This is a story of getting things wrong, and perhaps continuing to get things wrong, but not knowing exactly what to do besides what I’ve come up with.


When I lived in Bloomington, IN, some guy spent a week in one of the student neighborhoods attacking women. The one account I read from a victim was that he walked up to her with keys sticking out from between the fingers of his balled fist, slashed her cheek open, and said, “not so pretty now” before running off.


A while back, before Ben was born, I took a few night classes. A few of us getting out of class together had to walk four or five blocks down a quiet side street to get back to a common parking area.

So, class would let out and we’d make our way down to the street. Throw in some random travel variables — like getting backpacks repacked or chatting with classmates on the way out the door or whatever — and you’d end up with four or five of us spread out over two blocks headed the same way down a side street after dark.

Most nights, there wasn’t much to think about: Out the door, down the street, into the car, home.

One night, I ended up falling in behind a woman from my class. She was about half a block ahead. I don’t think she noticed me at first, but I stepped onto a loose metal plate and it made a big noise. She glanced over her shoulder and appeared to notice me for the first time, and I think the next several blocks were very frightening for her.

Within a block, everybody else had headed down another street. It was just the two of us. She kept glancing over her shoulder, and I could tell I was making her anxious. There was no way it made any sense to pick up the pace to just get past her — I was engaged enough to realize that — but there was a smaller, stupider part of me that was pretty fixated on just getting to my car and going home. That part wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

Well, let’s not dissociate.

I wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

In the end, she ended up picking up the pace, she got to her car a block ahead of me, and it finally occurred to me that if I slowed down just a bit she’d be able to get into her car without feeling quite so much like she was racing me to get something between us but distance on a dark sidewalk.

So I slowed down and she got into her car and she drove away and I quietly congratulated myself for the five percent of our separate but shared walks where I had really thought about her and what she might be going through.


The next week, class let out and I went out the door with another woman in the class who’d been in my workshop group. We’d enjoyed each others’ work and we were talking about it. We walked out onto the sidewalk and I noticed we were headed the same direction. I didn’t want the conversation to end quite yet, so I pointed the way she seemed to be headed and said to her, “are you headed this way, too? I’ll walk with you.”

Her face tightened for a moment, but then she agreed. We walked a few blocks, she got to her car before I got to mine, and I had yet another belated realization that she’d been nervous the whole time. She couldn’t say goodbye fast enough.


So, when class let out on the third week it was back down onto the sidewalk and assorted variables came together to put me about half a block behind the classmate I’d walked with the week prior, just the two of us on the quiet and dark sidewalk. And — just like two weeks prior — she didn’t notice me until I made a sound. Then we spent a block with her looking over her shoulder at me, noticeably picking up the pace.

So I stopped and put my backpack down on the sidewalk to get my keys out of it, which helped her put a block between us. Then I crossed the street so I’d be on the opposite side from her, and slowed way down until she made it to her car.


I’ve done pretty much the same in similar situations ever since: If I end up behind a woman on a quiet sidewalk, I just go across the street. If I see that she’s noticed me behind her before I can do that and seems to be watching me, I’ll backtrack to the last intersection to do so.

It’s the smallest, saddest thing.