Tim Cyphers is a writer and professional from Baltimore, MD, United States, currently studying writing at Johns Hopkins University. On free days, he enjoys spending time with family, friends, and nature. From the beach or in the mountains, he contemplates the human condition and the beauty of manifested art in all its true forms.
A white girl in workout clothes is walking down a city street, age twenty-five. Her pink tank-top is tight and neon beneath the late afternoon sun. It has computer-drawn black patterns of trapezoid rows across the front below the recently-founded company logo, an outline of the female form frozen in a warrior yoga pose. She skips off the curb and crosses a busy roadway where three lanes of cars in rush hour sit waiting at the red light.
At brisk pace, her high-set birch ponytail sways in the soft breeze and at least three motorists watch the movement of her lower body in gray capris compression pants as she makes her way home. The girl is looking up at her surroundings, then down scrolling her iPhone. Up again, down, up, down, up, her head in a constant bob, a practiced rhythm—needed in today’s world—of unique multi-tasking; combining watching where one is going in the physical, bustling city with keeping in nonstop touch with the needy universe of digital community.
She checks in on reactions from online profiles to her latest salacious photo-upload to the latest hip sharing website, and allows a small smile to cross her glossed lips seeing the number of likes and upbeat comments from friends and strangers alike. The picture, taken twenty minutes earlier inside the gym, depicts her in front of the full-length mirror, standing with feet together pointed forward. Her phone is held with both hands below her upright chest, head angled, dangling the ponytail to one side, and lips pursed with gaze strangely focused on the pink-cased electronic device serving as a camera.
A friend she used to sit with at one of the two popular lunch tables in middle school, who she hasn’t seen since the send-off dance when school districting diverged their paths, despite un-kept promises on both sides—made with reciprocated yearbook inscriptions—to hang out next fall, has commented that she looks great and “Keep at it girl!” From a creepy stranger she’s been told he’d love nothing more than some time alone with her someday. “A stroll on the beach, or better yet, between the sheets, any lesson, you want my dear!” Username MasterChefster45 is insisting with his typed praises. The likes are pouring in. Her friend count will surely be increasing. She knows at least one ex is watching and feeling the gnaw of jealousy, and raises her head a bit higher as the light turns green and the cars sit patient, letting the shapely pedestrian complete her cross.
The girl is happy with the now-ness of the spreading photo. She does not think about how her mentality will evolve, how in twenty years when she might not look as trim and bouncy she’ll require a different approach to being accepted, to being part of something, a welcoming group currently made of tepid past friendships and internet sex fiends. It’s all about posting the picture, finding joy, however indulgent, in the reaction, and basking in the glow of popularity. A tech-savvy procedural embrace, different but similar in method to how she became a star back in middle school.
In two blocks, more like three blocks, about two and a half to be inexact, the elevated gentrified neighborhood—sleek steel blue apartment buildings with balconies and opaque glass walls and restored brick warehouses with exposed black pipes and unused smokestacks and fresh painted block lettering made to look retro-industry reading defunct American business, such as Atlantic Coast Company—starts to make its gradual then fast shift from re-constructed and clean to littered and falling down. The shift occurs as the distance from the riverside waterfront increases.
The border areas between these two worlds are where the cultures get to mingle just a bit. Bus routes fume down the avenues, spitting exhaust, and the speculation of developers allocating resources to rehab projects is evident in the real estate prices and the arrayed view of gutted homes—windowless and dumpsters parked on the street—next to finished shiny projects marked by “For Sale” signs, and, more commonly, the beat-up brick houses for which the last heyday occurred in the 1950s.
It’s in this border zone that the girl lives, affordable for her and her two like-minded roommates, and with her scraping salary from her job as assistant buyer in menswear at one of the international conglomerate, financially failing, high-end apparel companies, where, as the grapevine insists, the quality of craftsmanship is dropping quicker than quarterly sales.
In synch with getting closer to home—as much as one would call a home the remaining four months on a year-long townhouse lease—the white girl, embracing everything she’s been told by her parents and friends about navigating dangerous cities, and considering the recent string of muggings and the sexual assault case from last fall, gets her phone in her pocket, her head on a swivel, and now monitors her surroundings with fervor.
Ahead, she’ll pass a bus stop, uncrowded in the late afternoon, save for a dingy guy sleeping on the bench between the translucent glass walls. A jogger whips by, here and then gone, and she stops for a beat, presses her hand below her throat and gasps with surprise fear. She never likes this part, even in the day time. She would never venture this walk at night. She uses a phone-app for a mobile ride-service to get home from the gym when it’s dark in the winter.
