*Parental advisory: content not appropriate for young children.
It was a black night in late August. Windshield wipers swept mechanically back and forth, back and forth, sloshing sheets of rain across my line of sight as I accelerated onto the freeway. I made occasional glances in my rearview, checking for a familiar pair of headlights in a sea of darkness. Still there. I exhaled and quickly fixed my eyes on the glassy road ahead. "Exit roiiight. No worries," chirped my Australian GPS. I smiled. He was always so chipper. We had half a mile to go, but I flicked my turn signal on just to be on the safe side.
As we neared the traffic light, my sister drew her nose forward to examine the illuminated screen on our dash. "Looks like it's gonna be on our left," she announced. We got the green arrow. My tires whirred against the slick pavement.
"You have reached your destination. Windows up, grab those sunnies and don't let the seagulls steal your chips!" I chuckled and pulled into the parking lot. After driving a few more feet I paused, my eyes searching.
"Wait, where is it?!" I asked, squinting in all directions.
"I think it's the same building as the gas station...maybe they're connected?" Chloe offered. I jerked the wheel and hit the gas, flying around the bend. "You're driving like a crazy person, Taylor! Dad and Jack are still trying to follow us, y'know."
"I'm not driving like a crazy person," I retorted, defensively. "I'M. JUST. TRYING. TO. FIND. THE. STUPID. DENNY'S." I slammed my brakes. Dead end. It seemed I had trapped us in the diesel fueling station. "UGH," I huffed, throwing the stick into reverse, "Clearly this isn't it."
"Dad and Jack probably think you're crazy," Chloe muttered as I tore back through the lot.
"Like they don't already know that?" I laughed, peeling into a spot in front of the convenience store. It had begun lightning, so I swiftly slammed my door and rallied the troops in. A bell jingled faintly as we entered, tracking our wet footprints past aisles of beef jerky and sour gummy worms, past refrigerator walls lined with Monster energy drinks, through a hall with a man taking up a phone conversation in the bathroom corridor, and finally to the long-awaited host stand, shining like a beacon from heaven. We were seated quickly, directly across the room in a booth by the windows. My dad and younger brother slid into one side, Chloe into the other. I placed my purse on the table and began crawling in. "You know what," I hesitated, clutching my bag, "I gotta use the bathroom." The host began shuffling out menus, so I hurriedly slung my purse over my head and backtracked to the restroom. "Don't order without me!" I called over my shoulder, "I'll be right back!"
I took a sharp left into the inset corridor and noticed the man I had seen earlier out of the corner of my eye, still carrying on his phone conversation. On a mission, I swung the women's door open, letting it close behind me. What had he just said? My brain struggled to piece together the words I had just overheard. Under the florescent lights, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of regret. I shouldn't have come in here. But instead of turning to leave, my movements became robotic. My body was so used to the procedure of entering a public restroom that it moved mechanically out of habit. I heard the echo of my sandals click, click, click against the tile floor as I crossed to the first stall. I moved rapidly, but time—time was oozing in slow motion, like honey through an hourglass. I shut the door, my heart raging against my chest like a caged bull. Because the man's words had finally registered: I need to f*** somebody right now. Hurriedly pressing the lock, I stood there. Waiting. Holding my breath. Staring at the handle. Waiting.
Because I knew. The minute I stepped foot in there, I knew. I knew as I stood, paralyzed in the bathroom stall—listening for the bathroom door and the footsteps that followed. I knew.
They were self-assured footsteps. Footsteps I followed with my ears, then with my eyes as I watched them pass beneath my door and into the stall directly next to mine. Footsteps that did not belong to a woman, but to the man on his phone who I had noticed only moments ago. Hands quivering, I reached into my purse and pulled out my phone. Come here, I texted Chloe, Please now. I waited a few seconds, staring at the screen in desperation. Please text back, please text back, I thought, hoping I could will those three little ellipses into existence. None came. That's when I began hearing heavy breathing to my left, followed by soft moans, "Yesss, mmm, ohh yeahhh..." My skin crawled. This cannot seriously be happening. His voice continued, taking on an eery quality in the stillness of the empty bathroom. I could not make a phone call. I could not wait for Chloe to text back. I could not afford to wait another second.
If I was able to escape unharmed, then what? I didn't want him to know I was aware he had followed me into the women's restroom; that he was masturbating in the stall next to me. Knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Especially in situations where people are afraid of being caught. I didn't want him to view me as a threat—somebody who could call him out.
So I hatched a plan: I would make it sound like I was going about my normal restroom routine—unsuspecting—and hightail it out of there. Timing was on my side. While I didn't know his next move, he also didn't know mine—or that I was even planning one. My fists tightened, nails digging into my palms. Okay, Taylor. Focus. On the count of three, GO. I shuffled my feet. One, two...thr—
I didn't even let myself get to three. Flushing the toilet hastily, I turned, grabbed the door handle, flung it open and walked briskly towards the exit. I didn't slow down; didn't look back—just kept my eyes glued straight ahead. As I crossed the threshold to freedom, I wondered if it would seem suspicious to him that I didn't wash my hands. Nah, I reassured myself, I've seen enough gross people walk out of a bathroom without even glancing at a sink.
Sliding back into the safety of our booth, I forced a natural-looking grin. "Chloe," I instructed, voice stern through my smile, "Whatever you do, DO NOT go into the Women's restroom."
"Why? Is it gross?" she asked, "Does it stink in there?" In the window behind her, the entire room unfolded before my eyes. A figure strolled into view, loitering on his cell phone in front of the bathrooms again. Every now and then he would glance in my direction, watching me. I turned to face my dad across the table.
