[a true story — from a number of years ago]
A noise at the window. I look over to see the curtain shuddering from the wind. It is raw outside. On my next trip to the bathroom I must remember to shut the window.
It is 3am. I am planted before some old black and white movie on TV that must have slipped on after Law & Order while I was crying. Much of the paperwork that was overflowing my mail bin is in my lap or all over the coffee table.
I reach for a Kleenex on the night stand. I need to fight these blues. What is wrong with me? I just had a lovely dinner with my friend Anna six or so hours ago.
It is Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I miss my family. I am emotionally and physically exhausted.
Still, I am resolved to exercise before getting into bed in prep for a self-defense course starting up in a few weeks.
Maybe exercising will lift my mood.
I got inspired this week by my friend Nanci’s Model Mugging graduation four days ago. It was awesome. My quiet and reserved friend, Nanci, knocked my socks off. Well, not my socks off, but literally someone else’s! In only ten days 15 women of varying ages and sizes learned how to knock out a would-be attacker. Those guys waddling around in their padded space suits looked funny until they took turns barreling at the women like freight trains. Then WHAM, WHAM WHAM! The guy was laid out on the mat, the woman standing over him with fists raised, chest high, stomping out the word “NO!” on the floor beside him.
I fill out a check for the Con Edison bill in my lap and wonder if I’ll really have the nerve to take the course.
Suddenly, the little blackboard next to the kitchen window clatters to the floor. “Oh Jane,” I sigh, not needing to look up. My cat periodically sends such items crashing in her explorations of the wilderness of my tiny studio. I can’t help but appreciate her demure, backward glances of innocence and casual interest, as if she were never the originator of such mischief. I slide in the check and am licking the envelope when my eyes fasten on Jane on the other side of the room. I hold my breath but my heart is pounding. Jane’s sleek, black body is taut. Her interest in the window is not casual.
The curtain moves and there is a violent shoving noise. “A storm,” my mind supplies, but the pounding in my ears suggests otherwise. Then, an OH-MY-GOD beige, sneakered leg comes through the small rectangle of window opening. I am on my feet screaming. I ram the coffee table with my shins, sending papers and coffee cup sailing.
An unknown being is half-in, half-out of my home, my haven. I am impressed by the siren filling the apartment, originating somewhere between my stomach and my throat, but am unwilling to engage with the stranger. I prefer to search my mind for some benign and legitimate reason for someone to be entering my apartment through this, as incredible as it seems, non-fire escape window at this hour.
This cannot be real. It is some bizarre extension of the Model Mugging psychodramas. After eight years in New York, why would it happen this week? This is what happens to other people, and not even the people one knows, but the people they know of.
I continue to scream and he is in. Evil-eyed with jaw clenched, bearing some kind of knife. A box cutter. That stubby razor with a handle. He tells me to shut up, but he is obviously as certain no one will react to my screams as I am they will.
I can’t imagine there’s not ONE friggin’ neighbor in this whole Goddamn building to hear me this holiday weekend? He indicates no hesitation from such a possibility.
Within seconds I surrender hope of being rescued by outside help.
But a miracle happens. I watch myself turn into my own rescuer. I raise my fists, harden my eyes back into his, and command him to leave. There is urine trickling down my leg but my mind is filled with images from the graduation. Then I was an awed but fierce cheerleader. Now it is my turn.
“I WANT YOU TO LEAVE NOW!” I keep repeating at the top of my voice.
And he keeps repeating back, “SHUT UP!” He is Hispanic, about 5’2” with a narrow moustache and a yellowish cast to his skin. He is slight but wiry and the label “cat burglar” slips through my mind. His eyes are slitted with no flicker of life. 30, maybe?
“Why did I let him get all the way in?” I mourn.
I had been paralyzed. There were some seconds there in which I might have had enough time to run to that window and push him back into the night and downward two stories’ worth of air to the sidewalk below. But that might have killed him. I could not fathom let alone perform such an action.
But now does he intend to kill me?
I remember Nanci’s comment during our last phone conversation before her graduation. “They tell us not to focus on what’s gone before or what might happen. Just stay in the NOW.” He comes toward me. I tighten my fists and picture the blond-haired coach, Sarah, with her full voice and invincible stance. Somehow we’ve gotten deep into the room and I drop onto the couch on my side and kick toward his groin, just missing it as he jumps back. I continue to kick into the air, glaring into his eyes. The lower half of a woman’s body is comparable in strength to a man’s they’d said. KICK, KICK, KICK! I hear the chanting of Sunday’s audience. I kick outward and upward, powerfully and mechanically, mimicking the women, conveying that I will have the discipline and heart to keep kicking forever.
Suddenly from this kicking my plaid flannel nightshirt flaps back onto my stomach revealing my (OH-MY-GOD) pubic area. Our eyes meet in acknowledgment over this ironic side effect of my own measure of defense. For a millisecond his eyes flash with malevolent victory. I waver for less than a heartbeat, then GROWL. I resume the kicking even more fiercely, despite the exposure, and bare my teeth. I am an animal facing down a predator. Sunday’s role modeling has given me such permission.
It is his turn for decisions. He is back at the window next to the kitchen area and I slip into watchfulness and relief but I must not lose my leverage. “My pocketbook,” I direct, rising and returning to my clenched-fist stance. “TAKE THE MONEY AND LEAVE.”
