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Sarah had dark brown eyes that never lit up. Except when she saw Linnie. He was energetic, kind and funny. Linnie was everything she was not. There was no urge to fix her behaviour or tweek her personna. But she liked watching Linnie from a distance. It was creepy and if Linnie found out, he would move jobs and cities. They were in the same position at work; only different teams. He was that kind of guy. Kept out of everyone’s way and avoided complications.

Linnie noticed Sarah the first day he joined work. Sarah, though not very attractive, had a permanent smirk on her face. She was funny but she never laughed, wholeheartedly. She wore a mask to work or probably everywhere. He had no intention of forcing her to take it off. But he noticed that she treated him differently from others. Unfortunately, others noticed too.

They worked in the same office for 2 years before they had their first private moment. They both stayed late to catch up on work; she was making a cup of coffee when he walked into the pantry. It was unusual the tension in the air. He smiled; she smiled back. She nodded; he nodded back. The conversation ended. She already knew he was not corrupt and she had by then been labelled as the evil one. Those don’t blend well. In any world. He never made an effort. 

Five years of working together, neither of them budged. Every time they were alone, the tension remained. No words exchanged. Just the smile and the nod. Neither of them took that leap to even test the waters.

Eventually, Linnie got a transfer and he grabbed it. It was a promotion and a chance to work from the headquarters. A farewell party was thrown in his honour. Everyone loved Linnie and were sad to see him go. He looked for Sarah everywhere. She was nowhere in sight. He thought he would say goodbye. As the party ended and everyone left work, he packed his stuff to leave. There was a present wrapped in shiny red paper on his desk. He opened it up and it was a copy of The Little Prince. The scribble inside said: ‘What is essential is invisible to the eye’.

There was no name. But he knew it was her. He put the book along with his other stuff and walked out of office. He never saw her again.

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I have gotten so much unsolicited advice and snide comments from people that I finally decided to write this. Let’s get a few things straight shall we?

One: Sexual assualt has nothing, NOTHING to do with the victim. If you seem to believe that how I dress, or what time I am out at night has anything to do with it, I think you need to not speak. At least to me.

Two: Telling me to stay at home in the night cause ‘it might happen to me’ is not an option and hardly advice even. From experiences of the women in my life, I know for a fact that we all have a self-censorship system in place and a fear button that is superior to your nagging voice. We are already probably fighting ourselves to do what we want to do. In this case it could be taking a bus at night or walking home alone. So your advice or comment about my presence outside at night is actually reinforcing my fear. I don’t need that.

Three: Most women that talk about their experiences of sexual assault have thought about it extensively before they spoke out. We have lived and been indoctrinated into a culture of silence where we learn early to ‘ignore’, ‘let it slide’ or ‘forget about it’. Speaking up is an exhausting process for one has to deal with a rigid system that is mostly insensitive. So, they are not liars.

Four: Sexual assualt jokes, rape jokes, jokes about the victim being promiscuous are not funny.

Five: I want safety. Not protection. Learn the difference. It is not a thin line; there is a world of difference.

I have had many conversations on this with the women I know and love. We agree on a lot of this and we also disagree. For the reality of the situation is that we want to be safe (yes, not protected!) and we don’t feel it. So how do we then ‘behave’ in order to not curb our mobility and still be assured of our safety? There is no simple answer.

We negotiate these spaces each day. Some of us challenge them more assertively than others. Some of us are testing our limits each day. Some of us are learning that there is life beyond sexual assualt and rape. Some of us realising that the fear governed us. Others are discovering the power of speaking out and the solidarity that follows.

Mostly, I am learning, struggling and doing the things I want to, going to places at the times I please, using the modes of transport I wish. In the process, I try to let go of this haunting fear that ruins these experiences. Like travelling alone. This is a tough battle for me. There is no right or wrong. But I am happy engaging with it.

