Your friend mentions her stalker in an essay.
You read the essay and you think, I had a stalker once.
It seems impossible that you have forgotten. But you needed to, you suppose, to stay safe. To keep getting out of bed. To be able to drive past your former office, which is right next to your current grocery store.
Your friend’s repeated noun—stalker—brings that man you have forgotten to the door of your then-office. Puts you back in your black office rolling chair, in front of a computer that freezes. You are in your late twenties, unmarried and unsure of yourself. You are never going to be beautiful; you probably can pass for pretty if you smile. You don’t know if you’re any good at reporting, but you work hard.
Your stalker knows you stay late on deadline. He appears outside the office, after hours, and pounds on the glass front door with his fists. You’re curled deep in your newsroom nest. The front door is locked. The receptionist has gone home. Your stalker cannot get to you if you remain at your desk. Unless he breaks the glass. If he does, you will hide over in advertising and whisper-call the police.
Your stalker has asked you out a few times, over the phone, and you’ve said no. You’ve cited professional distance. You’ve mentioned your boyfriend. You know it’s your stalker out there because he called an hour ago and said he was getting on the bus to find you at your office. I’m coming to get you, he said, or something like that, words you’d hear in a movie. You didn’t really believe him. Your office is an hour’s bus ride away from the community you cover.
Until now, you have thought of your stalker as persistent and misguided, even sort of sweet. Even if he is twenty years older. Even if you did have to ask the receptionist to always send him to voicemail because of the frequency and the romantic tenor of his calls.
He pounds some more. He dials your extension four times and leaves threats on your voicemail to let him in or else.
But he is past tense now. You swivel your black office chair three times counterclockwise and return to the present. You have forgotten your stalker’s last name, but you remember the way he used to serenade you over the phone. He called you Lah-rah, the syllables smooth and insistent as they flew up his throat and into your ear. Insistent like a cheer. Or a heartbeat: Lah-rah, Lah-rah.
So many women fall into comparing their traumas, as if framing individual experiences as more or less will make one of you feel better. It’s a habit to make your pain smaller. That’s how you deal with life. But still, you are fairly sure your friend’s stalker, the one she wrote about in her essay, is worse. Yours doesn’t seem like he should count as much as hers. Yours was just another contract employee. You wrote the invoices that got him paid. Until a woman warned you that he was walking around downtown with a knife tucked in his belt, looking for you. She told you to be careful. You promised you would. Your stalker had already asked you out a few times when the woman told you about the knife. Then he kept calling. Then he came to your office and pounded.
He’s harmless. That’s what the police said when you reported his agitated behavior. That’s what your employer said when you asked him to listen to your stalker’s messages on your voicemail. How his attention made you feel scared didn’t count as harm to the men you told. But they didn’t know for sure if you were safe. They liked your reporting. They didn’t want you to quit over this.
There’s no etiquette for telling your friend that her stalker reminds you of yours. Just bringing it up sounds like you want to compare, which you don’t. Neither of you is lucky. You are afraid for her.
Your stalker is more / less scary than your friend’s stalker.
Your stalker is never / sometimes / always violent.
Your stalker made you change your daily routines entirely / mostly / just enough to feel safe.
Your stalker is located in the city of ______________, which is ______________ miles away from your current whereabouts.
You imagine calling your friend and asking her to take this quiz over the phone. You want it to be funny, but it’s not. You don’t know where your stalker is. You left that job. You landed a new and exciting position in another city. But after reading your friend’s essay, you admit to yourself that you left to get away from your stalker. You didn’t want to live with so much fear. You worried his knife into the size of a cutlass, hung from his belt and half-hidden by a trench coat. Every time you drove into the city for an interview, you expected him to pop out from behind a building.
Your stalker might not have slit your throat or stabbed you between your ribs, but he really did have a knife. And a trench coat. You just don’t know what size knife. Or what he planned to do with it. If you had stayed at that job, and he caught you, maybe all he would have done was sing.
It’s been eighteen years. You are not afraid of him in the same way anymore, but your muscles twitch at the thought of how it feels to be prey. You want to run. You want to hide. You want someone to believe you. He might be dead now. Or maybe he took his knife and moved someplace serene, alongside a river, where he can slice fruit all day and lick the juice from his fingers. You want to gift him a basket of oranges to keep him busy wherever he is, so he doesn’t think to look you up.
Your friend’s bravery has led you back to this: you are a survivor of many things, you are still here.
LAURA STANFILL is the publisher of Forest Avenue Press, an indie bookstore advocate, and a literary community builder. She graduated from the Yale Publishing Course in 2018, after winning the inaugural Independent Book Publishers Association scholarship. Publishers Weekly named her a 2017 Star Watch honoree. Her creative work is represented by Laurie Fox of the Linda Chester Literary Agency.
Featured image: Photograph by Sydney Sims on Unsplash.