The first time I believed I was going to die, I was eleven. I had been accidentally left behind by the cross country team after stopping in my middle school for water. When I came back out, I was alone in the parking lot except for two boys on bikes, circling each other. The sun had set while I was inside. They must’ve been about fourteen.
“Hey!” one called at me. I pretended he didn’t. I couldn’t remember which way the team had gone.
“Hey!” the other mimicked, bolder.
Here is what I can remember: one of the boys notching up his gears and saying, “Let’s fucking get her.” The crescendoing whir of their bike tires. The blue dim of the bathroom where I hid, hugging my knees so my feet wouldn’t give me away under the stall. I waited for the sound of the door.
I only cried when I had to leave that stall, much later, to find someone who could help me. And amidst every other darkened office, I can remember a light spilling into the evening stillness and my choir teacher sitting at his keyboard. He asked me what was wrong, but it was so hard to speak with that low echo in my head. Let’s fucking get her.
“I’m okay.” I said, “I’m lost.”
He put me in his car and delivered me to the cross country team. They hadn’t noticed I was gone.
When I tell this story, I get to the end of it and wait for a sympathetic response. More often than not, the girl I’m talking to will instead launch immediately into her own story — an unnerving taxi ride, a violent catcall — before ceding to the story of the next girl and so on.
But though our antagonists chase and leer and yell at us, these stories are ones of escape, of violence that might’ve been. They are stories no court or Lifetime movie is interested in. They are just ways of saying, me too.
It often concludes with a story that is too hard to judge: a girl waking up to a 40-year-old asleep in her dorm room bed or licked on the subway by a man with sour breath. We cannot tell which side of the line to place it on. Holy shit, we say, wondering how we claimed to know fear when we’d only been chased by some boys on their bikes.
We move onto some other topic, feeling grateful, lucky even, but not better.
“Come back here! You dropped something.” A man called after me in the hallway of my apartment building, encouraging me toward him with two of his fingers. I went icy.
“What is it?” I could feel my phone and wallet zippered shut in my pockets.
“You dropped something! Come here!”
“Tell me what I dropped!” My mind began to blank; I could only repeat this command. “Tell me!”
Instead, he lunged toward me, snarling.
“Come and have a real conversation.” Smooth and low, it was a voice I’d heard before.
His hands tried for me. I ran. In my blind panic, I turned into an elevator well, a dead end corner. The button lit up so slowly. I waited for the sound of him behind me.
You’d be surprised at all the places I’ve imagined myself being murdered by Men. An Olive Garden parking lot, the Peter Pan ride at Disney World, a port-a-potty just outside Joshua Tree National Park. Actually, almost every half-lit anything I’ve ever been in. Certainly my childhood bedroom, out of which I had several planned escape routes.
These routes doubled in number after I read a story in Seventeen about a girl who was nearly raped by a stranger who found her front door unlocked. Apparently, during the confrontation, her head hit the headboard just loud enough to make her parents wonder if they should check on her. I’m just lucky, she told the teen magazine, I’m just so lucky nothing happened. For a while, at thirteen, I kept a whistle underneath my pillow, remembering that both my parents were heavy sleepers.
Fear, like a fungus, grows in the cool, ill-lit places: the pit of the stomach, the mind at night. Nothing happened, we say, and yet ask a woman to show you her molding garden and she will point to its outgrowths with deftness: the subway ride, the midday run, the teenagers on bicycles. Nothing happened, maybe, but each close encounter leaves a few more spores, little cells of fear.
We tend to their growth as we imagine the violence that might’ve been. When we venture back into the world, against our instincts, the light filters first through this murky undergrowth.
This internalized fear threatens to rot us from the inside out and still we say, I am lucky, I am lucky, nothing happened.
On a street corner in Hawaii, when I was nineteen, a three hundred pound man sidled up to next to me at a crosswalk, muttering to himself. His green swim trunks sagged around his giant hips and his eyes focused in different directions.
“What did you say about rabbits?” he growled at me.
I looked out past the beach to the ocean, blank. I tried to stay still.
The thick Hawaiian looked me over, lingering on my white bikini top.
“A rabbit would want to eat a carrot out of you,” he said.
Just last summer, a balding financial type in a suit stopped me near Union Square to enthusiastically tell me how beautiful my feet were and brushed his hand against his crotch before continuing on his way to work.
Seven years earlier, on a middle school field trip to Chicago, a newspaper seller with rags on his feet asked if I’d like to get choked, though he didn’t specify with what.
In the intelligible thunder of a college frat party, a stranger interpreted the loud dance music as a personal invitation to grab me by the hips and press his body against mine. I craned to look at him, prying at the iron fingers that closed tighter around the bones in my hips.
“Stop,” I said, “stop!” I think he just grinned.
Someone I knew emerged from the purple crowd to shove him off me. We both fell backwards. The boy who saved me tried to help me up but I was scared of him, too.
I ran home, waiting for the sound of him behind me. In the morning, his fingerprints were still there, turning lavender.
I once watched a documentary that described how monkeys who aren’t the alpha spend their lives in constant stress. This stress fills their blood with plaque, unravels their chromosomes, and eventually kills them. Over a video of spastic monkeys darting through the savannah, a scientist solemnly explained that this same thing happens to humans when we feel like we have no control over what is happening.
“Or if we lack predictive information,” he added, “like here it comes, here’s how bad it’s going to be, here’s how long it’s going to last.”
When I hear footsteps behind me, even in broad daylight, my gait turns into a half-skip. When the circumstances seem right, if I am drunk or walking home alone or eleven and left behind, my raw fear convinces me that this will be my something happened. Here it comes.
I dial 911 and hold my thumb over the call button.
Laine Bruzek ’16, M.S. ’17 is into design and writing and donuts.
Photo by Laine Bruzek ’16.