I grip my keys in my hands before I step into the parking lot. The small vial of pepper spray shifts against my keychains like wind chimes. I look under my car as I approach to make sure there is no one hiding underneath. Once inside, I lock the doors behind me.
I wasn’t always that cautious. Then, the world filled with floral summer dresses and Vera Bradley lanyards. I worked on vocabulary sheets and ate chips for lunch. My friends and I sat around the lunch table, teasing about the boy from English class and planning the weekend sleepovers. While I was on a school trip the summer after my freshman year in high school, I found myself standing in the cramped, dingy stairwell of the Caribe Royale in Orlando, Florida, surrounded by my best friends. Our hearts raced.
We had been out dancing at the school social, and I could taste the salty sweat trickling down my face. We left the conference center, strobe lights and thumping music behind, parading our way back to our hotel building through the darkness. We were six girls still high on the adrenaline of fast-moving bodies and giddy laughter. But everything changed when we opened the glass door to the hotel.
The door slammed and jolted me out of my youthful haze.
I thought it was the middle school children who charged from room to room in the social spirit of the conference. But then came the screams.
Before I could process the high-pitched yelps echoing down the hotel corridor, I saw the couple. Clothed in black, they mingled, scratched and grabbed at each other. A twisted version of the way my friends and I moved just minutes before. I told my friends to get in the stairwell when I saw the man’s body looming over his partner.
We looked at each other, and I saw my own fear reflected in my friends’ eyes.
One girl was missing. I ran into the hallway to see her standing a few feet away from the dueling couple.
“We need to get away,” I said.
“What if he knocks her out?” she responded.
I didn’t know the answer. My gut feeling said that our 15-year-old bodies weren’t going to be enough to stop a grown man. Once we were all in the stairwell, I thought maybe our school chaperone could help. But she never answered. I don’t know why I didn’t call the police. We saw hotel management scurrying toward the couple, now facing-off in the doorway of their hotel room, when we peeked out the stairwell door for the last time. Help came.
Back in our rooms, we explained in rushed voices what happened in the hallway. We took off our party clothes, wiped off the makeup streaked by sweat and settled in on the couch. We didn’t play the music we danced to earlier that night. The blood that pumped through us intensely before grew thicker and heavier in our veins. We sat in mostly silence, legs crossed and knees grazing each other’s. Our naiveté was palpable. I think I ate some M&Ms, and then we went to bed. We never talked about it after.
That was my introduction to relationships; that they weren’t the stuff in movies. They weren’t all boom-box love songs, kissing in the rain and holding hands on the front porch. My innocence was lost; my heart, left jaded.
For a while after, I was hesitant to seriously date a boy. When I finally started talking to someone, I refused to meet up anywhere that wasn’t a public place. A place where others could see us, and I would be safe in the gazes of strangers. Although we sat through chemistry and U.S. history together, I wasn’t sure how much I should trust a boy I never hung out with outside of school. I started visiting his house once I felt more comfortable, more trusting. We’ve been together almost four years now, but I don’t regret being cautious in the beginning.
Now, after six years, I learned what a loving relationship encompasses and grew into myself. I know that the violence I witnessed in the hallway of a hotel exists in the world; as a society, we have to be vigilant.
As a woman, I am vigilant, too. I find myself carrying pepper spray and locking my keys in-between my fingers on walks home. I flinch when people get too close and am hyper-aware when I am out in public. I am not afraid of life, but I am aware of the possibilities.
This past summer, my 15-year-old sister and her friends found themselves in the bustling beach town of St. Petersburg, Florida. At the same age me and my friends stood frozen in a stairwell, they explored the boardwalk. As the sun dripped into the horizon and sucked the light out of the world, the girls were still nowhere to be found. My brother and I bolted down the coast to find them, to chastise them and to bring them home. We found the girls walking on a dark corner of the beach. The sun left whispers of color in the darkness.
“You can’t be out here alone,” I said when we finally reached them. “You don’t know what could happen.”
And how could they know? Their only concerns were Instagram pictures and ice cream. They were blissfully unaware of the evils of the world. Their bright eyes had not seen the darkness that hid inside people. Their faces were red from the sun, not flushed with fear.
The entire walk home, they laughed at me and my brother.
“I’d love to see someone try,” my sister said.
“We could take them,” said her friends.
I tried to explain to them that someone could try and that they could not take them. I tried to make them understand, but they didn’t. I offered facts and statistics in an attempt to pass down my life experiences. They hadn’t had their moment yet, but I knew they would in the future.
The day will come when those same girls will think twice about how late they stay out. They will latch their pepper spray to their keychains and will call someone when they walk home alone in the dark. A time will come when they understand. But for now, I want to protect them while yearning to be them.