I wake to a man crouching by my bed in the dark.
His body hunches between the two twin mattresses, each bed pushed against opposite walls on the floor, futon style.
I’d told myself the arrangement was groovy and cool, plus I didn’t have money for box springs and frames. I pictured my apartment Turkish or Asian Zen style with the fans and rattan weavings I’d snagged from my childhood room when I’d left home at eighteen.
It’s still a work in progress.
The second mattress was supposed to be for my roommate Ella. We met at the department store where we worked hawking over-priced dresses to women who couldn’t afford Nordstrom’s, but acted like they did—upperclass-wannabes, looking down their noses at us. Ella’s voice hinted at a foreign accent. Her high cheekbones and blue-black skin were exotic and she liked to read, like me.
Tonight her bed is empty, which it will remain. The day of Ella’s move-in her mother came to help and rebuked our living arrangement in her thick Haitian accent, “No, no, Ella. I am sorry, but you cannot live with this girl. She has a spirit who follows her.” That was the end of my roommate Ella.
I am alone. A man is crouching by my bed and I am alone.
I sit up and wipe the sleep out of my eyes. The covers fall to my waist. My loose blue tank top hangs across my chest. My perfectly petite breasts—as one boyfriend described them—feel naked and exposed below the thin fabric. I shiver and my nipples tighten. Cold. Not good.
Ed? What’s Ed doing here?
Ed, my on-again-off-again-boyfriend who I’d followed to the University of Arizona after meeting him at the ice cream parlor where I worked after school each day. My grades and lack of funding wouldn’t have offered any out-of-state choices, anyway.
His blond hair falls across his forehead. Light, from the hole where the string runs through the blinds, dots his face. A faux gaslamp glows outside the window, my apartment situated next to the pool. Pale light edges through the sides of the blinds. I can just make out a tattoo on his bare right shoulder.
Wait. Ed doesn’t have a tattoo on his right shoulder. Or any tattoos at all. Shit.
My brain scrambles. Shit oh shit oh shit oh shit. This is it. This is the big scary. This is fucked. I’m fucked. He’s here to rape me. I know as sure as my legs are bare under the covers, he’s here to rape me.
I breathe in through my nose and slowly out through my mouth. Be calm. Be calm. You can figure a way out. Psychology. Psychology class, upper division. What the hell did the professor say about rapists? Does the creep hate his mother? Control? Something about control. Don’t act scared. Don’t give him power.
“So, hey whadaya doing here?” I ask in a casual, almost flirty voice, or I try to inflect that tone. At the same time, I edge toward the bottom of my bed so I can get a look out my bedroom door. I can just see through the living room to the front door. The bolt is turned vertical, not horizontal. Locked.
Shit. Can I make it to the door? Unlock it and get out before he grabs me.
“Shhhhh, shhhhh. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to look,” he says. I notice his bare torso, bare legs, boxer shorts.
Yeah right. Just want to look, my ass. My heart thumps. I swear it pounds so hard it moves my shirt. It doesn’t really. Door. Freedom. Get yourself there.
“How’d you get in here?” Pops into my head and out of my mouth. Humanize yourself. You’re a real person. Not an object. Not a thing. Not to be conquered. I chant in my head.
“Came in through the side door. It was unlocked,” he replies.
Shit. Right. I’d grilled a small steak in the broiler. Opened the door to clear the smoke. Did I forget to lock the door?
“Oh,” I reply. “What do you want?”
“You have a real nice ass. Now I want to see your tits.”
Shit NO. Tears build behind my eyes. They burn. Spiders crawl through my veins. I’m hot and cold. My mind races. My eyes dart around the room, trying not to be obvious. The phone is between the two beds, between him and the wall. Can I get to it and dial 911 in time?
Something is wrong. It’s right there on the edge of my vision. Edge of my thoughts. There it is. The cord. It’s unplugged from the wall. Shit. What did he say? He wants to see my tits? No. No. No. This is bad. I swallow hard. My mouth is dry.
“Um well, I don’t know you and you don’t know me. It’s kind of awkward don’t you think? You should go.”
“What?” he answers.
Good. I’ve confused him. I look him in the eyes as I scoot down the bed. The path to the door is clearer. I think I can make it. Show no fear. I look back at him and smile. Now that I really look at him, he looks nothing like my Ed, except for the blond hair. His face is older, rougher, unshaven, eyes too close together, nose too small, inbred hamster face.
“I’ll think about leaving if you let me see your tits.” His words are stronger, louder, hopeful, yet commanding.
Must change conversation. Steer away from anything sexual. Must get past him.
“I’m uh, thirsty. You want a drink?” I start to rise. “Let me get you something.”
