As I recall, it was a perfect day, late spring. The beautiful weather felt like the final irony. But once I left the hectic traffic of Connecticut Avenue and got into the quieter neighborhood to the west, I started feeling better with every step, felt that slimy on-line world recede behind me; like maybe it was possible after all to just… walk it off.
I didn’t have any destination in mind, but I found myself heading down toward Rock Creek, vaguely thinking I might head toward the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. I hadn’t been there since spring had finally arrived for good. It was a long hike from my place, but I could do with a little beauty, a good dose of nature. I realized I’d done nothing but sit and write and hibernate for weeks. Months.
I wove my way through the quiet streets – half the current Cabinet members lived in this ritzy neighborhood – to where the trail cut down into the park. I wasn’t the only one out on such a beautiful day. There were a lot of people on the main path that ran along the creek bed, joggers and walkers, going both directions. I made my way, impatiently but politely, around a gray-haired couple as they ambled leisurely along, holding hands. Just the kind of couple Bob and I used to joke that we’d be some day.
For the first time, the memory of Bob brought a smile instead of pain. I let myself have that little gift.
And as I did, I felt my attention wander farther away from my ugly work world: I began to just breathe in the dancing leaves overhead, let the soft dirt beneath my feet replace the deluge of filth that had threatened to drown me. I felt my muscles stretching to life, and had the odd sensation of walking in someone else’s body. It was my own, of course, but I saw it, all at once, as if viewing a stranger: this crusading quasi-journalist, this solitary, introverted widow-woman, afraid of anything that might open contact with the world around her, including friendship, including her unwanted wealth, including anything or anyone outside her own skin.
Who would want to live that life?
The insight was so sudden, so strong, I found I’d stopped dead in my tracks, and heard my own voice exclaim out loud, “huh!”
But it was the question that slipped in on the heels of that lightning bolt that kept me there for a moment more: Well then, now what?
And there I was, still standing, dumbfounded, when I heard footsteps coming up behind me. Reflexively, I stepped aside to let the runner pass me. It was a good-looking guy. Nice muscles, which his sleeveless shirt showed off to good advantage. I realized I hadn’t been noticing stuff like that, and yet I noticed I was noticing now.
He looked over and smiled at me as he passed. Surprising myself, I smiled back.
He went on a few steps, then slowed, turned and jogged back toward me. Whoa. What was this?
“Say,” he said, dark eyes, dark hair, maybe late-twenties, sleek with sweat and handsome as hell. “Aren’t you… aren’t you that blogger? Hanalie, right?” He pronounced it, like a lot of people did, “Hannah-lee”, with a flat Midwestern “a”.
This hunk knew who I was? Even though my photo was on my blog, I was always surprised when anyone recognized me. I had so little interaction with people these days, and I was suddenly aware I’d really lost my social skills. I was flattered, and more than a little flustered.
“Well, yes, that’s me,” I said, dredging up from memory the kind of smile I hadn’t had occasion for in a very long time.
“Yeah. Yeah, I thought so.” He stood there in front of me, hands on hips, bouncing from foot to foot, grinning like the boy next door, if the boy next door had a perfect body and the best teeth money could buy.
Then he said, in the same upbeat conversational tone, “You know, you ought to be careful. Girls go missing in the woods out here. Girls who didn’t even write the kind of crap you did last night.” He flexed his left arm across his chest, then the right, kind of shook his muscles loose, jogging in place, flashing that toothpaste smile again. Except that now I saw how the cold from his eyes totally cancelled out its warmth.
“Well, you enjoy your walk. I just wouldn’t… go too far, if I were you. You go too far, Hanalie, and not even your pretty little ass is going to save you. No more warnings.”
I never saw anyone manage to look both admiring and purely evil at the same time.
He turned to go, with one last grin that punctuated the sentence with the force of a gunshot. “Take care now… maybe we’ll meet again.”
He took off, doubling back the way he’d come.
Me, I just stood there, braced against a tree, mouth open, pole-axed and paralyzed.
A couple of other joggers came pounding toward me. I was suddenly, insanely, paranoid. I bent over, hiding my face, pretending I was catching my breath. I realized there was a trail just in front of me, a side trail. I thought I remembered it cut up through the trees and came out close to the Islamic Center. Was it stupid to abandon the safety of numbers? I don’t know. I just felt like I had to get away from the scene of the crime, the threatened crime that had abruptly hijacked my future. All the more disturbing, the way it had been wrapped in such a deceptively attractive package.
My earlier epiphany, major as it was, had completely evaporated. Now, as I pushed up the slope, I was shaking and stumbling my way along, terrified of who might be coming after me, and all the while cursing Lester Worsham under my breath. Of course the hot dude was Worsham’s errand boy…who else? Had I been really stupid enough to publish that article? What was I thinking? I had to get out of here, out of town. I was focused on that as I lurched uphill, already mentally packing my getaway bags. Already on my way to the airport, already…
…shit! I suddenly ran smack into someone, hard enough to knock the breath out of me, and probably him, too. But…there was no one there, I swear. I’d been looking straight ahead the whole time, almost hyper-aware in my fear-propelled state. We were standing in the middle of a natural clearing, no way in hell I could have missed seeing him.
Was I having a stroke? I saw these bright, shimmering columns of light, just behind this … this man, who seemed to be steadying me with strong hands on my shoulders, as I struggled to catch my breath.
And then…there were two other people standing behind him. But there hadn’t been anyone there. Just those…lights.
I felt oddly stabilized, and realized we were actually holding on to each other. He was looking at me with some concern. He asked if I was all right, in a voice saturated with some Southern roots.
There were three of them. Two men and a woman. All nice looking. All three dressed in casual clothes that were just a bit… off, somehow. Dated, maybe; costume-y.
But what about those lights? It was like there were lights, and then there were people. God, I must be losing my damned mind.
The man in front of me asked me again if I was okay. I don’t think I got a response out. He did look genuinely concerned. He was dark haired, my age or a little older. And he had blue eyes that struck me, even in my confusion, as… kind. I guess it was those eyes that kept me standing there, instead of fleeing. Or maybe I was just still stunned, like when some unexpected noise wakes you in the middle of the night, and it takes a few moments to get your bearings.
Looking past blue-eyes, I saw that the other man had a more athletic build, was handsome in that way that kind of oozes maleness. The woman was beautiful, black, and smiling at me.
I hadn’t had this much human interaction in months. All of a sudden handsome joggers were coming out of the woodwork to threaten my life. Now people were – I swear to God – materializing out of the trees. Some freak reflection off a windshield from the road above, some optical illusion, I told myself; there had to be some logical explanation.
There had to be something logical for me to hang onto.
As it was, I was still hanging on to Blue-eyes, so hard he’d probably have bruises on his arms to show for it.
Gathering my wits enough to feel embarrassed about that, I somehow loosened my grip on his sinewy biceps, rubbed my unbelieving eyes and staggered a bit on my wobbly legs.
Other than the fact that I don’t think I was physically capable at the moment, the question of why I didn’t run, then, intrigues me to this day.