There are three essential rules to stalking.
The first is to stay at a reasonable distance, never less than fifteen feet away.
The second is to refrain from speaking at all costs.
And the last rule is to not follow anyone you are emotionally attached to.
If you follow these three simple rules, you’ll be able to stay out of trouble. You’ll be able to conduct the study seamlessly. Flawlessly. You’ll have gained insight into the life of a stranger, a window into who they are, if only for one day you will have captured a glimpse of someone’s entity, stolen a piece of their lives they can never get back, like a photograph taken out of its frame and slipped into your back pocket, and it becomes as much part of you as it does of them. Together, the stalker and the stalked create a dynamic, if an invisible one; they merge lives unknowingly, like that between a character in a book and an avid reader. It is art and literature and science, the study of humanity, a portrait of who people become when they think nobody is watching, who they are when you put them under a microscope and read into their gestures, expressions, into the fibers and glands of their delicate skin.
In its ideal, stalking should be like a one night stand. Emotionally uncommitted, wildly fun, but you should always bring protection because you don’t know where the other person has been and what they have done.
The train station is warm and thick with night. It isn’t late, no more than ten or eleven o’clock. I take a deep breath, swallowing a mouth full of tainted air that is so characteristic of the underworld, and I remember that this is my home. I whisper my secrets into the cement walls and I hear them reflected back, echoing a million times, rejoicing my finite moments of stolen infinity. I feel at ease in a room full of strangers; this is my territory. Train stations in New York fulfill promises of anonymity; the place is swarming with unknowns. This is my playground and these people – the suffering, the oblivious, the naive, the innocent, and the mad – they are my playthings. I’m like a child in a candy shop. I peruse the aisles of the train station, up and down staircases and around corners, testing out flavors, comparing colors, sizes, and costs. I see desperate teenage boys, with their pants slung all the way down to their knees; tired mothers with weighing eyelids and children tugging at their sleeves, like a tree with branches bearing too many fruits; old men staring at young girls with skirts too tight, all rouged up and tragically pretty; but mostly I focus on the people that no one else sees.
The man, not five feet away from me, could have been ageless. He had the kind of face that became handsome after you stared at it for a while. It was the kind of face that told tales of impervious foolishness and startling maturity, soft and unrelenting. His medium length black hair was slicked back smoothly, and despite the slimy heat he was wearing a thick long brown leather coat with fur lining inside, and a polished gray suit beneath it. In his long, slender, pockmarked fingers is a manuscript, pristine mechanical letters typed on crisp paper. It is the handy work of an ancient typewriter.
It’s like the tug of a magnet; I thoughtlessly slip a few steps behind him, drawn effortlessly. There are some things that you are just simultaneously enthralled and repulsed by, but regardless of what you feel you go through with it, doubtlessly, mechanically, like there is nothing simpler in the world. You have no choice. You have too much to lose. It is something that just is, that happens unquestioningly, and I peer at the shape of his thin hands and at the way he quivers a little as he walks. On this moist summer day, stuck that evening in the underground of Brooklyn, basking in the presence of oily hood rats and the cessation of train engines, I have found a stranger that I’ve known my whole life, a stranger with my own likeness, with my own face.
The train roars by, a sound that makes me feel that I’m about be run over, and I quickly slip in the car behind him before we go pummeling down another dark tunnel. He walks to a seat, with the dignified gait of someone who has suffered. I look at him, clad in his elegant melancholy. I resist the urge to sit near him, just this once, so I could observe him a bit closer, so I could take a more intimate spot in his life, but that is strictly forbidden. I am a stalker, and I exist to no one but myself. Sometimes it almost feels like unrequited love.
I stand up from my seat nonetheless, and wrap my fingers around the railing. I’m starting to feel lightweight. I’m dizzy for a moment, and I hear my untied sneakers squeal on the dull linoleum train floor. Across the car, he stands up as well. He gets off at the next stop.
The next few moments happen quickly. I decide to get out of another exit, the shiny white brick walls reflecting the unnatural fluorescent light. The air outside is cooler. It is Astor Place, and I inhale wafts of greasy pizza and weed. I spot him about fifteen feet away and follow him.
