I inhaled deep as soon as I entered Inwood Hill Park. The forest has a specific smell this time of year. It smells sweet and green and earthy. The bushes and trees are thick with leaves and the tulip trees have started dropping their yellow and orange blossoms. The petals litter the ground.
I walked up the path and smelled him first—the pungent scent of an early morning blunt. Then I saw him. He had his cap pulled low over his face. He put the tiny joint to his mouth and took a deep pull. When he said “Hola,” the smoke curled from his mouth. He smiled. I nodded and walked past. I wasn’t completely surprised when I looked back, as I always do, and saw him following. He walked slowly, maybe a hundred feet behind me. I said a silent prayer, “Y’all got me, right?” and kept walking.
I’d just finished spreading the bird seed in the circle where I sit when he approached. Yes, I kept going about my day because, well, no hay mas na’.
“¿Esos para los pajaros?” he asked.
I nodded but said nothing.
“Hay muchos aqui.”
I nodded again, avoiding eye contact.
He walked away, up the hill leading to the glacial pothole. I sat and watched him for a spell then I went about my ritual, praying and writing and sitting with nature.
My dog Napolean noticed him first, the same slow gait walking back down the hill toward us. Napolean let out a low growl and stood in front of me. I swear that dog thinks he’s a Mastiff.
The man in the cap stepped into the circle. I looked at him, my face tight. I held my pen and journal in my lap, pretending that he’d interrupted my writing. Really, I was adjusting my pen in case I had to stab him.
He smiled at me. “¿Te gusta el bosque?” I nodded. He shared that he’d started walking in the park in March when the trees were leafless and you could see deep into the forest. I responded with lots of mhms and sis, watching him closely. Ready.
He nodded and apologized for interrupting and walked off. That’s when I noticed that I was clenching my jaw and was clutching that pen so tight my fingers throbbed when I loosened my grip.
I spent this past weekend at a writing retreat with thirteen women in a cabin up in the Catskills. We wrote and shared and talked and drank and ate. Inevitably, as is the case whenever I’ve hung out with women for extended periods, the conversation went to the dangers we’ve experienced as women. The women shared stories of rape and sexual assault. The terror of being followed. The constant fear of being grabbed, pulled into a car, thrown up against a wall, pulled into the bushes.
The first time it happened to me, I was in my early twenties. I was walking back to my mom’s house in Brooklyn after visiting a friend. This was the mid-90s before Bushwick was gentrified, when there were still piles of rubble for blocks, before that rubble was cleared to make room for houses and condos and fifteen dollar burger bars. The block down from my mom’s was still desolate and badly lit, but I felt safe in this neighborhood that I called home for the first thirteen years of my life.
I heard him hissing at me but just kept walking. I always keep walking. That hissing and calling me mami shit has never gotten my attention. I slept. I noticed when it was too late, when I heard his footsteps running up behind me. When I turned, he pushed me against the wall and started grabbing at me. He grabbed my breasts. He grabbed my crotch. He went to yank open my pants. Thank God I had a belt on.
I started punching and scratching and screaming. I remembered that teacher who told me when I was a tween, “If someone attacks you, don’t fight back.” “What? Hell no!” I said. I couldn’t hide my exasperation. “You’ll get killed,” she said, looking at me real serious. “Imma fight back,” I said, shaking my head and staring right back at her. And that’s exactly what I did. I fought. I screamed loud, “Get the fuck off’a me!” And I punched. I punched hard. I slapped. I clawed. But, shit, he was so strong.
He held me down with one arm across my chest, above my breasts, while he groped me with the other hand. I just kept screaming and hitting him with everything I had.
The entire incident probably lasted under a minute. When he ran off, he yelled, “I never wanna see you around here again, bitch!”
That day I learned again just how vulnerable I am. How dangerous this world is for women. That’s the day I learned how right I was to tell that teacher “I’mma fight back.”
When I got to my mom’s house, I was shaking and crying. She called the cops and we circled the neighborhood in a patrol car looking for that pendejo. Of course we didn’t find him. The cop, a heavy-set white dude with bright eyes and a worried face, said, “You have to be careful out here. You shouldn’t be walking alone.”
I looked at him. “And what if I don’t have anyone to walk with? Am I supposed to stay trapped in my house?”
He shook his head. “Just be careful, okay?”
When people find out I hike in the park by myself, they often say, “Be careful, V” or “You’re crazy” or “That’s just not smart.” Here’s the thing: I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t change my free-spirit ways because of some potential danger. Yes, I know it’s a dangerous world for girls and women. I learned that when I got molested by a family friend in my backyard when I was six. I learned it again when my ex put his hands on me when I was eighteen. I learned it again when my daughter’s father slapped me while I had our crying baby girl in my arms. I’ve learned and relearned that lesson many times.
To be clear: I’m the woman who always fights back. I have no delusion that I’m stronger than a man. When my daughter’s father told me one day, “I could kill you,” I said, “Yes, but first you have to make contact.”
I knew I was having a girl as soon as I found out I was pregnant in January of 2004. To be honest, I’ve always known I’d have a girl. Still, when the midwife said, “It’s a girl,” my heart thrashed in my chest. I was terrified. I’ve been terrified for the past almost eleven years of her life.
I’ve taught her: “If someone grabs you, what do you do?” “Fight back and scream.” “How loud?” “Loud!” and she shows me just how ear-piercingly loud she’s supposed to yell.
Once, we were walking home late at night when she saw me carrying my keys splayed in my hand, a key in between each finger, my fist wound tightly around the ring. “Why do you do that, mommy?” I showed her how hard and swift I’d swing if some fool dared to attack us. Her eyes grew big. “Woah,” she mouthed in barely a whisper.
This year I started letting my daughter walk to school and back alone. She knows she has to walk on Broadway, where there’s a lot of traffic. She sometimes walks with friends, sometimes alone. Yes, I’m terrified for her, for us, but I don’t believe in helicopter parenting. It is my job to teach my daughter to be an independent, self-sufficient, productive member of society. Hovering over her won’t make her that. All I can hope is that I’ve taught her well.
Last year I started giving my daughter boxing lessons. I taught her the jab and the right cross. I taught her how to block blows and always protect her face and body. I taught her how to bob and weave. We practiced on the platform waiting for the train. We practiced in the park on our long walks in the evening. We practiced at home in our living room. One day, I came up behind her as she was walking home from school. I didn’t tell her I was coming. She had her huge bookbag hanging off one shoulder and one earphone in her ear while the other dangled, like I’d told her to do, “so you’re always aware.” I grabbed her shoulder and pulled. She flung around, her fists up, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. When she saw it was me, she frowned. “Maaaa,” she whined. “You scared me. Why’d you do that?”
I pulled her into my chest. “I want to make sure you’re always ready.”
She giggled. “You saw how I put my fists up right away.”
I can’t always protect her from this dangerous world, just like I can’t always protect myself, but I also can’t live my life or raise her with fear. I can’t live my life worried about a danger that lurks around the next corner. What I can do is live as fully as I can and I can teach my daughter to do the same. And we can always be ready, fists up, keys ready to knock out the pendejo who dares.
Vanessa Mártir is a NYC-based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, Relentless, and chronicles her journey in her blog: vanessamartir.wordpress.com. A five-time VONA/Voices fellow, Vanessa now serves as the organization’s Workshop Director and the newsletter editor. Her essays have appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology,Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Vanessa created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay. Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010).