He was an expert. He played me — all charm and smile — when being played hadn’t occurred to me yet. He sidled up to my breakfast table in the Thai guest house where we were both staying; he asked questions. Before I had had two bites of my banana pancake, he knew where in Thailand I was living and working: the town and the school. Because I told him when he asked me.
He was grizzled and rugged, in need of a shave. Australian, he said. He told me his name was Joe, and he didn’t tell me his last name. He was twenty years older than I was; I was 22.
I excused myself from breakfast and, inside my rented bamboo hut-on-stilts, changed into shoes I could walk in. I packed my day pack and set out to explore before the sun rose too high.
I had been in Thailand four months. On this school holiday, all my buddies had other plans and I decided to travel alone, against the advice of my Thai colleagues who said women should never do that. I packed my bug repellent and felt smug about my ability in the Thai language. I would have no problem hailing taxis, ordering food, buying bus tickets.
It was 1992.
At the guest house, they had copied down my passport number. Guest houses mostly catered to westerners. Bangkok was crawling with them, but I was in a “jungle” town three hours south of there.
On my morning hike to the waterfall, I shifted my daypack from one shoulder to the other and moved at a good clip. In my orange Thai pants, rolled at the top and baggy, I might have been a Thai monk except for my t-shirt that proclaimed “Boulder, Colorado” and my long blonde hair.
I stopped to admire birds I couldn’t name. I looked up and saw monkeys in the treetops. I stopped to drink water as the heat climbed. I congratulated myself on being such an independent traveler, here on the other side of the world from my home and my family. I walked toward that falling water thinking, I’m not even lonely! I don’t have to ask anyone to look at the map with me! I got this!
I felt terror starting in the backs of my knees, in the hair on my arms. Who was this man Joe? What did he want?
The waterfall was indeed majestic. I chose a rock as a viewing platform and sat to eat a small lunch I had cobbled together. Shrimp chips and rambutan. The empty jungle felt divine. I listened for animals and crunched my shrimp chips. I reapplied my sunscreen and took some photos.
Finally, it felt like time to head back. It would soon be the hottest part of the day and a snooze in my little cabana would be relaxing before dinner and night market. I started down the dirt path, the way I had come.
That’s when I saw him.
Grizzled and tanned, rugged, older than I was. Taller and stronger than I was. He had walked, not behind me. And he was waiting on the path for me. And there was not another human for a mile, I was certain.
I was mighty startled. More than startled — I felt terror starting in the backs of my knees, in the hair on my arms. Who was this man Joe? What did he want?
I sized up my choices. Back away, but that just got me further into the jungle and further from civilization. Engage in a stand off, but he would win and I didn’t want to show my terror. Walk toward him — and then by him.
I walked with purpose, stomping the ground a little, ignoring my fear. I walked right toward him, and he waited for me on the path. I had already decided not to stop, but merely to nod. I kept my eyes down as I got closer.
He called me by name. Another thing I had told him.
I stopped as I drew abreast. “Yes?” I asked. I hoped he couldn’t see how fast my heart was beating. I was trying to think what you were supposed to do if you feared you might be murdered in a remote location. Nothing came to mind, and cell phones were still many years in my future.
“Nice day for a hike,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” I said and kept moving, stepping off the path a little so that I could pass him. He watched me go and kept calling after me,“Will you show me the waterfall?” and such. I didn’t wish to anger him, so I waved without looking and sometimes called affirmatives behind me. I knew it was dangerous to be a trouble to him, to reject him. My aim was to appear personable while getting the hell out of the abandoned jungle.
When I was out of sight, I broke into a run. I beat him back to the guest house and packed my things. I paid my bill in the fan-cooled office and asked them to call me a taxi. From there, I went straight to the long-distance bus station and bought a ticket to the northern town where I was spending the year as a volunteer.
It was an air-conditioned overnight bus. When it pulled out at 6 p.m. for our 12-hour journey north, I breathed again. I was delighted to hear the tinny Thai music that was piped in, and I nearly hugged the uniformed bus-stewardesses who brought around iced soda every few hours. Narrow escape, I thought. I imagined I might ride this blissful little bus all the way into Laos and beyond. But instead, I stepped off it in my town around dawn and hailed a taxi to my home inside the teacher compound.
Two days later, I ran to town on my borrowed moped and shopped for dish soap and rice. I popped into the post office for more stamps and got a coffee at Tiptop, the one western restaurant in this tiny provincial capital. The errand took about an hour; I was home in time to play tennis on campus.
When I walked onto the court, my Thai coworker, Dararat, pulled me aside. In Thai, she said, “Someone came to see you. He was looking for you. He asked for you by name.”
“What did he look like?” I asked. I thought it was probably my friend Hank, the Peace Corps volunteer who lived in town.
Dararat said, “He’s in his forties. Thin. Very tan. Mustache. He has an accent. He was riding a motorcycle.”
And then she asked me, “Are you okay?” because I had gone pale and faint.
I looked around and practically hid behind my colleague. “Where is he now?” I whispered.
She took me by the wrist and tried to get me to smile. “He left! We told him you don’t live here!”
I laughed to please her, but the terror — behind my knees, on my arms — had started again. We hit tennis balls until the sun went down; then I asked my colleague to walk me home. I was relieved to find my little house locked with a padlock as usual, all the lights off, no one home.
Later, I thought about his determination: riding that motorcycle twelve hours, asking along the way for my town and then my campus and then me. It’s hard to know what his plans were, what he imagined would happen once he arrived. It’s both hard and easy to imagine what he had in mine.
Later, I knew to call it stalking — something that, in this country, might be countered with a restraining order, advocates, court dates. At age 22 and far from home, I didn’t even know the word for what had caused me that terror.
In that hopeless moment, I imagined perhaps I would spend all my future decades on the run, pursued by the Joes of this world who were intent on causing harm. I imagined there was no place to rest. It would be another 16 years before I would remember my own extensive sexual abuse history at the hands of my biological father, torturous memories that had been completely walled away for 25 years. I remembered them in the context of a long and supportive therapy, when I had in place everything I needed to process them. It turned out they were the things I was running from and, once I faced them, I could indeed rest.
But even as someone more aware, on this side of recovery, I could be the victim of a stalker. I might be savvier now, more appropriately guarded, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get followed when I walk. One time, a predator came all the way inside my Parisian apartment building during my semester abroad and I just managed to slam and lock my apartment door in his face before he could get inside. I hate to think what he had in mind. That instance of “stalking” was not a result of any “helpful” information I gave out; he followed me off the subway. My French female roommate later told me that I had attracted him by looking too American.
Women, young women and older women will be targets of male aggression and desire. My two teenaged daughters already know this and know how to walk tough, avoid eye contact and keep a phone handy so they can dial 9-1-1 at a moment’s notice. Whether we are too free with our information or we run to safety, we will be in harm’s way and then we will be there again. Each woman has a litany she can recite of the times she has been harmed or almost harmed. Two, three or four women can put their litanies together and — here’s the hope in it — weave a quilt to share and stay warm under. Our stories protect us because, as we tell them, we say no. No, this shouldn’t have happened, not to me or to you or to my daughters or my mother or my friends. And in saying no, this thing that happened shouldn’t have, we take each other’s hands and step toward change.