The weather has turned dark here in our lovely northwest and so have my thoughts. I admit, it is an easy feat — getting me worried about something. But some times the bits and pieces come together in such a way that leave me quite worried about the potential boogeymen out there. Two things collided in my world recently that had that very effect. First, a parent told me she had heard a member of the sexual offenders registry lives near the bus stop and then I beta-read a Twitter friend’s novel. (By the way, someday, you will have to read it. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.)
I have people in my life who scoff at my worries about predators having access to my kids. No, I’m not paranoid. I’m realistic. I know the boogeyman exists and I’ve met him.
Years ago, I was chatting with some fellow teachers and suddenly a memory came to me. It was a crystalline moment–as if I was playing Tetris and all the pieces fell into place and it was all so obvious. Years after the fact I realized how close I came to having a very different childhood.
I was a sophomore at the time. We lived in the boonies in Oregon. My school district, Ash Valley, was too small to afford a high school and had too many students in its two-room school house to appropriately educate them from K-12. It was financially more sound for the district to pay families to transport kids to the neighboring school district’s bus zone. I’d moved there over the summer and still felt a bit like a fish missing its body of water, but I was adjusting.
It was a fall day and I was waiting for my mom to show up. The bus had dropped me off with all the other kids at the gravel pits that sit on the frontage road sandwiched between highway 38 and the Umpqua river. The sun was shining, it was a nice day, my new friends and school mates shouted their good byes and I waited in the sunlight for my mom.
Lots of cars travel that stretch of road so I paid no attention to them. However, when a big white, boat of a car came towards me on the frontage road, it occurred to me that the car had just passed by on the highway and then had turned down the frontage road towards me. Because a few people live along the frontage road, this was an unusual thing but not so unusual that it worried me.
The car rolled to a stop in front of me. He was young, in his late twenties or early thirties. Dark hair, curling a bit over his collar. I don’t remember much about him aside from he was on the average side of handsome and caucasian. Mostly I remember the car. I’m no car person so I don’t know makes and models but this was the late 80s and this car was one of those 1970s boats. Big engine, big trunk. Big everything. I was about four feet from it, so I couldn’t see inside, but I remember how his bare arm looked leaning over the car door. Casual. Relaxed. Like a normal guy out for a normal drive.
He told me he was a photographer and that he wanted to take my pictures. That I had the look and he knew I could make it in the fashion world. He loved how the light picked up the red in my hair, how clear my skin was, how beautiful I was. He had this easy smile and a quiet voice, and he was very still. Like how you are when you try to convince a stray kitty to let you pet it.
I was a typical girl and was thrilled to hear from a guy, a grown-up guy at that, that I was pretty. My dad certainly never said anything remotely like that. In fact, this was the very first time a male of any age had said those words to me. It got my attention. His words weren’t over the top, they were perfect. I knew I had good skin. I knew the sun brought out the red highlights in my hair. What I didn’t know is that a man, driving down the highway would notice that and feel compelled to tell me. I didn’t know a man could look at me and want to tell me I was beautiful. There is something very dangerous about someone telling you something you want to hear.
But the one thing about having a dad who never gave compliments on appearances or grades or chores or anything is that a girl is a natural disbeliever. So instead of getting into his car like he wanted me to, I blushed. And I got flustered. And finally I told him that he’d have to ask my mom.
Of course, he left. I don’t remember his excuse but it was plausible enough that when my mom drove up a few moments later, I never mentioned it to her. Mostly it didn’t seem to matter. It was one of those “shrug” moments that make a blip on the radar and then go away. But there was that little tiny voice that pondered if perhaps he’d decided that I wasn’t beautiful enough. Not worthy enough and so just drove away.
I was sixteen years old.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had agreed to let him take my photo. I suppose there’s a chance I could have had a life filled with modeling and fashion. But in my heart of hearts, I have a pretty good idea of what would have happened.
I would never have fallen in love, climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower, watched the sun set in Jamaica, or witnessed the way a baby’s first breath turns the skin to a beautiful pink. I would have never done any of those things, including living to see my 17th birthday. Because that day, that beautiful fall day filled with a bright blue sky and bright orange leaves was the day I met the boogeyman. Or at least one variety of him.
It’s September 26th which means it’s probably near the anniversary of that day. And while I haven’t worried about the boogeyman for each of those 26 years, I do wonder about him. Because I know he exists. I just hope he isn’t close enough to touch my children. In any way.