I've been avoiding writing about the following because I'm not sure how to relay my story without coming across as paranoid or ridiculous. So bear with me.
On Friday morning, after dressing myself and the baby (isn't it funny how it always goes in that order, parents?), I tucked her with Ian for a nap, and walked a half mile to Panera.
[Pausing for a brief moment, I feel I must defend going to Panera. Sometimes you need a predictable fix, a bit of comfort for your day (or greater life, for rebalancing). I have been craving Panera's sausage breakfast sandwich and finally caved. This is similar to be need to eat at TGI Friday's about once a year to have a burger with Jack Daniels sauce. I almost always try to support local business when I'm out and about.]
I purchased my breakfast sandwich and iced coffee. I found a comfortable booth next to an outlet, plugged my netbook in, and opened up Gender Trouble, hoping to get through as much Judith Butler as possible before the crying started. Judy does this to me - I usually end up crying out of sheer frustration (she's a bear to read), or because she's brilliant. Sometimes both.
In settling myself into my small booth, I noticed a man seated at a booth perpendicular to mine, finishing his breakfast. He looked to be in his early to mid-forties, with graying hair. As I began to eat and type, I noticed that every time I looked up, he would look at me. I know we've all been victim to this at some point or another. You're out by yourself, most likely with a book. There is someone sitting in front of you, so that every time you look up, they are your direct line of vision. Your eyes meet once or twice on accident. You're not sure if they are starting at you or trying to get your attention, so you start looking up more often, trying to figure it out. You notice they are looking at you quite frequently, but probably because they're trying to figure out the same thing about you.
Or maybe I'm just super awkward. I don't know.
In any case, I was really intent in my work and tried to ignore him, but could feel him looking at me, and every time I raised my head, he would try to meet my gaze. He was reading through a magazine called Fine Homebuilding and, facing me, held the magazine up directly in front of his face, lowering it occasionally to look at me.
And then the "adjusting" began. So. Much. Adjusting.
I hadn't seen so much surreptitious crotch adjusting since junior high.
I texted Ian, "Hey, I'm at Panera, kind of being creeped on by this guy." I waited a minute or two, no response.
Staring at me, the man put his satchel over his lap.
I really started averting my eyes at this point and tried not to look up at all. I began feeling as if I was in danger. I wanted to pack up my things and walk home, but did not feel comfortable leaving, genuinely afraid that he would walk out after me and follow me. State Street is fairly busy, but two blocks over and it's uncertain whether anyone would be walking around.
I waited a bit longer, hoping he would move. He didn't budge from his table.
I called Ian: "Hey honey, I'm at Panera. Did you get my text?" He hadn't. He read it. "Would you like to come meet me and get some coffee?" Pause, then quietly, "I feel uncomfortable."
Ian came as quickly as he could. Watching the clock, it took about 35 minutes (he had to pack the baby up and what not, it is amazing what it takes to get such a small person out the door!). And what relief when my husband strode up to my table, stroller in hand, baby smiling.
The moment Ian arrived and we started talking, the stranger stood up and began preparing to leave. Yet he waited as we refilled my iced coffee and packed my bag, putting his things together slowly. Ian and I walked outside with the stroller, and stopped on the sidewalk to discuss where to go next. The man followed us out by about thirty seconds, stopped for a moment looking unsure of which direction to walk in, then saw us, and walked in the opposite direction.
In recounting this, I can tell you that I have never been so alarmed by a stranger in my life. I do not think that I am easily paranoid. I also realize that statistically there is a small chance he actually meant me harm, but that does not lessen my discomfort.
In thinking about this experience today, I began to feel silly for reacting so strongly. This event cast a pall over the whole day yesterday, and I was still feeling very grossed-out by it this morning. I also started to second-guess myself. Had I overreacted in calling Ian to "my rescue?" I began to feel silly about my reactions, and felt like any sort of writing about it would make it seem trivial, stupid.
I think it's because I feel like I am not supposed to believe that men can be genuine threats, that it is unusual for women to be stalked, raped, kidnapped, or assaulted, and that if I am a target, I somehow brought it on myself. Or that such concerns are considered weak or really feminine, and I am neither. There is also something really humiliating about being frightened, even manipulated, by someone. That man had power over me because he could have hurt me.
I want to live in a world where that doesn't happen.