It was too dark too see his face. In my rear-view mirror, all I could make out was his silhouette, sitting silently at the wheel of his beaten-up pickup. Was he watching me? My head was spinning. I really wasn’t fit to drive but I didn’t have a choice; I wasn’t safe there and I didn’t know if I could trust the police. I turned the key in the ignition. As I put the car into reverse, his headlights flicked on, cutting through the shadows. Slowly, he pulled out and followed me to the car park exit. I sat for a couple of seconds. There’s a time for confrontation and there’s a time for running. This was the latter. I slammed my foot down and violently swung the wheel to the right. The engine screamed into life and I tore down the street. 20… 30… 40. I could barely look at the road ahead. My eyes kept darting to the rearview mirror. 50… 60…I kept my foot on the pedal and held my breath, waiting to see if he followed.
Eight hours earlier. My story begins – as all good stories do – in Hooters. I was taking the backroads of Georgia and South Carolina towards the coast, where I was due in Savannah several days later. Over budget and in search of a small-town diner in which I hoped to meet a friendly local with a spare bedroom, I found myself amidst the ugly sprawl of strip malls and fast food chains on the outskirts of Augusta. Towering signs for Burger King, Waffle House and Denny’s screamed out for my attention. It was already early evening and I resigned myself to the fact that this soulless stretch of road would probably be home for the night. If I was going to eat dinner at one of these chains, at the very least it was going to be one which hadn’t made it across the pond. I cruised past more billboards: KFC… McDonalds… Dominoes…. Hooters. Bingo. I parked my car and walked towards the building, feeling my credentials as a modern, feminist man being chipped away with every step.
‘Welcome to Hooters!’ the hostess said cheerily. To those unaware, Hooters is a restaurant and sports-bar chain whose big selling point are the waitresses, clad in tight tops, push-up bras and skimpy orange shorts. ‘Jus’ you sweetie?’ she asked and I nodded my head, feeling like a creep. I sat at the bar and spent several minutes people-watching. A few seats down, a 40-something couple who appeared to be on a date sat in awkward silence. No-one had told him Hooters was a less-than-ideal spot to take that special someone for a romantic night out. Every now and then, the waitresses would sit down and chat with their customers, working the table masterfully in the hope of upping their tip at the end of the night. A group of guys in their 30s posed for a picture with one of the girls, putting their arms around her waist, whilst she held one of the broadest grins I’ve ever seen.
‘We’re havin’ a party later, you should come by.’ One of them suggested, failing at acting nonchalant.
‘Uh, yeah. Maybe.’ She replied, taking their plates and heading towards the kitchen. As soon as her back was turned, she dropped the smile and sighed silently. I was beginning to feel a little sleazy and pitiful sitting there. I wasn’t even particularly hungry, so I finished my lemonade and made my way out. As I left, I asked the hostess if there were any good bars nearby and she scribbled down a list on the back of a napkin, giving me the rundown of what to expect at each place.
‘This is kind of a dive…this one has pool tables…this is a bit further but it’s where we go after our shift…’ As much as I’d like to claim to be an intelligent, logical thinker, I am still a man. So when I’m presented with a list of bars to pick from and I know one of them is where cute waitresses go to unwind at the end of the day, you can hazard a guess which one I’m going to pick. It was still early, so I drove to the bar, parked in the darkest and most private corner of the car park and grabbed a couple of hours of sleep before heading inside. However unlikely, my new plan was to kick the English charm into overdrive and see if I could spend the night with one of the Hooters waitresses. Failing that, it would be the back of the car.
I don’t know what I was expecting but the first thing to strike me was what a mixed crowed it was: young black friends joking around, old white men talking football, students doing shots. The room stretched back about fifty feet with a sea of crowded tables leading up to the bar, each one with its own social microcosm. No Hooters girls though. I fought my way to the bar and shouted my drink order into the bartender’s ear. As I sipped my whisky, the man next to me turned and pointed drunkenly at my face.
‘Funky glasses.’ He held out his hand and introduced himself. Cliff. Within minutes, he was telling me his life story. He was from New York but his dad had moved to the south and – after being diagnosed with cancer – Cliff followed suit to take care of him. He was quick to tell me about his plans. ‘I’m clever with my money. I’m a businessman – an entrepreneur. Ain’t gonna be working when I’m fifty.’ I leant over the bar to order another drink and he asked if I’d buy him one – it was his birthday. Feeling generous, I agreed but regretted it when the bartender handed me the bill. Fourteen dollars plus tip. Cliff insisted I join his group of friends and I took a seat at their table.
‘Aww baby, ain’t you cute,’ His girlfriend said, cooing over me. ‘You’re gonna marry me and take me to live in a castle, like a queen.’ Cliff laughed and leant over.
‘The thing you gotta know about southern women is, they like it rough.’ As if it were a routine they’d rehearsed earlier, his girlfriend bent over and Cliff mimed spanking her whilst they both cackled drunkenly. Feeling somewhat like a third wheel, I made my way to the bar, ordered another drink and got talking to an army vet who was drowning his sorrows.
