The lake was calm but the storm was within. I sat by the water with my best friend that cool summer evening. The sun was out; it only set by ten 'o clock at that time of the year in Toronto. The Sunday breeze had brought out a picture-book neighbourhood of families, children, bikers, dogwalkers, and joggers. My friend busied herself with her new camera, taking pictures of the crispy sky and my toes. A tempest was gathering within my chest.
About half an hour earlier, my friend and I had walked out to lake Ontario, a short walk from where I was staying with relatives. We climbed onto the narrow rocks that bordered the perimeter of the lake along a busy walking trail. A group of boys, in their late teens and early twenties, hollered at us from a boat from the left side of the cliff we were on, but we couldn't understand what they were saying. We knew they were calling out to us by calling my friend 'the purple one' and me, 'the blue one', because of the colour of our shirts and jeans.
Then we noticed another group of boys on the right end of the cliff, a few feet away from us. They were standing under the sunshade overlooking the lake, and they began to holler back at the boys in the water. My friend and I tried to mind our own business even as the boys near the cliff started talking about us loudly, referring to us by the colour of our clothes. We tried to ignore them as two of the young men flung bottles of water over our heads at their friends in the boat. It looked like friendly fire to me.
My muscles tightened as one of the boys, an Indian fellow in a blue shirt that read 'India '07', slithered behind my friend and I on the narrow rock and whispered, "hello aunties, goodbye aunties" as he passed us by. I glared at him through my sunglasses.
"What!" I said. He turned and gave me a dirty grin. He passed us by three more times on that cliff, keeping a distance of a few inches from us each time, circling us like prey. There wasn't much room on that rock my friend and I felt imprisoned on. I looked at the water below and remembered that my friend couldn't swim.
One of the boys, a black guy, yelled at us to ignore his Indian friend, but we couldn't. My friend mumbled a "goodbye, fool" the last time he slid behind us, saying, "hello aunties, goodbye aunties". The group of boys under the sunshade laughed and hooted at us the whole time.
My friend and I felt afraid and decided to leave. We walked down the rocks away from the boys as they howled at us like apes in heat. My cheeks burned with shame and outrage as they called out to us, singing, "aunty, don't break my heart!". Men and women of all colours witnessed the bullying but did nothing. My friend wanted to curse back at the boys but was conscious of the little children playing around us. She showed them the finger but the gesture got drowned in the sound of catcalls. The world turned a blind eye to two young women being bullied by a group of even younger men triumphantly high-fiving each other and celebrating their budding manhoods. As we walked away, trying to hold on to our dignities with our heads buried into our shoulders, the world silently witnessed our humilation. Every victorius laugh and hoot shot me in the back like arrows dipped in Scylla's venomous blood.
I stopped a little way off to complain to two elderly Indian couples, but the men just tittered. One of the women asked my friend and I for more details, and then smiled at us in a silly way. "Teenage boys," she said, her head trembling slightly. "It's okay, you are probably finding it odd because you haven't seen it happen often." It happens, she meant to say, isn't life funny sometimes?
I couldn't believe her.
"Actually," I shot back, "where I come from, this happens a lot, but I didn't think it would happen here." I walked off with my friend in disgust, the silly woman still smiling a smile that lasted too long.
I sat by the water with my friend, my mind replaying memories of a life filled with older men harassing and molesting little girls in public and in private. Long-forgotten old shame that lay buried under layers of tears curdled once again inside my belly.
"It never ends, does it?" I asked my friend. "You grow up with older men making you feel dirty, and if you survive to make it to adulthood, a new batch of younger men takes their place. No matter what a woman achieves and lives through, she never gets respect? Does it never end? Is she never spared?" I couldn't believe it. I had little cousins as old as those boys who all treated me like a big sister.
"We weren't dressed slutty or were even sticking out," I continued. "There were plenty of females around in all kinds of clothing, but they picked us. Why? Is it because we're desi girls that they know won't retaliate because we're conditioned to be docile?"
"And that Indian lady didn't help either," my friend said. "Look at her, enabling the boys' behaviour."
"She actually said we weren't used to it!" I said. "I'm sorry, but why should I have to get used to this??"
Something thick was boiling inside me. We hadn't done anything wrong, but they had misbehaved with us and taken control of us...again. The faces had changed, but the story was still the same. They had controlled us again, and we had had to leave because they had made us feel dirty and scared and ashamed.
My friend and I decided to go home, but that meant walking past where the boys had been under the sunshade again. All of them, black and brown. I felt like blinders were growing by my head. A phantom gush of air hit my face as I felt like I was entering a tunnel.
We had just started walking past the sunshade when the boys, all twenty of them, noticed us and started hollering at us again. We were several meters away from them with a lot of families and single people all around us, but that didn't stop them. They began to call out again, "aunties, aunties, helloooo!" They laughed at us. My friend flipped them the bird, and they found it funny again.
I was in the tunnel and couldn't see anything around me anymore. I stopped and turned towards them laughing at my face and my body and my naked breasts under my clothes. "WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM???" I screamed. The laughter stopped. A few of the young men shouted back some quick apologies. "Sorry," a lot of them hurriedly said. A snigger made its way from the corner of the group, and someone called me "aunty" again. A nervous laugh circulated through the group as they remembered that there were twenty of them in a group, and then there was just me. My heart contracted in fear as I also suddenly realised that I was posed like a single hawk against a mob of scavenger vultures. One single woman headbutting against twenty young men in the prime of their lives. A small voice from somewhere in the corner of the group called me a cunt. They began to laugh at me again in front of the world that was still turning a blind eye.
What name have I not been called before, most by the very people who were supposed to have loved and protected me? Slut, whore, bitch, cunt, dyke - it was so easy to shut a female up. A male could do whatever he liked, right or wrong, but if a female ever confronted him, he'd demolish her femininity with one word. And the world would never question it. It was so easy. Did these boys think that calling me a name in front of the whole world would devastate me into silence?
It didn't this time. It energised me instead in the most primal way, like a mad she-wolf sinking her claws into the earth and baying at the moon. A rabid growl that has only come out of my throat once before barked out at the young men laughing at me. I don't remember what I said, but it blanched all of their faces, wiping away all of their smiles, physically jerking them into immobility.
One of the guys in the group roared at the Indian guy, "what the FUCK did I tell you??" The Indian guy lashed back out at him incoherently, "what the FUCK what the FUCK I'll FUCK her up I'll FUCK you up!" Etcetera etcetera. He was waiting for his friends to hold him back, but they had all lost their enthusiasm and stood there nervously, suddenly aware of the world watching them, a crazy woman clinging to them with her nails. I was bolted to the ground, facing them in an immobile posture, like a bloodhound that's detected the trace of prey. My body was hard. I noticed my friend standing beside me.
The infighting continued. Egos had been hurt and they noisily tried to defend their dignity by turning on each other. Whatever had possessed me was now gone, but the boys were still trying to be men. "SHUT UP!" I roared. I turned to my friend and we walked away. The sounds of boys trying to rescue their egos soon fell away into the past. Minutes later, we were screaming in delight as we rode the swings in the children's play area behind the house I was staying in.