Yesterday afternoon I was working away on my laptop when I heard branches cracking and rustling in the bushes behind my house. I glanced out the window and saw through the chain-link fence a person crouching among the leaves. I flashed back to the time we’d found a bike stashed behind that same bush and assumed someone was once again hiding stolen goods. Frowning, I self-righteously slipped on my flip-flops and pushed through the screen door. “Hello?” I called, wanting to make sure this dude — I figured it must be a dude! — knew he was being watched.
“Help me,” a woman replied. Gingerly, she crept out of the bush and peered at me through the fence. “Please help me,” she repeated, in a voice barely above a whisper.
Her boyfriend was looking for her, she said, and she asked if she could hide somewhere. Bewildered, I ushered her through the gate and into the yard. Straight away she tucked herself into a camping chair we’d forgotten behind a small tree, leaning forward to keep a watchful eye on the alley. I offered to call the police and her eyes went wide. No, no, please don’t call them, she pleaded. I offered to call her sister but the number went straight to voicemail. She pulled a crumpled pack of Newports out of her bag. “Can I smoke?” she asked, and I nodded yes, of course. I got her a mug of water and she gulped it quickly, her shaking hands spilling some over the rim and leaving dark splotches on her shorts. I refilled the mug and she unsteadily drained it again.
I asked if I could give her a ride somewhere and she said yes, please, to her mother’s, and told me the cross streets. “Do you have a lot of stuff in your trunk?” she asked. Confused, I said no. She wanted to ride in the trunk so her boyfriend couldn’t see her. I suggested that she lay down across the backseat instead, and was relieved when she agreed. Before we drove off I offered to check the alley first. No one was there.
Along the way, from the backseat, she asked me to look for things. She spoke so softly that I couldn’t tell if she was giving me contradictory information or if I was just misunderstanding. Look for a man in a black t-shirt, she said. Look for a man driving a certain model of car. He wouldn’t be in the car, though, he would be walking. He was wearing a black t-shirt. I dutifully repeated the details and assured her no, no, I don’t see any of these things right now.
She asked if she could use my phone to send a text.
Call now babe
The text got no response so she dialed a number instead. “I’ll be there soon,” she told someone on the other end of the line. She handed my phone back. After a long silence she explained: “My best friend.” I was glad she had a person to call.
Across town, she directed me to a motel. She asked to be taken to the back door, not the front. I pulled up to the rear and she tried to hand me a $5 bill. “No, keep that,” I said. She thanked me again. “Please be careful,” I said. She crawled out of the car and was gone.
It was a long drive back home, squinting uncomfortably into the white afternoon light. I’d forgotten my sunglasses, of course.
The disorienting thing about “doing something” is not knowing if you’ve even remotely helped at all. The disorienting thing about “doing something” is having to confront the fact of your own reluctance about helping. There were times when I wondered: Is this some kind of con job? Is this a ploy to get inside my house? To get into my car? And: What if her boyfriend finds her? What if he finds us?
Am I getting myself into something Too Big?
In my mind I would gladly, selflessly save someone else from anything. But when I’m actually tested, I’m just another chump chasing self-preservation.
I can’t stop thinking about her. I hope she’s okay. I hate that I couldn’t really fix anything for real, for good. I hate that I didn’t know anything better to do. I hate that last night there was an unfamiliar car parked in front of my house and I triple-checked the locks and stayed up too late watching the street through darkened windows.
I hate that I’ve made this about me.
I’m lucky that my fears are products of my mind. I can push them away if I choose; control them through rationalization or meditation or even medication. I don’t have to deal with the physical reality of fear. I never have.
Fear is no way to live but some people have to live with it every day.
I hate that.