k and i drove to michigan over the weekend to pick up her dog and bring him to our new place in baltimore. on our way into Michigan, we pulled into one of the elaborate rest stops on the ohio turnpike. it’s late–maybe 9 or 10 o’clock and we were about 2 hours from ypsi, and 7 into our drive. we were tired and really ready to pee. k’s and my rest stops look a little different. i beeline for the women’s bathroom and she seeks out the family restroom–hoping to go unnoticed by women who think she’s a man and men that read her as a woman.
on this day, k and i emerged from the restrooms at the same time, and gravitate together toward the ATM. in trying to get the touch screen to respond, K ends up withdrawing less money than she intended the first time around. sometime between her first and second transaction, a short white man with brown hair appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and hovers next to the ATM, ostensibly looking at the travel board. he was wearing a heavy duty denim jacket swollen under his collar, on the back of his neck, giving him the appearance of a hunched back. i cannot remember what he was wearing for shoes and pants, but later K tells me they are a recognizable variety of carpenters and a sturdy, possibly steel toed boot. whatever they were, he was head to toe covered in dirt. not dirt from the day, say, a job that took place outdoors, but dirt like dirty, like someone who hasn’t accessed a shower or laundry machine in some time. i thought that he was homeless when i first saw him. later i registered the high quality of construction and general sturdiness of his clothes. aside from being incredibly dirty, they were not torn nor heavily worn. i guessed then that he was a trucker, though i can’t know really.
i also cannot remember his pants or boots because i am even now endlessly concerned with his face. he stared at us without trying to hide it, without any attempt at subtlety or tact. he looked hungry and he looked, though i didn’t name it at that exact moment, dangerous. he lingered by the ATM while K withdrew cash, and watched me put it in my wallet. we walked over to the Burger King to get fries and he appeared behind us there just as suddenly as he had before. luckily for us, K is indecisive about food, and as we pondered the menu i looked at that man in the eyes and told him to go ahead of us, that we needed time to decide. i can honestly say in hindsight, that i think that moment changed the entire trajectory of the night.
we order eventually, and waited alongside the man for our food. he stood near the counter, looking back at us. i can see on his face the precise moment he registers K as a woman, and the look he gives her. i remember with equal clarity the look he gave me for being with her, the disgust, the hatred, the violence. i was so relieved when his food came, two whopper juniors. i followed his movement to a table, a table with a clear view of the burger king counter, of me and K, waiting on chicken nuggets. when our food comes, without saying much, K and i move as quickly as possible out of the rest stop. i see the man stand up when we start moving toward the exit, see him move toward us. i lose sight of him as we make our way to the car. we walk at a clip, practically running and jumping, and when we get to the car we lock the doors and look up, see him in the doorway of the rest stop, watching us, before finally turning away.
for about 15 minutes K and I shove nuggets into our mouths and talk about what just happened. did she see what i saw? did i feel what she felt? k identifies him in a way my musing until that point cannot, just one word that perfectly captures his shifting eyes and lumbering stance: predator. when we both acknowledge how close we felt toward violence, what could have happened if that man could have followed us to the car, what someone willing to jump two seemingly able-bodied adults would be capable of, we become nauseous. k staves off a panic attack by watching a stop watch. i take deep breaths and repeat “we’re safe” over and over to quell the possibility of vomit. we don’t stop again, we barely sleep that night. we hold each other close close close and try not to feel what we felt. i try not to feel like i could have been assaulted, try not to imagine whatever violence he was planning because he thought we had money becoming compounded by the recognition that we’re queer. i try not to recoil and try not to dwell on the ready image of his eyes raking me up and down and his sneer and my skin crawling then screaming as we nearly run to our car. even now, days out, i feel the bile in my throat. i am overcome with gratitude that k is indecisive, that we suggested he go ahead of us in line, that we always walk in and out of the building together, and that we stayed close the whole time. that some instinct kicked in and preserved us in that moment.
on our drive back to baltimore, every rest stop feels too familiar and sends me into an adrenalin spin. we don’t order burger king again, and we don’t withdraw money, and we don’t linger. we get in and we get out and we are audibly relieved to be back in the car. i don’t know how long this feeling of awareness will linger, how many nights i will think about that man’s face and press my hand into my chest and try to breathe. how many more nights before i stop my brain from asking and answering a question that is pure dread. i know “what if” and it’s the worst thing i learned in a long time.