Feedback Friday: Every Breath You Take

Posted: November 1, 2013 in Feedback Friday
Tags: , ,

To get us started this week, I’m going to tell you a story. Which I do every week, but this one is different. This one is true.

A woman goes to the grocery store, alone, at night. It can be a pain in the ass to go after 10, since they start to stock, and the aisles become littered with pallets and stacks of product waiting to be shelved, but she goes anyway. She goes because it’s late, which means there are fewer people around. Shorter lines. Less chance of being jostled in a crowd.

She’s cautious, every time she does this. She carries her keys in her hand when she leaves; she watches the people around her in the parking lot, noting which cars they go to and if they get in, if they’re acting “normal”. She notices which cars have people sitting inside them, waiting. She puts her purse in the car immediately, then unloads the cart. She doesn’t take long.

On this night, she has a brief encounter with a man. In the dairy section, they get hung up, flummoxed by the pallets that are blocking the main aisle and unable to get past each other. She waits for him to go; he waits for her to go. Finally, she asks him which way he’ll be going, and he waves her through. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s okay,” she says, smiling. “It can be hard to navigate, with all this stuff in the way.” She’s already moving away from him, although she notes things about him, automatically: his slow walk, his heavy eyes, the way he stares, the fact that he has only 3 items in his cart. “Have a nice night,” he says as she walks away. “Thank you, you too!”

She heads down an aisle, down and around, and up another. Stops, to look at the options and choose what she’s here for. She talks to the man stocking shelves for a moment, to assure him that he’s not in her way, then sees what she wants. When she stands up with it in her arms, she happens to glance up, and there he is: the Dairy Man, peering down her aisle. He catches her eye. “Have a nice night!” “Thanks.” She’s not so friendly now; now she’s not smiling. She’s realizing, slowly, that she made a critical error, there in the middle of the shrink-wrapped boxes of cream cheese and yogurt.

She makes her way through the rest of the store, going up and down aisles at random, since her list is all over the place. She sees him, Dairy Man, every so often, hovering at the end of an aisle. She doesn’t process then, but remembers later, that he doesn’t have anything new in his cart. The same three items rattle in the basket. He’s not shopping. He’s following.

For the last few aisles she doesn’t see him, doesn’t feel him staring, and she’s relieved. Then, as she’s walking past the entrance on her way to the register, it hits her: he’ll be outside. She looks at the doors, at the darkness on the other side that her eyes can’t penetrate, and she knows. He’ll be there.

She shrugs this off as foolish worrying. Don’t be so paranoid! And yet. She chooses the longest line to wait in. She lets someone go ahead of her; they have so few items, and she has so many. She stays for a moment to talk to the cashier, after her transaction is finished. She doesn’t do this with any kind of conscious intent; she’s not purposely avoiding. She remembers it, considers it, later.

And sure enough, when she steps through the doors, there he is. Dairy Man. Waiting right on the other side, with his cart and his bag, just standing there. He doesn’t do anything, not really. He steps toward her, toward her cart, tries to position himself in front; she angles away and keeps moving. “Have a nice night!” he says to her.

This time, she doesn’t answer at all.

She watches, the way she always does, the people around her. She throws bags into the trunk, not caring if things break. She watches the door, but he doesn’t come out. At least she doesn’t think he does. She’ll check her rearview mirror anyway, repeatedly, on the drive home. She won’t go for coffee, the way she’d intended; she won’t stop at the gas station, get out of her car. She goes directly home, where her husband waits, and her big dog.

During the drive she gets angry. But not, surprisingly, at him. No, for him she’s already begun to make excuses: he looked tired, he might have been drunk, he was just “slow”. Instead, she’s angry at her husband. Her brother. Her father. Angry at every man she knows who has never, not ever, gone to the grocery store and been frightened like this. Angry that they are exempt from all of it; the keys in the hand, the glances around, the strange men who hear politeness and interpret it as interest. Angry that she can’t shop in peace, and they can.

