GROUNDING IN GLASS FRAGMENTS
During the first summer of Covid-19, at the height of the movement for police reform when “defund” still seemed a viable word, my pregnant partner and I took a trip to Georgia’s coast and stayed at an Airbnb in Brunswick where in February Ahmaud Arbery had been murdered in the streets in broad daylight by men who were not arrested until 74 days after the killing when—in May—the video of the murder went viral.
We could not afford to stay on St. Simons Island, and it was too hot for a pregnant woman to be camping out on Jekyll Island where the Morgans, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts once gathered with their millionaire friends to hunt pheasant, turkey, and deer, to taxidermy their kills, to hang heads on the walls, to galivant in gilded carriages beneath the moss-strewn branches of long-armed live oaks, to bathe in the bathwater sea, and to golf. It was too hot for the husband of a pregnant woman as well. The water was knee-deep to the horizon. Stagnant and greasy.
When we returned from Jekyll on the afternoon of our last day, I heard what sounded like a muffled scream as we unloaded beach bags from the car.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Caroline.
“Hear what?” she responded.
“I don’t know.”
I couldn’t tell from which direction it had come.
I sometimes hear things that are not there—songs in the static of sound machines, whispered conversations in brewing coffee pots—a trait perhaps inherited from my father’s father, who in his final years complained of a baritone singing “Silent Night.” Caroline’s inability to hear the muffled screams had me thinking I was imagining again.
I went wandering into the street, my head cocked to the side like a birder in the bush, trying to pinpoint the sound. I heard it again. Then again. A woman for sure. But I couldn’t tell if she was excited or upset or angry or scared or [insert adjectives ad infinitum]. Her voice was inside the box of the brick ranch catty-cornered to our Airbnb. The blinds were drawn where there were blinds to draw. Otherwise, there were blankets hung to block the windows.
I listened for perhaps another minute. I heard the word “NO”: and retreated inside to discuss with Caroline—a social worker and licensed clinical therapist—the pros and cons of calling the police.
Full Disclosure: In the five years leading up to this moment, I had dialed 9-1-1 as many times:
- Once when an old lady missed the curb outside a Trader Joe’s and toppled face-first into the parking lot to break her teeth—her mouth bloody and jagged all of a sudden and tangled among spilled oranges and brown paper bags.
- Again, when I witnessed one truck chasing another down a highway in western Tennessee, the driver of the truck-in-pursuit brandishing a pistol from his open window.
- Again, when a drunken stranger flicked his cigarette toward the concrete picnic tables at a friend’s apartment complex and dove into the shallow end of the swimming pool to break his back.
- Again, when a yahoo whom I had apparently wronged by running a red light on my bicycle ran me down and hit me with his truck.
- Finally, when I was on my early morning way to Angier to help a friend build a cabinet and came across an extremely inebriated man in the middle of the road, throwing punches at passing cars.
I am not proud of calling the police. Full Disclosure: I hate the fucking cops, and I have had them called on me more than my fair share of times.
We also had to account for the fact that these were the very police officers who failed to arrest the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery. We asked ourselves whether the woman occasionally screaming from the blanketed house across the street would be well-served by our dialing 9-1-1.
The debate did not last long. The bottom line was this: if the woman really was in danger, it was our responsibility to call. Lest we become those fictionalized neighbors of Kitty Genovese.
We walked outside again to see if Caroline could hear what I had heard. And sure enough, the muffled screams came faltering across the street. “Yes,” she said. “I hear it now.”
I jogged into the crossroads, wanting some further proof that what I heard was, in fact, distress. Across the street from the brick ranch sat two ancient Southern Belles sipping sweet teas behind hanging ferns on a front porch painted haint blue.
“Do y’all hear that” I asked, trotting up to their white-washed picket fence.
“Hear what?” they answered, putting their hands to their ears.
“It sounds like a woman is screaming,” I said, “in that house over there.” I pointed.
The decorous old crones on their antebellum porch screwed up their eyes at one another. “Wouldn’t surprise me,” the first one said. “Not at all,” answered the second.
“They’re trash,” the first woman said. “Always have been,” answered the second.
