Two weeks before I moved to Mexico, after a wonderful visit with my family in Maryland and on the first leg of my indirect flight back to Spokane Washington, I was assaulted by a fellow passenger.
It has taken me years to get to this conclusion, I wrestled with the inner voices telling me, It wasn’t that bad, you have no right to feel victimized, other’s have been through worse. Even as I’m writing this, I am dealing with shame rising up, I should have said something, I should have done something, It’s my fault etcetera etcetera. So, here is my little piece of ME TOO. I know I am not alone and maybe sharing my story will give someone else the confidence to speak their own story and be free of it.
It was May 2010, Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to Denver. If you have ever flown with Southwest Airlines you know they do not have assigned seating. I was lucky enough to be in the first group to board the plane and chose a window seat.
I remember feeling like I was floating, like I was on top of the world. I felt so capable, confident, grown up. Everything was going my way. I just quit my crappy job, dyed my hair purple, sold my valuables, gotten my passport and was about to tie up all the loose ends in Washington and move to Mexico. The icing on the top of the cake was being able to visit my family for the first time in 2 years. Instead of the usual stress and drama, this visit had been so different. There was noticeable growth on both sides and it had been a very healing time of reconciliation.
Sitting on the tarmac waiting for the rest of the passengers to board, I was contently gazing out the window with my headphones in listening to my favorite music. A late-30-something Middle Eastern man waved for my attention and asked if any of the other seats in my row were taken. I pulled my headphones off and told him to go right ahead. He sat in the isle seat and pulled out some magazines from his briefcase and placed them on the middle seat. He leaned over and told me it was to deter anyone else from sitting there. Genius! Why had I never thought of that? One by one the rest of the passengers boarded the flight and passed by our row to find a better seat towards the back of the plane. Elbow room-another thing to add to the list of things going right for me. This began the longest 3 hour flight of my life.
I’d only ever flown by myself a handful of times and usually kept to myself. But as I was feeling so grown up and confident I decided to be friendly and not just blow off my chatty neighbor.
Once we were at cursing altitude, Mohammed made small talk about how he recently made a trip to visit his family in Egypt. I was intrigued because I love learning about countries and cultures. I engaged and asked about his family, about the food and some of the culture. He gladly obliged all of my questions and was intrigued as well to find out I was a Christian and worked in a church.
After awhile he stood up and pulled his laptop bag down from the overhead bin. He mentioned that worked in technology was fiddling around on the computer for a little while before he asked me if I would like to watch a movie with him. Why not? I thought. “Sure!” I said politely. He eagerly slid into the middle seat and handed me the laptop so that I could choose a movie.
There were hundreds of movies on his hard drive. I was conflicted in what I should choose as I did not want to pick something that would be awkward to watch together with this random guy. There were several titles that I had not seen yet, but I chose “The Prestige” because it was a safe choice, no overt romance, no sex scenes.
This was where it started to get a little uncomfortable. He put the movie on and lifted the armrest between us as he handed me one side of the headphones he had plugged into the laptop. I put the headphone in and tried my best to casually lean as far away from him as I could and still keep the headphone in my ear. My introvert self was very much done peopling. I was so relieved to just watch the movie. My “friend” did not get the hint and continued talking. At this point I was so checked out I’m not sure how the conversation took a turn, but he jokingly asked me if I could be his girlfriend for the flight. Me just being agreeable and wanting him to leave me alone said, “sure.”
In one fell swoop he put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me close to him, my head almost resting on his chest. In the same motion with his other arm he reached across me and grabbed my hand interlacing his fingers with mine. I was in shock. I was trapped. I was horrified, I did not know what to do. Apparently he was being literal not joking and I was not prepared for this situation.
For the rest of the flight he did not take his hands off of me. He was caressing me all over, smelling my hair, trying to kiss me. My soft nos went entirely unnoticed. My nervous-gigglely “no thanks”, pushing away of his hands or turning away from him did little to deter him. It was a nightmare.
