I’ll tell you a story. Maybe it will sound like an exaggeration, but I’ll tell it anyways. As best as I can say it, as true as I remember it. There was a girl living in Hawai’i who tutored students a couple of mornings a week at the university academic center to buy textbooks and a lime green beach cruiser.
The tutoring center was in downtown Honolulu, on Bishop Street, near the Starbucks that she liked to stop at for an oatcake and drip coffee. She climbed the stairs to her job, all six flights of them, not because she loved the stairs, but because she hated the way her calves looked, her butt too, and she felt a little guilty about the oatcake.
On the morning it happened, she arrived earlier than usual. The building was empty. Not even the Tongan security guard who normally sat in the lobby was anywhere to be found. It should have been an omen, but she hadn’t lived enough life yet to understand that no one is invincible. Not even the invisible.
She climbed those concrete stairs in the hurried pace of a 19-year-old who’s always looking for ways to make herself smaller. She was going so quickly, she almost didn’t notice the shadow standing on one of the landings between floors, didn’t even get a sense anything was amiss until she was too close to do anything but keep walking.
Afraid of being impolite, she greeted that man in the shadows, and then continued on up the stairs. Her heart was racing, but she told herself it was fine. And then she heard the steps. Thuds on the concrete behind her, and she knew it, knew he was coming for her. The cold shivers in her back told her. But a voice in her head said, Don’t be so dramatic.
When the steps got closer, they overtook her and the guy from the shadows now stood on the step above hers. Looking down.
Then she saw it, that slim knife in his hand, and her body went all limp like it knew things were bad, really bad. Don’t be ridiculous, that voice told her body. Look, he’s got a banana, too. He’s just using it to eat that banana.
He was talking very quickly now, and she was trying to listen, but she couldn’t on account of the knife. He said something about a party he was throwing and that she should come. She needed to come now.
His words came rapid-fire and his movements were jittery.
Her arms were shaking, and the voice in her head told her she didn’t know what to do. But she did know, that’s the funny thing. She knew all along—the knowing, the intuition, stitched into her muscles and gut before she took her first breath, way before she even walked into that stairwell. If you want proof of miracles, this is one: she told that stranger with a steak knife in the middle of a concrete stairwell with no windows, “I’ve got to get to work. They’re waiting for me.” And, then she pushed past him, like she believed herself. Walked around the bastard, and kept walking until she was inside the glass doors of the tutoring center. Didn’t even look back.
When she got there she told her boss, the woman with the white frizzy hair, but the guy with the knife was gone by the time anyone went to look and no one thought much of it. He hadn’t really done anything to her. What’s the big deal?
So she felt a little embarrassed telling anyone. After all, he did have a banana. Maybe she was just confused, maybe a tad overdramatic.
Three years later she met someone very handsome and talented, someone out of her league. She was used to feeling ugly and a little crazy, so it was comfortable to be a few rungs down, to be so needed by someone so great. They got married, and she got really good at keeping secrets, until there was no more room left inside of her. Every square inch was spoken for, packed full with broken promises and boldface lies.
And then she left. Mounted up on those thick calves and walked out. No matter what words you use, you can’t erase the miraculous in that.
People went to look for the guy, but they couldn’t find him. The person she lived with and the person they found were very different. What’s the big deal?, some of them said.
But she knew.
She taught school for a while and she met lots of girls like her, girls trying so hard to be smaller, to not offend, or get in the way, trying not to be crazy, trying to ignore the warning their God-given bodies were busy sending.
So she told them as best as she could, listen; you can be trusted.
She is older now, and remarried to someone who looks her in the eye, who never once has told her how to feel or what she is thinking. Who has never made her feel afraid when the lights are off and the doors are locked. They are within a quarter-inch of each other in height, eye-to-eye, even in their socks.
Last month, she took a self-defense class, and everyone there was young and just starting out, and she felt a little silly. How many times is a 30-something mom going to be at a bar and need to ward off an attacker?
But she stayed and she listened and she started to get angry, thinking of all those girls cornered in stairwells and marriages. So she decided it was time to take a risk and write about the things she doesn’t like to talk about, and that maybe, just maybe, a girl who needed to know that she isn’t crazy would find these words and then find the way out.
CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life.