That time my life was ruined
In 2009 I was living in Baltimore.
I had been there for about 2 years, having moved to be with my then girlfriend after graduating from college in Providence, RI in 2007. If you don’t recall, the recession hit in 2007 and Baltimore was (and still is) one of the most economically depressed cities in the United States. I had major difficulty finding a job after graduation and wound up getting hooked up by a friend with a job working in a vintage clothing store for a while looking for other work. The things we do for love, right?
My partner and I thought of our residency there as temporary, real happiness lying just beyond our current limitations. Of course we could never manage to get our acts together enough to move; our plans always vague, abstract. We lived in an apartment next to Druid Park and paid $200 a month each. Druid Hill is an interesting place: Yes, it’s the namesake of the early aughts rapper Dru Hill famed for writing “The Thong Song”. It was also where many Railroad Barons purchased homes during the height of the B&O Railroad. The money dried up after the rail line shut down and slowly but surely became the burned out, boarded up desert it is today. There is some really beautiful architecture, however Baltimore isn’t populated enough or wealthy enough to justify renovations and so it mostly remains in a shambles.
Anyway, it was a centrally located but shady part of town that we lived in mostly because we didn’t want to put roots down and wanted to save up for our elusive, unplanned move to greener pastures. Despite living there for two years our house felt temporary: We slept on a mattress on a box spring with no frame, we never bought actual curtains, we lived there without a real sofa for about a year and we never cooked — our fridge always filled with left over sponsored PBR and Chipotle from our roller derby events.
Despite my fine arts degree, I somehow managed to get a job through a friend working in an HR office at a school for troubled youth, but after about 6 months was let go during a radical downsize due lack of funding. It was a serious blow to my confidence despite the fact that I hated that job and was terrible at it. But I didn’t wallow! I saw this as a sign that I was destined for greater things. I was determined to find something more in line with my creative interests. I was supposed to be an animator.
I was already sending out resumes basically everywhere since the day I moved to Baltimore, but after reading a bunch of shitty “how to get the job you want!” blogs I decided to volunteer at a bunch of events to start networking with people in the arts community. I was slated to help at the Baltimore film festival on Sunday, October 25th. My alarm was set for 6:30 AM, and I was looking forward to it. While I’m not a morning person, I was excited about feeling proactive about the shit sandwich that was delivered to me, excited about meeting new people.
I woke up 20 minutes before my alarm was set to go off because the overhead lights in the bedroom were turned on. I lifted my head to give my girlfriend my famous “what the fuck is wrong with you” look, when I saw a shadowy figure. After a few seconds it registered in my brain that there was a stranger in my room — a young man in a grey striped Aeropostale zip up sweater with the hood pulled up and a pair of my girlfriends bathing suit bottoms on his face, eyes in the leg holes. This made him completely unrecognizable and in my early morning confusion, non-human. Obviously my first reaction was to scream and pull the covers over my head, like a 4-year-old would act at the site of a shadow, or the suggestion of a monster under the bed. I then felt a hard, wiry body jump on top of me and try to wrestle me down — a Target gold duvet cover the only barrier between us. I was holding my ground by staying upright on my knees and screeching “what the fuck” over and over, when the tussle stopped. My partner had become aware of the knife he had aimed at my gut and stopped hitting him and everything calmed down.
He stood there next to my busted hand-me-down night stand, staring at me with his bathing suit eyes when my alarm went off. Awkwardly, no one moved or acknowledged the alarm. My first cohesive thought of the day was “I need to turn that off so I don’t wake the neighbors.” It was so loud, and after all it was Sunday. He started to make moves towards me and asked me and my partner to lay down face up, when I asked him to turn the alarm off. What would the neighbors think? Confused, he complied, though he had difficulty fiddling with the small buttons because of the rusty knife he was holding in his cracked, dusty hands. They shook as he slowly deactivated the device. He also had a few articles of clothing in his hands that he was fishing out of our Salvation Army bureau when I woke up, and after he silenced the alarm he proceeded to slowly and methodically blindfold and gag my partner and I. He did all of this quietly, calmly, and was able to communicate his desires without using any words. I distinctly remember him reluctantly tying a teal tank top my girlfriend bought recently around my eyes and, because I like to follow rules, I adjusted it until I could not cheat by peaking out of the edges. I happily complied with being gagged with my own clothing while complacently laying next to my partner, who had the same done to her.
Really, I just didn’t want to see what was about to happen. I literally could not face the reality of my current situation. Eyes closed, in the dark.
The rest of this experience is strange and dreamlike because I have no visuals to attach it to. I was politely and wordlessly pulled off of the bed to the makeshift vanity area in the corner of the room consisting of a fake sheepskin rug from Ikea and a free mirror left behind in the apartment when we moved in, the tall skinny kind you’re supposed to hook to the back of a door. On the rug was a bundle of cords from the flat iron, blow dryer and curler, that were never properly put away in the bathroom despite my frequent grumblings.
