The stranger's eyes darted in my direction as he placed his large hand on my leg. An angry voice inside my head screamed, "Stupid girl! How could you be so trusting?"
Like every other teenager at the tender age of 16, I yearned for more freedom and independence. I had discovered it in the form of my very first car, which my father bought for me at an auction weeks earlier. Now, I could come and go as I pleased, filled with excitement and wonder...and filled with a huge amount of stupidity.
Sure, my parents had given me "the talk". Always lock your car doors. Never give a ride to a stranger. Don't roll your window down for anyone unless it's a police officer. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I had rolled my eyes as they lectured me with their rules...because I knew how to keep myself safe. After all, I was 16 years old. I knew everything I needed to know in life.
Or at least, I thought I did.
My encounter with the stranger happened one day as I drove myself to work at a local fast food place. I was running late and with every passing minute, I grew even more concerned that my boss would be waiting for me in a fit of anger. Patience was not one of his strong points.
I couldn't jeopardize losing this job, even though it sucked big time. Now that I had a car, I was responsible for paying for my own gas and insurance. There was no way I could afford to be without my freedom, especially after having just a small sampling of how liberating it was.
As I waited at a red light just a couple blocks away from where I worked, my car stalled and died. I had no clue what had happened to it, being a new driver and not that well acquainted yet with the car. Back then, there were no cell phones so I didn't have the luxury of simply calling my dad or my boyfriend and asking them for help.
I just sat there in my car, on the verge of tears...and when the light turned green, other drivers became annoyed and began to honk angrily.
Suddenly, a man appeared at my window and motioned for me to roll my window down....and I did.
"Looks like you need some help. You're close enough to the sidewalk here so put your car in neutral and I'll push you off the street," he offered.
Taking a brief glance at him again, I noted that he was around my father's age...he looked kind and was obviously helpful. Nothing in my gut, at this point, shouted out to me...there were no red flags, no warning signs. And I desperately needed to get to work.
I shoved the gearshift into neutral as he had asked and allowed him to push my car forward onto the nearby sidewalk.
In a hurry, I grabbed my purse and bid him a polite thank you, along with a brief explanation that I really needed to get to work.
The stranger must have taken note of my uniform, as he said, "Hey, I can give you a ride. Burger King is just a couple blocks from here...I'd be happy to drive you."
I looked at my watch and saw that it was 5:55 by now...my shift was supposed to start at 5:30. Tears began to fill my eyes...not only was my boss going to rip me a new one but I could imagine my dad yelling at me, "Well, you've only had the car for a few weeks and you've already managed to fuck it up."
My hands began to shake and tears filled my eyes. I felt as if I were stuck between a rock and a hard place. I knew better than to accept a ride from a total stranger but I also needed to get my ass to work and then deal with the car and its aftermath later.
The stranger smiled at me and put his arm around my back, ushering me back towards his car. I detected the faint scent of aftershave on him and somehow felt more at ease.
"Come on," he said. "I have a daughter around your age and I'd hate to think of her stranded all by herself. Let me just get you to work and then I'll be on my way."
He's cool, I thought to myself. He has a daughter my age...surely, someone who is a father himself is worthy of my trust.
I accepted his offer, "Okay, sure. Thanks, I really appreciate all your help."
He got into the driver's seat and made his way back onto the road.
"Uh, I usually make a right on this next street. It's kind of a shortcut," I stated.
I breathed a sigh of relief as he took the right turn and replied, "I know where Burger King is. I grew up here and remember cruising the avenue back in the day. Isn't that what you kids still do?"
Suddenly, I felt nervous. Wouldn't he know if kids still cruised the avenue if, in fact, he had a daughter my age? Trying not to be obvious, I moved my hand over to the passenger side's car door handle and gently grasped it.
This is when I could feel his eyes on me, as his hand manuevered its way over to my leg. My gut trembled in fear and I prayed that he wouldn't be able to tell how scared I was.
"Stupid girl," I thought to myself. "How could you be so trusting?!"
The fact that he was touching my leg made me extremely uncomfortable. Beads of sweat began to form on my forehead and I could feel my heart racing in my chest.
"Oh hey, my name is Fred, by the way," he stated.
Fred? Seriously? When was the last time I had heard of a serial killer named Fred? It was just too...well, normal of a name, I thought to myself. Fred the Serial Killer. Nah, it just didn't work.
Or maybe I was just trying to convince myself that he really was a nice guy, a good samaritan wanting to help someone in trouble. Rather than a total freak who wanted to take advantage of an innocent and way too trusting teenage girl.
I brushed his hand off my leg and rambled, "I'm really late for work. My boss was expecting me almost 30 minutes ago. I'm sure he's already called my house and now my parents are probably worried so they've probably called my boyfriend to see if he knows where I am. I really just want to get to work so I can let them all know I'm okay."
He quickly removed his hand from my leg and mumbled, "No problem."
Although it felt like time was moving as slowly as molasses, it must have only taken 2 minutes to arrive at Burger King.
"You are so so so STUPID," I silently chastised myself repeatedly.
He parked his car in the back of the lot and said, "Pleasure knowing you. I hope you can figure out what's wrong with your car," as he reached across me and put his hand over mine on the passenger door handle..again, invading my personal space without my permission.
I pushed the door open and tried to jump out quickly...but unfortunately grace and balance weren't always my best qualities, as I tripped over the strap from my purse.
"You scared, little girl?" he asked, with one eyebrow raised and smiling in a way that sent shivers down my spine.
Without looking back, I ran through the side door of the restaurant, directly into the ladies' restroom, where I proceeded to break down in tears. When I finally composed myself, I went into my boss' office and apologized profusely for being late.
Seeing that my eyes were red and puffy, he must have assumed that detailed questions were off limits and simply asked, "Are you okay to work today?" I nodded my head.
Although I did tell my boyfriend what had happened, I never told my parents the truth, other than my car breaking down on the side of the road.
I lied, telling them I had walked to work because I feared the wrath of whatever punishment they would dole out, knowing I had accepted a ride from a stranger. Probably the loss of my car, the loss of my job...the loss of my freedom and independence.
I'll never know what might have happened with that stranger...so many unanswered questions continued to haunt me long after that day. What if I hadn't told him I was running late to work and that people would be worried? What if he had driven the opposite way, clearly not taking me to work? Who was he? Had he intended to do harm or was he merely trying to scare me?
It took awhile for me to trust my instincts again, after having felt betrayed and mislead by my own gut. Even now, I tend to assume the worst about people before trusting them...a quality I despise about myself but just can't be helped.
And this is why I always tell my kids that not all strangers appear evil or dangerous looking.
The friendliest, most attractive strangers can be your worst nightmare. Or maybe they aren't.
But it's certainly not something you want to find out once you're inside that stranger's car, ultimately entrusting him or her with your precious and valued life.