Yellow City


First Person

Photo: Deensel [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

February 1, 2017

Sitting in the back seat of the taxi into Lisbon with Dom, I notice that I am wearing, more or less, the same clothes I wore when I traveled here alone eleven years ago: a worn-out black turtleneck, skintight black jeans. Though now I am one and a half dress sizes larger. Though now my jeans are tailored, and my sweater has a designer label. Though now I don’t wear whimsical fur-collared coats or charming hats from the twenties to imply that I might be interesting.

The last time I came to this city, I could talk to any person in the world. I had fast learned how to sleep in any number of positions: between the farts and fucks and snores of adolescent adults in hostels; on a row of couch cushions laid out by earnest Belgian students on their Erasmus year; with my head resting on the shoulder of a fleshy Brazilian on an overnight bus. I saw no problem in taking time from others, or accepting their hospitality, because I was paying it out in full. I had everything to give, because I was a general, all-purpose, adaptable person. All my unrealized potential suggested that I might become exactly like any one of the people I encountered.

In becoming specific, narrower, more difficult, you, you don’t have much left to give.

—But it’s true. We dress the same, she and I. And we didn’t get much better. 


February 2, 2017

Some explanation. This is where it began. Lisbon, May 2006. Outside the club at the Santo Amaro docks, I dangled my legs over the edge of the wide river, my feet swinging like a purse at the end of a long strap. Above me was Lisbon’s big bridge, red and hung, just like the Golden Gate. I puffed smoke into the air the way I do on long, boozy nights—excessively—though I hadn’t had a drink for a couple hours.

She’s lying.

I drank water from a flimsy plastic bottle!

—Or vodka lime soda? You might have still been on your caipirinha bent, after Coimbra.

—A night opens up. Who is she to say no to it?

I was on a break between high school and university, working in bars and maxing out my credit cards for the privilege of seeing a world that wasn’t mine. I was enrolled in a law program, which was to start the following year, which I never did do. Law, of all things.

—No more secondhand bedsheets.

—You thought you could evade me.

—Her feeling of entitlement, of significance, she not yet knowing that it doesn’t come.

The boys with callow faces, were they business students? They longed to visit Australia. So we swapped email addresses, just as I had swapped them, dropped them, in every other city I had stepped through along the way. Did anyone ever email? Yes. But only the boys who thought I’d come with them to Corsica.

—The Corsicans were the worst.

It was light now. The boys promised me breakfast, the best pastel de Belém in Belém. I complied.


February 3, 2017

Today I will call the police. I mean, I will call the tourist police, who do not police the tourists but rather take down tourists’ statements on official stationery and stamp them, so that tourists may claim the value of their stolen wallets with their travel insurance companies. When I last came into contact with Lisbon’s tourist police, eleven years ago, I had to wait for an hour against a wall lined with orange plastic chairs—or maybe they were blue?—as an endless parade of dusty-haired English and French couples reported acts of petty theft against them. I was there to report an almost-rape.

—A sexual assault?

An encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death. When my body held, and understood for a second, the knowledge that corpses are dismembered to cover up crimes. But I had gotten away from the death by kicking and screaming and running, so what was there to report?

—An attempt.

—A terror.

—A scare.

Waiting for the tourist police then, eleven years ago, my organs felt heavy from no sleep, from the trauma, from the traces of alcohol still left in my blood. But I was chipper and businesslike. I buried my shame deep alongside my fear, and I gave my statement, describing how two young men had conspired to rape me and had almost succeeded, but I weaseled my way out by agreeing to other violations, and then by my hysteria, and then by my physical desperation to flee. I was so chipper that once I’d finished and signed my statement, the tourist policeman wrote his number down on a piece of paper and said, “I finish at ten. Let me take you out and show you the real Lisbon.


February 4, 2017

I didn’t call the tourist police yesterday; today, Saturday, the office is closed. This might have been unconscious, an avoidance.

Or, lazy?

Un-pleasure avoidance through pleasure? She wouldn’t go that far.

I’m not in the habit of living by Freud, but I admit that he has given me useful words to sort through my actions. I knew, for example, that I would come to Lisbon to find a copy of the police investigation; I knew that for many months. I knew, too, that I’d be searching for the documents that detail, in some kind of truth of their time, what happened to me eleven years ago. But now that I’m here, I can’t even pick up the phone. I don’t want to know.

—But you do.

You know what the pleasure principle is: it is not calling up the tourist police when you intend to. It is preserving the self that you are used to living with and going to great lengths to protect it from disruptions. Freud’s exact words won’t assist me here unless I’ve already been living by them.

Instead, I’ve been living with the ubiquitous lingerings of pop psychology, ideas like:

  • Strength can be willed.
  • Fear can be conquered.
  • It’s not difficult to be truthful.

The idea that confronting demons is, first, possible, and, second, a good idea.


February 7, 2017

Sometimes I think it’s possible to live with anything. That we’re wired to survive, survive, survive, to grip on to the gnarliest thread until life is pried from our bones. Other times I think it’s not possible to live at all. Not at all.

