“Do you have a boyfriend?” asks my Uber driver as we barrel down Lake Shore Drive towards Chicago’s West Loop for my sister’s birthday dinner.
I have a girlfriend, not a boyfriend, but because I am surrounded by the four walls of a speeding car driven by a stranger whose beliefs I do not know, I simply tell my driver, no, I do not have a boyfriend. I should have lied. I should have told him, yes
But I tell my Uber driver no, which is the same answer I give when he asks if I have children or a husband, and for a moment we sit quietly and I assume that, like dozens of Uber drivers I have had, he merely wanted to make small talk to slice through the boredom that comes with driving around the city all day long.
But he speaks again. As we approach our exit his eyes fix onto mine in the rearview mirror. “I could be your boyfriend,” he says.
In a matter of seconds, a thousand and three thoughts ricochet through my mind. How do I say no without making him angry? What will he do if I turn him down? Should I pretend I’m interested? Where is he taking me? Are we still headed toward the restaurant? What does the GPS say? Is it still on? Where will he take me if I say no? How do I get the hell out of this car?
I take a deep breath and force my voice to come out steady and calm. “Um, no thank you,” I manage to stammer, polite as if he is offering me a coffee refill.
“What?” he asks, appalled like he simply cannot believe it.
“No thank you,” I emphasize.
Silence except for the pounding of my heart. Sweat pools in all the creases of my skin. I think about the version of myself that existed twenty minutes earlier, the beaming woman checking herself out in her bedroom’s full-length mirror, back when I was in my locked apartment, safe. I smiled at the way my brand new H&M sundress hugged my body, the way my curls fell lightly to my shoulders with perfect bounce, a phenomenon that almost never happens. I twirled around in the blue jacket I found buried in my closet that paired perfectly with the dress, and for the first time in a long time I thought to myself, damn, I look good.
Now I wish more than anything that my hair was pulled back into a ratty, mess of a bun. I wish an oversized sweatshirt shrouded my chest from view. I wish I were ugly or invisible or old, anything to make this man not want me.
We approach a red light. The driver hits the brakes. He turns around and looks at me. “What’s the matter? You don’t like boys?”
There is no right answer to this question.
I am a mess of fear and frustration because no, as it happens I don’t like boys, but that has absolutely nothing to do with this moment.
I fumble for what to say, searching my brain for an answer that will make him stop. If I tell him I don’t like boys, he could tell me that he’ll change that. If I say, “No, no, I do,”he’ll keep trying. I’m trapped.
“Well, do you?” he prods.
“Not right now,” I manage to spit out, with one eye still on the GPS to make sure he hasn’t gone off course. I frantically text my friends, begging them to tell me what to do. No one is responding.
“Well, what do you like?” he asks.
“Writing,” I tell him.
He thinks I said riding. He says he loves horses, too.
“Do you like vodka?” he asks.
I vigorously shake my head. Fourteen minutes left in the ride.
“How about whiskey?” Again, I shake my head.
The car feels like it’s closing in around me. I can’t decide if I should get out of this car, I type to my friends. It is so obvious in retrospect of course, that I needed to escape, but in the moment, I am frozen and I don’t know why. Despite all he is doing, there is something within me that does not want to offend him.
The GPS says 12 more minutes.
I can’t take it anymore. “Pull over here,” I finally tell him, and thankfully, he does.
I tell him I’ve had a change in plans and I get out of the car. He looks perplexed, upset. For some reason, I still say thank you. For some reason, before slamming the door, I tell him to have a good night.
I am safe now, but I do not feel safe. I begin power walking down whatever street I am on, pumping my arms hard until a few minutes pass and I realize I am not walking anywhere in particular. I did not stop to map where the restaurant is from here. I’m just propelling my body forward, trying to feel comfortable inside it again, trying to convince it that I’ve gotten away.
I eventually consult GoogleMaps and discover I am still very far from the restaurant, so I call another Uber and cautiously get inside. Thankfully, the driver does not speak to me. I make it to dinner with a red-hot face and shaky limbs. I am safe but I do not feel safe. When the meal is over I have my family walk me to the bar down the block where I am meeting my friends and my girlfriend.
That night at the bar, I have a few drinks and I feel loosened up again, so much so that I forget about the world for a second and I give my girlfriend a kiss. It takes only a moment for a man to appear out of nowhere and whisper in my ear.
“If you don’t kiss her again I will,” he says, before disappearing like a coward into the mass of bodies waiting for drinks at the bar.
If you don’t kiss her again I will. I don’t even know what that means. Is he threatening assault? Does he want me to kiss her again? Does he hope I don’t so he can? I do not know. What I do know is he was watching us.
My girlfriend taps me on the shoulder and asks if I want to dance, and I tell her no. I don’t want anyone saying anything else to me tonight, and I am so angry because it isn’t fair.
Later, we decide to go to another bar. I don’t know it is a queer bar until I walk in. The moment I see a drag queen, I feel like I can breathe again. I notice people of all identities and sexualities, and I know I am safe here. Finally, I dance and kiss my girlfriend and smile.
One day later, I am waiting at the service elevators in my apartment building. You are only supposed to use them when you have groceries or large boxes or laundry or anything too bulky. While I am waiting, my arms full of groceries, a large, gray-haired man joins me. He is not holding anything. Why is he waiting for these elevators?
My heart starts to pound. I don’t understand. He has no need to be in here if he is empty-handed. What if he is here for me? I’m shaking, breathing quick and shallow breaths. Please don’t touch me, I think. Please don’t speak to me. I close my eyes. I know I am being irrational. Before yesterday, I would not have been afraid.
The thing about yesterday, though, is no one even touched me. No one hurt me, and still, it has made me this scared of a man standing beside me waiting for the elevator.
The two of us get inside. He doesn’t touch me, doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t even look at me for the entire journey up to his floor, which comes before mine. He steps out and I exhale.
I continue riding up. I am safe, but I do not feel safe.
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