Monday, Boss and I went to the Smithsonian in the morning, and she left to catch an early flight and I had the rest of the day to myself before catching the last flight home. I picked up a bicycle, and set off toward the river with the intent of crossing over and visiting Arlington National & those sights. Somehow I ended up on the freeway on said rented bicycle, being honked at by cabbies while I frantically pedaled uphill... A series of wrong turns later, I was able to jump off near the Jefferson memorial, unscathed - but a little rattled. I made it across to Lady Bird Johnson park just as it began to rain, and was about a mile into the park when it dawned on me that I was nowhere near a warm, dry place. I panicked, the park was eerily empty and hauntingly beautiful... the maples were all clinging to the last golden leaves, a stark contrast to the bright green grass and emerald fingers of weeping willows. I stood under one of them and parked the bike for a few minutes and got the distinct feeling I was being watched from the overcast hill beyond. I haven't been uneasy like this for a long time, in the city, I'm normally unafraid to be alone because even walking down the street, you aren't isolated. It was just me and whomever lurked in the shadows for a good ways in either direction, and I was already pooped from the freeway fiasco, so I couldn't outrun someone if I needed to...
It's a funny thing, fear... twisting reality into your enemy by transforming what you know to be true into a distorted reflection. You might 'know' the odds of a stranger hiding in the woods of a park in the nation's capital are small, much smaller than the chances you would have been mugged walking through the downtown park you were in the night before, but you aren't able to believe there is no danger. Around every bend of the bike trail, I braced myself for an attacker, acutely aware of noises and listening through the rain for any sign that I was not alone. When I experience this kind of fear, I feel like I'm seeing just past the point that my human body should see... like there is a parallel universe somewhere in which another 'me' rides through lady bird park and gets brutally assaulted, and just never returns home. No one even knows I'm here. This fear is the same reason I don't like heights, because when I'm on top of a building and look over the edge, some barely resistible force tells me to jump. I don't want to die, I just feel very close to death sometimes. That's scary. The difference between the trick my brain plays on a tall building and the trick it was playing in the park is that I'm not in control, I can't just back down off the ledge... I'm way the hell out in this park.
A lady on roller blades went whizzing past me just before I got up to the bridge from the park to Rosslyn. I was close to civilization again, and the freeway buzzed beneath me. On the bridge, there are a couple switchbacks and a sharp turn... I walked the heavy rental bike up (at this point my little detour had increased my ride to about 20 miles for the day!) As I turned the last corner, a homeless man stood in the middle of the path. He stood a foot taller than me, with a fierce gaze fixed right on my exhausted face. He had a vacant expression, and seemed incoherent except for his eyes, locked on mine. I choked back a scream with all the power I could find in my throat, but I'm pretty sure a little of it slipped past to my lips because the rest of his body awakened and started moving toward me. I'm not afraid of bums, I speak 'schizophrenic' pretty fluently and we usually chat. This guy was different, he was the embodiment of the fear I had just worked up in the park, and I was the object of his predation whether he intended harm or not.
He took a few steps toward me, and I tried not to run the other way... miraculously I found my feet heading towards him instead, with every fiber of my being screaming at them, FEET!!! Stop right this instant! You're going to get us kidnapped by a hobo! We were already close enough that I couldn't get away. I was going to have to fight if this guy was hostile. He was humming some tune, off-key. I stepped right, and he countered by stepping left to stay right in my path. I wanted to throw up. I'ts bad enough to know your fear is irrational, but it's much worse when that fear is proved to be rational, alive and headed toward you. By stepping back in front of me, this guy had just told me I wasn't in his way, I was his destination. Several options went through my mind in the few seconds that followed. I could try to run and likely make it 20 yards before he caught me. I could jump over the railing and chance surviving the 15 foot fall next to a busy freeway. I could try to hurt him enough to make a break for it on the bike. He got closer and closer, and he cracked the zombie expression to say something. Here it is, I thought. He's going to tell me to keep my mouth shut and come with him.
"Begging your pardon, miss..." said a lilting Irish accent. "I don't suppose you have a light?" I stopped and stood still, trying to make sense of the voice that I swear had just come from the bum's mouth. I stammered out a "What?" and he repeated what he'd just said. "Got a light?" Here I am, ready to destroy this guy's testicles if necessary, and he's just a poorly-prepared smoker. What a freak show I am... lathering myself up into a frenzy because I feel like I'm being watched, and then nearly assaulting an innocent person myself. I'm still not sure he's innocent, so I told him I didn't have a light but that I saw someone smoking just down the hill, if he'd hurry he might catch them... and I pedaled off as fast as I could muster.
I suppose fear is another one of those things that you manufacture, if I visualize a creeper watching me in the woods, inevitably, I'll come across a creeper in those woods.
After that, my nerves were toast. I spent the next few hours looking over my shoulder - in the metro station, at the coffee shop, in the airport. Not even a glass of wine at Northside Social could shake the feeling. In retrospect, I needed some alone time after a week full of human interaction, and the park was a great place to be lost. Even if you need to be lost for a little while though, while you can escape humans and responsibilities for a little while, you can't get away from yourself. Without other people around, my mind was free to conjure up something really evil.