Cowboys and Indians

   I used to love the thrill of the chase. 
	Right after lunch and right before nap Mrs. Michaels would have us line up in front of the big blue door in the back of the Montessori classroom. I'd anxiously twiddle my fingers and bounce on the tips of my toes, glancing around to see how far my pursuers were in line behind me. The second the bell rang and the door swung open, I was off, a four-year-old flying at light speed towards the playground. I knew I'd only have a couple of minutes to get my bearings. I climbed into the swingset castle after grabbing a long piece of mulch and tucking it behind my ear, where it very quickly became tangled in my wind-blown hair. It's supposed to be a feather, I explained to my peers. An Indian girl had to have a feather in her hair.
	Every day I would spend the 30 minutes we had outside running away from "cowboys." These western vigilantes consisted of three boys who were in the Room 3 class with me. Their names are lost to me, but I still remember the blur of their grinning faces, huffing and puffing on their way to blow me down. I had a dilemma with this game of ours: the thrill would wear off halfway through. My legs would grow tired, and my chest would ache with the deep sighs and gasps of a marathon runner just finishing their 25th mile, yet the cowboys never ceased to be hot on my trail. I had to keep running. 
	There was a part of me that loved being chased. I felt wanted, desired, something these boys craved so badly they just couldn't let up. I knew that if they caught me (which they seldom did), we would start the game over the next day and begin the chase again. A blank slate, a fresh start, my soul rejuvenated and thrilled to once again be on the run.
	Throughout preschool and elementary school, I almost always had boys to chase me. Most of the time, I would initiate it, teasing them, poking and prodding to get them to make a move. Once we'd both taken off, the seemingly endless pursuit would once again be exhilarating and once again grow tiresome. I would decide that I'd had enough, that I didn't want to run away anymore. The boys would never listen. It was hard to get close enough to them to be heard. I was afraid to approach them while their hands hungrily reached outwards, and their eyes lit up with an expression I didn't recognize. On one occasion, I went to the recess supervisor and let her know that the boy chasing me would not stop. She began to reprimand him when he chimed in and exclaimed: "She started the game! She said she wanted to be chased! That's not fair for her to stop playing!" The supervisor carelessly brushed the small spat off. The boy locked eyes with me, and from his gaze alone, I knew the chase would not end and would need to run faster than I ever had before.
	Being chased stopped being fun when I turned 15. I was picking up some Christmas gifts for my family members at the Dollar Tree with my little sisters, a fun tradition we'd started the year before. While waiting outside for our dad in the family minivan, a beat-up white sedan pulled in front of the store. The two middle-aged men inside started shouting things at me, things I struggle to remember. I'm not sure if it’s because I can't or because I don't want to. "What were they saying to you, Anna?" my six-year-old sister would ask. I told her it was nothing and then didn't eat dinner that night.
	All these years later, I still get the same apprehensive feeling that I did when I played Cowboys and Indians in preschool. Except now, the fenced-in playground is replaced by an empty parking lot late at night when I am walking to my car after an eight-hour shift. Or the car with tinted windows that honks at me as I'm jogging through the park. Or the man in the grocery store who has been looking at the same items I am for the last fifteen minutes. Unlike when I was little, the thrill doesn't last at all anymore. My mind immediately sinks into the tiredness, the fear, the desperation to get away. When you're a nineteen-year-old girl, you don't want to find out what will happen if you get caught.
	When I moved into my apartment in Saint Louis, my mom was floored to learn that I hadn't bought any pepper spray. "Are you serious, Anna? You thought to bring all of these decorations and your bedding and pillows, and you didn't think to get any pepper spray?"
   At that moment, I wished I could go back in time to be the little girl who stuck mulch in her hair and thought that the big bad wolf would always let her go.

By Anna Bankston