When He Defines Me

CW: stalking, abuse

predator n. 1a the nondescript sedan appears as a flash of distant movement, brief and benign, in my rear-view mirror; nothing out of the ordinary on this ordinary day. b it will become more noticeable as it begins to aggressively switch lanes. Closing in. I’m confused. Is it me he seems determined to stay within two car lengths of?  

Swerving and sideswiping. What is this idiot doing? He’s using the right shoulder as a lane now. No space. No warning. He jerks the wheel. The car he almost hits screeches its brakes, blares its horn. No, these are no random maneuvers. Red light. His car skids to a standstill next to mine. 

*

Two weeks earlier. Different idiot.

Why is it always in the grocery store? I’m sandwiched between quinoa and couscous on one side and canned legumes on the other when he rounds the corner and starts down my aisle. Dark jeans, dark dress shirt. He has a tiny human in tow who looks to be about four years old, her fingers curled around her father’s index finger. 

Their presence barely registers as my attention returns again to the hunt; you’d think I could find just one can of butter beans on these bulging shelves. Countless chickpeas and cannellinis. Navies, blacks, reds. Pintos aplenty. I admit defeat and begin to move on as he comes abreast of me.  

An odd flicker in his eye. A telltale sign, but disguised so quickly I doubt my own senses, which leaves me unprepared. His eyes meet mine, leave to grope their way down and back up my body. Return to my face. He doesn’t even attempt to lower his voice as he leans against me. “You look delicious,” his voice drips. A ready-made meal, packaged for his convenience.

I look down—into his daughter’s upturned face—and back up at him. 

The thought flickers—“You know she’s going to be me someday, right?”—but remains unsaid, lost in my exhale. I can already feel her confusion; my tone, my referencing her out loud, will only compound that. Why leave her to wonder if she did something wrong?

After, some say, “You should have challenged him, put him on the spot, made him explain his behaviour to his daughter.” And he would have said what? “Sorry, sweetie, Dad’s a dick”? She will find that out on her own one day. And she too will have to learn to exist in a world that’s defined by hunters.

In any case, by the time I can process what has just happened the dick has already rounded the corner and disappeared into the next aisle, no doubt to go and squeeze the Charmin. Or another shopper.

The first layers of guilt settle in.

Later, alone in my car, one clever withering retort after another burst effortlessly from my mouth. The words drop to the seat and settle in silence, useless by then. 

*

A 2018 Statistics Canada study on gender-based violence and unwanted sexual behaviour in our country reports that “4.9 million Canadian women over the age of fifteen years have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in a public place in the preceding twelve months.” 

That’s thirty-two percent of women. 

One in three of us.

Unwanted sexual attention—comments, gestures, whistles or calls—is experienced by one in four women. Almost half say it has happened at least three times in the preceding twelve months.

Unwanted physical touching is experienced by one in six women.

Accounting for demographics, the odds of experiencing unwanted sexual behaviour in a public space increases three-fold for women fifteen to thirty-five years of age compared to those over thirty-five. 

I’m well over thirty-five. 

Being non-heterosexual increases unwanted behaviours 2.8 times. 

I’m heterosexual. 

Being single or disabled increases the odds 1.8 times. 

I’m neither. What are the odds? 

Being sexually harassed by a creep in a grocery store? It’s not the first time. It’s not even the first time this month. But it still unnerves. Tired eyes, always scanning. From which direction will the next one come? Because there’s always a next one.

*

frisson n. 1 a skeletal finger traces an icy path; amygdala to brainstem and down each of my twenty-four individual vertebrae. An inadequate army of stiff hairs stand at attention. An initial cortical response to stimuli often positively associated with music, it is also an evolutionary response to danger.

The present. Back at the red stop light. 

We lock eyes. I feel uneasy looking through the windows of this particular soul. Dark. Deserted. Wiring disconnected. 

