One night, roughly a month after I had settled in the city, I remember vividly. It was the starting point of a new view of the world and myself. It was the night of March 8th, International Women's Day. Ironically, it was the first year I heard that this day was a thing people celebrated, as friends bought and received flowers from other women and men. The desk at the immigration office where I had my picture taken that morning was covered in vases of flowers. Curious, I wondered how long the holiday had been celebrated. That evening there was a concert near the arts faculty on the far side of the city. Two close friends and I made the trek in the early spring cold, where we met up with other friends I had made, Hungarian students in my painting studio. We shared art-making quarters and ideas about painting. Unlike the European students I lived with in a giant dorm, affectionately nicknamed "The Cockroach", these students were Hungarian and through them I learned more about Hungary and fell in love with it swiftly and inexplicably. When I felt the weight of my shame and isolation press on me like an anvil, painting and drawing were just about the only skills I could value about myself. These students, these artists, were sensitive like me. We could share deeper feelings, make instant coffee, and let the hours and anxieties fall away in the top floor of the visual art building. Before I meander too far down memory lane, back to the concert. Naturally, I had a few drinks, danced wildly, laughed copiously. As was common, my two friends from the dormitory wanted to leave earlier than I. They pressured me to come home but I waved them away, enjoying my time with my art friends and the timeless feeling of the night that only youth seem to possess. By around two, I was sobering up and ready to travel home. I said goodbye to my friends and began walking. It was cold and I pulled my thin black jacket closer to my body, shoving my hands in my pockets and cursing my past self for putting on thin tights. The walk between the arts faculty and Boszorkány, the cockroach dorm, was around 45 minutes. I traveled the distance morning and evening, often walking back to the city center halfway through the day for a bite to eat. I could walk the route in my sleep, and had walked it practically every hour of the night and day over the past month. If you're becoming impatient with me setting the scene for something you feel is going to be climactic and possibly terrible, so be it. I can tell you the infinitesimal details about this night until I'm blue in the face, as if remembering them will help me understand why it happened. If anything, it helps me cope. I do not enjoy this; this is not me as a writer setting a scene for a character and wondering how I can build the drama to be more poignant. This is exactly how my memory recalls that night. So let's dive in again.
I had passed the city center, Széchenyi Tér, the open square past the old Ottoman-era mosque-turned-church, the statue of János Hunyadi on horseback, the McDonald's, when I turned my head around and saw a figure quite a distance away from me. I wasn't scared, but that late at night I didn't want to run into anyone on the quiet streets, so I quickened my pace. I passed the wooded park in front of the Cathedral, and was walking through a section called the Barbakán, an old stone tower and stone battlement walls, when an arm violently grabbed my waist and a hand covered my mouth. It was hard to even register. One moment I was walking with only the thought of the warm dormitory and soft bed that lay ahead of me, the other I was trapped in a terrifying embrace with a stranger. I jerked my head to the left and right, trying to break free or at least see my attacker. I've never felt more powerless in my life. I'm tall for a woman- 5'9" and athletic, but no movement I made could break his hold. It is difficult to describe to anyone, the panic of being in my attacker's grip. While I remember seeing countless enactments of a similar nature on TV and movies, nothing could prepare me for the utter paralysis of being overpowered by another human. It was like drowning and needing air desperately as you sink further under the waves, the metaphor feeling real because I could scarcely breathe with his hand clamped over my mouth and nose. I could smell the leather of his glove over my nose and mouth as I struggled to breathe. I could smell the alcohol from his breath and facial hair scratching my cheek and neck as he pushed his mouth near my ear; every sensation was intensified, every sense magnified, and time really did appear to slow down. I heard him rapidly hiss Hungarian into my ear in a low, gravelly voice. Despite a month of semi-immersion and half-hearted study of the language before I arrived, my terror didn't translate any of it. I kept shaking my head and struggling. He forced me down to my knees. On contact with the cobble stones, the skin of my knees broke open and I felt a sharp, intense pain. He drew his hand from my mouth and gripped around my chest as I let myself go limp, struggling to drag me across the