When a familiar walk turns grave, time stretches out in unfamiliar ways. A strange calm in the face of violence gives way to fear, vulnerability, and newfound strength.

It’s a Sunday, close to midnight, a summer seven years ago. I’m walking home from the movies to my parents’ house where I’m staying during semester break. The night is mild. I enjoy the walk; my mind is brimming with thoughts about the film I’ve seen and playful plans for maybe moving to Tokyo for a while.

The path is dim; some of the streetlights broken. I look up at one, its glass cover dangling and dead wires outstretched against the night sky, and it makes me laugh—it appears so grandiosely dramatic that I can almost hear scary music stirring in the background. Considering my surroundings, that might be fitting—a deserted footpath between a thicket and then the zoo on one side and the streetcar tracks and road on the other. I chuckle at this horror movie setting. I’ve walked this path so many times.

The scary soundtrack still hasn’t played a note when suddenly a hand reaches out from behind to cover my mouth, and a man pulls me into the trees. “No!” my mind shouts, at once yearning for denial and grasping that this is real. This is where the continuity of my memory breaks; I only know fragments. That night has shattered into dark sharp splinters of time suspended in my mind.

Branches scratch my arms and face. I’m screaming for help and wishing for a moment to just hand the man my money and iPod and walk away. But the words he’s mumbling reveal different intentions, and acquiescing to them is out of the question. I’ll have to defend myself.

Time is slow, sound is muted, and I’m strangely calm. I have snapped out of normal time, the normal me. Another Nina inside me has taken over who does not consider fear. Self-preservation is the only thing that matters; all attention is focused on the next move. Somehow in this altered state there is time to think, to evaluate the situation. Yes, I have to twist his arm this way. Mind the knife. Kick that shin. Duck out of his grip. Bite his fingers. Keep calling for help. It’s almost like a practice session from my karate class, yet all too real. I’m not a very strong fighter, but I must fight. There is no choice.

I see him pulling out the knife. “Put the knife away, please, I’ll do anything you want.” And he does put it away and I resume fighting—did he really think I wouldn’t?

The streetcar screeches past, the one I decided, back in another life, not to wait for. I want to wave but the man pulls me down. He is stronger. I scream. The streetcar is louder. I am pushed to the ground, knees on the pavement, heavily pushed from above. I can’t move now, can’t do anything. I feel the blade sharp against my side. I know now he just needs to push it. But so far, I’m still here, still alive. And my dear belly fat secures the pants he’s vainly yanking on.

Cut to us standing again, with my wrist in his tight grip, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs.

And then from somewhere a bit away, someone yells back.

It’s a moment of clarity. In slow motion I see fear and doubt rising in the man’s eyes; his grip loosens slightly. I know it needs to be now; I twist my arm free, and I run.

I bolt in the direction of home, I run and run and finally dare to look behind me, scared, and I see nothing, he’s not there following me, and I run further into the trees and black tarry heaviness is creeping up my legs and I look behind me again and the man is definitely not there and then I can see the street ahead and I stumble into the open and there are the police.

I wave and I yell. There is blood on my clothes. I pant, say a man tried to rape me, he has a knife, he went that way. They dash into action. A little while later the weapon has been seized and the man arrested, and a calm policeman offers me a smoke. The other Nina in me says no thanks, I’m trying to quit. I’m not here yet; still in survival mode. This scene is bizarre, not as real as the place I just was.

It has taken me a while to fully return. Amazingly enough, my only physical damage that night was scrapes, cuts, and bruises. But I also felt a dent in my soul, a newfound source of fear. A fear so bottomless that for a while I thought I’d drown.

It was a fear I’d always refused to yield to. Yes, I practiced karate, but not for self-defense. As I saw it, that mindset belonged to a complex of worry and weakness that I wasn’t buying into. I wanted to feel free—too free to accept the fact that sudden attacks in my own life could be real. That night taught me the hard way that they are.

At first I feared I had forever lost any sense of safety. But gradually I found it anew—I go out again, I travel, I live. What I did lose was my naïvete, my recklessness. And good riddance. Because it turns out that I have actually become stronger knowing and living with my very real vulnerability.

Nina stoessinger

Nina Stössinger is a typographic designer from Basel, Switzerland. She started out building websites but switched tracks during art school once she discovered her love for typography. After five years running her own studio for graphic design, web design, and typography, she enrolled in the TypeMedia graduate program at the Royal Academy of Art in the Netherlands.

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Portrait by Luke Pearson