What a Late-Night Stop at a Gas Station Taught Me About Rape Culture

© Julie Anderson All Rights Reserved

“Are you sure it’s not too late to drive home?” Josh asked. “You can sleep on the couch if you want.”

By my standards, 10:30 PM wasn’t that late. But the drive was an hour long, and I needed to get up early the next morning for my internship. I kissed him goodbye and told him I’d be fine.

I’d had a cup of tea before I left. Not as much caffeine as coffee, but just enough to keep me alert while I drove. Thirty minutes into the drive I started to regret that decision because I had to Go. There are times when it’s a nagging inconvenience, and you can put up with a little discomfort … and then there are times when you know you have to stop.

This was one of those times, but at around 11 at night, my options were limited. I pulled into the first place I saw with lights on: a gas station. No other cars were at the pumps or in the parking spaces. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head as I reluctantly unbuckled my seat belt: This is not a safe place for a woman to be alone. I knew this. I even made sure my keys were held in my fist like a knife, ready to gouge out the eyeballs of anyone who dared to mess with me.

The lone man at the counter greeted me when I walked in. “Evening, Miss.”

“Evening,” I mumbled back, despite thinking, of course, the one person running the gas station at this hour is a man. “Uhh, …where’s the bathroom?”

“Over that way,” he pointed. “But you’ll need this.” He set a key down on the counter. A key. So the bathroom door was locked from the outside. Just perfect.

I started mentally cursing myself for doing this, for having the bladder of a two-year-old in my twenties, while normal people could have held it long enough to get to a safer, non-questionable place to relieve themselves. But by then my stomach was starting to hurt from holding it in, and I really had no choice. I snatched the key and ran.

If this guy were That Kind of Guy I’ve been warned about in places like this, now would be a perfect time to assault me: we were alone. There were probably no security cameras. And, my pants were conveniently down at my ankles. My knees shook as I did what I had to do, and my uneasy fingers fumbled with the belt buckle as I tried to move quickly, lamenting the fact that we live in a world where this kind of fear is not a figment of the imaginatively paranoid: it is real. There is a sort of war taking place, living in a world where it is sadly uncommon to hear about the sort of men who take advantage of women traveling alone. Men who get off on intimidation and control.

Maybe the man at the counter has a wife or daughter and understands this fear. But without any confirmation, he was a threat until proven otherwise. It’s not just about being fearful, although I wish it were: it’s about survival. And it hurt my heart to realize that if my fiancé were with me right then, I would have felt much safer, and if it were he who needed to stop somewhere to pee by himself, this sort of Danger Alert likely wouldn’t cross his mind at all.

The man wished me a good night when I dropped the key on the counter. Even held the door open for me as I left, watched me get into my car. As I quickly drove away, I couldn’t bring myself to count that experience as one that proves the world may have some decent people in it after all. Instead, I counted myself as lucky.

Sarahbeth Caplin Stoneburner

Sarahbeth Caplin is an author, blogger, and editor living in northern Colorado. She has a degree in English Literature from Kent State University and is working on an MA in Creative Writing at Colorado State. Her new novel, A Stunning Accusation, is published by Booktrope and is available on Amazon. She blogs at www.sbethcaplin.com and tweets @SbethCaplin.

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