The small park down the street from my childhood home: friends and I spent many evenings there as teenagers. We’d watch movies on each other’s MP3 players and eat from a bag of microwave popcorn while owls hooted from the trees above.
Twigs lightly poked against our backs. Fallen leaves graced skin. Crickets hummed in the darkness. The stars shone bright through the branches of the redwoods.
Eight years later at a park in Montevideo, Uruguay, darkness again surrounded me. Leaves and twigs once more made contact with my skin. This time, though, I couldn’t hear the crickets or notice the stars. Details of nature were dimmed out, replaced by the internal clamor of a rapidly beating heart and shock flooding through me.
By day, Parque Rodo bustled with life. Later that year I would ride paddle boats there with my girlfriend of the time. I would feed crumbles of tortas fritas to the ducks alongside my Uruguayan housemate, while he shared with me his dream to become a dancer in New York City. I would do yoga on the grass with fellow English teacher friends. It would become a place of positive memories.
That night, though, it was anything but.
One week earlier, I’d moved to Montevideo to teach English and become fluent in Spanish.
My first week passed by in a whir of exploratory activity. I traversed cobblestone streets past colorful houses resembling Turkish delights; past pick-up soccer games in the middle of some roads; past teenagers walking large groups of varied species of dogs.
I learned Spanish tongue-twisters from native Uruguayans while drinking mate on the shores of the Rio de la Plata. I sand-boarded for the first time and became accustomed to answering the question “De donde sos?” (“Where are you from?”) in nearly every taxi I took and confiteria (pastry shop) I set foot in.
Now that it was the weekend, I wanted to experience the LGBTQ+ night life (which I’d heard positive things about). Located on the periphery of the expansive Parque Rodo, Il Tempo was one of Montevideo’s three gay clubs, catering mostly to lesbians.
I hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so my plan before heading in was to grab a chivito sandwich (one of Uruguay’s staple foods). Chiviterias abounded across Montevideo, present on nearly every corner, so I imagined I wouldn’t have to walk far to find one.
After taxi-ing from my hostel, I asked the bouncer if he could direct me to the closest chiviteria. Pointing down the street, he told me to walk for half a block. I’d then make a right and continue down 21de septiembre until reaching Bulevar General Artigas.
” Y alli encontrarás una” (“And there you will find one”), he said.
A few blocks didn’t sound like a lot, so off I went.
I walked for what felt like a while, without crossing paths with any other pedestrians.
Isn’t this supposed to be a major street? I wondered. Also, shouldn’t there be some streetlamps?
It was then that another pedestrian—a young man wearing a backward baseball cap—came into view.
He was walking briskly toward me from the opposite direction. Pretty much the minute I saw him, I knew my evening wouldn’t be playing out as I’d envisioned. A chivito was no longer on the table. I wouldn’t be dancing with a cute Spanish-speaking lesbian at Il Tempo.
“Adonde vas?” (“Where are you going?”) the man asked me as he got closer. Tension immediately took hold of my body, which I did my best to hide while quickly responding that I was on my way to a chivito spot.
Yo sé donde comprar un chivito” (“I know where to get a chivito”), he said, gesturing toward the park. “Te muestro” (“I’ll show you”).
My heart hammered, but I again tried to obscure any signs of fear. Maybe if I exuded only niceness and naivety, it would buy me more time—because the grim truth (that there was nowhere within eyesight to run to) was quickly becoming apparent. The foggy pull of disassociation came for me, wrapping its wispy arms around my heart and mind.
Similar to how Laurie Halse Anderson wrote in Shout: “The exits were blocked, so you wisely fled your skin when you smelled his intent.”
I chose not to run—because who knew how long it would be before I found a more populated road, or even a passing car? And how far could I flee before the man caught up? He’d likely become angry and violent if and when he did. Also, flip-flops make for pretty dismal running shoes…
Maybe if I kept walking with him, we’d cross paths with another person, went my reasoning at the time. No one else was present on that dimly lit street, but maybe in the park someone would be—a couple taking a late-night stroll, or a cluster of teenagers cutting through on their way to the next bar; or someone, anyone who could step in and become a buffer. Parque Rodo’s website had, after all, mentioned that many young people hang out there at night.
