He Woke the Beast was first performed on May 29th, 2016 as part of The Arrow Cracks with The Neo-Futurists.
Brian put his hand on my thigh and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t let that happen to you again.” I wanted to take his hand off my leg and slap him in the face with it repeatedly, while saying, “Stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself.”
Brian and I were both studying abroad in Morocco for the semester. Brian was a West Point Cadet who wanted to improve his Arabic. I was a junior at Brown University who wanted to find some self-respect.
Brian took a liking to me right away. “I like girls who are funny,” he said. “And who aren’t too into themselves.”
I started to travel with Brian on the weekends because I felt safer with a man around. When we walked through a crowded market, nobody licked their lips at him. Nobody said “Nice pussy” to him. Nobody offered to buy him with camels. When he was around, those things happened to me a little less. I used Brian as a bodyguard.
After three months of traveling with Brian, I was annoyed by the way he looked at me when I said something funny. He had a tendency to treat me like a precious vase, which made me want to show him the hair on my nipples. But I felt like I needed him. So we planned a trip to Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. I chose Rabat because it was the capital–I thought it would feel more modern, and therefore there’d be less street harassment.
This assumption was naive. The street harassment was worse in Rabat. Men were bolder in Rabat. There was more touching in Rabat. More kissing sounds. More nicknames like “Spice Girl” or “Shakira” or “white as paper.”
One beautiful afternoon, I stopped at the top of a hill overlooking the Bay of Rabat and I took a picture. Just because I don’t feel anything now doesn’t mean I won’t feel anything later when I look at this picture, I justified. Brian continued walking down the hill ahead of me. I stayed at the top of the hill and took a deep breath, trying to see what this place felt like without my bodyguard.
It was then I noticed a group of 15–20 shirtless men coming up the hill from the water. Their arms weren’t skinny like most of the other Moroccan men I had seen. They had broad shoulders and muscles, and walked with the lumbering swagger of American football players. I reacted like a cartoon would, the kind with its eyes popping out of its sockets going awoooga! These men were sexy. Unlike America, where I felt invisible to men who looked like this, I knew these men would pay attention to me.
Sure enough, one of them saw me. Through some chest slaps and murmuring, they all saw me. They righted their course straight to me. Fuck, I thought. This can’t end well. They saw me looking at them looking at me. I looked away. I tried to make myself as small as possible as I moved as quickly as I could down the hill. They were still coming towards me. We were going to collide and it was my fucking fault for awooogaing at them.
The leader of the pack stepped in front of me and put his face close to mine. I tried to step around him. He matched my movement and remained in front of me. The rest of the group filed in around me. I looked at their feet. They whispered to me in Arabic. They made sounds of delight, like they were eating something delicious. A few of them pushed up against me, letting me feel their boners on my thighs. I looked at their feet. One of them breathed deep, like he was smelling me. I tried to take a darting step out of the circle, but they blocked me in again. They all laughed. I said la, which means “no,” with all the vocal force my dad had taught me. They laughed again. I’m going to get raped today, I thought. I would later tell myself that I was being dramatic.
The leader of the group put his hand up and made an announcement in Arabic. The rest of the group went quiet. He hovered his hand over my ass. I looked down at my feet. At my gray Toms, which I bought because I knew that was what white girls wore in Africa. I told myself I was stupid. Stupid for lusting after these men. Stupid for wearing skinny jeans. Stupid for thinking that Morocco would make me hate myself any less.
Then he wound up his hand and smacked me hard on the ass. He smacked my ass like a toddler smacks a whack-a-mole. Open palm, a staccato slap, the action outlasted by the sound of open hand meeting fleshy body. The group fell away, laughing. Apparently, that was all they wanted from me. I pushed my way out of the circle.
I could hear them congratulating one another as I walked away. I scrunched my shoulders up to my ears and let out a guttural scream. They laughed some more. I did not want to be in Rabat anymore. I did not want to be in Morocco anymore. I wished study abroad was like a slumber party, where you could call your parents to come pick you up in the middle of the night.