I realize he is in the process of coming undone. He crosses the street, and zigzags around corners; his motions have a restrained emphatic quality to them, trained to the point of grace. He stops at a corner and I retreat behind a phone booth. I shrink into my hood, tucking a scissor cut strand of brown hair behind my ear and listening to the sound of my breathing. A police siren wines somewhere in the distance, the flashing neon lights cut across the block, and somewhere beneath my skin I feel myself burn with eagerness and remorse. My head is backed into the foggy glass of the phone booth, the cold phone creating a dent on my rounded cheek, the cord tangled like a web through my fingers.
I peer at the man through a slit of my thin hair. He has stopped stiff at the edge of the sidewalk, glancing at something in a store window; something apparently has caught his eye. He could have been a statue belonging to a Gothic church, with his expression both vehement and solemn, his long figure looming over the rest of the street. He reaches into his voluminous coat and searches for a moment, taking out a pad and a sheet of paper. I play with the idea that he is deliberating his own destruction. He hunches over to scribble furiously, occasionally peering into the reflection of a nearby car’s rearview mirror.
He suddenly stops. He stands straight, his gangly limbs tightening under the pressure of an invisible strain. He begins to turn, and my grip around the yellow dial-phone tightens.
The man has expressive eyes that say nothing, or perhaps have nothing to say, and when I involuntarily get stuck in his gaze I have no choice but to question who is stalking whom, and who is really the one observing the other. He starts walking towards me, without hesitation, with directness full of meaning and purpose. He taps my shoulder. He does it fearlessly.
“Are you following me?”
I feel myself become numb. No, I’m not following you. Why would I be following you? I’m just making a phone call. I come by here all the time.
That’s what I should say. That would be the right thing to say. Follow you? I would repeat it again, for extra emphasis, to make him feel small and absurd, even smaller and more ridiculous than I feel right now. I want to look at him up and down in disgust, like I have never heard something more preposterous, like I am insulted by the very idea. He would apologize for his rudeness and bluntness.
After all, what kind of a creep do you think I am?
But that’s not what I say at all. That’s not what happens next. I shape my lips into a perfect O, quivering slowly with shame and self-disgust, and I come to realize what I really am. I am a girl who finds people and follows them, sometimes as they go meet a friend, sometimes as they go to a supermarket, as they go to a party I wasn’t invited to, or as they go buy pregnancy tests at pharmacies.
I am a stalker.
The very word connotes freak, danger. I am a creep. I am a weirdo. Sick in the head. Bad to know. Worst to not know. I am stained by anonymity. I am graced by it.
The words that finally come out are cool. Made of steel. “Why, yes. I am stalking you. Do you have a problem with that?”
I watch his face, the sunken cheeks, the way his taut skin is the color of watery tea, and somewhere in his dark eyes I see a light flicker, like a slight recognition, an understanding that is too nuanced for pity and too dry for shock. His expression is nothing short of sarcastic.
I was hoping he would say something, a reaction of some sort, but he wouldn’t give me that kind of satisfaction. He takes a cigarette rather lazily from a pocket and begins to light it before glancing over and politely asking, “Do you mind?”
I hesitate for a moment before noting his flagrant calm and nod, yes I mind. He shrugs, slips the cigarette in between a twisted smile and lights it. It’s probably all he can do to not blow rings of smoke in my face.
“You know, over 400,000 people die each year from smoking,” I say snidely. I sound like a twelve year old threatening an older sibling.
“It’s a disgusting habit.”
“Kind of like stalking?” he says. “I’m sure you would know all about disgusting habits.”
I feel a little twitch, and I lean into the side of the phone booth, my shoulders slouching into the graffiti-stained plastic. I look him up and down. “It’s not disgusting. You should be flattered,” I say indignantly.
“Why would I be flattered by an invasion of my privacy?” the man says, sizing me up.
“Because someone in this world finds you mildly interesting. There. Aren’t you flattered?”
“More like disturbed. Why do you stalk people?”
“I was bored,” I shrug.
