Writing is born from the tension between what’s inside and what’s outside. Words erupt like little volcanoes from our fingertips, endless lines of lava covering cuts left by trauma and gaps created by all the things we’re missing. That is why those things begging to be written are often the hardest, most painful ones.
This is one of them.
It’s a sunny yet ice-cold early April morning. I’m jogging at a steady pace, the small round today. The sun is blinding me as it hops between the treetops. My breath is visible and my fingers are aching with cold.
Suddenly I’m there again. In the cold car. In the foggy meadow just as dusk is about to break. He’s asked me to stop the car. He’s asked me to remove my belt. Now he’s not saying anything, just staring at me. I’m looking straight ahead. We’re parked by a field, a couple of kilometers away from a bigger road. I’m 17 years old and this is my first driving lesson. He removes his glasses, tucks out his checked shirt from his pants and begins to polish the glass. Slowly, steady, circular movements.
“If you’re not going to remove your belt soon, I can help you” there’s a smile in his voice. A hint of a threat. He licks his lips. I try to move but I can’t take my hands off the steering wheel. They’re glued to it. Without looking down I try to remember what I’m wearing, try to think of if it’s too revealing. Jeans. Brown boots. A washed-out turtle neck and a green cardigan. Cheap earrings with plastic birds that I got for my birthday from my best friend. My hair is braided and tucked behind my ears.
I’m 17 years old. Just turned 17. I don’t understand this world yet but I can sense that this is not right.
He puts his glasses in the glove compartment. It snaps shut with a loud bang. That finally wakes me from my trance. I move my head for the first time in what feels like hours to look at him. He leans over and I feel like my heart my jump out through my mouth and detonate across his bearded face. I’m terrified he will try to kiss me. But what happens is worse.
He leans right over me, presses his face into my chest, his arm by my side fumbling to unlock my belt. I gasp and hold my breath. I don’t know what to do. His hand has found the belt and snapped it open. It’s now sliding up my upper body. He is breathing heavily into my breast. My brain is going all kinds of places at rocket speed.
Finally, something inside me reacts.
I scream so loud it almost shakes the car. He pulls back, his eyes large with surprise. I continue screaming and shaking. I try to open my door but it’s locked. The keys are still in the ignition and although this is the first time I’m driving a car I turn them and somehow manage to set the car in motion.
“Hey!” He calls as I role into the field, still screaming, furiously shaking.
“Shh shhh”, he says, “alright alright” he tries to touch my arm, soothingly. I yank it away and scream right in his face. That’s when I see him give up. He shakes his head ever so slightly. It’s the moment he knows he’s not getting out of this.
My driving instructor is 64 years old, only a year from retirement. I had overlooked all the red flags in his theory classes. How he’d insisted on showing how breaking and accelerating works by yanking mine and the other girl’s chairs from the ground, always ensuring to discreetly touch our butts. Always lingering a bit too long by our sides, breathing into our necks.
As soon as we make it back to the school, I jump out of the car. I run all the way home. When my mother opens the door she knows something is wrong.
I’m still crying and shaking and I can’t get myself to say anything for a couple of minutes, but then it all comes rushing. Just an hour later, we’re at the police station. I recount what’s happened. My dad is standing in the corner of the room his hands in fists, his forehead riddled with anger. “I’m going to kill him” he mumbles under his breath, earning scolding looks from my mom who’s trying to keep this professional.
The policeman calmly writes down my account. When I’m done, he tells me to get some rest and that he’ll get back to us soon.
I hang my head in the car on the way home. My entire being feels depleted. Something inside me has broken for good. I can feel my parents’ worried glances on me but can’t bring myself to meet them.
The next day, we hear back from the police. I don’t remember the details but apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Hadn’t been the only one. There were others.
The driving school closed permanently. I don’t know what happened to him. Technically, nothing had happened. No actual rape. I couldn’t press charges.
The only thing I could do was carry that hole inside me. And how I have carried it.
13 years. I’ve tried to fill it countless times. With sex, with drugs, with money, with people I loved and people I hated. Nothing ever came close to sealing it.
The loss of innocence is permanent. There is no linear timeline afterward. Only before and after. I said goodbye to my childhood that day and over the last 13 years I’ve woken up scared and fearless every morning. Ready to fight. Ready to stand up for what I believe in, to stand in the way of those who abuse their power. It doesn’t matter if the context is a board meeting crowded with white, middle-aged men. Or if it’s a dirty bar, small groups of grinning guys circling girls who’ve had a little too much. Or if it’s that dude in the subway who loves spreading his legs apart, scratching his crotch.
But I’m also afraid that it won’t be enough. That more women will cave under all the devastation. That thing will remain the way they are. Girls too afraid to stand in for themselves, hurting, wondering if this is all ok.
In many job interviews and client pitches, I’ve been asked why I want to do something, what I want most from a project. I always answer the impact. I don’t care how much I make (even though it should be at least as much as him) or what my title is. But I do want power. I want things to change. In your startup. In your corporation. In your family. In your society. In your mind.
The former driving school is a bakeshop today. Every time I visit the town I avoid the area. I’d never buy something there, not even the most seductive pastry. If I’m forced to pass the bakery, I close my eyes, clench my fist and give the girl that I was at 17 a gentle hug. I tell her things are better now. They’re not ok, but I’ve stood in for us. And I’m nowhere close to finished.
I’m the eldest of 4 sisters and maybe I didn’t choose this path, but it lies in front of me now and as I run between the great oak trees by the water that surrounds the little half-island I now call my home, I see how beautiful it is.
I close my eyes for a second and smile and thank my lungs for their capacity and my legs for their endless endurance.
There’s no stopping me.
There’s no stopping us
Nicole Alexandra Michaelis, she is a professional storyteller obsessed with dogs, words, and David Bowie, hire her here: nicoletells.com