On Bears And Men — And Other Predators I Fear At Night

By Carla Bruce-Eddings

The danger existed; it always had, it always will.

The very first bear attack in New Jersey took place in late September of 2014. Darsh Patel and four of his friends were warned not to enter the Apshawa Preserve, but ignored the advice and continued inside. When they encountered the bear, they took pictures and walked away. The bear followed. The friends ran in different directions. When they got back together, they realized Darsh Patel was missing. It took two hours to find his body.

Eighteen years earlier, I was on my way to different campsite in New Jersey when my sister told me there might be bears.

I wanted my aunt to turn the car around, right then, and go back home. But that was impossible, because we were on a long, empty stretch of highway, too far from safe suburbia. I wondered if this had been my family’s plan all along, to lure me out and then scare me silly.

“You shouldn’t worry,” Sophia said, twisting around to regard me lovingly from the front seat. “There are ways to keep from being eaten.” She grinned. Her teeth were so white and even. Whenever people told me that I looked like my big sister I said “Thank you!” and meant it, even though I didn’t believe them. I had long resented the two and a half decades spanning our ages, craving a closer proximity to the inimitable worldliness and allure that only an older sister can possess. I felt I was playing a desperate game of catch-up that I would never, ever win.

‘There are ways to keep from being eaten.’

Please tell me she’s joking, I silently implored Aunt Karen, who was driving. Aunt Karen had more movies and CDs than any grown up I’d ever met and kept a collection of Barbies and assorted Mattel accessories that vastly surpassed my own. She worked at Blockbuster and Discovery Zone and laughed long and loud and told silly jokes and made faces at us when the other grown ups weren’t looking. My big sister was adventurous and daring — to a fault, I now firmly believed — but I never thought Aunt Karen would consent to putting me in actual danger.

“So do you want to know what to do in case a bear attacks us?” Sophia prodded. I had been so excited for this camping trip. I buried my hand in Kola’s warm fur, and tried to imagine encountering an animal many times her size, who I could not control, who was not kind, who would regard me only as its next meal.

“Yeah.” Mountains slid past my window, blue and purple and red in the fading sun. Thick green trees lined the road, but I saw no beauty, only claws and blood in the woods.

“Curl up into a ball,” Aunt Karen explained. “Don’t make a sound, don’t scream, don’t do anything. Pretend to be asleep.”

Asleep?!” I screeched. Kola sat up and looked at me, eyes wide and beseeching. She was half Collie, half German Shepherd. My smaller cousins were always afraid when they saw her — they thought she was a wolf — until she loped over with her curious, damp nose, tongue lolling, tail wagging. Her teeth were sharp, but she would never use them. We had to trust that she would never use them.

“They might bat you around a little. Then they’ll lose interest.” I heard a calm finality and assurance in her voice that I could not share.

And what if they don’t?

What if the bear smells me? My delicious human-ness?

What if it doesn’t care that I’m asleep, and claws into my flesh and devours me whole? What then?

I didn’t want them to regret bringing me on this trip, to prove myself unworthy of the privilege I’d been afforded, the likes of which I was unlikely to see again. I was always too young and too immature to tag along, but this time, I wasn’t. Somehow, I was supposed to be brave and strong as we slept outside beneath the stars, open to wild creatures that may come to ravage us. I clamped down my fear, shoving it beneath my tongue, curling it into my toes.

In 2006, there were 30,762 cases of reported violent crimes in New Jersey. Of those, 428 were murders, and 1,237 were “forcible rapes.”

It didn’t seem important, at the time. Few things did: We were three months into our first year of college, heady with confusion and exhilaration, and home for Thanksgiving break. We spent the evening at an upscale restaurant with several dozen other members of our high school class, living well beyond our means, shouting about dormitories and classes and house parties with a desperate optimism. Maybe in the telling we would make our happiness real, our homesickness a phantom.

I felt a chaotic sort of joy, buoyed by seeing old classmates again and sharing our newfound independence, but was keenly aware that this sojourn in the past was a brief one. I did not like my college; it felt too large, too impersonal, too anonymous for me to find any meaning or color. At every turn, I felt that I was just on the precipice of some transformative event, a radical encounter or experience or relationship that might shake my tiny existence out of drab complacency. Yet every day ended and I was no different. It was both comforting and depressing to witness a similar veiled despondency in everyone else, too.

My friend Danielle and I headed home from the restaurant in the same car. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving. It was very late. We were tired, but happy. And then we were lost.

We both knew these streets well: permits at 16, licenses at 17, and our entire lives threaded throughout the cardboard box towns of Piscataway, New Brunswick, Edison, Plainfield. But it was late. We were tired. The radio blared pop and Christmas songs as we drove a circuitous route, laughing at our own confusion as we attempted to find a familiar landmark or signs for the freeway. At a traffic stop, headlights flashed behind us. Two young men in a car, smiling, waving. We didn’t know them, but we didn’t sense danger, so we giggled and didn’t return the wave. The light turned green and we went.

At the next traffic light, they were there again. Laughing. Waving. Flashing their lights, honking their horn. “What the fuck?” We were annoyed. “Go around!” We paused for a few seconds, idling beneath the green glow, leaving them plenty of room to pass. At the next signal, several blocks and turns away, we finally realized: We weren’t in their way. They just wanted to get in ours. Our annoyance curdled into fear.

