It’s nice when the experiences I share are funny and lighthearted. We all need that. But sometimes things happen that necessitate a serious discussion. Hence, this is such an account.
What I hope will be a quick trip to the University to pay daughter Mindy’s summer tuition ends up being a two-day affair. The first day, the line is out the door. Today it’s half as long, and I’ve brought a Prevention magazine.
A middle-aged man stands in front of me, turns around and says hello. I return his greeting with a polite “Hi,” check to make sure I’m wearing my wedding band (I am) and flip open my magazine.
“You a student?” the man asks.
“No, a parent here to pay,” I answer.
“You must be rich then,” he comments.
I hold up my credit card and shake my head no. A warning signal goes off in my head. Why would he ask me about money?
“I’m coming back for a second degree,” he says, “maybe going into teaching.”
“Great field,” I reply.
“What do you do?”
“Write,” I answer. A few people situate themselves behind me, and somehow I feel comforted by their presence.
“I’ve written a lot of stuff,” the man continues.
This is something almost everyone tells me when they hear I’m a writer. And it’s usually followed with an invitation to read what they’ve written and provide a critique.
“I tried to get into the Master’s English program,” he says, “but they wouldn’t take me. I have my own style of writing, not like Hemingway or Steinbeck. I’ve already written stories and plays that have been published, but I didn’t get paid.”
A writer not getting paid is nothing new. But a few more warning lights begin to flash. I’ve never heard of anyone being turned away from the program. I smile and try to read my magazine.
“I’ve written musicals, too,” he interjects. “One has been performed on stage and is about to be made into a movie, but I didn’t make anything on that either.”
“That’s too bad,” I murmur, realizing I may be in some trouble here. Considering the situation from the man’s point of view, I suppose he’s bored and trying to pass time, seeing no harm in engaging a captive audience.
Yet, I can’t stop the torrent of memories and emotions that are beginning to arise. This happens whenever I feel cornered by an uninvited “friendly man” who continues to ignore my attempts to extricate myself from his attention.
Twenty-five years ago, in a busy parking lot around rush hour, a man I had never seen before ran up behind me as I was getting into my car. The sound of running feet is still fresh in my mind. So, too, is the feeling of the strange man’s hands thrust upon my body so boorishly as he forced me into the vehicle where he fondled and tried to assault me, all the while shouting obscenities in my face.
Lucky you have strong legs, I told myself, hands shaking so badly I could hardly hold the steering wheel as I drove away. I had managed to get my legs into a position where I could kick the man in the chest hard enough to force him out of the car and onto the pavement. I was able to escape.
Too young and too afraid to go to the police, I tried to forget it, but I live the nightmare every time I feel cornered.
Older now, danger still lurks. The police assure me it’s nothing unusual for T.V. reporters and newspaper writers to have their share of stalkers. In the 18 years I’ve been writing, there have been email threats and letters sent from jailhouses. “Watch your back,” one email message warned.
Bringing me into the present, the man in line declares, “Give me your email address, and we’ll collaborate.”
More alarms. I’m thinking of “collaborate,” trying to understand exactly what he means. His eyes are fixed on my face. I’m frozen, as the line moves forward. Finally, it’s the man’s turn. The woman calls from the window, and he moves forward reluctantly.
Thankfully, another window is available, so I rush over and pay. Finished, I can see the man trying to get my attention as I head toward the exit. I wave a quick goodbye.
It’s best to wait in the women’s restroom and give the man enough time to leave campus, I decide, and then take an opposite exit from the direction I came. Once onto a sidewalk filled with students, I look around for any sign the man is following. A maintenance worker notices I look lost and asks if he can help. My instincts tell me I should tell him what’s troubling me, so I do. He offers to call security.
Suddenly, I notice someone in the distance running toward me. It’s the man from the line. I’m petrified.
“Wait!” he shouts. “Which way you going?”
I can hardly speak, but I manage to say, “I haven’t decided yet.” My eyes beg the maintenance man to lend a hand, so he puts down his shovel and walks toward us.
“Oh, I get it,” the uninvited man utters, looking at the approaching helper. He turns and walks away.
Gathering my wits, I thank the maintenance man and find a quiet bench in the sunlight to wait for a security escort. I feel sorry for the lonely man who perhaps was only trying to be friendly. But how could he have known what I’ve been through?
And how could I have known what his intentions were?
I’m a friendly and basically trusting person; however, after a few unwanted encounters from uninvited men, I’ve learned to heed my intuition. It’s just better that way.