I stood there blind in a t-shirt and underwear and felt this stranger gingerly try to pull my shirt off of me without actually touching my skin. I politely declined his offer, standing there in my self-made darkness, waiting.
I knew that I was either going to have to fight a man with a knife blindfolded, or let him take off my shirt, which would presumably lead to other things I didn’t particularly care to take part in. Still hazy from sleep, I waited for him to touch me again so I knew where he was, where the mass of his body was. From there, I would decide the next course of action.
Waiting, waiting. Brace yourself.
A loud scuffle and a door slam. In my darkness and confusion, my brain saw a flash of a raven-like monster flying out of the window and slamming it shut. Game over.
I winced. And then I realized I was still alive. I spit my gag out and took my blindfold off and was in my bedroom alone huddled against the wall with the lights on. I was very, very confused. Was I dreaming? For the first time I looked around our bedroom and in a flash realized how sad it was, with it’s stark overhead light and layer upon layer of cheap, peeled paint. From then on, I would only be able to remember fits and flashes of anything that happened in that room before that moment.
Snap out of it.
I ran out to look for my girlfriend, who had run away down the dark, windowless hallway of our railroad apartment and out the front door. Light from the main hallway was spilling on the old wooden floorboards, making it look wet. I hesitated, then ran out the door. When I found her she was knocking on our upstairs neighbors door: a young man who was brought in for questioning for a then-recent homicide on our front lawn.
She knew where to go, she knew he had a gun. Born and raised in Baltimore she always had more street smarts than me, and I trusted her blindly on this, as unlike her I was treading on new territory. One can only fight crazy with crazy I guess.
Our neighbor let us sit in his dank, grey apartment he shared with his mother on the ratty fold out couch he was sleeping on while he swept our place. In contrast to our stark, empty apartment this place was full. Full of nothing, full of stuff. The windows were covered with cheap grey sheets.
He came back empty. He was apparently also casing the joint as he came back the following day while we weren’t home and stole our digital camera and our set of weights. We assumed our guest had crawled back out the window he came from in our spare room. He had climbed on a garbage can onto our fire escape and got in from there.
To this day, I really have no idea what I would have done if pushed to make a decision. I would like to think I would fight with my last dying breath, ripping the guys knife out of his hands and castrating him while spitting at him rhetoric about what his mother would think if she knew he was in my room doing bad things, but the less optimistic side of me knows that deep down I hate and avoid conflict, especially when I don’t think I can win. For months after I had combative fantasies of some asshole fucking with me, and me being ready that time. It made me hard and untrusting in a way I didn’t know possible. My body tensed up and stayed that way for years, always waiting for someone to jump out at me, always ready.
While we were still on our neighbor’s fold out couch the police just sort of showed up. We sat in the hallway on the stairs, unable to go back inside. They dusted for prints and collected evidence. The whole thing took maybe 30 minutes. There was grey dust all over the bedroom. They took the garbage can with a clean footprint on it, the gold comforter from Target, the hair dryer and the tank top gags and dumped them in a black garbage bag. Then they brought us down to the station for statements. The bathing suit bottoms and knife were missing.
A skeptical detective followed up with me about a week later and dragged me back to my old apartment alone. Replete in a legit Dick Tracy-esque yellow zoot suit and gold watch, he made me cry by threatening to arrest me because I was reluctant and afraid to go back into my bedroom. No one from the police department ever followed up with me after that, and the entire incident was downgraded from a sex offense to aggravated assault. The systems function is to perpetuate the system, not to serve you.
The only morsel of closure I was given was an article written in the Baltimore Sun about 9 months later, chronicling the systemic downgrade of rapes and sexual assaults within the BPD to make it’s unsolved sexual crimes numbers seem less staggering. They do the same things for homicides. The article specifically named the detective assigned to my case as a repeat offender, however to my knowledge nothing has ever been done. The systems function is to perpetuate the system, not to serve you. Out of dozens interviewed, I was the only one that felt comfortable giving their name. Now when you google my name, it’s one of the first results to pop up. Oh, to be a statistic.
Needless to say, I didn’t go to the film festival to complete my volunteer shift. I didn’t meet all of those interesting people and get myself my dream creative job. In fact, in the proceeding months I didn’t do much of anything. I was jobless, homeless (I wasn’t about to sleep there again) and very, very lost and scared. I could only sleep during the day with other people in the house and despite basically never eating I somehow gained 20 pounds. I would get stuck in cycles of indecision, the problems surrounding me seeming so large, so unsolvable, that I would just stare at the computer screen clicking from tab to tab to tab, not sure of what to do next; or lay in bed paralyzed, fidgeting, trying to figure out what my options are for that day were to even decide between.
