Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.
It was like all those times she’d walked from her parent’s house to the nearest little train station, one train every hour, for the commute into Sydney for uni. All those obnoxious car horns as she walked the main road from home pissed her off, not to mention the rabid, unintelligible catcalling voices out the windows. They struck her from behind, sharp and jarring, without any warning, before fading away into the backwind and exhaust pipe fumes as the cars carrying them sped off.
Lavinia just had to take it as she walked, even if it meant that despite her physical fitness, she’d more often than not arrive on the station platform with a stabbing pain in her chest from all the unpredictable, shock noises that had stalked her along the way. She could have changed her route off the main road, down along the bike track and along the waterfront lined with mangroves, but it would have added at least ten minutes to her walk. Besides, she’d been determined that she shouldn’t have to be the one to change her routine, her behaviour. It was a matter of principle.
It didn’t stop her from complaining though. The whole thing pissed her off.
“I hate it here. Why did you have to choose to live in a place like this? So many gross bogans screaming catcalls out of cars. I can’t go anywhere without it happening,” she spoke sourly to her dad as they sat at the dining room table over coffee. One hand held a macadamia milk cappuccino halfway to her lips while the other rifled through the new Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag she’d just dropped three months of Christmas casual retail wages on.
“Drop the attitude. It happens everywhere,” her dad cut across her, firmly dismissive.
Ironic, that the whole ‘it happens everywhere’ cliché is always the go-to dismissal for problems like this; completely ignorant of the fact it actually hits the nail right on the head. It happens – everywhere.
Maybe Lavinia had lashed out, scapegoated a bit. Maybe her reactions were immature, superficial. But despite still lacking the right words to express herself, the eighteen-year-old still seethed at the idea that she was the one who had to be nit-picked at, she was the one put on trial for not complaining in the right words, when all she wanted to do was walk to the station in fucking peace.
The whole thing made her feel small, embarrassed and awkward, so she probably did put on an attitude to compensate.
At least now Lavinia was gradually growing into her looks and her style, shedding the puberty fat. It meant most of the street harassment could technically be interpreted as enthusiastic compliments. Not like two years ago. Sixteen, and on a family daytrip a bit further up the coast – ordinary but generally overpriced fish and chip shops and cafes along the sunny beachside esplanade.
Ah yes, who could forget that year? If Lavinia had been American maybe it would have been ‘Sweet’ Sixteen? But maybe that was just something in movies. In any case, for her it had meant fatter thighs, acne and a weird kink in her hair.
The previous year she’d been on her first overseas exchange trip – to Japan. And now, on this outing with her family, she’d decided to wear a dress she’d bought cheap with some pocket money back in Tokyo, Harajuku specifically, where she’d been out shopping with her host sister. It was a borderline cosplay of the sailor-style school uniforms for girls in Japan – much more fun than the boring uniforms she had to wear in Australia – and it had a short hem.
“Oi!” A loud, jeering voice sounded a little way across from her as she walked with her mum along the paved esplanade, carrying a cardboard tray of take-away coffees. In the corner of her eye she saw a man in board shorts, a t-shirt and sunglasses, standing beneath one of the navy blue outdoor umbrellas in front of the cafe they’d just come out of.
“Cover up ya fat slut!”
It was true her thighs were a bit fatter than they’d been before, and maybe the dress didn’t suit her that well either, at least technically. Maybe it was a bit weeb-y, for anyone who even knew that word. But who the fuck cared? She was just a kid, for god’s sake. The man who yelled at her, very conspicuously so everyone knew exactly who he meant, looked maybe about forty. But it was from a distance and what sixteen-year-old can really tell in detail anything above twenty-five or so?
The whole thing was humiliating and it cut the day short. It was awkward with that short hem, walking up the sharp incline of the hill to where the car was parked.
“This is why I told you not to wear that. Why do you have to do this to yourself?” Her mum grimaced as she walked alongside. Lavinia’s dad and younger brother were walking directly behind, snickering as she kept trying to tug down the hem over the most hideous part of her thighs. They hadn’t been there to hear the stranger scream the words ‘fat slut’, but they must have been aware something had happened to upset Lavinia, something to set off a teenage girl tantrum.
The snickering didn’t stop until Lavinia’s mum turned around and snapped irritably: “Enough already, she knows!”
Lavinia still couldn’t bring herself to speak. Why couldn’t they just read the room for once and at least stop walking directly behind her on that steep incline, where anyone could so easily get an accidental, and presumably grotesque, glimpse up her dress? The dress she had no business wearing and now felt silly and over-exposed in.
Amidst the self-loathing, guilt and embarrassment though, some part of Lavinia still managed to think: what about the forty-year-old bloke screaming sexually explicit abuse at a sixteen-year-old girl? Why doesn’t anyone get annoyed at him? Surely he has to be grosser than my thighs.
