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“I Think I’m Being Followed”

April 3, 2012

I’m going to tell you a story.  And I want you to understand that while some aspects of this story may seem silly, or strange, or inconsequential, the core of the story is very real, and very scary.  Regardless of how you feel about what I have to say at the end, I hope that you at least read through this and try to understand that in this experience, I am not alone.

When I was 17 years old, a man followed me.  It wasn’t the first time, and it was far from the last.  But this is the one story that I can point to and say “This.  This right here is why I am always aware of my surroundings.”  This is the one single time that I knew, without a doubt, that I was in danger.  That if I had been less aware of my surroundings, been less careful, been going anywhere else, I probably would have been on the evening news.  I have been in situations where I felt I was in danger, which people have dismissed as paranoid, but this is the one single time where the actions of the man in the story are clearly, demonstrably suspicious, even if they don’t seem to be at first.

In order to understand the setting of this story, you have to understand the stretch of road as it was in 1997.  Now it is teeming with shops and car lots and clearly visible neighborhoods.  Back then, the city seemed to cut away abruptly just north of the point where I first noticed this guy.  It was probably not as sparse as all that, but in my memory it is one long ribbon of highway slicing through the trees, with no good place to turn around.  You also need to understand that while the distance we traveled was only about 8 miles, the traffic conditions and speed limit on that road at the time meant that the first part of this experience lasted between 20 and 30 minutes.  It seemed longer because I had missed my street at some point and wasn’t quite sure where I was going.  And finally, while I say that the guy “followed” me, he was in fact in front of me the whole time.  It was part of the reason I was so afraid to turn around.

I first noticed him at Stella Link.  My car windows were rolled down as they usually were on a warm day, since my car had no AC.  It was the first time I had ever driven in that part of town and I couldn’t resist a cry of “Stellaaaaa!”  I saw a guy in the older model truck in front of me look into his rear view mirror and I realized that he had heard me.  Whether or not he had noticed me before this point, I can’t really say.  I know he had been in front of me for a bit, but prior to this point he was just some guy in a truck.  After that, he was some guy in a truck who had heard me being a great big dork.  Pretty soon, he would become some guy in a truck acting pretty damn scary.

The really suspicious behavior started when the road diverged.  I was pretty sure I had missed my turn and was going the wrong way, but I wasn’t positive.  The split in the road caught me off guard and I was worried about getting lost in the wilds of south west Houston.  This was long before Google Maps and the best thing I had for directions was an old street guide that my father insisted I keep in the car.  A book which was generally pretty useless if you weren’t sure where you were in the first place and rather difficult to use unless you had a free hand and a spare set of eyeballs.  So when I suddenly found myself on the feeder road to another street, I rapidly switched lanes back onto the first road.  And he changed lanes, too.

Keep in mind that I was taken off guard by this interchange.  I was young, had only had my license for about a year, and not yet used to watching for these sorts of intersections.  I was already pretty far along the entrance ramp when I switched lanes and my father’s excellent teaching about keeping track of other cars helped me make this lane change pretty smoothly.  He was considerably further along the entrance ramp, and crossed about 10 feet of space from the entrance ramp lane back to the original street.  He might as well have crossed a whole other lane of traffic to get back into my lane.  Even this in and of itself wouldn’t have been suspicious.  After all, a guy changing to the lane I’m in isn’t really all that weird.

Except that he kept doing it.

Every single time I would change lanes, he would change lanes in front of me.  After a while, I got suspicious.  Not long after that, I got scared.  Again, it was a long stretch of highway with very few places to turn around.  I was well outside of the city by this point and while I had grown up in the area I was driving towards, I was 11 when we moved away.  I had managed to stay on the same road the whole time so I couldn’t really be said to be “lost.”  Just outside of the area I knew.  If I could find a place to turn around, a place where I could pull out my street map and figure out how to get back to where I was going, I would be fine.  But I was worried.  If I just turned around, I might get even more lost.  What’s worse, the guy would now be behind me and much harder to keep an eye on.

Even at this point, I wasn’t absolutely sure that he was following me.  I did know that I needed a place to stop and that I didn’t want to give him the chance to pull in ahead of me.  Signs of urban life started appearing again, and median in the middle widened to the point where there were shops and restaurants.  And gas stations.  I pulled into the left lane, looking for a good place to pull into.  A gas station came up on my left.  I quickly pulled in without signaling and parked right out front.  I remember grabbing for my street map and getting out of my car, looking to see if he had driven on. Only to see that he pulled into the gas station on the other side.

I ran for the convenience store.

Inside, the girl behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than me.  At least, that’s the way I remember her.  I remember she had medium brown skin, black hair, and dark eyes, but I can’t remember exactly what she looked like.  I think I startled her when I rushed up and declared “I think I’m being followed.”  I don’t remember exactly what I said after that.  But I do remember telling her about the guy in the truck, and looking out of the front window to indicate the gas station across the street.  To see him driving slowly through the parking lot just outside, looking in at us.  The two of us looked out at him, watched him turn out into the street, and then looked back at each other.  In that moment, I think both of us shared the horrible understanding of just what it means to be 17 years old, female, and have a strange man following you.