She wishes her salary would get bumped by more than it has so she could live down by the water, wishes the male population of this country with abysmal economic opportunity would see the importance of owning expensive threads from Saks Fifth Avenue. Wishes, wishes, wishes, she never had to live with this clammy fear—a fear she’d never admit to her parents, who are wary of her living here in the first place—on a simple pre-broiled-salmon-dinner-walk home from the gym. Also, she wishes someone from the male population would sweep her off her feet and pay for her to have a more expensive life.
Arriving with the fear, the early dusk foreshadowing nightfall, a black man is walking down Lake Street in the same direction as the girl. He is behind her right shoulder on the other side of the street trailing by a hundred feet, quickens his pace and is closing the distance. He wears a tank top too. Not pink with digital pattern but all navy blue. It presses tight around his jutting chest muscles, leaving his ripped arms exposed, and coming down just below his waist, exposing a view of gray boxer shorts before the start of his baggy jeans that drop in crumpled cylinders around his shins and ankles, mostly covering his new, dirt-free basketball shoes that sport the logo of the latest perennial all-star, who many on the other side of the border zone hold up as a model for escaping the despair of the crime-ridden neighborhood.
The girl sees him from the corner of her eye since she’s watching everything, looks back without trying to make it obvious. She notes there is no one else on the sidewalk on either side of the street between the two of them. The glisten and tempo from her workout returns, not just the abstract fear she felt before, but the heat of a critical situation that could mean life or death.
She’s read all about the recent string of muggings. First-hand accounts on social media too, not just un-relatable news reports, but her peers testifying to the callousness of these men, these thugs who will stop at nothing to enrich themselves of the most minuscule items—phones, small bills, watches, old bikes cut with bolt-cutters from underneath porches—no matter the innocence and undeserving nature of the victim. Heartless.
She’s even heard that many times the muggings and hold-ups and break-ins and robberies, and oh god, probably even last fall’s assault, are undertaken as part of sick gang initiation rituals, meaning the crimes are destined, are intentionally orchestrated, to happen to someone, to anyone, walking down the street, and there is nothing a lone person can do to stop it. Their only misstep is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She touches her phone inside her pants pocket next to her key fob for the gym, her ID and credit card.
Her pulse kicks up another notch when she sees, like a flash of blue shadow, after the Doppler-whiz of a passing Mazda, the black man crossing the street. His pace has picked up, or is she just imagining things? He definitely has a certain kind of saunter, self-assured and decisive. He did not bother to wait for an intersection to make the move legally. This is when she notices his hair, styled in corn-rows, and she knows she is in trouble as he falls in step behind her. The distance is about fifty feet, maybe forty.
Passing the bus stop and the nose-hold stench of urine and the passed out bearded guy in dirty clothes on the bench inside, she wonders if she can wake him, just to get another person involved. Maybe pretend that she knows him, that she was coming to meet this guy here all along. Eww, the pee-smell is so strong. The guy is out cold, might not even be alive. She would never know anyone like this, could not even convince the tail that she did. He would probably laugh like a menace and rob them both, though there is nothing he could get from the bench guy who is likely homeless. She still has another two blocks to go until home, to 321 Lake Street, a three person apartment on the second and third floors of a restored townhouse.
On the next block, a Hispanic grocery store is next to a mid-grade Italian restaurant, next to a Chinese carry-out. If she gets there, she knows a crowd will be inside, watching out the front windows, perhaps some milling on the sidewalk. She could mingle around there, hang out, make it look like she is waiting to meet someone. The guy won’t try anything in front of witnesses, though that’s just it! Many of these crimes do have witnesses and still take place, still go unsolved. Indifferent customers and employees would probably watch a robbery, just sit there and watch it chewing like cows on cud, so commonplace as they are these days, and not even bat an eye much less rush outside to lend aid.
She takes a quick look behind her. The man is still back there. She walks faster. He has made sure to keep a consistent distance. When she speeds up, he still follows, by thirty feet now. He does not close the gap or make a move to pass her. He has to be following. There is no sense doubting. There are no fellow pedestrians in sight. Cars are driving down Lake in each direction, a yellow cab, a Toyota SUV, a white dented pick-up, a box delivery truck. Should she flag down a motorist and tell them the problem, maybe catch a ride home, the last block and a half? What stranger would stop? What would she tell them? I think I’m being followed and I’m scared and it’s that guy and I don’t know why I stopped you but can you just wait with me until he goes someplace else? Wouldn’t they just call her a paranoid bigot and drive away if they even slowed down at all?
