Delia Cruz Kelly
It wasn’t until the sheriffs had me walk them back to exactly where I was chased, and show them exactly how far I had run, that I started to realize how much worse it could’ve been.
My mom had one rule every time I left her apartment (or her sight): be careful. So when she said it for the millionth time as I headed out the door at 4:45 PM on June 24th, 2020 for a short run, I assured her with the same response as always: I will be, don’t worry.
I would take the familiar route I had been running with my brother Liam every day for the last week: take a left turn out of the Fountain Glen 55+ apartment complex (waving to our mom’s elderly neighbors as they spot us and say “There’s Peggy’s kids!”), then another left onto Winchester, one of Temecula’s busiest streets, and jog northbound until we reached the bike path’s downward sloping entrance. The asphalt path was flanked by the metal fence of Fountain Glen’s back parking lot on one side and a sand-filled, brush-spotted wash on the other. As you reached the bottom of the sloped entrance and continued your jog, the bike path laid out in front of you, and the underpass beneath Winchester lurked behind you. It went on for a mile, straight as an arrow until a slight curve ¾ of the way through. At the end of that mile on the right, was a bridge over the wash that led to a nearby park and on the left, a cul-de-sac that connected to Chaparral High School’s football field & running track.
Liam was visiting from Boston for the week and was in the middle of one of his many health & fitness bouts, this one influenced by the push notifications of his new Apple Watch. Every morning I’d sleepily lace up my Nikes to tag along on that very running route, trying my best to keep up with his former-cross-country-runner endurance. I was a month post-grad and – after those early months of pandemic anxiety –15 pounds heavier, so I welcomed the push to run. It felt good to move my body and feel my heart rate bound upwards in rhythm with my strides, even through labored breaths, even when I’d have to stop and walk half-way through. We’d pass happy, sunshiney bicyclists and other runners on the path, everyone enjoying their summertime exercise. I felt at home with every ephemeral nod and “Good Morning.” I take to habits as quickly as I abandon them, so by the time Liam and I went on our last run together on the 23rd before his flight, I had already resolved to go on my own the next day.
Without Liam to wake me up, I lost the whole morning in bed. As the afternoon rolled around, I stared guiltily at my Nikes and told myself it wasn’t too late. 4:45 PM on a summer day in California was as bright as any morning, I could run to the bridge and back in 30 minutes before the sun even began to set. I recited my reasoning to meet my mom’s worry.
“But are you sure you should go alone?”
“It’ll be fine,” I say, convincing myself as much as I am convincing her. “There’s always lots of people on the path.”
“Okay, well make sure there are others around you and be careful.”
“I will be, don’t worry.”
I knew something was wrong the moment my soles met the asphalt. I looked ahead to an uncharacteristically empty path then checked over my shoulder and saw two men walking in my direction beneath the underpass’ shadow about 25 yards away. One was tall and skinny, the other short and round, the first in khaki shorts, a black graphic tee, black vans and a baseball hat, the second a white t-shirt and blue jeans. My gut twisted. It’s okay. You’re okay. They’ll probably leave you alone. Not everyone is bad. I only looked for a moment before turning my head forward again, tightening my swaying pony tail in its band, adjusting the AirPods in my ears, and white-knuckling the left-handed grip on my phone.
I couldn’t have made it more than another 25 yards before a second pair of footsteps were jogging next to mine.
“Hey gorgeous! Where you running to?”
The skinny man is even with me on my right, I glance sideways in reaction and notice his friend trailing a few feet behind. I only glimpse his face for a moment before locking my gaze forward. I’m too afraid to look into his eyes. He’s practically arm and arm with me, I can feel his breath. Can a heart stop and race at the same time? All expression leaves my face. My mouth sews shut and I ignore his question, as a million enter my mind.
Why the hell is no one else on the path? What am I supposed to do? What are they going to do? Is he going to kill me? Worse, him and his friend will drag me into the wash and rape me, won’t they? Why is my mom always right? Damn it, WHY did I go on this run alone?
He prods again, “Did you run track sweetheart? Slow down, why are you in such a hurry?”
Hurry. I say nothing and pick up my pace, hoping to make myself too difficult a catch, but his strides fall in line, chasing after me. It’s fight, or flight, or sprint. Adrenaline takes over my every movement. There’s no stopping half-way through this time, it’s make it to the end of the mile or don’t.
I begin to sprint, the skinny man falls a few yards behind but keeps after me as the round one falls even further behind in a jog. I dart my eyes through the metal fence trying to find a witness. There’s an old man shuffling through the parking lot. Do I scream? I’m starting to lose my breath already, better to conserve what I have. I half-heartedly, but frantically wave my hands in his direction and bob my head. He sees me... He sees me!
The old man looks right at me, then wordlessly swats his hand in dismissal, turns away, and continues his house-slippered shuffling.
But what could he do anyway? He’s across the lot and we’re separated by an eight-foot fence. I think for a moment about climbing the fence and jumping down into the parking lot, but just as soon as the idea comes to me, so does the visual of the skinny man’s hands wrapped around my waist, as I cling four-limbed to the metal, yanking me down before I reach the top. I don’t have time. I check over my shoulder again, and see I’ve put a little more distance between myself and my pursuer. What is that, 15 yards?