“Don’t twelve year olds have anything better to do these days? Go to the park and play,” he snarls, smiling wickedly through a crooked mouth.
“Actually I’m sixteen. And I have plenty of things to do,” I remark.
“Really? Is that why you’re following a 52 year old man on a Saturday night?” I shove my hands into pockets, staring at the dirty silver cement beneath my feet. “Oh, come on. Don’t be shy,” he insists. “No one just randomly decides to follow strangers, not out of the blue.”
I shook my head. “Some people do.”
“Suit yourself. You don’t have to tell me.” He leans against a street pole, one leg crossing the other, and with his arms across his chest. I stare at him.
“I bet you think you’re a writer,” I say.
“Yeah? Why’s that?” he drops his wrist a little, flicks the ash.
“You just have that air about you. Like you think you’ve seen things that other people haven’t.”
“That isn’t fair. You don’t know me.”
“Well I know you carry a manuscript.”
“I write biographies.”
“Seriously? Like about dead people?”
“No, sometimes they are alive.” He waves an irate hand in the air. “You ask too many questions.”
“I’m a stalker. It’s my job to pry,” I shrug.
“Not all stalkers like to ask questions,” he says, not looking at me.
“That’s right.” I finally feel like I have something over him, an edge that he doesn’t have. I gaze at the long blocks behind him, the long streets overflowing with excesses, the people and lights that drip like goo, and the city looks like the warped inside of a crystal marble. All the movement, that color that reflects and catches light, glittering and swerving, trapped into a constant sphere of motion. “Some stalkers would rather hide behind their creepy little notepads.”
He falters for a brief moment, and quickly regains his composure. “Why would say that?”
“I know you were stalking me, too,” I say it in a hollow voice.
“No, I wasn’t – I never followed you.” There is immobility and coldness behind his tremor of emotions. I wonder if he lied often.
“I figured you were looking at me through the car’s rearview mirror,” I speak slowly, trying to assess his facial expression.
He gives up, heaving out a defeated breath. He doesn’t look at me, and instead stares at the smoke emitting from his cigarette. “For my story. I need to write about kids. What they do. How they act.”
If I squint, the city would become like a stained glass window: the colors of street lights and advertisements blur and turn solid, flat. It becomes a broken ceramic.
“So I guess we share the same interests in people,” he offers me a grin and nudges me awkwardly on the shoulder, a clumsy attempt at friendliness.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” I ask.
“I didn’t want to frighten you,” he says.
There is a long silence.
“When I was seven years old I saw a guy hang off the ledge of a building after trying to commit suicide.”
He looks up at me, his expression unreadable.
“I don’t remember what he looked like; I just remember he was holding on to the ledge with one hand. His right hand, I think.” The words are stumbling out of my mouth quickly; I don’t realize what I’m saying until I hear the words.
“And that’s it. My mother pulled me the other way, and I never saw him again. I have no idea what happened to him.”
“You started stalking right after that?”
“No, it started small in the beginning. I used to randomly smile at strangers, because I didn’t want them to commit suicide. I would just start waving at them. I thought that if people saw that a child cared about their life, they would too.”
“That’s why you stalk,” he says.
“That is why I stalk,” I agreed. “To give credit to the lives that would otherwise never be seen or recorded. I notice the people that no one else does. I stalk because I give a damn.”
There is another long silence. I’m starting to notice things about him, things I hadn’t noticed before. The polite lineaments of his face, his expressions and inflections seem to be conflicting with something else inside him; like the emotions that plastered his features don’t belong to him at all, like they were incongruous to the man who lied beneath the skin. Now that I had seen it – like catching a neighbor in the window across the street doing something obscene – I couldn’t stop noticing it.
“Why do you do it?” I ask. “Why do you stalk people?”
“Because,” he starts, choosing his words very carefully. “I can’t bear to live in a world and not know the people in it.”
“Me too,” I barely hear myself speak; it’s like an empty echo coming from deep inside a well. I fidget with the hem of my shirt, revealing a white pasty sheet of skin.
