Last night, a third stranger followed me home.
It was about 11 pm. I got off the train to see two dogs tied to the pole at the bottom of the stairs, barking their heads off. Dogs terrify me. I retraced my footsteps, took a different route; began the walk to my apartment a little rattled by the break in my routine.
Perhaps the confusion was apparent on my face. Without warning, a man appeared in my path. Tall, muscled, African American; whiff of tobacco when he moved to speak, menacing eyes. Hey, he said. There was nothing particularly aggressive about his tone, but he had planted himself quite comfortably within inches of my face.
I felt the air rasp at the top of my throat.
I just bought a house down the block, he said.
Rattled, and now tongue-paralyzed, I simply blinked at him.
My name’s Richard, he continued. Richy, if you want. Casually, he reached for my cell phone, which I’d been holding out in front of me – I’d wanted to hit ‘next,’ and skip to the next track on my playlist. Dumbfounded, I watched him enter his phone number, and then call his phone, before handing the phone back to me.
I’ll call you in thirty minutes, he said, and then he turned and walked away.
Later, much later, after I’d burst into my roommate’s room and told her what had happened, out of breath from running, heart in my mouth, fucking scared out of my mind, I remembered a line from a novel I’d read:
A woman’s no is a metaphorical yes.
And then another line:
Silence is acquiescence.
About two months ago, when the first strange guy followed me from the train station, I wasn’t alone. I was walking with a friend, talking, laughing, when a horrible scratchy feeling overwhelmed me – the sort of feeling you get when someone comes up behind you, too close, without prior warning. And then there was a smell: marijuana, waves of it, spreading, stretching, and sticky, like wriggly octopus tentacles. Excuse me, he said, can I talk to you? Can I be your friend?
With a careless laugh, I threw a NO over my shoulder and kept walking, although I did not pick up my pace, not even when my friend clutched my arm and whispered urgently: walk faster!
The man was harmless, I thought. Simply confused and high and a little stupid.
I was still laughing when we finally managed to shake him off – nearly fifteen minutes later. What an idiot, I said to my friend. What a joke. Did he really think that I would be interested in him?
When the second stranger followed me home some two/three weeks later, I was irritated. A Nigerian man, short, sleazy-looking, persistent. The second time this second stranger followed me home, he told me when I tried to shake him off:
Don’t bother. I know exactly where you live. I saw you go in the door the other day. It’s that house, right?
Of course, second stranger upgraded himself to stalker, easily. But I was not afraid of him. He, too, struck me as being harmless – a mere irritant. A lonely fly to be swatted away.
But the third stranger, the third nerve-wracking occurrence, made me suddenly acutely conscious of my femininity: the fact that an external male gaze can deem me both vulnerable and stupid, can sexualize me, even when I do not wear provocative clothing or present myself in a sexual way.
Last night – and this is quite rare for me – I was scared witless. I acknowledged that bad things – bad sexual things – can happen to me. Not some abstract female – me. Maybe pepper spray is a good idea. Maybe self-defense classes aren’t a bad idea either. The weapons that I thought protected me – my no nonsense attitude, my ability to articulate my no, my arrogant belief that things are only as serious as you allow them to be – were actually useless in the face of material danger.
And now I’m not only chastened and cautious, but angry. What right do these men have to make me afraid? What part of NO is difficult to understand?