Lone Traveler: Lessons in Resilience and Strength

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This winter break I have decided to go on a sixteen-day trip across several different states by myself. The trip began in Louisville, Kentucky and will end in Los Angeles, California. I have planned to travel light and at the cheapest rates. My travel gear includes one backpack. My transportation includes buses, trains, and cheap airlines. My nights are spent in hostels and cheaply rented household rooms. Traveling brings out a side of me I love. I feel more spontaneous, adaptable to change, outgoing, and carefree. Traveling has allowed me to expand my perception of the world around me, and learn that there are many good people out there.

However, I experienced a dark side to traveling alone years ago, as a young woman. The day was December 28th. I had just left a rented room in Atlanta, Georgia and was standing in line for the bus that would take me to Montgomery, Alabama.  As a bus rolled up, earlier than mine was scheduled to arrive, someone from behind me wondered aloud whether this was their bus. I turned to say that I was not sure, but hoped it was the one for Montgomery.

The person who had spoken was an attractive young guy, in his mid-20’s. He agreed and replied that we would be traveling on the same bus together, because he was heading in the same direction to reach New Orleans. The young man and I spoke a bit about our travel experiences. It was, in fact, our bus. After 20 minutes passed, the staff allowed us to begin boarding.  

I chose a seat in the back on the upper level, where there were rows of paired seats. Typically, there are few enough passengers that most travelers can have the two seats to themselves. I placed my backpack on the seat next to me, fully intending to move it once I had gotten my coat unzipped. However, the zipper was stuck. As I struggled with it, I saw from the corner of my eye the young man I had been speaking with in line, waiting for the seat. We had boarded early and there were plenty of empty seats he could choose instead. He eventually asked to sit next to me. I was embarrassed that my zipper was still stuck and hurriedly moved my backpack from the seat for him to sit.

For some reason I felt nervous about him sitting next to me. I chalked it up to being embarrassed that he had seen me struggle with my coat. His insistence that he sit next to me should have my first hint.

I opened my Stephen King novel and began reading. The young man opened his own book. I had a sense that he was looking at me from the corner of his eye. This increasingly uncomfortable feeling crept up me, but I tried my best to ignore it. To help quell my nerves, I stuck my headphones and continued to read. After a few moments, the young man put his book back into his bag and pulled out his own headphones.

During the bus trip, the guy draped his jacket over his torso and lap. I figured he was using it as a makeshift blanket. He put his head back and his legs spread out. I moved my legs away, closer to the window, to avoid having our legs touch. I began to feel tired as well and allowed my eyes to close. I drifted off a bit, but awoke with a strange feeling that his hand had just brushed my knee. I shot straight up and moved even further. My instinct was that maybe he was trying to grab and steal my phone or portable phone charger. I wondered if the touch had been a simple mistake; he seemed normal, after all.

After a few minutes, I began to have the sense the young man was glancing at me. I no longer felt comfortable reading. Instead, I just stared out the window and listened to my music. The young man got up and left his seat. I assumed he was using the restroom. He returned much more quickly than I expected. When the young man returned to his seat, he picked up his backpack from the ground and put it in his lap. I figured this would serve as a pillow for him. He also re-draped his jacket over his torso.

When I began to read again, I knew for sure his eyes were on me. I also began to notice from the corner of my eye that his hands were moving in his lap. I tried to focus on my book, but I found myself rereading the same lines over and over as my uncertainty of what was occurring deepened. Eventually, my eyes drifted right.

I saw his flesh, exposed. I realized what he was doing and felt momentarily paralyzed with fear. This guy was masturbating and staring straight at me. He was using his jacket to cover himself from other passengers but kept it open for me to see.

I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. I did not want to be in this situation. I did not want to have to do anything. I wanted him to get the hint: I did not want this. I knew flashers liked reactions so I tried my best to not show my fear. Everything felt like it was in slow motion. I snapped out of my shock when I heard a cry from the baby who was sitting on their mother’s lap a seat behind us. My first thought was, “You’re doing this with a baby right here. You sick fuck.” I whirled around, making sure to look at just his face and said loudly, “Dude, can you not?” I must have shocked the guy because he instantly zipped his pants back up.

I looked away and out the window, inwardly shaking. I had seen the expression on his face while he was masturbating in my direction. He had these lost, determined eyes. There was a sickness in them. The expression told me that he didn’t see or care about me as a person. I was just trash in his eyes — not someone, something that could be used as an outlet to drain whatever problems he was going through. It was the same expression I had seen from the boys who had taken advantage of me.

The ordeal of my suspicion, realization, and confrontation must have been done in just a matter of a minute or two. But it felt much, much longer than that. He began to shakily type into his phone. He passed the phone to me, his entire body shaking. I took the phone to read what he had written in his notes. He explained that he and his girlfriend of seven years had just broken up and he was really depressed. He had never flashed before and had just decided to do it.

Classic sexual predator. Attempting to get the person they have just disturbed to feel bad for them. To excuse their behavior. I typed back that he should see a counselor and told him to move to another seat. He typed on his phone that he would seek out a counselor in New Orleans, grabbed his possessions, and left the seat.

Once he had left, I began to feel the fear I tried to bottle up in order to get myself out of the situation. Even after I had gotten off the bus I could not shake the feelings of disgust and agitation. This act had brought me back to a darker time. It reopened memories and feelings from the past. And I remembered a lot of my younger self’s pain. At first I tried to shake off the negative feelings from the bus. I was upset with myself that I could not get over it. But as I sat and thought about why I was truly upset about this, I allowed the feelings to be experienced.

Post Traumatic Stress. When people experience a traumatic event in their life, situations that remind them of this event can cause intense negative emotions. To onlookers, these reactions may seem exaggerated and unfounded. Which only further isolates these people. They feel ashamed for not reacting the way a “normal” person should.

To those of you like me: don’t try to pretend you are not feeling what you are. Feelings cannot be wrong. It’s important to understand the significance and causes of these feelings. It is also important to have and maintain an open, safe, and supportive environment where you can communicate your feelings and seek understanding. This may mean removing yourself from certain social circles that attempt to undermine your feelings and persuade you to not completely experience your emotions.

Sometimes, it means being alone and allowing self-care and meditation after triggers and negative emotions resurface. The boys from my past caused me to feel deeply afraid, self-loathing, and distrustful. But I have been able to transform myself into a person who is stronger than them, who may be afraid but is brave enough to fight my fears, and a person who strives to be the best me there will ever be. There is still goodness in this world. As I embark on this solo journey across the heart of the country, I intend to experience and spread it.