On realizing I was sexually assaulted 12 years after the incident
In the years since I left, I obtained two degrees, learned a language, got fired, earned a yoga certification, started a business, lost all remaining grandparents, got married, had a baby, became estranged from my father, visited fifteen countries and finally understood.
It was a podcast that told me. Women’s voices echoed through my car as I drove down Minnehaha Avenue on my way to work. Their pain was real. I felt it. While listening, I drove past the Spanish immersion daycare at which I put my daughter on a waitlist. A thin, dark-haired woman crossed the street in front of me, the car seat in tow giving her a lopsided walk as she headed toward the daycare. I recognized her. She was in a prenatal yoga class with me. I learned her name in class but couldn’t remember it.
Just past 33rd Avenue, one woman’s story in particular sent the message home. She spoke about a man who made her massage his feet. He was idolized by many, and her fear of being rejected made her give in to his demands. Her voice was quiet, shaky as she relived her moments of terror. The foot massage was an abuse of power by a man with an absent moral compass. The eventual rape, abhorrent. Hers was a story I have heard too many times. In the past, hearing such stories have given me pause. First, to empathize. Second, to audit my own experiences—only to come up short.
Perhaps it was the way the morning sun hit my windshield, like dramatic camerawork. Maybe it was the way in which she expressed her discomfort – calmly, relatable. But I was made to understand that morning. Twelve years it took to understand what happened to me that day. I was sexually assaulted and I didn’t know it. I was twenty years old.
I returned to this particular hair salon deep in the city because my first experience there was fine. Good, even. I had arrived that summer with long, thick hair which often got stuck in the creases of my elbows. I was sick of this thing with which I never connected. My hair has always been a thing—not a part of me but something of its own.
Once, in elementary school, a kid told me my hair needed some pH balance.
He wasn’t wrong.
That summer my hair added a superfluous layer of warmth. I carried it around like a shell, and I decided one day in class, the song Julia running through my head because I was seated behind a girl with the same name, I wanted to shed that shell. And so it was that I met Gianluca.
Gianluca was charming. His smile lines sunk into his tanned skin, deep from so much use. His thick dark hair billowed onto his forehead and, though he looked quite like many other men from his country I had met, I found him handsome. His effervescence wasn’t original but it was focused on me, and that type of attention felt good.
Paired with the freeing physical change of a haircut, I looked back on my experience there fondly. My elation about my haircut lasted two weeks, and then I developed a thirst for more.
The second time I went to Gianluca, Rachel came with me.
When I met Rachel, she was sitting cross-legged on a chair in the JFK airport, the hood of her sweatshirt up over her short black hair. I had a cold sore. The kind people write punch lines about in romcoms. I envied the privacy her hood provided. Rachel looked through the open sore on my face, impossible to ignore, and she saw me. We became friends. We remain friends.
Like Rachel, Gianluca saw beyond my appearance. He recognized within me a naivete that would posture him as powerful. He looked past the color and shape of my eyes and saw within them excitement, energy. Possibly even opportunity.
The second time I saw him, he cut my hair to where it barely tickled my collarbone. Gianluca, with his big dark curls and light brown eyes. Gianluca, with his clean denim jeans and European teeth—cigarette- and coffee-stained, disorganized. His gaze that gave me tunnel vision. His artful dance with a pair of scissors.
Gianluca, with his head and neck rub. His taking me into the back of the salon so other customers could sit in the chair. His situating me in front of him while he dug into my shoulders, strong fingers like tree knobs. Gianluca, with his dry palm tracing cloud animals on my back. The sound of used skin on new skin as his palm snaked its way up my spine. Down my spine. Up my spine again.
Gianluca, asking me if it feels good. Me answering yes, it feels good.Rachel came back to see where I had gone, her hair neatly trimmed. His hands by that time had acquainted themselves with my neck and upper chest, the straps of my tank top and bra hanging to either side of my shoulders. She startled, stepping back a beat as we caught one another’s widened eyes. It was funny, we both thought. I’ll be done soon, we both thought. Having felt like she walked in on something she shouldn’t be a part of, Rachel returned to the front of the salon. The place the customers were. The place I should have been. The two of us in silence, Gianluca and me, he continued to massage.
The woman with the baby carrier—her name, too, was Julia.
I felt uncomfortable. I was insecure about the fleshy feel of my stomach, and I was sure he judged me as he palmed it. So I lied to him. I said Rachel was waiting for me and I needed to go. I pulled forward, situated my tank top and bra straps where they belonged and stood up, my back to Gianluca. I thanked him for my cut and massage. A stained-tooth grin rippling his cheeks, he leaned against the wall and said to visit again before I go to home. Smiling, I said I would. I left the back room and walked past other foreigners getting haircuts to the desk by the door. Rachel stood up as I neared. I paid 50 euros, tucked my hair behind my ears, and stepped onto the cobblestones, Rachel at my side.
Rachel doesn’t know that I was sexually assaulted that day at the salon. She doesn’t know, even though she saw his hands on me, because I didn’t know I was sexually assaulted. I was never trained to identify the moment in which gray quickly turns to black, the blurry line ceases to exist and I am—which took me 12 years to understand—being sexually assaulted.
The word “assault” conjures ideas of rape or physical pain, but the definition of the word is unwanted physical contact. The mere fact that I am defining the word—defending my story—is a testament to the environment in which women are brought up. I have to validate my claim in order for it to carry some weight.
I am fearful of sharing my story because it’s not as bad as so many others. I wasn’t even raped, so it’s insignificant, unsubstantial. I should save this space for a story that matters and will make a difference.
And yet, when I realized what had happened to me all those years ago, I became haunted by my blindness and lack of education on sexual assault. I became fearful for the world in which my daughter is growing up, and the more fearful I became, the more I pushed back on sharing my story. But I know I am not alone, and I know that to some, this will matter.
I never told anybody about that day. This should not surprise you.
Three years after I met Gianluca, I returned to the same city. Walking down a similar street, nearly too small to hold a car and a pedestrian, two young men approached me. As soon as I realized I had been approached, it was all over. His lips left a film on mine that I could not scrub away. Fury bubbling up inside of me as quickly as his touch came and went, I told him in his language to go fuck himself – a phrase I was told to carry with me as a weapon. But it was too late. Those words didn’t undo a man kissing me while the one I loved was an ocean away. And so I kept walking. I walked away from the two young men and the kiss and the tiny street. I walked away from the forced intimacy that I didn’t want. From the constant danger of something else happening to me.
I reflect on these instances and I wish I would have been educated enough to fight. I wish I would have known that a man putting his hands on me was inappropriate, disrespectful, and a reason to speak up. But I didn’t, and I can’t change that.
I have always taken to writing to heal and to process, and today I write my story so that I can begin to see how those events have shaped my life and the lives of those around me. Having come to understand what happened that day doesn’t change who I am or what I believe. But it does shed light on why I react with such fury when a man says or does something unwelcomed to me. This helps me understand the why behind some of my whats, and that awareness is all the power I need.
I write my story so that perhaps someone else might become aware, too.