by Juli Kearns

Concerning an incident from when I was 17, in 1975.

First, one needs to understand the nature of the road, an interstate, a long gray artery as a bridge that is a vast emptiness slicing through a particular year, a day, a thread that links past and future but in which the present is suspended by the hard alienation of the road as it only knows the state of transition. Left and right there is landscape, walls of trees, the occasional break of a grassy field beyond which is a silent house, no person ever glimpsed outside working, and because it is like this in this area the interstate is mostly road in front and behind. One is used to it, it is a perfectly ordinary thing. It is ordinary and the excited expectation of the "new" somewhere along the way, stepping out of one's daily routine and into the different, because that is how a simple matter of distance works on the human animal, even if the interstate and travel is only the matter of a traversing of the separation, by several hours and a couple of hundred miles, of one familiar neighborhood with another, that in-between is an unsettled dislocation. Which is ordinary. It is ordinary that the interstate is effectively divorced from any natural rhythm of life. On the interstate, one only drives and keeps at bay the hypnotic monotony of only driving. The interstate is an unnatural and hostile environment, however ordinary. If one stops on the interstate that means trouble and nothing else, if one sees another car stopped on the interstate that means trouble, perhaps even tragedy, and nothing else. One distances from the fact of the interstate as a place of apprehension, one appreciates the disconnection for the speed, and one puts on music to while away the time and keep alert. One must understand this is before cell phones and that this is also disconnection and a state of estrangement, suspension, help is not only a call away if something goes wrong, but one is used to this, and used to it on the interstate. It must be understood that this is entirely ordinary, one is used to this, and one is used to simply hoping that nothing will go wrong. Every trip is an adventure, no matter how minor and ordinary, despite one being used to simply hoping that nothing will go wrong. One listens to the radio, hoping that there will be agreeable music, but there very often is not. If one is with company one enjoys, one talks. When one is young, between the dots that are the past and future, in this state of suspension, one can even propose whole new worlds as one talks, and just by traveling from here to there it may be felt that one is even driving towards those new worlds. This is a long stretch of interstate with minimal services for the traveler, only a couple of interchanges with reasonably okay chain gas stations and only one or two choices for chain hamburgers, and a couple more interchanges that are nothing but a run-down gas station. I am seventeen. My boyfriend and I are used to driving back on forth on this stretch of interstate, traveling from a smaller city to a bigger city to see concerts and movies. We know what feels relatively safe and what doesn't, and we always avoid the exits with the run-down gas stations because this is the nineteen-seventies in the Deep South where even in urban situations will only be found a few blocks, here and there, of people who don't confront "counter-culture" with icy side-glances or outright hostility. Long hair and a certain style of clothing is all it takes to be counter-culture, which is viewed as dangerously anti-establishment in the conservative Deep South. My boyfriend has to worry about getting beaten up simply because he has long hair, that is all that it takes, and we worry too about all those in-between counties with law enforcement that would love to manufacture a reason to drop two counter-culture youths in jail for a few hours or days. So when we need gas we always stick to the two gas stations that feel safe, are chains and have a fair amount of activity. The cleaner it is, the more national the chain, the safer it at least feels, that's just how it is. The safety of the chain ameliorates the odd looks and stares one gets. But today is different for some reason because we pull off at one of the exits that only has the one run-down gas station we have always avoided. I don't remember why it's different but it is and I don't recollect feeling anxious as we pull up to the station. The gas station is what it is and it's a good feeling day. We're looking forward to seeing a couple of great films in Atlanta. Today is different too in that I leave my boyfriend with the station's attendants fueling the car and paying for the gas. Today is different in that I ask where the restroom is. This is different because I usually try to avoid gas station rest rooms, and if they have outside entrances I have my boyfriend keep watch nearby. I am already afraid of public restrooms so I must be desperate to use it. The women's restroom here is inside, beyond a counter and down a short hall. The station, as far as I can tell, is empty as I enter it. I don't know about the adjoining garage but there is no one at the counter. That is reassuring to me. I have the place to myself. I enter the restroom and am surprised to find that it is modern and clean. That's nice. I hadn't expected this. Beyond a single wash basin, there is one stall. I enter and bolt the stall door and sit down. Not long after, I hear the restroom door open and close. I hadn't seen a woman outside but a woman could have arrived at the station after or while I was entering the restroom. I cough to let them