The mere thought of gazing at the whorls of greasy fingerprints fading from the edge of my car door unnerved me.
The more strength I applied to the cleaning rag, the more tangible the image inside my head became. Like a scene from a movie being replayed, I repeatedly pictured the daring intensity in the eyes of that strange man staring at me.
I was out on a Sunday afternoon to drop some flowers off to a friend who was returning to Miami from Detroit after her father passed away earlier that week―the same week I celebrated my birthday. The paradox between life and death is heartbreaking in itself; while I celebrated my life, she mourned. It seems so unfair . . .
Upon leaving her place, I noticed my car was low on gas. I started to debate if I should get gas or rely on my husband’s kindness yet again the following morning.
As I approached the red traffic light and began to brake, I tried to make up my mind. Honestly, I was determined to go home and unwind for the rest of the day. The appearance of the bright green left-turn light and an empty turn lane, however, seemed a cue to the most appropriate decision.
All right! Stop being lazy I recall telling myself. I headed toward the gas station on the corner. Looking back, it was a straightforward decision that, although seemed ordinary, nearly took charge of my fate.
As soon as I arrived at the gas station, I felt as though the universe conspired against me: the gas pump I had chosen was out of service. I then proceeded to the pump across from me. While turning around, a driver speeding from the street ahead of me nearly hit my car on the passenger side.
Despite my frustration and a tight grip on the steering wheel—that was probably what kept me from shouting all the names I was thinking—I appeared calm.
However, I was exasperated. I was rolling my eyes behind my sunglasses so badly I felt as if they were taking a moment to stare at my eyelashes (my eyes’ way of taking a deep breath).
After finally parking at the gas pump, I found the hose couldn’t reach my gas tank because the vehicle ahead of me didn’t leave enough room. I waited for the young woman to finish and convinced myself using that front pump would allow me an easy exit.
Despite my forced sense of positivity, I can’t deny I was already regretting the decision to get gas. I wanted to be home. Period. The only thing that had stopped me from getting out of there was the fact that I would have to back up. At that point, I wanted to remain still; any movement was probable cause for something else to happen.
Finally parked at the pump—without thinking my destiny was about to be challenged—I rolled my window down while peering at the convenience store. A man stood right outside of it and was glancing in my direction.
I grabbed my valuables, as I always do. I hadn’t forgotten the news report of a thief snatching a woman’s purse as she fueled her car. Being careful not to ding my door on the concrete post next to the pump, I shut the door behind me.
At the payment terminal, another frustration reared its ugly head: it seemed unable to read my credit card. Of course! Part of me thought of turning around and going back home. But another part of me that deliberates with my grumpy side convinced me to give it another try. Nevertheless, my bitterness completely dissolved when I became distracted by a bird flying low, just over my head. He landed on the top of the pump I was using, his tail hanging over the edge.
Come on, little buddy! Move that bottom away from me. I walked backward to the rear of my car. With my eyes still on the bird, I recalled a time in Brazil when I was heading back home from the office and a bird pooped right on my face.
It was great! It even matched perfectly with my white and gray high heels. I assumed other pedestrians loved the combination because they were smiling at me. In the meantime, I tried to figure out what to do with the turd leisurely sliding down on my cheek. I guess from the bird's higher perspective, I looked like a sophisticated portable potty or something like that.
This time around, however, I wasn’t dressed up. I was wearing some old leggings and a running tank top. I figured it wasn’t necessary to dress nicely just to place something on a friend’s porch. Or on the back porch, in case I had to break in, which was totally unnecessary anyway. OK, I did break in, but it was for a good reason, and for the record, there weren’t any No Trespassing signs hanging on the fence. I am still uncertain if I was more scared of someone catching me back there, the alarm going off, or being attacked by her cat. MEOW! I could visualize it jumping out of nowhere and attaching its big, long claws to my face.
Intrigued by the bird’s chirping I began to videotape it; I wanted to show it to my daughter. I know this might sound weird and I am no bird expert, but I believed it seemed distressed.
Still fascinated, a noise near my car caught my attention. It sounded like someone had shut a door nearby. On my toes, I glanced over my shoulder. I turned my attention back to the bird who, by that time, had walked to the other edge of the pump and went silent.
The silence was soon broken by the click made by pump disengaging. Eager to head home, I placed the nozzle back on its dock. On my phone’s screen, a message from my husband popped up. I began to read it while walking to my car door. Stop staring at your phone, my gut advised. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it is to trust my gut.
Two steps more and I was standing next to the driver’s door. While gazing at the chrome door handle, I reached for it. A subtle voice in my head demanded me to look inside the car. I stopped my hand immediately and shrieked.
Baffled, my eyebrows raised; my jaw dropped. My torso straightened and my feet seemed to have somehow become glued to the ground. Confused, I involuntarily threw my hands up. They froze there along with my entire body.
In shock, I stared at the man sitting in the passenger seat of my car. I watched him slowly turn his head toward me. His hands resting on his knees. Chin down, eyes up. I couldn’t help but notice he had no shirt on.
His jaw locked and his big black round eyes intensely locked on mine, staring at me as if he had some sort of ownership. Of what, I am uncertain. I wanted to yell at him. My desire was to tell him to get the f*ck out of my car. I wanted to know what the hell he was doing there, but somehow, I simply couldn’t speak.
