It started in the grocery store across the street from my house.
I was 24.
A guy at least 15 years my senior had been eyeing me while I shopped for produce, and eventually approached me in the greeting card aisle. He asked if he could take me out sometime. I was friendly, but assured him that I was married and unavailable. He expressed his disappointment and told me I was a “goddess.”
I chuckled, flattered, and went about my evening.
I shared it as a funny story with my husband when I got home, and maybe even made a facetious facebook post about being called a goddess at Bi-Lo. I didn’t think anything of it.
But then I started to see this guy everywhere. At the grocery store, at my Starbucks, all around town. He was always well dressed, often wielding an expensive laptop. Any time I ran into him, he would follow me around, always from just enough of a distance. While I waited for my coffee order, he would sidle up next to me, standing way too close for comfort, all without saying a word.
It was uncomfortable, but I had no idea how to handle it. Or if it even merited handling. I had been with my husband since I was 18. I had very little experience with shaking off scrubs who couldn’t take no for an answer.
These kinds of interactions went on for more than a year. Sometimes he would try to talk to me. Other times he would ask me out again. But most often he just followed. And stared. I stopped shopping at the insanely convenient grocery store right across the street from my house; it seemed like he was always there.
Then things escalated.
One day at Starbucks, I saw him sitting at a table as I stepped out to use the restroom. I hurried out as fast as I could, hoping he hadn’t noticed me. The shop was in an old building, and the bathrooms were outside the restaurant and down a dimly lit hallway.
When I came out, there he was. Right outside the women’s bathroom door.
The men’s room was not down the same hallway. There was absolutely no reason for him to be there. My heart stopped. He asked if he could talk with me for a minute. I managed to mumble “No” while hauling ass out to the parking lot. When I got in my car, I saw him standing on the sidewalk, just a few feet away, watching my car pull away from beneath a pair of wayfarers.
It was then that the fear started to choke me. I told my husband and a few people at work what just happened. I called Starbucks to make a complaint and to see if they knew who this guy was. Everyone encouraged me to file a police report.
I showed up at the police station shaking. I had never done anything like this before. I spoke to a man though a hole in the glass and told him I wanted to make a report. I was directed to take a seat without a second glance.
Eventually, I was brought back. It was not my most articulate day; I was scared. The first officer I spoke with laughed at me. The next was a little bit kinder, but honestly, I had very little to work with. I didn’t have a name. I didn’t have a license plate number. Nothing but a description. (40ish, average height, heavy, balding, very thick black beard, blue eyes.) They put the information on file, but there was almost nothing they could do. You can’t serve a restraining order to a mystery person.
I wish I could tell you that the interactions stopped there, but they didn’t. Over the course of the next few months, I was finally able to jot down a license plate number and send it to the officer on my case. The car he was driving did not belong to him. This happened two more times. Three different vehicles, none of which were registered to his name.
I felt completely powerless; who the hell was this guy? Why wouldn’t he just leave me alone? I stopped going to Starbucks. I started avoiding all the places around town that he had made his presence known to me over and over again. I didn’t feel safe. I existed in a state of hypervigilance, always looking over my shoulder. The police eventually dropped my case; there was nothing they could do at this point.
My pacifist, hippie self wanted a gun. I wanted to learn to shoot. (I tried, but it didn’t go well.) The fear went on for a very, very long time.
Nearly four years after that first encounter, I ran into him after a long dry spell. I hadn’t seen him in a while. He was sitting outside of a coffee shop, and in a moment of bravery I marched right up to him and asked him his name and what his problem was. He said his name was Peter. He pretended not to know me at first, and then admitted to “asking me out a few times.” I told him in no uncertain terms that I was beyond not interested, that he was a creep, and to leave me alone. He gave me a big speech about how he “wasn’t desperate,” how he “wouldn’t stalk me or anything,” and how his “life is like a porn movie.” (GAG. He also managed to tell me about his screenplay somewhere in there. Really.) Once he finally shut up, I left, feeling freer and more empowered than I had in a very long time.
But even now, seven whole years after that first encounter, I still won’t step foot inside that Bi-Lo or that Starbucks.
Is that crazy? Or is that just what it means to be a woman in America today? I am 6ft tall, I’m trained in self defense, and am by no means a shrinking violet, and yet one stupid creep can mess with my life like that? Intellectually, it’s nuts. But this is reality.
Every woman I know deals with micro-aggressions from men. Every. Single. Day. And countless women I call precious friends have been victims of assault and abuse. We are trained from a very young age to live in fear, and somehow, there are far too many men who believe this kind of behavior is acceptable. I never found resolution to my situation, but writing about it helps me take back control. Was this guy a predator? Or just a weirdo with bad social skills? I may never know.
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that sharing our stories sheds light on the darkness. I do know that fear cannot exist in the blinding light of a million women saying “No more.” We are not alone.
Kimberly Poovey is a writer, speaker, wife, and over-caffeinated new(ish) mom. You can find her writing in yoga pants are her favorite local coffee shops, and over on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, her blog, and on Facebook. This essay first appeared here.