He goes into my bag on the table and removes the bills from my wallet. There aren’t many. Then on to the bureau drawers.
“I WANT YOU TO LEAVE NOW!” I command.
He tells me to sit down or he’ll “keel” me.
I gulp but continue to hover, keeping my eyes on the knife. He keeps the knife in his tight-gloved left hand and with his right rummages through my clothes, looking for some hidden cache that doesn’t exist. His words about killing me horrify, but he delivers them in a weasely, preoccupied voice. He flicks his non-knife hand at me periodically like I am a pesky mosquito. But I wonder how he really perceives me. I suspect he wants me to perceive him as perceiving me as a little nothing. But I am fresh from the Model Mugging indoctrination. I will dedicate myself to the active, not reactive. I picture again the blond‑haired coach with the spine of iron.
“PLEASE LEAVE. I HAVE NOTHING!”
He gives me no argument about the “nothing”. He says a word I can’t understand with his thick accent. He repeats it several times. Finally I get it.
He removes a gold chain from an open tray on my bureau. I watch it streaming out of his gloved hand. Rage rises in my throat. I have so little serious jewelry, but what I have is precious to me.
“I HAVE NOTHING,” I insist, willing him to deny the reality of the blue box in the back center of my bureau. What I can’t seem to say is that I don’t have very much or very expensive jewelry, but the bare-boned dialogue of crisis prevents this.
I don’t like that chain in his fist. I don’t want him going through my jewelry.
“I WANT YOU OUT OF THIS APARTMENT NOW!”
Suddenly my right fist shoots out and grazes his neck. It is a pulled punch, provocative at best. I am shocked by my impulse, as shocked as he clearly is, but I square my jaw and glare at him as menacingly as I can. We are poised again, awaiting his decision. I am over half a foot taller than he, but he must have massive body strength to have climbed through that window.
The slitted eyes widen and suddenly I am looking into a face ten years younger. Less demonic. He looks toward the door and my heart screams, “YES, YES!” He scrambles down the short hallway and I can taste the safety. As he fumbles with the two locks ineffectively. I am crazed. I encourage in a now dissonantly calming voice, “Slide it to the left! Just slide it to the left!”
I hear it finally slide. He is out. He turns to the left not right. I don’t bother to correct him.
I slam the door and lock it.
The 9-1-1 woman has trouble transcribing my address and I shout it at her.
I call my friend, Edna, and we talk until two policemen arrive. They are not as comforting as I’d like, but neither are they callous. I tell them about the Model Mugging class I witnessed. How I am so grateful to it and that it maybe saved my life or saved me from getting raped. One of the men admits to having heard of it. The other is very detached and impatient for just the facts. He picks up a spiral notebook from the now paper—strewn carpet and I shiver at having another uninvited hand touching my property. He begins writing on the top blank sheet of the opened notebook and I notice it is rippled. From droplets of my urine I surmise, but I cannot bring myself to tell him that. A strange combination of shame and vengeance.
They leave and I seek out my cat. I find her at the bottom of my closet. Then I call a couple of other friends until the sun rises. They listen and comfort. I want to take a hot bath, my “feel better” ritual, but I am oppressed by the superstition that every thug in New York will now find his evil way through that window, now closed and locked, and I cannot take my eyes off of it.
For two days my cat sits in the dark on the floor of my closet where I periodically visit her.
When she does venture out, it is to shadow me so closely that I keep stepping on her, whereupon she shrieks and then I shriek back in surprise. We are quite a hysterical, hypervigilant pair.
While waiting at a light on the corner of Madison Avenue going to work I catch the movement of a tall blond man whirling around suddenly to cross the street in another direction. I scream. He looks over inquiringly. I mutter, “Sorry” and shrug. I will continue to grossly over-react every time I am startled for the next several weeks.
I work like a demon for money for window gates, sleep not being a safe idea, anyway. They are installed within the week. I speak to detectives, peruse hundreds of mug shots at a police station on the West Side and suspect every short Hispanic man I pass on the street of being the perpetrator. I treat every subway ride with seated passengers across from me as an informal “line up.” My bodily and mental engines are perpetually racing. 1 know it will take the passage of serious time to settle down after such trauma.
I find particular comfort in my talks with Nanci and Diane, my two Model Mugging graduate friends, along with Laine, the director of the New York school whom I called to express my gratitude. I had met her at the graduation. She spends over an hour on the phone with me, a manicky stranger, validating my reality and acknowledging my power. She tells me that I am great advertising for her course.
She gets what the cops couldn’t savvy. Witnessing the Model Mugging psychodrama undoubtedly saved me from a far more dire fate. How synchronistic, these two events so close together. I have no doubt that if the burglary/robbery had occurred a week earlier I would have been looking to the burglar for cues as to appropriate behavior. I would have behaved as an entirely different person — reactive and dependent. How differently the burglar might have behaved in that case.
I marvel at my unique position of testing out and testifying to the strength of attitude alone in defending oneself. Model Mugging, even before any formal physical training in it, inspired me to fend off the “victim mentality” — the premature surrendering to which we women have been conditioned.
There is one recurring ambush of paranoia, however, that has refused to diminish. For one instant a curtain moved and I thought it was the wind. For the rest of my life when a curtain moves, must my body gird itself for a burglar, window gates and eventual full Model Mugging training notwithstanding?