Since everything in my world revolves around canines, I immediately thought about a dog named Lucy when a friend told me about a viral twitter feed. Danielle Muscato asked women, “What would you do if all men had a 9pm curfew?” Some women said they would go dancing, to the grocery store, and the park. But many others answered exactly like I did. We would walk.
Full disclosure: I’m a walker. I started walking two decades ago at Penn State and haven’t stopped since. In the beginning it was transportation, but now it’s ritual. I walk six miles a day at home, and when I visit other cities for work, I often walk there.
Walking alone seems like such a simple ask, but for women that activity comes with a whole load of complications that all boil down to one factor. We are the weaker sex. We learn about our inferior strength young. Many learn because of an incident, a reckoning. For me, it happened in the sixth grade. A disturbed boy with messy black hair and laser-beam blue eyes pinned me against the wall and pressed his hard-on against my thigh. I’ve always been thin and athletic and managed to wrestle away, but that second of panic, that second of understanding my physical limitations lingers into adulthood.
We also learn about our vulnerability from other women, a shared lore passed on from one to another. Throughout my life, cousins, friends, mother, mother-in-law, professors, and colleagues have all warned about the dangers of walking alone. Don’t wear headphones. Keep a wide berth of personal space. Never lean into a car to give directions. Don’t make eye contact with strangers, but don’t look down either. Stay away from large groups of men on empty streets. Always carry your phone. And never, ever walk alone in the dark.
Women’s personal reckonings combined with this shared lore creates an internal alarm we all carry. Whether consciously or not, a vigilance exists in every woman. It’s what makes us street-smart, but it also comes with a whole load of restrictions. For years I carried that alarm around like dead weight because it limited where and when I went places, until I met Lucy.
Lucy was a purebred, shorthaired German Shepherd. Someone found her running down Charlotte Pike and surrendered her to a shelter. We adopted her with a small rip in her left ear, but otherwise she was beautiful, colored a warm brown with black markings that aligned like mirror images on each side. She had a stubborn streak and hyper personality, and at home, she acted like a wild child. Lucy was the dog who taught me how much I didn’t know about raising a canine. But she loved to walk as much as I did.
I discovered Lucy’s gift the first time I walked her without my husband. In the early years of my marriage, we rented an apartment in Nashville, right off West End Avenue. It was after ten. I wanted to go to Centennial Park and see the Parthenon, a full-scale reproduction of the Athenian original. For the month of July, the city splashed floodlights on the replica. The lights changed from red to white to blue in waves. But I was alone, and that was the only reason I paused. Was it safe to go to a city park alone and after dark? The more I considered the reason I shouldn’t go, the more annoyed I felt. Then, I became defiant. I leashed Lucy and headed out the front door.
Vanderbilt University was a few blocks from our apartment, and we cut across campus. At one point, three college guys moved towards us. They were loud. Drunk loud. My internal alarm started ringing and my body stiffened. In a span of ten seconds, I rationalized the best case scenario was a snide comment. In the worst, they approached me. I never once entertained the idea they would simply leave me alone.
Lucy sensed my unease because a heightened awareness vibrated from her every step. She stood perpendicular to my thigh, matching my pace stride for stride. She looked intimidating, like she belonged on a poster for police dogs or a WWII flick. One of the guys caught sight of her, signaled to his buddies. They looked up, paused, digested the woman and her dog approaching. In unison, they moved off the path and circled wide to pass. They never said a word.
Lucy and I kept moving, but I felt as though I’d won some sort of battle. I felt like I could fly. Like I was soaring. I didn’t realize how caged I had been until that exact moment. The moment when I understood what it meant to be the toughest motherfucker in the room.
Lucy and I hiked for five miles that night. We strode down West End Avenue and up Elliston Street, circled Centennial multiple times. Lucy kept her snout high, rarely sniffing the ground. Her pointy ears rotated like satellites towards a couple talking on a park bench, a bum rustling through a trash can, an old man rolling down the sidewalk in a wheelchair. She saw it all before I did. The incident with the college boys wasn’t a fluke either. Multiple people crossed the street when they saw us coming, an act I had always initiated prior to that night.
Before we went home, Lucy and I sat for a solid ten minutes and watched the lights on the Parthenon morph from red to white to blue. Their reflections stretched and shifted across Lake Watauga, as though there were two versions, one real and one abstract. And I got to see all of it because of Lucy. With her, I could hit snooze on my internal alarm. I could forget a lifetime of warnings and enjoy the simple act of walking.
In the following months, Lucy and I trekked miles through Nashville. Often, I wore headphones and listened to music. Sometimes, I carried a phone, but mostly I forgot it. When we moved to Robertson County, Lucy and I hiked in the woods together. We went at night in the winter with the trees so bare it felt like the whole world watched. And I didn’t care who watched because I had my dog. Lucy never left my side, acted completely oblivious to the simple yet rare gift she gave me. She gave me the freedom to walk alone.