“I guess we have a lot in common, you and I, Ada.” He flashes a small, oddly radiant smile. For a moment something inside me quells and surges. I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of unnatural ecstasy, thin and inconsistent, like a fiber film of happiness that you need but stick your hand through to break.
“How could you…?” My voice starts and breaks at its own accord.
We have a lot in common, you and I, Ada. Ada. He takes great pleasures in saying my name, including it in sentences awkwardly, like a deliberate after-thought, like a child stealing a cookie from a jar. Ada. Ay-duh. He says my name like he wants to own it. He wants something to latch on to, and so do I. You and I, Ada.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve stalked me, is it?” I sound like I have a snake in my throat.
“Sure it is,” he stops himself, “But-”
“Then how do you know my name?” The snake hisses. I feel threatened. For the first time, I’m afraid.
“I don’t.” He doesn’t know what to do with himself. “I do, but it’s not what it looks like-” He steps forward, his hands outstretched, but I take an exaggerated step back.
“How long have you been stalking me?” No response. “When the fu – When did you start stalking me?”
“It’s for my book,” he says lamely. I realize he is older than I thought he was, the corners of his eyes creased with lines of agonized laughter. His manuscript is on the floor. It must have fallen out of his coat when he had stepped towards me. We both see it at the same time, but I’m quicker than him. I pick it up, handling the thick sheets of pale yellowed paper in my hand.
“Is this your book?” I ask, although we both know there is no need to answer. I already know that it is. I flip through the pages insolently. I begin reading in fragments, rippling through papers.
Ada lives in a middle to upper class neighborhood and attends a high school in-
She has a mutt whom she does not enjoy walking –
Subject seems to have tendencies of intense withdrawal…
At times she is extremely vivacious and intensely –
Subject wears the same dirty gray hoodie everyday…
She detaches herself from her family and friends often. She isolates herself and spends most of her time alone so that she could follow peo –
I can’t tell if she’s arrogant or masochistic.
My vision is zooming in and out of the streets; it looks like the bottom of a broken kaleidoscope, bits and pieces of glamour that are torn. “How could you do something like that?” I’m disgusted. “How can you follow me for so long without me knowing?”
“It’s not that different from what you do, Ada,” he says.
“You know where I live,” I continue, distressed, shuffling through the mass of paper. “You know my dog’s name, you know where my parents work…my email address. My phone number. Where I usually go to buy lunch.”
“I write biographies. I write about other people –“
“I’m sixteen,” I feel violated. “Sixteen. Do you know what that means, old man?”
“You’re just as bad as I am,” he says, trying to keep calm, trembling for the first time. “You can lie to yourself, and say that what you do is okay, you can go ahead try to justify it in your head, but it’s not.You use people you don’t know so you won’t have to deal with who you are.”
I grip his manuscript between clenched fists, disgusted and horrified. “It is completely different from what I do,” I spit. “What you do is –” I can hardly bring myself to say it – “is disgusting. My life isn’t just a source of entertainment. You can’t just put me into your book. I don’t even know who you are.”
“You turn people on the street into reality television, and I turn them into literature. There is no difference,” his voice has raised a couple notches.
“That’s not -” I don’t want to continue, because it physically hurts somewhere inside to say it, “Normal.” I spit it out in disgust, of him, and of me, of what we are.
“We aren’t normal,” he says. He has become quieter.
“Why do you do this?” I’m suddenly exhausted, overcome by my own fury. He had treated me like something in a zoo.
“I have,” – he is breaking, I hear it in his voice – “nothing else.”
“Why? Why did you do this to me? Why are you stalking me, of all people?” I realize that I had ripped the manuscript, my sharp nails tearing through the papers, without knowing.
“I write about people who I think shouldn’t be forgotten,” he finally says, and beneath the harsh lights of the city and the shadows of the building, I think I see him shed a tear. I look away, as though I had seen something indecent. We are on the same plane, but on opposite sides.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Because of the revealing nature of this essay, I have decided not to disclose any significant information about my identity. So who am I? If I do my job right, you’ll never find out.
For all you know, I might be stalking you right now.
Age 17, Grade 12