“So, are you ever... you know... scared to be on your own?” asked the mother who’d invited me over. Children of various ages and skin tones and hair colors dashed around us, laughing and shrieking. I couldn’t tell who belonged to whom. I was in heaven.
“Yuff,” I said around a mouthful of cake. “Alla time.” She laughed.
“Aren’t your parents worried about you?” asked her friend.
“Yuff,” I repeated, then swallowed. “All the time.”
It occurred to me that someone here could take me home. I could sleep on their comfy couch instead of here in this noisy public park on a Saturday night in Florence, Colorado. But as I took another bite of free picnic leftovers, I felt guilty for thinking of it. I’d been hosted by friends and Warmshowers hosts for the last two weeks, sleeping in luxurious beds in private guest rooms. It'd been a long time since I’d camped, and I needed to get back in the groove. Kansas, after all, was looming on the horizon, and I'd be camping most nights in public parks.
The kind people in the Adoption Support Group started packing up their coolers and baby strollers. “You’re going to sleep here in the park?” asked one father, looking concerned.
“Yeah, that’s the plan,” I said brightly.
He looked around at the throngs of people. I waited. Take me home, I pleaded silently.
“Alright,” he said, “Be careful. And God Bless.” A few of the mothers hugged me goodbye, and I felt safe in their arms. I rolled Miya back to the picnic table we’d occupied earlier, glancing around for an idea of where I might camp.
“Holy, holy, holy...” crooned the vocalist, his words soaring across the park. I felt stuck. I wanted to set up my tent, but didn’t want to advertise that a young woman was about to sleep here, alone. I decided to wait for the Christian rock band and their fans to leave before I set up camp. I plopped down atop the picnic table and began to stretch.
Nearby, a group of glamorous teenage girls in fancy makeup and shiny dresses were getting their picture taken by a parent under a tree. “Smile!” said the mother, snapping photos as the girls puffed out their lips and looked bored, mimicking the models in magazines.
They weren’t the only ones. I began to spot group after group of decked-out teens, strolling self-consciously around the park in their tuxes and gowns, trailed by excited parental paparazzi. I giggled to myself on the park bench, watching the interactions. There was just enough light left in the day for photos before the high schoolers were whisked off to whatever event they’d dressed up for. My guess was Homecoming.
The loudspeakers boomed that this would be the band’s last song. People began to make their way towards the parking lot. I yawned. It was getting dark, and I was looking forward to a long night’s rest. I decided to leave Miya leaning against the picnic table for a moment, and walk around the park to see if there was an obvious place to pitch my tent.
I started off down the path, scanning the grass and trees and restroom buildings. A few places looked better than others, but groups of people had already claimed them as hangout spots. There was a surprising amount of people still sprawled on the grass or standing around talking. I looked closer. They were young. Most of them were probably in high school but a few might have been as young as middle school. They were definitely not dressed for a formal event. And, unlike the audience for the rock concert, they were making no moves to leave.
My heart sank. It appeared that only some of the town’s teenagers were attending a fancy dance tonight. The rest of the kids, perhaps the bitter outcasts, were gathering here in the park. There was no telling how late they’d linger, or with what devilish business they’d amuse themselves. My vision of having a quiet, dark patch of grass all to myself was shattered. I began to regret that I hadn’t paid attention to what day of the week it was. I made a rule for the future: no camping in public parks on Saturday night. Leave it for the angsty young people to have all to themselves.
Maybe they’re nice, I thought, waving at a group as I walked back to Miya. They ignored me cooly. One kid sniggered. Smoke curled from a lit cigarette. My heart sank deeper.
I passed at least four large groups of teens on my way back to the picnic table. I wondered if this happened every Saturday night, or just on this night in particular. I hurried back to my bicycle.
“Well, honey,” I said quietly to Miya, “looks like this place is as good as any.” It was truly dark now and I was tired.
I locked Miya’s front wheel to her frame and set up my tent right next to her, so that she was pinned between the table and my tent. I pulled out the vestibule and tied it to her, so that if someone tried to walk off with my bike during the night they’d take my tent with it. “Don’t go home with strangers,” I whispered to her, making sure my back was turned to the nearest group of teens.
A loud, blood-curdling scream ripped through the air. I whirled around and a nightmare met my eyes. I froze. Time stopped. The spectre of assault that had haunted me all day was being acted out, right there on the grass.
Two teenage boys were holding a girl against the ground, using their body weight to pin her as she writhed and kicked. A third boy sat atop her torso, straddling her while his hands tickled her ribs and armpits. “No, NO, NOOOOOO!”, shrieked their victim. The guys laughed triumphantly.
“Stop moving!” one of them shouted at her.
