In high school, I frequently went to a secluded bench on the trail behind my house to write in my diary. I could always use the bench on my front porch, but our suburban street was anything but private and constantly swarming with rambunctious children, so I turned to the trail to write in peace. Every once in a while, moms with strollers and power walkers would pass me and wave, but for the most part, they left me be — until one day at the end of summer 2004.
Junior year was about to start and I was feeling pretty bad about it. I didn’t want to be around my parents or friends, who kept plaguing me with questions about a guy from another school that was blowing me off, so I let everything out on paper. I was a big diary keeper back in the day, and though I have no interest in reading my old entries now, I was convinced I’d eventually want to relive my teenage experiences and laugh.
As I went on and on about my confusion, a hefty man emerged from behind a tree and stomped over to me. He had a large, towering presence, and I felt uncomfortable around him immediately.
“Hello,” he said. “I see you’re writing in your notebook. Do you come here often?”
“What is this, a bar?” I joked. “I don’t know. I’m here now.”
“A beautiful girl like you shouldn’t be alone on a trail,” he said, moving closer to me. Pale, freckled, and thin, no one besides family members had ever complimented my looks, but even I knew there was something sinister and totally unflattering about what he’d just said. This guy couldn’t have been younger than 45, reeked of whiskey, and was popping out of his tight cotton shirt.
“It’s fine,” I replied. “I need to get back to my writing now. So bye.”
I looked down at the pages in front of me, expecting him to walk away. He took a couple steps toward the bench, cornering me. I avoided eye contact, praying someone else would walk by and give me an out.
“I want to see you here tomorrow,” he said. “We should get to know each other. I hope you come back for me.”
I scribbled the same word over and over again in my journal, pretending to look busy. He repeated himself, froze, and eventually left, and as soon as he was gone, I sprinted back to my house. Throwing open the front door, I shouted for my dad.
“Someone was bothering me on the trail!” I screamed.
I relayed the story to my dad, who called the police to report a potential harasser in the neighborhood. They searched the area with no luck, and I never saw him again. Regardless, my parents said I wasn’t allowed to go to the trail to write in my journal ever again. I could retreat to coffee shops or hang out on our porch, but the trail was too isolated and risky. After a few months passed without any sign of the creepy guy, my parents got rid of the rule. I could return to the trail, but I needed to carry my cell phone at all times.
I certainly went back that year, but it was around the same time that I decided to stop journaling in public. People on laptops aren’t exactly approachable, but a person with a notebook in hand is apparently inviting all sorts of unwanted attention, maybe because they’re so hard to find in today’s world. I learned this once again the other day, when I stupidly decided to write in my diary at an Upper East Side coffee shop.
As many of you know, I was a huge journal keeper growing up. My mom has something like 50 of my old diaries collecting dust in her garage. I once told her to just throw them all out, as they take up a lot of space, but she assured me they’re worth keeping. Before they were shoved into a box to be enjoyed by no one at all, this is what they looked like:
I was all about my journals as a kid, but decided at the beginning of college that I’d tone down all the diary-keeping. It felt childish — only for sad teenagers and awkward girls with braces who’d never been kissed. I gave regular journaling a break and used the extra time to hang out with new friends.
I never stopped owning diaries though, and every once in a while, I need one to record the things I simply can’t talk about online. Now that I’ve shipped all my stuff home, I have some serious downtime in NYC, so a couple days ago, I took my journal to a coffee shop down the street, ordered a banana (I’d had three cups of coffee that day), and started writing. I miss journaling — I can be completely honest with myself and write about what’s really on my mind. I treat this blog like a filtered and screened journal, but my real diary is much more personal.
As I was writing on the coffee shop couch, an old man approached and sat next to me. Ten minutes went by before he asked about my diary.
“Looks like you’re writing a book about New York,” he said.
“Not yet,” I replied, laughing.
Though this guy wasn’t predatory or bothersome like the man from nine years ago, he started to push my buttons after a while, perhaps because a lot of my California warmth has fizzled and I just don’t like conversing with strangers anymore. Regardless, I was cordial until he asked about work.
By then, I’d already explained I’m going to UCLA extension to study screenwriting, which is hopefully in my future. I said I was excited to do that, but my demeanor changed the second he threw his next question my way.
“So what did you use to do?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said. “It’s in the past and doesn’t make me happy, so I only want to focus on what’s next.”
He said he understood but walked away moments later, chatting up another young woman across the coffee shop. I figured he was a lonely widower trying to befriend and coach as many girls as he could in a paternal way, but it kind of ruined my night to be reminded of my former life.
As much as I enjoyed having a byline when I was still editing for the internet, I wasn’t doing what I really wanted. I’ve always wanted to write, and I thought there was only one clear path for that. Thankfully there isn’t, and while I learned a lot on my journey to becoming an online writer/editor, I couldn’t be happier about what’s ahead, so what I used to do just isn’t relevant, important, or even worthy of discussion anymore. Let’s just move forward and forget about my years in media.