to know me.
Strangely enough, the Indian man who ran the concession stand at the subway station befriended me. Seeing my backpack, he assumed that I was attending Barnard or Columbia. He told me he hoped one of his young daughters would go to a good school, too. I accepted his comment as a compliment. From that day on, he would always insist on giving me free things: water, magazines, cigarettes. Once, he diligently wrote his name on the back of an old receipt that he gave me. I had tried to read it but it was illegible. I thought he was endearing, like a rogue grandfather figure. I seemed to have made an unlikely friend in the city, something I started to believe only happened in movies.
One day though, all of my thoughts were erased when he invited me inside his booth, grabbed my wrist, and tried to kiss me. I dodged his lips, but he pleaded that I kiss him back. I remember as his grip became tighter, he whispered, “just once” over and over again. I was strong enough to get away but I was too ashamed to cause a scene. Instead of screaming or asking for help, I ran into the subway right before the doors shut— I thought this only happened in movies, too.
When I returned home that night I burrowed in the shower; I cranked up the heat so high that my skin burned. I was hoping to burn any trace of him, but it was no use. For weeks, I would feel where he touched me. I didn’t feel safe in my own skin. I knew I needed a way to reverse the way I felt, but I didn’t know how.
That fall, I returned to my private school—a place that lacked perverted old men, subways, and grime. I was different though, wanting to protect myself, I kept away from other people. With my psyche, I must have seemed a reclusive ghost. By chance, I was fortunate enough to encounter people in my final year of high school who still wanted to get to know me without an ulterior motive. Someone who I had known for four years but never talked to became one of best friends. She made me feel lighthearted, as if I could do anything. A new teacher became one of my dearest mentors. He taught me to use my troubled thoughts as an inspiration for my artwork. These people did something I couldn’t do on my own anymore: they made me feel safe in my skin and in my thoughts.
Yet now every time someone touches me, I catalogue it in my memories. I remember each moment of contact, whether it was the time a friend’s hands graced over mine, teaching me how to play the piano or the time I was embraced in a long hug after I understood the realities of rejection. The hands of these people taught me, protected me, and embraced me. By observing people who truly cared for me, I slowly learned to trust again. I see now that although hands can harm, they are meant to heal.
These days, unexpected encounters remind me that I have the ability to accept that most of the random people I meet are incredible, not terrible. I could have feared coming back to New York City and calling it my college home. However, instead of fearing meeting the next predator, I have faith that I will also meet a circle of people that will become my friends and my protectors.