If I ever write a semi-autobiographical novel, I'd like the opening paragraphs to be about growing up in rural New Jersey.
Rural New Jersey sounds fictional, oxymoronic, like a joke I made up, to people who don't know much about this state. I bet most of the people I meet in Oregon think I am lying when I tell them that I'm from "rural New Jersey" and grew up learning how to navigate traffic-clogged highways AND windy mountain roads, becoming skilled at dodging both mad drivers and galloping deer that bolt from the darkness into one's lane of traffic without warning and with only seconds of braking time to spare.
When I'd travel between my apartment, which was in a city, and my parents' house in the country, I had the same late night getting-from-the-car-to-the-front-door ritual. The steps were the same, but the reasons were not. First, I would make sure, as I was getting closer to my destination, that I had everything ready to get out of my car as soon as I pulled in the driveway. No sitting in the car shuffling around to get my purse and anything that dumped out of it. At a stoplight, I'd reach for my purse with a free hand and keep it on my arm as I drove the rest of the way home.
As soon as I turned off the ignition, I'd jump out of the car and in the country (not the city, I didn't want my neighbors to hate me) I would SLAM the car door. Then, as I covered the distance between the car door to my front door, house key ready in my hand, I'd make a lot of noise. I'd stomp on the paved driveway of my city home and shuffle loudly on the gravel driveway of my parents' country home. I'd give a few shakes to the key ring so that it would jingle. The idea was to make noise that made my presence known to the people waiting for me inside, while getting into the house as quickly as possible. In the city, this was a precaution against being gotten by a criminal. In the country, it is a precaution against bears. Wild Jersey animals are becoming less afraid of people, but the ones that still are will be scared off by noise like a car door slamming.
Did I ever meet a bear in the driveway? No. The closest I got was one time, I parked on the street, and when I walked into the driveway I heard a sudden, startling noise; I looked and found myself just a few feet away, looking into the big black eyes of a gigantic....
...deer! That deer was as shocked as I was. We both jumped, and looked at each other for a few seconds like, "Please don't trample me!" and "Please don't shoot me and eat me for dinner and hang my antlers over your fireplace!" before taking off in opposite directions.
Did I ever encounter a CRIMINAL near my city home? Who knows? Maybe I properly convinced them all, with my stomping and key jangling, that I was not a sufficiently easy target. (It seems my strategy is to seem like a Pain In The Ass victim, to "ruin the fantasy." Maybe I should start talking loudly and nasally into my cell phone, too.)
The point of all this preamble/ramble is to share with you the first thing my parents told me last night, when they brought me from Newark Airport to the country home of my youth. "We have to tell you something, Sarah!" they announced.
"What is it!?" I thought.
"When you're coming home late at night, you have to be careful, because lately there's been--"
My mind moved quickly to fill in the blank. A rapist? A shooting? Hooligan kids breaking into unlocked cars and stealing people's emergency gas money out of the center console?
(That really happened in my town, when I was in my late teens or so. Around the same time someone snapped the sideview mirror off my car just for the hell of it. It was hanging by a string and the person who fixed it said it looked like it had been done by hand, not by a car. Maybe it wasn't done by hand, but by paw.)
My dad finished the sentence. "A mountain lion!"
"Really?" I said. "In our neighborhood now?"
Mountain lions started being seen in our part of Jersey a few years ago, but in places more forested and remote than my neighborhood.
There was then some discussion about whether this new threat was actually a mountain lion, a bobcat, a coyote, or what. It was something, something that had been prowling in people's yards at night, and this time it was NOT A BEAR. But we definitely still had those. And foxes too.
You know it's serious, because my parents have stopped letting the dogs in the backyard at night. They used to let them out after putting some lights on and looking out the windows. Now, they put them on the front deck only, and they still check first to make sure there are no big critters out there. And the cats do not, by any means, go outside anymore.
Oh, rural Jersey. Where big hair and big game coexist.