Because it was after midnight, she insisted he walk her home. She knew the way. He was new to the neighborhood, the town, the state, the Central Time Zone. In the last month, several women had been attacked. A few men too. Minutes ago, she had been on the ground. It was wet so she slipped. And then trying to help her up, he slipped too. On the ground, she tickled his stomach. He laughed then rolled out of her reach and sprang up. She rose slowly. They had danced that night. Just a little. He worked for her, officially. She was a Manager, he a Coordinator. She came up to his chin. He needed glasses but preferred to maintain his look. She asked about his pay, and he told her without hesitation. She then cut her stride in half. She had been a rower in college and still worked out at the gym. Most considered him athletic because of his BMI, but he never played for a team, not even Little League. His parents preached cerebral development. Her family ventured out on ten-mile hikes and fifty-mile bike rides. He was an only child. She had a younger sister who had just made an announcement. The sister loved to say she didn’t believe in marriage as an institution. But she didn’t want to wait forever, so she dithered to a yes then immediately and emphatically leaked the news. He slowed down too. He felt it rude to walk ahead, even half a stride. He asked her how she liked it in this little city, and she said it could be worse but it could be a lot better, and though it was aesthetically unimpressive, the people were nice − not nice in appearance, but they wore nice expressions and said nice things to others and often did nice things too. The attacks were fluky, she said. Just people forgetting the rules for a split second. He wanted to ask what she meant, but he didn’t want to start a new conversation, so he thanked her for taking him under her wing those first couple of weeks, showing him the ropes, giving him a night out, being a friend.
It didn’t matter that she was a Manager or that two of the last five people she kissed were women; the way he hugged the inside edge of the sidewalk brushing a neighbor’s fence with his puffy jacket suggested she had been closing in on him, filling in space. And here he was, a tall and slender man, taking control seamlessly, instinctually, subconsciously. Consciously. He now walked a quarter of a stride ahead of her. Of course she was used to this—a man trying to create physical space. And yet she’d done the same to men but would never dare do it so subtly. That would be wrong. She had told herself she would yell or run if it came to that. If she felt an unwanted wandering hand slide from side to hip to butt, she would jerk away and laugh a little to give him a chance to pretend nothing happened. But on a first date last year, when the hand returned and felt forcefully planted—she and her date, a friend of a friend of a friend, were on a dark side street—she’d began to consider her options and froze up. When he pulled her into him and slid a few fingers beneath the waistline of her jeans, she should have spun out of his grip, but instead she ended up under him, her warm body on cold sidewalk, her foggy head on damp grass.
This man though, her co-worker, he would be a perfect gentleman, which meant he could do no wrong. As long as he didn’t push her to the ground, he was free to do as he pleased. He could keep walking half a stride ahead, chin pointed up, arms swinging uninhibited. She knew he didn’t have to worry how that looked. She knew he had to worry about very little. And so for a split second, before the fence ran out, which was sharp and rusty, she too forgot the rules. With uncalculated force she used her rowing muscles to fill in the space between them; he used his instincts to protect his eyes and brain. The fence’s metal bars didn’t rattle the slightest when he slammed into them. He clutched his shoulder, eased himself down to the moist cracked up sidewalk and lay on his back taking long slow breaths. Surprised, with a cupped palm she pushed her breath back into her mouth. The creak of a door swinging open came from a nearby house. Then footsteps onto a wood porch. She shuffled back in the direction of her apartment. Propped up on his elbows he looked up and down and across the street. She offered him a confused look as if she were on a late night stroll and had just stumbled upon a man on the ground. Biting his lower lip, he offered an embarrassed grin. Her entire body felt like it was shaking. She shuffled to him and bent down, sort of amazed by what she had done. She waited for his grin to shrink then gripped his hand and pulled. He did his part, pushing off his feet. First they heard a siren in the distance, probably over in the student neighborhood, then a dog barking, the creak of the door, and footsteps on the wood porch and a woman on the phone. Once the siren came closer, they started jogging, soon after they picked it up to a brisk trot and then a near sprint. For a while they ran next to each other down the middle of the street as if they were in lanes four and five on a track. He ran hard and awkwardly, on his heals, out of breath. She ran with ease on the front of her feet, pumping her arms and kicking out her legs.
When she noticed he was no longer at her side, she stopped and looked back only to see the silhouette of a man with his hands on top of his head, the lights of a police car closing in. Surely he could explain himself, she decided, then she started running again. She pushed off her toes and lifted her knees high as if she was being chased; no one would suspect otherwise.
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