Invisible Neon Signs
By Sydney Khoo
CW: sexual harassment, physical assault
I’m at Coles in Wattle Grove with my aunt, picking up ice-cream when I run into him. It’s a Sunday afternoon in the middle of September. The forecast had sworn a max of 29°C, but I’m in shorts and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and they’re soaked in sweat.
It’s supposed to be a quick trip. In and out, ten minutes max, but my aunt tells me to buy some snacks, so I stick close to her as she peruses the junk aisle.
I hear him before I see him.
“Hey sweetheart!” His voice isn’t familiar, but I know it’s him. I’d know that leering tone anywhere. “You like your tattoos, huh?”
I pretend I don’t hear him, eyes focused on a bag of chips I have no interest in buying. He comes around in an orange collared shirt and khaki shorts, blocking me from moving further up the aisle.
“Yep,” I say, turning away, hoping that will end the conversation.
“I’ve got tattoos too,” he says, rolling up his sleeve. I didn’t ask him if he did, and even if I did, I wouldn’t ask to see them.
“Okay,” I reply, averting my eyes.
“Where did you get them done?” he asks.
“The UK,” I reply, looking to my aunt. She’s skinny and a lot shorter than me. It’s different, going out with her, than going out with my brother who’s a bodybuilder, or my father who’s two heads taller.
“Is that where you’re from?” he asks. “The UK?”
“Sure,” I say, taking two steps back.
“How long have you been in Australia for?” he says, taking two steps forward. “Do you live here now?”
I regret not putting on sweatpants before leaving the house. It’d be stiflingly hot, but it’d be worth it to spare myself this interaction.
“If it’s okay,” I say, glancing at the ice-cream in the basket. “I’m actually in a bit of a hurry.”
“Sure thing, sweetheart,” he says, looking me up and down once more. His gaze lingers on my thighs. “No worries.”
I leave the aisle with my aunt, eager to get out of the supermarket as fast as possible. In Cantonese, she asks me if he’s a friend, if I know him from somewhere.
“No,” I reply. “I don’t.”
But I’ve met him before, and I’ll meet him again.
Sometimes I think of wearing a sign around my neck that says ‘closed’, so he knows I’m not open for conversation. There are stores online that sell shirts with ‘don’t talk to me’ printed across them in bold lettering; I could easily buy one, wear it everywhere I go.
But knowing him, he’d see it as a challenge.
So, I pull on my headphones before I leave the house, white and bulky, impossible to miss. I don’t play any music while I walk, because I want to hear him approach.
I still hear him, whistling and calling my name: sweetie, sweetheart, darling, baby, love. If I avert my eyes, I can pretend I don’t see him. I can pretend the headphones I wear drown out the sound.
One afternoon, I’m sitting with friends in the courtyard of World Square, trying to figure out where we want to eat before we head to the cinema. He sits on the bench, sidled up close to me, uninvited and unwelcome.
“I had to let you know, I really like your style,” he says. His hand comes up to my shoulder and I recoil immediately.
“Please don’t touch me,” I say, loud and firm. It draws the attention of other people nearby.
He’s more sensitive than usual. “I didn’t touch you!” he shouts, jumping up. His nostrils flare, eyes bulging from his face. “I was giving you a compliment. No need to be a nasty bitch about it.”
I watch him stomp down the steps, muttering to himself. It’s not until he’s out of sight that I realise I’ve been holding my breath.
“Sorry about that,” I say to my friends. “What were we talking about?”
When I’m frustrated and tired, I’ll complain to my friends about him. Most of them have met him too – know firsthand what he’s capable of.
But some of them don’t see him as a threat, or even a bother. Some people think he’s a charmer, a friendly Casanova who has taken it upon himself to brighten the world, one “hey, nice ass!” at a time.
I suppose maybe they have a point. Without him, how would we remember to smile? How would we know we’re beautiful, and sexy, and fuckable? Without him, how would I know I’ve got lickable thighs and cute little titties he’d love to cream on?
“It’s a compliment,” they tell me. “Just ignore him if you don’t like it. What’s the big deal?”
He hits me, once.
At the time, I’m living in southwest London, about a fifteen minute walk from East Croydon station. It’s late, gone midnight. I’d taken the last train back after a night out with friends.
I’d taken the same train before, walked this same route more times than I can count. He calls out to me, from across the road. My response is reflexive, drilled into me so many times it’s automatic. Just ignore him. Just ignore him. I speed up my pace, duck my head, avoid eye contact.
He thinks I don’t hear him, so he crosses the street.
“Hey, I have a present for you,” he says, digging around a cardboard gift bag.
“No thank you,” I reply, hoping he won’t follow me home.
