When I come to Southern California, where I grew up, I know to bring sunglasses. It’s so sunny I must squint to see. I’m pretty sure there’s such a thing as a squint headache.
There are dark places here, too, in this land of extremes. I go there quickly enough, starting back in early childhood. Like Oz or Hogwarts, Southern California has its curious and dangerous places that call to kids and imprint for life.
In one instance while hunting butterflies in Oak Park, in Santa Barbara, I ducked into a bathroom to pee and a man pushed his way through the door my girlfriend was leaning against. At the sight of him, she fled, screaming. I was stuck.
In those days, the grownups called what he did “exposing himself.” That’s how the police wrote it up though it’s never just that. The nondescript words bleach out the ugliness, scrub away the potential for peril and let the police off the hook. Like the ubiquitous Peeping Toms in our neighborhood, those perverts were tolerated. The man with the zipper problem followed me and showed himself to me for several more years. In 2014 I went back to that bathroom to see what power it still held over me. Wisely, they’ve removed the door that turns a bathroom into a holding cell where anything can happen, undetected.
Oak Park is full of bushes, trees and brush. There are boulder dens and those dank and mildewy public toilets and secret places down in the creek. Men, over time, wore trails not much wider than game trails into the brush. They entered and they emerged. It was not a safe place for solitary young girls. I should have known to stay away but I was enamored of nature, the creek, the butterflies and, later, the tennis courts. I spent scores of day-dreamy hours in Oak Park and some of those hours were interrupted by acts of perversion, and in one instance, violence.
I am still drawn to areas where woods and water converge, even though some of these places will never be safe for me.
On this West Coast trip to visit my sister, I am staying at the Best Western at Sepulveda and Burbank in Sherman Oaks because it is near her house and, also, within walking distance of a sweet nature preserve packed with birds. Every morning I run and my husband walks along the main path that circumvents a marshy lake, but there are lots of spurs jutting off into the underbrush. Just like in Oak Park.
I run around the lake twice each morning and it is glorious. There are so many birds singing that it is downright noisy. At 7 a.m., the brush already simmers under that bright sun and expels a familiar pungency. It feels like Oak Park. And because of this, I can’t relax.
I am still a stalking victim. I say victim because I don’t fight back. This time, it’s cyberstalking and quiet endurance is the only sane tactic. Cyber stalkers have outsized personality disorders and are offended by your silence but they are enraged by the most innocent of utterances. I once (and only once) wrote, “OK,” and a world of vitriol flooded my inbox for days. Cyber-stalkers turn your Twitter account into a porn site. They make up fraudulent Facebook personas and post lies to your community of friends. They robo-call you scores of times a minute, day and night. With every email or phone block comes a counter-punch — a new cell number or FB persona. The laws are just now catching up to them. Cyber-stalkers see every digital move you make.
A personal safety expert recently told me: “You cannot rely on anyone to save you. You are on your own and must save yourself.” This coach, a woman my height — 5’11” — is skilled and experienced. She has been maced more times than she will say. She showed me how to hold mace and a flashlight and car keys all at the same time, and all with weapon potential.
This morning I had the best run yet of the four I’ve done since landing at LAX on Saturday afternoon. On my second day out I found a functioning box cutter in the middle of the trail and I stuck it in my pocket. Instant relief. While running I talked myself through how I would use it. Women, when attacked, are less likely than a man to use a weapon to save themselves. So I made myself promise I would use the box cutter if it ever came to that. You can’t fight to injure; you must vanquish. Eyes. Jugular. Face. Wrists.
I heard her voice: “Save yourself.”
The homeless have encampments here. They use the trail spurs. They emerge and they disappear. Vaporize, like ghosts. Their presence, even if they are hidden, is obvious. They don’t have access to showers or toilets or anything else. People leave them food in takeout containers, complete with utensils and napkins — set up on overturned boxes so the offerings resemble table settings.
I run past a bench where I see a small vial of perfume inside a zip-locked baggie and a few discarded tissues. Here’s the story I make up: A romantic liaison occurred on this bench, helped out by a splash or two of scent.
Ahead of me on the trail I see a man wearing a blue hoodie and shorts. He’s walking. He rounds a bend and I lose sight of him. When I round the same bend just seconds later, he is gone — vanished — down one of these spurs. Which one? I look around to see where he might have gone. Nothing. Whoosh. Minding his own business, just like me.
I worry all the same: Will he re-emerge behind me? Where is he?
And so it goes. The head dramas I make room for if I want to have a life.
I spot a man with a long lens for photographing a hawk he’s been watching for days. A lens that, when it hangs from his side, looks like my childhood stalker’s erection. I run by, initiating a greeting with an upbeat “Good morning!” and he smiles and replies in kind. It feels right to sow smiles as I go.
Ten minutes later, in the dense vegetation where the trail turns, I encounter two men on bicycles. I don’t like them. They are too friendly and want to talk and I accelerate my gate and push my elbows away from my torso like one of those aggressive male swans on the edge of the lake — wings similarly arched away from its body — protecting his mate and his nest. Angrily puffed up, I shout a deep “Hello” that really says, “I want nothing to do with you” and I feel blessed to have my phone in my right hand with the little button on the home screen that says, “emergency.”
I left the box cutter back at the motel so I take a lesson from a swan.
I catch up with my husband. He has bad knees and I can circle twice to his half-circumambulation.
“Did you see those two guys on bikes?” They had no choice but to ride this way.
Ah. What to make of this? Spurs that even I, the most hyper vigilant of all, didn't notice.
My run is great. Fast and fun over the dirt trails I like best. And Jim is pleased to have made these walks every day, as well, and to have heard and seen so many birds. We are bird deprived this time of year in New England.
We agree. This is the best day yet at the Sepulveda wildlife sanctuary. Together we sit on a bench under the oak trees and watch a snowy egret fish. There are so many gifts. More light than dark today.