I Survived The Hunter and the Hunted
Suddenly, I wasn’t just prey, I was bait. In order to hunt him down, I had to be both cautious and on display.
Someone once told me that when you’re approaching a stranger on the sidewalk, the best thing to do is to look away as you approach. When you lock eyes, you try to anticipate what the other person will do and mirror each other. Break the gaze that binds you and you won’t collide. If only we could teach animals this, they might not become roadkill.
There is one gaze, one near collision that I can’t shake. It was a summer day like any other. In high school, I was on the field hockey team. We had pre-season training, and I ran almost daily in the velvet humidity of July and August in New Hampshire. Three to five miles, along with a list of choreographed strengthening exercises. I went on my runs in my horseshoe-shaped neighborhood that fed onto Tuttle Road, an artery that didn’t have many houses along it. It was only two lanes, and people would drive over the speed limit because they hardly ever encountered other cars on the long, forested route. Tuttle Road was exactly half the distance I needed to run for field hockey, so I could run out and back in a loop. I didn’t have an iPod yet, or a cell phone; I just ran with the cadence of my breath. The moment when I hit the end of Tuttle Road and could turn back was always the peak. It meant I was finally running towards home, rather than away from it.
Running for field hockey was both a chore and a blissful silence. I hated it, but also was proud that I exercised regularly. I had just turned off the lane we lived along and onto Tuttle Road. Past my friend Lydia’s mom’s house with the basketball hoop out front. A car was just coming out of a dirt driveway on the right, and as I entered the shade of the conifers it drove around the bend. I was fifteen years old and had asthma and thick thighs and knee trouble. As I rounded the bend, I saw the car was pulled over on the side of the road, near nothing in particular. No mailbox, no driveway, no roadkill.
When I was twenty, a man ghosted on me for the first time. He was a cinephile, and the sort of man who claimed he was an asshole, as if knowing himself would absolve him of his behavior. He was Colombian, and I, just back from a year living in Peru, relished that we could converse in Spanish. I had never been so infatuated with someone and thought he would be my first serious relationship. We met in the spring, and soon we were traipsing to a dive jazz club in the West Village and getting caught in the rain on the way home and I was loaning him a dry shirt and we were having breakfast at the Veselka at 4 a.m. and talking about pretentious art and he was marking my neck as if we were kids who didn’t know better.
There is one gaze, one near collision that I can’t shake.
When fall came, we weren’t anymore. He ignored my texts or occasionally would reply five days later. I saw him in the darkroom or painting studios at school sometimes, though by then he was canoodling with a journalism major. It took longer than it should have for me to realize he wanted nothing to do with me. I clung to the idea of him, baffled that someone could be so excited by me and then so cold. I walked up certain avenues and streets because I thought it was likely that they intersected with his path to class. Every day, I was mapping routes with my body that I hoped would collide with his. I was a wreck and became nocturnal, staying up until five in the morning drinking three-buck chuck that my R.A. bought me and writing poems for class. I struggled to get out of bed and was nauseated most of the day. Classmates complimented me on how my clothes got looser.
One distraught night, I logged onto Facebook and clicked on his profile. He proffered a list of his favorite films: the French New Wave, Italian Neorealists, classics from the Criterion Collection. I copied each and every one onto a yellow legal pad.
The next day, I went to the seventh floor of the university library and checked out one on the list: Last Tango in Paris . The librarians brought me to a shadowy booth, and I put the DVD into the player and sat with my feet up on the desk, knitting as I watched. There was something soothing, sitting there, studying the film as if on assignment. When Marlon Brando raped Maria Schneider from behind using butter as a lubricant, I felt neutral, analytical. The treachery of the scene didn’t penetrate because I was so lost in the vacancy of my days without the cinephile. It was a statement of a fact I already knew: Men do horrible things. In some way, I felt closer to the cinephile as I watched the gruesome scene in this movie he loved. I could see the way his brain worked. Looking at the TV was like looking into his eyes.
Fear bleaches important details from my memory. I am skeptical of why I can’t recall the color or make of the vehicle that was stopped ahead of me. It was something with a low carriage, a Toyota Corolla perhaps, though maybe I’m just conflating that with the car my sister and I shared in high school. I think it was a metallic red, chipped and dusty.
I jogged past the car without looking at the driver. Within a minute, the car drove past me again. Now I was on a straightaway, the shoulder padded with pine needles, no houses until the big farm at the end of the road and I would turn around. The car slowed down near a stream a couple hundred yards ahead of me and stopped again, idling for the second time.
In my head now, I can hear the voice of my mentor, Lily, saying, “Once is an accident, twice a coincidence, three times a pattern.”
