AKA “The One About How I Lived In Hell’s Apartment” AKA “Shut Up, Universe, Quit Telling Me to Write About This.” Does the Universe ever do that to you? You start thinking about a friend you haven’t heard from or even thought of in years, and they call? Or you start thinking about something and things related to that start happening? Yeah. It’s like that.
Let me preface this with… If you are close to me and have never heard this story, or haven’t heard all of the story, or never even heard a hint of this story…. that wasn’t to slight you. I’m not hiding things from you. I just never, ever talk about this. I shut the door on it 20-something years ago and if I hadn’t gotten called for that gorram jury duty I probably still wouldn’t be thinking about it. But right now it’s all I can think about.
If you read this and want to coddle me, or give me hugs, don’t. I’m fine. Really. Let’s not draw this out into a THING. Trust me. It, as they say, gets better. Read through till the end.
Let me start this with a little backstory. There are two things (well, probably more, but these are the ones important to this story) that I learned from my Stepmonster. One thing I learned because she liked to randomly throw my things away, and the other I learned because she was spiteful and liked to pick fights.
I learned that when you live with other people, sometimes your shit goes missing. When I was a child, she used to like to throw away, or hide, things that I liked. I guess maybe she was trying to teach me not to get attached to physical objects? Oh; or she was just a fucking nutjob. Either way. Anyway; my favorite dress, my entire collection of Nancy Drew books, my paper dolls, a few books here and there, shoes, stuffed animals… shit just… disappeared. So when I moved out when I was 16, I was *thrilled* that stuff stopped disappearing. If something wasn’t somewhere, it was because I forgot to put it in the right place. Nobody was taking it. I would find it.
I also learned that people are capable of figuring out what hurts you, and using that to their advantage. Whether they’re trying to make themselves feel better by tearing you down, or they’re just crazy mean and spiteful… it doesn’t matter. They will use what they know about you to hurt you. And I learned that you can’t really win against this kind of crazy. You can, however, close up and walk away from it, and that’s what I do, a lot, when people want to hurt me. I just kind of think to them, “well, you can be mean, or hurtful, or crazy, or bad-tempered, if you want to… but I don’t have to be around for it.” And I will walk away rather than keep confronting you. And three lurkers just totally grokked why I never call them to hang out any more.
Trust me, these two things come into play later in this story. Which is going to be long, because I don’t want to break it up into parts. So go make some tea or something and come back; I’ll wait.
So, after I moved back from living outside of DC, I lived with my dad for about a month until I could find a place. The I lived with The Crazy Lesbian Who Only Had Sex With Men (But Totally Was a Lesbian, Shut Up) for a year (that’s a whole other blog post…!). By then I had found a job that, if I found a cheap enough place, I could live alone. It wasn’t a great job – pretty soul-sucking, as a matter of fact; but it paid well for this town at that time, and it was at a bookstore, so at least I had that, right? I was in my early early early 20’s. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but who needed boyfriends when I had Hawk and Steve and Rob, and Hawk had just introduced me to this girl he had a crush on, Jenn, and there was Pat and his wife Sandy, and Johna and Ted, and John and his wife-who’s-name-I-forget-but-nobody-liked-anyway, and and and. I had a busy and active social life, hanging with young politically and socially active, pot-smoking hippies, going to Old Wave night, playing pool at an Irish Pub that had recently opened and that all my clove-smoking wanna-be writer friends were into. Coffee shops, political rallies, midnight barbecues at the houses of friends of friends, dropping everything on a moment’s notice and driving out of town for the weekend… I wasn’t just free, I was unfettered. I was listening to a lot of Enya, REM, Cowboy Junkies. I had a TV, but it was a small black-and-white and I never turned it on unless I wanted to catch Red Dwarf, or maybe the news. Twin Peaks was already over, and The X-Files hadn’t yet started, so what did I really need a TV for? I had books and movies! And friends! I wore mostly peasant skirts, cut-up t-shirts, sandals, and no bra. I was a vegetarian, occasionally had a glass of white wine but didn’t even keep beer in the fridge, had permed hair and half of it was in beaded braids that I had to redo every two months or they’d turn into dreadlocks. Have I painted the picture well enough, of who I was then? I was about to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I was going to save money to go backpack around Europe and above all I was going to Find Myself. And I was going to Be Somebody.
