Years ago, when I was both younger and leaner, I was browsing a bookstore in Tacoma. A man stared at me. There is a particular gaze of a man who will stare at you and give zero fucks that you know he’s staring, no matter how many indications your facial expression, posture, and body language may give that the attention is unwelcome. This man was one of those. He was maybe 5’7” or so, a little pudgy, and his head was shaved, which made it hard for me to tell exactly how old he was. He began to follow me around the store, speaking only to me and asking various questions. During our interaction, it became apparent that this man was slightly off in a way that I found not exactly threatening but uncomfortable. I used a light, friendly tone of voice; I answered some of his questions with brief, non-personal answers; I moved around the store with him dogging my every step. I felt I could handle him, that I didn’t need to seek the assistance of the lone bookstore employee or risk a confrontation or outburst by asking him to leave me alone. Finally he asked me if I would go on a date with him. I have a boyfriend, I told him firmly. I did not apologize. He became quiet. I told him I was going to look for a specific book, and wished him a good day. I moved to a different area of the store.
A few moments later, the man appeared in front of me again.
“You’re pretty fat,” he said. “Are you pregnant?”
Many readers, particularly women, have had to make thousands of split-second assessments of strangers in their lives. People approach others to ask for directions, to check the time, to find a restroom, and a hundred other legitimate reasons. We’ve all had to ask a stranger for assistance at some point, and if you’re anything like me, you attempt to do so in the most non-threatening way possible. Though I try to be friendly in nearly all encounters, context often determines so much when a stranger approaches: Are you in a public space? Are there others around? Is it daytime or night? How does the person approach you—are they polite, cautious, exuberant, belligerent, gruff? Are you by yourself, with your kids, with your spouse?
We’re constantly asking ourselves: Do I need to be afraid of you, or can you be handled?
Our gut reaction to that question can determine our tone, our body language, our facial expression, the direction the interaction will take, and most importantly, our options for exit. Once we’ve taken one step in the direction of our initial reaction, especially if that reaction is to play nice, to smile, to be available and helpful and, for some of us, pleasantly female—the way we’re supposed to act—then it’s nearly impossible to go back. With everything that happens from that point on, we’ll try to justify our initial impression, to prove to ourselves that we were right—because once we’ve taken that crucial step toward trusting someone, our options for exit begin to evaporate.
Last weekend, I sat at my usual table in my favorite café, with my laptop and a few hours to write before work. I needed to use my time well. I was so focused that I hadn’t looked up in a while, hadn’t stopped to people-watch or stare outside or take notes on overheard conversations. I was completely engrossed in my work. I didn’t see him coming.
He was just there, standing at the corner of my table, posing a question. He had fine, blonde hair swept to one side like Jeffrey Dahmer, and he wore thin-rimmed glasses and a loosely fitting purple University of Washington sweater. He could have been anywhere between thirty-five and forty-five years old. The glasses and the goofy university sweatshirt made him seem older, but the way he carried himself, the way he eventually slid into the chair opposite me without asking, read younger.
“Do you know where I could buy WSU gear?” he asked, smiling.
I was annoyed to have my work interrupted, but I was also uneasy with this man. Fifteen other strangers could have approached and asked the time or directions to the nearest gas station, and I would’ve politely answered their queries, but it was apparent from the ridiculous question that this man didn’t need an answer: he wanted something else.
“Where’s that at?” he asked, after I told him to check the campus bookstore. I knew well enough not to engage by asking why he wouldn’t know where to buy a college sweatshirt when he was, in fact, wearing one, and why he’d want to purchase the gear of the rival team. I told him the name, and that it was east of downtown—the fewest words & vaguest directions I could think of. He continued to ask questions, and I consciously resisted the impulse to placate him, to smile, to engage, to be friendly. I withheld, as much as I possibly could without being rude to the point that might tip him into anger, aggression, to inevitably, loudly calling me a bitch.
