Exposed by Patty Somlo • Empty Mirror

trail of the cedars / d.encktrail of the cedars / credit: de

The day after a man exposed himself to me on the secluded tree-lined trail, I reluctantly switched my walk to the more open, well-travelled path. I’d known, as every woman does, that walking alone where (a) it’s dark; (b) no one else is around; or (c) the pathway is hidden by trees and shrubs is an invitation to trouble. I knew this but I did it anyway.

Hiking the path in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which I could follow all the way from busy John F. Kennedy Drive to Ocean Beach, briefly fooled me into believing that I’d been lifted out of the city and dropped onto a remote and peaceful mountain trail. Having suffered from anxiety and a low-level depression, known as dysthymia, for much of my life, I had long sought respite in nature. Surrounded by tall trees or next to alpine lakes, my pessimistic thoughts would brighten, as I breathed deeply, soothed by the rhythm of walking.

***

Decades before, while living in Washington, D.C., I looked forward to summer weekends, when I joined friends on backpacking trips in nearby Shenandoah National Park. We packed way too much food, and even bottles of wine, up steep trails for hours, until reaching a blissful, streamside spot, where we would set up tents, build a fire, cook, and eat, drink, laugh and talk under a blanket of stars, relieved that the following day’s hike would be easier, our packs light, as we headed downhill to the cars.

One weekend, my friend, Dina, suggested that instead of our mixed-gender backpacking group, we should organize a women-only trip. She noted that we always split the camping tasks in gender-specific ways, with the men setting up the tents and making the fires, while we women cooked breakfast and dinner. We would get stronger and more self-confident, Dina thought, if we did all the camping jobs ourselves.

Though the women in our group eagerly agreed to go at first, one after the other dropped out as the weekend neared. Several days before we planned to leave, Dina and I were the only two left.

The rain started coming down not long after we crawled into the tent. What started as a light shower soon thickened into a drenching downpour. The winds picked up, keeping us awake, on and off, all night. Sometime around three a.m., water began pooling underneath our sleeping bags. By the time the sky grew light, the tent had collapsed on top of us.

Wood lying on the ground close to our campsite was too soaked to burn. So, we opted to find a café for breakfast, after we hiked through a light rain back to the car.

***

In my senior year of high school, my Air Force dad went to Vietnam. I was old enough to get my learner’s permit but didn’t have anyone to teach me to drive. Anxious behind the wheel, my mother refused to help me learn by taking me out driving.

By the time I found myself on that dark path in Golden Gate Park, I had resigned myself to being a nondriver. Though I’d made several attempts to learn over the years, an outsized fear of crashing the car kept me from driving. As a result, I was forced to rely on public transportation or rides from friends. This meant that I rarely got out of the city to those remote places I loved.

***

One of my closest friends, Michael, lived a few blocks away from me in San Francisco. A gay man, Michael, like me, was single. Also like me, Michael didn’t know how to drive. Another trait we shared was that we both wanted to meet a man we could love who would love us back, but thus far, we’d both had no luck with that.

Michael was my frequent companion whenever I needed a date. We dressed up and went to dance performances and concerts, poetry readings and parties. For a time, we even studied Tibetan Buddhism together, climbing steep Church Street, as it ran alongside Dolores Park, to a lovely Victorian house, for lectures, meditation and an occasional vegetarian meal.

Michael was careful and anxious out on the streets, especially at night. Sometimes, he steered us off a shadowy shrub-lined sidewalk to walk in the street, close to the curb, practically brushing against the parked cars. He lectured me on ways to stay safe out alone at night. Cross the street, he’d say, when you see a man coming toward you that you don’t trust. Walk next to the traffic, he’d add, if it’s late and dark.

***

Decades before I met Michael, I received my first warning about the dangers of being female. At the time, I was in the third grade. The setting was paradise – the Hawaiian island of Oahu. For nearly three years, my family had been living in a small duplex at Hickam Air Force Base, not far from Pearl Harbor.

My hula troupe had just finished a performance on the stage of an outdoor movie theater, close to the Officer’s Swimming Pool. I was wearing a grass skirt and a short red cotton top my mother had sewn for me that bared my midriff. I carried two of the instruments I played when I danced, seed-filled, rich mahogany-colored gourds, attached to large round tops covered with bright red and yellow feathers.

