On Being Followed

I got off the bus one stop early so that I could take the shortcut down Guerrero to 18th. By providence, I caught a stranger’s eyes on me as I exited the bus. This was no typical glance to appreciate some part of my figure; it was a deeper gaze—one that startled me. In an instant I decided to take a different route. I would walk down 16th first, then down Valencia, with lots of people around just in case.

Going to high school in the 90s, I had been told that I was “pretty for a black girl”. A lame-ass validation of my attractiveness from curious white bois who had no idea how to speak intelligently to me. Still, thanks to teen magazines, television and all manner of societal indicators, I thought of myself as homely looking, plain and too thick to consider myself beautiful. That day, I was wearing a pencil skirt, with a cute blouse and mid-heeled boots; an outfit inspired by a new foray into “dressing for the life I want”. Sadly, in this moment I regretted not choosing the frumpier outfit I originally picked out; baggy jeans and an oversized sweater. My inner bell hooks tried to dodge that thought with a host of “fuck that hetero-white-patriarchal nonsense,” but my inner child who endured terrifying and demeaning catcalls since I was 12, just wanted to hide.

I walked at a comfortable clip in hopes that the moment would disappear, and I would turn around to find he had vanished. But he stayed behind me, block after agonizing block. I kept turning to check if he was still there, only to catch him averting his eyes from a few feet behind me. Even as I passed a police station I couldn’t bring myself to go in. I figured they would never take me seriously. I mean who stalks black women anyway? So, I barely paused, passing the station on my way to the Women’s Building.

Little did this asshole know that years of study in the genre of detective/crime-solving/murder mystery shows had prepared me to deal with this situation allbymydamnself. Murder She Wrote, Scooby Doo, Inspector Gadget, Wonder Woman, Criminal Minds, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all the shows on the ID channel, and of course, Foxy Brown, taught me the tips and tricks of scoping out a perp, finding my Unsub and sniffing out the who-dun-it.

Yet, even though this crazed man had followed me now for a few long blocks, I still wanted to believe I was imagining the whole thing. Slyly, I stopped to sit at a bus stop, figuring he would walk on by, and I could take my paranoid ass to my event finally. But he didn’t walk by. He stopped. He looked straight into my eyes and then looked away again. He stood awkwardly against the building on the corner. And in this moment I realized he really was following me; waiting for me to walk somewhere where he could grab me, attack me, or who knows what, without anyone noticing. For the first time in this now 20ish minute ordeal I believed that I was in real danger.

Doubting my intuition has caused me to stay in many situations that did not serve me. Even if they were not dangerous to my physical self, some of them did damage to my soul. Searching the landscape of my lived experience, I contemplate what sets off this cycle that immediately reduces my judgment to the cellar of skepticism. Was second-guessing myself some sort of survival strategy, secretly implanted in my psyche, so that I’d never ask too many questions and risk alienation? And even if it was, could it actually save my life to be silent, or could my silence equal death, just as easily as my bona fide questioning.

I sat on that bench, occasionally looking over to see if he had given up and left. After what seemed like another half hour, I caught him off guard and managed to run across the street out of sight, and slipped into the building without him noticing. I shook off the shock of what had just happened, and crept into the room where other youth advocates were waiting for me. I spent the next two hours networking and giving mini presentations about the leadership programs at the agency I worked for. How I managed to sequester the traumatized version of myself that had just endured over an hour of panic and fear, so that I could smile, teach and be an ally for placed-at-risk youth I do not quite know. Being in this mixed community of queer/straight, gender-expansive, bipoc, differently abled and aged folx fueled my spirit and helped me release my shoulders and ears down to breathe normally again.

Leaving the event, I had almost forgotten about what transpired just a few hours earlier. Still I didn’t bother to comb my surroundings too deliberately while walking back to the bus stop to board it for home. As the bus departed, I looked over my right shoulder and caught his eyes on me again, this time seething and direct into mine as the bus pulled away. He glared at me, angrily chewing his words like he was preparing to spit. Without warning I felt tears drift slowly down my cheek, as I made out the words in his mouth, “Fucking bitch!” The bus carried me home to safety. Eventually, the boots ended up in the Goodwill pile, after attempting then refusing to wear them for months. I don’t think I ever wore that outfit again either. Before I decided to share this story here, there were few people in my life who even knew this happened.

Being followed doesn’t happen to everyone, but sadly it happens enough in our society that an interwebs search will locate more stories like mine; ones with much graver outcomes, no doubt. But it still haunts me that I was followed during the day time, in a hipster neighborhood, with people in every crevice of its tapestry of restaurants and boutiques; yet my fear, my pain and my peril went completely unnoticed. This happened many years ago, and thankfully I haven’t experienced anything like it since. I am grateful to my intuition and quick thinking that I was not physically harmed that day. But, I think ALL Black women deserve to live in a world where we are believed, we are seen and we are cherished; instead of made invisible by the false narrative that we are strong without limit and maniacally independent. That day I needed someone’s help and I did not feel safe enough to ask for it.

On Friday night, I learned a beautiful song in Kabbalat Shabbat called Min Ha-meitzar. I do not pretend to fully understand the depth of its meaning. But a wee bit of research and nascent interpretation suggest to me that it is a meditation on feeling small, or confined then seeking guidance from creator to find the space to set oneself free. I was moved by the song without even knowing what it was about. After further inquiry, I realized that I am still holding on to self-doubt in areas of my life. And I am still throwing knives at my intuition, when it’s just trying to show me who I really am.

The world may not be any closer, hashtags withstanding, to honoring the sacredness of Black women. But I pledge to myself that I will no longer participate in the cycle of devaluation by doubting my own instincts. I remember that it was that voice, the one that told me to change course that day as I stepped off the bus, that probably saved me from an unrecoverable trauma. I find gratitude in this knowing and as new discoveries about myself emerge, I won’t be afraid to greet them, sit them down and listen to what they have to tell me. Next time I need help, I will practice pushing past fear to ask for it; in the hope of being pleasantly surprised by a humanity in recovery from itself.