It starts with the warnings. I’m told that it’s dangerous at night. Don’t walk alone at night, don’t be on the sketchy side of town at night, don’t wear revealing clothing at night. Don’t talk on your cell phone when you’re walking home from the bus stop in the dark. It’ll distract you from potential attackers. No, wait. Do talk on your cell phone. It’ll make potential attackers think you have a boyfriend.
After the warnings, it’s the stories. Women I love slip frightening, barely disguised hints into stories about their pasts. Stories that happen at night. I never know the details, but I know I’m not allowed to tell anyone.
When I’m nineteen, I move to Vancouver. It seems gigantic and bustling compared to my little home town. My dad buys me a small canister of dog spray, makes me promise to keep it with me in the city.
First Year. In the dorms, the RAs tell us how to stay safe at UBC. They talk about party culture and date rape. They warn us never to go alone into the Endowment Lands, a large, sprawling forest that separates the campus from the rest of the city. A woman was murdered in there a few years ago, some girls who were raised in the city tell me. They never found the man who killed her.
I make friends quickly with a group of girls. We go out to bars on the Granville Strip. It’s one of the last weekends of summer, and the street is packed. Neon signs overhead paint the street bright red, orange, and pink. Men come up to us. They try to talk to us but the street is too loud. “No thanks!” We all call to each one. We don’t even know which one of us they want to talk to.
More men approach us and they get in between us. We link arms in order to stay together. More men come. They take us by the shoulders and pull us apart. We shake them off, spin away from them, regroup. At first, we were laughing, but not anymore. We link arms tighter.
A man is sitting on the sidewalk across the street from us. I make eye contact with him. A mistake.
“Hey blondie!” He calls out to me.
I put my head down, make no response.
“Hey, you! Blondie!” He yells again.
Still, I ignore him, looking at the ground. My friends glance in his direction and look away.
“I’m talking to you, girl!” He yells, and stands up.
I strain against my friends’ arms, trying to walk faster. I don’t take my eyes off the sidewalk.
“Hey! I’m fucking talking to you, bitch!” He screams at me, and starts walking towards us.
We make a beeline for the nearest open door, scurrying as fast as our heels allow us. As we step inside, I look back. He is standing in the middle of the street, watching me. His friends are laughing. The street seethes with people, flowing around him, but no one else looks in his direction.
A boy asks for my number in a bar. I feel bad refusing him outright, so I tell him I have a boyfriend.
“Aw, come on. Don’t be like that,” He wheedles.
He won’t stop pestering me and eventually I give in. I take his phone and type in the wrong number.
“‘Sara,'” He reads, sarcastic, “unique name.” He presses the call button on his phone and watches me, waiting.
The phone in my hand doesn’t make a sound. He waits until he reaches someone else’s answering machine, then hangs up. He doesn’t take his eyes off my face.
“I must have typed the wrong number by accident,” I lie feebly.
He snorts. “I guess so. Why don’t you put the right one in this time?”
He presses the phone back into my hand.
One of the guys down the hall from me is too friendly. He stops me to talk every time he sees me leave my dorm room. He texts me every weekend about frat parties. He wanders into my room unexpectedly, and stays long after I’ve hinted at him to leave. I’m not sure how to handle his advances, so each time I laugh awkwardly, make some excuse, and wait for him to leave me alone.
I’ve just gotten out of the shower, and I step back into my room wrapped only in my towel. He’s there.
“Woah, dude!” I say, a little too loudly.
“What’s up?” He is leaning against my bed frame.
“Um, nothing.” I hike the towel up higher around my torso. “Just took a shower.”
He grins. “I noticed.”
He takes a step towards me, and I step back instinctively.
“I was thinking we could hang,” He says, stepping forward again.
“I’ve got a lot of homework,” I say, stepping back in turn.
This awkward two-step continues, until I’ve backed up into the washroom that joins my roommate’s room with mine. He continues to follow me.
Gripping my towel, I step away from him once more, and now my back is pressed against the far bathroom wall. He comes in closer, looks down at the towel covering my body. He fingers the edge of it.
