by: Patrick McQueen
“What happened next transformed this random moment into a scene I would never forget.” A short story that not only points to the fact that our mind can place irrational fears in the forefront of our thoughts, but also one that highlights humans innate vulnerability whilst alone…
In the summer of 1998, just before my senior year of high school, I wandered into Vasona Lake County Park while reading the first volume of a relatively new young adult series about an orphaned magician.
For most of the summer each year, the lake was open for peddle boating, canoeing, and sailing small craft. The mouth of the creek offered kids room to splash and play in the cool water. For those less enthusiastic about watersports, playgrounds and vast lawns were ideal for picnicking and recreation. Though I had come to the park, I had little interest in any of these features. I just wanted to read.
After some time on the sprawling lawn, I leaned on the railing of a red bridge overlooking the lake before strolling down a path beside the creek. While I had a hard time getting comfortable on the grass, and the walking bridge was distractingly popular, the section of the park along the creek’s western bank was secluded, serving my interests exquisitely.
As I sat on a park bench to read in one of the breaks in creekside foliage, leaves rustled by the gentle breeze cloaked chirping birds and scavenging squirrels. The creek babbled, carrying fallen brown leaves and an occasional duck lakeward.
I had been there maybe five minutes when a masculine voice asked, “May I sit with you?” I turned over my right shoulder at the intruder. He was clean shaven, wearing pressed khakis and a pull-over yellow knit sweater. The tieless collar of his blue shirt folded over the neck of the sweater. His top button was unbuttoned, revealing a line of dark brown hair where he had decided neck hair stopped and chest hair began. His scalp was covered by parted waving hair, but evidently thinner on top compared to the sides.
“It’s a public park,” I said, returning my attention to my book. On the page, friends who only recently learned about their mystical powers were discussing a climactic threat closing in on them, evaluating how their combined specialties offered some glimpse of hope against seemingly insurmountable odds.
What happened next transformed this random moment into a scene I would never forget. It would stick with me, and reoccur to me during conversations about the lasting scars of sexual assault upon those who feel most vulnerable in our society. But, let me be perfectly clear right from the start. I was not sexually assaulted. I wasn’t even propositioned or spoken to with even a taste of sexual innuendo. I simply shared a bench with this stranger for a few minutes. My imagination created everything that would make this scene a permanent fixture in my psyche.
From the moment the guy sat beside me, I could no longer focus on any word in the book. I kept it open, and kept my eyes on the page, but I couldn’t read anything. Instead, I focused on how isolated we were in this corner of the park. I begged for foot traffic to suddenly increase on the path behind us. I craved safety in the population from which I had only moments before enjoyed finding reprieve.
I imagined him sliding his hand around behind my back, or slithering a paw over the top of my knee. Frozen, muscles constricting, I worried he could easily overpower me and no one would hear me scream.
The man said nothing, and made no move to touch me or close the personal space between us. From the outside, only his size and gender fueled my fear. His good-natured and well-groomed appearance became evidence for his creepiness. It was just like a serial rapist was attempting to look like a sweet guy in a pullover sweater. Would he pull a plastic bag over my head and zip-tie the opening closed around my neck? I wondered. If he did, I would have to remember to poke fingers into my mouth to tear apart the plastic. Clawing at the surface of the bag elsewhere never seemed to work out well in the movies. If he used a chloroform-soaked rag, could I defend against that at all? I couldn’t imagine how, and started to realize my safest choice would be to get up right away and simply leave. Once on my feet, I would take off running toward the more populated part of the park.
I did not run, though. I feared any sudden movement would stir him into action, and for at least the time being he wasn’t doing anything. He was just sitting there, watching the creek like a psychopath. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught him turning to me. The muscles in my neck ached. A knot formed beneath my left shoulder blade. I convinced myself that this was it. That this was the moment when he would attack. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t move at all. I was a powerless victim stuck waiting for the wily villain to pounce.
“Thank you,” he said, standing. “I might come back this way again some time.”
I nodded, but he didn’t see. He had already turned away from me. When he’d disappeared around a treeline, I leapt from the bench and sprinted in the opposite direction.
I had no intention of being there if or when he decided to return.
Patrick McQueen is a native of San Jose, California. He was president of the South Bay branch of the California Writers Club in 2015 and 2016, and is co-founder and co-organizer of the Feedback for Writers from Writers meetup group serving the San Jose area since 2014.