Despite varied invitations, shall we say, there are only three sets of circumstances where I would get into a car with a male stranger at night. Or at any time actually.
- I am horribly injured and my death is imminent if I don’t take the risk that you will actually drive me to the hospital
- You’re Billy Ocean and I’m a model paid to be in your music video
- You’re Billy Ocean and I’m a cartoon fish at a carwash in your video
If I am walking alone and you pull over and you are not Billy Ocean I will assume you are one, or more, of the following: a lonely dude who got flirting *all kinds of wrong*, a pervert, a kidnapper, a rapist, an organ thief looking for parts, or a murderer.
When I was 18 a rape survivor recommended I read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. She was the first person who ever talked to me about being raped. But of course she wouldn’t be the last. I read her weathered copy of de Becker’s book in what felt like one held breath. I’ve referred to it countless times since. And I’ve unfortunately bought it as a “present” for multiple women in my life who have been attacked or stalked or both.
De Becker reconnects us to our own survival instincts. Humans are the only animals that are socialized to be polite. And we therefore talk ourselves out of our own instincts and remain in danger rather than appearing rude. Women, of course, are at both a greater risk of violence and under greater pressure to not be rude to anyone — even to a potential threat. Sometimes we are even more polite to threatening people in order to de-escalate potential violence.
I have also watched all 18 seasons of SVU. Most episodes more than once. I watched Rescue 911 and Unsolved Mysteries the second my parents said I was allowed to. I’ve watched countless other crime shows, documentaries and movies. And I’m not alone. Apparently viewership of crime shows is disproportionately women. And we watch academically — taking mental notes in order to help us prevent violence or escape from it.
For the most part, we always think we’re prepared to avoid danger, to diffuse possible danger, or to run like hell if the first two fail.
But when I was walking home alone at 1am last night a man pulled over and kept pace with me as I walked along the sidewalk. I hoped he was slowing down for the speed bump. I told myself to relax and remember that all cars do this while you’re walking because they’re approaching a speed bump. I hear a window roll down. I looked down and to my left from the corner of my eye — no speed bump.
“Holaaa …” he purred, more than said. It was the same man from the parking lot in the grocery store. The devouring unblinking stare that had tripped my first silent alarm.
He had followed me. He had to have gone the wrong way down a one-way street for a beat to get to me. I turned to stone. I didn’t even feel it happen. I was just a human walking home one second and then I was stone. My peripheral vision vanished. I couldn’t make out any details. My brain got tight and my only thought was don’t let him follow you. Change direction. Disappear down a side street. Loop around to get home a different route.
Should I have responded? Would it have been better or worse if he heard my American accent? Don’t look scared, don’t look scared. Straight back, eyes ahead. Don’t look down. Your hair’s up so he can’t grab it very easily. Keys between your knuckles. Do the best you can even though you only have two. I bought beer. I could break the bottle and shiv him like I’d seen in movies. Right? I had it in me to stab a man if I had to?
When I replayed the parking lot moment I thought there was too much gravity in the way he looked at me, an intensity. And he looked at me for too long. He hadn’t blinked. And he never got out of the car. He could’ve been waiting for someone but typically we get out of the car once we park at the grocery store.
I can’t explain it but in retrospect it seemed like he suddenly wasn’t there for groceries anymore. Maybe he was initially. But he laser-focused in on me. And at the time I just thought maybe it’s because I’m white. Maybe it’s because I have a garish neon green grocery tote and I stick out like a sore thumb any time of the day, let alone the middle of the night.
I felt or heard someone behind me as I cut across the parking lot diagonally. I sensed someone behind me and walked back to the sidewalk as fast as I could, checked the reflection in the glass but didn’t see anything. Turned around to see if anyone was walking toward me. Silence. There was no one. Now I wonder if he had been watching me from his car farther off.
I didn’t think about the fact that even my brief 10-minute stroll home was away from people and only illuminated by streetlights. It’s noisy here but quiet at night. I suspect residents are used to ignoring dogs barking and construction and kids screaming and people coming and going. I would still describe this as a quiet residential neighborhood.
I was still petrified in place like a tree stump or a gargoyle after he said hello. He might be my age but I suspect younger. Dark hair. Light-skinned Hispanic. His face is unremarkable. Indistinguishable. No facial hair. I wouldn’t recognize him if I sat down and had coffee with him for an hour tomorrow morning. My eyes just hazed over and only saw big colors and shapes. Silver car. New-ish. Washed. No dust despite the weather. The streetlight makes the paint gleam. Passenger sedan I think. Maybe a two-door coupe? I hold my hand up in what I realize could be interpreted as a dismissal though I’m trying to be the minimum amount of polite necessary to not piss him off and escalate the situation. But I can’t speak. He paces me while I walk. My throat is dry. I have no words. I halt and drop behind his car, cut across the street. There’s a meridian so technically I’m now on a different one-way street going the opposite direction. He keeps pace with me until I turn. He has his brake lights on the whole time. I assume he is looking at me in his rearview mirror. I choose a street early in hopes that I can shake him even though all these streets are connected in one way or another.