I bolt upright, and run past him. He shoots up off his haunches. I don’t look back, but I feel his breath on my hair. Everything moves in slow motion, yet happens all at once. Air rushes across my legs and the space between my tiny tank-top and bikini panties. His fingers brush the back of my hair, but it’s newly short and he can’t get a hold. I cross the bedroom, out the door, sprinting across the living/dining room. The front door seems to move away as I run towards it like a crazy dream in a horror movie. I don’t know if anyone actually has those dreams, but I’m not dreaming. This is real.
I leap toward the door, my hands turn the lock and knob, using one hand for each. He catches me. His hand runs down the back of my shirt, finds flesh, and digs in. His fingernails scrape into the space between my shirt and panties. He has me. His hand clutches the top of my underwear, yanking me backwards.
I lunge forward, grappling for the door knob. The fabric tears. The ripping sound reverberates like gunfire. I run. I run out of my underwear. The elastic and cotton tear and fall from my body. I’m exposed. I turn the knob and fling the door open, grabbing a sweatshirt from the coatrack by the door and run, covering my front, my white ass bare and exposed. I can’t think about it. I won’t. Must run.
“Fire! Fire!” I scream. Not rape. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to get involved if you’re being raped. “FIRE!” That’s what you’re supposed to scream. People care if they’re in danger.
A pair of blue jeans lay in a heap outside my door on the cement sidewalk. The pool of yellow night grays everything into monochromatic tones. I make a mental note and keep running. I run twenty endless steps to my friend’s apartment. Pound on the door.
Now the tears come. Judy’s boyfriend, Sam, opens the door. I practically fall in. Before I do, a man emerges behind me backlit by the yellow lights, a dark silhouette, shirtless but wearing faded jeans.
“Where’s the fire?” the man asks.
I cover my naked butt with my hands, pulling the sweatshirt tighter around my pelvis and back into Judy’s apartment.
It’s him. My mind screams at me. No. Don’t do this. You’re going to think every guy is him. Don’t do this to yourself. You are NOT a victim. You will never be a victim. I refuse to let this taint me. I have always been fearless.
“There’s no fire. Tell the man there’s no fire. I was almost…” I can’t say the word raped. I wasn’t. It didn’t happen. My friend, Judy, pulls me into her room and gives me a pair of yoga pants to put on. They’re warm and feel good against my bare skin. I pull my sweatshirt over my head but still shiver uncontrollably. I’m cold and something else. Disconnected. I feel disconnected, a veil between me and everything else in the world.
“Can I have a blanket? Water?”
“Sure.” She looks at me as if I will break. I don’t like that look, but I do feel fragile. I don’t want to be alone. I follow her to the kitchen. She stops abruptly to turn and ask me something and I almost run into her.
“Why don’t you sit on the couch?” She puts her arm around me and guides me to the plush sofa. She pulls the folded afghan from the back, opens it, and spreads it over me. I curl into a ball and lay my head on the cushioned edge.
I don’t know how much time has passed. Events move slow then fast and all of them blurry. Police come and question me. I answer best I can.
“Do you want to press charges?” the officer asks.
“The man who was first on the scene fits the description you gave us.”
“Uh. I’m not sure. It was dark. I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone.”
“Okay, if you change your mind.” I nod. He hands me a card. The paper is foreign and awkward in my hand. I just want to sleep, but I’m afraid to sleep. Afraid to dream, afraid not to be in control.
Eventually I fall asleep. I wake to a banging on the door. Sam answers. A woman’s face peeps through the crack. Her eyes find mine. They’re big and round, scared, shifty eyes.
“I just want to talk to her,” the woman says.
“What do you want?” Sam asks.
“I’m scared,” she says. “Just let me talk to her.”
Sam looks back at me. I shake my head. I don’t want to talk to her or anyone else. I just want to sleep, but I want to know what she wants. Curiosity gets the best of me. I cross and stand behind Sam, craning my neck around his protective stance.
“What? What do you want? Why are you bothering me?”
“My boyfriend,” she looks around and lowers her voice, “wasn’t in the bed next to me when I heard you scream FIRE.”
“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say.
“Hey, babe,” a man says from behind her. She and I jump at the same time. “What are you doing over here?”
“Just checking on the girl. You know she ran right past our apartment. Woke me up.”
“You mean she woke us up.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
“Let’s go,” the man says.
Her eyes meet mine, pleading. I don’t know what to do or say. My head hurts and I’m dizzy.
Sam closes the door. “That was odd.”
“Yeah.” I shake my head, it doesn’t help the dizziness. I unclench my fist. The policeman’s card is rolled and damp in my palm. “I’ll call him.”
Hours turn into days, into a week. I try to go back to my apartment. The phone, door, and many surfaces are dusted with black fingerprint powder. The apartment seems too big. Too many windows. Too many doors. I can’t stay here. I have to move. The apartment complex doesn’t want to let me out of my lease. I show them a copy of the police report. They don’t care. I’ve signed a lease. I will not stay here and I will not be bullied for the lease balance. I threaten to call a local television station, giving them the name of the newscaster and telephone number. They grudgingly release me from my contract.
