Someone watching the woman closely could see that she favored her left leg as she sauntered along the canal and into the town square. She drew a plumb-line through the crush of office workers hurrying home, and as she passed the cafe at the far end, she lifted her head at the cigarette smoke drifting up from the tables.
The square fell away behind her so that she was alone again. To her left stood wrought-iron fences guarding deep canal walls that plunged down to rumbling waters. To her right were more cement walls, low and topped with ornate iron stakes that rose protectively around the small coiffed gardens of the town’s grand stone apartments. Heavy fists of lilac leaned over the garden walls and drenched the air in perfume, pushing back the tobacco odour.
Ahead, two men came into view, ambling in the same direction as her; their heads slightly turned in her direction. One man paused to examine a shoebox left by the curb. Almost imperceptibly, the woman hesitated, then stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street, picking up her pace as she drew a large crescent-shaped berth around the men. Her eyes followed the tall spiked gates of the small gardens and down the empty road ahead.
The shoebox man stayed on the sidewalk, but his companion, young and lean, skipped onto the road until he was beside the woman. He spoke a few words in German, and when she only glanced at him, he tested French, moving in closer all the while, right to the point where another inch in and she would have had to stop to keep from walking into him, but he held back just that one inch. Without altering her stride, the woman looked the man full in the face for the first time. She said something.
They reached a road crossing and she stopped. The man continued to prattle at her as she looked down the canal, then past the man where a block away people herded through a retail district. Where the man and woman stood, however, there was only the scent of the lilacs and the sound of the canal. The shoebox man could no longer be seen.
She turned left, almost bumping into the man who stepped back just in time to avoid her, but then he continued on at her side, his face rearranged to convey bewilderment. He hunched his shoulders forward and turned at the waist, forming an umbrella over her. He smiled as he talked, to reveal large white teeth against plum-coloured gums. She moved away from him, stepping off the curb and crossing the street without checking for cars. As though their ankles were cuffed, he held his position beside her. To an onlooker, they walked so close and he talked so intently, they looked like friends.
At the store doors, she turned as though to go in but paused as he begged intently for her phone number. When that did not succeed, he begged for her to take his number. She scraped a foot backward, the store door’s motion sensor blinked, the glass doors parted, and voices from inside wafted around her. She should go in inside. Why doesn’t she go inside, but the man has her fixed in his stare, his dark skin smooth and glinting in copper where it catches the late-afternoon light.
He reaches his hand out and for a moment his intention is unclear, but as if by reflex, she grabs his hand, shakes it and then disappears into the store.
This is more true story than fiction, my account of a quiet, polite and terrifying encounter on the quiet seemingly safe streets of a small Swiss town.