There I was, a naive 20-year-old girl stepping onto a plane and chasing her wildest dreams.
I was so young then, a different person really. I chose my seat and had no idea the impact that seemingly small decision would have on the rest of my trip.
What I learned on my very first flight was that just because you were only talking to the people next to you, did not mean that the rest of the plane couldn’t hear you, too.
Fast forward a few hours to baggage claim.
After navigating my way around the overwhelming scene that is McCarran International Airport, I noticed a beautiful stranger who was very shamelessly also noticing me. His blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes wanted me. He had heard me discussing my internship on the plane and became very, very interested in me.
And even more importantly, in my body.
I gave him my number, thinking nothing would ever come of this. I was flattered that out of all of the women that were on our plane, this beautiful stranger chose me.
I was never the one they chose.
He was only staying in Vegas for a few days, and I soon realized that his interest in me had nothing to do with my exciting internship and everything to do with the fact that I was just 20 years old, bleach blonde, and completely alone in a city that was not my home. I was so lost, scared, and homesick in this new place that taking comfort in the arms of a stranger almost seemed like a good idea. Falling into the bed of a strange man I had just met almost seemed like what I was supposed to be doing there. After all, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
If only that were true.
He was only the tip of the iceberg. Las Vegas is a strange place. It is a world so filled with people that any shred of loneliness I was feeling seemed absurd to me. I was surrounded by strangers who wanted my attention, but the only thing I could think of was how alone I felt. There could be a million people swarming around me and still, I could not shake the overwhelming feeling that was my loneliness.
The day that I started my internship, I finally began to feel so much less alone. Though I was once again surrounded by strangers bustling and blurring past me, I began to feel at peace. I began to settle in and feel at home. I began to feel wanted.
I couldn’t believe that at the age of 20, I had already landed my dream job. I was so scared, but I was also so happy. I finally understood what my drawing professor had meant when he said that you wanted to find a job where you got to go to work, rather than had to go to work. I was excited for the opportunity to go to work every day, and I finally felt like I was starting to settle into and make sense of my new desert home.
But soon, I began to notice that while some of the people I worked with truly enjoyed my company, others were wanting far more from me than just a cordial conversation. Though some of the advances made towards me were not unwanted, the advances that were were deafening.
I began to fear being alone for too long with certain people. I knew that those moments would be filled with inappropriate conversations and unwanted touching that often made me want to crawl out of my skin. I could no longer do my job without being touched or sexually harassed. I could no longer be in my hotel without fearing that he would come looking for me. I could no longer rely on my usual ride home with a co-worker, as he tried so desperately to take that away from me, too. I could no longer exist in a space that used to feel like home.
I never thought that my dream job could become a nightmare. I had dealt with my fair share of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in my twenty years of life, but this, this was so much more than that.
This behavior was not just something that I could laugh off with my friends over coffee and then forget about in a week. This was not something I could enjoy and feel flattered by. This was debilitating.
I did my best to ignore it and just push through my pain. I was only there for one month, so in just a few short weeks, I was going to be free from it all. I would be free from the shame of the “that’s just how things are here” commentary being drilled into my brain. I would be free from my work being interrupted because a forty-year-old married man needed to tell me I was pretty. I wouldn’t be backed into corners or shown the way that these men would have sex with me if they ever got the chance. No one would be taking my phone out of my hands so that I had no choice but to give them my number. And no one would be at my hotel, wishing they knew which room number was mine so that they could find me.
I could finally go back home to my quiet life and be at peace. I could leave what happened in Vegas on the cold, dirty floors of the casinos, and I could just move on.
But no matter how hard I worked to convince myself that I could just push through the pain, I couldn’t do it. I wanted so badly to believe that as soon as I stepped foot on solid ground in Chicago, all of my pain would go away. I wanted so badly to just leave it all behind.
I could not. I had finally hit my breaking point.
And that is exactly the moment when the most aggressive of my harassers made his advances towards me so obvious that someone else took notice. He waited until my supervisor was gone, and I was working alone to corner me and ask for my number. He waited until I was working alone to take my phone from my hands when I would not enter his number in myself. He waited until I was the most vulnerable to make some of his boldest moves.
But finally, someone else noticed that I was not okay.
I was so lucky.
Nothing ever went any further than sexual harassment because someone else stepped in when things didn’t seem quite right. But not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone has co-workers and bosses who believe them; not everyone has someone who will take the victim’s side.
Yet, I was so mad at my supervisors that night when they pulled me aside to find out what was going on. I still have my moments where I wish I would not have told them the truth. Moments where I wish I could have finished my internship without having so many people start to look at me differently. Some were visibly mad at me; the main offender half-heartedly apologized, but I will never believe his excuse of, “I didn’t know I was making you uncomfortable.”
I wanted nothing more than to just finish my internship in peace and disappear. I chastised myself for not doing a better job of hiding what was going on. I was so mad at myself for telling the truth as if what happened to me was my fault. As if I were the one in the wrong just for existing around men.
What kind of a world are we living in where we get mad at ourselves for telling the truth? Why have we been taught to choose comfort over honesty, even when we are the most in need of help? Why do we always have to let the harassers and the abusers win? Why does being a woman have to come with an apology?
I considered leaving my internship early, just a few days shy of my last day. I suddenly felt so small in a place that had begun to feel like home. I was transported back to that first day in the airport, people bustling and blurring all around me, while I stood there, frozen in place. I could not escape the judgmental eyes that followed me wherever I went. Embarrassment crept into my cheeks every time I had to see these men. I was made out to be a liar, which made me wish even more that I had just lied. I regretted not just easily giving my main harasser my phone number when he asked for it. I regretted not doing a better job at just shutting it all out. At times, I even regretted ever accepting the internship at all.
I was broken.
But then, on one of my last days there, something clicked as I spoke with one of my supervisors about the situation. She so quickly and confidently told me that it wasn’t my fault. I was not the first person who had dealt with the harassment of these men, and I am sure I was also not the last. I finally realized and accepted that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t ask for any of this to happen. All I asked for was to learn and to work and to enjoy the time that I had there. I didn’t want someone to follow me around and say lewd things. I didn’t want someone to corner me in the hallway the first time they knew I was truly alone. I didn’t ask for any of this, and yet, because of all of this, I almost let a small handful of people ruin one of the best experiences of my entire life.
I decided to finish my internship, and with that decision, I felt like I was reborn. I left Las Vegas with more confidence and strength than I had ever had. I was so much less afraid to speak up when a situation made me uncomfortable, and I no longer felt guilty for saying no. I stopped feeling the need to say, “I’m sorry,” just for existing.
What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas, but you do not have to let it ruin you. You can carry it with you without feeling like you are drowning in it. Your pain will always be a part of you, but it is not all that you are. You were someone before the bad things that happened to you, and you will still be someone after them, too.