Caution

 

“You’re not in Europe anymore, you have to be careful here,” my mother warned me. It was as if she was Dorothy and I a scruffy little Toto bumbling about in a modern-day Kansas. Kansas being Valencia, Spain, where I’d been living for about three years when I decided to revisit my homeland—the US of A.

It can’t be helped; things change when you become an expat. There are the obvious things like your accent (it either fades away or grows much stronger), the food you eat (burgers become tapas), and probably the clothes you wear (Target deals versus market steals). Without realizing it, you become molded by the place you live in. You start to complain about the same things as the locals do, which in Spain is: the heat, the financial crisis, and corrupt politicos. In time you grow accustomed to certain things, like waiting too long at banks or friendly shouting matches between neighbors. Your old normal fades away and you are faced with a new normal.

Valencia is a friendly, relaxed place. People are often happy to help you with anything they can. Would you like some fresh oranges? Do you need a ride to the train station? Do you want this shirt off my back?! Sea breeze, bicycles whizzing past, and cheap but nice coffee. It feels good to get lost in a city that makes you feel good.

Not to mention, it’s very safe. The nightlife goes on until seven in the morning the following day, sometimes even longer depending on the circles you’re in. You can stumble home at dawn without worrying for your safety. I’ve seen all sorts at late hours of the night. I, myself, have been all sorts at late hours of the night. Yet, never once have I felt in danger in the city I now call home. Of course you have petty theft, people nabbing bikes and wallets, but that’s honestly as bad as it gets.

Without a doubt, I had been living in a bubble. This kind of safety didn’t really exist in the States, at least not anymore. Even the town where I grew up is notorious for kidnappings, drug busts and Mexican cartel murders. Laredo, Texas, barely has a quarter of a million inhabitants. You don’t have to imagine the kind of violence bigger cities hold. That can be found in the news. It didn’t matter, I’d still managed to forget all of it.

The episodes began when I spent two weeks visiting my parents. ‘Oops, I forgot how to drive’ became ‘Oops, I forgot people leave bars at midnight.’ Surely, I must have been slightly frustrating to be around with my newly acquired European ways.

“What, why was this bottle of wine $9? It tastes so bad! Even the cheap wine in Spain tastes better than this!”

However, my stories about haphazardly missing a flight in Berlin or getting into a secret R&B club in Paris were plenty to entertain my friends until reality came crashing in.

Oye, quieres un ride?” a middle-aged Mexican guy shouted from an old, beat up truck at my friend and I as we were sat upon a park bench in downtown Laredo. Due to my now very Spanish timekeeping, we’d shown up to the bars as they were closing. We decided not to waste the journey and instead went for a stroll through the historic district as we were both fans of its charm.

We ignored the guy and kept talking, he had a strange look in his eye and didn’t seem like the kind of guy one should acknowledge late at night. He circled the block in his old truck and slowly drove past us, blowing kisses and asking again if we wanted a ride. When he pulled away a second time and started to round the block for a third, my friend looked at me and said, “I think we should leave, he’s not going to go away.”

I looked back at the flatbed that was making its way around to us, I thought about what my mother said and then I stood up from the bench, looked at my friend knowingly and started running. My friend and I ran until we couldn’t see or hear any more cars or trucks going by. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but running away from men would become a habit on my great American journey that summer.

The rest of my family visit was quiet and for that I was grateful. My mother drove me up to San Antonio where I would catch my flight out to L.A. the next day. I’d only ever been to Los Angeles once before when I was eight, and I thought it was terrifying. Hollywood was filthy and crawling with crazy people who spoke to themselves in the street.  It’s understandable that my child self was afraid of the place. However, I was resolved to give the city another try, especially since a good friend of mine had just moved there with her fiancé.

As much as I hated L.A. as I kid, I loved it as an adult. It’s hard not to love the fusion, culture, and gastronomic variety a melting pot of that proportion offers, not to mention all those fun thematic bars and cinemas that go viral on social media. I had a ball, and I was just getting started when I saw that Chulita Vinyl Club, a group of Latina DJs, was a holding dance night in downtown Los Angeles.