“What should I do?” Danielle demanded. Her voice was shrill, and nothing was funny anymore. The radio was shut off; the tense hum of the acceleration filling our ears.

“Keep driving. They should lose interest eventually.” I glanced to our left, and there they were, again, eyes and teeth glinting, dark claws in the wood.

And what if they don’t?

The streets had never seemed darker, less familiar. Every house was shuttered, asleep. The road stretched before us and behind us into unknowable infinity, offering us no reassurance, no promise of a destination, of safety. The men played cat and mouse with us, speeding up and slowing down, pulling up so close beside us so that we couldn’t move, then reversing so we could speed away, only to tail us again. They saw our panicked expressions, our bewildered anger, and laughed. As if we were playing a game. As if they were having fun. I dialed 911 as Danielle’s panic grew. I tried to speak in a steady voice. I failed when they asked me, repeatedly, where we were. I yelled passing street names at my phone and implored them to hurry, to come find us, where were they?

They saw our panicked expressions, our bewildered anger, and laughed.

Danielle, panicking, turned into the driveway of a darkened school. It was the worst decision she could have made, but we were both out of our minds with terrible fantasies of our immediate future. What did these men want? What does any man want, I thought savagely, as their headlights followed us in. I didn’t know how to fight, how to fend off violent advances. Could we run? Should we curl into a ball, pretend to be dead?

We were not eaten by bears.

We cooked hot dogs and beans and rinsed our dishes in ice-cold water; we pitched crooked tents and told scary stories. Kola sniffed every bush and shrub, licked a few. We watched the stars beneath our blankets, millions of them, glittering in their unpolluted splendor. And then we went to bed. I waited, hunched in my sleeping bag, for heavy footsteps, a grunt, a lumbering paw to bat at our tent. I waited for Kola’s frantic barks. They never came.

Sophia and Aunt Karen promised a long hike up a beautiful mountain path that following morning. The rising sun shone clear and cool, the woods surrounding us appearing blessedly benign, almost friendly, in the light of day. Galvanized by our intact limbs and unspilled blood, I bounded around our campsite, helping to douse the fire, pack our supplies, load the car. I felt nearly delirious with relief, a relief that edged into shame at how frightened I’d been the day before. Nothing seemed more absurd to me, in that moment, beneath the gaping morning sky, than the physical potentiality of a bear attack. To my eight-year-old mind, our avoidance of danger rendered it nonexistent. A bear attack hadn’t happened, which meant that it probably couldn’t have. I wondered, on our way home, if my sister and Aunt Karen were secretly amused by my gullibility, my childish fear.

Had the men chosen to act on our greatest fears, the police would have been too late. The car followed us through the snaking one-lane route of the school’s driveway, our panic reaching fever pitch, unable to find a place to exit or even turn. Finally we found ourselves in a parking lot, a dead end, our only means of escape behind us, where they were pulling in. In the face of horror and pain I could only feel a quiet resignation, strange relief from the frenzied crescendo of terror that had suffused my body only moments before. Danielle stopped the car, they stopped beside us, opened their doors, and we sat there, not screaming, not running, hearts thrumming. We watched them talk to each other, inaudible from inside the car, and I performed a rapid inventory of all the ways they could damage me irreparably. I was wondering if I could kill, if I could do lasting harm, if I could summon the mettle to claw and kick and tear and bite, become the bigger animal in the face of my own attack.

Before I could curl my palms into fists, they jeered at us, shrugged grandly, as if giving up, got back into their car and drove away.

I do not remember what Danielle and I said to each other in the moments immediately following.

Had the men chosen to act on our greatest fears, the police would have been too late.

Blue and red lights. Sirens. We caught glimpses of their faces in the harsh glow, where the officers questioned them. They looked like little boys. We were asked if we’d like to press charges, to take them to court, but all we wanted was to get away, to extract this from our memories like a rotted molar. Danielle called her boyfriend; I called my dad. We sobbed out our relief and got directions home. The radio was back on — Christmas and pop — as familiar landmarks jumped out to meet us as we sped towards the freeway.

“One of them was sort of hot, though,” Danielle remarked. I gaped at her, even as the bloody fantasies of abduction and violation receded into the red and blue glow. I remembered the silver taste of panic, the warm grip of sweat and tears as I pressed the phone against my face. I imagined being dragged from the car, I imagined other girls like us not having to rely on their imaginations, their calls unanswered, their teeth, their fists, bloodied and limp. “Didn’t you think? The one in the hat?”

I couldn’t remember their faces, and didn’t want to. “Girl, no,” I replied curtly. I knew she wasn’t serious, that this was her way of dispelling the terror, but I couldn’t join in. They could have hurt us, I wanted to say, but didn’t, because it felt gauche and obvious, and because our relief was too palpable and precious to tarnish. I couldn’t understand what possessed them to give such extensive chase only to abandon it; I couldn’t understand why we should be hapless prey, subject to their whims, to their game. I suppose we had technically won — and what a perverse triumph it was — but our imaginary veil of security had been wrenched away, leaving us exposed in the woods.

The danger existed; it always had, it always will. Evading it doesn’t diminish its reality — not then, not now. Regardless, or perhaps in spite of this, we succumbed to laughter on our drive home, our hysteria teetering from one extreme to the other: a totally inappropriate reaction to an endless mental parade of tragic hypotheticals. With tear-streaked cheeks, we laughed, our teeth gleaming white in the darkness.

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