My heart is pounding. I don’t know what to do.
On the other side of the wall, I hear a door open as my roommate comes home.
I call out a greeting to her, and my voice cracks, panicked. She calls out a greeting in return.
He leans back, stepping away from me.
“My roommate’s home,” I tell him, stating the obvious. I can’t keep my voice from shaking.
He blows out a big breath and rakes a hand through his hair. “I should probably get back to work,” He says.
I nod, and continue standing in the bathroom, huddled against the far wall until I hear my bedroom door close behind him.
Second year. After a summer spent at home in Alberta, I come back to school in September. Over the summer months, there’s been a rash of sexual assaults at UBC.
We all receive the same email: these assaults are believed to be linked, the victims are all young women, the perpetrator hasn’t been caught. UBC tells its female students never to walk alone on campus, not to come home late, to be careful how much we drink and what we wear. Police sketches of the predator’s face are plastered everywhere on campus.
Every few weeks, we get a new update. Another assault.
In my creative writing lecture, my professor shows us the memoir she published. It’s about her missing sister, Sarah. She tries hard not to cry when she tells us that Sarah’s remains were found on the Pickton farm, alongside the remains of over twenty other women.
Third Year. My roommate and I live in a small basement suite off campus, near the edge of the Endowment Lands. I ride past the forest on the bus on my way to school every day, and I see an intricate network of trails spreading deep into it. I see people running, biking, walking their dogs in the forest. The murder stories I heard in first-year seem far away now, and I’ve been dying for a good trail run.
I stuff my little canister of dog spray, now two years old, into the back pocket of my running tights. I lace up my runners, and jog off towards the Endowment Lands. At the entrance to the trails, there is a wooden map of the forest. Taped over the map is a poster with a large, coloured photo of Wendy Ladner-Beaudry. Below her picture are the details of her murder. Those with any information are urged to come forward.
At the sight of the poster, I shy away from the trailhead, but soon a large group of middle-aged men and women come jogging up the street and disappear into the trails. They pay no mind to the poster. Emboldened, I run in after them.
I fall in love with the trails. No other place in Vancouver feels as much like home to me. They wind for miles into the forest. Some are wide and straight, brightly-lit and lined with trees, with small families with dogs and strollers ambling along them. Others are narrow and twisting, carved out by mountain bike tracks. These are my favourites. Rocks and roots cut steps into these trails, and they’re so densely forested on either side that the light filters through green. These trails are far emptier than their wider, straighter counterparts.
I grow bolder with every trail run. Each time, I go deeper and deeper into the forest, ignoring the picture of Wendy Ladner-Beaudry at the trailhead. Her face is now covered in water stains, obscured by the Vancouver rain.
I’m running along my favourite path, banking around each sharp corner. Up ahead, a man in a black shirt trudges slowly towards me. I keep my eyes straight ahead until we pass, then give him a quick, cursory nod, meeting his eyes briefly. Something about him raises the hair on my arms. I run straight for several metres after I pass him, then turn my head around quickly as I jog, checking his progress. He’s stopped moving. He is standing still in the middle of the path, watching me. As soon as I’ve seen him, he turns around quickly and begins walking down the path again.
My stomach tightens. I whip my head back and pick up my pace. Another few metres, and I glance behind me again. Just as before, he is standing still, watching me. I’m sprinting now. I can see the place where this trail joins one of the larger, busier ones; it’s only half a kilometre away. I check behind me several more times as I race towards the intersection of the trails. Each time, he is motionless, staring at me, and each time, he turns around quickly as soon as he catches me looking at him. With shaking fingers, I unzip my back pocket and clutch my dog spray.
Out on the wider trail, I breathe a sigh of relief and slow my pace. I pass young families and couples, the dog spray hidden in my fist. My route has looped back around now, and I’m headed for home. I try to convince myself that there’s no way he’s taking the same circuit that I am—there are too many trails in here for that. Still, my heart pounds nervously.
