In A Parking Lot
by Sarah Stoss
The cold sends a shock through my body as I step out onto the pavement outside of my building. Away from the warmth and safety of the walls and fluorescent lights, I position my car key between my fingers, and the sharp serrated teeth dig into my skin.
I keep my eyes straight ahead of me, looking to the side when the wind blows against the bare trees and the branches scratch against one another. I turn around; stopping suddenly thinking I hear footsteps following me every few steps. But they are only the echoes of my own each time, and there is no one there. I think of what I will do when there is someone there. If they get too close, if they reach out in my direction, I will take my key and stab them with as much force as I can muster. I am sure I will be shaking, as I am now thinking about it, but I will do what I can.
I can’t help but wish, at times like this, that I had gone to the gun shop that I pass every night on my way home. I think if I had a gun I would feel better about walking through this parking lot every night. Maybe eventually I would stop fearing the streetlights that are placed on the perimeter. There is something frightening about them, the way they stand looming. They bend and tower over me, and their light only reaches certain parts of the darkness. They only serve to illuminate in my mind all of the things I cannot see.
I get the same feeling when I am catcalled in the daylight. Men stand at corners or in cars and yell out at me something in regards to my body. Each time, it is like they are taking an ice pick and chipping away at it; they are claiming more for themselves, leaving little for me to own. They call out to me, saying things like, “nice ass,” or “damn, you are fine.” They say things about my breasts, vulgar things that turn them into objects I am ashamed to own. I used to react to these calls. I remember being younger and feeling empowered to stand up to these men. I would turn and flip them off, tell them to go to hell. But once I was walking with my mother when I did this, when they called out to us. She turned to me after I had responded, with a look of disgust and shock; I’m not sure which it was more of.
“Bella, you are only giving them more power. Your reaction puts you at risk. They could get violent,” she had warned. She had her arm around me, pulling me closer to her like she was afraid I would be taken from her right there on the street due to my outburst.
What I think she meant to say was that it wasn’t ladylike, my reaction. Women were expected to take this. We’re expected to ignore the men who can’t find the respect to admire our body parts from afar, without verbalizing their appreciation for our “fine asses” or “bouncing breasts.” This acceptance and feigned ignorance are supposed to be a part of us, another body part that comes with our femininity. It is one more thing for men to take advantage of.
When my mother said this to me, I felt confused. I thought that by walking by and avoiding eye contact that then gave them the permission to continue their verbal assault. I hadn’t listened to my mother at first, disagreeing with her view. But then I was walking with my friend Lacy and the same thing had happened, a man called out to us and told us how our bodies excited him; he told us how our bodies were made to serve his enjoyment, to make his walk to work more pleasing. My friend laughed. She laughed and I flipped him off, glaring at him as I walked by. Then she turned to look at me, her eyes narrowed with her brows coming together to form wrinkles between them.
“Aren’t you flattered? He likes the way we look, it’s a compliment,” she said to me. She winked in their direction, turning behind her with a newfound confidence and shake in her walk. The man then ran up to us, placing his hand on my friend’s ass, and then on the small of my back. But it kept moving like a snake down further until it reached its destination and clamped down. I looked at her, my eyes wide with fear and contempt. She was blushing, looking down at the ground as the man whispered something in her ear. I grabbed the man's wrist violently and placed his hand back at his side. I then crossed the street without my friend, blaming her for the fact that this man had felt he was welcome to break the barrier between my space and his own. I watched her once I had crossed, the man was now wrapping himself around her like a boa constrictor as she squirmed and twisted beneath his touch. I shook my head and continued to walk, thinking to myself it serves her right for egging him on. She had asked for it, after all. A wink was clearly consenting.
I decided then that I liked my mother’s approach as opposed to my friend’s. My outward anger toward their advances didn’t stop them. They didn’t seem to care. I began to see it as a waste of energy, a waste of time. I started walking by them, keeping my eyes pointed toward the ground and biting my lip until it bled as I resisted reacting. I still kept my key between my fingers though, thinking that it was a better tool than my words if a man decided it was okay to touch me as I walked down the street.