Angry at herself, most of all. Should never, she thinks. I should never have smiled at him.

Stalking is a common trope in romance novels. Between the books, movies and merchandising, Stephanie Meyers made $5.7 billion off Edward Cullen stalking the shit out of Bella Swann; EL James rakes in $1.9 million a week with Christian Grey stalking Ana Steele. These men do not “skate the line”. They do not walk the tightrope between “alpha” male and stalker. Edward Cullen breaks into a minor girl’s bedroom and watches her sleep; Christian Grey traces his girlfriend’s phone calls, gains access to her bank records, follows her clear across the country and then watches her eat a meal with her mother. These are unquestionably stalker behaviors. And yet women eat it right up. Women wish their significant others were more like these fictional heroes.

GoodReads has a list of books, titled “Stalkerific Romance Novel Heroes”. The list is 252 books long. Almost all of them are highly rated; I saw none that received less than 3 stars.

Last week I talked about the vampire mystique, and why a lead who is a vampire (or a werewolf, or some other kind of dangerous Other) would be attractive to readers. To my mind, the main part of the appeal is the impossibility of the situation; it’s why I, at least, can read books that contain these characters and not be repulsed. You’re not really going to encounter a vampire, let alone fall in love with one. There is a safe distance built into the story. Not so with something like stalking. That lack of safe distance makes me uncomfortable, not entertained. I assume that other women do have that safe distance, that buffer that allows them to enjoy the story without getting the skin-crawly feeling that I do. Maybe they’ve never experienced what it’s like.

I don’t intend to sit in judgment on women who enjoy it. Truly. Nor do I intend to sit in judgment on the writers who include it in their work. Everybody’s line is different. It is interesting to me, though, that so many authors have moved away from the alpha heroes who took what they wanted from the heroines sexually, who raped in action if not in name, but the stalking thing is still considered acceptable behavior. I wonder why that is. Is it easier to spin stalking/obsession into True Love than it is to spin assault the same way? Are most people just removed from the reality of what stalking is?

There are, of course, varying degrees of stalking. Being followed by a stranger in the grocery store is very different from being followed by an ex-boyfriend, receiving unwanted phone calls or e-mails, having gifts left on your doorstep. The one thing they all have in common, though, is fear. A man who stalks a woman is not Deeply in Love. He’s not Romantic. He’s not flattering his victim, or proving how truly irresistible she is. He’s trying to scare the shit out of her. That’s his goal. A normal man, a considerate man, understands when his behavior has crossed the line, when he is frightening the object of his attention, and he steps back. Apologizes. A stalker doesn’t. People who engage in stalking behaviors are not considerate. They’re not sorry. And, in real life, they’re sure as hell not hot.


The Gift of Fear. The author, Gavin de Becker, is a security consultant with years of experience with various criminal behaviors, including stalking. In his book, he talks about intuition, that “sixth sense” that tells people when something isn’t right (that little voice that said Dairy Man would be waiting outside), only to him, it’s not a super-sensory thing. We all have it. Our minds are working every second, recording details, noting things that are important and discarding things that aren’t, and it’s your mind that notices when things are off, that remembers on some level all the things that are Wrong about a situation and tries to direct your actions to take the Wrong into account. It’s a really good book. Check it out.

  1. I’m with you on every single point. I don’t like reading about stalker-ish behavior, nor do I like writing about it. And yeah, I’ve kicked myself for being polite before when all of a sudden, I was the one person in the room who drew the creepy guy like a moth to a flame. (And, of course, it happened on more than one occasion.) *sigh*

    Back to women kicking zombie ass we go?

  2. mxcoot says:

    Kind of sad you can’t say hello and be happy. My husband always reminds me to only shop during daylight hours, but not too early in the morning, I have to wait until the sun comes up. I live in a lovely town but shopping is in another town not so nice. It really sucks to be constantly watching and waiting. Very trying.

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