This event set off a course of reactions in me that I’ve only been able to understand recently. I got a dog. I went to therapy. I stayed in a terrible, manipulative relationship. I spent a lot of time staring into space. I threatened to kill myself while on steroids for an allergic reaction in Denver. I fainted in a Mexican restaurant while trying to hit a piñata blindfolded. I watched my mother drink too much and collapse on a coffee table. I frequently fell asleep I public. I became obsessed with nesting. I insisted on sitting in the corner of every room to make the act of being behind me impossible. I cried all the time while working out, and frequently had severe panic attacks during derby games and practices. Basically, I went nuts.
The thing that fascinated me the most about this whole thing were other people’s reactions. When I told my family, they immediately became violent and questioned why I was not seeking revenge. Like I even knew how. How does one seek revenge on a nameless, faceless entity? How does one seek revenge in a police system that has no interest in helping you? But I wasn’t angry, I was just sad. I was sad because I knew every experience I have for the rest of my life will be tainted by this one. I was sad because a whole host of things created a situation I could not understand, and I don’t like not knowing, not understanding. The system functions to perpetuate the system, not to serve you. What could possess a high school-aged kid to break into the home of two lesbians on a Sunday morning in October? Did he know there wasn’t a man in the house, or did he just randomly choose our window? Which option was worse, more scary? What the fuck happened to him that coming into a strangers house and gingerly trying to molest them was a thing that made sense, was an option? And what was I supposed to do about it? How was I supposed to go about my day knowing that this scenario, or anything really, was always going to be a possibility, and at any time? Where was the order? How was I ever supposed to let my guard down knowing this? There was no more black and white, no more simple solutions. I wanted answers. But the system functions to perpetuate the system, not to serve you.
When I told this story to people in Baltimore, I realized almost everyone had some tragic story similar to mine, or knew someone who did. I heard about a friend who was mugged by a drug dealer and thrown down a hill, a friend of a friend who was held hostage in their own home and brought to the ATM in regular intervals to empty their bank account until it was dried up and they were dumped in a field, a friend who was forced to fellate a stranger at knife point in an alley while on a date, a friend’s family member who was shot to death in her own kitchen from a stray bullet, a team of waitresses who carried wine corks in their fists on the way to their cars because their co-worker was raped after their shift, etc, etc, etc ad nauseam. My teammates eventually asked me not to go on a game trip with them because I was too much of a bummer to be around. The system functions to perpetuate the system, not to serve you.
Everyone in Baltimore has tragedy in their blood. PTSD is a birthright there. The scariest people are the ones with nothing left to lose and Baltimore has a lot of those. When you think about it, it just makes a weird kind of sense. There’s your answer.
Despite myriad problems prior to this incident and basically breaking up the night before it happened because she randomly decided she wanted to move to Denver and I did not, my girlfriend and I stuck it out for about 3 more years — mostly because we were scared to be alone. After about 6 months we moved into a house in the suburbs of Baltimore and hobbled together some kind of life. I got my first creative job in a museum and things strung along as usual.
On the better days it just feels like a blip, an interruption to my life as planned. But most of the time it feels like this defining moment. The scariest thing is recognizing that a stranger can have complete control over your life should they so choose, should they be greedy enough to take it. But I chose to stay me. Ultimately I chose to question fear rather than become it, to try to accept fate and let go of what I can’t control. It’s hard. It’s a daily battle.
Shortly after my attack, a friend’s husband spent an entire afternoon trying to convince me the only sensible reaction to this ordeal was to pony up and purchase a gun. But I just couldn’t admit I lived in the kind of world where I needed to arm myself for my safety. I refused to militarize my own home and daily life, refused to give into the constant and ever-present fear. Every October I start to get the heebie jeebies, like this memory is seared into my sense of time passing, my bodies way of making sure I never really forget, never really relax. It’s become a part of the seasons, an annual reminder that anything can happen at any moment.
But, I choose to accept — to face forward, with eyes open.
I moved to California alone in 2012. About a year later I was in Golden Gate park talking to a friend on the phone after work. I heard hurried steps behind me and my brain rightly assumed it was a jogger out for a happy hour run, rather than my usual twitchy assumption that someone was coming to snatch my phone or attack me. That’s when I knew the worst of it was over and I would be able to sleep through most nights. I’ve managed to build a life that I enjoy and am proud of, surrounded by friends that love and support me. But the thing I just could never make sense of is: How can one live a carefree life in an untrustworthy system filled with untrustworthy people? How am I supposed to navigate my life without a sense of victimhood? How am I supposed to do that? I can sleep at night, I can be vulnerable, I can walk down streets or be alone in my house without panicking, but I can’t shake the terrible and terrifying notion that despite appearances, there is no order in the world. The systems function is to perpetuate the system, not to serve you.