Initially I couldn’t really find the words to give this post a title because I cannot really find the words to explain the experience I am about to attempt to describe. This is a story of sexual harassment, though not the first, as the few years between the time I legally became an adult and turning 25 have left me with countless stories of disrespect, disregard, and mistreatment at the hands of men. But this experience perhaps is the one that will have the most impact on me because this was the first time ever that someone took a stand for me in a situation like this.
A stranger. A woman. A hero.
The day started off better than most. I got my son off to school, made myself pancakes from scratch and enjoyed them with a fruit salad, and then I decided to go for a walk before my work day began. Barely 9 am, I set out my front door and along my usual quiet route throughout a neighborhood I’ve known since I was 16 years old. I encountered the usual people on their porches or walking their dogs and greeted everyone with a kind hello, gentle nod, or a slight smile. And as I approached a corner I saw a new face. A face I had not before seen. A face that I never hope to see again. But a face I’ll not soon forget.
His stride was slow and sloppy. He was walking without purpose. He was walking without intention. He was looking for an opportunity, and as I turned that corner I became that opportunity. We made eye contact. My brain began processing. He is 4 feet away. His pace quickens. He is 3 feet away. His movements are more purposeful. He is 2 feet away. His gaze has not shifted from me. He is 1 foot away. He is going to approach. 11 inches away. He is a threat. 10 inches away. He speaks. “You know good and damn well you shouldn’t be out here looking as good as that. You’re going to make someone want you.” I walk past giving him a weak smile hoping that will appease him. But I know what he wants. He knows what he wants. He does an about face and begins to follow.
I need to make it to the next block. If I can make it to the next block, the old man on the porch who speaks to me every day will be there. He will see. He will help. I quicken my pace, my pursuer close behind me. He continues to talk. “You know girls like you are just asking for trouble.” I’m panicking now, but I refuse to show it. He needs to see I am not intimidated. He needs to see I am not threatened. Only I am. I know “this guy”. The one who blames the woman for his actions. The one who gives a woman the magical power to force him against his will or better judgement to do something bad to her. The one who will shame her and discredit her afterwards. The one who will claim she wanted it. The one I’ve unfortunately lost to before. The one I need to escape now.
I see the old man. I speak and make it a point to get close to his home. I remove my sunglasses. My eyes are tearing up. My heart is racing. The man behind me curses and tells me not to walk away from him. The old man hears this. He watches this man in the street approach me and grab my arm. He looks at both of us and tells me to be safe and have a good day. He goes in his house. I hear the door lock. I’m defeated. I’m in trouble.
I snatch my arm away. Loudly, I tell him my mom is waiting at home and if I don’t make it back at my usual time she will worry and call for help. I tell him I’ll call the police right now. I reach for my phone- it’s dead. Please don’t let him call me on my bluff. He tells me to “go the fuck on” before I have to reveal that weakness to him. I think it’s over, but once I am 2 feet away he continues to follow. I cannot go home. He cannot know where I live. I detour.
“Let me love you girl!” “Let me make you feel good girl!” “Let me give you something you have never had before girl!” Only I have had it before. Against my will. When I was not conscious enough to make rational decisions. When I was not conscious enough to walk on my own. When I was not conscious enough to say no. When I was not conscious enough to fight. It happened. I didn’t want it then. I don’t want it now.
I walk towards a convenience store. If I can get to a public place I can ask for help. He is still in pursuit with no intent to stop. I walk past a home with two young men smoking cigarettes. The man’s chants escalate from “let me” to “I’m gonna” and the list of things he was gonna do was vulgar. The men laugh. “Looks like you’ve attracted a buddy” one says as I pass. A buddy? I can’t rely on them. They are part of the problem.
Just a few more feet to the convenience store. The store owners know me well. They will help. The man walks faster until he is an arms length behind me, but he doesn’t reach out. Rather he continues to shout all the profane things he wants to do to me. And then I hear it. Help.
Unknown to me a woman on a bike had been following us. Observing. “I want you to know I have summoned an officer to this location, I have several pictures of you on my phone, and I have recorded virtually your entire exchange with this young lady. What I am going to do next is stand here with her until the officer arrives. What you do next is up to you.”
He looks at her. He looks at me. He has lost his position of power. He has been defeated. And the panic I once felt now transfers to him as he tries to think of what his next move is. He is looking for an escape. “It was a misunderstanding,” he says. “It was a joke,” he explains. “They were song lyrics.” “No harm was intended.” He takes off in the opposite direction.
The woman grabs my hand and we stand there for several minutes until this man is completely out of sight. No words exchanged, just the energy that travels between two women when one woman understands because she has been where you currently are. The energy that makes one woman a defender of other women because no one came to her defense at some point in time.
No officer was en route. As it turns out she had forgotten her phone that day. But I felt safer with her than I had ever felt with any officer. She was in my neighborhood by chance, taking an alternate route as a challenge to herself to see if she could go a longer distance than usual. A sheer matter of happenstance. A divine intervention. After many thanks and a brief hug I watched this woman ride off into the sun like a hero in those old cowboy films.
She is a hero.
She saw. She analyzed. She acted quickly. She stood with me. She stood for me. She was for me what someone failed to be for her. Because of her, I hope to be that for someone else one day.
With sincerest thanks to the woman on the bicycle.