I’m maybe half a mile into what now feels like a tunnel whose ending light is getting smaller and smaller. I squint to see the second sign of life. A group of bicyclists is crossing the bridge. If they turn left this will all be over. They’d pedal that half mile straight to me. I’d throw myself in front of them, preferring to be trampled. We’d outnumber the two men, who were likely cowards, and I’d be safe. Everything in me feels they’ll turn. My brain sends a signal to my burning thighs and calves saying,“just a little longer, just a little faster, help is on the way.” I keep bounding forward, the lead bicyclist reaches the end of the bridge. Please turn. Please turn. Please turn.
Breathlessly, I watch them ride straight through, over the path and out of sight onto the cul-de-sac. My legs nearly buckle in disappointment and desperation. The light at the end of the tunnel shrinks again, but all I can do is keep running towards it. I’m coming up to the slight curve in the path when I realize this is the farthest I’ve ever run without stopping. I take a final look behind my shoulder, the skinny man is further still, he looks tired and spent like me. We lock eyes for a moment. I hate him.
I swear not to look back again, and drive my legs even harder into the asphalt. My arms alternate swings and I glance at the phone in my left hand for the first time. Could I thumb 911? I swipe up and clumsily press the phone icon. My “favorites” appear in a list on the screen, “Mom” on top. I tap her name out of instinct and convenience and listen to the rings as they sync with my heavy exhales. No answer. My chest heaves up and down five or six times before I tap again. More rings. No answer. I tap 11 more times. What could she be doing? Showering? Reading a book? Is her phone off? She should answer. My heart is splitting like my shins. I want to yell out for her. I want to be home with her.
The skinny man has probably given up by now, but that doesn’t mean I can. I’m almost there, but“there” might not mean safety. What if I’m still alone? As I near the cul-de-sac entrance I spot two women getting out of their parked car, they’re so close. I let out a whimpering “HELP” as I run a last stretch to them, practically falling into their arms in relief as I catch my breath between sobs: “I–” “was–” “chased–” “by–” “two–” “men–” “please–” “can–” “you–” “take–” “me–” “home?”
The two women embraced me without hesitation and led me back to their car. They told me their names were Rachel and Jordan and asked me only two questions: “Are you okay?” and “Where should we take you?” I feebly answered yes and said I was staying with my mom at Fountain Glen around the corner as I buckled my seat belt, still shaking. Rachel reached her hand out behind the driver’s seat to rub my knee and say she’s so sorry. I was still crying in relief. Her comforting and knowing touch nearly broke me in half. Jordan handed me tissues from the passenger glove compartment. During the four minute drive, Rachel and Jordan say they heard of another incident on that path a few days ago. Something happened to a woman on a bike. They didn’t know what.
When I finally made it to my mom’s apartment, she took one look at me and her face dropped. “What happened?” I let the fear of the last 30 minutes pour out of me and watched her face as it paralyzed in shock. She curled up next to me on the couch and said “Oh Deal…my phone was on silent. I’m so sorry.” She squeezed me close. I told her what Rachel & Jordan said about the woman on a bike, and we decided to call the sheriff department.
Officer Andrade met us outside with his equally portly partner, their two sheriff cars crowding Fountain Glen’s entrance. It took only a few moments for some of my mom’s neighbors to gather out front in curiosity. I was identified as the chased and pulled by Officer Andrade away from the group, behind his vehicle, but I could still feel their ogling. His first question wasn’t “Are you okay?” but a formal “Can we ask you a few questions?” I agree and he gives me the framework: “You’ll tell me what happened from start to finish without interruption. Then you’ll tell me again while I interject to ask questions. Then you’ll tell it a third time to my partner.”
In each telling, I felt more removed from myself. My narration turned the reality of what happened to me into a story. Andrade had me move around him to reenact how close the skinny man jogged next to me, like we were rehearsing stage directions. He asked me to repeat what the man had said to me again as he scribbled in his notepad. I gave a physical description of both suspects each time, and grew annoyed on the third telling when they asked me again if I could remember the graphic design on the skinny man’s shirt and I told them I still couldn’t, justifying my lack of detail with the fact I was too afraid to really look at him. After the questioning, they had me stand in front of the apartment complex doors and took full-length pictures of me from each side. I was wearing black running shorts, a cropped, white top, and a black nike hat. My inner dialogue sprung reflexively into defense against what I thought the officers might be assessing. My shorts are short, but not that short. My shirt is cropped, but my stomach isn’t even showing.
After taking the pictures, Officer Andrade and his partner stepped away to conference, but not far enough out of earshot. They called their supervisor and I overheard pieces of their report, “The description is pretty spot on… Yeah it was the same place, very similar situation.” I thought of the woman on a bike. What happened to her? What could’ve happened to me? Officer Andrade said he couldn’t share information about “past incidents” which told me at least that they existed.