For this was the problem: once I decided that the man standing next to my table was someone I could handle, once I decided to answer his question—even if I did so brusquely, tonelessly, without sending any signals of encouragement or invitation—that led to the man sitting down in the chair opposite me, invading my personal space, interrupting my work, forcing me to endure his ridiculous questions simply because he was bold enough to approach me, bold enough to sit down, confident that I wouldn’t make a big scene.
As he realized the degree to which I was refusing to engage, he became annoyed in return, but kept pushing.
“What do you mean you don’t know which stores are in the Valley?” he asked.
“I bet this coffee shop has a phone book,” I said.
“There’s a Wal-Mart in the Valley,” he said. “I can get anything there.”
He had stood up from the chair he’d taken across from me, and was looking down at me now. I assumed he had done so purposefully, that he wanted to stand over me, forcing me to look up at him.
I don’t remember how our interaction ended from there. I believe I said something to decisively end it—something like, “I bet they’ll have it. Have a good day”—but I’m not certain.
He turned to walk toward the door, and when his back was to me, I glanced around to see if any nearby patrons seemed to have noticed the interaction. They didn’t appear to. I watched him take a few steps but stop at another table, near the door. This time he approached a young blonde woman of about 20, sitting alone reading. “Do you know where I could find WSU gear near here?” he asked with a smile, looking down on her. I couldn’t hear her response above the din of the shop, but I watched their interaction, watched her body language, watched her be eager to help out a stranger, to answer his question, to give him directions, to draw him a map. He pulled the same move with her, sitting down at her table once she’d answered his first question. The interaction only lasted a couple of minutes, but after he’d left her table she didn’t appear to be frightened or uneasy. She seemed happy to have helped someone, and went back to her reading.
I kept watching. Five feet away from that girl’s table, another blonde woman sat working on her laptop, alone. The man paused at the exit, facing this second blonde woman, leaned against the doorframe with one hand, and asked her a question I couldn’t hear. Her body language was not so open and friendly as the first’s—perhaps she’d heard him asking the other—and he gave up after asking her a couple of questions, to which she answered briefly or shook her head. He walked out the door, across the street to his car, and drove away.
The same week, one night around 8 o’clock, my younger sister and I decided that we wanted to bake cookies. We picked up a few ingredients at the grocery store, along with some other items. As we walked out of the store, there were various distractions: a Salvation Army volunteer was ringing the incessant bell, and a woman blocking the store exit shouted obscenities into her cell phone, forcing us to maneuver past. I was still processing those things when I became aware of a couple walking toward the entrance as we were walking out.
“What a f***ing creeper,” I heard the woman mutter to her companion, and it registered, but not enough that I looked around to see if there was any danger. I kept walking, a bag in each hand, my sister the same. I could see my car—it was one row over from the store entrance, two spots up the row, maybe sixty feet from the doors we’d just walked out of.
“Hey!” I heard a man shout. “Can I ask you a question?”
The voice was coming from somewhere behind us, nearer to the store entrance, and since there’d been other people walking in/out of the store, I assumed it wasn’t directed at us. I didn’t turn around.
“Hey!” the same voice shouted, louder now. “I’ve got a question for you!” The voice was closer.
“No,” I said quietly to my sister. “Keep walking.”
“Hey, I’ve got a question for you!” he shouted again, angrier than the last.
We were almost to my car by this point. As we reached it, me on the driver’s side putting the key into the lock, my sister standing at the passenger door waiting, the man, who’d followed us across the parking lot by now, stood about six feet away from my sister, staring at her with a pissed off expression, hands jammed into his jeans pockets. She looked at him as if to say something, then at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, in a friendly tone, “we really have to go. We can’t help.” I unlocked the car and moved to get in.
“Fuck you,” he said, angry. We got in the car. I half wondered if he would stand his ground and block our way, but I didn’t see him in the rear view mirror. We left.
Part II will appear next Monday.