I watched as a short, brown-haired man staggered toward Annie, bumping into her before stumbling off. I saw her turn and scream obscenities at him. “Stop him, Jay,” she shouted.
“At points in her life she was powerless against abuse.”
I met Annie at the NAACP in Albany, New York, where we both volunteered. We’re from different backgrounds. I’m Jewish; she’s Nigerian, Jamaican and had been spiritually searching. She wanted to learn to drive, and I wanted to teach her. With Annie behind the wheel, we discussed liberal politics and our mutual love of Toni Morrison’s novels. She got her license, and soon we were dating. Four years into our relationship, while on a weekend trip, she made a wisecrack about marriage. She was 24 and thinking about commitment, and I was 31 and thinking about comic books. I got upset. She stopped talking to me. “You can’t go changing everything,” I said, storming off the bus onto the moonlit Manhattan street. My last girlfriend and I had broken up because I couldn’t commit. Desperately autonomous, I needed more time.
I reached for her bags from under the bus, but she beat me to it. She didn’t want my help. She walked so far ahead of me I only saw the blur of her purple sundress as she marched up West 33rd Street. I watched as a short, brown-haired man staggered toward Annie, bumping into her before stumbling off. I saw her turn and scream obscenities at him. “Stop him, Jay,” she shouted, as he walked past me. “He grabbed my crotch.”
I was still fuming over the bus dispute, and her causing drama on the street upset me more. Annie had never lied to me, but I figured it must have been an accident and that she was overreacting. Another man stopped to ask Annie if she was all right. He looked directly in my eyes and said: “That guy walked up and put his hands on her.” I saw no reason he would lie. With a male stranger looking at me to do something, I raced after the groper.
He bolted but was so intoxicated, his pants fell, causing him to trip over his feet. I had a burst of confidence and blocked him off, nodding to my girlfriend to call the police. “You gonna fight me?” he asked, with boozy breath. “No,” I said. My strategy was to keep his mouth running until the police came. “That’s my girlfriend you just touched.” “I’m sorry, man,” he said, smiling, apologizing to me and not Annie. “Listen, I’m sorry. OK?” “No, it’s not OK,” I said. “You can’t touch women without their permission.”
I demanded he sit down and sober up. “Where are you coming from?” I asked. He said he was on a tourist visa from Ecuador, staying at his cousin’s apartment and trying to find work. Annie told him to pose for a picture – not mentioning it was for the police. He smiled in the shot.
For 45 minutes, we waited. Annie made numerous 911 calls, eventually walking to 34th Street to get two officers’ attention. “It’s been happening a lot lately,” one of the officers explained. No one had responded to our call, they said, because “normally by the time we get there, the creep’s gone.” The officers were amazed I’d restrained the assailant without touching him. They said I had the right to physically apprehend him. My girlfriend glared at me, upset I hadn’t punched the guy.
The officers cuffed the groper, and we went to the station to give our story. “He won’t be visiting America for long,” the officer said. Two weeks later, an assistant district attorney asked Annie to come to her office. The prosecutor mentioned possible deportation and asked Annie if she’d prefer the groper went to rehab or jail. Although Annie was an advocate for restorative justice and rehabilitation, in the moment, she chose jail. When the prosecutor asked why, Annie was firm: “He had no right to touch me.” Annie walked out of the office and never contacted the assistant DA again, never looking into what happened to the man who had grabbed her. She didn’t want to know.
Annie made me promise not to talk about what happened, yet once the #MeToo movement began, she said it was time for me to publicly take responsibility for not believing her. So many brave women have been sharing their experiences as survivors of sexual harassment and assault, things I’ve never had to deal with. Recently, Annie told me about other traumatic experiences she’d never shared. I was speechless. I’d looked at Annie as a woman who would knock a dude out if he stepped to her wrong. Yet at points in her life she was powerless against abuse.
While dating Annie, I’ve received points for not being a monster. Because I’d never cursed her out or raised my fist, I’ve been seen as a good guy. However, after the incident, I felt ashamed of my behavior and saw a therapist to work on why I hadn’t trusted Annie, why it took a man to make me believe her. I realized that my denial that Annie had been assaulted perpetuated the violence against her. Working to better myself meant having many conversations with Annie about commitment and realizing that she had plans, and I wanted to be a part of them. Although I valued my independence, I made it my choice to fulfill her needs and to share decisions. (We eventually got married under a chuppah and jumped the broom.) When I asked Annie why she stayed with me after that incident on the street, she said it was because I was willing to learn.