I started badgering the cinephile to return my T-shirt, the one I’d loaned him after we got caught in the rain. It was from a Relay For Life fundraiser that I had done, staying up all night just to walk. The cinephile told me he had given it away to someone else. I was stunned. Even though I mostly just wore it to the gym, it was a memento of my grandfather who had passed away from lung cancer. The pain was not in the actual loss of the shirt, it was the symbolism: I was as disposable as a bland white T-shirt covered with sponsorship logos. How easily he could look away from me.
After texting the cinephile hopelessly for most of September, I tried a different tactic than the T-shirt and asked to borrow La Dolce Vita . I calculated that if I had something of his, he’d have to see me again. I thought that maybe when he loaned me the DVD we would sit down and have a nice chat and things would resume with us.
Instead, we met on Third Avenue at dusk and he handed it to me before heading off somewhere else. I had the Fellini DVD for more than a month. I waited and waited for him to ask for it back, but he didn’t care, even though I knew it was his favorite film on my list.
I walked up certain avenues and streets because I thought it was likely that they intersected with his path.
I saw the driver’s face in the side-view mirror as I approached. His head was cocked to the left, watching me in the reflection. I was surprised at how young he looked—he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. His head was like an egg, pale and fair. I didn’t look over into the car as I passed him, didn’t dare make eye contact, but as soon as I had run beyond the stream he pulled ahead again and drove slowly ahead of me. Then, just as I began to contemplate if I should turn around and sprint home, he sped up, went past the farmhouse, and around the bend to the main road.
As soon as the car pulled away, I started to wonder what every woman has wondered at least once in her life: Was that just my imagination?
After he drove away, I turned back on my loop early, cutting across to the other side of the road near the farm, which was in a large field, a clearing filled with sun. The car was gone. I could see the patch that had been a pig pen when I was little, where my parents and I would stop on the way home from daycare to see piglets in the spring. As each minute passed, each footstep landed on the pavement, I felt my blood pressure slow, no longer an oceanic sound in my ears.
I entered the shade again, relieved for the air to be a few degrees cooler amidst the summer humidity. I ran down the straightaway, and as I approached the bend which would turn onto another straightaway where my neighborhood was in sight, I heard a car coming behind me.
One night that spring, a friend who went to a different university uptown called me, heartbroken. He had just punched a hole in the wall in distress when he and his girlfriend split up. He was an undernourished philosopher who loved Rousseau, and it was hard to imagine him having strength enough to break his fist on anything. Harboring a conflicted crush on him, I invited him downtown to get away from things. We sat whispering at my table, commiserating over our two broken hearts. Offhandedly, he said, “At least I’m going to Paris next week for spring break. It’ll be good to be away. You should come.” He cited Ginsburg, saying we should go in search of “jazz and sex and soup.”
I slept on it and the next day bought the ticket, three days prior to departure. For some reason I can’t remember, we weren’t staying together, even though the philosopher had invited me to go to France with him. After the flight, I had $235 in my bank account to get through the week in France, so I joined Couchsurfing and cobbled together three different places to stay, dodging telling my parents that strangers on the internet were going to house me. I filtered my searches looking for female hosts and couples, hoping that would be safer, but it was so last-minute I couldn’t be too picky.
The night before I left, I went uptown and stayed with the philosopher. We spent the night pressed against each other in his narrow twin bed, shivering at the relief of being touched after our heartbreaks. Even though his erection was prodding my back, he didn’t kiss me. There’s nothing quite so confusing and infuriating as having someone hold you, caress you, yet deny you a kiss. Still, I longed for my desire for the philosopher to rid me of my obsession with the cinephile.
Ironically, I spent most of the week in Paris on my own. I finally felt my gaze break from the screen of the TVs in the library. I felt less encumbered by my desires being out on my own in the world, finding shelter in museums from the overcast chill of spring, meandering from farmer’s markets to cafés where I drank Kir Royales like my grandmother, watching men in corduroy play bocce near Jardin du Luxembourg. I was away from all the street corners that pulsed with the cinephile’s presence. At last, I wasn’t bracing myself for the exhausted aftermath of running into him at some restaurant, school building, or stoplight.
On one of my last days in Paris, the sun finally came out. I took a boat on the Seine and asked some strangers in French to take my picture. The spring light warmed my shoulders. I leaned back against the railing, my shirt fell off one shoulder, and my head fell back ever so slightly in joy and relief.
The car was stopped just past the mouth of my neighborhood. As I approached my street, I frantically sorted through my options, tethering them to each breath. Belle Lane was a horseshoe, and he had stopped between the two ends. Should I go in the first entrance before where he was waiting or the end that was beyond his car? If I entered the first one, I would be farther from home and have more to run, but I hoped that if I didn’t run past him, he might not follow me. If I ran past his car and into the second entrance, I would be only 0.2 miles from home. Going closer to the vehicle, I imagined he would open the door and knife me and kidnap me and trap me in some musty basement and rape me and I’d end up a missing child on one of the signs I saw in Walmart, and my parents would search for me endlessly but there’d be no body found and they would have no closure, just be left wandering around hoping I’d show up. I have always felt self-conscious of how I look when I run, my skin clouding red with heat, my lungs wheezing as they process oxygen, thighs rubbing together. I wished my short legs and my face that was splotchy as lasagna meant he wouldn’t want to wait for me.
