Good Decisions

Note: This post reveals my unconscious biases. I own that and realize how flawed they were in this case. But this post is also about an experience that many women share in navigating the world alone. I believe both things can be true.

I arrived at the trailhead early on a weekday morning. After winding through a maze of tortuous residential streets, I wedged my rented convertible precariously at the top of a dead-end street. Sitting in the car, I studied Google, trying to determine if I was in the right place to begin a hike billed as having one of the best views in Santa Barbara. After several moments, I got out of the car, grabbed my inadequate bottle of water, texted my friend in Texas and headed in the direction I supposed the trailhead to be. 

A few paces later, I heard a car door slam behind me. I had noticed the truck—it was massive, with oversized offroad tires and a license plate that read “Renegade”—but I hadn’t noticed anyone in it. Not wanting to conspicuously look back, I kept walking. Stepping off the road and onto the dusty trail, I turned around to look for a trail marker, stall for time, and get a look at the person behind me. I realized then that it was only the two of us on the trail that morning. Not knowing what else to do, I asked him if I was in the right spot to hike the trail.

“Yeah, it starts here. Want to hike it together?” he asked.

I immediately began to run a rapid mental calculation about whether this was a good idea. I was alone on vacation. He was tall and young, and thus bigger and stronger than me, with tattoos in gothic script running up and down his arms and neck. Dressed in jeans, a plain t-shirt, and sneakers, nothing about him suggested hiking enthusiast. As my brain raced through these calculations, it occurred to me that he might have been waiting for me to get out of the car before following me to the trailhead—the timing certainly seemed suspect. And yet … something about him seemed trustworthy. I think it was the bottle of orange Gatorade that finally convinced me—it seemed like a reasonable thing to take on a hike.

“Sure,” I said, my heart pounding in my throat.

I let him lead the way and continued to scan the trail frantically for other hikers, but it was just the two of us. I began to make conversation, talking about my family, searching for connection.

“Oh, you were humanizing yourself,” a friend later told me as I recounted the story. I was amazed at how quickly she was able to label this strategy we both had apparently internalized for making ourselves less murderable.

As we continued to hike, Renegade and I talked about our dogs and our siblings and our mothers’ cooking. He told me that Santa Barbara was still affordable for working-class families like the ones he and I had grown up in. As we slowly made our way through the rocky winding path, I began to feel more at ease. Kind and considerate, he offered me a hand up on tough passes. At the top of the trail, we took selfies and paused to enjoy the view. I felt an occasional gentle hand on my back as we made our way back down. At the end of the hike, I felt equal parts glad that Renegade didn’t murder me and guilty that I had judged him based on his truck and tattoos. 

But this isn’t a story about Renegade … or even about me. It’s about the dozens of micro-choices that women make every day to avoid being raped or mugged or murdered simply because of our lesser size and the fact that we have something that can be taken by force. These choices might take the shape of walking on the other side of the street from a construction site, getting off the bus three stops early to bypass that station, cutting a run short to beat the darkness, or huddling for safety with other women on a lonely train car. 

Hiking with Renegade turned out to be a good decision. But just as easily, it could have meant ditching the hike and missing out on something I really wanted to experience just because I happened to be traveling alone as a woman … or it could have meant an abandoned rental car and my body at the bottom of the ravine. 

These decisions might seem like minor inconveniences, but they abridge our freedoms and take up space in our brains and are part of the fabric of living life as a woman on this planet.

Handlebars and Scars

Act One

Too fast! Too fast! Afraid to lift my gaze, I watch orange parking stripes fly by beneath the bicycle’s spinning tires. The Methodist church parking lot is a vast ocean of black asphalt that threatens to devour me. “Don’t let go, Daddy.” The ground’s surface that once seemed so benign now tilts at a grotesque angle. The training wheels no comfort. The brakes no remedy for the terrifying speed. My father’s hand, holding onto the seat beneath me, the only thing to keep me from flying off into that awful open space. Willful, stubborn child. She will not learn to ride the bike. And yet I did not fall.

Act Two

Time to try again. A lovely, sunny day. A quiet path beside the still lake. “That’s it. You can do it.” Again, my father’s hand beneath the seat, running fast, steadying the bicycle as I tentatively pedal forward, training wheels leaving the ground as I gain speed. Over the bridge, loud sound of bicycle tires on wooden slats. I see the water below. Sickening tilt before the training wheels reach the ground. Too far! Too fast! Awful feeling of imbalance, my body floating in space above the firm, hard ground. Stubborn, willful child. Sell the bicycle. It is no use. She will not learn. And yet I did not fall. 

Act Three

Evening falling fast. Cool, crisp fall air. Time to ride the bicycle – fast! Speeding down the steep driveway and into the street. Push hard. Pedal fast. Punish the body, willful, stubborn thing. A girl trapped in a woman’s body, rounded hips, soft, curving thighs. Pedal harder. Burn, burn, burn the flesh away. Bend the will. Sudden flight, flying fast over the handlebars. Sudden meeting with the firm, hard ground. Blackness. How long lying on the street in the fog of evening? Who knows? Walking now on unsteady feet, leaning on the handlebars, eyes on the pavement. Feeling with my tongue where teeth used to be. Put away the bike. Walk into the house. “Hey, hey, what happened there?” Kent, the family friend, staying calm, cheerful, trained as a paramedic not to show panic. “Everything’s going to be OK. Just be calm. Stay with me.” Walk past him, into my bedroom — no, wait, the bathroom. Look into the mirror. Funhouse mirror, reality suddenly tilts at a grotesque angle. My mom beside me, upset, panicked: “What happened!” The bicycle forgotten, the brain reboots. “I don’t know. I was just lying in bed, and when I got up …” 

Dad’s calm hands on the steering wheel, controlling the speed as we rush to the hospital. The world outside the windows now dark. The world inside my head gray as twilight, synapses switching on and off like a light bulb on the fritz. Emergency room, CAT scan, six shots of Novocain in the tender skin around the mouth, and then the doctor’s slow, careful needle, slight tug as he closes the ragged flesh. Weeks later, scabs gone, porcelain in place of teeth, I am ready to ride the bike again, but it is gone.

Trust will not tolerate training wheels, and yet the scars remain.

Nothing Left to Say

Four a.m. and the phone call comes. Already I know as I rush to the phone exactly what waits on the line: My sister’s voice, struggling to get the words out. “Dad’s dying.” The words still a shock, words that speak reality into being. Don’t mention it. Don’t say it. Don’t make it real. A code my parents lived by for so long. Maybe it will go away, without doctors, without help, by faith alone.

Faith. That word, too, hangs empty in the air.

Four a.m. and there’s nothing left to say. I wish I could be there. I wish I could’ve talked to him. I wish I had spoken up. It doesn’t matter now. Words don’t matter now. Perhaps they never did.

Four twenty-six and there’s nothing left to do. The ER doctors have done all they could. “I think they’re going to pronounce him soon,” my sister says. They’ll say the words. The end will come. Like magic, speaking death into existence. Don’t say it, and maybe it won’t be true.

Four thirty-eight and there’s nothing left to feel. Shock, disbelief, anger, sadness have all washed over me in waves. They will return to scrub my mind again until it’s clean and whole, ready to face the pain that comes with living, and the cruel fact that everything must die. Even you. Even I. Those we hold closest to our hearts. Those we wish we’d held closer. 

Five thirteen and there’s nothing left to write, except, “I love you, Dad.”