So when I looked around and (accidentally) found Satan’s own apartment, well, I thought it was perfect. Of course, Kathy and George Lutz thought that house in New York was pretty awesome, until the invisible pig and the possessions and all. ANYWAY. The apartment I found reflected exactly who I wanted to be at that time. It was an old house from the late 1800/early 1900’s, I think; sort of T shaped and it had been divided into three apartments. Mine would be the middle one, with the part of the T that sticks down. The front apartment had “a family” and the back apartment had an old man. I would have a stone porch that lead up to a living room that was almost floor-to-ceiling windows and ran the length of the house. The two small top “arms” of the T? If you were facing the built-in bookshelf on the one wall in the living room that didn’t have windows, to the right was a small kitchen with a sealed-shut back door that opened to a porch that was for the old man’s part of the house. To the left, through the French Doors (I know, right? And did I mention the beautiful, old dark wood floors?) were a small bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom had windows along one wall that looked out over my porch and were the same type of windows as were in the living room. The bathroom had a claw-footed tub. Before I even signed the lease I was picturing long, flowing white curtains, evenings with a book and a hot bubble bath, and shared bottles of wine with my friends as we sat on my futon and looked out the living room windows at the glorious plants I was going to have on the porch.
So of course you know where this is going, right? Because I should have known when the landlord, not a man known in Gainesville for his scruples, told me to be really careful in this neighborhood because the house across the street was a Known Drug House and things could get rough. Pff, I thought. I will refuse to see what they’re doing and they’ll leave me alone. I will be fine. The funny thing? They totally left me alone. It turned out the people who broke into my apartment, all three times, were the people who lived in the other parts of my house.
The first time I got broken into, it was – most likely – the child of the mysterious couple in Apartment A. I thought it was strange once when I came home and not only just was out of soap and shampoo, but… it was gone. There was no soap, no shampoo, and no toilet paper in the house. Of course my first thought was that my Stepmonster had been there. It’s amazing how those thoughts come back to you; I hadn’t lived with her for five or six years, and yet the first time I couldn’t find something it was her fault. Would you believe it actually took me a few days to figure out I’d been broken into? I mean, that should have been obvious, right? But for all I knew, I could have run out of everything that morning, had a rough day at work wherein I forgot to remind myself to go buy more shampoo. And I checked — nothing else was missing. They hadn’t killed my cat, trashed my house, taken any jewelry or money. They left the wrapped soap and toilet paper in the closet, but taken what was obviously out and about in the bathroom. It was weird, but… I shrugged it off. Who was going to believe me that my soap and shampoo was stolen? Like, the police would seriously make a case out of that? If someone was stealing soap and shampoo, they probably needed it more than I did. I let it go.
Then the second time… you know, I honestly don’t remember what was taken the second time. Possibly more soap and shampoo. I know I didn’t call the police, and that it wasn’t enough missing that, again, I wound up noticing, honestly. I just… I went for something one day, and it wasn’t there. I think it might have been some clothes. But what was I going to do? Call the police and say, “hey, I have a family history of shit disappearing, because my stepmother is crazy, and about a month ago I am pretty sure that someone broke in and stole my soap and shampoo, but now some clothes have gone missing, and, I don’t think I’m crazy, but…” Yeah. I could see that. It wasn’t enough, I thought, to call the cops about, and it may have happened days before – or for all I know, they might have taken it at the same time as the first time they broke in. So what was I going to do? Well; nothing. But it started to get… hard to sleep. I started to have dreams that people were standing on the porch, looking in. I got my dad to come over and drill holes in the frames of all those beautiful windows so that I could stick heavy, three-inch nails in them at about the three-inch-open mark. That way, since the house didn’t have AC, I could keep the windows open but not so that you could get through them from the outside… which means I didn’t have to worry about them while I was at work.
And then I went away for a week’s vacation. To a WorldCon, I think. I asked my friend John, who lived around the corner, if he could come over once or twice a day, feed my cat, turn on some lights and other lights off… basically make the place looked lived in. I also borrowed a self-timer from someone that would turn my radio on my stereo set on and off at specific times. I asked John, and not the neighbors who lived in the other parts of the house, because even though I’d tried to introduce myself to the people in A, they never drew their curtains or answered their door when I would knock. And the guy who lived in C was a toothless old wino, who I didn’t think I could trust as far as I could throw a car. Which, not being a big burly Scottish man, I am not so far with the car-throwing. Besides, it appeared he was being brow-beat into letting a slightly-younger-than-him-but-still-older-than-me quasi homeless couple live with him. They had some sort of food-stamps-for-drugs thing going on with the house across the street, which I tried to stay as far away from as possible. After all; don’t make trouble for them, they won’t make trouble for me. Right?
I was a little worried about my beautiful apartment while I was gone. Not enough that it put a dent in the fun I was having, but… I was concerned to get home, as the week wore on.
And then when I got home, pulling into the driveway in the rain, my cat was in the front yard.
