Years ago, I was on an early morning train from Dallas airport to the city center. I had caught a ridiculously early flight and was traveling with two female friends. I sat across from them in the carriage. I was beyond exhausted, and, feeling safe in the knowledge that I was riding the train until the end of the line, I fell right asleep against my backpack.
Suddenly, I was shaken awake by a strange man I’d never seen before, who wanted to know which stop was mine. He then began to berate me for falling asleep on a train alone, leaving myself vulnerable to attacks from strange men. I thought at the time that he may have been high; his eyes looked wild and his hands twitched. I placated the stranger — I thanked him for his concern, explained I was fine — and then I ignored him. My friends who were sitting opposite were lost in conversation, and, knowing I had plenty of time to nap, I fell back asleep. I soon discovered that this man was a bug on my windscreen. About twenty minutes later, he returned, shook me awake again and repeated his lecture. I began to feel like his next project. He buzzed around me for another ten minutes before I could quietly, calmly, tell him that I really was safe, I was with friends and I knew where I was going. It was at this point I noticed another lone man in the carriage looking as though he was also wanting to punch this seemingly well-meaning stranger on my behalf. I remained awake for the rest of my journey. Although the man did leave after his second visit, his reappearance had unnerved me. I was more aware now of the second stranger, and I felt the atmosphere had become more charged. I no longer felt safe.
Tonight, I’ve ridden a train from Derby to Edinburgh. It’s a journey just over four hours, and, having not slept properly the night before, I thought it would be a perfect place to catch a few zzz’s. This time, I’m traveling alone, with my cat, Lucy, in a rucksack, and my handbag twisted at my feet behind my knees, in the event that if someone should try to chance at my purse, they’ll have to go through my heavy boots and the fold down airplane-style table first. I’ve got the strap to Lucy’s cat bag wrapped securely around my wrist and my left hand is clamped around my phone just in case. I’ve finally allowed myself be rocked to sleep when once again I’m shaken awake by another strange man. He’s persistent and I do not let go of my nap lightly, but he is anxious, telling me, “We’re at Leeds.”
“That’s really nice, I’m going to Edinburgh.” I murmur, reminding myself to smile and be polite because I am a girl traveling on her own with her cat in a backpack and I apparently look vulnerable enough for these strange men to insist on trying to save me. Just because this strange man is lanky, concerned and dressed in a long parka with a furry hood, making him look like one of the guys I hung around with at university, does not mean that this man is safe.
Once again, I thank the strange man who has just shaken me awake on public transport, at a time when I am crying for rest. I thank the stranger who has seen me asleep and has thought that obviously I am not smart enough to set an alarm on my phone for my stop, that I am a young girl who shouldn’t be let out alone (he assumes I am alone) because I might be irresponsible enough to fall asleep, not making it home safely. (Because even if we closet this action in a manner of well-meaning – he wanted to make sure I didn’t miss my stop – he didn’t wake the man next to me, did he? No, he chose me.) Whilst I try really hard not to associate these situations with my gender, I struggle to rid myself of that feeling that I am thought of as a helpless female. I know that I am more than capable of getting on a train at one stop and then getting off at another of my choosing. I resent the idea that someone could see me asleep and view that as vulnerable or somehow not capable. I chose to fall asleep there. I usually set an alarm for my stop. Sleep is valuable to me. But I suppose what I resent most is the idea that although I might wake fuming because a stranger has made the decision to poke me awake, I cannot yell or scream at them in anger, but must remain polite in case I antagonize them into attacking me. Which I suppose is my ultimate fear. And one that I feel really, really bitter about.
I curse myself for not having the right words to explain why actually it’s a complete invasion of privacy for him to reach across the aisle and prod me until I wake up. For not being able to seem anything other than vulnerable in my sleep. And for the little voice in my head that wishes against wishes that really, the only reason a strange man would ever have to wake me on a train would be because I was snoring and disturbing the peace. That would give me far more of a sense of camaraderie and security, than the loss of power I feel over a stranger deciding whether or not I can sleep.
But instead, I thank him and watch him leave the carriage, most likely believing his good deed for the day to have been done. And I stay awake for the remainder of my journey – peace, safety and sanity shattered.