It took me a while to decide if I wanted to write about this recent experience. Today, I was playing a video game of all things when I decided that, yes, yes I will. Please forgive me if it’s a bit all over the place, but getting out my thoughts on all this has been hard.
There have been a handful of times in my life when men (and once, a woman) have made me distinctly uncomfortable with their behavior toward me. I’ve been cat-called walking down the street, hit on*, and even inappropriately touched without my consent (which was horrifying), but these instances go even beyond that; they’re doubly scary, and for someone who can be pretty naive at times, downright dangerous.
I never knew the world to be this way when I was in high school, but I was very sheltered, to be sure. The older I get, the more I realize what it means to be a woman also means that I’m not always as safe as I plan to be, and that said planning is actually really crucial to my well-being.
It’s sad to me that a man, day or night, can walk the streets to run his errands far more safely than I simply by virtue of his size and gender, but I digress.
The things I’ve experienced have been intimidating, but I’ve never before had to contact the police; I’ve never before been in danger wherein I felt the need to immediately reach out for aid and had no recourse to do so. But then it happened, and I was trapped, and I’m still trying to digest that it means for me to be really prepared and safe in the midst of these new experiences.
When things get really scary is when a man won’t leave you alone, when he’s persistent—when the stranger follows you to a store and waits for you the entrance, when you’ve successfully avoided him only to find him leaning up against your car in wait, ready to confront you with renewal of his unwanted advances as you return to your vehicle.
That’s when you’re scared.
This time it was much worse, because I was alone. But now I guess we’re headed into the bulk of our story, and I’ll begin.
A few days ago, Ginger and I went to pick up a Dominos pizzas for an impromptu pajama-pizza party in my living room. The evening was typical, and though already dark, we felt no apprehension about venturing out on our own into my small, midwestern town. My husband didn’t spare it a thought. Why would we? Our town is safe; there is no danger here. She and I, still sporting our pjs, wished my husband goodbye and headed out into the cold.
Arriving in the parking lot, Ginger decided to stay in the car as she felt a tad embarrassed about her attire. I had no such qualms; I left my wallet and keys in the vehicle before proceeding to pick up our pre-paid pizzas. Why would I need them, just running in and out?
Two teenage boys entered the building before me, snickering at my fuzzy pink owl robe. That’s fine. I signed for my pizzas with a smile, and turned to go. If I had been paying more attention, I would have noticed something off about the dark-jacketed man in my peripheral vision, but why would I? This is my town. I am safe.
As I open the door, the man asks me, “Can I walk with you?” which in the context I ignorantly take to mean, “Hey, please don’t shut the door as I’d like to exit,” and I say “sure.” I haven’t even looked him full in the face, and I’m responding on impulse. This is another downfall of my personality; I’m bubbly, and I’ll smile and engage with you before I engage a threat response.
He follows me awfully closely in the empty parking lot, and as in those few seconds I notice something isn’t quite right, he asks me, “Where are you going?”
“I’m just going to my car, right here,” I say, gesturing to my car close at hand, Ginger still obliviously typing away on her phone inside.
“Okay, I’ll go with you.”
“Well, I’m actually right here,” I say, gesturing to my car again.
“Oh,” he says, and continues, “Hey, could you give me a ride home?”
“No,” I say, caught off guard and a tad nervous of this bold stranger, but determined to be assertive if not unkind. He’s not terribly tall, medium build, dark hair. He’s wearing a black jacket, holding a beverage in his right hand. “I’m sorry, but you’re a stranger and I don’t really feel comfortable with that.”
“Oh, okay.” He continues to follow me, closing the space between us. Five feet, perhaps?
“Well, I’m actually right here,” I say, gesturing to my car again, and he returns once more, “Okay, I’ll go with you” as he mimics my movements, closing space again as I move toward my car.
“I’m going to get in my car right now.”
“Okay, I’ll go with you.”
And then things get even more hairy. This man in plainly determined to get into my car, and who knows what he will do once inside. I’m terrified. My friend is innocently sitting in the passenger seat, probably texting her fiance. She has no clue what’s going on, as we haven’t been overly loud, and I’m afraid for her, too. I can’t make eye contact to let her know what’s going on.
He’s so close to me now, not taking no for an answer. He can easily beat me to the car door if I make a move to close those few feet. I can’t lock the door to keep her safe without my keys, and neither can I use them as a weapon to my advantage. I can’t even push the emergency call on my iPhone.** It’s just me and a bunch of pizzas, so I attempt to walk back toward the eatery.
No go. He blocks my path. He’ll be faster than me, too. I’m so afraid.
“Please stop,” I say, as he backs me into a metaphorical corner. I’m backing up in the direction of my car. I don’t know what to do. “Please go away.”