Throughout the night, I would pass Cliff and see him joking around – dancing and laughing with a different person each time – and he would turn to high five me. It was as if he knew everyone. At the bar, an on-duty policeman leant watching over the drunken crowd with contempt. He looked thoroughly pissed to be there and wore an expression which said ‘I didn’t sign up for this’, but when Cliff turned to him, he grinned and the two of them went in for a friendly hug. As Cliff headed back to his table, he bought me a drink to thank me for the one I had got him earlier. It was a fiery, inelegant bourbon and I only managed half of it before ditching the rest down the urinal later when I went to the toilet.
‘Say goodbye before you go.’
‘Sure.’ I nodded. I chatted with a few more locals for another twenty minutes or so, before deciding to call it a night. I was exhausted and considered leaving and collapsing straight into the back seat but, true to my word, I went over and waved goodbye to Cliff. He stood up, steadying himself.
‘I’ll walk you to your car.’
‘Don’t worry, it’s not far.’ I said, shaking his hand goodbye.
‘S’alright, I’ll get some air.’ In hindsight, allowing him to walk with me was a colossally stupid idea, but at the time it seemed like nothing more than a friendly gesture. We headed out, rounded the building and crossed the car park to the empty corner where my SUV sat under the gloom of an overhanging tree. As I turned to say goodbye, I sensed a shift in Cliff. I struggle to even put it into words. It was a shift in energy. A shift in the way he carried himself. A shift in confidence. At the bar, he had been self-assured in a lighthearted, jokey kind of way but now it manifested itself in what I can only describe as opportunism. It was like a lever had been pulled and suddenly he was a different person.
‘Enjoy the rest of the night’ I said, unlocking the car. I had barely got the words out when he put his hand on my arm.
‘Want me to suck your dick?’ I thought he was joking and laughed out loud, but his expression told me otherwise. ‘C’mon, I wanna suck it.’ I was completely thrown so I can’t remember exactly what I said next, but the jist of it was: no thanks, I’m straight. ‘You want me to.’
‘No, I don’t.’ This time I was deadly serious. He tightened his grip on my arm.
‘Yeah you do.’ He grabbed my other wrist and pushed me up against the car. I yanked my arms back up and shoved him away.
‘Get off me.’ With indifference in his eyes, he came at me again, hurling the weight of his body up against mine. Even now – a month later – I feel physically sick remembering how that felt: His gut pressing into me. His sweaty, clammy hands.
In that moment, several scenarios flipped through my mind at lightning speed. Options I had to weigh up in the flash of a second. I was certain I could outrun him; I could sprint across the car park and be inside the bar before he’d even made it half way. But that depended on getting out from underneath him, and he was a heavyset guy whose weight was pushing down on me. Then an even more sickening thought crossed my mind. Even if I managed to escape, who was to say – if I ran in pointing the finger – they would even believe me? He was a much-loved regular; even the police officer had hugged him. I was just a stranger from a far-flung place who had pitched up in their bar. My word didn’t count for anything.
I was pulled back into the moment by Cliff grabbing my crotch. Every fibre of my body wanted to shout ‘Get the fuck away from me’, punch him in the face as hard as I could and feel the crunch of his nose under my fist. I still have that desire. So why didn’t I? Just as I had sensed a shift in him earlier, I had this horrible feeling that he was the kind of person who could snap – violently. I’m not a trained fighter. I didn’t know if he had a knife, or a gun. I could handle pushing him away, but I didn’t like my odds if it descended into a full-blown fight. I’ve always been good with words and – for better or worse – I decided talking him out of it was my best option of getting away safely.
‘Seriously man, we’ve had a good evening. Don’t ruin it.’ I pushed him away again. He moved back in, this time with a look on his face which was almost playful. As if it were all a game.
‘Really? C’mon.’ He reached towards me again and I smacked his hand away. A moment passed whilst he gave me a look which said ‘Fine, have it your way.’ It must have only been a few seconds but it felt like at least a minute. Finally, he turned and walked towards his pickup truck. Just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief, he stopped and turned back to face me. ‘Sorry I tried to rape you.’ With that, he pulled open the door and climbed into the driver’s seat. I did the same and locked the doors behind me, taking a minute to settle myself whilst I waited for him to leave. A second minute passed. Then a third. He was still there. For nearly ten minutes, I sat glancing in the rear-view mirror for any signs he was about to go but all he did was sit quietly. I hadn’t bothered keeping track of how much I was drinking – the plan was to sleep in the car – but I must have had four glasses of whisky on an empty stomach. I was definitely over the limit but I sure as hell wasn’t going to stay there. I had to get away. I started the engine, reversed out and pulled up to the exit. He did the same. I could feel his headlights bore into the back of my head as I considered what to do next.
