The album starts with a picture of the house on the corner lot. The stucco is painted an awful green. “The color can easily be changed,” the realtor says. “The house has good bones, and that’s what matters.” I buy it. I’m thirty-five, and it’s my first house, not in the best neighborhood, but what I can afford. “Transitional,” the realtor called the area. I love the green house with the big front porch, paint peeling from the ornamental trim, a commendable effort toward Victorian. I’d include a photo of the porch. No furniture there yet, but there will be. In my new life as a young homeowner, I imagine sitting on the porch in the evening, calling out to neighbors as they walk by.
There’s a photo of the front door, the opaque panel surrounded by small colored panes of glass. I had a deadbolt lock installed just the week before, certain it would add security.
The next pages would include pictures of my brother and sister-in-law with their four-month-old son. They are my first official dinner guests since I moved in, driving from Richmond with housewarming gifts, a potted ficus and a bottle of champagne. They love the house, the big bright windows, the crown molding, the woodwork details on the doors and mantels. They admire the newly-sanded and sealed heart pine floor in the dining room, and I include that image too, with the afternoon sun glowing on the warm patina.
They want to do something to help, and we rearrange the furniture in the living room, tucking the sofa into the bay window, putting chairs on either side of the fireplace. We unpack books and put them on the built-in shelves.
“How do you want them organized?”
“Don’t worry about it. Just put them on the shelves however they fit, and I’ll organize them later.”
The baby coos and rocks in his seat.
“I think he likes it here,” my brother says.
“Me too,” I say.
I’m a homeowner, a real grownup.
In the album there’s a picture of the dining room table, the one my mother refinished for me. We called it the egg table and used it for years in the basement of the farmhouse where I grew up. It was stained from water, from broken eggs. Even with my mother’s careful refinishing, I can still see the marks, and I love every one of them, and my mother for knowing my first house needed an antique table.
“So what kind of neighborhood is this?” my brother asks.
“Sort of mixed,” I say, “but more people are buying houses around here and fixing them up. Neighborhoods are never going to change if people don’t give them a chance.”
“Does it feel safe?”
“Of course,” I say. “People are so friendly. Everyone says hi when you walk by on the sidewalk. I like that.”
I don’t remember exactly what we eat – chicken salad, probably with fruit, grapes perhaps. There are rolls, corn on the cob and fresh tomatoes from the farmers’ market. It’s early August, too hot to do a lot of cooking. There is chilled white wine, and flavored seltzer for my sister-in–law who’s still breast feeding. Fresh peaches on frozen yogurt for dessert, no doubt.
We have a relaxing evening together, catching up, laughing, listening to music. I have an Emmylou Harris album they haven’t heard. They leave just as it’s getting dark. I wave at the baby in his car seat. His mother lifts his hand and waves it back at me. They drive off, and my yellow VW now sits alone under the streetlight that has just come on. I imagine taking my nephew fishing in a few years, poking the fishing poles out through the sunroof. I certainly add a photo of the yellow Beetle to the album, so many happy memories with that car.
I lock the deadbolt on the front door and go upstairs to work on the muslin curtains I’m making for the guest room. I don’t have the energy to get out my sewing machine, but I can at least iron and pin the hems in. I set up the ironing board in my bedroom, turn on the television. It’s a Quincy rerun, the one where he’s mugged and beaten and all the while collects forensic evidence to help solve the case.
As I fall asleep, I think about the day, the house. It’s going to take a lot of work to do all the things I’d like to fix it up, but it will be fun, one project at a time. It’s a new beginning. My first house.
Sometime that night, dream merges into waking nightmare. The hum of the fan in the window, the shimmering shadow of the ironing board with the curtains draped over it, the smell of stale sweat, and the looming shadow of someone standing over me. I feel sharp pressure against my side.
“Don’t make a sound or I’ll kill you.”
I don’t scream. Who would hear me anyway?
“No, please no,” I murmur.
“Shut up, bitch.”
He strips off my T-shirt and ties my hands above my head. I’m gagging at the smell of him, the touch of him. I hope he doesn’t notice. He rapes me, and I’m sure I’ll be dead soon. None of it seems real, but I know I’m awake. It feels like I leave my body, unable to bear the reality of it all. He stands up, again a dark shadow. I’m still alive.