At last, I reach the home stretch. Only a kilometre or so of twisting trail left, and then I’ll be back out in the open. I run past a group of walkers, men and women all around my parents’ age, and they smile as I pass them. I smile back, feeling calmer now that I know the forest’s edge is so close.
The voices of the walkers have faded into the distance when I see him again. I can make out his black t-shirt through the trees, just on the other side of a bend in the trail. I slow to a walk. At that sound of my footsteps, he stops and turns in my direction. I hold my breath, but it’s no use. My bright clothing stands out like a neon sign in this forest. He pauses for a second and then slowly, deliberately steps off the trail and into the bushes, until he is concealed by the foliage.
I turn and bolt back towards the group of walkers I passed minutes ago. They recognize me as I come running up to them.
“Mind if I join you for a bit?” I ask. I try to keep my voice steady, but it doesn’t work.
They agree, and one particularly kind woman makes one-sided small talk with me. As we approach the end of the trail, I see him again, walking slowly. He turns around at the sound of our approach, and I stay close to the woman who’s still telling me about her daughter in Toronto. He seems disappointed, but I don’t look his way again until we’re on the street.
As soon I leave the kind walking group, I begin sprinting once more, up the hill to my house. Paranoid, I check over my shoulder every few feet, but I’ve lost him.
Fourth Year. I’m standing in the centre of Waterfront Station, waiting for a Tinder date. It’s our first date, and I made certain to choose a busy meeting place. It’s hard to get busier than the SkyTrain station downtown.
I scan the crowd, searching for him, but I can’t find anyone who looks remotely like the guy in the pictures. After a while, I see an unfamiliar man approach me, smiling. I smile back politely, and then continue looking around. He can’t be the right guy.
He walks up to me and holds out a hand.
“Sara?” He asks.
Disappointed, I nod and shake his hand. This guy looks nothing like I thought he would. He’s tall, nearly a foot taller than I am, and bulky with muscle. He towers over me.
He knows the area better than I do, so he suggests that we grab coffee at a nearby Starbucks a couple blocks away from the main drag. I agree, and follow him to a quieter residential area.
It’s a bad date. We sit out on the freezing Starbucks patio—God only knows why this patio is open in January—and I shiver while he complains about all the places he’s travelled to. It takes me less than twenty minutes to decide that I can’t stand this guy. By this point, the street has almost completely emptied. I escape to the washroom briefly and text my roommate.
“Help, please,” I beg her. She agrees to call me with a pretend emergency in fifteen minutes.
By the time I come back from the washroom, he’s finished his coffee.
“Let’s go for a walk,” He suggests.
I nod emphatically, and throw away the cold remains of my tea. The neighbourhood is entirely deserted at this point, and I can’t wait to get back to the bustle of Granville Street.
We begin walking back in the direction we came from. I keep to myself, my arms folded tight around my body as he looms over me. He moves to put his arm around me, but instead of draping his arm across my shoulders, he places his hand at the base of my neck, gripping tightly. I shiver and my entire body tenses. I could not look more uneasy—arms crossed, shoulders hunched, putting as much space between us as his arm will allow. But he doesn’t let go. I dart my eyes around the street, looking for anyone else whose presence might reassure me. There’s no one.
“Let’s go this way,” He says, slowing to a stop and pointing into a dark alleyway.
I shake my head nervously.
“No,” I say slowly, “let’s go back to Granville Street.” I start to move in that direction, but his hand, tight around my neck, stops me.
“Nah,” He says, “I hate how busy Granville is. Let’s go in here.” He pulls slightly, turning my head towards the alley.
I can distantly hear the bustle of all the people on Granville street, only two blocks away.
“No, I really want to be where the people are.” It comes out shrilly. To hide my panic, I add lamely, “I like people watching.”
He scowls and pulls me once more towards the alley. I plant my feet and strain against his grasp, protesting again.
Finally, he lets up.
“Fine,” He mutters and stops pulling me. He doesn’t let go of my neck.
We walk slowly, wordlessly back toward Granville Street. His fingers are still digging into the back of my neck. In my pocket, I clutch my cell phone.
