I crash through the screen door, arms flailing like two loose propellers, stumbling like a woman on fire: hair and clothes ablaze. Or I do not stumble. I make no noise at all when I open the door with one hand, and hold the two-by-four above my head with the other. Only my feet and legs carry me forward, the rest of my body remains still like a statue. Like a ninja. A cartoon.
In the small gravel lot behind the four-plex I find only one vehicle covered by a beige car tarp—the elastic cinched between the bumper and the wheels. I wrestle it off and climb inside, coax my key toward the ignition. The lizard key chain shakes like an actual trapped animal in my hand, ready to shed its tail and flee. Take a breath, I say. You’re not dead yet.
Inching away from the building, I see the front screen door slapping against the outer wall in the wind. It’s too late to get out and close it. The tires spray gravel around the building’s unlit side and toward the street, where the street lights strobe on and on and on along the deserted boulevard stretching between the highway and downtown, where the boys down Jaeger shots, the girls down Jaeger shots, all of them dry humping at the bar or on the dance floor or in line for the bathroom.
I’ll never be one of them again.
I cross the boulevard by stomping the gas pedal to the floor, fingers ratcheted blue-knuckle tight around the wheel, leaning so far forward my breath fogs the windshield from the inside: proof I’m still alive. Or my breath does not make fog. Does not leave my body even. Not one nerve-taut muscle gives way while my headlights illuminate the narrow street, the empty parking stalls, the low beige-brick buildings.
When I realize I am not being followed I begin to cry and laugh and scream. Like bubbles. Like a peal. The rearview mirror shows my mascara running. Maybe I should apply a coat of lipstick? A patch of blood spreads where I have bitten my lower lip. The taste of a penny stolen from the kitchen jar.
I park the car on the curb in front of the police station and run through the dark with my shoes in my hands, cross the cold tile floor—a checkerboard—to pound on the glass separating me from the two female dispatchers, a steel u-bolt still dangling from my wrist. Under the fluorescent lights, their skin flickers black and blue. They lean back in their chairs, hands folded over their soft round bellies, each pair of legs coming together like a V. Their black sweaters. Their blue polyester pants. The faces turn toward me, the eyebrows raised in disbelief. The clock’s arms both point to eleven. They’re black. They’re blue.
The stationmaster calls a detective out to meet me in the lobby. Tall and wide-shouldered, with brown hair and eyes, he looks vaguely like my uncle: both have kind faces. But the detective does not smile, does not give me a lung-crushing hug. He leads me into his office with his hand on his gun. Or it is not his office, but an office that is used by him tonight. There is a black rotary telephone with a black spiral cord pushed to the corner of a desk. The wood veneer comes up at the corners, exposing a layer of particleboard underneath. He shuffles in the drawer for a small pad of paper.
Tell me everything, he says. Start at the beginning. He does not mean the playground at the preschool with the rainbow bridge. Or the kitten tongue like sandpaper on my cheek. Or the potpourri simmering in the tiny Crock-Pot on the counter next to the jar of pennies in the kitchen. Though any of these could have been a beginning to the story I tell him. I want to see it, the little notepad, but he leaves the room to make some calls. No, I can’t call my family. No, not any of my friends. Nothing to do but to look at my feet: suddenly very very absurd. Someone should cover them with shoes and socks. Easier maybe to cut them off and perch them in a tree.
He returns to lead me down a dark hallway, where every office is a room with a closed door, through the kitchen, where coffee brews and burns, out a heavy steel door to a parking lot, an unmarked car. A detective’s car. He gestures, as if to say, After you.
While waiting in the unmarked detective’s car on an unlit street in the dark shadow of an oak tree I realize that real cops are not at all like movie cops. Real cops are slow and fat. Their bellies, in various states of roundness, hang over their waistbands, cinched tight with braided leather belts. They do not converge on the building with sirens blaring. They do not flash their lights or stand behind the open doors of their squad cars and aim their guns at criminals. These cops, my cops, do not wear uniforms. From the car where I am sitting alone in the shadow of an oak tree, they look like fat men who have happened to meet on the street, walking together around the side of the four-plex, toward the gravel parking lot, where they will find a discarded car tarp, a screen door flapping open, all the lights but one turned out inside.
Just inside the door, they will find a dog collar, construction supplies, a soundproofed room. I have told them what to expect. Meanwhile, waiting alone in the car under the dark shadow of an oak tree I start seeing things: no shadow is just a shadow of an oak tree. I press the heels of my palms hard into my eye sockets, sink lower into the seat. My thoughts grow smaller and race in circles. The adrenaline shakes become convulsions become seizures become shock. When the detective returns, he finds me knotted in thirds on the floorboards: hardly like a woman at all.