I heard something crash inside the brick ranch and dialed 9-1-1 immediately. Retreated from the picket fence to stand in the road staring at the blanketed house, trying to get a bead on the room from which the commotion was coming.
But all had fallen silent again. There were crows in the branches of the live oaks laughing. I saw a vision of a limp body falling through space and walked back toward the Airbnb. Those women didn’t give a good goddamn about any so-called bystander effect.
Caroline was arranging our towels on the porch railing to dry. I stood barefoot on a paving stone in the yard, picking sandburs first from one foot then the other. I tried to explain to the 9-1-1 operator how conflicted I felt about calling the police.
AN AFTERNOON SHATTERING
Then we heard glass shatter—like the sky had broken—and watched something slither from the window of the ranch. Did we both reach instinctively to cover Caroline’s belly from whatever evil was leaking from that house? I can’t remember.
There was only the glissade into the azalea shrubs below. I thought it might have been a dog or a small child. Caroline says she knew it was a woman immediately, but my brain had been hiccupping ever since I first heard the muffled screams answering one another in the Spanish moss. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes when a large woman tumbled barefoot from behind the azaleas.
The blood was bright against her pale skin, her clothing. Bright as she tumbled from the azaleas, her pale skin, her clothing. Everything torn in that messy way that violence tattoos reality. She couldn’t catch her breath. Moving in slow motion, dragging one leg behind her, she hurried toward us, grasping at the air.
“Help,” she said. “Please. Help me.”
We walked toward her, instinctively, waved her toward us, tried to hurry her along.
“Come here,” we said. “Come here, come here.”
“Call 9-1-1,” she said. “Please. He’s going to kill me.”
“We already have,” I answered, pointing at the phone. “We already have. Come here."
As she hobbled into the crossroads, an enormous shirtless man in camouflage cargo shorts emerged from the front door of the brick ranch. He pointed a menacing finger in our direction. “Don’t believe a word that fucking bitch says,” he said. His face was as featureless as a peeled potato. I think he had a brown goatee. His arms and neck were sunburnt. His belly was very white. When he jumped from the front porch and began jogging into the neighborhood, I followed him until the 9-1-1 operator demanded that I stop.
She did not say “he might have a gun.” She said, “he probably has a gun.” “And if you’re coming after him,” she continued, “he has a right to stand his ground.” Caroline told me later that as she watched me run away, she considered momentarily the long hard road of single-parenting.
POTENTIAL NARRATIVE(S) SPIDERYING
I might go on about our standing guard on the porch and feeding water to the woman. Or the way her adrenaline-dilated pupils couldn’t concentrate on a thing. I might re-hash her story. Him choking her out on the carpeted floor. Him straddling her body, throttling down. Him giving her breaks to breathe and getting her glasses of water that she might regain her strength for another bout of strangling. I might talk about the cops coming one by one and making her re-tell her story. Idiotic. “She has already done this twice,” Caroline explained to the third man with a badge. They put her in their car and took her away to question her again at the station. I might talk about the appearance of the third antebellum crone who came ambling along the bricks of the street—beneath a parasol—to pass judgement on the woman. I might elaborate on the aftermath that somehow resulted in the Airbnb host providing us a free fried chicken meal at a St. Simons Island hot spot where two pit bulls attacked one another on the outdoor AstroTurf. Or perhaps the way we felt the baby kick for the first time that night as sirens sounded down Union Street. But these are all digressions to the point I meant to make.
There was a single detail of the woman’s story that made my brain hiccup again:
She was not thrown from the window as I had assumed.
But had plunged through it of her own free will.
As she sat on the porch steps telling us this, I wanted to advise her to revise this story before the police arrived. I was ready to testify on her behalf, and I wanted the goon painted in the most explicit terms possible. I had not witnessed the throttling in the bedroom because it had happened behind blanketed windows. I had, however, seen her jettisoned from the house through a glass aperture much too small for her body.