At one point he left to use the restroom. Best two minutes of the flight. I had a glimmering thought of asking the flight attendant if she could reseat me. I quickly ruled that out because of my overwhelming shame about the whole situation and my inability to let myself be seen as weak or needing help. I ran through the whole sinario in my head- Push the call button, make a scene, explain the situation to the flight attendant, then explain the situation to my new seat mates. What if he came looking for me? It might make a bigger scene and I would have to tell him to his face! Nope. I was not comfortable with that option either, it was too embarassing. Instead, my last ditch attempt to avoid Mohammed was to put all the arm rests back down and pretend to be asleep against the window. He of course saw this as an invitation to spoon me.
There on the airplane, confrontation with a stranger and/or being perceived as weak from other strangers was more uncomfortable to me than my own personal physical, emotional or mental wellbeing. I played it cool and justified the situation in my mind the whole time. I’m ok, it’s just a hug, at least its not XYZ, it is my fault because I said yes…
We finally landed in Denver and as we were taxiing to the gate Mohammed rambled about how he never dreamed (fantasized) he would meet a girl like me, how he would never forget me, then asked me if I needed any money like I had done a service for him that needed repaying. I was so sick to my stomach but the end was in sight I somehow managed to smile and shrug it all off. I had a 3 hour layover, but told him mine was only 30 minutes and I would have to run to my next flight so he wouldn’t try to follow me or spend more time with me.
As soon as I was off of the plane I practically ran to the woman’s bathroom. When I was finally alone, and finally safe, I broke down and cried. Silently, of course, as not to embarrass myself further. I just remember sitting in the stall and hating myself and giving myself a Get it together. It’s over now. Move on! pep talk. When I finally emerged from the stall I had another problem to deal with. His cologne. It was all over me and I could not escape the smell. I scrubbed my hands, my arms, my already raw neck from the scratch of his beard, my face all in attempts to rid myself of his essence. It was no use, it had permeated all of my clothes, my coat, everything. I was so angry that I had to continue to carry around a constant reminder of our time together.
In my search to distract myself I perused all of the airport stores and shops. This particular airport had quite a large shopping area. I finally found a store with perfume testers and doused myself in them to cover the stench of my offender. It was there that I also found a beautiful journal with a rich gold design on the cover and blank pages, no lines so that I could let my creative juice flow on the pages without restriction.
Finding my boarding gate I found a row of empty chairs, put in my headphones and started to write in my new journal. The cry of my heart poured out onto those first few pages. Though I did not mention my experience on the plane, one can read between the lines as I expressed my insecurities about moving to Mexico and being on my own, “My time in Washington is coming to a close; only 9 days left till I leave on my adventure to Mexico. God, I don’t feel ready…God keep me. I was shocked to see how naive I am…I need You so, so so so much!”
Even though I felt so grown up prior to the flight, I was still very new in my quest of living an emotionally healthy life. All I could see at the time were my demons of fear and pride, that I fought relentlessly. I had zero clue that fear and pride were just the tip of the iceberg full of belief systems, generational trauma, actual trauma, shame, and so many more issues below the surface. Everything (that I did not see yet) was so enmeshed with why I protected myself with (what looked like) fear and pride, but I would not be able to untangle that mess for years. Saying all that to say, I could not have done any better with what I had at the time. That was my best. The could of/should of’s that plays over and over in my head are great ways I can now handle the situation should it ever present itself again, but there was no way I could have done any better sitting there on that plane.
We sadly live in a world run by the patriarchy and an ingrained rape culture that teaches/conditions men to jump on any slight hint of a green light and ignore all proceeding yellow and red lights given by women. Not all men are like this, but Mohammed obviously was. I am so thankful for the work that has been done with the #metoo and #timesup movements bringing awareness and shedding light on injustices faced by women everyday. The world is changing, slowly. It starts when you and I stand up for ourselves and speak out when SHAME tries to tell us there is something wrong with us or that we are the sole reason to blame for an unwanted encounter. It starts with teaching our daughters body autonomy and equipping them with the the tools they need to stand up for themselves not be intimidated or shamed and not to tolerate anything less than respectful encounters with men. It starts with teaching our sons body autonomy as well. Modeling respect and consent in our homes in front of them and teaching them to use their male privilege to protect and speak up for others who might not be able to.