My second job was at a video store a little over a mile away from my house. After I worked at the video store for a year, I got a second job at a grocery store roughly a half mile from my house. I didn’t have my driver’s license at first, but even when I got my driver’s license, there wasn’t a car for me to drive. Occasionally, I could bum a ride off someone in my family, but they were my jobs and and it was my responsibility to get myself there, so often, I walked.
I walked through triple digit temperatures and humidity. I walked through rain and temperatures below freezing. I even walked in the dark a few times. And I walked through the highest concentration of sex offenders in the county.
A few months after I started working at the video store, a girl who worked next door and lived in my subdivision was picked up and sexually assaulted as she walked home from work. I was mildly terrified to walk after that, but my dad sat me down and explained that sexual predators familiarize themselves with their prey’s behaviors and patterns, and that likely, the perpetrator and the victim in this situation were at least acquainted. He told me it was as simple as never accepting a ride from anyone outside of our family, no matter how well I thought I knew them.
I kept walking. And I got offers. The first time, a hot afternoon, walking home from work, a red pickup slowed up beside me.
“Can I give you a lift?”
“No, thank you.” Always polite.
“It’s awful hot out here.”
“That’s okay. I don’t have far to go.”
“Yeah? Where do you live?”
I hated that question. Never knew how to answer.
“Just up the road.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
“I’m sure. Thank you.” Oh, yes. Always polite.
It wasn’t always men in pickup trucks or couples in vans. Sometimes it was a regular customer. Or a male manager.
But I was always terrified, because I knew that if push came to shove, I really couldn’t defend myself. I wanted to take self-defense for my degree’s fitness requirement, but my mom thought I needed something more active to lose weight. I took jogging instead. The only protection I had was not accepting rides.
My fear intensified when a couple started hanging out in the coffee bar at the grocery store where I worked. They played Sims on their computers in the lounge all day. They were nice enough, I suppose – very chatty – but they were always trying to bum coffee off of us. One night I was dumping stale coffee, and I turned around and the man was right beside me.
“Usually, they give me some of that before they dump it.”
“I’ll happily make another pot.”
He stepped forward, breathing hot air all over my face. “Then I’ll have to pay for it.”
“How about this? I’ll pay for it.”
That seemed to satisfy him, because he backed away, though he watched me until I handed him his cup of steaming, fresh coffee.
A few days later, one of the managers said he would tell me something about this couple if I promised not to quit working the coffee bar. In his office, he showed me paperwork that said the couple were registered sex offenders. He also told me that they had followed several cashiers out to their cars at night. Corporate was aware of the situation and were deciding how to handle it. In the meantime, I just had to live with it. I had promised, after all.
It wasn’t long before the couple was asked to leave and not come back, but even then I was worried that during the hours they’d spent talking to and observing me, I may have inadvertently given something away about myself that they would exploit.
One day, as I walked up the sidewalk around the corner from my house, two neighbors were sitting on their front porch and they struck up a conversation with me. They had seen me walking a lot, they said, in my work uniform. How old was I, they wanted to know, and why did I walk? Always polite, I answered, but my past experiences made me uneasy.
I don’t know how much time passed between that incident and when I was sitting at our kitchen table alone, eating lunch and staring up out the window, thinking. Coming out of my reverie, my vision focused and I realized what I was looking at. In the upstairs window of a neighboring house was a naked man, masturbating. If I could see him, even though I wasn’t as close to the window as he was, could he see me? Had he been hoping to catch my attention? Shuddering, I closed the blinds.
A different time, at lunch with my two younger siblings, it was a naked woman in the same window. We had an “oh, my” moment and shut the blinds. I didn’t tell them what I thought was going on. Couldn’t tell them. They might think I was being dramatic. I wondered at times if I was being dramatic.
I’ve never told my parents how scared I was, walking to work; how vulnerable I felt knowing that anybody could be watching me with the intent to exploit me; how helpless I felt without any practical ways to defend myself. I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone. Even so, I wish they would have recognized it, and worked with me a little more so I could have been safe, felt safe getting to work.
And it bothers me when my dad tells me not to drive on a certain road because it’s known to be more dangerous than others. It bothers me when he tells me to get pepper spray because the apartment complex I live in is old and looks rundown. It bothers me that for years he didn’t want me developing friendships with guys without having vetted them first. So I drive on that road every day for three years, and I don’t get pepper spray, and I form fast and loose bonds with men.
I’ve just developed a sort of recklessness in my life. I’ve called it independence, thinking I can’t be touched. I’ve called it fierce, knowing how close to the fire I can get without being burned, not even once. I’ve called it power, because even if I’m not safe, I am at least calling the shots for myself. Most days, I don’t feel afraid anymore. Most days.
Except when someone starts asking me questions about myself. Or when they want to do something for me. And the fear starts to rise. Are they looking for something about me to exploit? What do they want from me? Because even though I present myself like I don’t have a care in the world, I really, really don’t want to be seen.
And so I press on by myself. And I don’t ask for anything, so nothing can be asked from me.
People say not to let the world’s sickness infect you. I wish – I wish that was as easy as it sounds. I wish the fear hadn’t gotten to me, and now that it has, I wish I knew how to get rid of it.