A glint of silver, light catching the zipper pull of his hoodie is what alerted my sister to the set of prying eyes staring back at her. A teen lying on her belly on the carpet of her ground floor bedroom, clad in her bedtime attire of t-shirt and panties, Lani was playing solitaire and listening to records through those big-ass seventies headphones that covered practically her entire head. She was facing the window, which reached down to almost the floor, with a tiny ledge where she kept some knickknacks. The room was cramped, with a double bed pushed up against one wall, her dresser, stereo system and television stand lining the other. She was lying in the small aisle cut through the center, the shade covering the window pulled all the way down. Or so she thought. There was actually a two- to three-inch gap at the bottom. And that’s where he was peeping, also on his belly, only in the bushes outside. The harsh lights in the parking lot behind our apartment complex bouncing off the zipper of his hoodie is what alerted her to his presence. She had no idea how long he’d been watching her, but when her attention jerked to him, and their eyes slammed together, he smiled at her and mouthed, “Hello.”
She screamed. She screamed bloody murder, her body flying off the floor as though propelled by some horror movie special effects. She landed on top of me, asleep in the bed. Actually, she crawled on top of me, clinging to me, smashing me against the wall, calling for my mom in the room across the hall. Bedlam ensued. I heard about all of it the following day. I never woke up.
In a small deviation from the story, let me say this fact is precisely why I believe children who claim they never woke up while a parent or sibling or someone in the house was being brutally murdered. My family used to marvel at how, through the ages 5-9, I slept through anything. Even the alarm, which is why I was always scrambling in the morning to get to school on time. My mom would come in my room and scream at me over the alarm, set to the radio, music turned up as high as it would go. It would scare the shit out of my Aunt Dorothy–who shared the apartment with us and a room with my mother–already awake, putting on her make-up when a sudden burst of The Captain and Tennille would fill the apartment. I don’t know if my corpse-like sleep is a common thing among children, or how many of us there were/are out there, but a child doesn’t have to be drugged or mentally deficient to sleep through unbelievable mayhem (although I’m sure there are those who might argue the validity of that last point as it would pertain to me). In fact, this wasn’t even the first Peeping Tom incident I had slept through.
One night after we’d first moved in, mom had just finished up taking her bath, which she always took fairly late at night as it relaxed her before bedtime. Although we didn’t yet have shades (mom was a drapes kind of woman), we did have window treatments. It was the mid-seventies, mom was in her early thirties, had always lived with a man in the house, lived with a feeling of relative safety (and much naiveté), and she didn’t think twice about sitting naked in her own bedroom applying her lotion. Until she saw the man standing outside her window, staring at her through the sliver in the curtains. The first blood-curdling scream that failed to wake me up, it jolted my sleeping aunt right out of bed and on her feet, where she scrambled around the room like a cornered animal. My mom sprang out of her vanity chair, which shot out from under her, colliding with my aunt, who had the nastiest bruise on her thigh for the next two weeks or so. She ran out of the apartment and up the stairs (still indoor, as it was a duplex) to Brian and Joe’s apartment, two single guys living above us. They had this big ass dog, Butch (I forget if he was Brian or Joe’s), and he came running as Aunt Dorothy called out to him through the door. “Butch! Butch! Go get Brian or Joe!” This conversation with the dog would have us all laughing at the absurdity of it once the general fear and violation subsided, but that night Darth really believed Butch could go get one of his owners and tap them on the shoulder: “Hey, the girls downstairs need you.”
What did this all mean to my seven-year-old brain? For one, men were sneaky, perverted, violating creatures I needed to beware of. In a confusing twist, they were also handy to have around in case one of their kind snuck through the cracks (huh?). Then again, as neither Joe nor Brian answered their door (prompting mom to call the police), they were never around when you really needed them. Even if they had been, what could they have done anyway? My mom had already been violated, Aunt Darth was wounded, and for all four of us any sense of safety had been stripped away. I now knew of my eternal vulnerability.
Yes, eternal. I still have shades in my house, always pulled all the way down. All through my life I used to pull them down so low that I would stress the springing action and break them. My dad would constantly yell at me for this when I did it at the Cape May house, but what paranoia could I impart upon a two hundred twenty pound six-foot-three former military man? When I go to a hotel, I check all the windows. I look in the closets, behind the shower curtain. If I’m alone, I perform this ritual every time I re-enter the room, even if I left just to get a bucket of ice. When I enter a room, any room, for the first time, I look at the windows. Before I go to bed at night, I check to make sure all the doors are locked. Even as I know they are because they were locked all day and no one unlocked them.
This time in the apartment on Rhawn Street–where I lived between the ages of 5-11–was also the time of the Jogging Rapist, who would stop females on the street, ask them what time it was, and when they looked down to check would drag them into the bushes and rape them. His composite sketch was all over the news and the convenience stores and gas stations in my neighborhood. To me, simply because the dude wore a hoodie I was convinced it had been the Jogging Rapist staring at my sister that night when I was seven. It was also the time of the Son Of Sam and people who would knock on your door pretending to be the gas company who needed access to read your meter. I spent a lot of time home alone in those days and was trained by my mom on phone etiquette: “If anyone asks for your mom or dad, never say they’re not home. Say we’re in the bathroom or busy right now.” Door etiquette: “Ask ‘who is it?’ Always look through the peep-hole.” Eventually all this got too complicated for me. I don’t answer my phone and I don’t answer my doorbell. Every time someone even knocks I go frozen inside. It’s gotten better since I got away from Vegas, but it’s still there, lying dormant. An unexpected gust of wind shuffling through the leaves on a quiet night when I was outside waiting for the dog to do his business could bring it to the forefront.
To this extent I can’t imagine the psychological self-torture of someone who did open the door to that fake gas man. Someone who dared give the Jogging Rapist the time. What I went through in my years of forming my ideas on what a man’s purpose was, what he believed my purpose was and what he planned on doing about it, watching the women around me form and then change those opinions for themselves–I suppose I could say it’s at least made me the writer that I am. Why there’s a little bit of dark in everything I do. Why I just can’t write straight romance. Why in my early twenties I became pen pals with a well-documented serial killer because I had to prove to myself I could stare down the evil. Why when I see that carefree happy seven-year-old skipping down the street, inside I secretly want her to trip over her own feet. Why I instantly feel guilty because I know someday, many days, that’s precisely what she’ll do. Thankfully, I also believe she’ll get up, dust off, and continue on the road.