I move. It’s done. That chapter of my life over. I survived. I’m safe. Aren’t I?
A couple weeks later the police contact me and tell me another woman is raped and killed a mile from my old apartment. Same time of night, strangled with an unplugged phone cord. The man and the girlfriend have disappeared from my old apartment complex.
I hang up the phone and sink to the floor, leaning my head against the kitchen cabinets. Tears rush down my face. My stomach burns with acid. I taste guilt. Is it my fault? Should I have pressed charges? I thought I was being strong. Now, I don’t know.
I retreat. I call into work, take two weeks off, using up all my vacation days, and buy a bus ticket to Phoenix. My friend Mikey, from work, asks if he can stay at my place while I’m gone, maybe have a few friends over—he lives at home and would like a taste of freedom. Sure, no problem. I hand over my keys when he drops me at the bus depot.
I spend a week and a half playing with my niece and nephews, sleeping a lot on my mom’s couch, hanging out with my aunts and uncle. It’s like Christmas in March. I wrap my family around me and stuff their love inside, pushing down the fears and doubts until I feel like me again. Strong. Independent. Fearless.
I’m a girl who goes after it. Whatever it is. I’m the gal who rock climbs in bare feet in the rain. The one who’s not afraid to tell you how she feels. Who’s loyal and a defender of those I love. The first woman in my family to ever go to college. The one who moved out with a hundred dollars in her pocket, an acceptance letter to college, and her grandmother’s cookbook. I’m the gal who worked three jobs and went to college, lived in a studio apartment and drove a second-hand scooter to get around town to classes and work. Not married. Not pregnant. Not dependent on anyone. Not afraid of life. Not afraid of men.
Or I wasn’t afraid. Or I don’t want to be. I try to keep my independent visions in the forefront of my mind as I return to my city, job, and college.
When I arrive at my one-bedroom cottage apartment, the screen door is cock-eyed and the front door handle looser than I remember. I retrieve the key from under the flower pot and step inside. The 1930s cottage smells sun-baked, with a hint of ammonia and dried onion. Everything looks to be in its place. No stains on the cushions of the white wicker outdoor furniture I use indoors. No pictures knocked off the wall, TV still intact, stack of videos next to it. No sign of the party Mikey said he’d had.
Something doesn’t feel right.
I turn the corner to my room. The ammonia smell is stronger and reminds me of homes with cats, litterboxes inside. The bed is made, dresser drawers closed, curtains fine. I walk around to the other side of my bed—the twin mattresses traded for a full size, contributed by my mom at the last move.
“What the hell!” I say aloud.
In the corner, is a pile of my lingerie: bras, panties, teddies, nighties, stockings, camisoles, everything silky and sexy that I own, in a heap in the corner. I don’t want to touch them. I back out of the room and find the phone. The cord is unplugged.
Oh shit. Not again.
I plug it back in. It works. My first call is to Mikey.
“Mikey, what the hell. I came home and my lingerie is in a corner and smells like piss.”
“Look, Tam, when I came over to set up for the party your stuff was all over the house, thrown around. I thought maybe you were in a hurry. Or had the stuff drying, from hand washing or something. I gathered everything up and put them in the corner of your room.”
“Don’t mess with me, Mike.”
“I’m not messing with you. And the door was unlocked. The screen door was flung open and half on. I put it back on best I could.”
I sink down onto the floor again. “Okay.” I swallow hard. Tears gather behind my eyes. The blood drains from my head and pools in my stomach, roiling and burning. “Can you come over?”
“Sure thing. Is everything okay?” Mike asks.
“I don’t know.”
I call the police. Again. They come over and dust for fingerprints. Again. They interview me. Again. Give me their card. Again. Will this nightmare ever end?
I move. Again.
This time I move in with two gals from work, my name not on any lease or on any bills. The last time I hear from the police, neighbors had seen a man with blond hair and tattoos snooping around my place several times while I was gone. Nothing after that.
* * *
I went on.
I went on to be the gal who back-packed Europe with a one-way ticket and a Eurorail pass, hundred bucks in her pocket. The one who started her own magazine, Editor-in-chief and contributor with a ten thousand distribution. The one who drove alone back and forth to San Francisco for the International Poetry Slam team she was honored to be on. The woman who lived alone with two babies under two years-old while her husband launched planes off a carrier in the Persian Gulf.
As the years went on, I tried to be the fearless girl I set out to be and mostly I was and am. Though after all this time, I still can’t help looking over my shoulder and watching for the blond man with tattoos.
Tam Francis writes historical romantic fiction with a pen in one hand and a vintage cocktail in the other. She has taught swing dancing for fifteen years with her husband (retired Navy) and is an avid collector of vintage sewing patterns, retro clothing, and antiques. All of which make appearances in her stories. She also dabbles in sci-fi, paranormal, memoir, personal essay, and poetry.