I felt myself running into a cage. He could just endlessly ping-pong around me in his car because the neighborhood had only two exits. I contemplated turning back and running in the opposite direction, but that would mean running away from shelter. With each pass, the car was getting closer, forcing me homeward where there was very little actual safety. The house just had a rust-red door with a lock from the hardware store. Any good locksmith will tell you that the majority of locks are meant to keep the relatively moral portion of the population from being tempted to take a peek inside, not to actually defend your house from a determined crook. Our door could quite easily be broken with a bat or a gun, or a car plowing through the side of the house.
I decided to study abroad in Ghana the next fall in order to escape the cinephile’s effect on me more fully. After all my craving to run into him, I was beginning to see that it was unsustainable for me mentally. I needed to go away for longer, get distance from the instincts that were betraying me. Before I left, I shaved off my long, wheat-colored hair.
When I touched down in Ghana, the landscape was lush and verdant. The heat scorched my skin, and the air was smokey and acrid from trash being burned on the roadside. In Accra, the school kept us confined in a sleek compound in Laboni, the wealthiest part of town. We had security guards and needed to present identification every time we entered, which seemed ridiculous, like we were living in a consulate rather than a dormitory. The walls were smooth like frosting on a cake and topped with razor wire and jagged glass. It was all just security theater. The neighborhood was removed from the clamor of markets and tangle of traffic. Walking the dusty roads in Laboni I rarely passed many other people, except for a few street vendors I frequented who sold toasted ground nuts, long slivers of papaya, or fresh coconut. We had classes in a building owned by the university, and though they offered for us to take classes at a local university in Accra, it entailed leaving at 4 a.m. with our driver Sammy and sitting in three to four hours of traffic. Each and every move was a subtle way to discourage us from having a real encounter with the city and the people who inhabited it. I asked about homestays, and the staff scoffed.
The university didn’t seem to realize that the miles across the Atlantic were protection enough from what I was hiding from. I was consumed by shame that it was taking this long to get over someone—or perhaps it was just the idea of that someone—that I had been involved with so briefly. I tell myself it was the fault of the program that I didn’t actually encounter Ghana, but in reality I was relieved to play Rapunzel, trapped in a tower, one of my own choosing. I was relieved that my hair was gone, and that no one was going to climb up and make me hostage to a feeling that would overturn all my best instincts. Paris and Ghana were interchangeable escapes, hiding spots more than real places, where I could be safe from my obsession.
I decided to take the longer route and avoid passing close to the car. I was running hard, likely my fastest time yet, nearly a full sprint. I thought about running into a neighbor’s house to ask for help, but it was early afternoon and I knew most everyone would be at work. Most of our neighbors had dogs, too. They would bark at me if I turned into one of their driveways, would see me as the intruder, the invader, the menace. I was scared of dogs, having been knocked down from behind by a German Shepard when I was nine years old. How do they distinguish good and bad people? Could they smell my panic? I thought of running into the woods, but then all I could think of was a book I’d read about a girl being raped in a cornfield and how my body would be scratched by all the sticks and branches, how the pain would be on the surface of my skin and inside me.
I made it down the longer stretch of road and ran into the curve of the hook without a car coming by. Panicky, I looked down each driveway as I passed, my eyes flicking out like a snake tongue. As I rounded the bend, I knew I would be within three hundred feet of our dirt driveway, which was another few hundred feet long, winding up to the house through the dappled light of birches and pines.
I hit the curve hard and there he was. Car parked. Right outside my driveway, by the mailbox with the number fifty-three on it. I had mere seconds to decide if I would run past it to my friend Lydia’s house next door so that he wouldn’t know exactly where I lived. But my brain was chaos at that point. I forgot about the trail in the woods connecting our houses. Didn’t think that I could run into her house and backtrack to my own home without being seen.
This was something that only happened in the kinds of movies I avoided renting from the movie store. I knew the doors and locks of my house might become meaningless. Yet in that moment, I needed to be home. I needed to stop running. I couldn’t keep letting him drive just a little way past me, bouncing between him again and again. I charged down my dirt driveway, past the boat under the blue tarp, past the woodpile and the row of lilac bushes. I fell upon the rust-colored door of my father’s house, plugged the key into the door handle, and forced my way inside, spilling into the kitchen towards the window to look back and see if the car would dare peel down our driveway.
