Saturday, October 15, 2011

Warning Bells

I blame my Catholic school first and second grade education for the early onset of my uncle paranoia.  Back in the mid-1980s, McGruff the crime dog was all the rage. There were two scenarios that were repeatedly pounded into us via McGruff. 1) Old men who ask for little girls’ help to look for lost dogs are deviant pedophiles who will rape and kill us. 2) Relatives, most notably uncles, are deviant pedophiles who will grope you while you sit in their laps.

You have to give McGruff credit for raising awareness. However, I feared being left alone with either of my two uncles for many years because, after all, uncles were always used as examples in the “people you think you should be able to trust but can’t” category. I guess using fathers and grandfathers would be too creepy and taboo, so uncles were the best examples.  It didn’t help that one of my second grade classmates was abducted for a short time by some dude in a navy blue cargo van (I don’t think she was harmed), so we got the McGruff lessons multiple times.  Of course, the McGruff 1984-1985 edition ignored that the fact that females could be molesters and that little boys could be targets for molestation, but I digress.

I was probably 13 or so before I was reassured that my uncles weren’t child molesters. For some reason, my paranoia around strangers wasn’t quite that high – probably because I wasn’t an inherently social and bubbly kid. I was reserved, and it simply seemed more likely that a deviant stranger would go for a more effervescent girl instead of quiet, suspicious me. Although that ended up not being true since the quiet ones are less likely to talk.  Again, I digress.

As boy-girl relations began, I didn’t have much fear for my personal safety. First of all, with few exceptions, I knew most of the guys I was hanging around really well. Second of all, I’m physically fairly strong and could hold my own with most guys. Third of all, I like to think I’m fairly good judge of character.  And remember those deviant uncles that I had been warned about ended up not being deviant.  So I became more relaxed about these things. A little too trusting, a little too naïve.

There was one guy I met on the bus to community college when I was 16. I honestly didn’t know him that well. Sure, I sat and talked with him for several weeks, but it wasn’t anything more than surface stuff. He was a bad boy, and that had a certain appeal. One day he invited me over to his house to show me his new video game. I had the time since I didn’t have work that day, and I was feeling fun and impulsive. Sure, I say. We make tentative plans, and I go about my day. I meet him at the prearranged spot, and we’re off to his house.

The first warning bells go off in my head as we’re going up the stairs to his house (the house was a split level, meaning that you either go up the stairs or down the stairs when you get in the front door. The front door is usually raised.  Split level houses were very popular in houses built in the 1970s and 1980s in Washington. See picture. The neighborhood was eerily quiet, and there was an ominous feeling that hit me all of a sudden. 

The second warning bells go off in my head when he leads me down the stairs to the basement. I let him get far ahead of me and I pause to hear any miscellaneous noise going on upstairs. I hear nothing. The stairs to the basement look dark. It looks dark in the basement itself. I reluctantly continue at a snail’s pace.

His bedroom was in the corner of the basement. I stood in his doorway, clutching the strap of my backpack with one hand and holding the wall outside his bedroom with the other hand. I watched him take off his coat. I had never seen him without his coat since it was winter quarter at school. He had on a white t-shirt and had really nice arms. A lot of muscles, and I realized how much bigger he was than me. He had at least 100 pounds on me, which were now the third warning bells in my head. After he took off his coat, he started to take off his boots. My gut reaction was that I had to get out of there. I was in an obviously secluded place alone with him, and he obviously had far more physical strength than I did. And he was 4 years older than me. I finally realized that he didn’t think we were here to play the new car racing video game. I sincerely wanted to race up those stairs and out of that house, but that really wasn’t the smoothest move in the world, and I knew he could probably catch me since I only had about 3 steps on him, he was faster, and he was more familiar with the house’s layout.

He stood up and looked at me finally. I didn’t know what he expected me to be doing, but he probably hadn’t anticipated me clinging to his doorframe practically hyperventilating. He was gorgeous in that rugged, bad boy way. But more than that, he wasn’t like a typical guy in my high school who was as nervous as I was. He was a man. It was a whole new ball game that was a little bit exciting and considerably scary.

I was looking to see what he would do. If he made any effort to come toward me, I decided that I was going to run. I knew I wouldn’t be successful against him; I didn’t think I could make it beyond the first few stairs. My next defense was going to be pleading.

He was probably looking at me to gauge what I was going to do. Other than me muttering, “Nice room,” or “cool poster,” I hadn’t said much.  Still clinging to the doorway. Still very apprehensive. Still way in over my head. As we make very awkward small talk for a few minutes, he started to move closer to me to show me something that was in his desk. I started to back up out of the room. Not that he had intruded on my personal space, but I had to retain my slight edge in getting to the stairs.

I think he finally understood when he saw back out of the room. We had an interesting non-verbal conversation for the next few minutes. He went to the farthest part of the room and sat on the floor, turning on the radio. My favorite overplayed (in Seattle) song started playing.

Then he simply sat there. And things became clear. He had been under a different impression about the intent of the visit, one that I had been too naïve to see.  When I did figure it out, it scared me and then I thought things would end badly. He became hurt that I would think that of him, and he was trying to tell me that he wasn’t going to do anything that I didn’t want. 

I edged closer to him slowly that afternoon as I got more comfortable.  After about half an hour, I finally got within a few feet of him and ended up sitting on the floor as well. We ended up not playing video games, but I did see his gaming system on the shelf. We just talked for a few hours. When I was leaving, he said, “You know, you’re different.” Different? From what? I didn’t ask for clarification, but I could figure it out. I was different from all the other girls who willingly went back to his house and the afternoon ended up … differently. Okay, I got it. 

I knew that things could have turned out very differently that day if he was a different type of person. I would claim that I thought I knew him well enough to see that he had a decent character. Really, though, I didn’t know him well enough to make that definite of an assessment and should have erred on the side of caution by not going with him, especially because it was a secluded place and he was so much stronger than me. It was a roulette game that day that I just happened to win on chance. However, after that day I did put him in the group of people I trusted. I just had to be more cognizant in the future to not put myself in that situation again.

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