Illustration by Holly Stapleton

The time had come to leave the bar. I can’t remember what bar it was, or why exactly I had to leave. This happens to me when I drink: I get to the point where I realize I won’t remember anything and don’t have control over what I’m saying or doing, so I ghost, just to be safe.

I’m not one to leave the party early, but I knew I couldn’t stay another minute, so I embarked on the long walk home to Dupont Street a few minutes before closing time. I made my way along Dundas Street and wove through the capillary side streets of Little Italy the way I’ve done so many times before, then through Koreatown toward home.

I leave because of my own drinking, it’s true. But it’s something else, too. It’s the need for space, the need to be alone after hours of talking and processing. I’ve changed recently. As I age, I find I don’t love being in crowds as much as I thought I did. I used to think talking things through helped me pinpoint my perspective on life. Lately, though, I need a lot of time alone to figure out how I feel about things. Doing this in the daytime in Toronto is impossible. It’s the noisiest place in the world, and there’s never a time when the sounds of the TTC, the traffic, or the neighbours don’t punctuate my thoughts. So I’ve been walking alone at night as much as I can.

There’s a third reason, too: I don’t have much money. I work part-time at a yoga studio to pay rent, and I write sometimes. When I do, it’s about sexual assault. I spend my time tracking Toronto cases. I go down to Old City Hall and go numb in every way possible on its wooden benches while prosecutors grill the women who’ve stepped forward. I make follow-up calls to ask why no one cares about various rapes, some of which have been done to people I know. In part because of this, I’ve also been drinking more, and my desire to be alone increases the more I do. I see threats everywhere. Feeling threatened is valid, I tell myself: I know women who have been attacked by strangers who’ve tracked them, stalked them, and crawled in their bedroom windows at night. My job is to listen to and synthesize these stories, search for someone or something to hold accountable, try to make sense of them and offer solutions. The only one I’ve come up with is to take on a sort of spiritual armour, one that closes me off from others and insulates me, especially from men.

But in the night, the threats disappear. While others may feel scared, to me the city in darkness feels gentler. There’s no one around. I can hear the trees rustle on the side streets. Everything glitters through the deeply necessary haze I’ve created, and my thoughts ring clear. There are no men yelling at me to smile or grabbing at me in the streets. Drinking adds to my self-made insulation, and the warm, cozy feelings it gives me are as close as I get to what I imagine happiness must feel like.

Despite the packs of women and gender non-conforming people I march with in the streets to take back the night, we’re still told we should expect to feel unsafe. Police and university administrations warn us against having the gall to party too much or walk alone. But we’re not the ones attacking ourselves, and my body is also my transportation. Fresh air, solitude, and exercise are small joys I will not give up. If someone decides to assault and kill me in the night, I figure that’s on them. There is nothing I can do about it, and I refuse to play dead in advance. So I make the stubborn choice to feel unafraid on my late-night, solitary stomps.

There’s no one around. I can hear the trees rustle on the side streets. Everything glitters through the deeply necessary haze I’ve created, and my thoughts ring clear.

As I reflect on all of this, feeling kind of gleeful and unfettered, I turn onto Bathurst Street. I’m a few minutes from home when I hear a man yelling at me. “Hey, it’s you!” he says. “I’d recognize that ass anywhere.”

This doesn’t phase me. First of all, who the hell are you talking to out here, bud? Because I know it’s not me. Second, I’ve developed a firm policy of pretending men who speak to me uninvited don’t exist at all. So it’s fine.

“I asked you to dance at the club. But you told me to fuck off!” Still talking. And wait… this sounds accurate. Maybe this is someone I have met before. The car creeps up behind me. It pulls over to the curb and stops.

A force beyond me starts driving my body. I have no control, like I said. I march over to the car and stick my head in the rolled-down passenger window. The driver is bald, pushing middle-age. He’s calm and comfortable. “What are you doing pulling over and harassing people like this?” I lecture. “This is exactly why women are scared. You are the problem. When you harass us with language like this, we know that’s the first step toward physical violence and assault. What kind of response do you expect to get? Has this ever worked? Do you think I’ll hop in your car, or do you mean to scare me? You need to stop.”

I rattle off some facts about violence against women and feminized people. I don’t remember how he replied. All I remember is that he remained self-satisfied, nonplussed. I realize what I’m actually doing and look around to see how safe I am. It’s 3:00 a.m. There are a few cars making their way up Bathurst, but not many. Shit, how will this end? We’re at my intersection. You can see my building from here. I can’t let this guy see where I live.

Mercifully, the light changes and the man drives off. Now I’m scared. My legs shake. I see a tall dudely-looking individual having a smoke outside their house, two buildings down from mine. “Hey,” I say. “Some man just drove up to me and started harassing me. Could you walk me to my place?” As I said, I don’t trust men, but there’s something in this person’s wet noodle persona that lets me know it’s safe. Or at least lets me believe it. In any case I have no choice, and they oblige.

I lay awake for hours, expecting to be murdered in my sleep. I don’t know what I think staying awake is going to do for me. If I stay awake, I’ll see who’s coming for me and be able to call for help! But the next day I wake up, miraculously not dead. I keep walking home from the bar for as long as that life applies.

In time, I move away. I’m old and boring now. I quit drinking for the most part. I’ll have a drink at a wedding, if that. I thought everything in my life would change when I quit, but I was surprised to see that a lot of it stayed the same. When I’m in Toronto, I still walk alone at night, even if it’s now a little earlier. I see with what I hope is clarity more of the time now, but I still relish the cloak of quiet that descends on the city. It still helps me hear my thoughts and gives me space to untangle them. Nighttime is when I know myself best. Even without the bars, without the drinks that calm me and make me feel more expansive, I’m surprised to find I still exist. I think, even without those things, taking up space in the night will always make me feel free.