“Your money. Where’s your money?” as he zips his pants.
“Downstairs,” I say, barely a whisper.
I get up and, with hands still bound, walk naked down the stairs. I take him to my leather purse on the antique school desk where I always put it. He takes the purse to the window and, in the light from the streetlight, pulls bills from my wallet. When he’s standing near me, rummaging in my purse, I size him up, like Quincy had his assailant. He’s barely taller than I am, and I try to see his face, but it’s always in shadow. I can’t tell what he looks like, so I focus on his smell, his voice.
“This all the money you got?”
“Might be a little more in the kitchen.”
He follows me through the dining room, across the newly-sanded heart pine floor, nudging me now and then with the knife. I show him the mug where I put money found in pockets, change from picking something up at the store down the street. He takes out a few bills and stuffs them in his pocket, leaving the change.
“Upstairs,” he says.
I go back upstairs and I feel him behind me. He pushes me into the bedroom.
“Sit down. Don’t move,” he says, shoving me down on the bed.
And then he’s gone. The fan still whirs. The sound I’d always found so calming could now be covering other sounds. I don’t know if he’s gone downstairs, is still in the hallway, or is rummaging in other rooms. I don’t move to turn off the fan or to do anything.
The light from the glowing numbers on the alarm clock pierce the darkness. 3:35.
I wait. Finally I walk through the darkness to the phone in the upstairs hallway. With hands still bound, I struggle to dial.
“No sirens,” I say. “He might still be here.”
In three minutes they arrive. I see the cars pull up on the street, hear them at the door. I drape a robe over my shoulders and go downstairs to open the door to men and guns, flashlights and voices. They turn on the lights. One officer stays with me as the others scatter through the house.
The officer frees my hands, and I realize I was tied with the scarf, a gold and brown batik, my brother brought back for me from India when he was there for his sabbatical. He puts the scarf in an evidence bag.
On the mantel I notice a five-dollar bill and some coins, change from when I went to the store for milk and butter that afternoon.
“There was more money,“ I say. “I told him that was all I had.”
“It’s all right,” the police officer says.
One of the officers comes into the front room, and then another.
“Got in and out through the back, cut the screen.”
A haze of questions, fingerprint powder, evidence bags.
They bag up the sheets. They’re almost new, Diane von Furstenberg, a floral design on a soft yellow background. I loved those sheets, a housewarming splurge. They bag up the oversize red and white T-shirt I was wearing, the one I got at the Mother’s Day Race for Strong Families. I’d run it with Craig, a teenage foster child living at the group home where I worked. It was a race for mothers and children, but Craig wanted to run it and asked me if I’d do it with him. We alternated running four laps on the UVA track and ran the last lap together. He said I was holding him back on that last lap, but he was winded when we finished. There should be a picture of Craig and me in the album and of that T-shirt I’ll never see again.
They carry me away in the back of a police car, to the ER for more evidence collection. The air conditioning in the ER is too cold, and the plastic chairs uncomfortable. I feel filthy and want to take a shower, scrub my skin until it’s raw. But I can’t. I’m evidence. The wait seems forever as I sit there in my robe. So many people needing help in the middle of the night. A nurse sees me shivering and brings me a blanket. Finally they take me into an exam room where they swab and scrape and comb every inch of me, collect their evidence, take their pictures. They say they’re sorry and thank me.
It is just starting to get light when the police officer takes me to the station to meet with a detective. On this Sunday morning he’s wearing a Yankees baseball cap and blue jeans. He asks me to tell the story and takes notes.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get him,” he says. “He’ll do something stupid.”
I go to stay with friends, and he breaks into my now-empty house again the night after the rape, climbs the lattice and goes in through an upstairs window. He steals jewelry and meat from the freezer. He rummages through dresser drawers and leaves them open.
The following days and weeks blur. The images from that time are more a jagged collage than a tidy album. Doctor’s appointments, therapy appointments, stays at friends’ and family’s houses, calls to and from police about the status of the investigation.
On the front page of the local paper, the day after the rape, a headline reads, “Belmont Woman Raped in Home.” I call the newspaper and go off on an irrational rant, certain that the details included in the story will be enough to identify me, whether or not they include my name. I feel like everyone now knows what happened to me, as certainly as if I’m wearing a T-shirt that says “Rape Victim,” as certainly as if a banner hangs across the porch in front of my house saying, “Home of the Rape Victim.”
