I was backed into a corner in the university library’s stacks. Looming large, Cliff was blocking my way out. Had it come to this? Was he going to attack me, placing his meaty hand over my mouth so I couldn’t make a sound? Heart pumping wildly, I put one foot in front of the other. Cliff didn’t budge. I kept moving, closer and closer. Finally, I stood right in front of him. We were practically touching. He moved away. I half-ran towards the library’s exit, turning around once to make sure that he wasn’t following me.
Image: Paul J Everett
I’d met Cliff the year before, when we were seniors in college, taking some of the same classes. I’d noticed him right away, because he was so large, tall and stocky — he took up a lot of room. It turned out that his apartment was near my apartment, in the same downtown Manhattan neighborhood, so we ended up walking home together. After a few such times, we went out for coffee and talked about books and our professors. I wasn’t attracted to him, and I was never flirtatious, steering clear of any conversation that might lead him to think I perceived him as anything but a friend. I kept physical distance between us at all times.
After a few months, I introduced Cliff to some of my friends, and we all spent an evening together. Afterward, my friend, Joseph, said to me, “There’s something off about that guy.”
“Why would you say such a thing?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Just watch your back around him.”
Shortly after, the phone calls started. Sometimes I’d hear someone breathing, and sometimes I’d hear a low moan or groan before I hung up. Once or twice, I was sure I heard someone cursing. Joseph said, “Change your number and don’t give your new number to Cliff.”
I did as Joseph said, not believing for one moment that it was Cliff. The phone calls stopped. “Now,” Joseph said, “give your new number to Cliff.”
The phone calls resumed, and I knew that I needed to find a way to excise Cliff from my life. I didn’t feel ready to confront him. Who knew how crazy Cliff might be? I just wanted him gone. I told him after class that I had appointments and could no longer walk home with him. He invited me out for afternoon coffee, and I declined. Gradually, the calls stopped.
Summer came, and I was busy preparing to move to a new city to attend graduate school. I had to organize my things and find an apartment. By then, I had a boyfriend who was planning to move with me. We settled into our new home, and I forgot all about Cliff.
Stunned doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when I saw Cliff, early in the semester, walking alone on the grounds of the campus. Ignoring my shaking body, I forced myself to gather whatever courage I could, and I went up to him. “Why are you here?” I asked, dispensing with all conversation niceties.
He smirked. “I live around here now. I moved here over the summer.”
My heart pounded so hard my chest hurt. He must have found out my plans and followed me. I spun around and left him standing there. That night, my boyfriend said, “Ignore him. If you see him, cross the street. Don’t even say hello.”
I saw Cliff from afar a few times, and I did as my boyfriend suggested. Cliff kept his distance until the day I was in the library stacks. Cliff hadn’t threatened me — the phone calls had stopped and he was entitled to live wherever he chose, so I saw no point in calling the police. But I made up my mind — no matter how unstable Cliff might be, and no matter how scared I was, I would say something.
A month went by, and then there he was, in the same aisle as me in a local supermarket, once again blocking my way. “Listen,” I went right up to him. “I believe you’ve been following me. From now on, keep away!” I turned on my heel, trembling.
Amazingly, that seemed to be all it took. I never saw Cliff again. I suspected he’d moved back to Manhattan. Years later, someone I knew mentioned him in passing. “You know Cliff?” I asked. He nodded. “He’s been very ill,” he told me, “and he’s gone blind.”
I couldn’t say a word. My emotions were jumbled: mostly relief that he was probably permanently out of my life, but also sadness on his behalf. I had never wished him harm. All I had wanted was to live my life without a stalker.
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