Brian had heard my scream and turned around, looking up at me as I sped down the hill towards him. “What’s wrong?” he asked, perceptive as always.
I shook my head as I sped past him. He held his ground and demanded: “Catharine, what’s wrong?”
“Some men up there slapped my ass, ok?” I said quickly, hoping we could avoid talking about it. I didn’t want my butt to be a topic of conversation. I didn’t want him to think about my butt. I didn’t want him to conjure up an image of my butt in his head. Brian had grabbed my butt the other night in the club, and I didn’t want to see him tell himself that that was different.
I didn’t want Brian to be there. I wanted my dad. I wanted my dad to be there and I wanted him to give me a hug. I wanted my dad to make me feel safe. I wanted my dad because I wanted a man who could just treat me like a human; like the hurting, humiliated human I was in that moment, rather than as a woman who needed protecting, a damsel in distress, an opportunity for Brian to demonstrate his masculinity.
Brian responded, “That makes me mad. I’m like really mad now.” Then I had to take care of Brian. I had to tell him, “No, don’t go talk to them.” I had to tell him, “No, I don’t want you to fight them.” I had to tell him, “No, it’s not your fault that a group of men surrounded me and then slapped my ass.” This made Brian feel better.
Later that night, we piled into a taxi and as we pulled away, Brian put his hand on my thigh. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t let that happen to you again.” I stared at his hand. He rested it on my thigh like it belonged there. Like it had been invited there. Like it had a God-given right to be there.
Bullshit, I thought. I don’t believe you. I don’t believe that you care if that happens to me again or not. You care about this moment right now. This moment when you’re snuggled up in a cab with a woman who is terrified. You care about this moment and capitalizing on my fear to go anywhere without you. You want me to need you. But you are not my hero. Fuck you for making me take care of you and your unbearably futile masculinity. This shit isn’t about you. So fuck you for trying to make it about you.
But I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I stared at his hand and said, “Thanks, Brian.”
I hate that that was my response. It felt like Brian took a dump on my lap while saying “I’m an ally to women!” and I just sat there and said “Thank you.”
I didn’t travel with Brian again the rest of the semester. I spent my last month in Morocco avoiding men in general.
I spent the months following my semester abroad in a deeper depression than when I had left. I picked fights with my dad. I drank until I blacked out. I ate until I felt sick. I listened to Beyoncé’s “I Was Here” until I sobbed, willing myself not to feel so goddamn invisible. Every time a guy hit on me, or ignored me in favor of a more attractive woman, I was reminded of the feeling that sex was not something men wanted to share with me, but something they wanted to get from me.
I hated men. I hated all of them. All I saw were ways that they could be doing better, ways they were projecting their insecurities, ways they were making excuses for themselves. I started to speak up. I allowed myself to be a furious feminist bitch and it was liberating. I gave less of a fuck about being liked and I found the self-respect that I couldn’t find in Morocco.
Whenever I stumble upon that picture I took, I am amused by how nice it looks. It looks exactly how I wanted my time in Morocco to look, how I wanted to present myself: pleasant, calm, and pretty. But on that day at the Bay of Rabat, I felt anything but pleasant, calm, and pretty. I was enraged.
Eventually, my fire hose rage unnerved some men in my life, and that unnerving allowed me to see them as human: as sensitive, feeling beings with wobbly spines and weak knees. Knowing this gave me perspective, which allowed me to be less scared. I am grateful for this perspective. But I am also grateful for that rage.
Brian and that group of shirtless Moroccan men made me feel like a passive turd in my own life. Getting angry helped me to speak up. It gave me presence. It made me realize all the ways I was accepting less when I deserved more–when I wanted more. Getting angry made me hungry to make things better, to call shit out when something doesn’t feel right, to find honest-to-goodness joy. Getting angry made my life fuller. Getting angry woke me up.
This essay was first published in Story Club Magazine on October 20, 2016.