"Don't look or make any sudden movements," I warned intently, "But there is a man in a red shirt pacing the hall by the host stand. He followed me into the bathroom and—" I glanced at my 10-year old brother, "and he was being...very inappropriate," I finished, carefully selecting my words. Chloe's eyes widened like saucers.
"He followed you into the bathroom?!" I nodded.
"I tried to text you, Chloe, but—" she cut me off.
"My battery died," she bemoaned.
"Yeah, I figured," I muttered. "Dad, have Jack cover his ears," I added, and proceeded to recount what had happened.
"What should we do?" Chloe asked urgently, "Should we call the police?" We both looked to our dad. He was quiet for a moment, thinking.
"Let's alert a manager first. Find out what their protocol is," he offered. I nodded fervently, trying to maintain a calm composure while my insides buzzed uncontrollably. It felt like my veins had been injected with caffeine. Our dad waved down our server.
"To be honest," I confessed, staring down at the menu, "I'm not really hungry anymore. Kind of lost my appetite."
"Me too," Chloe agreed. So our dad ordered for Jack and said we could share if we changed our minds.
"Also, could we speak with the manager immediately?" he added as the server collected our menus.
"Absolutely. I'll mention it when I put your order in." He shuffled off. We waited. And waited. And waited. I kept tabs on the man through the reflection in the glass. He hadn't left.
"Of course, the one night we don't have attentive service," I grumbled, bitterly.
"Dad, we need to do something," Chloe demanded, "Clearly the manager isn't coming." I agreed.
"He's obviously using his phone as a decoy, pretending to have a conversation so he can stalk women into the bathroom," I pointed out, "And I'm just worried if we don't do something now, some unsuspecting woman is going to walk in there."
"We have to do something for the other women he's going to prey on," she insisted. My dad rose and headed to the front of the restaurant.
"They notified the police," he assured us when he returned, "And I got a look at the guy while I was over there. He had definitely been rubbing himself." Chloe and I squirmed.
"I still think I should call the police," I announced after a few moments, "They need all the facts. To hear the whole situation. From me." I looked to Chloe and she nodded her approval. I signaled my dad to cover Jack's ears again and dialed. A muffled voice answered. "I'm sorry, what did you say?" More static shuffle. "For some reason I can't hear you very well, so I'm just going to start talking." And I did. My voice quickened; heart rate rising as I spoke.
"How long has he been there?" the voice on the other end inquired.
"Um, well...we've been here for probably 40 minutes now. And he was already here when we arrived. So over 40 minutes," I calculated, still attempting a cheery disposition. The man hadn't left, and if the police were on their way, I didn't want to alert him.
"How old is he?"
"Probably in his twenties, I'd guess. He's in a red shirt and tan pants. Brown hair." I proceeded to give my name and phone number, and was notified that the police would be there soon. "Do I need to wait until they get here?" I asked.
"You can if you want. You don't have to."
"Would it be helpful if I stayed?" I questioned.
"Sure, it might be. But you're welcome to leave."
"Okay. Thanks. Bye." I hung up the phone and exhaled. "They're on their way. They said we don't have to stay if we don't want to," I reported. On one hand, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. But part of me wanted peace of mind. And if we left the way we came, we'd have to pass the restrooms. There was one other exit, but it would require us to walk around the building in the dark rain. We decided to stay.
I tried to make casual conversation; nibble on a few bites of chicken. But the damper on our mood could not be lifted. "Sorry if this ruined your birthday," I muttered to Chloe, and that gave us all a little chuckle. In my peripheral, I noticed the faint flash of blue lights. The police had arrived. A couple officers came in through the side door and rounded the corner to the restrooms. Our dad got up and followed them. We waited.
"What happened?" we asked with baited breath as he returned.
"I think they got him. He must've fled into the men's restroom, because the police went in there and didn't come out," he reported. As we left, I still couldn't shake that uneasy feeling. It stuck with me that night, lying in our hotel room, staring into the darkness. Reaching for my phone, I shoved earbuds in, trying to drown my thoughts with Bach cello suites.
I tell you this story because that uneasy feeling has stuck with me to this day. This is what women have to deal with, whether it be verbal harassment on the street, unwanted advances, touching or rape. Women should not have to live in perpetual paranoia. What bothers me is too often this behavior gets dismissed; brushed under the rug. THIS IS NOT OKAY. We need to continue sharing our stories, calling out this behavior for what it is: unacceptable and wrong.
This story is just one snapshot in a myriad of encounters I have personally had to deal with. I have been cornered at a concert by a man who would not stop commenting on how "attractive I was" and how his son is "really into redheads". NOT OKAY. After agreeing to take a photo with a fan, he squeezed Chloe and I on either side of him and whispered that he "just wanted to get a good feel". NOT OKAY. I have been called "sexy" by men three times my age, and get cat-called on many of my runs, wearing basketball shorts and a hoodie to purposefully make myself look as disheveled and undesirable as possible (so no, contrary to belief, you do not have to be wearing a skin-ripping tight dress to be harassed...you simply have to be a woman). NOT OKAY.
But mostly, I share this story to remind women to be vigilant. We often get made fun of for going to the bathroom in groups, but I say—make it a rule to never enter a public restroom alone! Also, be prepared. Know exactly what you would do if you were to be attacked. Predators feed on the element of surprise. If a situation escalates, try not to panic. Focus your energy on remembering your game plan.