I am called to the police station. Even though I told them I never got a good look at the man who raped me, the detective asks me to flip through page after page in the tattered mug shot book, just in case something strikes me. Some of the faces in the book I recognize. Looking out at me I see the sullen faces of men I knew as teenagers in the group home where I worked.
“They’re all rapists?” I ask.
“No, anyone who’s arrested can go in the book,” the detective says. “Some of them haven’t done anything that serious.”
“No, not him,” I say when one of them looks familiar. “I know him, and it wasn’t him. I would have recognized his voice.”
I’m not sure I can go back to work. So many of the boys I worked so hard advocating for are now in a yearbook filled with mug shots.
One evening I am called to the police station, and, while I’m listening from the hallway beside an open door, I hear someone reading the words I heard that night, the words the detective had me write down. The voice is familiar, and, even more chilling is the dirty, sweaty smell in the hallway where he just passed. I’m shaking as the detective takes me into another room. “It’s him,” I say. “I know that smell.”
They hold him that night, but have to let him go. Voice and smell aren’t enough.
“But it’s him,” I scream when the detective calls to tell me he’s been released. “How could you let him go? I know it’s him.”
“It might be him,” the detective says, “but we have to do it right. We’ve got to make it stick. Trust me.”
I am more terrified than ever and can’t imagine returning to my house. At a friend’s house, the German shepherd sleeps outside the door to my room. I barely sleep. When I look in the mirror, the face looks familiar, but it seems a fearful, anxious stranger has moved into my skin. I dread nightfall, darkness.
A week later the man they held for one night brags to a friend that he’s the one who raped that woman they’ve been talking about on the news. His friend, whose girlfriend was raped the year before, calls the police.
The friend agrees to wear a microphone and gets him to talk about the rape again. He’s proud of himself, eager to sit on the porch of his girlfriend’s house a few doors down the street from my house and tell his friend all about it. The police watch from an unmarked car across the street.
The arrest sticks this time, and the round of court appearances begin – bond hearing, preliminary trial, criminal trial, sentencing. After almost a year, the legal process is finished. With him sitting just a short distance away in the court room, I answer questions about what happened, how it affected me. I hear quotes from his confession, “She liked me, always spoke to me when she passed me at the bus stop,” and “Bitch must have liked it. She didn’t scream or anything.” And I remember the terror, the feeling of the knife in my side. He pleads guilty. How can he not? He confessed to it on tape. The judge sentences him to sixty-five years. When given a chance to speak, he doesn’t say he’s sorry, doesn’t say anything at all. Sitting there in his prison clothes, he looks harmless, scared. He’s led out of the courtroom. At the door he turns to look at people I assume to be his family. They are crying, and I feel bad for them, but relieved he got so long a sentence.
After the trial is finished, the detective asks me if I want them to return any of the items they held as evidence. I take back the tiger-eye ring I bought in Switzerland when my sister and I traveled there, the summer after she graduated from college. I reject the sheets, the scarf, the T-shirt from the race I ran with Craig.
I return to live in the green house with heart pine floors, but it never feels safe.. Someone buys the house and seems to love it as much as I once did. They paint over the ugly green with a warm tan and scrape and paint the peeling trim. I buy a different house, but am still obsessed with locks on doors and windows, sometimes checking them two or three times before I go to bed. I continue my job working with boys at the group home. At first I’m not comfortable being alone with any of them. I know the program might not save all of them, and that more of them will probably find their way into the mug shot book, but I hope it might help some.
I am certain I will never find my way out of the dark world that consumes me for so many months and years. I’m not sure I’ll ever again feel safe in any space, or in my own skin. But somehow I do, without recognizing when the shift happens. I flip through the pages of the memory album that I haven’t looked at so carefully in a very long time, the pictures still as vivid as if it had happened last week. I am relieved that excavating the memories does not disturb my sleep.
If I can’t get back to sleep after a sudden sound rouses me in the night, I am more likely to spend the sleepless moments imagining an image for my poem or choosing a title for a story or essay than I am to lie in fear, certain something bad will happen to me.
On a walk alone on a spring-like afternoon, I stop to watch a flock of blackbirds chase a hawk. I forget to listen for footsteps behind me.