I stared, shocked. There were a couple other girls in the group, sitting on the grass nearby and watching quietly. I waited for their reaction. It didn’t come. One girl blew a small bubble with her gum, popped it on her pretty lips, and kept chewing. My eyes were hot as my face began to flush and my blood felt like it was boiling inside me.
I stood there, watching and trying not to, for too long. I rehearsed a hundred things that I could say. I could walk over there and bark at them to stop. I could say that they were practicing the oppression of women, that tickling someone in a public park was like gang-raping them. My eyes flicked back to the two gum-popping, spineless teenie-boppers, who watched their fellow female flail and scream and did nothing. I wanted to murder every single one of them.
Before I could get the chance, the screaming died down into a fit of giggles, and the boys released their prey. The girl stood up smiling, pulling her jeans up over her tight teenage derriere as she flicked her hair coyly.
“Who’s next?” one of the boys asked.
I turned away, bursting into silent tears. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t talk to them. I was a mess. Grabbing my toiletries, I walked to the far corner of the park and discovered the bathroom was locked. The screams and laughter followed me. I decided to stay far away, taking out my contacts in the light of a street lamp and brushing my teeth with water from my bottle. When I was done, I put on my glasses and called my parents, willing their voices to drown out the sounds of torture.
“How’s it going?” they asked, “everything alright?”
“Yeah,” I said heavily, “I’m just... lonely I guess”. It wasn’t the truth, but I couldn’t tell them the truth. I couldn’t report to my parents that I was about to sleep in a public park infested with naughty teenagers, or that I’d been plagued by visions of rape all day. My parents worried enough about me. I didn’t need to add to their concerns. Their voices were soothing, and by the time we said goodnight the gang-tickling sessions had mercifully stopped.
I took off my glasses and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was dead tired but found it difficult to relax. I could hear that same group of teens murmuring and giggling nearby.
I lay on my back and tied a bandana over my eyes like a blindfold, to keep out the streetlights that seared through the thin walls of my tent. But once blinded, I felt panicked. I smelled cigarette smoke in the air, and pictured a kid carelessly flicking a cigarette butt at my tent. I ripped off the bandana, breathing hard, worried my tent would burst into flames at any moment.
Then came the noise.
I lurched inside my sleeping bag, startled. Something had just hit the roof of my tent. It rolled off and I saw it through the nylon, its shape silhouetted against a streetlight: An empty plastic bottle.
They’re throwing bottles at my tent?
I listened, hearing nothing from outside. The teens were strangely quiet.
If I ignore them, they’ll probably stop, I decided, lying still and closing my eyes.
“HEY!” I bellowed, sitting bolt upright and shooting out of my sleeping bag. That unmistakable noise of aluminum on a steel frame felt like a shot of adrenaline, and I had the zipper door open and was standing on the dark lawn in front of my tent before my thoughts had a chance to catch up. The telltale aluminum can rolled to a stop between me and the teenagers. I turned to face them, my hands in fists. Nobody throws shit at my bike!
And that’s when I realized I was blind. In my protective rage, I’d exploded from the tent without grabbing my glasses.
I stood before a blurry mass of people. They were about fifteen feet away, and I couldn’t tell how many there were, or who had thrown the can. It was strange to stand before an audience I couldn’t see. I knew I should crouch down and grab my glasses from inside my tent, but I was hesitant to turn my back on these kids.
They seemed to be watching me, waiting. A few snickered, and one murmured something. Frozen with indecision, I stood there, blinking hard, willing my eyesight to miraculously improve. Time was running out. If I stood there too long, they’d make the next move. And I didn’t know what that would be.
Just then, I heard a strange sound. It was like a high-pitched groan, and at first I thought it was coming from one of the kids. But I saw several blurry heads whipping around, searching for the source. “What is that?” someone asked.
The ground trembled beneath my bare feet. I looked down and saw something small and black pop out of the grass a few feet in front of me. For a split second, we all stared at it together.
A kid started to say, “What the -”, but the thing on the ground interrupted him. A four-foot-high fountain of water suddenly sprang into the air.
“SPRINKLERS!” screamed the teens, as the fountain began to tilt towards them. Their dark shapes scrambled off the grass, running to the safety of the street as sprinklers continued to sprout all over the park. I gave one high-pitched yip of triumph and dove into my tent, zipping myself inside.
Sealed in my waterproof palace, I couldn’t stop grinning. Only my fleece jacket had gotten damp, and when I pulled it off and slipped into my still-warm sleeping bag, I sighed with pleasure. This was turning out to be a peaceful night after all.
I had to be the luckiest person on earth. The way those sprinklers had come to my rescue, I might as well have been the Chosen One. The news could report whatever they liked, and people around me would continue to suffer, but as I lay there listening to the water drumming atop my tent, I was somehow sure that in my world, inexplicably, there was justice. I needed no further proof that the impossible was within my grasp.