He asked me to let him in. He looked drunk, possibly dangerous – like many southern men maybe carrying a knife in his back pocket and possibly knowing the correct way to display the Confederate flag off the back of his pick-up truck, appearing as if he just dragged himself out of the depths of a NASCAR race pit. Me – alone, female, and black raised in a town where the KKK ran rampant and having found and faced an intruder in my home a few months earlier, was secretly looking for every possible escape route if needed. Getting myself ready to scream like all holy hell and use the keys in my hand better and faster than his supposed knife.
He didn’t move. Just demanded entry. Still blocking my access to the door, my guarantee of safety. When he spoke, his southern accent could have rivaled that of Forrest Gump or any cast member of Duck Dynasty.
“Are you the owner?”
“No, just getting ready to open for business.”
“I need to get in and speak with the owner.”
“I can take your name and number and give it to him. He will be here later.” I said knowing that was just a stall tactic.
“I need to get in now. Will you just let me in?”
It was a Sunday. My day to open the gym. It was a hot South Carolina summer day, the kind that leaves you sweating even in air-conditioning. I had woken up, done my morning routine, gotten in the car, and headed to work. Arriving right on time – 30 minutes before opening, a good while before others would start to arrive. I don’t even remember if I saw him when I pulled into the gravel parking lot. There were no other cars there but as I rounded the corner of the 5 foot red painted wall, there he was on the stairs. Now it was just me, him, and the door.
“Will you please let me in for a little while?”
Ten years of watching Law and Order Special Victims Unit episodes flash through my head as I hear myself trying to stay professional. “I’m sorry, sir. We are not open yet.” This is not the way I wanted to meet Marishka Hargitay. Not as a victim.
The stairwell was wide with an access ramp on one side and the handrail down the middle painted the same red color as the enclosing walls. At the top of the stairs was a bike rack that wasn’t completely bolted down to the ground. Did he know that? I wondered if I could use it as a means of protection or if it will be used as a weapon against me. I started to weigh my options as the repetitive rhetoric continued. He, asking for entry. Me, politely declining.
I decided to make my move. He sat on one side of the handrail so I walked up the other, still verbally declining entry as I ascended.
To my surprise he never moved. Never got any closer toward me. To my fear, I realized I have to turn my back to him completely to unlock the door. Entering the gym would take me out of the security of daylight into the pitch black of the building’s interior, only illuminated by the emergency exit signs. Am I safer in the dark or in the light?
I don’t think I’ve ever unlocked a door more quickly. I got in, slammed the door, and relocked the deadbolt all about taking a single breath, while the alarm beeped, begging to be turned off or ready to call for help if needed. Turns out you can feel safe in the dark.
I didn’t unlock the gym door again until a car pulled in the parking lot. One of the regulars, wearing his usual gray T-shirt and blue shorts. He was always predictable, reliable- same clothes, same elliptical machine, same day and time. He was also a prosecutor for the county.
“What happened to you?”
I must have still looked shaken.
“There was this guy and he freaked me out. Wanted me to let him in.”
“When your boss comes in to do payroll, you should tell him. He can pull up the security footage for the police. They’ll keep an eye out for you.”
The camera! I forgot there was a security camera aimed right at the front door. I went through the rest of my shift of folding towels, greeting people and making small talk a little more lightheartedly.
My balding boss came in later that afternoon and I immediately told him of the encounter. Worried his female employee felt unsafe, he went back into the office to review the security tape.
“Dara! Come here!”
I went back to the office and watched. I watched the tape- reliving in my head the insistent demand for entry, seeing his face, hearing his drawl, feeling the fear and my heart beat again. I watched. I watched myself walk up the stairs, unlock the door, and come into the building.
He was not there.