'Seven Warning Signs That Will Save Your Life'


Carolyn Steele Agosta



The “Safe in the City” class meets in the basement of the United Methodist church in a meeting room where the bulletin boards are covered with Boy Scout Badge posters and parish clean-up schedules. Gina promised her mother she'd take the class, and it is probably a good idea, but she never thought she'd be spending her Tuesday evenings with seven old ladies and Mike.

Maybe they don't think of themselves as old ladies, although the youngest is at least her mother's age and they all like to give her advice on where to shop for the best fruit and how to clean a tub without scratching the finish and what kind of man is most likely to be loving and compassionate his whole life long. Considering they are all widowed or divorced, Gina finds this advice ludicrous.

Toward Mike, they are respectful, attentive, and even a bit flirtatious. He takes it all in stride, smiling and impersonal even as he puts his arm around their waists to demonstrate a self-defense move they should use if ever approached in a dark, echoing parking deck after eleven p.m., when all good people should have gone home to bed. Mrs. McKechnie says, “Let somebody try it, just let them try. I'll put their lights out,” and she brandishes her cane with ferocious abandon. She lives alone in a ten-room apartment with her arthritic dog. “I'm not afraid!”

“You should be,” Mike says. “Fear is your friend. It tells you everything you need to know in order to read a situation.” Gina wonders what happens if she wants to be afraid? “Remember,” Mike adds, “not everyone wishes you well and your enemies are not always strangers.” He smiles and pats Mrs. McKechnie's shoulder reassuringly – and suddenly her cane is twenty feet away, sliding across the brown and gold linoleum and all their breathing stops in their chests as they see her drop to her knees under Mike's grip. Or, almost to her knees. Before she can hit the floor, he has caught her around the waist and, smiling, set her on the faded couch with the worn afghan. “See how quickly it can happen?”

They team up in pairs, Gina with Debbie Ogilvie, a 52-year-old divorcée living on her own for the first time in her life. “I don't know if I can do this,” Debbie says as they brace their sneakered feet against each other's and attempt to demonstrate the basic break-hold. “If anyone tried to mug me, I'd probably just wet my pants.”

“Or scream.” Mike looms up next to Gina's left shoulder, dangerously close. “Either way, you might wreck a rapist's plans.” He adjusts Debbie's grip on Gina's upper arm. “Watch out, too, for friendly strangers who just want to ‘help' you. Trust no one.” His ponytail, dark and curly, slides across his upper back as he turns to see how Myra Blackwell manages the elbow jab. Under the cobalt blue of his shirt, shoulder muscles round up big as grapefruit, straining the cloth. Gina guesses he's around thirty-five years old.

Everyone sits on battered metal folding chairs as he continues his lecture. “Be suspicious of the person who volunteers too many details,” he writes on the chalkboard. “They're probably lying. No matter how many reasons they give, never go somewhere with a stranger.” He sluices back his hair with one hand and lights a cigarette. They're not supposed to smoke in here, but he ignores that. He's a rule-breaker. The kind of man who sets off alarms—not in buildings, but in women's hearts. Every good girl is fascinated by bad boys.

“Don't let anyone do you a favor, or worse yet, a series of favors,” he says, frowning when Kiki Becker whispers to Myra Blackwell. “It's a form of loan-sharking. Eventually they want payment.”

Kiki begins to giggle, then raises her hand. “How do you know? Maybe the guy is just flirting, trying to get to know me. Good lord, I haven't had a man spontaneously offer to help me in years. Are you sure you're protecting us, Mike? I can't find a guy that good to date, let alone spray Mace on him.”

The other women titter and Gina imagines Mike offering to carry her grocery bags up the stairs, to fix that leak in the kitchen. Her cheeks flush when she thinks about how she might repay him. She quivers at the thought of touching his lips, sliding her hands around his waist, pressing her breasts against that muscled chest.

“You have to make choices,” he says, concluding the lesson. “Avoid confrontation, be aware of your surroundings and survive. Trust your instincts and realize nothing can be taken for granted.”

Class is over until next Tuesday. Mike reminds them to go to their cars in pairs. Gina walks out with Georgia Frye, a heavyset mother of four whose husband was killed last year in a three-car pile-up on the Martin Luther King expressway. Georgia shakes her head as they stand next to her '93 Chevy Cavalier. “All I want is to feel strong, like I can protect my family, you know? I realize there's no such thing, but I'd like to enjoy the illusion.” She sits down heavily and a bucket of Legos tips over, a hundred red and white bricks cascading to the floor. With an impatient movement, she kicks them over to the passenger side and shakes her head again. Gina waves good-bye and gets into her own car. Mike stands at the church doorway, lighting another cigarette. He glances up as a dark-haired woman strides by, then zips his jacket and leaves.

Gina starts her car and follows his taillights, her radio tuned to the all-news station. Harrowing accounts of true-life tales. Robberies at gunpoint, assaults, children abducted from their beds. All the scariest things anyone could imagine, and God knows, she has a vivid imagination. It brought her to this city, after all.

The thing she keeps wondering, though, is how far can fear take her? Away from the homogenized, sanitized suburbs, away from her apartment-cocoon, her modular office cubby, saving her life like spaghetti in Tupperware until it congeals and stiffens to inflexible strands. Saving it for what?

Mike heads for the rougher side of town, and she follows, stalking him, afraid to show her face, but more afraid to stay in calm waters all her life. He parks near a ragged strip mall, where a tattoo shop cuddles up to a gym and music escapes through the door of a neighborhood tavern. He comes here every Tuesday night after class and, lately, so does Gina.

But he doesn't see what she sees, from across the parking lot. He doesn't see himself, leaning against the wall outside the gym, waiting until the aerobics instructor leaves. The aerobic instructor is lean and gorgeous, with six-pack abs and a smooth white exercise bra. He's hooked. She always looks him up and down, her gaze disparaging, her silky little moustache twitching when she sees his cigarette and Mike – Mike of the muscular shoulders and macho security-advisor status and small C-shaped scar on the back of his neck – he swallows convulsively, his Adam's apple going berserk. Then she passes him by, an über-chick in tights, and he throws away his cigarette, standing under the security light alone with the moths until, finally, he gets in his car and drives off.

Be afraid, Mike says, be very afraid. Trust your instincts; save your life. Gina thinks everyone fights fear with fear, striking and recoiling on themselves with words, with weapons, tactics, bargains, tricks and prayers. But what she's mostly afraid of is staying safe in the city, never risking what she might find. So tonight, she's following Mike to his apartment on South Street, walking across his dark parking lot alone, ringing his doorbell, ignoring all seven of the warning signs and she's not saving her life.