I wish I could say I did something clever, like wrote down his license plate number, gave her a description of the guy and his truck, called the cops.  Something.  Anything.  At 17 years old, my cleverness did not extend to this sort of situation.  All I could say was “If you see my face on the news, please tell someone.”  I wonder sometimes what happened to that girl.  I wonder if I was just a weird story she told her friends later.  I wonder if she took me seriously, or if she later dismissed the whole thing as my paranoia.  I wonder if she watched the news, searching for my face.

I left, wanting to get back to my car before he decided to make another lap.  Looking across the street, I saw that he had pulled into the other gas station again, and was just sitting there, watching.  I looked around, assessing my options.  The gas station had entrances to both the north bound lanes and the south bound lanes.  I needed to go back north and I needed to lose this guy.  I was driving a 15 year old red sports car, which made me hard to miss.  But he was probably expecting me to continue south, so I had that in my favor.  And there was a soda truck parked over by the entrance to the north bound lanes, which would block his view of me leaving.

I was probably not as clever as I thought I was being.  But I did manage to catch a break in the traffic and slipped out into the north bound lanes within seconds of pulling out of my parking space.  For the next 20 minutes, I scanned my rear view mirror, praying I had lost him.  Eventually, I figured out where I’d missed my turn, and was able to get where I was going.  Through the twists and turns of city traffic, I was able to reassure myself that there was no way he could have followed me.  Still, I remember watching in my mirror for his truck once I was on my way home, terrified that he might still be there.

Even now, 15 years later, there is still a part of me that whispers that I misinterpreted the whole situation.  That I couldn’t be absolutely sure he was following me, that I can’t say absolutely for sure that he intended to do me harm.  I can’t say for certain what he would have done if I’d still been in my car when he pulled through the gas station parking lot.  Maybe he would have been some nice man who would have given me directions.  Maybe he was an off duty cop, and I had done something to make him suspicious of me.  I can’t say for sure what I would have done if he had actually approached me.  Would I have tried to blow him off?  Act nice?  Not make a scene?  Or would I have taken a more aggressive stance and demanded to know why he was following me?  Because no matter what the little voice inside whispers, no matter that he wasn’t actually behind me at any point, that is what he was doing.  Following me.  Tracking me.  Stalking me.

It never fails when I tell this story that someone will tell me that I was just being paranoid.  Or worse, that some guy will tell me of the time he followed a pretty girl on a lark because he thought it was funny.  I simply do not have the words to express how completely ignorant I find that sort of behavior.  Women are told over and over again what happens when a strange man follows them somewhere.  All too often, they are told that allowing a strange man to follow them somewhere makes whatever happens afterward her fault.  Her fault for not noticing.  Her fault for not avoiding.  Her fault for not getting away.  Having a guy tell me that he has followed a strange woman somewhere like it’s no big deal tells me that he cannot begin to comprehend just how scary it is to be followed by someone bigger than you, someone stronger than you, someone whose intentions are unclear but have a very low probability of being positive.

Over the years, this experience has led to me being more aware of people who might be following me.  I notice cars who seem to be following a bit too closely and take a different, more complicated route home.  On one occasion, I made two laps through a neighborhood before the car finally turned off.  While walking, I notice cars that seem to be following me.  Cars that are going much too slow down the road, cars that suddenly speed up when I try to get a good look at the driver.  I notice guys hanging out in front of grocery stores who are still there when I come out, guys who follow me out into the parking lot, and suddenly turn back when I make a point of trying to see their face.  I notice because I am afraid of what will happen if some day I don’t.  And I react, because I know that noticing is not enough.

I’ve told you this story so that I might, in some small part, help someone out there to better understand that no matter what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman during that final few minutes, I will never, ever be able to see George Zimmerman as anything other than an aggressor.  I may not know what it’s like to be automatically viewed as suspicious, but I do know what it’s like to be followed by a stranger.  I know what it’s like to look behind you and see a potential threat.  I know what it’s like to take another path, drive another way, try to lose someone who may or may not mean you harm.  There are people who talk about not having all of the facts, who talk about not knowing what happened between the time Zimmerman hung up with the 911 dispatcher and the time the gun went off.  These people are willfully ignoring the one fact that has never been in dispute.  That before Zimmerman got out of his car, he had nothing to fear except that the kid in the hoodie might get away.  It was Martin who had everything to fear.  Including for his life.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2012 9:23 am

    Well described and well argued. I’ve only partially followed the news story regarding Martin and Zimmerman but I can agree with your assessment.

  2. Lee permalink
    April 12, 2012 8:19 pm

    You were absolutely not being paranoid in that situation. The guy in the truck was acting creepy as all hell, and I’d have been terrified too. These days, I’d get out my cellphone and call 911.

  3. syfr permalink
    April 14, 2012 11:35 pm

    Nope, not paranoid. Reasonable, scared.

  4. LucianaJellyfish permalink
    May 2, 2012 1:56 am

    I don’t think you’re paranoid. In fact, reading your story makes me feel better about mine. Whenever I tell people about the guy I thought was going to follow me home they always seem skeptical and think I got too freaked out, but whether I was right or not about this guy’s intentions he terrified me and I now carry a cane with me for defense when I’m going to be out in a strange place alone.

  5. Mia permalink
    April 9, 2013 4:52 pm

    This makes me feel so much better to know I’m not alone in feeling anxiety over what some people may call qucedence. I’m 17 and I go on runs in my neigborhood and I feel that I’m being followed. I now just stick to the treadmill. Thank you so much!

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