This is what I looked like when I went out today.
I want you to see this, because before you read my story it’s imperative that you understand how I was dressed and how I presented myself. I wasn’t flashing skin. I didn’t wear a skirt shorter than my sweater. I wasn’t timid nor bullyish. I was, in fact, just having a nice, quiet day.
Alone, I’m nearly 5’9. Stomping around in my two-inch heels I’m not easily intimidated. But just a few hours ago I had one of those moments that changed that.
Today was my day to take the car so I could run a few errands. Being a two-driver household now, Dot and I are more aware of how we use the gas and try to combine our running around when we can. So today I dropped her at college and went into the next town to take care of a few things.
After accomplishing a few tasks, I found myself at Winco. I don’t shop there often because it is farther away than other stores. But since I had other errands in the vicinity I figured why not save on the necessities and afford a few treats?
I parked my car and walked up to the entrance. I was feeling happy, calm, confident, and enjoying the nice weather. Should I get a coffee later? Maybe I’ll pick up a slice of pizza at the Cafe inside. My inward thoughts were abruptly invaded when I saw him.
He was an older man. Much older. Dressed in shorts and a blue plaid button down shirt. As he was approaching the entrance from the other way, he stopped and looked at me. And then he looked at me.
And then he looked at me.
For a second, I was taken aback. I thought perhaps my steps were too loud. He had looked at my feet first before sizing me up and back down again. I’m certain my thought of “What the heck?!” was written on my face because he looked away. After making eye contact. This is important to the rest of the story. He had a smile. But a weird smile. I can’t tell you why. But it wasn’t your typical “Hello, have a nice day” smile.
I shrugged it off, grabbed a cart (noting that he took his time to take his cart from right next to mine), then I ignored him to walk over to the display of houseplants. As I was perusing the plants, a woman came into the store and gave me a quizzical look.
“Okay,” I thought. “Do I have a sign on my back? Did I sit on a chocolate bar? What’s so strange about a woman looking at a plant? What? What? What?!?!”
Then I saw him. Coming from behind me, around me, glancing at me before heading into the store ahead of me. Had he been behind me the whole time? Had this woman seen something I was unaware of?
Again, I shrugged it off with the excuse that being a writer, my Spidey-Senses are always on high alert when I’m out in public. I sometimes misinterpret strangers’ actions. They make for great stories, later. Maybe this was just a small dose of MoJo Paranoia. Maybe.
I picked a plant, went into the store, and proceeded to do my shopping.
I was in Aisle 3 when I noticed him coming my way. Not unheard of to repeatedly see the same shoppers in the same store. There was another woman in the aisle. He looked at her, but as he approached, and passed, he looked at me. Completely. And smiled again at my shoes. Then smiled at the rest of me. Like I was dinner. I turned away and continued my shopping. It’s quite possible I shivered.
At this point, I used my mobile phone to check in on Facebook. “Creepy old guy keeps checking me out at the store. Am I like, bleeding profusely or something? Oh, look… here he is AGAIN.”
I stood a little taller. I looked up to see him at the end of the aisle watching me. When I made eye contact, he tried to look away, to pretend to shop. But he couldn’t. He looked right back. With that sickly smile. Like he was entranced by me. Like he wanted me to make a scene. Like he wanted the attention. I looked back at him to make sure he knew I was not to be messed with. I had cast no spell on this creep but I’d have no problem dispelling that if I had to, and I wanted him to know that.
I wanted to ask if I knew him. If he thought he knew me. But I knew the answers would be no.
I went on to the next aisle. I had it planned. If he tried it again, I didn’t care how many people looked. I was gonna tell him off. I rehearsed the words in my head.
“Why are you looking at me like that? The next time you look at me like that you’d better be prepared for the consequences!”
But then I realized, I wasn’t prepared for the consequences. I knew deep inside me it was unreasonable, but I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But something even deeper than that had my cackles up. I just knew.
That part of me set up red flags: Be strong. Make eye contact. Let him know you know what’s going on. But don’t talk to him. Don’t give him that attention.
So many thoughts went through my head. Instant recalls from the many crime- and cop-dramas I watch. What is his intention? Is he merely a pervert or a true psychopath? Lessons on how to protect myself. How much chaos can I make if I have to? How much is too much?
I was nervous at being alone, but so thankful Dot wasn’t with me. She was miles away, and yet I found myself praying for her protection.
He is not the kind of guy to be messed with. This is not a misunderstanding. He will not go quietly. I just knew. I knew the way I know by looking at the sky what kind of day it will be. I knew the way I know to breathe. It was just instinctive.
And that realization, that I wasn’t paranoid but in fact, being maliciously stalked at the grocery store, is what made me angry. This is intentional. He isn’t just playing around. He. Is. Bad. On. Purpose.