cobblestones. I shook my head crying and saying "nem", Hungarian for "no", over and over. In a split second I remember thinking coldly that he could have a knife and that my life was in his hands. He was mostly likely going to rape me, by the tower. He might kill me afterward. I tilted my head back, not to see him but to look at the world before it was to go dark. I saw a nearly-full moon and streetlights. I saw the road ahead lined with darkened, silent apartment and shop windows. I thought, "this is it." He continued dragging me across the cobblestones toward the stone tower. Like a gong, like a voice distorted by a bull-horn in the distance, I heard my mother's voice. "Fight! You have to fight! You have to get away! You have to run!" She had told me this time and time again, cautioning me that I always had to be aware of my surroundings, from a young age to present day. She perceived danger everywhere, constantly worrying about the worst-case scenario. It was a trait my brothers and I teased her for, but I knew she was right in many cases. There were "bad people" out there who would do bad things to you. I shudder now to think that her fears might be grounded in realities that she was forced to face earlier in life. Whether it was adrenaline-infused-memory that brought those words to my consciousness or her voice reaching across time and space to wake me up, her words saved my life that night. Without warning I started fighting his hold and yelling "HELP!" over and over. For what seemed like an eternity, he gripped my thrashing body, fighting my loud voice and flailing limbs. Then, like a flicker of light, he was gone. I didn't have time to wonder why he had let me go; whether he was afraid of the attention my yelling could cause or surprised at the English words tumbling out of my mouth, he fled, probably deciding I wasn't worth the hassle. I pulled myself upright and ran across the street. I spotted a line of taxis parked along the road and climbed into the passenger's seat of one of them. I was sobbing, recounting the experience in spurts of incoherent words and loud, snot-filled crying. I looked over at him, a middle-aged man in glasses. His face was incredibly concerned. He didn't try to calm me down; I don't think he even spoke to me for a while. He let me cry and sputter and shake until I was calm enough to muster "Boszorkány. I want to go to Boszorkány." in Hungarian. He started the car, this angel of a man, and drove the remaining two minutes, another ten walking minutes, to my dormitory. Outside the building I pulled money out of my bag and tried to hand it to him. He shook his hands and head, refusing to take my money; so I started sobbing again, and threw the money on the seat as I flung open the door and ran into the building, past the ever-present, revolving-door group of smokers on another late-night student cigarette break.
I began to climb the central staircase, suddenly feeling self-conscious under the fluorescent lighting, worrying about, of all things, how I would look if anyone was in the gathering place on the second floor. Because if there was anything I was not going to do, it was explaining what had just happened to me. I don't remember now if there was anyone in the common area. I set my face to look as emotive as stone and walked quickly to my room. Our rooms had a small common area with cabinets and a door to the bathroom. There were two doors: one led to my and my roommate Victoria's room, the other to our flatmates Pina and Yvana's room. I stepped into the common area, closed the door behind me, took a deep breath and smelled the garlic in Pina and Yvana's cabinet, took off my shoes, and tip-toed into my room. Victoria was sleeping so I tried to make no noise as to not wake her. Inside my head was a sound that can only be described as that channel that picks up static on the television, turned up as loud as the volume goes. My head was throbbing and my knees felt torn up. I stripped off my dress, grabbed my toiletries, and sneaked to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror, repeating to myself silently but mouthing the words, "You're alive, you're alive, you're alive, you're alive......" Nothing felt real and I didn't feel safe even in a room with a locked door. I sat down on the floor, looked at my new, green tights. I had lost the same pair of tights a few weeks before on a trip to Budapest, leaving the boutique bag at a restaurant. I was distressed and my friends, feeling for me, kindly bought me a new pair of green tights. Why this thought surfaced on my mind then is a mystery to me. Maybe it was the irony of it; this second pair of tights, now torn into shreds above my kneecaps, bright red blood oozing over my skin and staining the green a dirty brown; now adding to the bitter irony of International Women's Day. I was still shaking as I stripped down and took a long, hot shower, scrubbing my skin and my burning knees. Finally I got out, dried off, and lay down on my warm bed, letting exhaustion take hold as my roommate's soft breathing and the faint laughter of student smokers lulled me into sleep.