Although it happened a decade ago, sometimes I am terrified he's still watching me.
At twenty years old, I was online a lot. I "hung out" on OKCupid and LiveJournal and what was then called "The Facebook" instead of at clubs or bars. I didn't think much of it; all my friends online. We could share stories, plan places to go, and update each other on our gossip and whatnot.
Then I started dating somebody new, and things got ugly. During a miserable winter night, he assaulted and raped me. After three days of ignoring his calls, I sent him an email telling him never to contact me again.
The only thing was: I was easy to contact. I was online, all over, all the time. It didn't matter how often I changed email addresses or phone numbers — he managed to find me. How, I have no idea.
He followed me when I went to the grocery store. He followed me when I met friends for coffee. How he knew where I was, I still haven't figured out.
I never saw him, but he made sure to let me know he saw me. He sent emails and messages on all my social media accounts; he never stopped calling. Back then I used a land line for work and my dial-up, so when he couldn't get me on my cell he'd call at home. I screened calls through an answering machine, listening in the dark of my apartment as he pleaded with me to forgive him.
His messages started out sad and mournful, begging my forgiveness and telling me he loved me. But once I asked our friends to stop enabling him to find me, posting about mututal plans on their livejournals or MySpace accounts, or letting information on my whereabouts slip in conversation, they blocked him on their blogs and banned him from their profiles.
Then his tone changed.
His messages became threats. He said he would kidnap me and peel my skin off with a knife. He said he would kill me and burn my body. He said he would strangle me to death and laugh the whole time. It was grim, and I was terrified.
He was smart about it, though; nearly every message came from a new email address or social media profile. They never had his name or picture attached. The only thing they had in common was their menacing tone, the word choices he favored, and that they were targeting me.
For over a year, I hid. I moved, I deleted my social media handles every time he found me, but I always made new ones again. It was the only way I had to see my friends, as I was too scared to leave the house. I split a produce share with a friend who brought groceries to my front door. I took in tailoring work from people on Craigslist, they dropped off pants and bras and coats to mend on my stoop, and picked them up again when I'd fixed them. I barely made ends meet, but I ate and I kept the lights on.
And every few weeks, he followed the trail left by mutual acquaintances chatting about my new blog, or he'd recognize something about me in another new username, and find me again.
When I finally went to the police, they told me there was nothing they could do. I had no proof he was stalking me, only anonymous letters from people I had no way to prove were him. A story about an elf pulverizing a banana isn't usually considered a death threat, even if it happens to feature details that could be used to identify us.
"I'm the banana," I said. "Before I shut it down, my email address was 'fantasticbanana.' Before I shut it down my LiveJournal was 'bananaraspberry.' That's ME he's talking about murdering."
It didn't even matter that the elf kidnapped the banana at the same coffee shop I'd ventured to days before. Lots of people went to that coffee shop. Legally, it meant nothing. There were no laws in my state to protect people against "internet stalking," and the internet stalking was my only proof of physical stalking.
I couldn't get an order of protection. I couldn't even file charges for harassment. All I could do was go home and hope he would eventually tire of terrorizing me, or get sloppy and allow me to see him as he watched me scurry from my apartment building, running like hell for the next safe space.
A police officer told me he could go see my stalker at work. "I'll scare him for you if you like," he said. I had no idea what that meant, or whether it might encourage my stalker, but I said yes.
I don't know what that police officer did or said, but it must have worked. In the ten years since that day, I haven't had a death threat from my stalker again.
But during those ten years, the fear of what it's like to be stalked never completely left. Every time I get a creepy feeling like somebody might be watching me, I panic a little. When my windows are open and a door slams in the wind. When I notice somebody keeping pace behind me in an isolated area.
I sometimes make my husband double and triple-check that our doors are locked. I keep a weapon by my bed and by my door, no matter how paranoid it makes me look.
And every time a stranger sends me a friend request on Facebook, or an anonymous commenter writes something on my blog, I wonder if he's testing the waters, seeing if either of us are ready for the terror to begin anew.