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‘I wanted to write this letter to you ages ago. But I held back because of fear. I just want to wish you good health and happiness. I want to tell you that I think of you from time to time and wonder if you are doing okay. You hid so much from me these past few years that this letter seems inappropriate. I couldn’t even address it to you. What do I call you? your name is too formal. We are far past cutesy nicknames. So I have left it unaddressed. I doubt I will sign off with a name too. We were always beyond names. Now, we are nowhere. My handwriting might speak to you, though. Or the cigarette smoke on this letter. You didn’t know too many who smoked back then. But a lot has changed, hasn’t it? You probably would have to reread this letter numerous times before you realise it is me. I doubt you can recollect how I look, too. Occasionally, I remember like it was yesterday. Other days, I am aware it was many moons ago.

Today, I won’t bore you further. I just hope you are well. If you have trouble recollecting who this could be, maybe you are in a better place than me. Let me offer you a piece of advice then. Even if it is unsolicited. Tear this letter up into tiny pieces and throw it away. I am sure you will feel great.

November 24, 2013’

He reread the letter. Several times later, he tore it up and threw it away. He didn’t want to be reminded of her. But he had to admit, she was right. He felt great.

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The alarm rang. It was 3.37 am. I loved the strange ring to the time. I didn’t want it to be a figure anyone would understand. I timed it perfectly. I fiddled under the bed to pull out the axe, marched over to the balcony and climbed into the adjoining one. I climbed in through the window quietly. I sneaked up on the still body, pulled back the sheets to get one last look at her before I ended it all. To my surprise, someone had beat me to it. There was a bullet hole in her forehead. I ran out of there quickly. As I jumped out the window again, I noticed the time. It was 3.43 am.

I couldn’t even call the police or tell anyone what I saw. No one would believe I didn’t do it. Though, I didn’t have a gun. I never found out who killed her. Nobody would tell the truth. I couldn’t believe someone else wanted her dead as well. That too on the same night.

It was just a freaky coincidence. Or so I thought.

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My watch’s strap broke; it fell to the ground. Before I could pick it up, her 4 inch heels cracked its glass. She just stared at me, unapologetic. I stared from the shattered watch to her white face. Yes, white. Probably from a thick layer of foundation. I never really understood make up. As a child, I watched, bewildered, when my mother put foundation on her face before weddings or other fancy outings. The foundation never really made it to the neck. Just the face. Leaving the neck and face in two very different colour schemes. I was scared of my mother back then and even now. So I never asked her, ‘Why not the neck?’

I obviously couldn’t pop this question to this tall stranger. She didn’t seem scary but even my socially awkward self was sure it was inappropriate. Plus, there was the added disadvantage of staring at a strange woman for obscene amounts of time. Even if the one staring was a woman. It never really was polite. I got these stares often. Sometimes questionable ones trying to ascertain if I am a girl or not. Others wondering where one tattoo ends on the arm and where the other begins. So I learnt from experience that staring always made me uncomfortable.

I took my eyes off her soon enough. But my question remained unanswered.

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She stared at her feet. She hated them. She also disliked her legs a decent amount. She touched her hair. She liked that, though. Short crop but it always made her feel good. She had always felt she occupied too much space. She wasn’t fat per say. But she wouldn’t be called thin in this lifetime. She struggled to fit herself in the appropriate boxes. But with her hair she refused to conform.

She wished to reveal these thoughts in her gender class the next day.

She had joined mid way and everyone had already developed attachments. She tried but she couldn’t really fit in. So she slunk to the back and just wrote notes throughout class. She didn’t speak a word. The class was discussing body image for the next week. She knew it would be interesting. Maybe this would urge her to find her voice.

It seemed like a shallow and stupid exercise at first. But in fact, it was deeper than she realised. She hated parts of her own body; she never really sat down to think why.

Did others feel the same?

Sometimes she felt no need to share her thoughts. The warmth and solidarity of knowing she wasn’t alone was enough. But sometimes she wanted to let out her experiences. Share without any fear.

She, suddenly, couldn’t wait for class.