I made sure to make eye contact with nearly everyone I saw. I wanted them to notice me. I wanted to know I couldn’t easily disappear. I didn’t want to be a report on the evening news and have someone say, “I don’t really know what she looked like…” or have a grainy security camera footage that can’t tell the difference between me and the skeleton statue from the Hallowe’en store.
I realize this way of thinking is far-fetched. But you didn’t seem him. You didn’t see the look in his eye and that creepy, sickly smile when he looked at me.
It also made me feel better to say hi to a stranger and get a nice smile in return. I’m not misinterpreting anything. Everyone else is pleasant. Smiling. Nice. It’s not just me.
I changed my shopping routine. I decided to head to the other side of the store and then come back to this side. Guess what. So did he. I pretended not to notice. I have good peripheral vision so I’m able to see things out of the corners of my eyes. As I looked at either my shopping list or items on the shelves, I could tell whether or not he was there, looking at me. Sometimes he wasn’t. More often, he was.
And he would stay. And look. Until I looked at him. It was like a power-play. He wanted to intimidate me into looking away.
I found myself wishing I’d bought a Kubotan from my friend. Or at least a stun-gun. I was thankful us moms had gotten the girls loud key alarms. I wished I’d had something!
Thankfully, I take lessons from my cats. They don’t avert eye contact. They make their statement, then casually go back to other things. And that’s what I did. You are not going to intimidate me. I know you’re there. You aren’t worth my time. Don’t mess with me.
It seemed to work because every time I did not back down but rather just went on with my shopping, he left. But then he came back.
I was conscious of what was in my cart. Could he tell that I have a teen daughter and cats? What my favorite snacks are? Why I chose this brand instead of that one? Even my regular shopping made me feel terribly exposed. I wanted to throw him off my trail. I wanted to pick up some completely random purchases and freak him out. Maybe some lighter fluid and a box of matches. Maybe then he’d back off.
Finally I made it through a few more sightings and headed up to the registers. There he was. Holding back. Certain, I’m sure, to see which line I would go to. But he was already at the end of a line. He wasn’t committed to it, I could tell. And now he was really watching me. I found the batteries for sale and reminded myself I needed these (I really did). I took my time choosing which ones to get until I saw that he was trapped between two shoppers. Then I made my way, with batteries, to a check-out at the other end.
A raucous group came up behind me. I felt sorry for the clerk who had an I’m-only-working-here-through-college look on her face. I gave her a sympathetic look. She smiled back. The group behind me was loud and I can’t prove it, but quite possibly drunk. At 11 o’clock in the morning.
I was actually a bit thankful. Being in their proximity meant I wouldn’t go unnoticed. So, I thought, let them be loud. Let people look on the clerk, and me, with sympathies. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being seen.
I tried not to look around for him. I didn’t want to give him a signal that I was eager to see him. But I had to know where he was. I had to make sure he was always in front of me and never behind me. Unfortunately, he found me looking.
I checked out, as did he. Now, for those of you who don’t have a Winco, this is the type of store where we bag our own groceries. It’s part of what keeps the costs down. I pushed my cart to the end of my counter, bagged my goods, and put them in my cart. I took my time. Noticing with my peripheral vision that he took his time. Even though his transaction was completed before mine. Even though he had fewer groceries than me. He was noticing me, noticing him. I chatted with the Clerk.
We talked about the weather. I really wanted her to call the manager. But what would I say? “Walk me to my car because there’s a Dirty Old Man in your store?” If anyone asks if he’s harmed or threatened me, what do I say? “He just keeps looking at me.” You can’t file a Police Report based on looks.
When he realized I was aware of him and not budging, he finally left the store. I waited in the entrance for minute or two and observed him load up his truck. I was happy. A big red pick up truck is easy to spot. So even if he had kidnapped me, he can’t possibly think he’d really get away with it. And then he turned to push his empty cart to the Cart Collector. And he saw me. Again.
And he stopped. And looked. Right. At. Me.
I stood as tall as I could. I grabbed my keys in my hand and held one pointing out from my fingers. I’d learned that in self-defense in college. Keys can hurt a guy. Try it, I thought. Out here. In public. In broad daylight. I. Dare. You. Again I thought of my cats. I know how to spit and claw and hiss. Don’t even think I won’t go down without a fight!
I wondered why he had so often smiled uncomfortably at my shoes? Did he think I couldn’t run in them? Was he checking out how much damage I could cause with these near-stiletto spikes? I firmly planted my feet, heels and all, in a Ready-stance. I was ready to kick. To run. To do whatever it took to get this guy to leave me alone.
From as far away as he was, I think he noticed. Because he took two steps forward, hesitated, then turned and got into his truck.