Natural selection’s early warning system, fight or flight. Fight or flight? Easy, flight. I’m safe, surrounded by 2200 kilograms of steel and aluminum in a car that can go from 0-100 km/hr in less than five seconds. But I will discover this illusion of safety is just that. An illusion. Much as it was two weeks ago, in a busy supermarket. Ironically, the same supermarket I just left.

I still need a few more things, and the nearest grocery store that carries them is two kilometres away. Eight minutes in this traffic. I accelerate. Turn one corner, then another. He weaves, trying to stay beside me. I switch lanes, pull ahead then slip back between two cars leaving him no room to follow. He falls behind. I slow traffic, trying not to let him know until the last second that I am about to turn into the Zehrs’ parking lot. Aren’t these evasive maneuvers overkill? My car decelerates as doubt takes the wheel. 

“But how long has he been following me before I noticed him?” whispers the voice in my head. “Was he in the supermarket I just left—watching, waiting—before tailing me to the parking lot? Is it only a snarl of Tuesday traffic interfering with his plans that has given him away now?”

I’ve dealt with predators before. I listen to the voice.

*

I flash back to my second-year sociology class. A young professor’s monotone voice delivering material to a lethargic evening class. He likes to interject ominous sounding statistics into his sleepy lectures; little bombs meant to startle and surprise.

“Look at the person on your left. Now look at the person on your right. One of the three of you is going to be the victim of abuse at the hands of an intimate partner.”

One in three. Not that the knowing saved me. I stayed. For longer than I should have. So did the guilt; I wasn’t the only victim. It took time. To understand that leaving would save not only myself, but my childrens’ future. To take that first step and never look back. There’s guilt in that too.

Ironic that this same professor once asked me how bad I’d like an A in his class. Under the guise of discussing my recent essay. In private. And with clear intent. 

As he said while leaning into me, complacent smile suggesting I would be an easy conquest, ”You really don’t have a choice. I’m a popular teacher. No one will believe I’d trade grades for, well…”

He wanted power. Dominance. Control.

I wanted an A+. I got it. Without the help of his cock.

*

According to the most recent Statistics Canada report on stalking (2014) in “twenty-seven percent of cases victims were stalked by a stranger.”

An apprehensive glance in my rear-view mirror. Yes, he’s still tailing me. I see him one lane over, three cars back. 

“Physical attacks were reported in twelve percent of these cases.”

Turn into the Zehrs lot. Now. He’s caught in traffic and can’t switch lanes, can’t follow.

“It was more common for males to be stalked by a stranger.”

Does that mean the odds are in my favour today?

Who knows? The same study indicated that the prevalence of self-reported stalking decreased from nine percent in 2004 to six percent in 2014. That’s not good news. What these numbers actually reveal are the shockingly low self-reporting rates.

And the ramifications of living in a digital age? The creation of another hunting ground. Stalking through the use of email, text, and social media represented twenty-eight percent of all types of stalking from 2004-2018. That number is only higher today. Predation hasn’t decreased, just evolved. There are countless opportunities for an apex predator like this guy to find prey. 

Or like me, to become it.

As a staff writer for earth.com wrote in 2019, “We may soon live in a world with nothing to call a monster except ourselves.” 

I can tell you, we already do.

*

prey n. 1 I slip into a parking spot between a Ford F150 and a Chevy Tahoe—camouflage I hope for my smaller Mercedes—and kill the engine. Silent. Still. Waiting. I can feel my own heartbeat throbbing in my throat, pulsating in my temples. I see him on the other side of the parking lot. Circling. Circling. He suddenly stops. Parks. Exits. He stands beside his car, head raised like he’s sniffing the air. Eyes searching. Searching. 2a I can tell the exact second he sees me. I can pinpoint the moment he realizes he’s been spotted. He hesitates, awkward jerky movements telegraphing his indecision. Head down, he darts into a dollar store fronted in reflective glass. b I can’t see him, but I feel his eyes on me. He’s standing just inside, watching and waiting to see what I will do, whether I’ll get out of my car and continue into the grocery store.  