I slammed my foot down and violently swung the wheel to the right. The engine screamed into life and I tore down the street. 20… 30… 40. I could barely look at the road ahead. My eyes kept darting to the rearview mirror. 50… 60… He pulled out and turned right, but I was already hurtling down the road several hundred feet ahead, so the gap between us continued to widen until his headlights were just two small pinpricks fading into the distance behind me. I eased off the accelerator and made a right turn. Then a left. I had no idea where I was going but I was overwhelmed with disgust and needed to put as much distance as I could between me and the car park. Seeing a sign for the highway, I took the slip road and gunned the engine, propelling myself into the darkness. I drove for half an hour, letting the rhythm of the white lines on the road lead me into a trance as they hurtled towards me and disappeared in a flash.
I really should have gone to a hotel, but I felt strangely safer in my car. I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia before but the sheer thought of sleeping in a strange room with only one way in and one way out filled me with dread. I looked around me. The half-eaten bag of crackers. The discarded Coke bottles on the back seat. The handful of loose change tossed carelessly in the cup holder. I had grown used to them over the past few days and, as crazy as it sounds, these small familiarities made me feel more secure than any hotel could have done. In the distance, the beckoning sign of a twenty-four hour Walmart drew my attention. My body was in desperate need of sleep, so I took the exit and parked in the centre of the flood-lit car park. I reached for a bottle of water from the side pocket and downed it in one. I hadn’t had any whisky for over an hour and yet I was feeling more light-headed than I had before. I told myself it was the adrenaline from earlier but, deep down, I worried Cliff had put something in the drink he bought me. The saving grace was that I had poured most of it away.
I put the seat back and tied a t-shirt around my head as a makeshift eyemask. As I drifted off, in that weird purgatory between consciousness and unconsciousness, I became aware of an idling engine nearby. Bleary-eyed, I pulled the t-shirt off my eyes, looked over my shoulder and jolted upright in my seat. Several spaces away from me was a battered old pickup truck. It couldn’t be, could it? This was a Chevvy and Cliff’s was a Ford. Or was it? It was dark and I hadn’t been paying much attention. Maybe it was his. Logically, I knew it couldn’t be him – I would have noticed someone behind me on the dark, empty highway – but it didn’t stop my mind playing cruel tricks on me. Determined not to let it drive me crazy, I pulled the t-shirt back over my eyes and drifted in and out for three or four hours.
I woke from a light and troubled sleep just before seven and started driving towards Charleston, keen to leave the shithole of Augusta behind me. To use a well-worn analogy, the night’s events played over and over in my head like a broken record. Every interaction with Cliff which I could remember from earlier in the night was placed under the microscope. What did that look mean? Was it just a friendly smile or was he coming on to me? I hadn’t picked up on anything at the time and I’m usually pretty good at reading people, but suddenly I was flooded with self-doubt. Inevitably, the analysis shifted inwards and I began questioning my own actions. What did I say? How did I act? Did I behave in any way which could have lead him on? As fucked up as it was, it was almost as though I was trying to excuse Cliff – trying to prove it was my fault for misleading him. More than anything, I hated how it was making me question my entire attitude towards people, towards the world. All I was being was open, friendly and curious, as I am with most people I meet – is that a bad thing? Does it send the wrong message? I wondered if this was what the waitress in Hooters felt like as the group of drunken guys tried it on with her. Were they honestly stupid enough to mistake her friendliness – the basic requirement of her job – for attraction?
I began writing this thinking that what I went through on 30th April 2017 was enough of a story. That the fear it struck into me would in turn shock you. But in the time I’ve been writing it, I’ve told the events of that night to several people and the thing which scares me even more than the night itself is how common this is. Once I started discussing it, I learnt that several friends – men and women – had been through something similar.
There isn’t really an ending to this story. I don’t have some grand conclusion to make, nor have I told you anything you don’t already know. But I still felt the need to put it out there, if only to add my voice to all the others. You can take away whatever you want from it. That it can happen anywhere. That men can be just as vulnerable. That you shouldn’t go to Hooters. That you shouldn’t visit Augusta. But what I reflected on, as I cruised along peaceful country back roads in the morning sun, is something my mum had warned me about several times. I never fully took it on board, but the previous night had set it out in black and white: When you visit new places, you should explore, push yourself, be inquisitive, meet people and widen your horizons. You’ll be a better person for it, you’ll grow, have new experiences and come back with a handful of stories. But the same sense of adventure which is so intoxicating, can also make your feel invincible. You aren’t. Nobody is. I came dangerously close to finding that out and I hope, if nothing else, that’s what stays in your mind when you finish reading this.
The urges that stir within us can lead to wonderful things: the irrepressible call to paint or write music, to inspire young generations through teaching, to be the world’s greatest athlete. Or gardener. Or dentist. Whatever they are, those urges shape our lives and define us. There are sexual urges and with the right partner, in the right moment and – crucially – with consent, they also lead to wonderful things. But in the wrong moment, that same urge can define us as destructive and savage. Cliff is in that second group of people.
** As much as I would like to shame him, Cliff’s name was changed **