I stop and turn around again. This time, I see someone. They're in a black coat, too far for me to determine if they are a threat. Their pace is quick, which makes me increase my own. I am sure they are headed towards me and I start to wonder if I really can fight them off. I wonder if I am strong enough. I am breathing hard, my heartbeat mimicking the rate of my feet. I feel my shaking hands grip the key between my fingers tightly, now held close to the middle of my abdomen. I hear their footsteps getting closer, the distance closing between us. I want to scream. But I know it will be of no use, no one else is here. It’s just us. They are behind me now; I can feel their breath on my neck. No, it’s just the wind. They pass by me, and the lights of a dark car blink twice as they pull their key from their pocket and quicken pace once more to a run. I see them enter the vehicle, start the engine, and then the headlights blind me. I reach my hand up to shield my eyes with the hand that holds my key.
I think of telling my husband about this encounter when I reach home. But he won’t understand, he never does. He’s never had to fear for his safety in a dark parking lot at night. He may have even been the one others have feared. He is a large man. He holds a confidence in his step that only men do. He wears an aura of strength in every situation he is in. He is the man at the party who has the hearty, deep laugh in the center of the room. The one who can be counted on to pull over to the side of the road to help a stranger whose car has failed. I always look at him disapprovingly when he does this. He didn’t know who this person was, had no idea what they were capable of. These are things he doesn’t think about, but he should. He should realize that not everyone in the world is as good and honest as he is. He hasn’t had the same experiences as me that prove how unique his goodness is. I used to tell him of these experiences, of the men on the street and the fear that overwhelms me in dark parking lots, but he only laughed. He patted me on the head and told me I was paranoid.
“Bella, there’s no one out to get you. It’s all in your head. Relax,” he told me one night after I had been sure that I was being followed home. It was when I had still been in school, and we lived only a few blocks from the university. I felt that I was being followed home from one of my classes. I was convinced that every time I turned around to look, someone hid behind a tree or crouched behind a bush. I could feel them next to me; swear there was a hand on my shoulder. I ended up in a jog, twisting my head unnaturally behind me as I made the last turn onto my street.
I looked at him when he said it, and saw only amusement in his eyes. I didn’t blame him for the reaction, for not taking me seriously. He didn’t know. He had no idea what it was like to be a woman alone in a dark parking lot, walking in the rain.
He once asked me what I was so afraid of. He asked me if it was of being murdered, of being killed in a violent manner. I was knitting a sweater on my favorite chair by the window, looking out at the snow falling. I stopped the stitching. It made me think, and I realized that that wasn’t it at all. I didn’t fear death in the same way that I feared the taking of my body by someone else. I feared living in a body that I no longer felt was mine. This was something that had been happening gradually, with every catcall and every accidental grope in a crowded room. A part of me was taken; my piece of mind had been breaking off and was being put into the hands of those who were doing the breaking.
“No, Dear. There are things that can be done that are worse than death,” I responded, continuing the construction of the sweater I hoped to give to his mother for Christmas.
I was in high school when my friend, Grace, became pregnant. She didn’t know who the father was. She had had too much to drink one night at a party, and woke up with her underwear around her ankles and a throbbing pain between her legs. She was talked about, called a slut. I stopped associating myself with her, feeling as though her pregnancy was contagious. I thought that with increasing the distance between us, I would be less likely to end up in the same place she was. Only certain girls got raped, only a specific type of girl, who was asking for it, ended up at a party dazed and confused with an aching pain that would last the rest of their life. The reality of it was that she had no control over her fate just the same as everyone else. From the view of us teenagers, she was to blame for what had happened to her. She had caused the incident. Clearly, she had wanted the encounter. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t remember it. She was at fault. She should have known better.
I watched her grow wider, a wobble in her walk as her body expanded. I can’t imagine now what that must have felt like. I didn’t bother with thoughts like that when I was younger. I still had this feeling of invincibility; I didn’t have to worry about being harmed because it was impossible. It would never happen, not to me. But her body was stolen from her; I can see that now. Her rapist, that’s what he is, he took something from her that she would never get back. You can see it in her eyes. There is this lack of something within her, a blank stare that took over the bright liveliness that they once held. And then there was the child growing inside of her. It is a child with half of a stranger inside of it, an unknown part that was responsible for the murdering of the innocence of the mother.