Why would John let my cat out? Jesus. I’m glad he didn’t run away, or get stolen.
I picked up the cat and brought him inside before I even unpacked the car. In the pouring rain. Brought bags inside. Relaxed. Went to make dinner.
There was dirt in my sink. My potted plants had fallen from the… from the wide-open, unlatched window above the sink. Fuck. I’d forgotten to latch that window? I picked up the plant and tried to save it as best I could. Cleaned up the dirt.
Under the dirt there were dirty dishes.
I hadn’t left myself dirty dishes.
I looked in the fridge, the freezer. Completely empty. All of my food, and a wine bottle that I’d had filled with water, to chill it. Everything was gone.
I felt cold. And a little faint. What was this? I KNOW. They totally tell you in books and movies that that’s how it’s going to feel, AND THEY’RE RIGHT. Who knew?!
I turned around in the kitchen, and looked across to the bedroom. The shelf, in the living room… something snagged my eye. It was empty. It shouldn’t be empty. There used to be a stereo there. And two shelves above it, filled with CDs. Now there was just a self-timer, sitting on the empty shelf.
Why had John eaten all my food, opened my window, taken my stereo, and let my cat out?
I walked around the apartment, not touching anything. Thinking. Fuck. What have I already touched? I need to be able to tell the police what I’ve touched. You know. If it’s not that John was, I don’t know, having a party or something and needed my stereo. My black and white TV was still there. Food? Gone. Stereo/record player/tape deck? Gone. Most of my CDs? Gone. Books? Still there. Pet snake? Still there (I hadn’t even told John to do anything with the snake, as I’d fed it the week before.) Silver dollars my grandmother left to me? Still there, hidden in my desk in my bedroom. On to the bathroom. Jewelry? All gone. Thank goodness I’d been wearing G-ma’s wedding ring (although I do still miss the Tiger Eye earrings my father had given me).
I called John; no, he had not taken my stereo, why would he do that? Right. Next step then… calling the police. And my daddy. I don’t remember which was first… probably the police, because we’d both been at the same con and I think he was staying an extra day for the Dead Dog party. (This was back before cell phones, kids! When you had to find someone willing to go to the hotel bar and roust yer dad!)
And here is where you will wonder why I still think favorably of policemen and women. They basically did… nothing. They sent a guy over who wrote a report and made some jokes about how the TV was too shitty to take. Yes, thank you, and fuck you, Officer Bob. It didn’t matter what I touched, they didn’t even dust for prints. I’d already cleaned up the sink, you see, where they were pretty sure the person had gotten in. And did I just say that I’d already been broken into twice, in the same apartment, and not called the cops? And I have braids that are almost dreads, and am not wearing a bra, and live across the street from a Known Drug House? Clearly I am Priority One in this town.
I did keep calling them, though. Once a week I would call the card he gave me, and ask if there were any leads in the case. Anything they’d heard. Anything else I could do, other than calling pawn shops with CD and jewelry descriptions, which I’d already done. No, they hadn’t any new leads. Had heard nothing on the grapevine. And unless something showed up that I could positively ID at a pawn shop, nothing much was going to happen.
If you thought I wasn’t sleeping well BEFORE? I started having dreams that people were breaking in while I was home. Through the window, through the back door in the kitchen. I started having panic attacks at work, that I had left my door unlocked at home — I’d have to call my assistant manager to come over for me while I drove across town, in the middle of my work shift, to make sure I’d locked the door. When I got home at night I would panic that I hadn’t locked the door at work, and would drive back across town in the middle of the night to make sure the bookstore was locked. I never wanted to leave the house. I was afraid to stay in the house in case I got broken into again. It was the most beautiful apartment I ever had and I would have set it on fire if I thought I could get away with it. And I kind of started to…. flip out a little, when I couldn’t find something. Thanks, Stepmonster, for the trigger! If I couldn’t find something within about thirty seconds, I’d start breathing faster. I would shove things places, looking for things underneath things. Things got messier and messier as I had to start keeping everything out in sight where I could SEE it. I started to forget about things that were inside things (inside desk drawers, dresser drawers, closets). I couldn’t remember if I had it unless I could see it, and I had to see it to trust that I still had it. MY CRAZY, LET ME SHOW YOU IT.
I don’t think it was three weeks of this before I decided I had to move. I called the landord, tearfully told him everything. I had to get out of there. I wasn’t sleeping; I wasn’t eating; I was startled and unhappy and jumpy all the time. He showed me a variety of places, one of which was a group house that didn’t even have a front door (and Sharon, whom I did not yet know, took that apartment because I did not!). I chose an apartment in a complex that was off Tower Road and close to my job. It was ugly as shit, and none of the neighbors knew each other, but if I was worried in the middle of the night that I hadn’t locked the door at work, it was about three minutes away.
