It’s 10:45 p.m. on a Friday night. Rain is coming down hard on the road and it’s getting increasingly harder to see. The light dings red on my dashboard telling me I only have 19 miles left of gas. A road sign on the highway indicates that there is a gas station at the next exit, exit 31. Five minutes pass and I turn onto the ramp. The gas station is lit up on the black road and I can only see one car fueling up. I pull in, making sure to park next to the tank nearest to the road. I step out of the car with my keys in hand. I move toward the fuel tank and unlock the cap. I turn to check my surroundings and look at the other car. There is a man putting gas in his car 2 spaces over. He sees me looking and makes eye contact with me. I quickly look away. The man was wearing grey sweatpants with a white shirt and athletic sandals. He has blonde hair and glasses. He appears to be in his early thirties. I move to my car to take out my wallet and as I walk I turn my pepper spray into the unlock position. I know I’m being irrational, but I can’t help the instant paranoia I feel knowing I am alone with this man. I turn to run my card through the slider and start fueling my car. I look up and I check that the man is still in the same place. I adjust myself so that I am facing him and my back is to the road. The numbers tick on the gas tank and it feels like it took five minutes just to get to one gallon. The man has just removed the nozzle from his fuel tank. He lifts his head and gives me a smile. I force a smile back and look at how full the tank is. When I look back up he is now sitting in his car. Only three more gallons to go. He seems to be messing with his phone. My body relaxes a little. Only one more gallon. Another car pulls in. I look up and a woman steps out. I see her kids in the backseat. I relax further. Good, there is someone else here. The nozzle jerks to a stop. I yank it out of the tank and put it back into the holster. I look up one more time and make note of what the man’s car’s headlights look like. I open my door and look into my backseat before sitting down. I close the door and lock it. I check my surroundings one last time and pull out of the station. I check behind me for the man’s car, but don’t see any headlights. My whole body relaxes. I finally feel safe again. I drive towards home and go over what just happened in my head. I grow increasingly frustrated as I think about it. Now that my head is clear and I am no longer seeing through a shade of paranoia, I now see the innocence in the man’s actions. He didn’t try and talk to me, he just smiled. Nothing about him screamed dangerous yet my mind made him that way. I lock my pepper spray and shove it back into the glove compartment. I turn on the radio and try to forget about my reaction. I check behind me once more and tell myself it’s better to be paranoid then oblivious.
2018 Photograph: Sunset, by Elisabeth King