One day in Ghana, I lapsed and googled the cinephile’s name. My breath hitched. A picture of my face came up. Not just any picture, but the picture of me on the riverboat in Paris. It was cropped and projected on a wall, cast with a turquoise glow. I clicked the link associated with the image and was brought to a page for the university gallery, which had posted documentation of one of a student exhibition. The next image I saw was a white pedestal with the words, “EVERY WOMAN I HAVE HAD SEX WITH” in large black letters beneath a projector.
After that, a projection on the wall, all in lowercase: “this is the girl I was a complete asshole to.” Then, that picture again, of me in Paris, feeling free. I felt seen, partly because of the image he had picked where I felt so fully myself, and partly because of the caption. I was relieved. He knew. He knew he treated me horribly, and that was a small vindication. Instantly, I could release myself from the category of crazy I had forced myself into for the year when I couldn’t stop thinking of him. Then the bitterness hit the side of my tongue. He had appropriated this image, which was the very evidence of me letting go of him. He had taken it and made it his own. Reduced me to some cheap picture for an art project that could be fodder for gossip among everyone in the department. I had run all the way to another continent in order to look away from all of this, and, somehow, he had found me. The irony was that it was more about him seeing himself than seeing me.
I locked every door in the house and called my parents immediately from the beige phone on the wall with the long, kinked cord. It was like an anchor line, letting me drift all the way to the window by the sink to peek out past the greenery and see if the car was there. Our house is protected by trees and woods and shade, and though I could see the road, it wasn’t clear if his car was gone or not.
My breath caught up to me. The adrenaline has blacked out what happened next. I imagine myself now crawling under the bed. Or maybe I went up to my room and opened the folding doors of the closet and found the door to the crawl space. Maybe I cried while I drank a glass of water and took a puff from my inhaler. Perhaps I took a shower and waited for my parents to come. What I know is that there was no instant when I looked through the window and felt a clear moment of relief. There still hasn’t been one in the fifteen years since. Now whenever I enter a room and sit down, I try to find a place with my back against the wall, facing the doors so I can see anyone who enters. What I know is that there was no instant when I looked through the window and felt a clear moment of relief. There still hasn’t been one in the fifteen years since.
When we called the police, they said they knew who this “young man” was. They told us that he was banned from the nearby college campus because he had been reported by more than a dozen women for stalking them. He was not allowed to go to three other nearby towns. Also, according to them, “he was not well in the head.”
The police could do nothing for me for two reasons. First, he had not been caught in the act of stalking me. It was a time when only wealthy businessmen had cell phones, so it would be next to impossible to catch him. Second, the dirt road I had seen him come out of just past our neighborhood was his home. And the police couldn’t ban him from the town where he lived. They told me to keep an eye out, and if he ever followed me again, to call. Suddenly, I wasn’t just prey, I was bait. I had to dangle my own body while exercising, in hopes of catching him. In order to hunt him down, I had to be both cautious and on display.
Last winter, seven years after my time in Ghana, I took a trip to New York to visit some friends and see some art. I live in San Diego now, and had to scrounge up suitable clothes for the storms that had been cascading through the Northeast. For some reason I still had a winter coat that I bought my freshman year of college tucked in the back of my closet. It was deep red and had a wide collar that was slightly crimped, a style I no longer cared for, but that would have to do given that my other coat was in storage.
On my second day back, I met up with my friend Karina at MoMA PS1 to see an exhibit of Carolee Schneeman’s work. We sat in M. Wells, the museum restaurant, beforehand, her sipping a beer while I scarfed down a late lunch to soothe my hunger. Eventually, we went upstairs with our stickers on our coats and split off to make our way through the exhibit. I was nearing the end—or maybe I had gone backwards through the exhibit and it was the beginning—when I arrived at a room that was dark. A projector was clicking through images of index cards that had snippets of text on them interspersed with black and white snapshots. I stood wrapped in my carmine coat watching them advance.
A few minutes later, Karina entered and stood on the other side of the room. Behind her, a man followed. I knew his profile in an instant, adrenaline pulsing through my neck and shoulders before I could even think his name. The slide changed. His pupils illuminated with the next image.
Over the years, I’d wondered if his effect would fade on me. Now I had my answer. Who knew if he even noticed me in the dark room, with a different haircut? I clutched the overly large collar of my coat and folded it closely around my neck to cover my face. The fact that I was wearing the same coat I owned when I knew him in college ten years earlier humiliated me. It was as if I hadn’t changed at all.
He walked toward me, passing into the next gallery, and as the slide changed again the man in the car flicked across my vision. I was a deer caught in the headlights, instincts demolished by the surprise that he had found me again. Stricken, I left with my insides spilling on the ground, the familiar feeling of our collision.