The officers decided they needed to take me back to the scene on the path, and barred my mom from joining us. I numbly obliged and took a left out of Fountain Glen, a left on Winchester Road, and walked down the sloping path entrance with the two fat men. On the way over, Officer Andrade praised me for my non-responsive response to the man first approaching me. He said I reacted “perfectly.” Perfectly. So what if instead of ignoring the skinny man I had barked back a “leave me the fuck alone” like he deserved? Would the consequences of agitation be on me?
When we got to the bottom of the sloping entrance Officer Andrade and his partner set the stage, they both acted as my two pursuers, and mapped out their approximate distances. “And you were here right? Was he this far away?” After getting their measurements, they told me to stay put as they went to investigate. They left me standing alone. I watched them flash their flashlights through the brush in the wash and look around the underpass area for a few minutes wishing they’d hurry up. There was a slight chill in the air as the sun was beginning to set and I kept my head on a freshly-traumatized swivel. A male pedestrian was coming up to the path entrance and so I nervously called out “Uhhhhm, excuse me... Officer Andrade!” He looked up from the spot of concrete he was inspecting. “Could you please come up here?” It took him a full minute to waddle to me. “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel safe on my own.” The male pedestrian had already passed. Andrade gave a quick and confused apology and said we could go.
Back at Fountain Glen, the sheriffs shook my mom’s hand, gave me their phone numbers, thanked me for my help, and drove off. As soon as the decaled cars were out of sight, the women that were waiting with my mom surrounded me. Alex, the daughter of a resident, handed me bottles of essential oils “to help me destress.” Dottie led her corgi over to me for a soothing pet. Lynn said “Please take this,” placing a palm-sized, keychain alarm in my hand, “it’s a Birdie. All my girls have one.” She explained how to pull the top off of the rectangular device to activate the strobe light and screeching alarm. It’s meant to be a non-violent deterrent to attacks, to draw the attention of anyone around you. The Birdie website has a slogan: “We Created a Product We Hope You Never Have to Use.”
It’s a little too late.
In the months after the chase, I was haunted by the men - all of them. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after bouts of nightmares running from faceless pursuers and during the days there were countless little triggers everytime I left my new apartment on my own. I could barely make it to my car and back without almost crushing my Birdie alarm into dust with my grip. Everyday tasks like going to the grocery store, or walking to the laundry room, or just being out were all tinged with an intense anxiety, an anxiety that existed, perhaps more mildly, before that run, because after all - I was a woman alone in the world before that run too.
Sometimes I felt like I was overreacting. Actually, I didn’t. Sometimes I felt like people thought I was overreacting. Like on the afternoon of September 15th - when I was journaling about an old crush outside a coffee shop by myself and out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man staring awfully at me, mumbling something that seemed wrong under his breath. My journal entry cuts mid page with a scribbled “I’m afraid of being alone.” I clicked my pen, shoved my journal into my tote bag and retreated to the locked confines of my car to cry. I could hear the imagined judgment and dismissal, He was just looking at you. How did you even notice something so small?
I’ve been conditioned to notice. I can’t count the number of phone calls from my mom in parking lots at night, from my sister on her walks home, from my girlfriends when they’re out that start with some version of “Hi, I’m alone can you stay on the phone?” I’ve seen enough episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit or practically any popular crime media to know the world is not safe for women.
It’s a terrible thing to always feel on guard, but it's worse still to be perpetually unarmed. I often wonder what that run would have looked like if I had pepper spray or mace. Would I have been able to aim directly enough into the skinny man’s terrifying eyes? Would the round man in the meantime run up and tackle me, or slap the weapon from my trembling hand? If I didn’t spray well enough and only made my attackers more angry, would it have all been over for me in an instant? I don’t think any weapon in my hands could have helped me in that moment – I felt I needed a shield. Ironically and frustratingly, I felt I needed a man.
I bought my Brooks (because the sales associate said Brooks are for real runners) on November 13th. The next day, I went on my first solo run since the “incident.” I drove five minutes from my apartment to Tewinkle Park, a location I had scouted the previous weekend with a friend and had found to be populated enough and spotted with enough families with children on a late Saturday morning to feel safe, but still nervous.
I didn’t have a lot of time so I only set out to run a single mile around the park’s perimeter and through its concrete paths. I stepped out of my car, tightened my ponytail in its band, adjusted my airpods, and pushed myself to move. The first minute of a run is a transition period. I pull down my shorts, shuffle to the right song, try to elongate my strides and get control of my breathing. It takes until the end of that minute to realize that I’m actually running, feeling the rhythm of my heavy steps and the straining beat of my heart. The air is crisp and light, every sideways glance taken out of caution is met instead with joy. A 1st birthday party, an elderly couple’s stroll. I’m running on my own again, and it feels good.
The buzz of my Apple Watch signified 1 completed mile, and I slowed to a walk. Ding. Text from Liam. He got the synced notification on his Watch telling him I had completed a workout and sent a fire emoji. I replied, “That was my first solo run since I was chased!” I let out a sigh of relief when I got back in my car and broke out in a smile. Then another sigh… this one more of a release. I started to cry one of those breath-catching cries you can feel deep in your chest. On the drive home, a conviction I thought I had lost for good came back to me as I thought: I want to run.