Cold scratches at my face as I slowly peal the blankets to look through an open space. The deep men’s voices on the other side of the wall are pitching louder and angrier. Muffled threats. A thud against the door. One of the men laughs. The other gets louder.
Mental calculations click down in my head. Ten steps to the door—three seconds tops. Run across the cement floor, heave the door open, and fly past them. Quickly, so they won’t have time to catch me. The angry one pounds on the table. My shirt thuds against my skin in response to my racing heart. The blankets I have been hiding in smell of my stale sweat. My oxygen is running out.
“No man – this is it! I CANNOT take this anymore. Of course I’M GOING TO DEAL WITH HER NEXT” The angry one yells. He means me. The pain in my abdomen aches. It’s time.
My toes clench and unclench prepping for the spring. In a flash I tear off the blankets, sprint across the cement floor, fling open the flimsy door nearly splintering the wood, past the two men about to kill each other, and into the bathroom where I lock the door. Panting and shocked, I collapse on the toilet and unleash a mighty river. It feels so good to pee.
And then I start to cry.
Jeff, my angry roommate pounds on the door “STEPHANIE. You can’t hide forever. I need to know – Did you use MY GARLIC AGAIN?”
I empty myself of the pee that has been aching to come out for the last hour, frozen in the pile of blankets I am living in these days. This warehouse the four of us are living in has no heat. It’s January. The goose-bumps on my skin have been raised so long they are hard and actually hurt when they brush against my clothing. Of course I used Jeff’s garlic. I hadn’t been able to muster the courage to go to the grocery store for over a week.
I rest my hands on my knees and my head in my hands, the seat finally warming up beneath me.
I dig the heel of my hands into my eyes – drawing up a blinding kaleidoscope to block the flashbacks. Thundering past the throbbing red dots in my eyelids comes … the street lamp I saw as I was pulled backwards. The bricks that scraped me as I fell backwards. Bloody knuckles. A hand in between my legs. The gasp. The need to ask WHY? Instead of STOP! His arm across my chest—pressed against my lungs. My cheeks pressed into my cheeks. A scream. My scream. And the silence of nobody having come to help. A light went on next door. A scream. A kick backwards. Footsteps down the street. Someone else. His footsteps that ran away. Cops. Line-ups. Doctor’s office. Closed doors.
The spots linger across my sight as I throw my head up, gulping for air. The toilet seat starts to stick to my ass. Even in this freezing warehouse, I am sweating everywhere.
Before I had been attacked, jumped, almost raped, almost mugged – whatever you want to call it – I thought that if something like this happened to me I would be the kind of person who could move on, power through. And that’s what everyone else thought of me too. My boyfriend even told me I was overreacting. But after.
After. Every night when I got home from work I would have to walk up the stoop where he grabbed me. Every night I would walk by apartments full of people who did not help when I screamed. Every night I would try to go out and meet my friends but would end up cleaning the bathroom with a toothbrush, just to make the activity last longer.
After. Everyone still thought I was the kind of person who could move on, power through. I got too tired of pretending, dumped the boyfriend and left Brooklyn.
Nature, nature will heal me, I thought, so I drove south through the Blue Ridge Mountains to cleanse myself in the waterfalls of Appalachia.
I peal myself off the toilet, splashing ice water on my face.
Never felt the waterfalls. Never even saw them. All that was available to me was what could be seen through the car window. Trapped inside my Ford Escape, staring down every couple and family that sunk down the trails to the cascades. The jealousy in my chest, and my fingers clicking at the door handle getting ready to leave the car. And just as I begin to pull he would walk by. Him. A single man. A man tall enough to wrap his arm around my neck. A man strong enough to pull me backwards. Lock the door and drive. FAST. To the next scenic stopping point. And the next. And the next and the next and the next. Till I end up in Newark, NJ. Broke. Because I’m a bartender and I can’t work at night anymore. In a warehouse slash squatting artists’ loft. Sleeping on the floor of said- ex-boyfriend’s bedroom (long story), in a swirl of blankets on the floor since he’s no longer allowed to touch me.
I catch my green eyes in the mirror. This is enough. You’ve been a locked up idiot for long enough.
I flush and open the door to Jeff standing there with his arms crossed. Ethan is hopping around near our shared hot plate that serves as a stove.
“B-U-S-T-E-D” he chants.
Jeff stares me down “You owe me an entire head of garlic”.
Fine, rubbing my arms to sooth the fearsome goosebumps. Calm down. It’s only garlic.
“IT’S NOT JUST GARLIC. IT’S THE PRINCIPLE – ” he begins. But I jump over some soccer balls Jeff has pulled inside out for his latest performance art piece, through my roommates who didn’t know I was attacked, who just accepted me as a strange recluse, past my ex writing at his desk and pull the blanket back over my head. Tomorrow. I’ll go to the grocery store tomorrow. I think I have enough change.
Inside my blankets, I call home, forgetting that these days, after 5pm, vodka has whisked my mother into a fuzzy den of slurry love and bursts of anger.
NJ Transit screeches by my window. My tummy rumbles; the pasta I made the night before now seems like a distant memory. The sun, and what little warmth there was, is fading. Depression tucks me in and I start to drift off, praying not to have any nightmares.
My phone slaps me in the face, screaming to let me know my catering company is calling me. They have an afternoon shift for me the next day! I have work. In the daylight! I can buy Jeff some mother fucking garlic!
