I Was Sexually Assaulted in Esmoriz
Rough, bony hands grazed over my bum as they slithered their way to my stomach. They tightened around me, pulling me back against his body. I stood dead straight, paralysed, smelling his thick tobacco breath as he nibbled my ear. In another circumstance, a bar or club, I would have turned around and hit him. I would have torn away his invading fingers. But I was in his domain and had no way of predicting his reaction or those of any of these other men. Instead, I waited for him to loosen his grip and walked away silently, still feeling the shadow of his hold.
I was at the beginning of my trip along Portugal’s coast, staying in a small fishing village where crumbling houses decorated in turquoise and yellow pattered tiles piled closer and closer to the sand, choking each other. Each morning I watched as the men launched rowboats of peeling primary colours, so big they looked as though they shouldn’t float. The entire village would walk down to the beach, collecting these twitching fish, manically flickering under the sun. The rest of their day was spent lethargically next to stalls, selling fish to non-existent customers. I could feel the air, thick with the scent of the fish’s warming bodies.
From the moment I arrived in Esmoriz, I felt something was wrong. Sitting under the midday heat next to the hostel’s only other guest, I tasted sticky, sweet cider and the sea in my mouth. He sat across from us with the other men working there. The unease was set solid in my stomach by their laughter, each of them already drunk and stoned.
I woke each morning to the intrusive vibrations of techno pumping through our garden and into my dorm window, and stepped out on to the patio to a pack of men from the village, fucked up on who knows what. I could never quite distinguish between those of them who actually worked at the hostel and those who just came to laze around drinking Superbock. But I could pick his sinister snicker from their rumbling voices. I dreaded his insidious stare peering out from a harsh, hollow face on top his long skeletal body.
Later that day, sitting on my surfboard lost in thought, he paddled towards me. My stomach twisted as he pinched my bum. “Don’t do that. I don’t like it.” He dismissed me, saying he was “giving me an electric shock to wake me up for the waves”. I ignored him and repeated myself, shocked as I realised my fear was so intense that tears had begun rolling down my cheeks, adding to the salt of the waves around me.
Rather than leave, I consoled myself in the thought that maybe he would now see I did not find this funny, that he needed to back off. It was a brief moment of relief. I spent the rest of my time there choking on fear, nausea washing through me and tossing me in its power, but I didn’t tell anyone. Rather than leave me be, he found every opportunity to get me alone, pinching my arm so hard it still hurt as he turned away smirking through yellow teeth, “Can I pinch you here?” He’d stub cigarettes out on my board and taunt me – “Why won’t you smile at me? Smile for me!” – as the other men leered out over his shoulders with gargoyle grins.
I kept telling myself that I could handle it. I had always considered myself strong. Never the sort of person to let this shit happen. The kind of girl who wouldn’t just keep walking when someone grabbed her arse. But I was afraid to tell anyone in case they told him.
I’ve grown up in a world where wearing a school uniform makes you an automatic target for paedophiles and where people don’t even blink an eye when strange men shout at young girls. Somewhere along the way, something has gone terribly wrong. If a stranger gropes you or shouts at you or touches you or threatens you, you are expected to accept it. For the most part, we have. And so, I kept my mouth shut.
The days there lugged on. Not wanting to waste the money for my bed I’d paid upfront, I stayed. Until one morning, I pulled myself out of the fog and left silently. I packed my bags and ran for the first train. Switching from rail to bus, I kept moving for 11 hours. Further and further from Esmoriz and from him.
I found myself alone on a bus stop bench gazing at the Milky Way in the vast clear sky of the Algarve, waiting for a friend to pick me up. After waiting an hour I stood, dragging my suitcase over the humpback bridge of a river to a small restaurant humming with people. I sat at a table outside, enjoying this moment of loneliness.
Eventually, a car pulled over and the shape of what was previously a new friend but was now a familiar one jogged over and embraced me. Together we drove through winding mountain roads, warming the car with stories, arriving at a rave hidden beyond dry greens of a forest. We pushed though to the friendly vibrations of dance music and warm light of candles. She and I scaled further up, past the music and above the swell of dancing bodies to a pair of car seats shoved into the side of the mountain, overlooking the rave.
Next to each other, we gazed out across the night sky and the mountain falling towards the ground below us. I twitched as I remembered those eyes and that touch. No one wants to admit to themselves that they’ve been sexually assaulted, yet so many of us have, time and time again. It’s only looking back on what I’ve experienced so far, on all the situations I feared I would not get out of, that I realise I have been a victim. But fuck the word victim, and fuck anyone who ever makes you one.
It makes me sick, squirms so deeply under my skin that this is the world we live in and these are the things we are expected to accept in order to keep living in it. I can’t have some profound moment about Esmoriz. I can’t sit marveling over this shitty situation. If I did that every time I encountered some creepy dude, I’d never get anything done; I’d be too busy having profound moments. So I placed this man, just another, in the collection of those we make ourselves brush off, because thinking for too long is dangerous. I let the tension ebb out of my bones, tasted the open air and started breathing again.
Cover by Lydia Harper; inset by the author