I don’t remember what the man and I talked about as we walked. I do remember a half-eaten chivito lying atop a trash can off to the side of the path; the sound of my flip-flops crunching against the gravel; that we continued to be the only pedestrians on our path; and that after a minute or two, the man announced, “We’ve almost made it to the chivito place.” I nodded in response, my appetite now completely nonexistent.
Part of me still hoped I could buy time. That I could pretend I didn’t know what was about to happen, for long enough so that someone, or something, could intervene—so that maybe it wouldn’t.
Nothing and no one did though. When the man finally grabbed me and pushed me against a tree, my feigned composure broke. Noticing the shift, he used both his hands to cover my mouth while whispering that he would kill me if I raised my voice (“Te mataré,” he repeated three times in a low hiss).
Over those next few minutes, I kept trying to hold eye contact in attempt to get through to his humanity. I desperately and naively hoped that at any moment he would awaken to what he was doing and feel ashamed enough to stop.
He didn’t though.
When he tried to take my shorts off, a disorienting sequence of imagined future scenarios swiped through my mind like sinister serpants.
They showed me dealing with an STD.
Taking a pregnancy test.
Getting an abortion.
Doing all of these things on my own in a country 6,000 miles from home and from everyone who knew me.
My fear of those imagined outcomes pushed me to speak up.
”You don’t want to go down there,” I warned, feigning concern for his well-being.
He reached for my shorts anyways.
And so I tried again, this time while looking him in the eye. Though I wouldn’t know the Spanish word for STD until years later when taking a medical interpreter certification course, I did have others at my disposal. Enough to explain that I’d once had “a bad experience” that left me with algo contagioso (something contagious).
If this man cared at all about his health, he’d stop what he was doing, I explained.
Maybe I was imagining it, but I thought I saw the slightest bit of uncertainty begin to share space with the vacancy in his eyes.
Whether or not he believed me, he stopped reaching down and settled on a non-penetrative compromise.
Afterwards he snatched up my shorts and emptied their pockets of the crumpled pesos inside them (the equivalent of about fifty U.S. dollars). Then after tossing them into a nearby bush, he ran off into the night.
As I stood up a dizziness overtook me, my soul quavering and disoriented in its return from the air above to back inside my skin.
Still shaking, I found my way to the closest lighted path, walking quickly until I reached Il Tempo—the club I’d started at.
I asked the bouncer if I could use the bathroom.
Once inside I washed my mouth with soap—one time, two times, five then six. No number of times felt like enough.
After returning to my hostel, I fell asleep, telling not a single soul. I wouldn’t for another six months.
Part of it was that I didn’t want to bother anyone. What had happened was heavy, but it was over now. I was fine—and what was there to say about it? Telling people, this soon into the start of my year abroad, would just be needlessly burdening them. Not to mention disrupting the momentum of what I’d wanted to be a chapter of growth and new beginnings.
Another aspect of it was that I feared the questions people might ask, even if just in their own heads:
Why were you walking on your own at night? Why didn’t you take a taxi? Why were you wearing shorts? Why didn’t you run? Scream? Why did you follow him into the park? Why weren’t you carrying mace? Why didn’t you…?
I too had asked myself these questions. And I had answers to them.
I was walking on my own because I’d just moved here and didn’t know anyone; I didn’t take a taxi because I thought the walk would be quick, and taking one every time you need to walk even just a block or two gets expensive; I wore shorts because it was a hot summer night; I followed him into the park for the reasons outlined in my thought process above, and perhaps because fear was clouding and constricting my rational thinking.
Still, I couldn’t shake free from the shame.
The people I confessed to months later turned out to be wonderfully supportive. Looking back, I can see that though I’d worried about them judging me, I was the one judging myself—then projecting that self-judgment onto them.
