Two minutes I wish never happened and thirty years of failing to forget…
I still remember that day in every detail. That unlucky day when I was very, very lucky… to survive. It’s been 30 years. They told me to forget but they didn’t tell me how.
I allowed myself to go through the memories of that day only about five years ago, slowly, one small piece at a time, until it became easier to think about. Until echoes of that day started fading, and the amplitude of a paralyzing wave, which was raised every time by flashbacks and covered me from head to toe, lessened.
When I was finally able to write it down, on a paper, it felt as if I managed to move it from my insides to the outside, to separate myself from it and finally let it go. I shared it in a written form with the person I wanted to understand the reasons of my reactions. Then I was finally able to talk about it, discuss and analyse. I needed to find the bridge over the ravine of pain and fear, which separated this unwanted memory from the rest. I needed to accept my past that I know I will not be able to forget.
I was late to my music class, walking quickly. Usually, I hoped to be near other people in the dark walkway along the stadium. That night there was no one. But it took only a minute to run past the walkway, and then another thirty seconds to cross the courtyard — not a big deal. Girls did it everyday. I did it so many times before. Anyway, in a small city like mine nothing bad ever happened. It would be stupid to take a detour along a busier and brighter street and add five more minutes to my being late. I was a brave girl. But that day was different. And I was only ten.
After the dark empty walkway, I saw a man in the courtyard. So what? Yes, a man. Black down jacket, black knitted hat and gloves, a round muscular face. I felt stupid to think something was wrong and that something could happen to me. I speeded up to past the courtyard, ignoring the man. He started to walk towards me, mirroring my zigzags. Finally, it was too late to turn back and run. He was too close and he was spreading his arms.
“Hi, dear. Please, walk with me.” I felt a fear explode in my head with such colossal force and speed that it was like a nuclear bomb, followed by a shock wave that started in my head and traveled through my whole body down to my toes. I felt every inch of that stupefying wave as it penetrated into my flesh, accompanied by strong cold shivers. Time slowed down, and I was paralyzed.
“No, I have a class, I am late, I can’t go with you, my class is very important, I can’t miss it.” I could hardly recognize my voice, I could not remember if I had ever spoken that loud. “Listen to me, you have to go with me — please, don’t be afraid”. — “No!” I screamed even louder . “Don’t you hear? I have a class and I can’t miss it!” This nonsensical exchange repeated a few more times, with my voice getting more unfamiliar to me and louder with every repetition. “Shh! Calm down. Just walk with me.” I started to repeat my phrase about my music class a 5th or 7th time… when I felt the knitted tissue of his black gloves in my mouth. He put his hands around my neck, his thumbs into my mouth, and pushed me towards the wall of the empty school building in that dark leafless courtyard. I knew this was it. A thought flashed in my head — “So, that’s how it happens. This is the price to pay for a courage.” He was digging deeper into my neck with his fingers, trying to strangle me. I bit into his thumbs as strong as I could. I was forcing down my jaws, feeling the unpleasant hairs of the fabric of his black knitted gloves. Finally, he couldn’t bear the pain and let go the grip…just a little. “Be wise and stop screaming? Come with me.” My unfamiliar voice was still too loud. I couldn’t control it. He hesitated. Maybe he was reconsidering his actions. And then I saw a white shadow on the other side of the courtyard. A long white trench coat was moving. It was a woman. A few more steps and it would disappear behind the doors of the school building. It was unbelievable, a vision. I had to scream but I couldn’t find my voice right at that moment. Suddenly my voice erupted “People! People!” My brain (or my soul?) was not in my head. It was watching me from the outside, slightly above, and I heard a confused inner voice ask me: “Why “people”? Couldn’t you come up with something better than that? You need help?! And this is the moment! But you scream “people”? You’re losing it, you are gone!”
I felt now fatally hopeless, aware of the terrible blunder of losing my only chance.
But… Luck was on my side. Just before opening the school door, the trench coat stopped and turned. “What’s the matter?” I felt his hands loosen their grip and I immediately ran without looking, without thinking, without turning back. I made it to the music school and ran inside. There was no one in the hall because the classes had already started. I started crying. I cried hysterically and loud, to attract attention. It worked. Unwillingly, one of the teachers came and asked me why I was crying. I said that I’d been strangled. She didn’t believe me at first. I insisted, saying “I was strangled, right here, in the courtyard, by a man in black.” Another teacher came. They decided to call the police and let them figure out if it was true. They called my father at work asking him to come and pick me up earlier. While waiting for the police, they told me to go and join my class but to be quiet so as not to disturb the other kids. They warned my teacher. She had horrified eyes. She tried her best to continue as if it was a normal day. But it was difficult to fight my sobbing.
My father arrived. Then the police arrived and asked me a few questions. And then we followed them to the police station. “Wow, a real police station, real policemen! Now I’ll know how crimes are solved in real life” — I felt excited, forgetting for only a moment what had just happened and why I was there.
The building was boring, cold, square, and outdated, with tasteless furniture, grey naked walls, and no decorations. The people inside were unsmiling, unwelcoming, and not kind. It always looked more cheerful in the movies. I was tired, disappointed, and bored.
