“Can I sit here?”

The train car is more than half empty. In fact, there’s an empty seat right in front of me. I gesture to it.

“You wouldn’t feel more comfortable sitting in your own seat?” I ask groggily. It’s not even that late, but I’ve had a long day; 11:42pm feels like 2 in the morning. The other passengers bob their heads side to side, relishing in a post-workday train nap as we trundle into the night.

“Please,” he practically begs. “Do you mind?”

That was my first mistake — giving him the benefit of the doubt. He was a kid, maybe it was his first time on this train. Maybe he was concerned with missing his stop (I was sitting next to the exit). Maybe he just didn’t understand the “train rules” — you don’t purposefully sit next to someone when there’s an empty seat nearby.

Before I can even contest, he slides in next to me, spreads his legs out so we’re touching.

“What stop are you getting off at? Where are you going? What are you listening to?”

I squish up as far to the wall as I can, pretending to listen to music, pretending I don’t hear what he’s saying, pretending I’m not trapped.

It’s not so much farther to where I have to go. But then, he does it.

He tries to put his arm around me. He tries to pull me in for a kiss. This stranger, who I’ve been sitting next to for seconds only, tries to force me to do something I don’t want to do.

I push him away. “This is NOT going to happen!” I yell assertively. I have to swat away his arms as he ignores my warnings.

An older man, beady eyes, receding hairline, checkered blazer, gets up. He’s been watching the situation unfold. We exchanged glances of ‘this is not a good idea’ when the boy first approached me. He grabs the kid by the collar and drags him out of the seat.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me.

“Is this guy bothering you?” the man asks.

“Yes,” I reply. “But I’m just going to find another seat.”

“No,” he pulls the kid closer to his face, stares into his eyes. “I don’t think so. I think he’s going to find another seat.” He takes him and pushes the boy into another car. “You stay away from her, you creep!” Wiping his hands, he returns to his seat and huffs. I thank him, but I feel like it isn’t enough of what I owe him.

He pretends to sleep, gets off at the same station I do. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his destination; I think he was making sure I wouldn’t be bothered again.

I’ve traveled to countries where men don’t treat women equally. I’ve walked through “ghettos” and dangerous areas at night, by myself. Never once during my time abroad have I ever felt threatened, or unsafe. I wasn’t in Mumbai, or Dubai, or Caracas. And my assailant wasn’t black, or Latino, or older than 20.

I was on the Long Island Rail Road, headed into predominantly Caucasian suburbia.

* * *

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. Less than six months ago, a nearly identical situation occurred on the same train heading back to Hicksville (yeah, that’s legitimately the name of my town). He was a young kid, drunk, stupid. He knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t very good at it. I caused a scene. I elbowed him in the jugular. Despite the train being packed, no one helped me. Not a single person moved, or stood up for me. Maybe they thought I didn’t need to be helped.

But after climbing over the attacker, stamping him in the balls as I did so, I heard a drunk girl say to her boyfriend, “Oh my god, look at that crazy bitch!”

Yes, I’m the crazy one — not the douchebag who tried to touch my boobs.

What scares me is how weak I felt afterward — physically and emotionally, both events were draining. I have a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. I take self-defense classes. I speak loudly and assertively when there’s a problem. It seems to make no difference. The boys stay seated and think they’re entitled to do whatever they want to do.

What scares me is that I feel safer walking around in a country that’s totally unfamiliar to me than I do in my own backyard, where the most action a cop will see is someone speeding on the Southern State Parkway.

How am I supposed to tell a woman it’s totally safe to travel on her own when I can’t even get to my house in upper-middle-class suburbia unharmed? How am I supposed to be a model of feminine strength, a fierce solo traveler who has never been mugged, held at gunpoint, physically abused or otherwise, who has stared into the eyes of a potential assailant, stared good and hard, and smiled at him, acknowledging, “Yes, I know you’re up to know good, but I’m not the girl to fuck with”?

My fellow feminists and I like to talk about how women don’t need “rescuing,” that we can take care of ourselves. We can, for sure — and maybe if this man hadn’t stepped up, I could have gotten away fairly unscathed. But I’m glad he was there, I’m glad he prevented further contact, and I’m glad he understood that what was happening was not okay.

The first time I was almost molested, I thought it was a fluke. I know it could have been worse, I’m glad it didn’t get to that point, and my heart goes out to those who have experienced things beyond simple touching / coercing. But the second time — that has me worried. It goes to show anything can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. You might be prepared, or you might not be. All you can do is try.

I’m going to try not to let these two incidents prevent me from doing what I want or have to do. I’m trying to take something away from them that will help me avoid a situation like this in the future. Maybe I’ll start driving into the city. Maybe I’ll sit in more crowded areas. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It’s already happened twice. I want to avoid it again.

But maybe, I just can’t.