The tears started when Google automatically translated the second foreign word to “games.” Did she want to search with her original spelling instead? Games were Scrabble, chess or baseball, she thought. Not the horror that she’d lived.
It all came back, as it had so many times since that joy-sucking night.
In this, her first year of semi-retirement, she’d celebrated May Day in Budapest, watched SinterKlass arrive in early December with the Dutch in Amsterdam, and made it home in time for Christmas with her son and family. It had been a great year. What better way to celebrate its passing than another trip, another party? She had planned some book research in the old European city of Cologne in January. Why not fly in early for New Year’s Eve? Her family had kisses and hugs and a loving send-off for Grandma at the airport, and suddenly, she was in Germany.
Even though it was New Year’s Eve, she hadn’t planned to stay out late. She could always watch the fireworks at midnight from the hotel if she cared to stay up that long. Near the hotel, the streets were warmly lit by the leftover Christmas lights, full of happy families, couples and party goers. It was every bit the party she expected. She found it hard to leave, kept telling herself she’d stay out just a little bit longer before calling it a night.
She’d been watching one of the big screens in the square, cameras close up on a Euro-pop band that made up for its lack of skill with loud enthusiasm, so she didn’t notice a change in the crowd. Before she could react, the laughing, dark-bearded young man she’d seen in the corner of her eye moved in close.
She took a step back. There was someone behind her, too, holding her by the coat. Her eyes were still on dark-beard’s face when he moved in. “Oma,” he sneered. She felt his hand between her legs. Hard and rough.
“No!” She cried out in fear and pain.
She pulled and twisted, finally creating some distance between herself and her attacker, losing her coat to the man holding her from behind. More rough laughter, one more lunging advance. The attacker grabbed the neckline of her red silk holiday blouse, tearing it from neck to hem.
They ricocheted away, taking their own separate paths through the crowd, calling to each other like blackbirds in a field.
The crowd was looking at her now but she couldn’t read their faces. She fought down shame. Not just because of the brutal exposure of too much old skin, her underwear stark white in the night. She’d suddenly realized that she’d fed her attackers with her fear. She’d let it show.
Wrapping the shreds of her blouse around her, moving back toward her hotel, she found her coat on the ground. Wet and muddied, it still covered a lot.
She stopped at the first policemen she saw. “Ich… Ich bin…” She stopped. She didn’t know the words in German to tell him what happened. She didn’t know the words in any language.
He looked at her muddied coat, scraps of red silk hanging below it and pointed back over her shoulder. His look had some kindness in it but even more, resignation, maybe some sorrow, too. When she paused in confusion, he turned her ever so gently. She’d walked right past a brightly lit police station, just fifty feet back. Even from here she could see a dozen women inside talking to the officers on duty or waiting their turn. On her way to join them, she hesitated. It was the woman bleeding into a wad of tissues from a streaming wound to the face that turned her again.
She wasn’t really hurt. Her room and credit cards were still in her coat pocket, though they’d taken the twenty Euro bill. That was nothing.
She’d slipped past the doorman to her room and finished the rest of the trip, a sort of automaton, taking her cues from the faces of people around her. The attendants look relaxed; this flight won’t crash and burn.
There had been no one to talk to. Her son would only worry more. She didn’t want to test his courage as well as her own, and she would travel again. She didn’t have the words for it anyway. When in Germany, she’d watched BBC and CNN compulsively, hoping that more information would help her make sense of it, but the arrests started only after she was home. Everyone was having a hard time making sense of it.
Today, back at home and reading the latest news, she’d found the words. Taharrush Gamea: games, a sport of young men, observed in Muslim countries everywhere.
She would let herself cry now, cry more, as her world got smaller and harder to comprehend.