Monsters: Assaulted Abroad
The shady path behind me was muddled, a trail of violation. I sprinted up the steep embankment, collapsed breathless into Tom’s arms. Nothing had ever smelled as comforting as the pungent odor of his cigarettes and cologne. I buried my head into his chest, sobbed. Police dotted my periphery, but I clung to Tom as he held me close. I needed to feel safe again.
Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I was transported to the tiny police station just past the only stoplight in Taupo, a picturesque New Zealand town so safe the cops didn’t bother to carry guns. Tom paced outside as I was gently interviewed in a small, stale room. Can you give any more details about his appearance? Are you certain you have never seen him before? Tell us again what he did to you.
A female police officer accompanied me to the medical clinic. As we waited in the lobby for a physician, my cheeks felt warm. That’s not sunburn, the cop said as she leaned back in the chair, her hands folded in her lap. Go. Look. In the bathroom, I leaned over the sink and stared blankly at my face. Did I do this or was it the Monster? Careful not to contaminate the surface wounds, I walked back to the lobby.
The police officer looked determined. I swear we will find him, she said.
I believed her, just as I had believed my mother when she promised the Monster lurking behind the wooden louver doors of my childhood closet had been captured.
There were more questions, DNA swabs, a physical exam, and finally, my release. At the little green house I shared with Tom and our other housemate Dave, the vintage metal clothesline creaked eerily as I stumbled through the door. The herbs I'd planted were just pushing through the soil, stretching toward the illusive sunlight of one of the wettest springs on record. My friend Jenna brought Indian food, it's familiar curry smell wafting out the windows that I would now demand be closed, their worthless metal locks clicked shut.
The evening was spent alternating between stunned silence, small talk and fits of angry disbelief. Someone cleared the dishes as Jenna slid Bridesmaids into the DVD player. I stared at the flatscreen and saw only flashes of the the horrific scenes. The Monster’s face inches from mine. Dark sunglasses covering his eyes.Vibrant tribal tattoos creeping down his arm and toward his fingers that pulled back my waistband. I am pinned down by his knee. Futily kicking. Trapped under the weight of his young muscular body. Fragile twigs crush beneath me. Clawing. Pushed deeper into the damp dirt. Screaming when his hand leaves my mouth and creeps down my pants.
Fighting to stay on the path, I'm fully aware that the wooded embankment behind me will most assuredly lead to hell.
Jenna sat quietly next to me, her hand on my shoulder. Are you going to go home? One thing was clear in the hazy aftermath of the trauma. Home was no longer that shadowy tudor from my childhood, the oak tree with wood planks nailed to the trunk so I could ride the wooden horse. It was no longer my collie limping up the dusty driveway, panting after chasing cars. Home wasn’t the smell of freshly cut hay, my brother loading it into the dinged white pickup truck with the windows always down because the doors were jammed closed. Home wasn't the cottage with a front porch big enough for one wooden rocker and a muddied welcome mat. I'd given that up, sold it - and mostly everything else - for an open-ended airline ticket.
Now, home was with friends who were former strangers. For months, I traveled through Australia, Vietnam and New Zealand, alone or with other wanderers, less a tourist, more a traveler. Then, a few hostel mates booked a bus to the tiny town of Taupo, a place that wasn’t on my radar. I had no other plans, so I bought a $7 ticket. After months of wandering with only my pink steel-framed backpack, I stumbled upon a place where female travelers hitchhiked safely, where bare windows were left open. It was a beautiful town, a place that whispered freedom.
So, I stayed. Just like that, home was now the clinking of the dishes, Jenna using the scrub brush to scour off the leftover bits of rice and korma into the overflowing plastic trash bin. Home was the musty blanket covered with dog hair that Dave carefully tucked around me. Home was the hazy smell of tobacco creeping in though the entryway as Tom paced, angry and vengeful, trying to remember not to toss his cigarette butts into my fragile herb garden.
The local newspaper’s headline screamed SEX ATTACK AT HUKA FALLS.
The police searched. My roommates comforted me. The town embraced me, the mountains and lake began to heal me. Well-meaning friends stateside admonished me, reminded me that it could have been worse, warned me that I was reckless to travel alone. He could have completely raped you. Though this was true, ranking his offense on a scale of violation offered no consolation. It happened in broad daylight. People were all around me. They heard my screams. I was in one of the world’s safest countries, taking less of a risk than walking through a dimly-lit Walmart parking lot.
Just as the police officer promised, the Monster was captured, contained, punished. He pled guilty to my assault and a few others and lost his freedom. The same freedom - to travel, to talk to strangers, to build community - allowed me to heal, to survive.