I’m wearing short shorts and an open-back shirt. Carrying the neon green grocery tote and wearing flat sandals. Now I think he was calculating my likeliest route. Maybe he’d seen me before for all I know.
I turned down the side street and walked as fast as I could toward the park. The neighborhood police were always there. At least one vehicle. The blue and red lights always on while they leaned against the cars and chatted.
I made it past the juniper trees on Aguila street and around the bend. The park stretches three blocks long, maybe more. And tonight it is completely and totally empty. For the first time since I’ve been walking this neighborhood, day or night, no cops are there. My heart sinks and I just want to run home.
But then I see him again. Coming toward me this time. He had looped around and doubled back. Headed me off from at least two blocks away. It’s like he knew where I was going. It was almost 1am on a Tuesday night. But it’s broiling hot in Monterrey and to be able to walk in the “evening” felt refreshing.
I’m just a few paces from my street and I decide to just go for it instead of purposely going the wrong way. I don’t want him to know where I’m staying but I also don’t want to risk him catching me while I try to lead him down a false trail.
I barely make it onto the street before he pulls over and parks. I hear the car turn off. A door opens and closes. I spin around to confront him but no one’s there. I can’t see him anywhere. I’m terrified that he’s crouched somewhere watching me. But I also don’t want him to know how scared I am. So I don’t run. I keep my keys pointed outward as Wolverine as possible and bear down on the house, just three houses away now.
I knew that if I could just get “home” Jose Luis would know what to do. He is also male and technically a stranger. I am renting an airbnb from him and have talked to him briefly a few times since I’ve been here. But I trust him. He is kind. He is safe. I know he’s one of the good guys.
I can hear his TV through the open windows of the main house. A British program. I’m staying in an ADU accessed from the side gate. I should’ve just knocked on his door. It’s always open. Even the screen door is open most days. But I didn’t want to be rude. So I lock myself in the ADU and text him in the dark. I apologize for bothering him at such a late hour but I wonder if he leaves his front door unlocked. I don’t know that the man didn’t see me come up this driveway. But if he did and he kept following me he would see that there is only one front door and then the side gate.
Everyone back home is already asleep or not answering. I finally get a hold of one friend, a fellow night owl. Is the door covered? Could he see you if he was looking for you? I keep checking my messages to see if Jose Luis has written back when I finally hear his screen door bang open. I creep toward the glass door and see him looking out the gate.
I quietly open the door and walk toward him. He seems stunned. I do my best to explain what happened and to apologize for texting him so late. And for possibly luring a dangerous person back to his home. And I apologize for not even thinking to lock the gate until I’d already been back for fifteen minutes. I’m terrified the guy is waiting in the backyard and Jose Luis is sure there’s no way he would be. But no sooner has he said this does he seem to consider the possibility.
“I’m sure it’s fine but I don’t want you to worry tonight. I want you to be able to sleep without being scared. Hang on,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”
He comes back with a machete as long as his legs. I start smiling, almost laughing, when I realize I’m relieved. Here I am in the middle of the night and I am more scared of a man in a car than I am of a man with a machete. Because the man with the machete is trying to protect me. And I trust him as instinctively as I feared the stranger who said hello.
He storms into the overgrown backyard and starts hacking away at the tall grass, some it waist-high. I hadn’t looked back there yet but I got even more scared once I did. Anyone could easily hide in a number of places. He starts banging the machete against tree trunks around the perimeter calling out, HOLA! BUENAS NOCHES! His voice sounds like the most sinister kind of friendly. Like a challenge. I realize this dude is actually ready to tangle if shit goes down. His sister’s dog lies down by my feet. She rolls over onto her back and waits for me to rub her belly. Her name is Freckles and she will not be helping us if the bad guy really is in the bushes.
Jose Luis goes back inside to call the police. Apparently what I’ve described is a crime here. The police tell him it’s harassment or menacing. If they find the guy they can fine him and verbally ban him from the neighborhood. That is legally binding enough that if they see him again they could arrest him.
They patrol the neighborhood twice and I hang a sheet over the door. As I’m tucking it around each corner I realize I didn’t apologize to Jose Luis for making such a reckless decision in the first place. None of this would have happened if I wasn’t walking to the store in the middle of the night. But for once I don’t feel like I did anything wrong. No matter what I was wearing or where I was walking or when this wasn’t my fault.
I won’t do it again because I still live in a society where women are in danger. But at least I’m not blaming myself for the danger anymore.
Originally published at heathermedwards.com.