“Fuck off!” Lavinia turned and yelled at her brother and dad. But the male pair just looked at each other with humorous, knowing glances as if to say, “chicks…”
She carried the residual echo of that day ever since. She simply had to learn: protection whether you wanted it or not, but you don’t get to choose the terms. Somehow it felt like being a sports car, sitting in the garage while its owner one-sidedly negotiated deals for theft, vandalism and whatever-else insurance. Because it was a car. Why would you ask for a car’s thoughts on anything?
She didn’t want that to be her life.
Now at twenty-one, honours student and a committed member of the university’s karate club, she was starting to feel like at last she was finding her feet.
Although very recently there’d been a slight…hiccup, you could probably say.
A new guy had come and joined the club. He was maybe just a little bit odd and awkward, but nothing she’d thought much of at first. It was when he started the harassment and stalking, the groping her during drinks at the rooftop beer garden then throwing his drink in her face when she’d pushed him away, that she began seeing him as a problem. Of course, they’d all been a bit drunk that night at the beer garden and the drink in the face had just been an accident; the angry, baiting texts for days afterwards meant for someone else, clearly.
Lavinia was the uptight, superficial snob. The other, cooler girl, (Sarah?), who looks kind of like her said she’s a bitch too. See, it’s not just him. What the hell was she trying to prove taking a stupid old Louis Vuitton bag to drinks in Redfern anyway? She’d better stop being such a bitch if she wants boys to like her. He’ll be waiting for her after nighttime training, sometime next week, but he hasn’t decided what day…
Lavinia’s stomach turned, but then the sickly, churned contents started to simmer. She may have eventually caved and changed her walking route to the station when she was eighteen, but there was no way she was going to let this random creep just turn up and elbow her out of her own club; something she’d put so much sweat, blood, vomit, searing muscle pain, and self-actualising, borderline-masochistic determination into. The next day she filed an official complaint with the university – somewhat underwhelming and anti-climactic of an experience, but still.
And to people’s credit, they offered her lifts back to Central Station after night training, asked her if she was okay and if there was anything else they could do. She even got a few: “I thought he was a bit weird too”-s. The creep kept out of her way, with surprisingly little controversy, at least to her face. Eventually he faded out of the club altogether. But still for a little while after, Lavinia kept accepting lifts in the cars of those who drove, usually the same two or three people.
One night though, someone else made an offer, someone who up until now never had. Garry was a few years older than Lavinia, in a masters programme. He was one of those people who you never quite knew where you stood with, and who seemed convinced everyone should be concerned about where they stood with him to begin with. “Hey, I’ll give you a lift,” he waved her over, more of a directive than a suggestion, but he had his nice-guy voice on, so despite her gut, Lavinia complied.
She slung her sports bag onto the back seat then sat up the front next to Garry. At first no words were exchanged as they trundled down the dark streets of Annandale where the club had recently relocated for Monday nights due to the on-campus fitness centre being over-booked. Footpaths were lined with turn-of-the-century bare brick warehouses, motorbike shops and no-frills ethnic eateries that had been there for decades, now sharing with a consistent scattering of gentrified cafes and burger bars.
Inside the car was silence. Garry did this sometimes; called someone over only to then just sit mute, watching them squirm in the awkwardness of trying to work out what he wanted and whether or not they should already know. Lavinia unconsciously gripped the hem of her skirt, balling the fabric tightly in her fist. She knew what this was and she regretted her decision to get into his car. But no matter what, she refused to give him the satisfaction of being the one to break the silence.
Although it was dark, she could still make out his face, flashing intermittently into view for a few seconds at a time whenever they bypassed a streetlight. She saw the brief flicker of confusion in his eyes and the corners of his mouth twitching hesitantly. This clearly wasn’t going according to his plan and Lavinia relished in the satisfaction, even if it was destined to be only a small, short victory.
“So, you’ve been the topic of some of the club exec meetings…” Garry finally deigned to break the silence himself. He spoke in a soft, somber tone, as if delivering news to someone guilty and shameful, someone who needed to come clean already and stop causing so much unsightly mess. For all of Garry’s attitude, for all the clever subtlety he thought he had, for all the blank faces he pulled when he played dumb, there was still an overwhelming stench of sleaziness about him – like a glut of sewerage creeping up the pipes and oozing just a little bit over the drain grate in the shower or the kitchen sink.
“Look, you’re an attractive girl.”
Shit. He took her off guard with that one.
Lavinia was ashamed that she felt just a bit flattered and pushed the feeling down, hoping none of it had showed up on her face. At least it was still dark enough along the back roads heading towards Central Station.
“Will you let me tell you what I think?” Garry continued, the question, of course, being basically just a piece of arbitrary punctuation, leading into what he’d already decided was going to come next. “I think you have trouble relating to people. But I promise, you will find some close friends.”
What the hell?