For some reason, the rest of the dancers had already left the stage and I was alone. I stepped off the back side of the raised platform, and that’s when it happened. All these years later, I can’t recall the exact words the man said. But I remember exactly how I felt.

I understood that he wanted to do something bad to me. My face grew warm and my heart started beating fast. The afternoon was sunny, and my mother and the other parents and kids weren’t far away. Yet I felt in danger. I picked up the pace, walking fast, and then I began to run, clutching a clump of the thin reeds from my grass skirt in my hand, along with one of the colorful gourds.

Nothing bad happened to me that day. And I didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone. But the message I took from the incident stayed with me. A girl is never safe alone. A girl – and later woman – always needs to be on guard. A woman must be careful about the clothes she wears, so as not to arouse the sort of attention she doesn’t want.

***

It was still light when I left my flat, stepped down the two flights of stairs, unlocked the building’s heavy front gate and walked outside, turning left toward Michael’s apartment. In moments, I reached Dolores Avenue. On a normal day, the wide thoroughfare, with its tall palm trees running down the center divide, would have been jammed with traffic, heading down to busy Market Street or up the steep hill to Dolores Park. On this day, Thanksgiving, the street was deserted, as if all the neighborhood’s residents had been evacuated overnight.

Before leaving my flat moments before, I’d had a dark premonition, warning me that something bad was about to happen. As soon as the anxious thought arose, I dismissed it, relegating the dread to the worry about nothing I often felt.

Since Michael was roasting the turkey and making mashed potatoes and stuffing, I had agreed to bring several bottles of wine, a pumpkin pie and a can of whipped cream. Prior to leaving home, I carefully packed the pie, wine bottles and whipped cream in a tan paper bag. Since the bag lacked handles, I was forced to wrap my arms around the bottom.

My small brown purse hung down, from a thin leather strap over my right shoulder. As I walked, the purse bounced against my hip.

A few minutes after I reached Dolores Avenue, turned left and began heading toward Market Street, I noticed two men up ahead, on the opposite side of the street. A stab of fear pierced my belly. A voice warned me to turn around, run back home, and call Michael, asking him to come walk me to his apartment. But as with the first premonition, I dismissed this second one.

Foolishly, I failed to keep my eyes on the men. Before I knew what happened, they had run up behind me and yanked the purse off its thin strap. By the time I realized what had happened and turned around, they were gone.

***

A few years after that Thanksgiving, I met the man who would become my husband. I now enjoyed being driven to places I needed to go, especially after dark. But when my husband, Richard, had a health emergency, I knew I needed to get past the phobia and learn to drive.

At first, when he drove us out of the city to a nearly empty country road, pulled onto the shoulder, stepped out of the car and invited me to take his place in the driver’s seat, my stomach ached and both palms got damp with perspiration. When I pressed my right foot down on the accelerator, I felt as if the car were moving all on its own and that I had no control over what it might do. Gradually, though, as the weeks of practice went by, I did learn how to control the car, to back up, and even parallel park, and became more confident that I wouldn’t veer into oncoming traffic and crash into a giant semi.

One lovely April afternoon after haggling for a good hour-plus, Richard reached his right hand across the desk, shook hands with the overweight car salesman, and said, “We’ve got a deal.” That deal was the purchase of my very first car, a compact metallic blue Toyota. I immediately dubbed the pudgy little Echo, “Ms. Ellie.” With my hands strangling the steering wheel, I proceeded to drive Ms. Ellie the forty-five minutes from the suburban car dealership to our Portland, Oregon home, on a busy highway, in Friday evening rush-hour traffic.

Right from the start, I got into the habit of quickly closing and locking Ms. Ellie’s door, as soon as I sat down in the car. I could now drive myself places that would have taken two or three different buses to reach, with stops in some less than desirable neighborhoods. I could also go out by myself with less fear at night.

For years, I had envied women who drove. I jealously watched them as they headed to their cars, clutching sets of keys, while I hurried away to the bus stop. Now, I was able to sit safely enclosed in my very own car.