At last, my phone rings and his grip loosens. I jump away from him. On the phone, my roommate makes up some story about breaking her ankle. I play along, promising to come home immediately. I hear him snort derisively as he listens to our conversation.
“Listen,” I tell him after I hang up, “my roommate is in trouble. I need to go home.”
He rolls his eyes and turns away.
“Bitch,” He mutters under his breath.
I don’t care. I spin away from him and take off, speed walking up the street towards the SkyTrain station. I’m too scared to check if he’s behind me.
On the train, I shrink down in my seat, scanning the faces around me. Every time a new passenger comes on, I look for him. I can still feel his fingers around my neck.
At home I lock the door behind me. I’m shaking and I can’t get warm, and I feel stupid for being this afraid, miles away from the guy and locked inside my own house. My roommate is gone for the evening, and I spend the rest of the night curled up in an armchair, shivering in my blankets, waiting for her to come home so I won’t be alone.
I meet my date at a bar in Kits. Our conversation isn’t anything special, but he’s cute and my roommate has been pressuring me to get laid before finals season hits. We go back to his place, drunk.
When I ask if he has a condom, he searches his room briefly and comes up empty handed. I pull the last condom out of my purse.
We’ve been in bed for a while when I realize the condom is gone. I sit up straight, knocking my head against his.
“What the fuck?” I stammer.
“What?” He asks.
“Did you take it off?” I accuse.
He tilts his head. “You said I could.”
No I didn’t. Did I? In the dim light, I can’t make out his expression.
“I didn’t,” I insist. “We’re done now.”
He pleads with me, but I keep saying “No,” I keep shaking my head. He doesn’t listen. He’s too heavy for me to push off, and each time I make him stop, he just starts again.
Afterwards, I can’t shake the feeling that it was my fault. Did I really tell him he could take the condom off? When my roommate asks me how my night was, raising her eyebrows suggestively, I lie.
“It was great,” I say.
When I get sick half a week later, I’m convinced that I have an STI. Panicked, I call my stepmom, a nurse practitioner.
“Did you use protection?” She asks.
“No,” I whisper.
She sounds disappointed. “Sara, you know better than that.”
She begins listing off symptoms and treatment options. I cover my mouthpiece so she won’t hear me cry.
Two months later. I’m back in my home town, spending the summer here between my undergraduate degree and my master’s.
I go out to the only country bar in town with my friends. I hate country music. It doesn’t take long for my friends to pair off dancing with a couple guys, and their friend looks over at me and holds out his hand. He’s good at two-stepping, and more importantly, he doesn’t care how bad I am at two-stepping. He laughs at all my jokes. I have no interest in going home with him, but I’m having fun.
After a while, he offers to buy me a drink. I walk over to the bar with him, craning my neck to spot my friends on the dance floor. I’m not really paying attention when he leans over me and places his hand on the small of my back.
“Consider this a down payment,” He whispers. His breath smells like beer and tequila and hot dogs. His fingers crawl up my back, under my t-shirt.
I feel the blood drain from my face. (How many ways are there to describe what fear feels like?)
I grab my gin and tonic and slip into the crowd, disappearing while he pays the bartender.
Two weeks ago. My partner’s friend and I are arguing about why a woman would give a man her phone number and then never respond.
“Why don’t they just say ‘No’ instead of leading the guy on?” He asks.
“Because that’s not really an option.”
“Why not?” He presses.
I give him a list of reasons: maybe she changed her mind, maybe the man wouldn’t stop asking, maybe she knew he would check to see if she typed in the right number, maybe she didn’t feel safe saying “No.”
“You’re really saying a girl wouldn’t feel safe, surrounded by people in a bar?” He sounds doubtful.
“Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying,” I snap.
He scoffs. “I find that hard to believe.”
My face goes red. I lean forward, mouth open, ready to list off every single shitty, terrifying experience I’ve had with a man, regardless of the place.
But I see his face—set and dismissive—and I deflate.
I’m done. I’m too tired for this, and I’m too fucking angry.
I didn’t learn to fear men because of one singular, catastrophic event. This fear grows gradually. Every day, it compounds.