Today I experienced my first – and hopefully last – act of violence in Buenos Aires. Objectively, it was a tiny incident that doesn’t hold a candle to the violence and violation experienced everyday by millions of people across the globe. But it terrified me and violated my sense of security, and how I felt after might have implications for more traumatic kinds of violence as well.
It was a beautiful day: the sun was shining and my spirits were high as I walked the familiar path to my favorite yoga studio in Palermo Soho, a chic and relatively safe neighborhood in Buenos Aires. A girl came up alongside me and asked, in Spanish, if she could ask me a quick question. She was friendly and unintimidating, almost exactly my size and around the same age, clean and well dressed. My guard was down.
I assumed she needed directions, but instead she asked if I had any change to lend her. I told her no, sorry, I didn’t have anything. “Are you sure?” she kept asking me unaggressively. She kept asking and said she needed it to feed her son. I kept repeating, more forcefully each time, that no, sorry, I didn’t have anything.
“How could you not have anything?” she asked with a mad twinkle in her eye as she ducked down towards my bag and tried to reach in. I pulled away from her just in time, dismayed, and yelled at her to leave me alone. That’s when she punched me in the face. Hard. My hand immediately went to my face and I slowly backed away, shocked, staring at her in dismay as though expecting an apology. She came towards me again and I felt a wall behind me – there was nowhere else for me to go. I felt small and weak; she had all the power here. She had a crazy look in her eyes and I had no idea what this angry, desperate woman was capable of. She got in my face and started taunting me: “Go ahead, yell. Yell. Yell for those boys over there to come and help you.” I didn’t say anything, just kept my eyes on her. She said something foul and then left.
It wasn’t until she turned the corner that I let my head fall to my hands and sobbed in the street. It was also then that I saw who she had been talking about – and probably the reason she left: two men had stopped their car on the road alongside us to make sure everything was all right. A woman with a stroller also crossed the street then and came over to me. She said she had thought it was just a joke at first. And when she found out I wasn’t from here, she said what everyone says: these things happen all the time in this city; you have to be more careful. I thanked her and the men for stopping, and, shaking, hailed a cab. It was only a few more blocks to my yoga studio but the girl had gone off in the same direction and I was terrified. Between the fear and adrenaline I felt, I couldn’t stop crying. I was five years old again and all I wanted was my mommy. I hated how I felt: small and weak, too scared to even walk home.
And yet, most of my anger, I began to realize, was reserved for myself. I blamed myself for not being on guard, for not sensing the threat earlier and taking shelter in a store. I chastised myself for trusting her at first, later for not having handled it better, for letting her make me feel small and weak. Ashamed at giving her this power over me. Sure, I hated her too for making me feel that way; but then I hated myself for hating her. After all, if she’s really looking for money to feed her son, and she’s desperate and angry enough to hit strangers in the street, shouldn’t I feel more compassion? I’m the one with the comfortable life.
I wanted to talk to someone, to tell them what had happened and receive comfort, but in a city where most people have worse stories I was embarrassed to have reacted to strongly to mine. “These things happen all the time,” they’d say. “You have to be more careful.”
This was a small incident with no lasting repercussions, I know that. But I’m sure what I’m feeling what now is normal – and if I feel this scared, small, and even ashamed after a punch in the face, I can’t imagine what survivors of real violence must feel like.
On that note, the upside of this experience – besides the fact that I finally learned the don’t-talk-to-strangers rule – is gratitude. Gratitude that the worst I’m left with is a bruise on my cheek and that it wasn’t worse; gratitude for the people who stopped to help me on the street and the stranger who brought me water when I started crying in the yoga bathroom; gratitude for the yoga practice that helped me feel peaceful and strong after an experience that left me feeling shaky and weak; and gratitude for the writing that helps me clear my head, even if nobody’s reading.