At last I was alone. It had been an overwhelming twenty-four hours, but for a short while, I had some time to think. Sitting in a hospital bed, I was once again pulling and tugging on the tangled threads of my past when the phone rang.
My dear friend Kathy was on the line. She had called to find out how things had gone with the birth of my second daughter. Instead, she was about to hear the latest story of a strange man harassing me while I was out. On the train to work or out for a leisurely stroll, in my current home near Washington, DC, in Chicago, Boston, or St. Louis—it happened so often, it had gotten to be somewhat of a joke. One that wasn’t very funny.
“It’s as if I have a sign on my back,” I said, pushing down against the too-soft mattress to sit a little straighter while I talked. “Does this only happen to me?”
As I retold my story, my mind revisited those earlier threads too.
A warm, late-summer night. A brightly lit Chicago street. Four young men in a car. A single young woman, fleeing on foot.
Ambling slowly up one side of the street, past the donut shop, the gas station, the bar, I observed my fellow pedestrians and watched the cars go by. Fewer people were out than I had expected, but the traffic was abundant. I took my time to enjoy what I could of the night air. My favorite diner was busy. The convenience store, which always appeared half stocked, was closed.
Two days earlier, two days before I gave birth and grew my family by one, I had ridden the train into D.C. to meet my husband for lunch. My unborn infant was four days overdue, and I hoped excessive walking downtown might persuade the little one to get a move on. The tactic worked, but it came with a cost.
I crossed at the light and walked back toward home. Turning my head to watch the cars, I saw four young men see me. The giddy looks on their faces said I had piqued their interest. When they pulled their little red car into the side street in front of me and parked, I knew it had something to do with me. My heart beat faster. I crossed behind their vehicle and tried to put some space between me and the car.
I looked back.
One got out.
It had been a while since I had ridden the train by myself. My husband worked downtown, but I had a home office now. Even after years of navigating the L in my Chicago life, I was nervous about remembering how to pay and where to get off. I was also nervous about looking inexperienced. As another thread from my past had taught me, that could be dangerous.
On a northbound train to Evanston, anxious to get to work, I peered up at the map to count how many stops I hadleft. One, two, change trains, three, four, five. Not bad. If things ran smoothly, I would arrive at the restaurant right on time. I slumped back in my seat and listened to the train rumble out of the station.
Across the aisle, a sandy-haired white man in a blaze-orange hunting jacket sat facing me. He said with a sigh, “Just five more stops,” then looked pointedly at me. I nodded my acknowledgment, and his gaze lingered on my face. I felt like he had read my mind. Had he even checked the map? When he spoke again, I was wary.
I managed to pay all right and got to the platform in time. My fear of heights meant descending the longest escalator in Maryland had set my heart racing. The extra forty pounds I was carrying only compounded the problem. But I was there, on solid ground. Now to regain my composure and act like I knew what I was doing.
“Where you headed?” asked the man in orange.
Blaze orange—I would not learn the significance of that color until much later.
“Evanston,” I replied. I gave a small smile. I felt confident now, sly even, sure my response hadn’t revealed too much.
He knows where I’m going.
I pushed that thought aside and looked anywhere but the man’s face.
The train into the District arrived and the doors opened. I took a backward-facing seat and settled in. Deep sigh. You got this. Nothing to worry about now. Just be sure to get off at the right stop.
I don’t know if the man behind me was in that seat when I sat down or if he landed there after me. I could see in my peripheral vision his long arms and legs were splayed out as he slouched. Almost immediately, he began tapping on the window ledge beside me and mumbling. He was trying to intimidate me.
Out on the street I couldn’t trace the little red car anymore, but I could see the one who got out was still trailing me. He was smaller than me. Younger too, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Yet I was frightened. I quickened my pace. He did too. When I turned back, he had closed much of the distance I had been able to achieve. A few more steps and I looked back again. He seemed to be running to catch up.
I fought to ignore the sound of the drumming beside me. I pretended it didn’t bother me. I acted like I rode the train every day. This man wasn’t going to bully me. And when I couldn’t take it anymore, I changed seats.
