Now that I’m a runner (apparently), I run on vacations. Unless I’m staying in a hotel, which is rare with all the great AirBnBs out there, running is often the only viable form of exercise. Since I was staying at my parents’ house last weekend, I went for a few runs in my old neighborhood. They live about 30 minutes outside Buffalo, New York in a small town called Alden. It is very rural, with more farm and forest land than people and houses. It’s an “all American” town, a place where you can leave your doors unlocked and let your kids run around unsupervised for the entire day and not have to worry. The lack of traffic makes the roads great for running. Yet these qualities also make it an ideal hunting ground for pedophiles and psychopaths.
Somewhere in your thirties, the belief that you are invincible begins to disappear. You probably still can’t believe that someday you’ll be one of the frail, hunched over gray-hairs inching their way across the crosswalk as it flashes an angry, orange warning at them that time is up, but you start to understand that actions have consequences, sometimes resulting in an early departure from this world. You become more attentive to detail, cautious, hesitant, and nervous. You realize that while bad things only happen to other people, you are “other people” to most of the world.
When I was 12 years old, something that could have shortened my lifespan by 27 years, to date, happened to me. When it happened, I was freaked out for an hour or two, but still cloaked by the invincibility and naivete of childhood, I quickly forgot about it…for over two decades. But then in my thirties, the memory came back and started to freak me out, although the danger had passed so long ago. And every time a new abduction and murder story appears in the news, like that of sweet Mollie Tibbetts who had so much life in front of her, my story resurfaces and sends chills up my spine.
Living in the middle of nowhere meant depending on my parents to take me wherever I wanted to go. This made an independent person like me, even when my age was still in the single digits, not too pleased. So, I learned to ride a bike as soon as I could, and when I hit double digits, I had a black and hot pink Huffy road bike with a tiny seat and curvy handle bars that I thought were very adult. My parents let me bike all over, into the town center six miles away, down the side of the 55 mile per hour road to my grandmother’s house and my friends’ houses, and to my various babysitting gigs.
One day, on my way to babysit a batch of three unruly kids who lived in the town center, I took a side street. I mean, where I lived, they were all side streets, but this was an especially deserted, tiny road that branched off the main route into town. The big hills on this road made it a lot of fun to cycle on. It was also safer than the main road, which had almost no shoulder and several blind turns that most drivers took too fast.
Expertly switching into the lower gears, I made it to the top of the initial hill and then took my feet off the pedals while I coasted down the other side, enjoying the feel of the summer breeze on my bare limbs and through my hair. No, no one wore helmets back then. As I floated, a red hatchback appeared at the top of the next hill. It slowed down as the distance between us decreased, and then it stopped, still on the other side of the road. Like all good kids, I knew not to talk to strangers, but I was also raised to be kind and helpful. An out-of-shape, slightly balding white man in his thirties rolled down his window and asked me where Alden was. I was confused by the question, since we were in Alden, but I thought maybe he was looking for the center. I said that we were in the town of Alden but the village was back the way he had come from. His response was “Oh baby, you’re so beautiful. I want to suck your pussy.” I will never forget those exact words. I was 12, gangly, awkward, in the middle of puberty with teeth, ears, and glasses all too big for my head, and clueless about sex. Regardless, he was stroking his penis. I knew there was one lone house on the other side of the next hill, so, without another word, I pedaled away as fast as possible, which wasn’t very fast. By pure luck, he didn’t give chase. I went a little way up the driveway of that house and waited a few minutes, and when he didn’t appear, I continued on to my babysitting job.
I never told my parents, of course, because I didn’t want to lose my newfound independence. Despite the near impossibility of a repeat incident, I knew they wouldn’t let me bike to town anymore. And besides, nothing had actually happened, and, in my 12 year old brain, nothing ever really would happen. Except now, all these years later, I am fully aware of what could have happened and able to contemplate all the horror. Jaycee Duggard, Elizabeth Smart, Amanda Berry…the list goes on and on and on. It makes me sick to my stomach think how close I was to being one of them, or one of the ones who didn’t live.
Out running those roads last week, I encountered no other runners and only one cyclist. I saw only a handful of people out and about on their properties. It’s so easy in a town like Alden to be abducted with no evidence or witnesses in 10 seconds or less. As I ran down a road almost as devoid of houses as the one on which the incident occurred, I heard a car come up behind me and slow down significantly. There was a house to my left, but it was set back quite far from the road. There was a house to the right, but getting to it would mean navigating around the approaching car. Maybe a little piece of me still believes that bad things only happen to other people, because I decided to just keep running. When the vehicle pulled up next to me, matching my speed, I turned to the driver with my best “don’t fuck with me” face on. And then I rolled my eyes. It was my dad, come to see if I needed a piece of hard candy to keep my energy up in the brutal heat and humidity of a late summer morning in small town America.