A strange knot pulled itself tight in Lavinia’s stomach with a single, heavy-handed jolt. She felt the heat of her face flushing.
What the hell would you know?
I’ve definitely got more real friends than you, dickhead.
The words were in her head but they caught in her throat as she struggled to find her bearings in this bewildering situation in which she was a captive audience. She stared deliberately out the window, watching the grainy, shadowy outlines of terrace houses and shop-fronts go by. But Garry wasn’t about to stop. Clearly he’d rehearsed this.
“As a senior club member I have a responsibility to tell you that throwing tantrums isn’t a good look. Maybe the guy upset you, said something you didn’t like, I don’t know. But sensei and all us execs have enough on our plates without also having to deal with your personal problems.”
They were out on the main road now, middle lane, with lots of cars on either side. The lights of the CBD were small but discernable in the distance.
“Think of it this way,” Garry’s voice never rose. No sharp barbs or jutting edges. Just a consistent, unbroken flow that gently snuffed out anything else that tried to break its way in edgewise. “There’s really no such thing as gender equality,” he said. “But what we can do is create an environment of equality. That’s what sensei and male seniors in the club like me do for you girls, whether you recognise it or not. So I’d like you to try putting things into perspective and being a bit more mindful of how good you really have it.”
Could what Garry just said be true? Even just a little bit? The truth was she hated being a victim and honestly felt embarrassed to be the focus of any controversies, or even just mild annoyances for people. So maybe she should consider: had she exaggerated out of anger in the moment? It wasn’t as if she’d been dragged into an alley, pinned down and raped. Maybe she’d accidentally mislead by doing something that was meant as a recourse for actual victims. Yeah, the new guy had disturbed her, but she hadn’t been in active fear for her life or anything like that – it hadn’t occurred to her to be, at least not at that point.
Maybe she had really made it all up, just the way a bratty, superficial snob would.
They were getting close to the back end of Central Station by now, but to Lavinia the road felt like an endless treadmill, so close to the place where she could finally get out of this car, yet so excruciatingly far. Only the traffic surrounding them seemed to be going fast.
But still, Garry wasn’t done:
“You’re not entitled to anything. Not even to live. I could steer this car right into all that traffic in the left lane and kill you. It would be that easy.”
The knot synched itself tight once again in Lavinia’s stomach. Was the air-conditioning on a really cold blast or was something else, something terrible, crawling all over her skin and tingeing her fingernails washed-out purple?
Discreetly she stretched her pinky finger out and hooked it under the door handle. Maybe she had enough physical strength and agility to roll out of the moving car, like in an action movie. In any case, she had reasonable confidence she could do it if she had to without dying, even if it meant getting scraped and possibly lacerated by the tar and gravel.
But when she made a little tug at the handle with her pinky, it was only to find the passenger door had been locked from the driver’s side. Garry’s hands drifted, maybe a centimetre, up off the wheel and Lavinia’s eyes widened…
Then the car stopped. They were parked at the back entrance to the station; yellow sandstone illuminated in the now stagnant, unmoving streetlights, and in contrast with the glass and stainless steel downward escalator that ran parallel to the original marble stairs. When Lavinia heard the dull, plastic-y sound of a lock on the passenger’s side finally click open she clambered straight out, almost forgetting her gym bag, which she grabbed at the last second with a hurried swipe of her arm into the back seat.
Garry sat stationary in the driver’s seat, face almost expressionless except for the corners of his lips, turned faintly upward in a look of calm satisfaction. “Homework,” he stopped her abruptly just as she made to close the door, now safely out of the car and with her gym bag slung over one shoulder. “Go over our conversation just now in your head and see if you can think about the concepts a bit more deeply. Make notes if you have to, and I’ll look over them if I have time.”
Lavinia just closed the door without a word and he drove off.
Descending the escalator into the station her head began to clear and all the things she should have said came flooding in. Why the hell did she just sit there and take that? Because he was threatening to kill her? Sort of?
Part of her considered whether the whole thing was something to go to the police over. Did what just happened actually count as anything though? Garry had probably been right in his own semi-incoherent, delusional and juvenile way – the guys were the ones still setting the terms. It had been that way when she was ‘fat slut’ at sixteen, and that way still when she was ‘uptight, superficial snob’ at eighteen. So why should now be any different?
Garry was still a dickhead though.
Katie-Rose Goto-Švić is a Croatian-Australian emerging writer living in Japan. She writes fiction in both English and Japanese. She studied a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences with an additional major in Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, and now works in business development for renewable energies. Her crime/psychological fiction manuscript ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ was selected as a finalist for the 2021 Page Turner Writing Award. She also has a piece of prose about the treatment of words over social media, entitled ‘Ballad of the Preacher, the Poet and the Psycho’, scheduled for publication in the ‘New Contexts: 3’ anthology by Coverstory Books.
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