The officer at the desk printed off the information he found, the initial report that I had made in 2006. Back home on the bed, bathed in sunlight, I turn the initial police report over in my hands. The names of the accused are written on it: “Francisco Rodrigues” and “Ricardo.”

We eat a dreary pasta dinner, and I sip my glass of wine too quickly. I pour another. The melodramatic, drunken thought crosses my mind: I’m not safe. I’ve never been safe.

—Which is probably, technically, true.


February 8, 2017

What does a man become in the eleven years that have passed since he threw a girl’s sense of being into chaos? This is the question I effectively ask when I type “Francisco Rodrigues” into Google. According to my yield, Francisco Rodrigues is a football hooligan. Francisco Rodrigues is also a yogi. He is a newlywed. He might be a mathematics professor in a woolen vest. Or a handsome Californian. A Miles Davis fan. An M.B.A. graduate looking for work. A thickset young dad pleased with his brood. A professional soccer player who played for Benfica from 1939 to 1942. A helicopter pilot. A sappy boyfriend. A self-promoting guru. A surfer. A guy in aviators you’d avoid at a bar. A priest. A singer in a straw hat, laughing. A supply-chain manager. A teenage boy aware, and proud, of his burly new chest. A hotel manager with a sweet, plump fiancée. An acquisitions manager who has the look of a murderer. A seventeenth-century author of books that I determine are about Portuguese court life.

—Eleven years is a long time.

—So you know their names, now, like you never forgot. Or maybe you’re confusing them?

—But Francisco is not the one she is afraid of.

While it was Francisco’s cowardice that got me into that room that sorry morning, it was his cowardice that got me out, too. As I literally, literarily, kicked and screamed under the boys’ weight, heaving-crying and thinking that I would die, I desperately repeated, “I’ll do anything, just please don’t hurt me.”

—I’ll do anything, just please don’t hurt me.

Francisco lost his cool. He burst into tears and got off the bed. And it was suddenly clear to Ricardo that he couldn’t handle the rape on his own. And then Ricardo said, “Two blowjobs then! You can leave when you give us two blowjobs!” And I repeated the mantra, “I’ll do anything, just please don’t hurt me.” And Francisco kept crying and shouted at Ricardo in Portuguese. And Ricardo shouted, “You’re not leaving.” And I found my stockings and shirt and skirt and shoes, and I bundled them up in my arms. And Ricardo and Francisco screamed at one another. And I pulled my clothes on. And Francisco said to me, “Come on.” And I moved toward the door. And Francisco made as if to open it. And we, one of us, opened it. And Ricardo slammed his arm between me and it, and he said, he said, “Are you afraid?”


February 15, 2017

They say that eyewitnesses are unreliable. Stories are told of survivors who made sure to rigorously study their attacker’s face during the assault for later identification. On this compelling evidence, innocent men are said to languish in jail until they are freed on new DNA test results.

I braced myself for the first of the two lineups. Ricardo was easy. Unusually handsome and unusually unperturbed by the situation. The sight of him filled me with rage. And fear.

Yes, you were afraid.

Then the Francisco lineup: I knew who it was I was supposed to be identifying, the only one in the line of young men who vaguely resembled my memory of Francisco. But somehow my memory of him, only a few days old, was totally altered. Amorphous in my imagination, my memory had taken on a composite of faces I already knew the look of, erasing all of Francisco. But I saw in his face the look of fear and identified it. Francisco was the dark-haired boy who looked like he had been crying.

—Even you had been holding it together.

—What entitled him to his tears?


February 9, 2017

On June 7, 2006, my older brother emailed, “Hey a letter from the Portuguese sexual crimes bureau came in today, so I’m emailing to make sure you’re okay?”

I responded, saying:

Yes, I’m fine, I had a scare one night and took it very VERY seriously, and thus put two potential sex criminals in jail. Well, not in jail, but they’re going to trial in the next few months. Don’t tell Mum and Dad, they don’t need to worry about anything. It was a pretty stressful situation, involving multiple trips to the police station and ID lineups … But it’s all over and despite the fact that it has come down to my word against theirs (and they have lawyers and will actually be present at the trial whereas only my statement will be present), I feel that in some small way, the fact that I followed it through that a small amount of justice has been served … Apart from all that, I’m fine and dandy. I’m in Granada now which is very very beautiful. You’d love it.

I mean. Who speaks like that?

—Eighteen-year-old you is who.

Eighteen-year-old me, who will not let this ruin her trip! Who has exhausted her legal duties and will demand no concern,

—A small amount of justice has been served.

who can absolutely handle trivial things like ID lineups and sleazy cops by herself, in a foreign land,

—Fine and dandy.

whose parents need not be informed lest they ruin her new life, her new life which is, for the first time, her own.

—But it’s all over …


Ellena Savage is an Australian essayist.

This is an edited extract from “Yellow City,” a piece in Ellena Savage’s debut essay collection, Blueberries, forthcoming from Text Publishing.