For several years, I lived in a neighborhood that worried my parents. But I liked my neighbors, I could afford the rent, and, in the grand tradition of fools, I lived a blissfully oblivious existence. I never once felt unsafe.
Well, that’s not strictly true. My boyfriend and I had been living in the apartment for about two years when I acquired a job that necessitated my commuting to an office, and oftentimes returning after dark.
“I don’t like it,” he said grimly of the fifteen-minute walk from the subway. There had been a recent spate of rapes in the area, he pointed out. “Call me when you get on, and I’ll meet you and walk you home.”
Naturally, I did no such thing. Instead, I walked home every day like a normal person and felt completely safe.
Until, one especially late night, I noticed footsteps behind me. I tried to shrug it off and picked up my pace. The person behind me started walking more quickly, too. I crossed the street; the steps followed me. I made a turn; he was right behind me. Now I felt real fear. I walked as quickly as I could without breaking into a panicked run, and fished my keys out of my pocket, holding the sharp point between my fingers for use as a weapon, as we had been taught in freshman orientation. The steps behind me never faltered. My heart was hammering by the time I made it into our building and threw the deadbolt.
After that, I was more careful: I got home as early as I could and walked quickly, head down, instead of greeting people and observing changes in the neighborhood, as had been my wont. Yet I couldn’t help feeling uneasy, and I could have sworn that several times, I heard the steps.
And then, a few weeks later, I had to work late. And again, as soon as I moved off the brightly lit commercial strip onto a residential side street, I heard the steps behind me. Turning with me, keeping pace with me. This time, I did panic: I ran. I could hear the steps behind me, also running, and by the time I made it into the building, I was gasping and on the verge of tears.
My boyfriend was home and called out a cheerful greeting as he heard me slam the door and throw the bolt.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded, alarmed, when he saw my ashen face.
“I think someone’s been following me from the subway,” I said.
“Well, of course someone is,” he said matter-of-factly. “I pay Bill five dollars a day to wait at the subway stop and tail you home.”
Bill was our next-door neighbor, maybe mentally handicapped, who lived with his parents and had modeling aspirations.
“Wait, what?” I said.
“I was worried about you, so I asked him to meet you one night when I couldn’t be there, and then he asked if it could be a regular gig. He can really use the money,” he explained.
The next night, I looked for Bill outside the station and we walked home together. I learned a lot about Bill in the next weeks: that he wanted to segue from modeling to movie stardom, and maybe politics. That he dabbled in musical composition. That he was really good at the latest iteration of Final Fantasy.
There was a great deal of this kind of thing, now that I think about it; my ex-boyfriend is a very kind person.
* * *
That was several years ago. This morning, I was in the Times Square subway station, and I saw Bill. He was sitting behind a table in a shirt and tie, administering stress tests with a bunch of Scientologists.
I called my old boyfriend in California to tell him.
“I’m so glad he landed on his feet!” he said happily. “How was he?”
And I had to admit that I had not stopped to find out.