This is my brush with danger. This is my oh shit moment.
I’m sitting on the train taking pictures with my camera, messing around with the focus, trying to get something good for my latest writing project. It’s 1:30 on Easter Sunday. Northbound Red Line to Howard.
When I board, there are only a few other people on the train. A young couple, a man slouched over halfway down the train, and another guy in the corner, nondescript, not worth noting. I’m doing homework, listening to my iPod, doing all the things I had gotten used to doing in my weekend spent almost entirely riding trains.
He sits down across from me in the elderly/handicapped seats, and he asks where I’m from.
Evanston. Is that the right answer? I don’t know anymore, but I don’t want him to think I’m a tourist.
Why am I taking pictures of Chicago? Haven’t I seen it before?
Yeah, I’m practicing using my camera. I’m too on-the-spot to lie. What’s the harm in talking to strangers?
He asks me to take a picture of him. I do. Before the camera clicks, he pulls his black hoodie over his head and leans back. Normally I would describe the pose as “pretending to look tough,” but I’m not sure if he’s pretending. He talks about me getting in a gallery.
“Don’t ever doubt your dreams,” he says, though that’s not my dream. “I have an idea for you. It’ll make your photography better.” He tells me, take your pictures with a little scrap of paper in the front of the picture, like a triangle. I don’t know what this means, really, but I nod and smile.
What’s your name?
I tell him. I’m trying this new being nice thing. What’s the harm?
He says he knows a few Shaunacys. Bullshit. He gets my name right on the first try.
Where’s your boyfriend?
I don’t have one. Wrong answer. I don’t have time for one, I don’t want one, that’s not where I’m at right now, when hell freezes over. I’m too busy.
What about friends? I have them. When did everyone else get off the train?
I’m a drug and alcohol counselor, he tells me. He’s coherent, not just a crazy drugged out homeless person off the street. He has a well contained mustache and straight teeth. He lives off Howard on Jonquill, he tells me. He never tells me his name.
How much did your camera cost? It was a gift. I don’t know. Lie.
How old are you? 19.
You look so much more mature. Thanks?
Do you live alone? No, in a dorm.
How is that? Good.
Do you live right off the Davis stop? Around there.
Can I call you?
Pause. Stutter. Think frantically.
I don’t think so.
Why? I don’t make friends with strangers on trains.
Morse. Still? Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. I need to get the fuck out of here. I smile, answer politely.
Can I call you? No, how about email? I don’t do email, he says, can I call you?
I don’t have a lot of minutes on my cell phone plan. Let me tell you about my cell phone plan, he says. My parents pay for mine. I don’t like the phone, something about the voice with no face, I say, which is true but not a real reason. I don’t like email, he counters. Can I call you? Why not?
Howard. Shit. I’ve never wanted to be in a crowd full of benign old people so much as right now. I wonder if he’s going to follow me on to the Purple line. I consider where I could get off that wouldn’t lead him straight back to where I live. I wonder if he’s going to stalk me. What if I had given him my email? I hope I see someone I know. Preferably a large man-friend. I’m going to end up on the Northwestern Emergency list serv email. I’m going to end up on the 5 o’clock news. It’s FUCKING 2 o’clock on a SUNDAY. I’m thinking in all caps now.
I’ve never felt unsafe on the train before. Could be that I’m just naïve, or cocky. Today was such a good day. I navigated a cross town bus successfully for the first time all year. The sun is out. My homework is nearly done. I have half a sandwich in my bag, just waiting for an opportune moment.
I slip my camera and iPod back into my backpack, not bothering to turn either off, trying to look casual. I daydream about seeing someone I vaguely know, running up to them, and saying “oh hey walk me home?” even though we’re barely friends. Shyness has bounds.
He says he likes me because I’m quiet, he’s usually quiet. But sometimes you don’t have to be shy, he tells me. This is the sort of thing I would say to my friends when I’m trying to creep them out. It’s effective that way.
When did you last get your hair done? Get my hair done? I don’t remember.
You deserve to get your hair done. I wake up in the morning and it’s like this, I say. Fuck you. Fuck you, too, stupid hair. If you would mind your own business and stop being so damn big maybe I wouldn’t have these problems.
Howard has never looked like such a magical place. Last stop. Almost there. Of course, the train waits outside the station. Thanks, CTA. Eventually, the doors open. So. Slowly. I try to look casual bolting up out of my seat and out onto the platform. I don’t know why I’m still pretending to be polite.
He calls my name as I walk along the train, trying to latch onto some middle aged lady who I feel safe with. Shaunacy, Shaunacy, Shaunacy. I don’t look back. I find the most benevolent looking people I can. People who look like students. People who look like businessmen. I stand there, heart beating embarrassingly fast, more and more nervous as things sink in. Safer now than before, but so much more worried. Shaking. Fucking Purple Line always makes me wait.
I try to blend into the crowd. I stand close to anyone who looks safe. I hide behind pillars.
I sit in a semi-crowded Purple Line train, and I hug my backpack onto my lap. Any harder and it will become a part of me. I feel like he could still be watching, irrational, but overwhelming. I consider getting off at Dempster to throw anyone off, but it’s not crowded. Davis is crowded. Davis is safe. I powerwalk along Church, cross streets before they turn green. I’ll go to Barnes and Noble and hang around before I walk home. Barnes and Noble will protect me. This probably says a lot about my corporate loyalties.
I see a friend standing outside, like some shining beacon of safety in the body of a 100 pound white girl.
“Holy shit, I just had a total stranger danger moment.”