By Cindy Falls Elder
Sandy often shopped at a kiosk which sold essential oils in the mall. Never one to wear perfumes or colognes because they exuded unidentifiable heavy invisible clouds that overwhelmed her, she loved the oils that were simple and direct in their scent, and didn’t persist overlong. She loved the honeysuckle and the lemon. She loved the soothing effect of the lavender and the cleansing scent of eucalyptus in her oil warmer. She sometimes wore a mixture that the seller at the kiosk had named Arabian Nights. But her favorite was the jasmine. She wore jasmine oil every day, and when her supply ran low, she went to the Egyptian Treasures kiosk to buy more. Sandy was a frequent customer.
One afternoon the proprietor, Khalil, invited Sandy to dinner. He said he was married, but that he was separated from his wife. Sandy had been divorced ten years earlier and dated infrequently. It seemed to her that she attracted only married men. She had no interest in having a relationship with Khalil, but she saw no harm in sitting down across a table from him for a casual meal and light conversation. Perhaps to make a new friend.
“Alright, we can have a meal,” Sandy told Khalil. “I don’t want anything fancy. I hate having to dress up and be all formal. I just want to chat and relax.”
“Wonderful!” said Khalil. “What is your number?” he said as he tore off a bit of register tape and handed it to her, along with a pen. Sandy wrote her first name and her home phone, then handed it back to Khalil with a nervous smile. She felt nervous, but she told herself there was nothing to be nervous about. She was just going to hang out for a couple of hours in a place she felt comfortable. No pressure, no complications.
The following weekend, Khalil called Sandy to set up where and when they would meet for dinner.
“What do you like?” he asked.
“Oh, something simple. I just want to relax and hang out. Just chat. Somewhere simple. I don’t want to have to get dressed up and be all stressed and formal.”
“Okay! That’s good! There is a restaurant down at the waterfront we can go to. It’s Riverwalk. Do you know this restaurant?”
“I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there. Seafood, right?”
“Yes, yes, I think it is seafood. It is very good! I have eaten there many times before. You will like it very much,” said Khalil. “Tomorrow night is works for me. Eight o’clock. Where do you live? I will come and pick you up.”
“Uh, no, that’s okay, I will meet you there,” Sandy said. She didn’t want to give this man her home address. Even more important, she wasn’t willing to ride in the car of a stranger. Meeting him for dinner would be a step toward getting to know him. But for now, he was still an unknown.
Feeling a spike of anxiety, she sighed inwardly. How had he gotten her to agree to dinner at a fancy restaurant, when she’d told him she just wanted casual? But it was done. She felt like she couldn’t back out now. Besides, the prospect of being bought an expensive dinner at a restaurant she’d driven by scores of times, but couldn’t afford to partake of, was enticing. It was a trade-off she felt ambivalent about, staying inside her comfort zone, or stretching it. She decided firmly to go.
“It’s a very pretty place. I have been many times. It’s pretty. You are very pretty,” Khalil said. Without saying it directly, he had told her that she would have to dress up. Well…shit. Anxiety crept up another notch. But Sandy told herself that it was because she had to dress up.
Friday night came, and Khalil was waiting outside the parking garage, across from the Riverwalk. She felt like a guitar string that had been stretched tight, as they entered the restaurant and were seated at the table lit by candlelight. Khalil ordered a bottle of wine. As the sommelier poured, Khalil chatted proudly about his work while Sandy perused the menu. Khalil chose for Sandy, then ordered a steak and lobster entre for them both.
The wine was delicious. Khalil sipped his second glass while their food was being prepared. He talked of his Chemistry education in Egypt, his decision to come to America. Over dinner, he described his family’s properties, one of which belonged to his cousin in Chesapeake. It had a beautiful garden, he said. She nodded, and smiled occasionally, and waved away the sommelier when he offered to fill her wine glass. It still held half of the first pouring. Sandy looked into her wine glass, wondering if Khalil was ever going to ask her to tell him something of herself.
“This is going very well! Yes?” he declared to Sandy. Sandy smiled and nodded. Just then, Sandy’s cell phone vibrated within her handbag. Discretely, she peeked at the caller ID. It was her best friend, a man who had her heart, but who would never be able to give his to her. She let it go to voicemail in her bag, wishing she could talk to him. Khalil chatted on about himself, oblivious.
After the meal had been cleared away, Khalil said, “I would like to show you my cousin’s garden. There is no one home, now. My cousin is away on a trip. You will like it very much.”
“I’m sure it’s very nice. Thank you for offering, but I’m a little tired. It’s getting late, and I have to work overtime tomorrow,” said Sandy.
“We will have one more glass of wine, and then I will take you to your car,” insisted Khalil. Sandy smiled and felt glad she had decided halfway through the meal to take no more wine.
It was almost midnight by the time they left the Riverwalk and headed to the parking garage. There in the parking garage, Sandy’s van sat alone. Almost. Several yards away, a York County Police car idled with an officer inside. He watched them with curiosity as they approached Sandy’s van. As she neared the door intending to put her keys into the lock, Khalil stepped between her and the door. He reached his arms out toward Sandy.
To the officer, it might have appeared that the couple was going to kiss goodnight after a date. Clearly, that was what Khalil wanted him to assume. But Sandy had a habitual wariness that was born from decades of abuse from men who’d had control over her. The abuse kept her single, but her caution kept her alive.
Khalil’s placement of his body, his posture, and the fact that her van was the only personal vehicle remaining in the garage, and that he’d wanted to take her somewhere isolated, and that he’d shown not one moment of curiosity in her as a person, and that he’d chosen a fancy restaurant when she’d expressly stated she’d wanted a casual chat over a simple meal, and that he’d ordered for her without asking what she wanted to eat, and that he spoke endlessly about himself, all these coalesced without conscious thought in Sandy’s mind, into action.
In the middle of a step forward, Sandy stepped back. And back again. And again. She held her arms out loosely as one who waits for an opponent to make the first move in a grapple. Sandy was ready to fight if Khalil tried to grab her.
Now, he was aware of one thing other than himself: the cop. But still Khalil waited there in front of the van door.
“Oh. No…no”, said Sandy, shaking her head. Keeping her distance. Khalil between her and her way out.
Behaving as though nothing was amiss, Khalil stepped aside. Sandy waited until she was sure he understood that he was to get nothing more than dinner company from her.
“I bought you dinner. Didn’t you have a nice time? You can show me that you appreciate the dinner,” said Khalil. Sandy pressed her lips into a thin line and looked pointedly at the police car. The officer gave her an almost imperceptible nod. “I’m here if you need me,” that nod said. Sandy and Khalil stood in place, neither moving. Finally, Khalil moved away from her door, and cheerfully said good night, as if his intention hadn’t been thwarted. Then he walked away.
Sandy’s hands shook on the steering wheel during her drive home. She took an indirect route, driving half an hour out of her way. She made lots of unnecessary turns, until she felt it was okay to go home to her apartment. She still shook. With anger. With disbelief, and with relief. She had saved herself, and been saved, from possible rape and abduction.
Khalil called Sandy four more times during the following week. She never answered his call, and she didn’t call him back. She stopped buying essential oil at Egyptian Treasures. She stopped going to that mall. A year later, she went to the mall and saw that Egyptian Treasures was gone. “Good riddance,” she thought. She was sad that she couldn’t have the oils she loved so well anymore. The remains of her last bottle of jasmine oil sits in her nightstand to this day. But she doesn’t wear it.