***

I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that I was no longer an object of desire. It happened around the time that the driver of the bus I took to work began to lower the steps for me, as if I’d leapfrogged into old age overnight. Soon after that, young women started offering to give up their seats on the bus for me. I usually thanked them and declined.

An odd and interesting aspect of a woman’s aging is that she goes from worrying about attracting too much attention – and attention of the wrong kind – to being invisible. Once I got older, men not only didn’t notice me. Men with whom I had interacted, even several times, forgot they had ever met me.

***

I live in a small city in Northern California, surrounded by vineyards and dairy farms, that’s only a short drive from the coast. But like most cities, mine has a large and ever-expanding population of homeless people. During the day, many of them hang out in our small downtown.

Since a significant portion of the homeless that spend their days out on the street suffer from mental illness and can be unpredictable, I am often on my guard walking downtown. I’m especially careful close to the library, and in front of the Barnes and Noble store, where benches attract the homeless to sit, often surrounded by their stuff.

Walking from the library one recent afternoon, in the first block of Fourth Street on my way to buy a pound of dark French Roast Coffee at Peet’s, I spotted a guy up ahead. He appeared to be careening back and forth, across the width of the wide sidewalk, on the corner of 4th and D, just past Barnes and Noble’s front door. Seeing his erratic movements and that he was talking to himself or some invisible companion, I considered backtracking to the corner of E Street, crossing there, and heading down to D, with the two lanes of 4th Street between us. Having learned from a lifetime of city dwelling, that’s what I did.

I made the mistake of glancing across the street at him, just before I crossed D Street. My heart jumped to my throat. I wrenched my neck turning away. Even though I had managed to avert my gaze, I couldn’t get the image of him out of my mind, with his black pants pooled around his ankles, and a pale penis clutched in his right hand.

***

Over the years, I have been privileged to hike some glorious trails, in national parks including the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier and Zion, and in lesser-known state and local parks. But except for those long-ago treks along the secluded pathway in Golden Gate Park, I never hiked alone. Until the day I finally drove my Toyota Echo home, I didn’t have the means to reach hiking trails on my own.

The April morning I pulled into the parking lot close to the creek in our local state park couldn’t have been more perfect. The air felt cool but not cold. Recent rains had filled the creek, which ran alongside the path that started feet from where I’d parked. The hills above the creek, which turned golden in July, were a sparkling chartreuse green.

After lacing up my olive-green boots, I retrieved my hiking stick from the trunk. Then I stood next to the car, savoring the moment. I had never driven to the park before on my own. And now I was about to take my first-ever solo hike.

The initial part of the walk was open, with views of the creek, first on the left and later on the right side. After about twenty minutes of walking, I began climbing the dirt path as it led into the woods. Bright sunlight filtered down through the trees, as I stepped up the narrow, somewhat muddy path. Being alone, I knew I needed to be alert. One careless step could toss me down the steep hill and into the creek.

I worried, not just about slipping and falling, but also about whether I might meet a threatening stranger on the trail. But as I hiked, occasionally a single woman would pass, jogging or walking, and smile, as she headed in the opposite direction. At one point, a line of teenage boys ran by, each one shouting good morning to me as he passed. Finally, I began to relax.

By the time the path emerged from the trees, I had worked up a sweat from the climb. Somehow, the clear azure sky appeared even more beautiful to me than it had when I’d stepped out of the car. Now I started to pick my way amongst large, jagged rocks, as the trail climbed more steeply. Only a little bit further, I knew, and I would reach the lake, which was my destination.

The lake, when I caught my first glimpse, shimmered under the late-morning sun. I sat down on a bench facing the water and couldn’t help but smile. I had made it, all on my own. The trail had been safe, the scenery beautiful.

The way back to the car was all downhill. I made sure to keep my gaze focused on the trail in the slipperiest parts, using my walking stick for added balance.

One of the things I have always enjoyed at the end of a strenuous hike is the sense of having accomplished something hard. As I reached the car, though, I understood that what I’d accomplished on this day was much more. For years, being unable to drive, I had been dependent upon others. Today, I had managed to power myself, exactly where I wanted to go.

About Patty Somlo

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Her previous Business Relationships, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Reader Views Literary Awards. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. Her next book, From Here to There, is forthcoming from Adelaide Books in August 2019. Find her at http://www.pattysomlo.com.

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