TRIGGER WARNING: this post describes my experience of being stalked.
I was newly single. The Internet had recently found its way into people’s homes, and on evenings when my son was at his dad’s I often spent time in chat rooms. My favorites were those fashioned after Star Trek, until people got irritated with my playful attitude; most of them took the roll playing very seriously.
I made a few friends, one of whom I started emailing regularly; in fact I spent a small fortune during those early days of expensive online minutes. None of us yet knew the pitfalls of building relationships through the Internet, and I thought I’d met my soul mate. I’d shared things with Tom that I’d never shared with anyone; he really understood me and accepted all of me.
When his job was going to fly him to Los Angeles from his home in the South, I made arrangements to fly down and meet him. After checking into our adjoining rooms in the enormous hotel, Tom and I took the elevator down to one of the restaurants and ordered a light meal. I worked hard at engaging him in conversation, but ended up mostly carrying it myself. When he did answer it was in a word or two, not in full sentences. He didn’t look me in the eye. It was horrible and awkward. I’m often shy; I know shy. He wasn’t just shy and awkward; he was antisocial, clinically antisocial. I couldn’t reconcile this person sitting across from me with the person I’d felt such a connection with.
But being so new to online dating, and having invested so much emotionally, I wasn’t ready to give up. Later we had dinner together. In earlier emails he had shared that he never drank alcohol. But to my alarm Tom slammed down drink after drink. Even so, he was unable to participate in the conversation. His awkwardness was just as pronounced.
I finally had to admit that he was not the person I had believed him to be, that our connection through email did not translate into in-person chemistry, and that this was not going to work. We took a cab back to the hotel. Increasing body aches and fuzzy head during dinner blossomed into a full-blown cold by the time we reached the hotel. At our adjacent doors I told him that I was getting sick and was heading to an early bed. He pouted as I closed the door on him.
Sometime later I heard a tapping on the door. Seriously? I ignored it, irritated.
Ten minutes later the tapping came again.
Then again, a few minutes later. This time I heard the sound of crying, muffled through the door.
This cycle repeated for a couple hours, long after I had turned the lights off. Then one time after the tapping I heard a new sound and looked over; I saw something partially block the sliver of light under the door. I waited for a couple minutes, then went to retrieve his note. On it Tom proclaimed his love for me, and wrote that he just wanted to spend time with me; he begged me to visit with him this evening.
Thankfully the knocking stopped, but I was irritated and in the full throes of a bad cold I was unable to sleep. Fearful of leaving my room lest he see me, I tossed and turned without the benefits of cold medicine.
The next day he had a conference to attend. So I packed up my belongings and waited until Tom was supposed to be gone. I put a note under his door thanking him for his time and kindly but firmly explaining that it just wasn’t going to work for me; then I took my bags down to the front desk. I explained that I did not want to be near the person next to me and asked if they could put me in another part of the hotel. It was an enormous hotel, and they were happy to accommodate me. I confirmed that they would not give him my new room number. I figured I may as well enjoy the rare luxury of a mini-vacation.
After settling into my new room, which I was confident he would not find, and having a delicious breakfast, I headed to the outdoor swimming pool. I alternated between reading a book in the lovely southern California sunshine and soaking in the hot tub. The latter I hoped would cure my cold. Now this was how to spend a vacation, and I felt like I was redeeming this horrible fiasco.
Back in my room I enjoyed the indulgence of cable TV, and a bit later ordered room service for dinner. I knew when Tom’s conference was over because my phone rang. I felt sure it was him, but then what if it was the front desk? I waited until a blinking light indicated there was a message, and pushed the button to listen to it. Tom was crying, upset, confused; he just wanted to see me, to talk. I deleted the message. As I put down the receiver my hand shook.
Ring, ring. Ring, ring. Ring, ring. Again?
The phone started ringing every few minutes. After the ringing stopped one time I called the front desk and explained that I had changed rooms to get away from this person whom I barely knew, and now he wouldn’t stop calling me; I asked if there was anything they could do to prevent his calls from coming through. They said no, and suggested that I turn off the ringer. I did, but out of the corner of my eye for the rest of the evening I saw the blinking lights every time a new call came in.
I was engrossed in a movie when there was a knock on the door. I froze. Surely there was no way Tom could have figured out which room I was in? Surely a hotel in LA would know better than to ever give that information out? Still, who would be knocking on my door? No one knew I was here. I got up very slowly, very quietly, and started tiptoeing towards the door. Before I reached the door the knock came again, and immediately I heard a key turning in the lock as the door started opening.
I doorman in hotel uniform was standing there, key in hand. I frantically looked past him, fearful that Tom would be there. Thankfully no.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
“We got a report that you might not be ok in here. Someone reported that maybe you might be in trouble, that you might hurt yourself. Is it all right if I come in?” He was already stepping further into the room, looking around.
Good lord, really? “Are you serious? I’m fine.”
He was unconvinced, took another step.
“Whatever, knock yourself out.” I stepped to the side and gestured him in.
He was unconvinced, took another step.
“Whatever, knock yourself out.” I stepped to the side and gestured him in.
He came in, looking like he expected to see something criminal or dangerous. He looked through the entire room, including the bathroom, slowly and thoroughly.
I held my hands up. “I can’t imagine what you heard. I’m just in here watching TV.”
“Well, this guy, Tom?” he looked at me. I nodded. “Tom says you two know each other. He was really worried about you.”
“Look, we barely know each other and he’s been pestering me. I asked to change rooms to get away from him.” My voice started shaking, getting louder.
The doorman spoke gently, as if speaking to a frightened child. “Well, he was very calm, very rational. Nice young fellow, really. Seemed genuinely concerned about you.”
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Sneaky, crafty bastard.