I packed everything I owned and moved in the space of three days. Bill and Daddy helped me a bit, but both had the flu that weekend and weren’t really up for much. They helped me with the furniture; futon, small dining room table and chairs, bed, bookshelves, desk, 1950s hydraulic dentist chair (like ya have). The boxes? I was on my own. That was the worst move of my life.
Oh! But I’m getting ahead of myself!
You see, the old guy who lived in Apartment C saw me bringing in boxes, and packing. In case I haven’t stressed this, I had, at this point, no idea who broke in while I was gone; who let my cat out, took my stereo, cooked and ate my food and left me the dirty dishes. But I had to move; I couldn’t stand living in that apartment any more.
Well, the old guy knew who broke into my place.
The couple that he had let into his home.
That were hitting him and beating him up.
They broke into my house.
They moved the couch from their porch, to under my kitchen window, the view of which was blocked from the road because of the beautiful odd living room I had.
They would wait until John left from feeding the cat, and climb in through the window.
They would eat my food and go through my things.
They took my stereo and CDs to pawn for drugs.
They would kill him if they knew I told him, but he just felt so sorry for how scared I had been looking all the time, that he thought knowing who it was would give me some peace.
But not to say anything because they would kill him.
I’d heard him getting beat up a couple of times; I didn’t doubt it.
I wasn’t going to say anything. I was already moving. I was walking away. I was folding up my heart and my fear and packing them next to my t-shirts and books and I was just walking the fuck away from this because I was tired of hurting and being afraid all of the time and it was easier to just go. Leave. Uninstall myself from this situation. I didn’t want to get involved. It wasn’t going to get my music back. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to move on and put this behind me.
That was the next to the last day I lived there. I thought that would be the worst.
The last day I lived there, that day was the worst.
See, the day before, the old guy, let’s call him Buddy. When Buddy was talking to me, the other guy, let’s call him Thief, walked past, to get “home.” The windows were open. Thief must have heard Buddy talking to me. Because that night – I’d been at work during the day – I heard him beating Buddy up. Buddy was crying and saying not to do it, that I was a good girl, that I was moving anyway, to leave me alone.
That’s when Thief parked himself with a shotgun on my front porch.
I can’t even tell you how long he stayed there. How long he yelled at me. Telling me to come out so he could shoot me. (NOW THERE’S INCENTIVE. Idiot. Tell me to come out so you can give me chocolate, or pizza; those things I like!) Telling me that if I called the cops, he would shoot me through the windows before they could get to me. That he didn’t care if they killed him, he’d take me out first. That if I called anyone, if anyone showed up at our house, he would shoot me, and shoot them. Like I said, I can’t tell you how long this went on. Hours? I was laying on the floor in the living room, under the level of the windows. I had a backpack, and was trying to get my cat to come towards me (probably wisely, the cat was not interested in anything other than hiding under the futon). I figured if I could get Selkie in the backpack, well, he was the most important thing to me in the house. If I could get him, maybe this guy would eventually get tired or need a fix and go away, and I could, with my backpack-of-cat, get to my car and get away.
I fell asleep on the floor, Thief still yelling. He was gone in the morning when I woke up.
I moved that day.
I never called the police back. Why should I? They had been so helpful. Oh, wait, what’s the opposite of helpful? Because, yes, that’s what they were. I was alive, my cat was alive, I was moving and they didn’t know where. It was over. Shut the door.
Most of the time I don’t even think about this, except to joke about “oh, god, that one time I lived in that shithole in the SE near GRU on 4th and got broken into three times and had my life threatened! Oh, lord, yes, that’s a story!” or “that one time I didn’t take the apartment that had the bathroom down the hall on the other side of the house, the house that didn’t have a front door and Sharon took the apartment and she says it was the best place she ever lived and she’d never felt safer!”.
And then last month I got called for Jury selection, and it was for Burglary with a Firearm, and I thought I was going to throw up during the selection. Needless to say, I had to talk about it while I was up there, and needless to say, I didn’t get selected.
And I wanted to write about this, then, and get it out of my mind; but I decided that I’d shut the door on it 20-something years ago and I’ve been relatively fine ever since, so… surely I could shut the door on it this time as well.
Except that I started thinking. I started thinking it was weird that this big event, that I never think about, that when pressed I always say didn’t really have an effect on me, that it didn’t change me. Well. How can big things happen in your life and they don’t affect you? Except, that, well, on some level… well, hrm, no; I didn’t change. I stopped.