I saw her a few years ago, when I went home for the holidays. She was working in the supermarket as a cashier. I asked her how she was when I saw her, and she told me she was making it through. I pitied her. Seeing her again made me think more of buying a gun, and made me grip my key a little tighter when I walked.
I reach my car as the rain falls heavier onto the pavement. I get in, lock the doors, and feel that I can breathe. I turn to look behind me making sure there is no one in the back seat. I am alone again. I am safe. I turn the key, with shaking hands and quickened pulse, and start the engine.
Once I enter the house, I call out to my husband. He is asleep on the couch tonight, with the news on the television. The light highlights his silhouette as I stand in the kitchen and pour myself a glass of water. I lift his feet off the couch and place myself underneath them, resting my glass on the coffee table in front of me.
The news is all bad news as it is every night. I never watch in the morning. I don’t think I would leave the house if I did. There was a bombing in a country, one that I can’t remember the name of after the story has moved on. The bombing occurred at a school, and children were killed. I wondered aloud if we had done the bombing, as it isn’t said. My husband continues to sleep. There is a story of an animal shelter that is being closed down locally due to hazardous conditions. It makes me think of adopting a dog or a cat. Maybe a dog; they would provide better protection.
And then another story comes on. The headline is, “Woman Attacked.” They discuss the location, only a town over from us. The woman was walking through a parking lot after the night shift at a bar. It was two in the morning when the assault occurred. The injuries include a broken nose, a fractured ankle, and bruises. They don’t mention the other injuries, the ones no one can see. They mention that she was raped as though it is just another fact in the story. They don’t say it with all of the meaning it has, don’t discuss the repercussions of it. It’s simply something that happened, in the past. But I know the truth. I know that she is now changed. I can picture her lying in a hospital bed unable to cry or breathe or feel in any way like she used to. Maybe she didn’t walk through that parking lot with a feeling of danger lurking, but now she will. Everywhere she goes, she’ll know that she is not safe. The event may have happened, and is done. But it’ll remain in the present to her. She’ll relive it every night, every day. She won’t be able to look in the mirror without seeing what she lost. The man who committed the assault has not been found or identified by the victim. He is only described as an unidentified male.
This makes him more threatening. He could be anyone. He could be the man I saw tonight in the parking lot, the one who had frightened me as he trailed behind me. Now, I am convinced he had intentions other than getting into his car and driving home; he must have seen my key and been scared off. It could be the boy I saw walking down the street as I turned the corner. It could be my neighbor down the block who always seems to be out at night, walking his dog further than is necessary. Every man can be seen as a threat, every woman his next victim.
I think of waking my husband up, showing him the story. Maybe he would take me more seriously. It could have been me, I think to myself. Perhaps he would see it that way, too. But he won’t. He will say, well what is she doing working that late? She should have walked to her car with someone. She should have known better. He would sound like I did when my best friend had gone to a party and come out with the permanent mark of victim. It’s easier that way. It gives you a false sense of security. It allows you to think: Well, I would never do that. So that will never happen to me.
But the truth is, it doesn’t matter what you do. You can’t be sure of when your life will be changed. It can happen with a car crash, or the death of a loved one. It can happen when you’re walking in a parking lot at night, with only the thought of getting home.
I get up from the couch and turn off the TV as the first story plays again. I grab a blanket from the closet and put it over my husband, thinking of waking him and then deciding against it. I write him a note that he will see when he wakes up, “We’re pregnant.” I know he will be overjoyed. He’s always wanted a large family. Most of our fights stem from the argument about children. I wasn’t ready; I’m still not ready. I can’t imagine explaining to my daughter what this world can do to a woman. I can’t watch her walk down the street with the same fear I have. I will tell her to walk down the street with pride, and tell her that she is so much more than what those men can see, even if I myself have a hard time believing it.
I hope it’s a boy. I will pray every night for a boy.
Sarah Stoss is a current MFA in Creative Writing and Literature student at Stony Brook Southampton. She is a freelance writer and book reviewer for Dan's Papers, as well as a graduate and teaching assistant at Stony Brook. Sarah assists in the promotion and planning of the reading series Writers Speak Wednesdays at Stony Brook Southampton, and works on Alec Baldwin's podcast "Here's the Thing."