Time to change trains. Stepping off the red line L, I waited for the man in the orange hunting jacket to board the train to Evanston ahead of me, then I entered a different car. My senses were alive as I gripped the sweaty pole near the exit doors. I knew my fear was out of proportion, but that brief exchange rattled me. Could he really know where I was going? I closed my eyes and reminded myself that he was gone and I was safe.
I was not safe. The slouching man followed me, this time taking a seat across the aisle from me. His large frame seemed to take up the entirety of the double seat. All the while he was tap, tap, tapping.
Please. Not again.
I leaned forward to speak to the woman in front of me. “Can you help me? This man is bothering me.”
“Hey! Hey!” The one who got out was calling after me.
“No!” was all I could think to say.
This stretch of sidewalk was darker than the rest, a tall, windowless brick wall casting its shadow even at night. It seemed suddenly we were alone on the street.
“What’s your name?” he asked. He was only a few steps behind me now.
My panic nearly robbed me of speech. “No, no!”
But still he followed me.
Either she didn’t understand me or she didn’t want to get involved. Whatever the reason, the woman in the seat in front of me ignored my plea. My mind raced as I tried to think of how I was going to get myself out of this. At the moment he was just harassing me, but what if he tried to follow me off the train? Or grab me once I was on the street?
The train arrived in downtown Evanston and a mash of riders tumbled out. I squeezed through the door and onto the platform, then turned to see the man in orange emerging from the train two cars down from me. The tension in my stomach returned. I hung back, using the crowd as camouflage, then followed as he lightly skipped down the stairs to the exit.
What did he want with me, this young man chasing me as I walked down a darkened street? Was he just trying to chat me up? Maybe I was wrong to assume he meant me harm. Maybe it was cultural. I could hear in his voice he was from another country. Still, I felt pursued. Threatened. I longed to reach the end of the block.
By then the main intersection was thirty feet away. In a moment I would be able to cross the busy street and go home. But I hesitated.
Don’t reveal where you live.
I did not want to exit the train alone. I felt sure the slouching man would follow me. As I said before, it wouldn’t be the first time.
The man in orange pushed through the station doors and out onto the street ahead of me. I wanted to escape, but with my shift starting soon, I felt I had no choice but to continue behind him. If I keep my eye on him, I told myself, at least he won’t be able to sneak up on me. What I couldn’t understand was that although he was now half a block ahead of me and walking fast, I seemed to be the one being stalked.
As I considered my next move, the little red car with three young men still inside pulled up at the intersection, cutting me off. I now had one man behind me and three waiting in a car in front of me. My breath caught in my throat. I knew even a small man could shove me into his car if he had three friends to help. The physical danger was immediate, my vulnerability as clear to me as my identity as a woman. I was cornered.
I had to listen to my intuition. So I looked for another woman to ask for help.
I rose from my seat and picked my way over to stand by the train doors. At nine months’ pregnant, my belly protruded so far out that I could no longer see my feet. That made navigating the aisles difficult, but I managed. A crowd had gathered near the exit doors. In the crowd an older woman was standing by herself. What made me choose her I couldn’t say. I decided to take a chance.
“Can I walk with you?” I asked.
I watched the orange jacket rise and fall as the man walked on ahead of me. Confusion and fear told me I was in danger, but I couldn’t see how.
Intuition aside, I was expected at the restaurant in a few minutes, so I couldn’t just turn around and go home. Instead, I shuffled as slowly as I could down the sidewalk, baffled when the man turned down the street I took to work. I followed. When I reached the middle of the block, I waited until the orange jacket disappeared around the next corner. Then I scampered across the street and into my restaurant. I let out my breath. He hadn’t looked back the whole time. Surely, he wouldn’t be able to find me now.
The woman must have sensed my fear, yet she was not afraid herself, for she immediately agreed to let me join her. “This is my daughter,” she said, indicating a woman in her late twenties seated behind a post. “And this is my granddaughter.” She stepped aside to reveal a sweet baby in a baby carriage. When the woman spoke, I was surprised to realize not only was she not alone but she also wasn’t American; she was British. Yet another reminder our assumptions about strangers aren’t always right.