She thinks of her phone, touches it again. She does not want to take it out and have it vulnerably in her hand, but maybe she could take a picture of the rearview and post it, get help from her digital friends. Not sure what they could really do, but at least there’d be a record of his face, if something were to happen…
The mix of fragrances—sesame and fried wantons, the marinara, boiling garlic—emit an appetizing waft across the light breeze. Normally, her post-workout hunger would be hitting by now, but fear has overtaken it, shoved to the back-burner. For a Thursday late-afternoon, the restaurants and the grocery are not crowded. She catches a glimpse of the bored cashier inside the carry-out, leaning her head against her hand on her elbow. There won’t be any help from these folks.
Checks behind again. Still there, not gaining, just walking behind, and following. Another block until home. She debates if she should walk past her house so the guy cannot force his way inside. Kim is working an evening nursing shift and Molly she knows is going out to dinner and won’t be home until later. To stop and work the key in the door seems like a careless, time-consuming risk. She looks around at all the windows of the houses. Everyone is inside for the evening watching television. She knows so many are in there glued to the screen. No one is looking out the window like they might be in the old days. Has this not made the world less safe? Should she simply reach from the bottom of her lungs and scream? THERE IS A MAN FOLLOWING ME!! WHY DOESN’T ANYBODY CARE?!
She is one hundred yards from the three white marble steps that lead to her front door. She’ll have to stop and check for the mail prior to unlocking, before taking the time to remove the key from her pocket, leaving her standing up there on the top step alone with her back turned, vulnerable to every approaching threat. She pictures the horror and cringes. Her body is clammy and damp and full of terror. The door always sticks and she’ll have to use both hands, one finagling the key, the other gripping the round brass knob and pulling forward to spring the lock.
Reaching near-panic on the home stretch, trying to figure if there’s any conceivable way out of this jam. The man is following. There is no one around. Should she call the police? Remembering as best she can all the safety tips she has been told over the years. None of them matter, of course, when you willfully violate the number one tenant of single city life for a young woman in a crime-ridden town: Never walk alone on deserted streets.
She’ll never make this mistake again. This is horrible. Cab from the gym it is, from now on every time. No sense risking it. She turns and looks and now the man is closer. There are no cars or people in sight. She has a view of a big grin planted on the black man’s face—glowing bright teeth—and she knows it must be the sly smile a predator wears when he believes the capture of sought prey is imminent. She can’t go to her house. It’d be insane to. She has to take off and run, round the block and head back to the water where the nice buildings are, where the police protect the citizens and are not afraid to patrol. She knows it. She has to run. Facts are the facts and no sense denying. She is in real danger.
At the instant when she is about to sprint, like hearing the starting gun in Olympic track, a white man, taking form from nowhere, crosses the street on a diagonal in a similar way the black man did, and settles into a pace between the white girl and the black man. He is dressed in casual clothes, khaki salmon shorts and a light gray collared shirt with the Polo horse stitched above the left chest. Sperry boat shoes with no socks complete the outfit along with square-framed Ray-ban shades. He flicks his collar-reaching auburn hair away from his eyes with a nonchalant head-tick once he has found his new walking lane on the sidewalk. He is new to the scene. Where did he even appear from? And whether he’s noticed the perilous scenario in which he has now been inserted, his care-free demeanor gives no indication that he feels anything resembling tension. Though his face is stern, yet soft.
Relief is unjust describing what the girl feels. She has no idea where this savior came from. Her last survey after passing the restaurants showed nothing but deserted streets and a menacing tail. She was resigned to running from the threat, and now, well now everything has changed. The safety of another stranger’s presence has lifted her from the depths of spiraling despair. Who knows where this guy came from, who cares really? Is there ever a purpose investigating the origins of salvation? He is here now, someone else, not her alone with the dangerous-looking gang-type with the half-limp saunter. And that is all that matters.
Nearing the house, coming toward the marble steps, her body is weightless. A new spirit puts a bounce in her step. Unafraid, she turns her head, and the white man in the preppy dress and haircut gives her a tiny smile. A knowing look of reassurance that says with confidence that he knows how scary the black guy is and how serious these situations can be, and with last fall’s assault and the recent spike in street crimes, his arrival is bringing a cloak of prevention to put a stop to all this nonsense and make the neighborhood a pleasant place to live once and for all again like it used to be before the demise of America’s cities.
