I I I I I I I  

When to Run

I blame Cameron Crowe.  That iconic shot of John Cusack standing outside of Ione Skye's window with the boom-box in Say Anything made borderline stalkerish behavior look charming end endearing.  In real life, Lloyd Dobler probably would have been slapped with a restraining order, but in fiction his persistence wins Diane's heart.   And Lloyd is hardly the only stalker glorified by popular culture.  Movies and TV shows are full of heroes who don't understand that no means no.  Is it any wonder that real men can't always grasp this point? 

My favorite place to run is the park near our house.  It's right off the street but wooded enough that it feels removed from the suburban landscape.  A shallow creek flows through the heart of the park, and a gravel trail borders the creek.  As the sun sets, fireflies flicker in the trees like Christmas lights and it looks like the set for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

In the late afternoon, the park is full of people: kids climbing on the playscape, surly teens smoking and gossiping around the picnic tables, dog-walkers, moms pushing jogging strollers, and errand-running husbands carrying bags from the nearby grocery store.  But as the light fades, the crowds thin, until the park takes on another character -- hushed and damp, a chiaroscuro of deep shadows and pools of light from the few streetlamps.  Occasionally I linger after dark, enjoying the quiet, and finishing up a run that started later than usual. 

I've always felt safe there, even after dark.  Other than a few leers and one awkward would-be compliment (a slightly dweeby looking guy called out to me "By the way, you look great!"), no one's ever bothered me, and I've discounted these situations as resulting from poor social skills rather than malice.

But last week, I was really scared for the first time.  It was later than usual, and I saw the guy who'd told me I looked great walking his little sheltie on the other side of the park.  I sighed and hoped he'd be gone by the time I made my way over, not because I was scared, but from a desire to avoid any awkwardness.  But he was ambling along while I was running at a steady pace, and in a few minutes, I came up on him on a particularly isolated stretch of the trail.  He tried again to chat me up, telling me that I look great (apparently his range of adjectives is limited).  It was dark and there was no one else around.  Suddenly his insensitive behavior seemed more ominous.   

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 I wanted to respond with something snappy: "Oh, yeah?  Well you look creepy!" or "What makes you think I care what you think about how I look?" but I was aware of how isolated I was, and of the disparity between our sizes.  Discretion seemed the better part of valor.  I grimaced and ran past him without acknowledging his remarks, picking up my pace. 

The path winds around considerably, so I had time to calm down before I rounded the corner to my favorite spot, where three large chunks of limestone form a rough circle in a cluster of live oaks.  My fear flared again when I saw the creepy guy sitting on one of the rocks, the red tip of his cigarette glowing in the dark.  While I'd been working my way around on the trail, he'd cut across the creek and was lying in wait for me. 

Maybe this language sounds hysterical.  After all, he looks like a perfectly normal guy, and he's never done anything overtly menacing.  Maybe his dog ran across the creek, or maybe the circle of stones is his favorite place to have a smoke.  Maybe he thinks I'm cute, and this was his version of blaring "In Your Eyes" under my bedroom window.  Maybe he thought that if he persisted, I'd think he was charming and interesting and go out with him.

But I've learned that perfectly normal looking guys can be monsters.  Once, in broad daylight in the parking lot for the University library, a man tried to convince me to help him change a fuse in his car (because my hands were smaller than his, so I would be able to reach it, although he couldn't).  I refused and walked away, feeling like a paranoid idiot as he yelled after me that he hadn't meant to scare me.  Several months later I saw a police sketch of the man in the newspaper and learned that he'd used the same trick to abduct two women and rape them.  He looked just like all the other guys on campus; there was nothing to indicate that he was dangerous.  Rapists don't always look like Freddy Krueger or Charles Manson; sometimes they look like the boy next door (and with terrifying frequency the rapist is the boy next door, or your brother's best friend, or the cute boy who sits next to you in calculus class).

The guy in the park might have spoken, but I never heard a word.  I didn't look behind me to see if he followed me; I ran desperately fast, in sheer, incoherent terror, until I reached my own front door.  He was the Big Bad Wolf, and I was Little Red Riding Hood, and I was convinced he was going to eat me up if I gave him half a chance. 

Lots of men "get it."  They know this kind of behavior is scary and inappropriate.  And yet clearly lots of men don't understand at all.  Almost every woman I know has experienced something like this; many of them have been forced to change their routines or to give up things they enjoyed in order to avoid situations that might simply be annoying, but could be dangerous.  (Whether or not the guy at the park had malicious intentions, I won't be running in the evening any more). 

When I was a freshman in college, my RA put a sign up in the hall that said, "Lock your door, because Ted Bundy wouldn't like it that way."  Women are taught from an early age that we are potential victims and that all men are potential predators.  When I think of all the men I love and trust and all the incredibly strong women I know, these assumptions make me furious.  When I think of my sons' compassion and my daughter's fierce courage,   I can't decide which part of that equation makes me angrier.  And yet there's a bedrock of truth to it, at least for now, and women ignore it at our own peril. 

The next time Franny and I walk home from the grocery store in the evening, she's sure to ask why we can't take the short cut through the park.  I wish I knew what to tell her.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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