He stood in front of the youngest child’s room. His body shook nervously, seemingly full of adrenaline as his eyes dilated, deepening the shade of his green eyes. I was completely caught off guard when he blocked the door with his body to keep me from escaping.
The year was 2001, I was a young mother of two young children, one a late toddler and the other an infant. My breasts were engorged with milk because I had not nursed for a while. I had that tired look many mothers of young children have. It had been a long time since I put on makeup, let alone bought new clothes. My priority was to take care of my children. I was a stay-home mother, though my day was as full as a working mother’s. I did not know anyone in this new neighborhood except Cindy, the woman across the street from us. Her teen daughter had approached me, thinking I was her age.
I laughed at her shocked expression when she said, “ I thought you were fourteen like me.”
“I am the mother of these two,” I said, pointing to my kids. I’ve always looked younger than I am. When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband would not even walk next to me in public.
When I asked why he was walking behind me, he replied “Everyone seems to think you are thirteen instead of twenty-two and they are giving me disapproving looks.”
My husband and I had just bought our new house and needed to hire someone to install phone and TV cable lines. We were new to the area and didn’t know who to call, so when Cindy suggested we both use her handyman James, we agreed. Since he would be doing work at both our houses on the same day, James, an older man in his fifties, brought a younger man with him.
I saw the younger man working outside Cindy’s house while I was roller skating in front of my house. I skated back and forth, keeping an eye on my daughter playing on the porch next to my son who was sleeping in an infant seat. The man looked at me and nodded, and I tilted my head down, acknowledging his presence. I got off my skates when my daughter informed me that her brother was awake. I bent down to pick up the baby from the seat and when I turned, I saw the man heading toward me.
He introduced himself and said, “We are almost done with this house. We will do yours next.” He stood a little closer to me than normal, and his gaze lingered longer than I was comfortable with, but I thanked him, not registering any danger. I guess I felt protected because I had this idea that no one would think of a tired, nursing mother as a sex object. At least this is true in the culture of my upbringing. I didn’t know I was standing in front of a predator.
A short time later the man returned and said “Could you show me the room where we will be installing the phone line?” I secured my baby back into his infant seat and set him next to my daughter on the living room floor.
“It’s upstairs,” I said, leading the way.
When we got to the door of my son’s room, I stood just inside and gestured with my arm for him to enter. “In here,” I said. As he was passing me, I noticed that his whole body was vibrating with energy, reminding me of the predators I watched in the Somali desert when I was a child. His eyes were wide and fixated on me, his body was tensed as if ready to grab. Flustered, I made my first mistake. To break the tension, I backed away from him, moving farther into the room. I thought I could bring him back to the task at hand by explaining where the cable should go. It did not work.
The man began walking toward me aggressively, saying “You’re a beautiful woman. Do you cheat on your husband?” He repeated this phrase over and over “You’re a beautiful woman. Do you cheat on your husband?” and he drew closer. Suddenly, I found myself above this scene watching everything take place. My body filled with adrenaline of its own, and I was moving at the speed of light. I pushed him to the side with a force I didn’t know I had, and just like that, I was at the top of my stairs, fleeing my own house. On the way out, I grabbed my infant son and my toddler who had a confused look on her face. I recall hearing him apologizing once I was at the bottom of the stairs, but I did not look back. I stopped when I made the sidewalk of my house, out of breath, trembling, and confused as to what the hell just happened.
As true to my upbringing culture, I was already blaming myself. Yet when I dug deeper into our interaction, I could not come up with anything that I did that would have to lead him to believe I am the kind of woman who cheats. The sentence, Do you cheat on your husband? cycled in my head over and over. Who talks like that? What does that even mean? He finally emerged from my house, keeping his head down, feeling guilty for his action, I hoped. I did not go back into the house until my husband arrived. When I told my husband what happened he was very upset. We told our neighbor Cindy who had been our connection to these men. She too was very upset and apologized. She told me that she only hired James, who she knew well, and did not think he would bring someone else with him. The man, the predator, never came to the neighborhood again. James finished the work, though I made sure my husband was there when he worked on our house. At that time, I was in a freak out mode and had little trust in men.
The man who wanted to rape me did not succeed, however, the words of one of my husband’s friends, a man of Arab origin, still echoes in my head years later. A week after the incident, my husband shared what happened with this close friend.
“Your wife is very friendly, she needs to be careful,” was his friend’s response. It was clear what he meant – he was blaming me for what took place. It was hard to swallow a judgment from a man who was so jealous that his wife could not even go to school. I knew from past interactions that he had little respect for women so it didn’t surprise me that his first reaction was to blame me. But he was also telling my husband that I needed to be controlled better.
His disrespect triggered an early memory from my teen years, when I was young and in love. I too come from a culture where men are obsessed with controlling women, to the point of making absolutely sure that they are virgins when they get married. Men’s whole notion of honor is tied to the “good girl” behavior of the women in their family. I was not allowed to date or spend any time with a boy. I knew I was breaking the rules, but my relationship with this boy was completely innocent. We enjoyed going to the sweet store and listening to music. Our little “romance” helped me forget the hellish time I just got through as I escaped the war in Somalia. But when my cousin Ali heard that I had been out with a boy, he acted as if I were fornicating with the guy. He hit me as he yelled “You will not bring shame to our family under my watch!”
I remember the feeling of hopelessness I was left with, as if I were nothing more than somebody’s goat. I thought I left that feeling behind when I came to a western culture, but here I was again, still dealing with some men feeling like they have power over me.
I am fortunate that my husband is not that kind of man. He did not believe his friend’s comments and stood up for me. “Nothing my wife did made her responsible for this man’s actions.”
I am the author of upcoming memoir with Algonquin books: The Last Nomad.