When First He Laid Eyes
by Rachael K. Jones
Edited by Brian J. White
This story explores themes of stalking, harassment, and violence against women.
Editor’s Note: Rachael wrote a piece delving into the origins of this story. We think it’s essential reading.
A girl’s first stalker is always a cause for celebration. She will phone her mother with the big news and spill the story in a tangle of words, voice raw with emotion.
Her mother’s heart will swell at her daughter’s achievement. Every mother hopes for this day. A stalker means beauty. A stalker means desire. It is always a compliment for a girl to become a man’s intended. Her mother will fuss over the details: How did they meet? What was he like? When will they see each other again?
These are hard questions for a girl. If her stalker is a proper stalker, if he observes his social graces, his intended cannot pinpoint the enchanted instant when he first chose her, the moment their lives entangled. She thinks it might have been on a dark thirty run at Cape Canaveral, when the humid Southern air pressed hot and moist around her like a stranger’s breath. She remembers red Mars, hazy through the Spanish moss on the oaks. She fancied she could run there if she continued down the trail through the park, past the beach, and on into the Everglades, into an alien world. Her stalker must have spotted her on that route as he walked home from the bar that sold half-price beer to men in uniform. She probably waved to him, because a girl is friendly to everyone. A girl always smiles. A girl ignores the dread in her stomach when a man’s gaze impales her like a needle rammed through a butterfly’s thorax.
Dread is traditional, of course. It is only natural that a girl should feel nervous about her first stalker’s intentions, just as it is traditional for him to weave secret plans for their future together. Whether he intends a courtly affair which worships at a distance, or if he intends to close in on her gradually like a satellite on a collapsing orbit, or whisk her away in his car, or bring their relationship to its final consummation on the cold asphalt of an alley — well, whatever he intends, it would be gauche to spoil the surprise, which he has worked so hard to prepare. His intended should never know precisely what he intends.
A girl’s friends will celebrate with her when they hear the news. Some have had their first stalkers already. They will reminisce about their first time, how they met, what he planned, how it ended. The other girls, the stalkerless ones, will listen carefully to the wisdom of their peers, hoping to glean useful tips for attracting their own admirers. A girl will have to describe her outfit over and over. They want to know everything: the fabric, the cut, her accessories, her makeup. Everyone knows that stalkers prefer a certain look. They almost disbelieve her when she describes camouflage — print sweats, the ones that were supposed to melt her into the trees. A girl is lucky to have done so little and yet attracted him anyway.
No one compares to a girl’s first stalker. No one holds quite the same place in her heart. Others may address her as “Ma’am” or “Ms. Martinez,” “sister” or “Anya” or “Darling”. People call a girl a lot of things, but no one else would dare call her “girl.” That right is reserved for her stalker.
A stalker has the right because no one else is so dependable. Not her boyfriend, whose pride that his girl is intended sours to jealousy over the nonstop attentions. Not her friends, who will not forgive her sudden reticence, her avoidance of public spaces. Not her subordinates, who resent her for her tardiness when she takes labyrinthine routes to work. Not her mother, who calls her flighty when in rapid succession she takes up Portuguese, then astronomy, then sailing, then self-defense. Her stalker is always there for her. In the morning, she watches for him in all the usual haunts on her running route. He will appear, steady as the sun. In the evening, she spots his Ford Escort three cars back on the drive home. At the grocery store, she senses him staring through the gaps between tomato cans. He will watch while pretending not to, and she will do the same. They have come to rely upon each other, call and answer, strophe and antistrophe.
And if distance comes between them, what then? If one morning she fails to appear on the trail for their usual tryst? If he spots a stranger parking her car at an office that is not hers? If the curtains change color in her kitchen window, and a “For Rent” sign appears? If he finds her bedroom strewn with star charts and sea maps, and a suitcase missing? If, from their beach, he watches a sailboat launch into an ocean stained battle-red in the sunset, all his secret intentions swept away in a roar of breakers, a diminishing trail of broken surf?
The truth is this: a woman will attempt an escape. She will throw her weight against the ropes to turn the sails. She will lift the sextant and sight Mars ascendant in Libra, and correct her course against the tyrannical stars. She will watch the continent recede at the aft, while a shore approaches, remote but clear, on the fore.
Only when she has landed will she think of her stalker, when at the dock the locals greet her in a foreign tongue and she finds herself watching for him among their faces, throat tight, heart a-thumping. That is when she will realize that a stalker’s gaze is no needle. It is a hook, and his hand patient, and his line is long, and just when a girl forgets him, he will tug, and she will feel the keen red star pull on her like a baleful eye that will not blink, and remember that she is intended, and what he intends for her is fear.
A girl never forgets her first stalker. This, too, is traditional.