by Rachel Somerstein
The bell buzzed. Then again, more forceful this time, and lingering. I woke up; the clock read 12:36. “Someone’s at the door,” I whispered to Joe, who slept heavily beside me. He barely stirred. The buzzer sounded again, and I tapped him. He gasped, awake now. We listened. The buzzing continued, like something broken and angry. Joe got up, crept to his office, grabbed a set of bicycle handlebars. My heart pounded. I took the cell phone, dialed 911, kept my finger on send.
Growing up in Rudy Giuliani’s New York, I’d never been robbed. It wasn’t until college that anything really dangerous happened to me. Senior year, a man made multiple visits to my bedroom in the middle of the night. The first time, I woke to him standing in the doorway. At first I thought he was the kind-of, sort-of boyfriend I’d recently started dating. But then my brain caught up and I recognized the man’s height and build as foreign. “Who is that?” I asked. “Who’s there?” He ran, leaving the front door open. I gazed into the dark and didn’t see anyone. In the morning I wondered if it were a dream.
The second time he came, he tried to break down the bedroom door. I dialed 911 from the phone beside the bed. From the living room he ripped the phone cord from the jack, and the phone shot out from my hands and beneath the door. I screamed, grabbed a standing lamp — the only nearby object that could function as a weapon. He slammed his body against the door. I felt myself become an animal, my nails become claws. Soon I heard pounding on the porch steps and saw light bouncing around the floor: flashlights. So there are others. He has brought others. This is it, this is how I am going to die. People bounded up and down the stairs, footfalls I didn’t recognize, but that would turn out to belong to the police.
They didn’t catch him, not that night. Not for years.
From that night until I met Joe, I slept with a weapon (knife, baseball bat) by my bed. Even with that “protection,” I couldn’t sleep in an apartment alone without torturing myself with fantasies of robbers, stalkers, men hiding in the closet. The discordance was like something out of a novel: by day I made a living teaching English in a tough Bronx school, by night I lay awake, a victim preparing to become a statistic.
To state the obvious, and even in a place as wild as New York City, the bedside weapon also put a damper on my dating life. Remarkably, though, Joe understood. For years he’d slept with a weapon — a bicycle seat-post — too. That’s because in college he had also woken to someone creeping in his room, attempting to steal his laptop. The man had punched through the window to let himself in, and then knocked over a couple beer bottles, which woke Joe. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked, as if there were a rational answer for this. The man’s hand was bleeding. His other arm wrapped around the computer, he assured Joe he didn’t want any trouble. “Put down the computer and get the hell out of here!” Slowly, slowly, the man did as he was told. After, Joe didn’t call the police. He went to sleep. But this snapshot alone made Joe feel the necessity of arming himself against the unknown.
It would take half a dozen years, but the two of us would meet. Thanks to a chance run-in in an East Village bar, life would arrange it such that we became the couple who slept with weapons beside the bed: scissors. A heavy flashlight. Two knives, and a cell phone, when Joe was out of town.
When we moved from Brooklyn to Syracuse two summers ago, I knew little about the city. But the more I heard, the less I liked. Those early weeks, casting around for a job, I met a woman whose daughter lived nearby to us and who had been robbed only weeks before her wedding. The burglars came in the night and stole the engagement ring, wedding bands, necklaces for bridesmaids’ gifts. They’d been watching the house, said the woman’s mother, which is how they knew what to steal.
After that, tales of violence seemed to accumulate at our doorstep. Some came by email — the University sending alerts about students robbed at gunpoint. Others came through the grapevine, like the friend who returned to a ransacked apartment, where thieves had stolen cash, her passport, IDs, and credit cards, setting off a nightmare attempt to get her identity back. Still others showed up in person, like the mobile crime scene unit that parked in our driveway one Sunday morning. At first I wondered if it were possible that, despite my vigilance, I hadn’t noticed a crime take place in my own house. (This, I imagined explaining to the writing class I was teaching at the time, is what is known as “cosmic irony.”) But the detectives headed to the house across the street, which had sat vacant and open all winter, its door flapping in the wind. When they came to ask whether I’d seen anything suspicious, they explained that the house’s copper wiring had been stripped.
“That’s it? No body?” I half-joked.
No, they said, their disappointment evident.
I didn’t trust our new city. I was convinced the ringing bell had to be a trick, people trying to tempt us outside, where they’d knock us out and rob us, if not worse. We’d just leased a new car, which perhaps made us seem better off than we were. I thought about the group of boys living across the street, whom Joe’s father had dryly noted seemed to be in “manufacturing.”
As we crept closer, the buzzing stopped and the knocking started. Joe waved me back, then tiptoed close enough to see who was on the other side. He made a sound between a guffaw and a sigh. “Oh, hey,” he said, undoing the three locks and opening the door.
“Just wanted to tell you. Your lights are on. In your station wagon.”
Our upstairs neighbor. We thanked him, laughed, admitted he’d scared the shit out of us, thanked him again.
“Next time I’ll wear a mask,” he said, noting the handlebars, which in the darkness looked like fused rams’ horns.
We went back to bed, hysterical with adrenaline. Joe blew on the handlebars, making the “all-clear” sound. This loosed something in me, and I tried to remember the way I thought about the world before my college night-visitor, the person I used to be: more open, eager, excited, confident that what I couldn’t yet dream up, that whatever surprises other people had in store for me, could only be good.
This feeling did not last. What has is the unexpected comfort borne of our over-surveillance. Since that night, we have made plans in case of fire, nuclear meltdown, flood, break-in, tornado, or some heretofore unimaginable disaster befalling our sleepy Rust Belt town: wrap the cats in blankets and run like hell. But by laying bare our fears, we’ve made plain our commitment to each other: if we’re going to escape, we’re going together. And it’s that knowledge that brings us a new safety.
It’s time to put away the weapons. We are going to be fine.
Photo via chunter1/flickr.
Rachel Somerstein is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University, where she studies visual culture. Her essays and art criticism have appeared in Afterimage, ARTnews, and n+1, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU.