I realized I’m afraid of men in the summer of 2019. I was driving to the east suburbs of Cleveland to have dinner with a college friend one Saturday in July. It was about an hour and a half drive from my small town near Toledo. The route was familiar. I took it to go to my grandparents, to the movies, and to my favorite concert venue.

The day was humid, and the sun was beating through the windshield. I wore an embroidered jean skirt with a gray tank top. I fought to keep my eyes open—I’d stayed up late the night before. There was a rest stop soon with a short walking path through a forest. I figured the walk would wake me up.

So, I pulled into the rest stop. The forest surrounded the parking lot, which curved and wrapped around the little building in the middle. There were three of us in the parking lot: a semi, a beige pickup truck, and mine, though I didn’t see anyone.

I stepped out of my car and walked across the grass to go to the bathroom. When I was leaving, I heard the hand dryer go off in the men’s room. My body went cold. I glanced over my shoulder. A middle aged man, bald and wearing bright orange shirt and khaki shorts, followed me out the door, across the grass, and to my car.

I locked the car immediately. I watched him as he climbed in to his beige truck and turn on the engine. My shoulders relaxed now that he was driving away. I reclined my seat and closed my eyes. The noisy engine of the truck stopped. He parked behind me.

I was excited to start sixth grade, attending a new school with new people, having different teachers for different subjects. It was a new taste of freedom I hadn’t yet experienced. My parents decided I was responsible enough for contacts, and in a few months, I’d get braces.

I was in the art class—chosen by nothing but luck—that was taught by the eighth-grade art teacher instead of the sixth-grade one. Mr. Schlein was one of the cool teachers, the one my classmates were excited to have. He treated us like adults not children, though we were children. He had white and black hair with more white than black and a thick, white mustache. He always wore a ceramist’s apron, although I don’t remember him doing ceramics.

Mr. Schlein’s studio was massive to my 12-year-old perspective. The front part of the studio had black tables pushed together to create three sections. There were blackboards overflowing with student art that spread across the walls. The back part of the room was sectioned off by a wall with openings for a door and window. It was cluttered with art supplies and junk. Everyone joked that Mr. Schlein was a hoarder.

Mr. Schlein took a liking to me from the first day. He made fun of my subconscious idiosyncrasies: playing with my eyelashes or my fingernails. I felt special that he chose me, that he liked me the best in the class.

“What are you doing? Pulling out your eyelashes?” he always used to say.

I wasn’t talented in art class. I couldn’t draw or sculpt, so he encouraged me to come during my study hall to work on my projects. One study hall, Mr. Schlein asked me to help him look for something in the back section of the classroom.

I followed him through the door; students weren’t supposed to be back here. He told me some arbitrary thing to find and I turned around to search. When I started to walk away, Mr. Schlein slapped my butt so hard that I fell forward onto my knees. I didn’t know what just happened. He laughed and held out his hand.

“How do you like it?”

“I bet you like doggy style.”

I was at musical rehearsal, sitting back stage with three guys. My high school boyfriend told the school we have sex.

“Or are you boring and like missionary?”

I thought I was cool for having more guy friends than girl friends.

“I’m not going to tell you,” my face was hot, and I could tell, a deep red.

“Come on,” said Carter. He was two years younger than me, and he was flirty, as much as you can be at 15. A few weeks ago, I had fallen asleep back stage and he started spooning me.

They were all laughing at my red face and my embarrassment. I was laughing with them.

When I was 19, I worked at a pizza place for three weeks. The restaurant was on an island in Lake Erie called Put-in-Bay, infamous for drinking and partying. The pizza place was a local chain located inside a bar called Mr. Ed’s. It was a small counter at the back of the bar with a full view of the kitchen.

I was typically assigned to the counter because I was the only woman who worked there. And pretty women make more tips.

My manager was named Will. He was skinny and tied his long, thin hair into a low ponytail. He trained me, watched over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t put too many pepperonis on the pizzas.

On a Saturday, about halfway through my second week, we were unusually slow. It was gray and rainy and not particularly warm. Only Will and I were working. I, like usual, was minding the counter. A drunken man approached the counter.

He ordered a slice of pizza.

“The total is four dollars. Are you paying cash or credit?”

“You’re gorgeous. Your eyes are so blue. Can I have your number?”

 “Uh, no,” I bent over to grab a plate and napkin.

 “You’ve got a great body.”

 The phone started ringing.

 “John, can you get that?”

 I glanced behind at him. He gave me a blank stare, then continued to assemble orders.

“Can I please have your number?”

The phone was still ringing.

“Will?” He didn’t respond. I picked up the phone and held a finger up to the drunk man. He walked away.

I asked Will why he didn’t answer the phone.

“Because you shouldn’t be wasting time flirting with the customers.”

I locked eyes with the man in the truck. My heart was racing. I turned on the engine and backed up. He waved at me as I drove past him.

My mind was trying to process what had happened as I sped onto the highway. I felt numb. What just happened? Adrenaline flooded my veins.

I caught up with the speed limit. Trees flew past. I felt violated and gross. But he didn’t even touch me. I should have brought a sweater.

The blurs of green were beginning to be replaced with billboards. Hot anger rose up my stomach and through my throat. How could he make me feel this way? I should have yelled or gave him the middle finger, but I just stared back.

The Cleveland skyline appeared in my rearview mirror. What else could I have done? My palms sweat against the steering wheel.

I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant and saw my friend waving to me from our table. I smiled and waved back at him. 

Sarah Barney

Sarah Barney is studying Environmental Studies, Narrative Journalism, and Geoscience at Denison University. She has been a journalist-intern for the Put-in-Bay Gazette and The Reporting Project, and a communications and development intern for the Rodale Institute. She has also worked on social media and newsletters for the Lake Erie Nature and Wildlife Center. Sarah (and her two co-producers) won the 2020 Denison Podcast-a-thon for the audio story, “The Immortal Jellyfish.” She also won the Nan Nowik Award for her Women & Gender Studies essay “About the Timid.” Sarah currently resides in Oak Harbor, Ohio, an itty-bitty town just east of Toledo, where she has lots of trees to admire.