Crazy as it sounds, the white guy, with the black guy behind him, does not look afraid at all. He looks upstanding, handsome, empathetic, understanding and kind, and not the kind of guy to be messed with by petty thieves. He holds his shoulders back and his head high. He probably works out at the same gym as the girl.
Behind the white guy—and she makes no pretense about looking over his shoulder—she sees that the smile, that sinister sleuthing grin—the bright white teeth—is no longer smacked across his face. Surmising, she promises herself she knows why. His little sick plans for an evening of crime have been thwarted, and there is nothing he can do about it. She almost sticks her tongue out, but reasons against taunting. She certainly does not want to piss the guy off.
At the house, she skips up the steps, stops to remove the mail from the silver box on the left side of the oak door. She watches the two men from the corner of her eye, curious to see how any potential interaction might play out. The black man has closed the distance between he and the slowing white guy. They exchange a glance, and the black guy whooshes past, sails by the marble steps, and is walking up the sidewalk no differently than any point in the last twenty minutes. His new basketball shoes glow in the fading light of approaching dusk. Destined for home, he’ll be there in another two blocks.
As the white girl sorts the mail, mostly junk—three credit card offers, an advertisement from a rival gym, her roommate’s car loan statement—she cannot help but notice the white guy still standing just off the base of the steps. She feels his eyes burning a hole, the heat on the back of her pink tank-top.
Reaching the key to the lock, she turns and meets his eyes, noting that he has removed his sunglasses. The late-day sun has fallen to an orange ball just over the building line. Its remaining rays form a geometric shape that angles across the sidewalk and shines in the man’s eyes. He is squinting at her, raises a hand to his forehead, fending off the brightness.
She laughs, somewhat nervously. “Umm, I’m sorry. Can I help you?”
Like breaking from a trance, he may not have realized he’d been standing there with such present distracted absence. He is all stumbles and apologies, taking his hand from his forehead and jingling keys or change in his pocket, turning the toe of his right Sperry against the concrete.
“Oh geez. I’m sorry. Really sorry, if you’ll excuse me. I didn’t mean to freak you out or anything.”
“No problem. I wasn’t really freaked out.”
“It’s just, uhh, and again please excuse the intrusion. But I couldn’t help noticing you from a few blocks away, and I thought that guy, kind of scary looking guy, might have been following you. I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
“Oh my God! So I’m not crazy.” She full-turns to the man and doubles over, hands above her knees, her face in a huge grin. Obligatorily, for this to go the eventual way the man wants, he keeps his eyes, difficult as it is, from peering down the pink tank-top where the fleshy shape and youth of her breasts abound.
“I could have sworn he was too, and like smiling at me some of the time. Made me think I was in big trouble. I’ve got to admit, I was really really scared.” She stands upright, presses her knuckles against her left hip, striking a pose whose posted picture would generate a huge reaction from online profiles on the web. Still wearing the glisten of the workout, beneath the waning sun spilling over the roof-line, the photo could very well bring in her most likes of all time.
He shows a quick smile of just lips, exposing no teeth, not willing to take the situation too lightheartedly. None of this is really a joke after all. He rubs a soft layer of whisker-growth on his chin.
“That’s what it looked like to me. I couldn’t see his face or anything, but it was like he was kind of gaining on you. Can’t say for sure, I don’t want to be biased or anything.”
“Of course not. Nothing biased about it. I noticed it too.” She stands waiting and looking at him. She finds attractive his big brown eyes, high cheek bones and hint of baby fat injecting his face.
“And I just wanted to make sure you got in okay. There’s been a lot of muggings in this area recently, and that assault last fall, and I just...” He trails off.
“Oh, wow, that’s very nice. I appreciate that. I really do.”
“So that’s why I’m standing here like a dummy. Again, apologies. I grew up around here, and, well, it can be kind of a crazy place.” Here he breaks into a little giggle and smile, which the girl returns. A mutual understanding that, yes, this city, this nation, the world is a crazy place. All kinds of strange, dangerous, life-altering happenings can occur at any given time, most of which are out of our control.
“Oh, really? I went to college at Eastern, and stayed in town after. Actually from Long Island.”
“I got you. So you know about the mean streets then. Don’t have to tell you.”
“Well, Huntington, so not really.” She laughs. “This place is wild. Fun, but scary. If I could make a little more money, I wouldn’t live up this far.” She gives a panoramic glance from the top marble step, then back to the guy. The approaching dusk has re-contorted the sun-shape on the sidewalk.
