This is a long one, friends. It's been stewing for a few days now and while I thought of breaking it down into multiple posts, I am a big advocate of shorter posts, it didn't feel right and I opted to post it in full today. Indulge me this lengthy introspection.
We're packing up our cars after a day at the zoo. We're there with my friend Katie and her son and infant daughter. The sun is shining down on us through the trees and there is a cool breeze. Katie and I laugh and talk as we load up our cars. I lay out the changing pad in the back under the gate of my SUV so I can change Sophie's diaper. I'm about halfway through changing her when Katie finishes up and with a wave and a goodbye drives off.
As she's pulling away, I notice a man walking toward us. He's still a fair distance away, but I get an unpleasant frisson as I realize that we are in a somewhat secluded spot. The crowd of cars in the parking lot this morning has now thinned out and I become aware of how isolated we are. The man is alone and dressed in a manner that is incongruous with someone out for a walk. The memories, never far from the surface, erupt, and I go cold.
We're walking back from dinner at my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. I am with one of my closest friends, someone I don't see nearly as often now that I have started at a new job. It is a short walk on this warm summer evening from the restaurant in the waterfront Canton area of Baltimore. As we get close to her house, we decide to stop in at the restaurant across the street to see her boyfriend who bartends there.
I look around and see a man come around the corner behind us. He is wearing a dark sweatshirt with the hood up. Its a strange thing for such a warm night and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, but I look around and am comforted by the bright streetlights and the sight of other people walking on the street. Just as we step off the curb to cross the street, the man runs up along side my friend and grabs her purse. She instinctively pulls it in to herself and he whips around so that he is facing us as we stop short. His left hand is still on her purse as his right comes up revealing a handgun.
The gun is big and black and I have never known fear like I do in that moment as a man points it at my chest from less than four feet away. My friend releases her purse and he yanks it to himself, demanding my bag as he does so. As I hand it over, I tap into some hidden well of courage, or stupidity, and ask if I can just get my keys out of it first.
He looks at me for a long dark moment, gun pointed squarely at my heart, and says with soft, deliberate slowness: "You think I'm fucking kidding? RUN." And I do.
I run like my life depends on it. Because it just might. I don't look to see where my friend is, too lost in my own self-preservative flight. I run to the restaurant across the street and throw open the door. Breathless, I all but shout "I just got mugged!" My friend appears next to me and people crowd around us, asking if we're okay.
The man is getting closer. Close enough now that I can make out his features. I grow more panicky with each of his steps. My heart races. I calculate his distance and what it will take to get Sophie and myself safely into the car before he reaches us. I'm nearly panting. There just isn't time to get her dressed, so I scoop her up in only her top and a diaper, slamming the gate closed and racing around the car. I get her buckled up and see the man through the windows. He is no more than 25 feet away now. He is on the drivers side. Can I make it in time? I don't wast time to think, I just rush around and leap into the car, locking the doors the moment I have mine closed.
I am shaking so hard I can barely hold on to the keys as I shove them in the ignition. I twist my head side to side, frantically looking around for him. I can't see him, but surely he has reached us by now. Sophie is howling in the back seat. Where is he?! I still can't find him. Has he snuck up alongside the car? My heart is pounding in my ears like a jackhammer. Is he going to pop up at my window, a gun or knife in hand, and demand my purse or my car? Or worse?
But then I spot him. He is now past us by a few dozen yards. His gait hasn't changed and he doesn't look back. I slump down, hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, and close my eyes as I rest my head on the knuckles of my left hand. The entire event took place over the course of maybe 3 minutes. 180 seconds. An eternity.
I watch him walk further away and decide we are safe enough that I can get Sophie back out and put the rest of her clothes on. But I am vigilant. I watch and listen for him or any other would-be assailant. I am still so geared up that each rustle of the leaves is a monster waiting to pounce. I get Sophie dressed and buckled back in as calmly as I can and we are on our way.
Its been a busy day and we are out well into Sophie's nap time, so it is not surprising that she falls asleep within minutes. I have the radio on, but I'm not really listening to it. I look back at my sleeping daughter and replay what just happened and I reflect on that night eight years ago.
We were lucky. Muggings turn ugly every day. I personally knew a young man who was fatally stabbed just a year before my own unfortunate experience when he tried to stop a man who was mugging an elderly woman.
But although we were both physically unharmed, we are not undamaged. A sense of security is a translucently thin china teacup. So fragile and so easily broken. The putting back together is a long, delicate process and while it can be done, it will never be the same. There will always be weak spots that are susceptible when pressure is applied.
Sometimes weeks will go by that I don't think about that night. I don't think about the barrel of that gun and how close it was to my chest. I don't think about his cold voice. Or that in my fear and cowardice I ran off, leaving my friend. That she was fine is all that saves me from horrific guilt. But the memory of that entire experience is burned into me. Those fears found a home and I am a hair trigger away from total recall.
I hate that I am so paranoid. That I really don't feel safe anywhere. But if there is a silver lining, it is that I listen to my gut now. If my hair stands up, I act. I don't wait for the situation to become dire and I don't worry about offending anyone. There is every likelihood that the man we encountered at the zoo was just a fellow out for an afternoon walk, but what if? What if he wasn't? What if he had awful, horrible plans for me or my child? We'll never know.
And I'm okay with that.