But it didn’t end there. I waited to see him start to drive away, and then I headed to my car. And I noticed he drove back. He stayed two rows away but drove very intentionally, very aware of where I was heading.
I was nervous in the store. Now I was scared. And my damn cell phone! The stupid old piece of shit phone that doesn’t hold a charge! I wanted to call someone, anyone. I wanted a friendly voice to talk me out of my paranoia. But I needed to save the battery for emergencies. Not for a 100-yard walk to my car. And who would I call, anyway? My teen daughter in college? I thought of my two guy friends. The ones I’ve known since high school. The ones who always come to This Girl’s rescue when really needed. Yeah. Except one is hours away and the other is on the East Coast.
Well. They’ll at least come to my funeral. I know they love me that much.
There he was. In the next row. I pretended not to see. I walked between cars and he slowed even more. I walked right past my car and kept on walking. I wanted so badly to get in and be safe, but I couldn’t. Not with these groceries still needing to be unloaded from the cart. And I didn’t want him knowing what I drove. So I kept walking. I walked through two rows of cars and then diverted and headed back to the store front, zig-zagging as I went.
As I walked two rows east, so he drove. As I paused behind vehicles, he slowed or stopped his truck.
The peculiar thought came to mind that I read too much Louis L’Amour and I irrationally likened this moment to the stories of Indians and other trackers, only I was the Trackee. And instead of sands, I was in a parking lot. Oh, well. At least it’s still the So Cal desert, in any event. The things we think when under duress.
I stopped occasionally behind taller vehicles. That’s when he’d stop, too, or back up. Or pull forward. I couldn’t look around the vehicles without seeing him looking for me. We were playing a game of Visual Tag and he was constantly winning. I couldn’t escape.
I tried not to panic. but words kept coming into my thoughts. And phrases.
“Tonight, on the Eleven O’Clock News…”
“Single Mother Goes Missing…”
I felt very much like Prey. Which would make him very much a Predator.
As I walked two rows east, so he drove. As I paused behind vehicles, he slowed or stopped his truck.
I remembered a trick I taught Dot years ago when we lived in an apartment complex. Pretend to talk on the cell phone. It doesn’t matter if there’s a real call or not. If you want to deter someone, at least pretend you’re on the phone. We used to do this to avoid chatting with an overly friendly neighbor who hovered at the car-port each evening.
Now I thought it might deflect more sinister intentions. Except I couldn’t think straight enough to have a fake conversation. I put the phone to my ear and heard myself say, “Hi, honey. Can you come get me? I think I’m being stalked.” It sounded so strange. And I couldn’t get past the reality of it. I couldn’t continue the fake conversation. And so I hung up on myself.
I finally made up my mind to get the Manager involved. Maybe this creep was hunting. Maybe I’m not the first woman he’s set his sights on, and maybe I won’t be the last. I went to the front of the store.
He kept driving at the end of the parking lot, keeping his eye on me. Another older gentleman was standing with his cart at the entrance. He asked if I’d lost my car. I smiled and said no. I wanted to tell him, to tell anyone, but the words stuck in my head and my throat. I couldn’t verbally say “I think I’m being stalked. Like, really stalked.” In that instantaneous moment you get when you think thoughts but it takes a hundred times longer to say them, I noticed he had a cane in his cart and I knew he’d be unable to help me if something happened so why drag him into this. I literally found myself thinking, “He couldn’t beat him off with a stick.” But at least he was nice. Not all Old Men are Dirty.
The red truck was waiting in the distance.
And that’s when I decided to be even more proactive. I pulled out my cellphone. The battery was low and the camera isn’t the best quality. But Dirty Old Man Driving Red Truck doesn’t know that.
I pointed my phone right at him. I was about to take the worst picture I could, but I didn’t have to.
The old man made polite conversation for a moment and just as he left, I heard a familiar voice call “Hey, stranger!” I looked to see my friend Jamie and her three children in tow. What a comfort, what peace! And I noticed the Red Truck driving away.
I quickly told Jamie what happened, and she offered to get the Manager for me. I refused. The truck was gone. And she knew my story.
I knew I’d make it home okay.
So I took a deep breath. And left.
I don’t like the feeling I had, constantly checking the traffic around and behind me; wondering if at the next stop light he was going to catch up. I don’t like the feeling I had, trying to catch my breath and decipher if I overreacted. I was glad Dot had another ride home. If he was following me, I wasn’t about to lead him to her.
I wish I had made a report. I wish I had called him to someone’s attention. I’m glad I didn’t confront him, but he left me with such a horrid feeling that I can’t help wonder if there might be some woman out there who’s in danger. And I can’t help thinking
It could have been me.
And Frankly, My Dear… that’s all she wrote!
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