‘Young Woman’s Guide’ Lesson 1: Stop Being Polite, Start Wearing Running Shoes
It was his voice that gave me pause. Or rather, the pauses in his voice, a feeling that I was talking to someone via satellite. The man I was supposed to stay with in Little Rock — thirtysomething, an Army vet, a nursing student — had called me the night before my arrival to confirm I was showing up the next day, and though it could have been a bad connection, it was the pauses, lengthy and frequent, the questions unanswered, that roused my inner alarmist.
Still, it was hard finding free places to stay on this seven-month journey, so I muffled my instincts. I suspected he might be suffering some form of PTSD, but that merely required the exercise of a little more kindness and care, I thought.
When I arrived at his apartment complex in Little Rock after a four-hour drive from the middle of Mississippi, hesitation pulled at me again. I noticed a Sheriff’s car at the opposite end of the parking lot. I left my large camping backpack in the car, instead shouldering my computer bag before knocking on the door.
He was a little shorter than I’d pictured, ginger and a little doughy, a pink plastic mug of what turned out to be beer in his hand. He embraced me before I could indicate I was feeling more of a handshake situation here.
Even so, I tried to put as much distance between our bodies, gave a bro-style back slap, and pulled loose as soon as I was able.
He was drunk. Maybe unusual for 3 p.m. on a Friday, but not unheard-of.
But there again was that satellite delay, this time in the flesh. I told myself he was just a bit awkward. He offered to take me on a tour of the apartment, and I told myself he seemed like he needed some kind of structure or routine, and then maybe he’d be better primed for conversation.
Posters and prints lined the wall of the living room, stuff you’d see in any film student’s dorm room. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scarface. That whole deal. “I’m kind of a cinephile,” he said, carefully explaining each one and where he got it.
Next were the stairs that led up to his bedroom and the guest room. “Do you like my nudes,” he said, less of a question and more of a statement, a challenge.
Sure enough, there they were lining the wall by the staircase, tasteful photographs of nude models, some quite old — the photos, not the models.
I offered a noncommittal “Mmmm.”
The guest room had its own bathroom and a daybed. I let my computer bag drop to the floor.
“The bed turns into a double if you want,” he said.
“Oh no, it’s fine the way it is,” I said.
He moved to the bed anyway, plastic mug still in hand, and pulled the bottom out and hefted it up. He plopped himself on the bed and didn’t speak for a moment.
At this point, I had decided I would not, under any circumstances, be staying in this apartment. What I didn’t know was how to tactfully extract myself.
He got up suddenly. There were more posters in here, movies, some art. He explained them all, moving closer to me all the while.
Each time he neared, I edged away. And yet still he came, a hand on the small of the back, that carelessly intimate gesture generally reserved for people you’re sleeping with, or a touch on the arm. I flinched and moved away with every touch. He was undeterred.
“So, downstairs?” I suggested.
There were two couches in the living room: I sat on the one that didn’t quite face the TV, assuming he would sit on the other. Instead, he sat nearly on top of me, his left leg resting on my right. Scooching over to the other end of the couch did no good. He followed.
Why couldn’t I think of a way to get out of there? Why didn’t I just stand up and declare I was leaving? As I tried to think of a tactful way to get myself out of the apartment, I tried to make small talk. What kind of nursing did he want to go into?
“I dunno. Just as long as there’s no blood or broken bones. I saw enough blood over in Afghanistan. Iraq. The things I saw… I don’t want to ever see that again.”
Oh no. The thing we weren’t supposed to talk about.
“I just don’t think I could — “
He stopped talking suddenly, mid-thought, and I heard it again. The heavy breathing. Without turning my head, I looked over at him.
His eyes were closed. His right hand was clenched in a fist, and he was pumping it slowly from his elbow, down onto his leg, a punch that didn’t quite make contact.
I froze. The man was no longer a man, but a time bomb, and I had no idea how much time was left, if any movement would set him off.
The seconds ticked by as my guts tied themselves into shapes various and painful.
Suddenly, I heard his breathing ease. I took another peek over and saw his fist unclenched, his head drooping onto his shoulder, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. A small snore confirmed it: He’d passed out.
I took my chance then, finally, slowly rising from the couch and tiptoeing past, slipping my sneakers on by the front door. Hand on the knob, I realized I was missing something.
My computer bag.
It was still upstairs. I couldn’t abandon it.
I made my way up the stairs, wincing at every creak, every fiber of my body tensing, anticipating a yank on my ponytail, the full weight of the man as he flung himself on top of me.
I made it to the guest bedroom, grabbed my bag, and ran back down the stairs as quickly and quietly as I could, desperate to simply get out. I flung the front door open, swung it shut, and ran for my car.
I noticed the Sheriff’s car again as I sped past.
It was empty.
I have told this story, in some forum or another, about a dozen times, now. It helps to think of it as a story, one of those we tell ourselves in order to live, instead of something that happened to me.
Instead of dwelling on the limbic-deep betrayal of a host terrifying his guest into flight, it’s a short horror movie in which I just happen to be the protagonist. I don’t tell the audience what happened after I made my getaway, because it’s just sad: locking every lock on a hotel room door and lying in the fetal position on the floor for a couple hours, trying to get myself to stop shivering.
And yet after every telling, I find myself in that same position. I head to a bathroom or bedroom and sit in a tightly curled ball and wait for the world to stop snowglobing.
The people we hear most about, when it comes to the Great American Experience, tend to be men. Ex-NFL players with dogs named “Freedom” who plan on living in a van and roaming the continental United States. John Steinbeck and his dog named Charley. William Least-Heat Moon. That isn’t to say there are no dangers facing men traveling America (particularly for Least-Heat Moon, a Native American), but that those men are, and were, far better equipped to handle those dangers.
I am not a man. I do not have a dog. I am five feet tall and a buck-something, and though I am stronger than I look, most men could overpower me if they saw fit.
All I have is instinct, and yet the instinct to flee is the one every reporter has to stifle. As a woman, too, there is another instinct, one that osmosed into my subconscious over who knows how many years: Don’t upset the men. I found the words “Stop touching me” and “I’m leaving” sticking in my throat, and not simply because I was afraid my host would respond by smashing my face into a wall — I genuinely didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
I prioritized the feelings of a man I had just met above my own physical safety.
I wish I could say that I internalized this lesson. That I never again wound up in a situation in which I chose to be polite instead of safe. But this instinct, to not upset the men, is not so easily defied.
Maybe you can defy it, though. Upset the men — but make sure you’re wearing your running shoes, just in case.