Today, while walking there on an errand, I had an experience - one with which I think many women can identify, and one I think most men should take a moment to consider.
On my route, I was passed by a young man (20-22 if I had to guess) in a very loud vehicle: you know the kind - cool in your teens, kinda silly in your 20s, what-a-complete-waste-of-money! Haven't-you-read-Dave-Ramsey?!? in your 30s.
Yeah, that kinda car.
Anyway, on the first pass, I didn't think much of it, aside from wishing some ill will on modified mufflers.
On the second pass, I was glad Mr. I-spend-my-income-on-stupid-car-modifications was leaving the neighborhood.
But when I heard his car approaching a third time, a familiar fear rose quickly.
Ladies - you know this fear.
It's that alarm bell that sounds when "something's off." When there's the potential for danger. Specifically, male danger.
Now, it's important I pause in this moment to state a few things firmly.
1. Just as one's opinions on purposefully loud cars change with age - I mean, do you WANT permanent tinnitus? 'Cause that's what you're courtin' pal! - so, too, do opinions of male attention.
In my teens (and sometime into my 20s), I was flattered by the male gaze. After all, what's wrong with being wanted? What's the harm in men finding you desirable? Isn't that a GOOD thing?
But then life happened.
A couple of incidents of sexual assault happened.
And suddenly that gaze wasn't so much flattering as fear-inducing.
Would this gazer be a "good one" or a "bad one"? A gentleman or something subhuman?
Slowly, over time, that familiar, hungry gaze came to represent less "possibility for romance" and more "possibility for danger."
And danger, I learned, is best avoided.
2. Don't give me that lame excuse that "not all men"...
Because it's obvious.
It's also pointless.
Obviously not all men are rapists and murderers.
But it only takes one, and, as we live in a society that's as likely to blame my rape on what I was wearing and my murder on "whether or not I made him mad" as it is to blame the perpetrator, well - a girl's gotta be on her guard at all times.
Men, it is especially important that you understand this, as it will inform all that is to follow.
I've heard from more than one man that the male sex would like some insight into the mindset of women. Welp, consider this your sneak peak - but don't be surprised if you're...not-so-positively surprised.
As I heard him coming for a third pass, I distanced myself from the road.
"This way, if he wants to grab me, he'll have to get out of the car," I reason.
My back is to his approach.
I flinch as he passes.
But he does pass.
And I exhale.
I realize I have been holding my breath...
But it catches again in my throat as I see him ahead of me.
He's turning around in a driveway.
He's going to make his fourth pass.
Either he's lost or he's definitely tailing me.
I cross the other side of the road to put more distance between myself and him.
As he approaches, I put my left hand inside my purse.
"Don't let him see your diamonds. That may make the decision for him. And with your hand in your purse, he may be less likely to snatch it, if that's his aim."
He nears me - my heart pounds - HE'S STOPPING!
Instinctively, I take in the details of his face and car - if I have to file a police report later.
My body - jeweled hand in purse and all - goes rigid.
He speaks: "Hey beautiful. Need a ride?"
20s Erin - "He thinks I am beautiful! I haven't felt beautiful in two years!" Gratitude. Gratitude that collides, panicky, with 30s Erin - "Women who get in the car are never seen again. Is he close enough to grab me? REMEMBER THAT WOMAN IN ATHENS WHO WAS GRABBED FROM THE SIDE OF THE ROAD IN BROAD DAYLIGHT AND RAPED? AND SHE WAS A RUNNER! Quick! Think of escape routes!"
As with my experiences with sexual assault, I completely freeze. I am not clever, cool, or calm.
Instead, I am experiencing full on panic, but am rooted to the spot.
"Erm, no thank you," I bluster.
Be nice! Be polite! Don't want to piss him off! My mind warns.
"I'm just...getting some exercise."
I wave as if to tell him a friendly goodbye.
I don't know if I'm smiling.
I don't know much of anything except that I want to flee.
He gives me a nod and drives away...
As I make my way home, I keep vigilant, ears pricked in the event he comes back.
I struggle to both hurry home - not easy when you're disabled - and to come up with "game plans" in the event of worst-case-scenario.
A truck rumbles in the distance, and I jump.
Just two more blocks to go... ...
When I arrive home safely, my mind is a mess.
Again, gratitude washes over me - that I was called pretty, but mostly that I made it home alive.
And in this moment I am overcome with thoughts.
I marvel at the mind mush that has been created by what should be a relatively mundane experience.
In this moment, I realize (though probably not for the first time), that it is ridiculous that I am thinking these things - not because I am ridiculous (though there are certainly some that would desire to make me feel that way), but because this is what life is for a woman.
Men aren't forced, through life experiences or news reports, to have these fears.
If a woman pulls over to speak to a man, his thoughts don't immediately go to rape and murder.
He isn't frightened for his life.
He isn't recalling cautionary tales of other men who made mistakes in judgement to their own peril.
He isn't spending his afternoon wondering if what he wore was too revealing and therefore courting "the wrong kind of attention."
And, because men do not have these thoughts (straight men anyway. I have a feeling it may be a different story for gay men), they therefore are baffled or incensed that women have them.
"He complimented you! That should make you feel good! He didn't harm you in any way, geez!" And, "I think you're really overreacting."
OF COURSE YOU DO.
Because - AGAIN - this shit is never going to happen to you.
If I saw you on the side of the road and pulled over, calling you handsome, sure, it'd likely make your day.
Because it would never cross your mind that I'd leap from my car and overpower you, a situation that might even be more likely if you have the gall to rebuff my advances.
It'd never dawn on you that I'd forcefully rape you and leave you bleeding - or worse - in an alley somewhere.
And you've never had to question whether, if you went to the police with a complaint, they'd believe you. Or blame you for what happened to you.
But women face these fears everyday.
We're acutely aware of our physical vulnerabilities.
We've seen the missing posters, heard the stories.
If we haven't been personally assaulted, we know someone who has been.
We've been taught - by our parents, loved ones, and by life experience - never to let our guard down.
That guard has become part of our necessary psychological armor.
And we never leave home without it.