I drive into the city to earn some money and bust my ass to get those cash money tips – pennies compared to what I had been making, but I feel good, I feel so close to normal. As though I actually extended all the way to the ends of my fingers, not curled up inside myself like the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East. The padded numbness of who I am has fallen away for a moment and I can feel the hazy, mellowing sun on my cheeks.
Night is falling when I pull up and park under the train tracks, next to our building. There are a couple men walking by – trailing puffs of breath like steam engines. Bigger than me. Can’t tell if they are together. About 20 steps to the door – 10 seconds – unlocking the door – keys already out – maybe 5 to 10 more. Lock behind me – 5 more. Safe.
Ticiticiticiticiticitic – my thigh bouncing against the steering wheel.
And I slam the door and run into the building, heave the door shut and lock it. Run up the stairs, past Ethan and Jeff who are yelling at each other again, pull a blanket over my head and change clothes under my shroud in record fucking time.
I read for a while in the silence. I don’t even have a radio, so I just listen to Ethan compose his rock opera, or whatever that noise is in the main “living” area. A lust for home overwhelms me as I skim through Life of Pi and even though I know I won’t be able to understand a word she says, I want my mom.
My fingers dig at the folds encasing me, deeper … and … deeper. No phone. I stick my arm out of the side and brush around on the ground. No phone. I stand up and comb the floor. No phone. Out to the kitchen area. No phone. At the front door. No phone. I stand there. Breaths barely reaching my lungs. Short, desperately awful, grating breaths as I stare down the stairs.
My phone is in my car.
One giant breath punches it way through to my belly.
It will be fine. I will get it in the morning. No one will know it’s there. It will be fine.
The worry gnaws at me but my depression trumps all and seeps in like carbon monoxide. I give up, pray for no nightmares and drift away.
6 am. Running and putting my boots on and pulling the door open and my arms in my coat and the sunlight ripping at my eyes.
Spider webs of glass crackle over every window, blue shards litter the ground. Pulled forward, not even taking my own steps, with slow motion carefulness, my hand on the door handle, crunching it open, down the side of the cushion. My phone is gone. All of my summer clothes that I had stored in the back of my sweet little Ford Escape are gone.
My swimsuits, my clothes. My tapes are gone. My tapes that I’ve had since the 80’s. My Oingo Boingo tape IS GONE.
Fire breaks out across my face as I pull into the police station, pajama clad. Big-haired, un-toothbrushed with tiny pieces of glass stuck in the ass of my down-coat.
“Nothin’ we can do. Um. Probably wanna report that phone tho … but if you say you left it in your car, overnight, in Newark … Don’t know how much sympathy you’re gonna get. Might wanna fudge the truth a little. Can’t do much about the car. Sorta thing happens pretty much every day. Gonna wanna get those windows fixed tho. It’s pretty cold outside.”
The Escape squeals out of the parking lot. Someone in this ashy garbage can of a city has my favorite red bikini and I am going to find him.
I start to drive. Down every street in downtown Newark. Slowly. Hunting. My fractured view out of the front only helps me to see more angles at once. Someone somewhere is wearing MY red bikini. The jagged edges that frame me are my teeth. I am inside a mother fucking SHARK.
That gaggle of men outside the liquor store.
I pull over a little in front of them and stare through my mirror. Waiting for one of them to open up one of their trash bags.
“C’mon. C’mon” I mutter to myself, knowing that it is a matter of seconds till they make a mistake.
Throughout the day, I slowly tail single men to see if they will lead me to my shorts, tank tops, and phone.
The goosebumps retreat as I finally begin to warm up.
The day crawls on.
It’s the low gas tank ding that stirs me awake.
Completely spent, Jeff and Ethan help me tape the windows, and I borrow Jeff’s phone to report my stolen one to Verizon. I almost call home, but don’t. Putting my hands back in my pocket I bump against something hard I had forgotten about.
“Hey Jeff”, I yell, and toss him the puniest head of garlic I could find at the store.
He walks inside laughing and I just sit on the curb petting my poor, beaten car. The train sparks fly over my head, and it’s only then that I realize it’s dark out. And instead of running inside, I don’t.
It’s not going to be much warmer in there anyway.
Looking up, I half-heartedly hope to see some stars, but know that there are no stars to wish on in Newark. My gaze catches the top of the old Prudential building that terrorists have recently threatened to blow up. Everywhere around it is on high alert, police tightly guarding it, on overtime, keeping watch. Protecting it for everything they are worth against an enemy that may or may not attack.
Under the train tracks I see a glow and squint against the dying light. A few men are huddled over a burning trashcan. Men I may have been hunting earlier today. They look tired and cold. I squint towards their backs looking for a red string.
Nah – I can get a new one.
My heart pushes on my coat, maybe I can forgive, at least, something.
The men under the train tracks start fighting and that wrinkle of fear gathers in my chest.
I pick myself up off the curb to reluctantly leave my crippled car out in the cold. I wish I could fix her up tonight, but broken things take a little time to heal.
Stephanie Chavara lives in a continual hamster-wheel of storytelling. If she isn’t making up stories with the kids she teaches, or writing them down, or creating a new play, she is probably at the bar talking to strangers. She has performed her stories with Story Club, Essay Fiesta, This Much is True, Story Lab, Salonathon, and 2nd Story-where she is a company member. In Chicago she has performed with numerous theatre companies, but her favorite role wasCharles Ives Take Me Home with Strawdog Theatre for which she learned to play basketball, and was also nominated for a Jeff Award for Best Actress. She directs, writes, acts, and teaches all over Chicago, and maybe someday, the world.