Secret Life of an Expat: A Particularly Bad Tuesday

You know those days at work when nothing goes right? Your boss looks at you and shakes his head, but you can’t fix it, because you’ve suddenly forgotten how to do whatever it is you’ve been hired to do. You are a failure. Not only at work, but you realize that it’s been going on for years. You attended, and are still paying for, countless years of expensive education to get to the point you’re at now. What a huge waste of time. Why didn’t anyone tell you how much you sucked? You should have just worked your way up to manager at McDonald’s, or maybe stuck with data entry. Thay way, you would never have to worry about any of this merde.

Well, this was how I felt last Tuesday. I had a bad day at work. A really bad day. After everything that happened, I figured my best option was to give up art altogether, move to the mountains and live off the land, and so on. So I left work a few minutes early to go home and lick my wounds. At 7:30 pm, I was already off the train, had walked by the duck pond, and was nearly at my house, listening to a Savage Love podcast to quiet my worrying brain.

Thirty feet from the front gate, footsteps scuffled up behind me. Our sidewalks are narrow, and I stepped out of the way to let the guy pass, but he didn’t. Instead he grabbed my left arm and pulled on it. My earphones ripped from my ears, and I clung desperately to my iPhone and housekeys, both in my left hand. Instinctually, I resisted, though it wasn’t clear what he wanted. He just pulled, and I pulled back. He was young, maybe a teenager, and not much bigger than me.

In movies, I’m always impressed by women who manage to scream out loud when faced with something terrifying. I always figured I’d be too scared to scream, that my throat would clamp up, I’d be shaking too hard. And, struggling with the kid, I didn’t make any noise, until two more guys came out of the shadowy park on the other side of the street. They crossed slowly, obviously in cahoots with my attacker. Three against one? I was screwed.

“No!” I screamed. “No! Get away from me!”

In English. The more appropriate yelp would have been “Au secours!” but the translating part of my brain had run for cover.

It worked though. A fourth guy, dressed differently, approached from a different direction. He said something I didn’t understand and the three kids looked at him. Then they took off running, back into the park. The guy looked at me, then chased after them (or maybe ran along with them?). I stood there a moment, then I went to my gate and managed to unlock it even though I was shaking so hard I could barely stand. That’s when I started crying. I stumbled to the house and called M, then I cried some more. I crawled into bed and numbed myself with Belgian beer and an episode of White Collar, where the criminals are classy and don’t attack innocent women on the street.

Suffice to say this didn’t make work any easier. Even though I fought the guy off, the attack weakened me when I was already down. The next day I was raw and puffy from crying, I jumped when people came too close and I was extremely tired. I made M meet me at the train station that night, and after dinner I had a complete and inconsolable meltdown.

My problems at work seemed to reflect the scuffle in the street. I felt like a victim of bad management choices, like I was being ganged up on by strangers. Strangers, in that they didn’t know me well and they were violating my sense of security in who I was. Even if I had the courage to speak up about it, they wouldn’t understand me anyway. Au secours!

On the second night after the “aggression” I made M meet me at the train again, and clung to his arm on the way home. I wondered what life would be like if this endangered feeling never left. I wondered what those kids would have done with the money, if they would come after me again.

“The Universe” is a powerful thing, and it’s usually on our side. We don’t expect it to do us harm, but after last Tuesday, I now know that I can’t expect it to fix things either. All I wanted to do after such a sucky work-day was go home and mope. Instead, I got jumped 30 feet from my door, by a group of kids who heard my high heels clacking down the sidewalk and thought I was an easy target.

Then something changed. Over the weekend, I realized that life wouldn’t end if this job didn’t work out. It’s my first good job in France, but it’s not my last good job ever. And right now, working on my book is the only thing that really satisfies me. I rewrote two chapters on Sunday, and I’ve risen super early every day since to get two hours of writing in before work. At my job, which I still have, I enunciate my strengths and weaknesses in broken, clumsy French. If they’re not satisfied with what I can do, it doesn’t mean that art school was a mistake, nor that I’m a failure. I can only do my best.

I’ve also stopped wearing heels for the moment, and when I’m walking home, I do the last few blocks down the well-lit middle of the street.

So, after the Worst Tuesday in the history of my life that I can remember, I’ve changed a few things for the better. I still get jumpy if someone comes too close on the street. I still feel nervous when the boss comes in at work. But I bet I’m not the only one.

featured image credit: Renee Silverman