I freeze. Afraid to head home and be followed. Afraid to get out of my car. He comes out, stops in the middle of the roadway, heedless of the cars that are forced to detour around him. I watch as he rises on his tiptoes, cranes his neck to get a clearer view through my windshield. Both of his heels slap back to the pavement. He’s seen me. 

I’d stake my life on it.

*

“Why didn’t you get a description?” “Why didn’t you confront him?” “Why didn’t you drive to the police station?” “What if he does something worse to someone else?” The steady drip of questions will seep into my psyche like a faulty faucet. Insidious. Drip. Whispers. Drip.

In the immediate aftermath and in the days that follow my support system is by turns furious, shielding, solid. Except one. 

“If it were me I would’ve got right up in his face and threatened him back.” A braggart’s bravado instead of support. “Why didn’t you just walk right up to his car? Ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing?”

Twenty percent of sexual assault victims will feel blamed for their own victimization, most commonly by friends or family. You don’t understand that statistic until you become part of it. Until the whispers you’ve tried to silence become words that demand a defense.

Why don’t I just reply that I’m not responsible for being stalked, or for making a stalker change his behaviour? Why don’t I point out the inherent danger in communicating with someone who is actively stalking you? Why don’t I justify that freezing—another automatic physiological response—is just as likely a response as fight or flight?

Why should I have to?

*

Prior to 1993, “stalking” was not considered a crime in Canada.

In response to escalating incidences of violence against women, the Criminal Code of Canada introduced Section 264, making “criminal harassment” a chargeable offence. Section 264 states that “No personal shall engage in conduct in subsection (2) that causes another personal reasonably to fear for their safety, or the safety of anyone known to them.” 

Subsection (2) outlines what this conduct consists of and includes “repeatedly following from place to place the other person or anyone known to them.”

Our courts have indicated that harassment conduct must be viewed in context to determine if it is “repeated.” A single prolonged and persistent interaction may be enough to meet the criteria. 

But may be is not a certainty, and it is difficult to prove you’re being followed in a public place.

March 17, 2021. A Vancouver woman posts a video of herself being followed for forty minutes by a man she doesn’t know. The video goes viral and the Vancouver police launch an investigation that results in the arrest of the accused for criminal harassment. Such is the power of social media. Subsequent charges are added—among them break and enter, assault with a weapon, and uttering threats—for several unrelated incidents, including a second criminal harassment charge for an incident occurring days earlier.

But the criminal harassment charges are ultimately stayed; the Crown decides not to prosecute the case.

She wasn’t the only victim, and he went on to do worse. She thought to video him with her cell phone. I use mine to check news feeds, call, and text; my auto-response does not default to video. Who did he move on to after me?

The whispers aren’t silenced.

*

nature n. 1a there is no one psychological profile that exists for stalkers. Clinical or personality disorders present half the time. b few are psychopathic, many are narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, have attachment disorders, depression, substance abuse issues. c I don’t stop to ask if he’s received a diagnosis yet. 2 victims include current or former intimate partners, acquaintances, strangers. 3 (opp. nurture) is heredity an influence on, or determinant of, behaviour? Empirical evidence: the father-son duo who accosted me in this same parking lot a year ago. They worked in tandem to corral me against my vehicle so the elder could invite me to “have a go” with him once “Junior’s done filling your trunk…with groceries that is.”

His movements deliberate, he gets back in his car. Starts the engine. I sit motionless. There’s something intent about the way he watches me as he drives toward the exit. I know instinctively he wants me to let my guard down, to bolt. I wait one minute. Not safe yet. Wait. Wait. One breathless beat more and there he is. He’s circled back, used a different entrance. As he prowls past I get out of my car and let him see me, phone to my ear, message unmistakable. He exits the lot once more, his deadpan eyes never leaving mine, message also unmistakable. 

He circles back again, this time using an entrance behind me. I spot him in my rear-view mirror, car crawling down one row, then another. Circling. Closer. Where is everybody? How is there not a single person out here loading groceries into their trunk? 