“There’s some cool stuff in this neighborhood. Just gotta sift through some of the noise.”
“Sure, don’t get me wrong. It is cool. I’m just not always sure where to go. When the roommates are out.” She nods toward the front door.
“I’d be more than happy to give you a tour sometime. Great Hispanic food up the way I could show you. My favorite barbeque place is walking distance from here, TJs. Live blues every Thursday at Maestro’s is the place to be. I know all the spots.” He winks.
She rolls her eyes but wants to take the offer. “Really? Have not been there. Sure I’d take you up on that. You know, for saving me and everything.” She winks back.
“Cool, I’m Trevor.”
They shake hands across their disparate elevations, Jackie on the step, Trevor reaching from the sidewalk. They exchange numbers, the first of all the communicative exchanges, then set a potential date for the coming weekend.
As he’s turning to leave, the white man hears one more question.
“Byeee… oh and Trevor, one last thing.” He stops. She puts a hand to her forehead this time, blocking sunlight that is now bouncing off a parked car’s windshield from across the street. “Were you really just gonna watch me go inside and then leave without saying anything?”
He looks at her like she just threw his grandmother down an escalator at the mall, a practiced combination of hurt and confused. A moment later the twisted expression is gone and he shows her his “upstanding, handsome, empathetic, understanding and kind.” He steps forward and places a hand on the iron railing of the stairs, an action more gentle than anything they’ve shared thus far, including the handshake.
“Of course, Jackie. You feeling safe is my number one concern.” Pauses, then a smile creeps across his lips. “You’re the one that spoke up, and brought on the intros. I’m more the quiet type…and tall.” He raises his eyebrows in two quick ticks, brown eyes shining, and starts to turn to go.
The white girl blushes, knowing he might not be lying, accepting the observation of what has been perceived as her forwardness. An interaction altogether uncommon in the age of friendship from a phone screen. “Well, thank you. I do appreciate your concern.” And she goes inside.
Thirty minutes later the black man and white man sit next to one another at a neighborhood bar, engaged in the kind of debate that could only take place between a pair who have been in each other’s lives since kindergarten.
“I’m telling you, man, that’s gotta be the last time. I’m done doing that shit.” James is emphatic but smiling, slaps his palms on the bar top to either side of his sweating pint glass.
“With this one, maybe it will be. She could be the one.” Through a smirk, Trevor takes a gulp of beer. He sits with one elbow on the bar, the other on the back of his stool, facing his oldest friend. They’re in their favorite dive, Shipley’s, a place with overhead off-track horseracing screens and a set of three stairs at the end of the bar leading to a little room with fresh-smelling drywall, indoor/outdoor carpet and a shuffleboard table.
“Get out of here with that shit. That’s what you said the last time. Mandy or something, wasn’t it?”
“Would’ve been but she was moving to California! I’m not in this maliciously. I need a mate.” Smirking again, he presses both hands to his chest, then gestures toward his buddy. “I don’t have a great girl like you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waves him off. “I will say there was nothing wrong with the view I had. Kept looking back, though. One of these times, I swear it’ll be a call to the cops and then I’m locked up.”
“For walking down the street?! If they make that illegal, than we’ve lost this war.”
“Well, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it.”
“And if she went to take a pic I’d have to run!” James shakes his head. “Telling you man, last time.”
Leslie, the bartender, a take-no-shit gal with a towel draped over her shoulder, bored from another conversation at the other end, heads their way to join the discussion.
“What’s all the commotion boys? What’re you gentlemen up to this fine evening?”
“Nothing much,” James is quick to respond. “Just setting back race relations by a few decades, possibly centuries.”
“You mean improving the safety and awareness of the community,” Trevor adds, signaling his glass for a refill.
“To get laid?” Asks Leslie.
“Yeah, to get laid.”
“Fear is the ultimate icebreaker.”
“Get out of here with that philosophy garbage. There’s a special place waiting for people like you.”
Laughing. “Hey man, you know you’ll be thinking about that view.”
James shuts his eyes and shakes his head again. “Ooh, lordy-me, nothing wrong with that view. I will tell you that.”
Trevor reaches and pats his friend on the shoulder with his left hand. “Amen.”
“So wrong, man.”
Leslie refills both beers, asks the pair if they’re interested in ordering any food. On Thursdays, it’s half-priced build-your-own burger night, and James and Trevor nod yes. They are each pretty hungry.