It starts here.
9pm, heading home from pub trivia at a busy spot near my office. Down on the metro platform, the orange line train pulls in. Only six stops to my station. I’ll be walking the dog by 9:30.
The doors slide open onto a car bubbling with chatter. Summer in DC, the weekend lasts all week. Between nuzzling couples and clusters of young people, a few wilted office drones slouch and sleep. I take one of the few unoccupied seats. Bar hoppers stream out around me.
He takes up a row. Briefcase on its side next to the window, legs splayed, foot halfway into the aisle. As I settle into a corner perpendicular across the car, he catches my eye. I ignore him, pull out my journal and start writing.
The sensation a prickle, a tiny persistent sting against scalp and skin.
He’s still looking.
I fix the snapshot of his face on the page. Blacksmith shoulders, trim charcoal suit, gray socks taut over feet tied into gleaming cordovan wingtips. He’s 45, he’s 55, he’s 60. Rash red hair, a beard trimmed neat but dense against a hard jaw. Face like an oak tree, gaze like an axe. Van Gogh in serge.
Done with that, I start to write the other things, how conversations with the neighbor at the pool turn always, no matter how insistent my attempts at a detour, to the trials of modern dating. I keep writing.
He’s still looking.
Two stops. Three. People get off, no one gets on.
Let’s call it staring now.
I write on. I write about the pool and the girl and the secret pleasures of moving through your 40s a woman awake her own life. I write that single is not a sentence. My ink jitters and loops over the page – the conductor today is beat-boxing on the brakes. Searching for the texture of a phrase, I cast my eyes to the scarred white ceiling of the aging 5000 series car.
His gaze tracks my movement.
Whatever concept I was trying to capture skitters from my grasp so I just scrawl, Fucker. Now it’s getting weird.
Almost to the fourth stop. This has gone on too long. I tense my jaw and look up. Right at him. Lips pinched, I exhale a snort and skewer him with a glare. He twitches his mouth into a grin, then it disappears. He stares back. I scowl, jerk my head in a curt no and look down again.
He sort of grumbles. Shifts around in his two seats. Spreads even further into the aisle.
He’s still staring.
I’m writing about the girl in the pool, something about the merciless futility of swiping left and right.
Four stops now, almost five.
I try to write. I can’t write.
He’s still staring.
A burnt haze portends the rising tide. Blinders clot the edges of my vision. Robert Sapolsky and Gavin de Becker coach me from some distant shore. The swell distorts their words. Fear churns into fury and back again.
Hypothalamus guns the engine, epinephrine gushes up. I want to flare my spines and shriek in his face, Get your eyes off me, motherfucker before kicking his head into the window. I want to bolt through the doors and put miles between his body and mine.
But I don’t do any of this. When an adversary can eat you and all exits are blocked, fight or flight defaults to freeze. I fix my gaze on the sunflower tattoo brightening the shoulder of a woman near the door.
He’s still staring.
Where is my voice? My authority? Why did I bother reading The Gift of Fear if it fails to deliver in a moment like this? I plunge into my brain and try to drag something up. A tangle of strands:
Conditioning and social expectations lead many of us – women especially – to act polite even when facing danger. Abusive people exploit those tendencies.
A feeling of discomfort serves as a warning signal. Trust it.
“Nice” is not what’s needed.
I can’t remember the rest. Because my brain slips and sputters in its hormone bath. Because this fucker is
Does anyone else see this? Now that we’re closing in on the suburbs, chatter has faded to murmur. Clack and roll. The muffled scrape of metal on rails. I could look square at him and fill the car: “I NEED YOU TO STOP STARING AT ME.” Will these strangers back me up? If they do, how fast can they move? Do they also remember the two Portland men stabbed to death on a train when they blocked an attack on Muslim teens?
The journal. The page, this pen.
I write I’m not your fucking youtube video – ugh, how this little burst of outrage derails…
And force myself
Back to the pool, and how she fears what she doesn’t know, as we all do. What will you make with those hands when you stop swiping? I want my words back. My imagination. It’s all swamped in a corticotropin soup.
This worm in a three-piece bored through the levees.
It’s 9:20-something p.m. and he hasn’t gotten off the train. Minutes now until the last stop. My stop. Apparently his too.
He’s still staring.
We’re hurtling towards decision time.
Casting around for solid emotional ground, I write,
What would Gavin de Becker say?
Stand tall, forget nice
Do not provoke but do not apologize
Be a bitch
He’s a manspreader and feels entitled to my attention, my body
Speak a firm No
A firm Back Off
Assess my surroundings before confronting or talking back
You’ve got this, Smirk
You’re not taking any risks or any shit
I tuck the journal into my purse. Sit rigid in my seat until he’s stepped off. He stares at me while moving. On the platform, he turns and peers through the window at me even as he strides away. I stand. A man in khakis with a soft face catches my eye for an extra beat. He sort of looks concerned. He sort of nods. Or I imagine this.
I don’t want the lech to leave my sight so I pick up the pace. A blazer stretches tight across his steamer trunk back. A jacket vent rises a little too high atop the gnarl of his ass. He’s peeled this suit off someone slighter and stuffed himself into it. For want of a riding hood.
He climbs the escalator and I, two paces behind, climb the stairs. He goes through the turnstile and turns left towards the station’s north lot –
towards where my car is parked. It’s on the street just past two dark stretches of trees where the lights don’t reach. Only a block. Might as well be a fathom.
My skeleton sags –
No latitude here for dismay because my eyes must stay on him. Passengers scatter and night waits. He’s walking ahead of me in the same direction I have to go. I turn back. Start to alert the station manager. Reconsider. He can’t leave his post to escort me to my car, right? And if we’re talking, I’ll lose track of my mark. I falter at the gate as the singed ember head recedes under sodium lamps. The distance between us fails to reassure. Near, he can intimidate. Concealed, he can ambush.
Maybe I find a taxi? Maybe I call… someone?
How it ends.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Breathless, flushed, in a business skirt and flats, she’s all of 19. She says, “That was so weird.”
It takes a second to compute. “I wasn’t imagining it?”
“Oh my god, no,” she shudders. “I felt so bad for you. I had my phone out. Seriously, I was about to call 911.”
Something unclenches. A shiver sways me all the way to my bones. Jagged breath, I thank her for stopping. We fall into step and head to the end of the walkway.
“He went to the left,” I say.
She scans. “Oh, there he is going up the – no way! Did you see that? He just totally stopped on the stairway and looked back here.”
On the phone, she tells the girlfriend who’s picking her up that I’ll need a lift too. We wait at Kiss & Ride kicking around small talk about anything but the creep on the train. She’s interning in DC for the summer. Starting her junior year at a school down south in the fall. She’s a stranger in this town and young enough to be my daughter.
When her friend drops me at the curb by my car, she waits with the headlights on me until I drive away.
It’s 10:00pm when I get home. The dog and I walk together through the night, same as always. I try not to notice every shifting shadow. The moon steadies me. Almost.
It takes two hours for the floodwaters to recede. Adrenaline saturates everything. Eventually sleep carries me free. For this luxury – a body intact, a lock on the door, a bed, sweet rest – I say thanks.
For a young woman bold enough see a sister safely home, may she never need the favor returned.
As for man, the root and blight, I know you’re underfoot. You’ve tunneled through these makeshift borders. You’ve pressed yourself into the shape of night.
Fuck you for what you’ve taken.
I’m not sure what it is yet.
But it won’t be my words.
Image: Seth Siro Anton, “The Eyes Have It”