Ask a woman about strangers, and this is what you get.
When you’re scared of everything, like I am, you get in your head. You take every strand of possibility and unwind each of them. Specifically.
This man in the black jacket might make a sudden movement.
This car that pulls over within reach might roll down it’s window.
Of course, some of this is rooted in reality. Because I am a woman often alone in public spaces, I’ve seen stranger’s genitals without my asking. I’ve felt the odd hand on my back pocket while on a crowded Greyhound. I’ve had a man in a Lexus outside my doctor’s office ask if I wanted to watch him jerk off.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I have a bag of groceries and I’m walking to my boyfriend’s house. I’m skittering my eyesight across the leafy sidewalk, the darkness between parked cars, that space up the street where the lamp is out. I’m trying not to chase every possibility. But it’s dark. So here I am. And then.
This, I’ve since heard, isn’t safe. My anxious brain. My following the potential beginning to each of my obituaries apparently distracts me from keeping myself safe. Safety is rooted in presence. To be your safest, ladies, you should take in your surroundings with all five senses. So it might not surprise you where this is going: this is the story of how I was mugged. Or, hesitantly mugged, I guess; we’ll get there in a second.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I’m in my head catastrophizing so I don’t see the man on the bike riding by slowly. I only notice once he stops, when he’s entirely off his bike, blocking my path, saying, “Give me your bag. I have a knife.”
If I walk alone too often and nothing happens, I’m independent and strong. If I walk alone too often and this happens, well, stupid woman gets what she deserves.
Everything is processing at once too slowly and too quickly, and I’m stuck in my head. I do not give this man my bag. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I think it was, “No, thank you.” Polite to the death.
I do not drop my stuff and run. I do not do what he wants. A car passes but does not stop.
The man is angry. He is telling me that he has five kids to feed at home, calling me undeserving, and before I realize what I’m saying, my mouth speaks: “My father has five kids, too.” I am practicing all of my pleasantries with a man who is trying to mug me.
We exchange briefly. I offer more about my dad: a projectionist in Flint, Michigan. A dying breed. I think I ask about him or he just tells me: laid off recently.
I wish I remembered more of what happens here. I know it’d make a better story if I did. But, also, I can’t stop chasing every possible end to this story. If safety is rooted in awareness, and I can’t remember the details of this encounter, what does that say about future-me in future situations like this? Because there will be future situations like this.
In fact, since then: the college boys in their lifted Ford screaming out their window, the man at the bus stop moving too closely asking how my husband please me, the man in the white CRV asking if I know what it feels like to be murdered.
The man moves aside, eventually. I pull the grocery bag against my chest and move past him. I don’t turn my head. Instead, I focus my tunnel vision forward. I trust him, I guess, to not follow in my direction.
My chest is beating. Is it empathy and fear I’m feeling? Was I ever even at risk? I get to where I’m going, and I am safe. I do not call the police, which you might think is stupid or careless of me. But I also have a difficult time separating this instance from every other encounter with strange men like this. Where on the spectrum of violence does a mugging turned conversation fit? What about threatening comments hurdled from drivers before they peel away? The thing about asking women about strangers is that there’s an infinite number of stories like this.
I still walk and take the bus. I do a better job at not conjuring fear in my head. But still, sometimes. And then.