#86this: Main Menu
by cindy luu
“Hey, I’m sorry I called while you were in class.” Emily’s familiar voice crackled in my ears.
“No, it’s cool. I got out early,” I said, tucking my scarf underneath my chin and adjusting my earbuds before slipping my phone in my pocket. I gripped the straps of my backpack and rocked back and forth on the balls of my boot-clad feet, bracing myself. I glanced both ways at the wide one-way road before making a mad dash across Tremont Street.
“Where are you?”
“I’m just taking a walk through the Common.” Like a smaller version of New York City’s Central Park, the Boston Common was a patch of green in the middle of downtown Boston that offered a break from the hustle and bustle of city life.
“I miss the Common,” she hummed. Although technically the park was a public space, many fellow students considered it an extension of campus. Literally across the street, the Common was where we’d go to smoke, where the always-reliable sausage cart was available for a late night snack as we stumbled back to the dorms from a night out, and where we’d have Quidditch matches on the weekends. “How are you? How’s your personal life?”
“I’m good. Busy,” I sighed, noticing a fat squirrel playing among the rainbow of leaves on the ground. “I’m actually taking a break from dating, so no new Tinder boys to report back.”
“Sounds like a good thing,” she commented, gently.
“Yeah, I think so too.” The autumn breeze brushed my bare face and ruffled my hair. It was mid-October, and the sun hung low in the sky, blanketing the city with a comforting deep orange glow. It made walking through the Common enjoyable, especially after a long day of school. “How about you? What’s new with you?”
If you were walking by, I’m sure I looked like any other young college student after a long Tuesday: a face without any makeup, dressed casually and comfortably in leggings, an overstuffed backpack slung over my jacket. With earbuds in place and hands stuffed in my pockets, I probably looked like any other person walking through the Common who was in their own bubble and didn’t want to be disturbed.
Nearing the intersection where I had begun my walk, I didn’t notice that twilight had set in or that the streetlights had turned on until the windows in the dorm across the street caught my attention. Glancing at the time on my phone, I wasn’t surprised we’d been talking for over an hour.
Slipping my phone back into my pocket, I took a step forward only to be stopped. A young man suddenly appeared before me, interrupting my path. The way his eyes were staring directly at me was startling. He was talking animatedly, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying or read lips very well.
If you were walking by, it must have looked like an innocent encounter between two people. Neither of us looked threatening. There was a distinct amount of space between this stranger and me that afforded just enough personal space to acknowledge we didn’t know each other, but close enough to imply we were communicating. This stranger and I were both standing outside of a subway station, so to you walking by it must have looked like he was asking for directions.
“Hold on, Emily,” I said, dislodging my left earbud. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I said, ‘You don’t need Tinder to find a boy,’” he smiled. “Tell your friend you’ll call back later.”
“Cindy? Is everything okay?” Emily’s voice rang in my right ear.
“Uh, I think so—no, I’m not going to hang up,” I stuttered, both in response to Emily and the stranger who was motioning for me to hang up.
“What’s going on?” Emily demanded.
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I suddenly found myself in the middle of a flurry of activity. Emily’s voice disappeared, as the stranger took my earbuds and put them in his own ears.
“Hi, she’s going to call you back, okay?” Without Emily’s voice to remind me of the personal bubble I was in, the jarring sounds of the city overwhelmed and cemented me to that exact spot: watching a stranger talk to my friend through my phone.
This stranger was taller than me, wore glasses, and kept his hair short. His youth and casual attire suggested he was around my age and maybe in school, too. He looked like any other unassuming guy, but his bold, aggressive behavior contradicted his image—enough to shock me into confusion and by default, submission.
“Oh wow, what does your friend do? She’s kind of intimidating,” he laughed nervously, finally addressing me again.
“She works for the federal government,” I said flatly, rescuing one of the earbuds. I was half lying; Emily was only an intern, but he didn’t need to know that.
If you were walking by, this stranger and I must have looked like we knew each other: two friends or a couple huddled together and sharing a pair of earbuds, listening to the same song.
“No, I’m not going to hang up.”
“No, she’s not going to hang up or do anything,” Emily echoed in both of our ears. I was uncomfortable with my proximity to the stranger, but relieved to have Emily on the line—especially when I didn’t know what to do or say. I didn’t know what to expect from this stranger or what he was capable of.
“How about instead of her giving you her number, you give her your number and she’ll call if she’s interested,” she said, confusing me. He hadn’t asked for my number. I quickly caught on when I saw his appeased expression. From the other end of the phone, it must’ve sounded like I was being cornered somewhere. She was trying to turn the situation in my favor where I had the control.
“Okay, that’s fair.” I didn’t know if Emily heard him agree or heard my sigh of relief when he finally returned the other earbud. “Do you have a pen?”
If you were walking by, it must have looked like this stranger and I were more than just familiar with each other. The way he hovered as I turned around to set my backpack on a nearby ledge suggested we were comfortable with each other.
“So, how was work?” I asked Emily, casually. I already found a pen, but I had my back to him so he didn’t know I was stalling.
“Is he still there?” There was an edge to Emily’s voice.
“Yup!” I answered with false cheer, swinging my backpack on as I turned around to face him. Not being able to find a scrap of paper or anything, I hesitantly offered him my hand. “Here.”
“How old school,” he laughed. Feeling the scratching of the pen on my palm and the handcuff of his grip on my wrist, I held my breath as I counted down the seconds to my escape. “It looks like your pen isn’t working.”
“Oh, well,” I snatched my hand back and shoved it into the safety of my jacket pocket. I looked around, about to flee, when he made a big show of finding a gum wrapper in his pocket and writing on it with my pen.
“What does it say?”
I read his scribbles aloud. I had to take a step back because he was holding the gum wrapper just inches from my nose.
If you were walking by, this stranger and I must have looked like two friends saying goodbye or two people who just ended a good first date with a promise to see each other again soon. He gave me a smile and a wink. I flashed a tight-lipped smile of my own before turning around.
“Is he still there? Where are you?” Emily’s voice reminded me that I was still on the phone.
“He’s gone,” I said, rushing to cross the street. Ten strides later, I breathed marginally easier the moment I stepped onto the curb, onto campus. “I’m going to the library.”
Making my way down the block, I glanced back at the spot I just fled. The Boston Common was anything but a dark alley, and that park entrance was always busy with people rushing about—but I still felt cornered and alone.
“You don’t need Tinder to find a boy.”
I quickened my pace as I let my blank gaze fall to my feet. I couldn’t look at the park anymore, my once-safe space, when I realized the stranger must have been following me, listening for some time before approaching me. That comment was in reference to what I said at the beginning of the phone call, over an hour ago.
“Hey,” said Emily. “Do you want to talk about it? How do you feel?”
I felt violated and disrespected. I felt mad and upset. I felt confused and scared. I—
Cindy is a first-generation Vietnamese-American writer. Her perspective is heavily influenced by her upbringing in the diverse San Francisco Bay Area and undergraduate studies at Emerson College in Boston. Her journey to understanding herself, a woman and a person of color, parallels her growth as a writer. Cindy currently works at San Jose State University, and continues to write with the hope that her voice can speak to the experiences of others.