“What do you want me to do?” he asks as he gets closer.
“I want you to stop. Please stop.” I’m desperate. “Please, stop.” Do I throw the pizzas now? For some reason, in my shock, I didn’t think to scream. All the lit, attended establishments are head of me, blocked off by this stranger. Behind me, there are only the dark, empty library grounds to run toward. I am acutely aware of the position I’ve found myself in, all because I thought I was safe in my small town. I’m still in shock.
But the commotion of me being stopped in coming back toward the building seems to have caught the attention of the employees. A woman opens the door and screams at him, “Hey! I’m going to have to ask you to leave that customer alone!”
And just like that, he RUNS. He runs faster than I thought possible, like the devil was at his heals, drink flying everywhere, off toward the darkened library and around the corner out of sight.
Startled by the noise, Ginger hops out of the car, eyes wide, wondering what in the world is going on. She can’t believe she sat oblivious the entire time when we were, in essence, so close. The woman has approached me, and a male employee is standing by the door, ready to intervene. Everyone inside the pizzeria is watching. And finally, finally, I can breathe easier. I’m so shocked. I’m just… numb?
I’m not crying, that’s for sure.
The woman is apologizing to me. She says that they noticed he was harassing me, so she dropped the phone and ran.
I tell her there is no need to apologize. I’m anxiously looking in the direction that he headed. “I really don’t think he would have gone away if you hadn’t come out.”
And I still believe that to be true.
I’ll spare you the details of calling the police and telling my husband what went down. I’ll end my story here, because really, that’s the end to it.
I relay all this not to garner sympathy, but to share my outrage. I was afraid, and now I’m sad and angry. I thought that I was over it, but you know, even in writing about it, I find myself shaking. Honest. My hands.
But what are you supposed to do?? What are you supposed to do?? Don’t tell me “be prepared and don’t get into those situations,” because I’ve heard it enough in my short lifetime. They tell that to women every day. And it’s never your fault, no matter where you’re going or what you’re wearing.
“Tell them your husband is in the car,” says my mom in retrospect, but she is understanding. In the moment, she knows how scary such an encounter can be.
“Well, you shouldn’t have let him walk out with you,” says my dad. And I know that he means well, but I am fundamentally flawed in that I will smile at a stranger first and ask questions later. Should I have to be afraid of everyone I meet in passing?
In Code Realize, heroine Cardia’s skin contains a poison capable of melting anything it contacts, including human flesh. There was a joke thrown into the game about how, if another character were to make unwanted advances toward her, he would melt and she would be fine.
And I don’t mean to make light of her condition, because no one wants to live like that, but it got me thinking… what if a touch from me was enough to make him melt? What if I wasn’t so defenseless? I’m not big or particularly strong, and he was clearly faster than I, but what if my last ditch recourse wasn’t throwing pizzas at him and being too shaken up to scream? What if, in a moment of true desperation and fear, I could intentionally melt a man with my touch?
What would that be like?
It sounds so dark, and I truly don’t want to hurt anyone, but experiences like these remind me of just how powerless I really am at times.
At least, for every one bad man, there are dozens of good ones. I have to believe that. I know enough of them. My husband is one. My father is one. Chronic is one.
And I am so lucky. As I said before, I can count my negative experiences with men on one hand. I don’t go out much because I’m much more of a homebody by nature and going out gives me anxiety. Even still, all but one of these instances happened while I was executing my simple everyday life! You know, running to the convenience store, or picking up a take out order… What is it like for women to venture out into public social spaces, into major cities, with any frequency?
How can I still be like this? I started this post fully composed and ready to relay a message, but now I’m shaking and trying not to cry. Why am I like this even now? Isn’t writing supposed to help? This incident happened days ago…
I was supposed to make an insightful conclusion and call attention to the fact that this needs to change, but I don’t know how. I guess I’m just as powerless in this arena.
But maybe not. Maybe sharing this is enough for now.
In any case, I’m fine. I’m home. It’s over. It probably isn’t a big deal. Or maybe it is. I don’t know. But let this be a lesson to all in the ways that YOU NEED TO STAY SAFE. The world is dangerous, even though it shouldn’t be, and even though you don’t deserve these fears, you need to stay safe, girls (and guys).
What can we do to make this change? How can we change it now?
*When I say “hit on,” I refer to the inappropriate actions or phrasings removed from harmless, respectful flirting. Things like a stranger walking up to me and saying, “Where your daddy at?” (which I didn’t even know the meaning of until my big brother later explained it to me).
**If you are in a compromising situation, you can press the awake/power side button on your iPhone five times in quick succession and a slide bar will appear. Slide it to deliver your coordinates and a distress call to the police.