That night we drove into the heart of L.A. and through its giant, throbbing skyscrapers to get to the event. The bar wasn’t packed, but the music was great. The three of us were happy to sip our cocktails and flick through the vinyls being sold on the patio outside. My friend and I sat down while her fiancé made friends with the locals. He was a friendly guy and had the gift of gab, attracting new friends like a magnet.

We were sat on our own, having a heart to heart, when a gaggle of boys came over to try and chat us up. As any polite person should, we obliged them at first and smiled at their jokes, but when they didn’t leave, it was hard to mask our annoyance.

“What are you, like, lesbians?” one goon remarked noticing our disinterest.

“No, we’re friends and we haven’t seen each other in a while. We were having a private conversation before you guys came over here,” I pointedly replied to his homophobic question.

My friend nudged my arm, and I followed her gaze toward her fiancé who was looking at us with concern, over the shoulders of some guys who were clearly friends with the goons surrounding us. Surrounding us. In that instant, I realized we were being cornered by what was now about seven total strangers.

“So, there’s this party. You girls wanna come?” another goon said pushing his face toward mine.

I started to feel uneasy.

“It’s gonna be fun. We’ll all be there. C’mon.”

“We’re with my fiancé,” my friend said gesturing in his direction, “so we’ll only go if he goes.”

Like clockwork the guys dragged her fiancé over, arms around his shoulders trying to look friendly. “Hey what do you say about the party, man?” the pushy goon went on.

“We’ll think about it. Girls, how about we go inside and dance?” my friend’s fiancé asked, motioning with his head for us to go inside.

We entered the bar and stepped onto the dance floor, the electrocumbia tunes were booming as I danced along next to the lovely couple and tried to forget the guys outside. My mind meandered back to a story I read in Viv Albertine’s biography about her friend and bandmate Ari Up. One night, Ari and Viv were invited to a party by some guys they’d met on a night out. The guys insisted and insisted, until Ari said yes but Viv said no and went home. Only much later did Ari called Viv to tell her there was no party. The guys had taken her to a derelict house and raped her.

Right when the song changed, the second goon appeared in front of me and grabbed my arms, forcing me to dance with him.

“I want to dance with you. Come to the party,” he insisted, his beady eyes peering into mine with stony determination.

“Let go of me!” I shouted and pushed him away.

My friends stopped dancing behind me and followed me to the door.

“I want to leave. That guy is creeping me out,” I said my voice shaking with a mixture of fear and anger.

Outside, the sidewalk was bathed in blue and red neon light. There was no moon. We got into the car and drove away from what should have been a good night.

“I don’t think there was any party,” my friend said to no one in particular on the drive back.

“Me neither,” replied her fiancé.

Although it didn’t ruin my visit to Los Angeles, it did shake me up. I couldn’t believe these kinds of things were happening. It worried me, not just for myself but for girls in all fifty states. I had a hard time sleeping that night wondering what might have happened had I been alone, had I not gotten away from those guys.

After my time in California, I returned to Texas where I visited my friends up north. Dallas, Texas, known for the Cowboys, the Mavs, and the Texas State Fair among other things. Dallas can be bourgeois, but it still has a rough and raw side to it. Neighborhoods like Oak Cliff were not as affected by gentrification as some might think. Despite its rough patches, it is a landmark neighborhood home to beautiful quinceñera dress shops, delicious Mexican bakeries, and the Texas Theatre of Lee Harvey Oswald fame. Right next to it, a hip and artsy neighborhood called the Pearl Arts District was flourishing. It was here that my friend and some of her friends were renting a charming, one-storey house.

I was lucky enough to stay there with them for a little under a week. The house was luxe, completely refurbished with a huge backyard and not too far from the center. This last point is especially important considering Texans go everywhere by car. Ergo, you can get a Lyft (like Uber with better PR) anytime and anywhere, much safer than walking at night.

“The bus is alright,” my friend told me one morning “it takes you to the Dallas Museum of Art.”

The word ‘art’ was all it took to get me out of bed and out the door headed for the nearest bus stop. Right after I’d arrived at the stop I heard, “Hey, do you want a ride?”

I turned around to see an old man in a brown Cadillac, window rolled down, looking me up and down in a rather unsettling way. Swallowing my nerves, I didn’t respond and simply looked away. I checked the time and hoped the bus would show up soon.