At the hospital, the detective leads me through a set of automatic sliding glass doors, not the main ones that lead to the emergency room, but another set, down the way a bit, special for people like me. He leads me down a florescent-lit hallway, directly to an exam room where the overhead lights are turned out. A female officer meets me there, and a social worker, who looks like she might be somebody’s grandmother. The officer and the social worker team up with a nurse, and the detective leaves without a word. The officer, the social worker, and the nurse ask me to take off my clothes. They unscrew the u-bolt from my wrist. Officer puts these things into a Ziploc bag named Evidence.
Nice to meet you, Evidence.
She takes pictures of my wrists and ankles. She speaks in two-syllable sentences: Turn, please. Rape kit. Oh Dear.
Sick hobby: it comes with instructions in Spanish, German and Japanese. Glue and little vials of brightly colored paint. The social worker wants to hold my hand. No thank you, ma’am. She is, after all, not my grandmother. Her skin is loose and clammy. She asks what kind of poetry I write as Evidence rips out fingerfuls of my pubic hair, spreads my legs and digs inside me with a long, stiff Q-tip. Another Q-tip in my mouth for saliva. She scrapes under my fingernails with a wooden skewer and puts the scum in a plastic vial.
The social worker invites me to stay at her house. Or it is not her house, exactly, but a half-house for half-women like me.
After the exam, the social worker gives me a green sweat suit in a brown paper bag. I’m supposed to dress in the bathroom. But the clothes are entirely too large: a too-large hunter green sweatshirt, a pair of too-large hunter green sweatpants, a pair of too-large beige underwear. Like my mother wears.
Officer doesn’t acknowledge that I look ridiculous emerging from the bathroom. Officer doesn’t acknowledge me at all. I know to follow her out the door, to the parking lot, her squad car. I know to hang my head. It’s the price for a ticket to the station.
The phone call wakes my parents out of bed. Mom answers; her voice is thick, confused. She says nothing for a long time. In the background, Dad gets dressed. Yesterday’s change jingles in his pockets. His voice buckles: Say we’re on the way.
The detective follows me to my new apartment in the unmarked car. He offers to come inside, to stand guard at the door, but I don’t want him seeing that I have no furniture, no food in the fridge, nothing in the pantry, or the linen closet, or on the walls. I ask him to wait outside. I call my boss at the literary magazine where I am an intern and leave a message on her office voicemail: Hi there. I was kidnapped and raped last night. I won’t be coming in today. I call My Good Friend’s cellphone. I call My Older Sister’s cellphone.
While I’m in the shower, the apartment phone rings and callers leave messages on the machine: My Good Friend will stay with her boyfriend; she’s delaying her move-in date. Of course she hates to do this, but she’s just too scared to live here, with me, right now. You should find somewhere to go, she says. My Handsome Friend’s message says he heard the news from My Good Friend. He’s leaving town and doesn’t think it’s safe to tell me where to find him. The message My Older Sister leaves says she wants me to come stay at her place, which sounds better than sleeping alone in this apartment on the floor.
I pry back the curtains and see my parents standing in the parking lot talking to the detective. My father shakes the detective’s outstretched hand. My mother covers her chest with her arms, one hand over her mouth, a large beige purse hanging from her shoulder. She’s brought me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a snack-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I’m not hungry, but the thought of wasting her effort makes my stomach turn and turn.
I nibble the chips in the backseat of their car while they take me to buy a cellphone. They want to do something, to take action. With the fluorescent lights of the store, all the papers I must fill out and sign, the windows wide open behind us, I feel dizzy enough to fall.
Driving to My Older Sister’s apartment, I watch the road extending out behind me in the rearview mirror and try not to fall asleep. The apartment parking lot becomes boulevard, becomes deserted intersection, becomes on-ramp and interstate. The clusters of red-brick buildings give way to strip malls, to warehouses and truckstops, to XXX bookstores, to cultivated pastures growing in every direction: wheat-stalk brown and tree-bark brown and corn-silk green.
My Older Sister meets me in the parking lot with tears in her eyes. Her hug is both desperate and safe. As she carries my bag up the stairs she says, You look like shit. Under any other circumstances, I’d tell her to fuck off. Today it’s a comfort. I do look exactly as I feel.
She isn’t able to get off work tonight, so she shows me how to use the cable remote, loads her handgun, puts it in my hand. It’s heavier than I imagined. She’ll work late tonight, but if I need anything, her next-door neighbor, The Sheriff, knows what happened. He might come by to check on me. Please try not to shoot him.
The whole time she’s gone, I watch the closed-circuit channel showing the front gate of the apartment complex. I sit in the dark with the gun in my hand and watch cars drive through the gate. I don’t know what I’m watching for, but I keep watching. A gray conversion van looks suspicious. Lights turn in the parking lot, crossing the face of the building. I peer through a crack in the blinds.
I don’t eat. I don’t sleep.
Even after My Older Sister comes home, offers me a beer, falls asleep with her arm around my body in the bed, I fix my eyes on the dark and wait.