He punches me, in the right side of my head. Out of nowhere. No preamble, no warning.
I stumble and fall, my palms hitting gravel. There’s no time to stop and wonder what I did to provoke him, of what I should do next. I’m off the ground and sprinting onto the middle of the road, trying to hail down a car to stop for me.
“You ungrateful fucking bitch!” he yells.
The cars horn and swerve around me. I can hear his footsteps, I can hear him shouting after me. Home isn’t far, so I run. I run until I see a stranger walking down the path, going the opposite way.
“Please help me,” I say. “That man punched me and he’s chasing me and I don’t know what to do.”
He catches up, pulling at the stranger’s collar. With his attention momentarily on someone else, I sprint home. I lock the door, press my face against the glass, wait for him to come to the door, to demand I open up and let him in.
My cheek bleeds, piercing having been knocked out of place. My right cheekbone swells, sore to touch. At the police station, the officer tells me it’s battery and assault, due to the blood. When giving my statement, I’m asked what I was wearing.
“A beige knee-length dress, black stockings,” I explain. “A gold satin jacket on top.”
As the report’s being filled out, I wonder if men are asked the same question when they’re assaulted. Are victims of muggings and stabbings asked the same thing?
“It could’ve been worse,” my mum says to me over Skype. “You’re lucky it wasn’t worse. You shouldn’t be walking home that late at night.”
“I know,” I reply. “You’re right.”
I don’t tell her about how I don’t feel lucky. Being punched from behind while walking home doesn’t feel like good luck. It doesn’t feel like a blessing. It feels quite the opposite, really.
I feel cursed, like I’ve been born with a neon sign above my head, one only he can see. I feel like somebody’s sent him an invitation without my consent — an invitation to stare at me, to talk at me, to come into my space and intimidate, demean and harass, all under the guise of friendliness and flattery.
But she’s right. I’m lucky it wasn’t worse.
A colleague offers to walk me home every night for a week. When my next paycheck comes, I use the money to pay for three self-defense classes, a can of protection spray, and a personal alarm. I have to live off pasta for a month but it’s worth it, not to be afraid.
Two months later I receive a letter in the mail. Due to the lack of CCTV, they’re unable to find any suspects. The investigation is closed.
I run into him again, not long after. This time, it’s barely evening and I’m not in a dress. It’s just gone six, and Victoria underground station is busy with other commuters, going home from work or going out for the night. I’m in black jeans and a sweatshirt, headphones pulled over my ears, pretending to be immersed in my phone.
I’m aware of him before he speaks, sticking close to the wall and hoping I’m not seen. He’s with friends this time, the lot of them jeering and shoving each other.
“I like your hair,” he yells, to be heard above his mates. “Is it blue anywhere else?”
I ignore him, only to have him grab the back of my ponytail. In a panic, I duck down low, tugging my hair out of his grip, then break into a sprint, running to the other side of the platform. I squat down, a tad too close to a woman I don’t know, trying to make myself as small as possible, heart thudding in my ears.
He doesn’t follow me down the platform, or onto the train, but I’m not naive enough to think I’ve escaped him for good.
He’s going to follow me wherever I go, for the rest of my life.
It’s something I learn to accept; I could move houses, move continents, change my name, my face, my hair, my clothes, and it wouldn’t matter.
He follows me to uni, to work, to parties and to holidays in foreign countries.
When I’m walking across campus, he approaches me with a clipboard, tells me he likes my hair, yells it louder when I pretend I can’t hear it. When I’m at work, he tells me he likes my piercings, asks me where else I have them. When I’m at parties, he asks me if I want to go somewhere quieter.
When I’m back-packing in Rome, he pulls out a camera and takes a photo of me. I ask him to delete it and he calls me a stuck-up bitch.
When I tell my brother about him, about how claustrophobic it is, to know there’s no escape, he doesn’t get it.
“I go up to people and talk to them all the time,” he says. “I’m just being friendly.”
“What if they don’t want you to talk to them?” I ask.
“They can just say so,” he shrugs. “None of them have ever told me to go away.”
Because saying no and please leave me alone can lead to being called a bitch, can lead to punches to the side of the head, can lead to police reports that don’t lead anywhere — and that’s if you’re one of the lucky ones.
You’re the same as him, I want to say.
My brother’s taller than me, body bulging with muscle. There are few men who would dare to pick a fight with him. If he weren’t my brother, I’d be petrified if he approached me on an empty street.
“I’ve had a girl come up to me once and ask me about my tattoos,” he says.
“That’s different,” I try to explain. “You’re not going to be afraid of her. It’s not the same the other way around.”
“That’s so sexist,” he replies. “Not all men are out to hurt you, you know.”