I never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I tried to; then, and again since. Couldn’t do it. Most boring book in the world.
I no longer listen to Enya or REM, although I remember both fondly and will hum along if they’re on the radio or a movie soundtrack.
I no longer wear peasant skirts, and usually wear a bra.
It was probably two years before I stopped panicking about locked doors. But only because I found a coping mechanism of telling myself what I’m holding, wearing, thinking, and what day it is, and that I’m actively locking the door. I still have to do that, or I’ll have a Deep Breath moment.
I’ve never backpacked around Europe.
I’m less politically active.
I don’t hang out with anyone who smokes clove cigarettes and I don’t hang out at coffee shops talking with my friends about the big things we’re going to do.
I’m still brave (quit my well-paying but soul-sucking job and open a yarn store? Fuck yeah! Yarn store closes, take up my favorite hobby and do that as a business? Fuck yeah! Nobody is going to do that if they’re NOT brave.) But I’m no longer fearless.
I don’t drop things and go away for the weekend any more. I take less risks with people when I meet them, getting to know them. I have higher walls. I will walk away from someone faster than I used to. I will guard myself more. Soon after this I bought a house and asked my dad if I could please have my dog now, who was living out on his farm. I’ve had a dog steadily since then. As if having a dog is going to deter someone from breaking in?
Four weeks ago I was called for Jury Selection, and that’s what brought all of this up. I wanted to write about it. I thought about it.
Three weeks ago I decided not to write about it. Good lord, the draaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaama. Who needs it? This shit happened more than 20 years ago and I be fine. Besides, what if I write this up and all of my friends lecture me for not calling the cops when Thief was on my front porch? (So please, don’t. You weren’t there.) It’s not like I was all on board with the police then, anyway — I mean, they were clearly not as concerned with my case as I was, so, gee, why bother them with a little old crackhead on my porch with a shotgun? Don’t want to be a bother, you know. Also, I’m alive. I suppose I might want a lecture if I were not; but all’s well that ends well, right? So, please. No lectures. Honestly even today I don’t know that I would have called the cops. Today I would be more likely to call a friend who is a cop (or post on Facebook and ya’ll would have have a SWAT team at my house in seconds). Or I’d call a few friends with guns and flexible morals before I’d call the cops. I don’t mean all of that in a fuck-the-police sort of way, but, really, if they had shown an ounce of caring that I had been broken into, and not made me feel like I was wasting their time? Calling the police didn’t even really occur to me, and not because Thief was telling me not to, but because they weren’t helpful or useful. ANYWAY. I didn’t want to be judged and I didn’t really want to think about it, so I decided not to write it up.
Last week, I read a book that I still need to review on Goodreads. Bone Dance, by Emma Bull. It made me do a lot of thinking. Thinking about what defines who we are. Is it what we’re made or destined to be from the beginning of our lives? Or what we make an active choice to become? Is “who we are” defined by how we’re affected by others? What if we’re only affected by we give them permission for? Can we choose to not let our experiences with others define us, but rather, define ourselves by what we decide to take from those experiences? Is this even making sense? “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” — well what if you, the one being drawn, could pick up the pencil halfway through the drawing and change a few things yourself? Am I afraid of things, am I untrusting, because of that situation? What if instead of choosing to shut the door on the experience but being left with residual fear and uncertainty, freaking out when I can’t find things… what if I embraced what happened and shut the door on the fear and issues it left me with, instead? Who would I be then?
It was like the Universe gave me a book to read that I needed to read at Just That Time. A little bit of the Universe knocking on my front door. “Book delivery! I hear you needed something to read!”
So, then. This last week I’ve been thinking a lot about who I was trying to be then, vs. who I have become. And I’m still like myself, still like who I wanted to be, but… a little more afraid. A little less trusting. And I know it’s not just that ONE experience, it’s so many other little heart injuries that have happened. Divorce. Death. Those will leave a mark. But I want to get back in touch with that free spirit that I was Before Satan’s Cute Apartment. Be a little more free-spirited (Tim, I can see you rolling your eyes at me right now) and a little more trusting. A little more willing to jump into things, because, people, as willing as I am to leap before the net appears as you think I am NOW? You should have met me when I was 22.
Yesterday morning I decided I was going to go ahead and write this up.
Yesterday evening, out of the blue, Sharon emailed me to put something out there… whether I would be willing to step away from responsibility for a weekend in August and drive to West Virginia with her to pick up a piece of furniture and celebrate her dad’s birthday. FUUUUUUUUCK. YES. I hear you, Universe. I hear you knocking, and I am throwing that mother-fucking door wide open. Now. Whatcha got for me?