This interaction is unnatural.

*

Another day. Another idiot.

It’s a monotonous Monday of errand running with my two pre-teen boys in tow. As they wrangle over—insert any topic here—a movement in my peripheral vision draws my gaze to the passenger-side window. A male in a beat-up red pickup next to us finishes rolling down his window. He leans out resting his arm on the frame and stares. Intent. Voiceless. Directly at me. Not my car. Not my sons, thank God. Just me. His gaping face, the saliva dripping over his lips and running down his chin, the giant gold watch adorning his left wrist; I feel my stomach twist in disgust. “I hope it’s waterproof,” I think as I see a drop of drool fall. 

Time suspended ticks into motion at the sound of my son’s voice. He’s noticed the freak next door. At his finger jab our window lowers. Voice and body shaking with indignation and aggression he yells, “Hey, you, stop staring at my mom!” 

I’m sickened. Torn. Do I rather my sons never know what it takes to walk in my world?

The light turns green and we move on.

*

preservation n. 1 be patient and wait. This creep will exit the parking lot and re-enter again. Wait. The second I see him leave the lot and turn left I yank my car into reverse. Throw it into drive. Speed, not squeal, for the exit. Turn right. b the on-ramp for the parkway is two minutes away. It’ll be easier to see if I’m being followed on a major artery. The next grocery store is only four minutes further and I’m getting my food goddamnit.

No one in my rear-view mirror. Don’t park in the underground, park in the street lot. Busy and congested; it’s easy to blend in. A good vantage point to watch from. 

I sit in the parking lot for ten minutes, scanning every direction around me, rattled to find my hands still gripping the steering wheel. When I finish my shopping, I drive home. I look in my rear-view mirror the whole way.

I will for months after.

It takes me two days of being in close proximity to my 220 lb, 6’3” husband before I feel settled, which only makes me feel smaller.

*

redefine v.tr. 1 you defined my physical boundaries, but you forced me to define myself as well; not only who I am, but who I’m allowed to be 2 you made me see myself as weaker, as lesser that day.

My fear. Confusion. Isolation. Powerlessness. Anxiety. Self-reproach. Anger. Embarrassment. That’s on you.

Reaction instead of action. That’s on me. I’d spent years drilling emergency preparedness into my kids when they were young. Leave the area. If you can’t: yell, scream, attract attention, call 911. Trust your instincts. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. We practised it as routinely as we did our fire drills. But that was years ago and my skills have atrophied. Get a description of the person, the make and model of the car, the license plate. So easy when you’re role-playing. Drive across the parking lot to get his license plate number? Some instinct warned me getting closer would be a costly mistake.

That’s on me. No, it’s not. The whispers are wrong.

Like approximately half of women who experience unwanted sexual behaviours in public, I will make at least one change in routine or behaviour following this incident. While the most common reaction—for both genders—is to avoid situations, people, or places, my gender is also more likely to change the way we dress or act so as to not draw attention to ourselves. To blend in. To be inconspicuous.

We shouldn’t have to.

But it’s just another ordinary day.

 

Karen Moore, a freelance writer, pianist, and composer based out of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada holds an A.R.C.T. degree from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Pivoting after a thirty-year teaching career, her studio-turned-writing-sanctuary continues to be a creative space for her art and her voice. This is her first nonfiction publication. Karen is currently working on a poetry collection in addition to a memoir about the loss of her father.

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4 thoughts on “When He Defines Me”

    • Right back at you Nicole-Anne! Couldn’t be in better company, and honoured (Cdn spelling!) to appear in a journal that empowers voices like So To Speak!

      Reply
  1. Rita thank you reading, and for you supportive comments! “Everyone over the age of 12 should read this”: I love that. It is indeed my hope that every person who reads this, passes it on to someone they know. I’ve been incredibly touched and grateful that the people I’ve shared the piece with have been empowered to share their own experiences with me, sometimes for the first time. Thanks to So To Speak!

    Reply

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