Across a small parking lot to my left was a video rental store, a big one. I turned on my heel and walked into the store. The young man did not follow. What did that mean? Had I been wrong all along? My racing heart didn’t think so. My head wasn’t certain.
Inside the store, I circled a video display a few times waiting for my mind to clear. Embarrassed by my fear, I didn’t speak to anyone. No one in the store knew what had happened. No one noticed I was shaking. How long should I wait? If I left now, would they be lurking on the side of the building?
On the platform in D.C., I explained to the woman that someone on the train had been harassing me.
“I thought that might be,” she said calmly. She reassured me I would be fine, then she looked behind us. “Okay, here he comes,” and she turned her body to guard me.
When I felt I couldn’t delay any longer, I took a deep breath and stepped outside: The streets were crowded, the lights were bright, and the little red car was gone.
Everything had returned to normal.
I hurried to my apartment, still afraid, and called my sister three hundred miles away. “I just wanted to let you know I got home okay.” And then tears.
The slouching man stalked past us. When I saw him, surrounded as I was by this British family of strangers, I felt vindicated: he would have followed me off the train. I also felt protected.
I replayed this episode in my mind as I punched my time card and tied an apron around my waist. I must have been mistaken; it’s not possible to follow someone when you’re the one in front. I shook off my fears and turned my thoughts to the impending dinner rush. Thursday nights were always busy, and with the weather starting to warm, it seemed everyone had a craving for Mexican food and margaritas. For the time being, however, I was alone behind the counter. The cooks must be in the stockroom. I took another deep breath and exhaled.
Then the front door creaked open, wind swirling in. And there he stood. Small but wiry beneath his hunting jacket, he locked eyes with me from across the room and we both knew who was in control. My heart pounded. My throat constricted. Then, as quickly as he appeared, he was gone. The door closed softly behind him. Only the wind remained.
I stood there, breathless, with my eyes fixed on the door. I waited several seconds, but it did not move. I was alone. Alone and shaken.
As troubling as the encounter on the train to D.C. was, it was relatively minor. To be certain, this was not the most dangerous following I had had. Not the most frightening. No, my visceral reaction was not because of this one event. It was all those earlier threads bobbing and weaving.
And so I study the threads. How do I break this pattern? How do I become one of the masses who doesn’t get followed? I have always had strong intuition—for when I am in danger, for when someone is lying—but that is not enough.
On another night . . .
A car’s horn sounded and the familiar feeling was back.
Forget this, I thought, and I turned and walked up the steps to the porch of the first house I came to. “Sorry to bother you,” I said when a teenage girl opened the door. “Someone is following me, so I came here.”
Her father appeared behind her in the doorway. I explained about the man driving slowly alongside me as I walked to the corner store. I described the car as best I could; I did not tell him this had happened before with another man in another car. “The driver was pointing at me and saying something. I think he was trying to get me to approach the car.”
After listening to my story, the father invited me inside. Then he drove me to my house two blocks away in case the car was still out there. This man had lived in the neighborhood his whole life, he said. “Come by anytime. Even if we aren’t home, you can let yourself in.” Another kind-hearted person to put the world in balance.
Back in the hospital room, I waited for Kathy’s response. She knew all of my stories, but still she assured me I wasn’t alone. “No,” she said to me. “It’s not you. I think it’s just much more common than you think.”
She’s right, of course. I know that now. Still, I sometimes feel I must be doing something wrong. Feeling weightless, skipping down the street? Better be careful, I think. This is how you felt that night in Chicago. Out for a leisurely ride when a fellow cyclist rides up? Don’t make eye contact. You wouldn’t want to invite any unwelcome attention. And maybe don’t ride the train alone this time, okay? We don’t need any more stories.
But I can’t hide forever. I don’t want to. I won’t. And when it happens again—
I will have another thread to follow.
Katherine Pickett is owner and editor at POP Editorial Services, LLC. Her creative works have appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Voice of Eve, and Uncomfortable Revolution. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her handsome and strong husband, Chris, and their two awe-inspiring daughters.