While time seemed to freeze, thoughts in my head kept shifting. Drugs. A few years back, a friend of mine, along with her teenage daughter and boyfriend, Zuegos, parked on the street in Miami Beach. They arrived for a race early one Sunday morning. Zuegos headed to the back of their van to remove equipment, while my friend and her daughter waited inside the vehicle.
A few moments later, with a lot of noise at the back of the van, the driver’s door opened. A stranger sat down in the driver’s seat and placed his wallet and passport on the console, next to where the car keys were. My friend yelled at him to get out of the car. Since he didn’t, she told her daughter to get out. “Zuegos! Zuegos!” she called. “There’s a man in the car!” In response, the man shouted at her, “Calm down!”
Zuegos demanded the man leave, but the stranger refused and instead demanded, “Stay in the car, girls!” It was only after being punched, hit by a karate move, and finally chased by Zuegos holding a machete, did the individual finally take off. “Call the police!” the would-be carjacker urged bystanders. His documents were later handed to an officer and charges were not pressed; they assumed he was under the influence of a controlled substance.
All at once, I was sucked back to the present. His eyes were still locked on mine as if he thought he had some sort of power over me. He didn’t. There was nothing valuable in my car. Nor was he pointing a gun at me. As I continued to mimic a statue, I wondered why he was not getting out of my car.
I tried to make sense of what was going through his mind, but he wouldn’t move. I was unable to voice a single word while we underwent our staring contest. I began to consider if I should use the pepper spray on my keychain or dial 911. That’s when a hasty thought jumped into my mind.
There must be something wrong here. If this guy thinks he can cause me any harm, he is messing with the wrong person. I know how God always takes care of me. My eyes narrowed, my eyebrows lowered.
As a little girl, my dad taught me dogs can sense human emotions, so I should not display fear to them. Mankind isn’t all that different. While one attempts domination by causing fear in someone, another allows themselves to be dominated—like a food chain. On that Sunday afternoon, I made it clear that I wasn’t willing to accept whatever role that individual had in mind for me.
I heard footsteps approach behind me. I sensed warmth on my back. I sensed three individuals in my peripheral vision, two on the edges and one in the center, glaring at the stranger in my car. Their presence felt mighty. I was relieved to no longer deal with that man on my own.
Unexpectedly, he tore away his stare. I sensed defeat in his eyes as he looked away. Right then, I knew the battle was over. He opened the door and walked away without uttering a single word. He didn’t have to. The expression in his eyes said it all.
Still perplexed, I stood there and watched him walk away. I noticed the sun shining against the skin on his back. Why wasn’t he in a hurry?
“This guy wasn’t with you?” a gentleman inquired from behind me.
“No. I have no idea who he is!” I turned around. My body finally began to release all the built up adrenaline inside. My hands were shaking. I noticed the gentlemen talking to me had tender eyes and a kind expression.
“I saw him get inside your car. I kept an eye on him because he was walking in front of me. Next thing I know, he gets in your car. I thought it could be that he was meeting you. That’s why I didn't say anything. But just to be sure, I kept an eye on him the entire time. I was worried there might be a child inside.”
My heart became warm as I observed the kind stranger sharing those details with me, but my mind continued to spin.
“What did he do? Did he look inside my purse? Did he drink my water?” “No. It didn’t seem like it. He got in and just sat there.” He shook his head.
“That guy wasn’t with you?” Some other guy approached, pointing at the man who was slowly moving away from us. “Wow! I saw when he got in your car. He opened the door like he owned it!” His eyes opened wide, and with a smirk of astonishment on his lips, he walked back to his car.
Trembling, I whole-heartedly thanked the gentleman who kept an eye on me. I felt like he was more of a guardian angel. I got back in my car, hoping I would be able to drive home safely despite being in a state of shock.
Once I arrived home, I wanted to erase the image of that man, not to mention the manner in which he looked at me. While I wiped everywhere he could’ve possibly touched, I visualized his mannerisms. Assuming I was finished, I shut the passenger door. But there they were: his fingerprints.
Despite knowing I was safe, I completely lost control over my thoughts. Those images kept replaying in my mind and made my heart pound, no matter how hard I tried not to think about it.
Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark, the what if’s were so frightening I couldn’t fall asleep. There’s no way to know what could’ve happened if I had gotten inside my car with that man. Part of me felt blessed and thankful I was able to walk away unharmed. God has certainly given me another chance. Nevertheless, I knew that to be able to fall asleep, I needed to do the right thing; I called the police to file a report.
“Ma’am, if this ever happens again, do not hesitate to call 911 immediately. Even if the subject walks away. If it is a misunderstanding, we will clarify it. What happened to you is considered trespassing, but I will file it as a suspicious activity since there’s nothing missing from your car and no words were exchanged. It is always important to report. If he did this to one person, it is possible he will do it to someone else. Always keep your doors locked, even if you are standing by it,” the officer advised.
That Sunday, I met three strangers. My hope is that with this post, I will be able to spare others from the same experience. With a collective effort, we can help each other be safer.
As with many things in life, healing takes time. While I am still recovering from this trauma, I’m happy to share that I was able to find peace with a simple trick: every time the episode comes to mind, I smudge the image of that individual from my head—like smashing a mosquito and staring at its dead carcass just out of spite—and replace it with the kind face of my guardian angel. That brave soul who, despite not knowing me, guarded my life.
The greatness of his heart will forever be the fingerprints imprinted inside my head.