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Are You Afraid?

As a semi-frequent solo traveler who happens to be female, I am often asked (usually by other women): aren’t you afraid? Every time I say, “of course not” and rattle off reasons why. I say, if you stay alert, be smart, and know your boundaries, you’ll always be fine.

A recent travel experience has changed my answer.

I do not feel safe. But the truth is that I never feel safe. I live in America.

Those lines I tell myself and others about “staying alert and being smart” are lies to make me feel like I have some semblance of control around how the world interacts with me. This idea is something I would expect to be reasonable; this idea that I, in any way, could possibly have control, is naive.

With where America is presently, this story could go one of two ways from here. It could talk about the #MeToo movement but it could also be more, explosive.

Looking back, I don’t think I’ve felt safe since elementary school. Growing up in Colorado in the early ‘90’s, I was intimately aware of Columbine. Do you know what happened after Columbine? They banned trench coats from the school wardrobe. I realized after moving to the East Coast, where everyone wears trench coats to guard against the weather, that I had a direct aversion to them. A fear. I did not want to own one, nor did I want to be near those that wore them. As if, trench coats are what killed those 13 high school kids.

9/11. A fear of planes and flying to major cities. Aurora (back to Colorado). A fear of movie theaters. Vegas. A fear of concerts. Orlando. A fear of clubs. And on it goes each tragedy inflicting a new wound on society and my subconscious.

Do I let it affect how I live my life and what I choose to do? Of course not. Do I think about how one day I won’t be so lucky, and the next concert, plane ride, school event, athletic activity, movie, might be my last? All the time.

I often imagine these scenarios, especially how I would “handle” it — What would I do? In any room or area I go, I try to sit with my back to a wall. I get uncomfortable entering places with singular exits and look for second routes of escape, in case someone dangerous blocks my path. I took eight years of taekwondo lessons to learn how to defend myself against people, to learn how to disarm those brandishing knives, even guns, in close-quarters. I still don’t feel safe. Maybe this does affect how I live my life.

On a recent trip I was confronted with these realities and fantasies. I was at a coach (bus) station in Edinburgh, getting ready to board the coach down to Heathrow and fly back home. It was 10:30 pm, the other soon-to-be passengers and I were shuffling into some semblance of a line at the door, when a man down that hall began to yell, “THIS IS A SECURITY ANNOUNCEMENT.”

My thoughts:

  1. That is strange, this announcement isn’t over the intercom system.
  2. I hope there isn’t some bomb threat, or a lonesome bag that looks suspicious.

I turn to look over at the man who is shouting. He is not in anything that resembles a uniform, as I would expect someone who “has a security announcement’ to be. He then shouts, “Everybody get down!” and move’s his hands, gesticulating as though an automatic weapon was firmly there.

My body braced for impact. From the sweep of his arms, my abdomen is in the way of the first wave of bullets. I know I have the bus entrance in front of me, with a crowd of people blocking it, but I could make it — I know there’s a hallway opening up behind me, though I don’t know if it has an exit. He’s blocking the way I came in and moving towards the only other exit I know. I get ready to crouch low and sprint. I get ready to be shot.

And then I hear, “knock it off man.”

He’s drunk. He’s making a joke. There is only a make-believe gun in his hands, not a real one. I exhale, and I am disturbed. I am disturbed that my first reaction was acceptance, I had thought to myself, “Of course, I knew this would happen to me at some point.” I am disturbed at how ready, how easy it was for me to believe a shooting was about to occur. My whole life is evidence that these shootings happen, and continue to happen, that they don’t stop. How do I know I wouldn’t be next? I am disturbed at how prepared I was to be shot. I am disturbed that these tragedies are now a joke. A prank to pull when drunk and feeling obnoxious.

I wanted to punch this drunk. To let loose the rage, all of the fear, on this unfortunate man who made me believe my worst fears had finally come true. I wanted to yell at him, “I’m American! That is my reality! How dare you! How dare you frighten me in this way!” but what good would that do? I grew up on stories, as we all have, of America the free, the home of the brave. This has shown me that I do not live free. I do not feel brave.

So the next time I travel alone, and someone asks me if I’m afraid, I will not offer my usual platitudes. “Yes, I am afraid” I will say. “But I’m afraid all the time.”