“We tried calling your room, but there was no answer.”
I said with anger, “I turned off the sound because he won’t stop calling me!”
“Look, I don’t know what your relationship is with this guy. He was worried about you and asked if I could come check on you and make sure you were OK.”
“Here I am. I’m OK. Thanks for your concern.”
He seemed hesitant to leave. I raised my eyebrows at him, and he slowly backed out of the room.
I sat down on my bed and started to shake uncontrollably. I was shocked and distressed that this stranger, this socially unwell person, was able to present such a convincing piece of fiction that the hotel would break into my room. I felt completely violated, utterly unsafe.
I got back up, locked the deadbolt, and pulled chairs in front of the door. If someone was going to break in again, at least I would have some warning.
The next morning I checked my phone: over 70 messages. I packed and checked out, keeping a constant lookout for Tom. Thankfully I didn’t see him, and I began to breathe more easily.
I got to the airport and went through security, then got into a long line to check in at my gate. It was very crowded. I kept looking around, and suddenly I saw him about 40 feet away, in the middle of the corridor, just standing and staring at me. I quickly looked in front of me. Shit, shit, shit. Would he approach me here, with all these people around? Surely not.
“Kjerstin, I just want to talk. Can we please talk?”
“Go away!” I said, looking him in the eye.
“But I don’t understand what happened. I just want to talk.”
“I NEED you to leave me alone,” I said loudly, hoping to draw attention and some help.
“Please. Please! I just want to talk to you!”
“Go AWAY!” I said even louder. I kept looking around, looking for help, for security. People were shifting uncomfortably and looking away, but nowhere was anyone offering help.
“STAY AWAY FROM ME!” I shouted, and in desperation picked up my bag and rushed into the nearby women’s restroom and into a stall. I sat down and started to cry. I knew when his flight was supposed to leave. I would be cutting it close, but maybe I could stay in here until he was gone.
Then I heard a woman’s voice call out, “Kjerstin? Is there a Kjerstin in here?”
When she kept calling my name, I wiped my eyes with shaking hands and came out of the stall. I thanked the stranger for delivering the message, and told her I had no interest in talking with him. She shrugged and carried on with her business. I tried to stand out of the way in the crowded restroom and get myself under control. I looked at my watch. What to do, what to do? Surely he would be at his own gate by now, or already boarding.
I took my bag and bypassed the line, going straight up to the boarding counter. As a stewardess was about to scold me I told her quickly, “Look, there’s a guy who’s been stalking me and I don’t feel safe. Can I please just stay here until it’s time to board?” Her mouth hardened into a line of disapproval but she nodded, then turned back to her work. I scanned again and there he was, standing in the middle of the corridor and staring at me with a look of contempt on his face. I looked away quickly and didn’t look back.
I had an assigned aisle seat, but when I got to my seat I found it occupied by someone whose ticket also had our seat number stamped on it. I showed a stewardess, who looked it over and hurried away. I bit my lip hard to keep from bursting into tears. A few minutes later she found a vacant seat and put me in it. I was grateful to sit down, unsure if I could trust my legs to not buckle under me.
A few minutes later another stewardess came by and told me she was going to have to put me in a different seat. I sighed, got my bag, and moved to another aisle seat. The middle seat was empty, and the window seat was occupied by a man. Moments later she came back leading another passenger, then she was off again. I moved out to let him into the middle.
“No. See, I just traded my aisle seat for another aisle seat,” he said with authority. I was frazzled, exhausted, besieged. Without a word I took the middle seat.
There between the two men, both probably 6 foot and 250 pounds, whose legs were spread comfortably wide, I felt my narrow middle seat encroached upon. I had just spent the weekend being stalked by an antisocial psycho, I had a bad cold, and I was going to be damned if they were going to barge into any more of my space.
I settled my elbows, one comfortably on each armrest, and closed my eyes. I had no doubt that if I moved them even for a moment, I would lose ownership of that armrest for the rest of the flight. I also knew that both men had space to either side that they could move into, where I did not, and in this very small but monumentally important way, I was saying “mine.” My boundaries had been completely violated the past couple days, I had been made to feel completely unsafe, but right here, these two armrests, these I claimed as my own.
The guy next to the window once, gently, tried to put his arm there; and then he moved it away. The guy on the aisle, who had insisted that he traded an aisle seat for an aisle seat, repeatedly kept putting his elbow on the armrest and then pushing firmly against my elbow. No matter: I had the prime real estate and I wasn’t giving it up.
The down side was that my air vent was on full; and I dare not move my arms to turn it off. After the cold air blew directly on me for the entire flight, I ended up with one of the worst colds of my life.
There were a few more incidents with Tom. I still visited the chat rooms after that, and one day someone made a lewd comment about my personal profile. When I looked at it, I found that Tom had hacked into my account and left a sexual reference about the two of us.
Then, months later, I got a phone call at 2 a.m. It was Tom crying, and angry. I told him never to call me again and hung up.
And then, the event that ended my chat room activities, was an incident with a woman I’d recently met there. We were just getting to know each other; by this time I was far more cautious with people. And then she revealed that she was actually a friend of Tom’s, that he was confused, and wanted to understand why I had run away from him like that; could he please just talk to me?
Of course I’ll never know if it was Tom’s friend or Tom himself. But I responded by saying that stalking across state lines was a felony. Thankfully that was the last I heard of Tom.
Without a doubt I can think back on this time and point out many choices I made that were reckless, when I did not put my safety first. Certainly I am far more safety conscious now, and urge friends and relatives to be so as well. But there is a larger context in which situations like these play out over and over. Ours is a society where men are encouraged to take up more than their fair share of space; where women are conditioned to be accommodating; and where men are taught to feel entitled to women’s time, space, attention, and bodies.