Thursday, August 18, 2005

"But I haven't seen Barbados, so I must get out of this..."

Paris, 20 years ago...

It was that time of the month, and once again I was bedridden. It always seemed to happen at the most inopportune times too. Like when it happened the last day of band camp and I was so ill I could not participate in the final night’s shenanigans with the other members. I lay curled up on a cot in the dorm room while the flag corps advisor fussed and fretted over me with hot water bottles and cold wash cloths. My temperature was in triple digits and I couldn’t even keep water down. The bus ride home the following morning was grueling, and I was so violently ill that I was shunned as a leper by everyone, including my boyfriend.

You’d think I would have gotten used to it after so many years, but I hadn’t, and the pain relievers wouldn’t stay down long enough to work their magic.

And so it was that I lay fetuslike on a bed in a Parisian youth hostel, on a sweltering summer night, while everyone else in the world was out having a good time. My hostel roommates, mildly concerned for my comfort, had procured a sick bucket for the side of the bed, and had opened our second floor window to air out the room before setting off for a Saturday night of clubbing.

I lay sweating in the dark, cursing my fate and begging sleep to take pity and carry me away. It must have done, because some time later I was startled awake by a noise in the room. I foggily thought it was the roommates returning quietly as so not to wake me, but when I raised my head in the direction of the noise I saw a man, crouched low, rifling through one of the suitcases littering the room. My heart began to pound and I was sure he would hear it, so loud it sounded in my ears. I was terrified to move and my mind raced as to what to do. Should I scream? Should I try to get up and run? Should I continue to lay there and pretend I was asleep? I had no idea.

My mouth dried so rapidly that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I realized I was holding my breath, and I wasn’t even sure I could scream if I wanted. Who would hear me? Everyone in the hostel seemed to be gone for the evening; the corridors outside my room were silent. My world shrank to the blood thumping in my ears and the soft zip of a duffel bag being opened on the other side of the room. He was muttering softly to himself as he combed the contents of the bag, and I watched as he stood up and shoved something into his jeans pocket. Was he stealing money? Jewelry? I couldn’t tell. Stunned, I watched him move on to the next bag, which was only a few feet away from where I lay, paralyzed with fear.

He saw me. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t move. I was absolutely terrified and helpless, and he must have sensed it. He uttered something in French and started toward me, unzipping his jeans as he advanced. It was then that I realized I had been dozing on top of the covers wearing only a thin tank top and panties. “Oh God,” my mind raced, “he’s going to rape me and I can’t even move.” I could feel bile rising in my throat.

In the short time it took to think that phrase, he was on me, tugging at my underwear and muttering rapidly in French. My paralysis suddenly broke and I struggled beneath him. I still could not scream, my mouth a desert, but I fought mightily with him. He grabbed my arms to hold them down, but somehow I managed to wrench one free and latch hold of a small lamp on the bedside table. I slammed it into his face as hard as I could.

He fell off of me then, bloodied and panting. I dove from the bed and swung the lamp again, breaking it on contact with the side of his head. He stumbled toward the open window, hiking up his jeans as he went. I began to sob, and realized my voice had returned. He was already scrambling out the window as the screams escaped me, and I continued to wail for help as I watched him disappear down the fire escape and into the dark Paris night.

Bloodied and shaking, I felt my legs carry me out into the corridor, where they gave out and I collapsed, sobbing in my torn underwear. Was there anyone at all inside the hostel? Did anyone even hear my pleas for help? Would he come back when he realized no one else was there? Trembling, I tried to stand up and ended up vomiting all over myself.

But someone HAD heard. Someone on the lower floor came rushing from the stairwell to my aid. He took one look and immediately ran to the communal bathroom for towels and water. I choked out the words “attacked,” “thief,” and “window,” then crumpled into a convulsing heap. I guess I went into shock, because I don’t remember how I came to be wrapped in a robe (whose robe was it?), cleaned up (whose blood was it? Mine? His? Who washed it away?), nor how the police were summoned.

The man who came to my aid was a French Canadian named Norm. He translated my story to the hostel manageress and the French police. He argued with the police when they shrugged off the story as “a lover’s quarrel” and he raged against the hostel manageress when she demanded money for the broken lamp. He sat up with me in the commons area half the night, because I was terrified to go back into my room.

I’m ashamed to say that I cannot remember whether or not I ever thanked him.

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