It didn’t take long. Or maybe it did. Time had lost its monotony; it was stretching and shrinking chaotically. They drew a portrait from my words, even though I did not remember his face — I had not looked at it, I tried not to. But now I had to remember the size of his eyes, the thickness of his eyebrows, the shape of his mouth. But it was very dark in the courtyard when it all happened…
Later that evening, they used this portrait to bring in several suspects. I had to find him in the lineup. I thought they would be behind a glass…But the men were brought into the same room as my dad and I. Me, a ten-year-old girl, standing in front of these suspects, looking at each one, now forced to look into their faces, their eyes, in full light, and to pick out the one I had seen only an hour earlier. I was not sure. I knew that I had no right to make a mistake. But I could not be sure. I clenched my teeth, clenched my fingers into fists to focus, and ignored the scene that everybody expected from my father. I just wanted to do what I was asked and finally go home. One face seemed similarly round and muscular. I pointed at him with my index finger in silence, still hesitant. My father jumped, blocked by two policemen waiting for this reaction. I had no energy to think and care about his feelings but I never saw him in this state of rage, I never saw tears in his eyes. I wanted it to be over. But it was not over. They gave me a pen to point at the suspect for a photo. Recorded me saying aloud “That’s him!” … “No, louder, please!”… Asked to read and reread their interpretations of my words. It was a never-ending torture. I wanted to wake up from this nightmare.
Later I found out by chance, overhearing the policemen, that the man I pointed out had just been released from jail. He was caught next to the same school courtyard about 15 minutes after I had given the description of the man in black. He was looking for another girl, perhaps a more successful attack… The pieces were falling into place. At least I didn’t have to worry for the rest of my life that I had convicted the wrong man of strangling me.
The next morning I woke up thinking that it had all been just a bad dream. However, the two black bruises on each side of my neck told me that it wasn’t a dream. It did happen.
I would carefully choose turtlenecks and wear scarfs to hide the bruises from schoolmates, from my mom.
Countless police procedures, protocols, all concentrated around filling forms and following rules, lasted for months. Me, the kid, was a matter, a trouble, from whom small bits of information had to be pulled out to make a complete story. During all this time, it was just my dad and I. But he was silent. We never talked.
Sometimes I’d be taken from school in the middle of class to reply to any new question that the detective came up with, or just to repeat what I’d already said before over and over again. I started to dread the sound of a knock on the classroom door. “Cool to miss school, isn’t it?” said a policeman, who came to pick me up. I raised my eyes at him, filled with pain, — “No…” In addition to the torment of inquiries and procedures, I had to spend more time doing homework in the evenings to catch up on the work of the missed classes.
The detective could not manage to compile a story from my words. He wanted every detail and refused to understand that I was not thinking about details when my throat was being squeezed forcefully, causing me to lose breath. I didn’t understand why knowing the exact place at the wall of the school building, where I was strangled, was more important than the strangling itself. I had only a rough idea about the geometry of the scene and the detective was convinced that my geometry was contradicting my words. He was getting annoyed, sometimes angry. He even thought that I was lying until another policeman, a woman, told him to calm down and reminded him of the bruises on my neck: “We made photos” — she said, the only evidence that I’d been honest.
They never found the woman in the white trench coat. I had hoped they would have. I realized that she didn’t want to go through the burden of police procedures and preferred to stay in the shadows. I needed her. I needed her to make them believe me. I wanted to thank her for being there, having turned to me, responding to my plea. There was a psychologist too — a fat balding guy with an artificially stretched smile — who wouldn’t let me free until he wrote my answers in his sheet of paper. I replied just the sufficient minimum to gain my freedom. He never managed to make me talk. He would lose his control, screaming whenever I cried, unable to reply to his unpleasant questions. Yet, there was also that policewoman standing by my side to calm him. But she never talked to me directly. Every time before going to any of those meetings, I would tell myself: “Just do it, live through it, the faster you reply, the sooner you’ll be free”. I would then clench my teeth and follow the policemen to the next round of torture for the sake of order.
At the music school, things had changed: now parents were required to accompany children to school. Because nannies did not exist at that time, the parents were systematically late, kids were waiting, and other kids could not come at all and started missing classes. I overheard two music schoolteachers talking: “I do not even believe this story. She made it up! Do you know who it was? What a mess she created!” I was in the same room. I adjusted my scarf around my neck making sure that it was covering my bruises.
I didn’t want it to happen either. It wasn’t my fault but I was feeling miserable. Guilty.
A few months later, I confessed my story to a couple of friends but they laughed, saying that I was a bad liar. By that time, I didn’t have the bruises anymore to prove my truth. The only girl who believed me, said “Be careful. He’ll be out of jail in two or three years and he’ll find you because you were the one who convicted him.” No, I didn’t come to this horrifying idea of revenge by myself…
Even the detectives and the psychologist doubted my words. Well, you know: kids — they always make up stories, don’t they?
I was either a liar or a burden, causing trouble for everyone. That’s what I had to live through and exclude from my mom. I excluded her because she was going through a difficult period herself —her dear parents, my kindest grandparents had departed one after another, with forty days between their deaths. And that day she was leaving to say the last good-bye to her grandmother. She was grieving from all these losses but tried to hide her tears. From me. And I hid mine from her…
Those two minutes taught me a lesson that I carried through my life — to be more protective. Better be safe and alive than brave. Step back early. Run away even if it looks ridiculous. I don’t care anymore how weird my actions appear to others.
I also know that all difficult times pass, even the very difficult ones. Sometimes you just need to clench your teeth and go through it. One step at a time. Until it’s over.