INTERRUPTION: PORTRAIT OF A WINDOW
This point bears more than a moment of deliberation, and perhaps there is room somewhere for another story entitled “Portrait of a Window.” A story that expands upon that single instant when this woman poured through the hole in the glass even as she made it. Poured through like a bucket of water. Or blood. Spaghetti-strap pink, spandex aquamarine. A rippling bedsheet hurled toward the hamper. To land in a puddle. Then rise as a woman.
Part of the reason it took me so long to register reality after this woman snaked through the pane was the fact that the pane itself was not large enough to accommodate her girth. Not even close. And it was not just the pane through which she had squeezed. When we walked by and examined the window after the police departed, we found a baseball-sized hole in the otherwise intact glass.
Thus, the feat she performed was far more miraculous than any Olympic high diver disappearing in a dimple of splash. There is room perhaps for a further portrait of the window, a collaborative effort undertaken with physicist and physician. Or room for an extended metaphor in which the house is a mother giving birth to the woman, the afternoon a hospital room. Or perhaps the woman giving birth to herself, a midwife-meta-priest baptized in glass. But these too are digressions from the point I meant to make.
NARRATIVE PALIMPSEST (UN)INHIBITED
My wish for the woman to revise her story, my wish for the goon to have thrown her through the window, was due in part, of course, to my wish for requital on the woman’s behalf. Lex talionis. I wished the goon to pay for his crime, wished justice to rain down and restore balance. And my chasing the man attests, perhaps, to my wishing myself the flaming sword of God.
But on another level, I believe I wanted the revision because it made the story better. More sensational. Not only for the police, but for all the retellings I knew—from the beginning—I would tell. Titillating trauma porn. Entertaining impossibility.
This, I fear, was a capitulation to the logical. And the logical makes for a banal story. I thought I had seen her thrown through the window and was not prepared for any other explanation. I cringed as she explained how she jumped—again and again—to the cops.
But after they carted her away in the police car, after we dispatched the third old crone, after we filled up on free fried chicken, talking about baby names, I realized, as Caroline and I walked hand-in-hand beneath the crooked arms of bearded trees, talking about my running after the man, talking about her listening to—and hearing—the woman, I realized the import of that willing plunge through the glass. On the roots of the famous Lover’s Oak, we talked about fear and the difference between the word SURVIVOR and the word VICTIM. When I confessed to Caroline that I could not fathom looking at a pane of glass—looking at a closed window—and considering it an avenue of escape, she refused to absolve me of my privilege. Every woman I know, she said, has looked at a window like that.
FEAR FACTOR ON REPEAT
I have been afraid many times in my life. I have gone in search of fear as a way to know myself. I will be afraid again when the doctors stand huddled above my partner, shaking their heads at the jagged pink and green lines splintering the electronic fetal monitor. But that woman had felt something on that sunny afternoon that I had never felt. Not even close.
The kitchen tap running, the goon filling up a glass of water (again) that he might pour down her throat (again) that she might put up a fight (again) when he fell to throttling her (again).
She was dancing with death—ugly—among the toppled furniture and the garbage strewn across the carpeted floor. “He was going to kill me,” she said (again) as she sat sipping water on the weather-beaten boards of our temporary porch. She looked much older than me but was a few years younger I would find out as I listened to her talk to the police. “He was going to kill me,” she said to herself, as if—despite her saying these words all along—she suddenly grasped what they really meant.
So she made herself into a sharp beak at one end and bucket of water behind and jumped at the window like a child diving into a wave about to break. In making herself so narrow—impossibly narrow, a ribbon of bright fabric unfurling into azaleas—she altered, like a seamstress, the very nature of reality, re-stitched the world itself to accommodate her need. Even if only for a moment. And has thus become enormous in my mind forever.
Sometimes on hot afternoons I think I hear screaming in the trembling limbs of trees.
I suspect the hole in the window remains—a portrait of a moment when a woman slithered away from a brute, a portrait of a window that contains a history of violence—concrete evidence of a waking surreality. Dried blood on glass teeth. Her pale skin, her clothing. Witness to the fell swoop when she rejected—in an instant—the box of the goon, the box of the room, the box of the banal story. In some way that I can’t quite pin down, I keep hoping for some access to an understanding that I know will never come. Be careful what you wish for, Caroline says, growing larger and larger before my eyes.