He repeated himself again, only louder, “HEY PRETTY GIRL, do you want a ride?!”

Suddenly, I felt anger begin to boil in my stomach and rise up through my chest. “NO! GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME.” I shouted into the open window at a pervert while I stood at the bus stop all alone.

The man waved his hand in defeat and drove off so fast his tires left their tread on the now graying asphalt. A minute later, a bus filled with people arrived and my tense shoulders finally relaxed. Defense mode turned off. The bus driver took us over a bridge high above the dwindling Trinity River and into downtown Dallas, a place where I’d spent a lot of time while in university. I felt comfortable, knowing which streets would guide me to old haunts and local taco joints.

When my stop came, I hopped off and made my way to the Dallas Museum of Art to see what had changed while I’d been away. It was as good as I’d remembered; its walls bejeweled with the likes of Holzer and Picasso. Afterwards, I was downright giddy, so I celebrated with a coffee in a nearby café. I walked around the area to reminisce a bit, then realized I was tired and took the bus back to my friend’s house.

In all my artistic stupor I confused bus stops and got off two stops too soon. Within seconds I had my phone out and was navigating my way back with Google maps. I was too busy looking at the map to pay any notice to the passersby on the street, except when I heard an engine slow just in front of me.

I looked up and I saw a man in white van, his head slithering out the window like a snake fixing its gaze upon newfound prey. My eyes darted back to my phone and realized I was still quite a walk away from my destination. I picked up the pace and continued down the sidewalk, my head wobbled side to side to see if there was anyone else around. Not a soul. When I turned to face the road, the man in the white van was driving past a second time. His face expressionless, his lips pursed in a deliberate and sickly kiss.

My feet moved faster, and I looked behind me to see the white van turning the corner onto the perpendicular street. No doubt he wanted to cruise by again. Sweat started to drip down my forehead, my mind going into flight mode. Google maps counted seven minutes, but I counted one; I had to get away from there before he came back. I broke out into a sprint down the street, straight into construction. The builders looked at me with shock as I ran past them and their signs that read:

CAUTION

WORK IN PROGRESS

The sound of heavy machinery didn’t scare me because I knew that the machines had people behind them. There was safety in numbers. But I didn’t feel safe enough, so I kept running. I didn’t go to my friend’s house in case the man followed me there. Instead, I ran until I reached the shopping district behind my friend’s house. People, people everywhere. I ducked into a shop that sold trendy albeit useless accessories. As my heart rate slowed, I ambled through the shop looking at things with feigned interest while keeping an eye on the street outside.

Half an hour had passed by the time I decided to head back. Every few seconds I found myself looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed. When I finally got in, I messaged my friend to tell her what happened.

“Fuck,” she replied “tomorrow I’m giving you my pepper spray.”

There were no other incidents like this during the rest of my American summer. Not because these were isolated incidents, but because I made a conscientious effort to never be alone, especially at night. I took caution and I listened to my instincts. Still, I acknowledge the fact that I had the privilege to do that. I was and still am in a position to get out of a situation that scares me, that makes me afraid for my life.

Not all of us are in a position to save ourselves. Because, in America, the system is not on our side. After all, the highest echelons of politics and show business are full of sexual predators, many of whom have not received punishment for their crimes. Directly or indirectly, this condones these acts and encourages other men to think they can act in inappropriate ways with a woman without suffering any repercussions. The seedy underbelly of American culture, a misogynistic rape culture, is rising up from below.

The sad part is that it’s always been there. Some of us were more aware of it than others. As recent events have shown us, the time to fight is now. We are fighting, and we will continue to fight. But we also have to be alive to fight. Preservation is the first step. Pay attention to the signs, listen for clues, and take caution. Tell your friends what has happened or is happening to you. Don’t keep it tucked away inside of you. Sharing your experience might give someone else courage to share theirs or even to realize that what happened to them is not okay. Trust your inner voice and if it tells you to run, then run.

 

 

 

 

WRITTEN BY ASHUNI LUCÍA PÉREZ

 PHOTOGRAPHY BY SADIE WILLIAMS