know the stall is occupied. They jiggle the stall door. "Someone's in here," I say. Then they shake the door hard. "Someone's in here," I again say. It's an odd thing to write but it is a normal thing to say. I know, thinking back on it, I can't see anyone's shoes so the stall's wall and door--with a gap above and a gap below--went low to the floor, otherwise I would have been able to see identifying shoes that would tell me if this is an insensible woman. I couldn't see shoes, so I leaned forward to look through the crack where the door was bolted. And I pull back when I see through the crack a man's eye pressed up to it staring back at me. Just this horrible, seeking, livid eye looking back at me. The man on the other side is shaking the stall door hard now, trying to break it open. I'm in a vulnerable position with my pants down. I have been in situations before and one's responses can be strange. I don't scream. I don't move. I feel like if I move that will be dangerous. Instead, I say, "Get out, now" in as firm and cool a voice as I can manage. I don't want the person to hear fear. I'm reasoning that this is an individual who has been bold enough to follow me into a restroom while there are people out by the gas pumps, who may have even seen me with my boyfriend. I'm reasoning this is a person who has the confidence I likely won't be heard, they have the covering security of loud music, and I have the feeling that if I scream or move they won't run but will throw all their weight into the stall door and break it down and incapacitate me before I can be heard. As they were so bold as to follow me in here, despite people being outside, and not flee when they first couldn't get the door open, I have the fear I'll be killed. I don't again tell them to get out as they've already heard me and I don't want them to hear me again. I feel like I shouldn't speak again. I am very quiet. They stop trying to get the door open and they turn on the water in the sink full blast. I still don't scream or move as it feels dangerous to do so. I am waiting him out. I don't hear him doing anything. I don't know what is happening. I don't move a muscle, just waiting him out. I feel like he's waiting me out. I'm wondering if he thinks I might now freak out and try to make a run for it. I can't guess. I wait him out for I don't know how long, wondering and wondering if I have made all the wrong decisions, and then the water is cut off and I hear him go out the door. I immediately pull myself together. But what if he's just outside waiting for me? I feel like he is gone for good though. And for some reason it doesn't occur to me to now, immediately, run out the door yelling. It just doesn't enter my mind. I leave the restroom. At a glance, no one is in the station that I can see. I go out and see my boyfriend in the car over in the parking area at the far end of the station's asphalt. I glance around at the few male faces milling around, dispensing service and being serviced, and none of them register. No one is looking at me. No one shows me any notice. There is an old man in a cream-colored car with two little girls in fancy Sunday dresses. Could it have been him? But he's old, a gray-haired grandfather in sansabelt slacks. Would an old man have the strength to have risked this? The strength to risk whatever he'd planned on doing? I have no idea who it was. Now is the time to open my mouth and yell for someone to call the police, but I have no idea who I or they would call the police on. I have no idea who had tried to break in the stall door. And I already don't trust most people and the police. I have already been in situations where people don't care, don't help. I know that most people look on any declaration of trouble as the trouble itself. I have already been in situations where I didn't trust the law that always has it in for counter-culture youth, for anyone of whom they aren't afraid. I am miles from home. We are in the boondocks, an interstate exit with a single independent run-down gas station, no town nearby. Something happened. And nothing ended up happening. I might not even be believed as nothing happened. I had seen three entrances to the counter area and for all I know another entrance could have been used. I don't know anything. Now, I am simply afraid and in running mode and want to get away from there quickly. I don't know if the person who tried to get in the stall is right there watching me. I cross the lot and climb in the car. I wait until we are a long way down the road before I tell my boyfriend, because there is nothing he can do and I can't talk for a while. I need distance and time before I can speak. I feel guilty, because I didn't call the police. I feel like a coward. I just want to be told I'm not a coward for running. Even though I didn't see who it was, I want not to feel guilty for not calling the police. Who will they do this to next? I didn't stop them. They will do this to someone else. Some other woman would have been able to do just the right thing, she would have been able to see who they were and stop them so they wouldn't do it again. Did I misjudge the situation? If I had screamed, would he have simply run and I could have run out after him and seen and identified him and had him caught? All I did was get away. I feel I have left the door open for someone else's terrible tragedy. One never talks about it because it is a time when nothing happened and one knows that it will seem no one cares. There is no pocket in society for all the times when nothing happens. There is scarcely a safe pocket in society for the times when something happens.