Still, even though my support group didn’t, I was also aware that society does lean toward placing accountability on victims—even more so in the years before the Me Too movement. Often, even now, the knee-jerk reaction is to question victims.
After determining that the best way forward was to put the incident behind me, I then locked it away into a mental casket and began the burial process. I covered over it with mate and dulce-de-leche; with invigorating swims through the Rio de la Plata; with meeting lively souls in the months that followed.
Though unaddressed, at least safely buried the memory couldn’t harm me. Or so went my thinking at the time.
Following the assault, I began my teaching job at the English academy. I assimilated to Uruguayan culture as best as I could, all while providing positive updates to friends and family back home.
The pushed-down trauma manifested in other ways though—in stress, depression, and near constant irritation. As Tara Brach put it, “The pain and fear don’t go away. Rather, they lurk in the background and from time to time suddenly take over.”
I drank unhealthy amounts of alcohol (not just in groups, but also when alone). Many things overwhelmed me. Countless triggers seemed to set me off.
The Uruguayan girl I’d been dating even said to me once, “Te enojas por todo” (“You get irritated by everything”). I ended up getting banned from that lesbian club I’d gone to the night of the assault, after arguing with the bouncer one night.
Nightmares plagued me. I’d learned in my college psych class that one of the functions of sleep is to escape from predators. I wondered why, then, I came face to face with my predator every night in my dreams.
I’d had other traumatic experiences prior to this one—many of which I’d stuffed away.
The pain pile-up will level off, if only you just stop looking at it, I often tried to tell myself.
It didn’t level off though. I’d flown down to Uruguay with the pile still smoldering, my conscious mind numbed to the fumes (having been trained to forget they were there). Following the assault, the pile grew—and continued to grow well into my return to the U.S.
When we avoid processing, the traumas form a backlog in our hearts and minds, queuing up to be felt eventually. Numerous studies have found avoidance to be “the most significant factor that creates, prolongs, and intensifies trauma-reaction or PTSD symptoms.”
It was only when I began inching closer toward my pain that I began to slowly heal the parts I’d stuffed down for so long.
Healing took place when I began opening up to people. It took place in therapy and through getting a handle on my drinking. It took place when restructuring my network, prioritizing the friendships that were better for my soul, while trimming the ones that had served more of a distracting and numbing purpose.
It took place in redirecting care to my relationship with myself—spending more gentle one-on-one time with her, out in nature or in a quiet room.
Every time I run barefoot on a beach, my heart heals a little.
Every time I leave an interaction (with either a human or the planet) with my soul purring like a pleased cat, my soul inches closer toward realignment.
I practiced turning toward my truer self in all these ways—until eventually, as phrased beautifully by Carmen Maria Machado, “Time and space, creatures of infinite girth and tenderness, [had] stepped between the two of [the traumatic incident and me], and [were] keeping [me] safe as they were once unable to.”
Though I want this for everyone who’s survived an assault, or any other serious trauma, it’s only within judgment-free space that true healing is possible. This means letting go of self-judgment, and surrounding yourself with people who can validate you.
May the idea be wiped from our collective consciousness: that the choice to wear a particular item of clothing, or to consume a few drinks, or to seek out a snack late at night—basic things men can do without fearing for their safety—are responsible for what happened to survivors.
May the prevailing understanding become that what is responsible—100 percent—is a person’s decision to assault. Full stop.
May all of these things become true—because no survivor should have to experience shame alongside the pain that’s already so difficult to bear on its own. Because every survivor deserves a space to heal and reclaim what was taken from them: the ineffable sense of emotional safety that should be our birthright. We deserve a viscerally felt “you are okay” coursing through our veins. We deserve to feel completely at home inside our skin.
May we arrive there some day.
About Eleni Stephanides
A queer bilingual writer, Eleni was born and raised in the Bay Area. She has been writing since elementary school, where she handed out her stories and magazines to her classmates. Her work has been published in The Mighty, Thought Catalogue, Elephant Journal, and Uncomfortable Revolution. You can follow her on IG eleni_steph_writer and read stories from her time as a rideshare driver at lyfttales.com.