Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't Go Down Without a Fight

The first thing I remember is seeing a man coming towards me. He had a gun in one hand and the other hand was out, motioning me to stay put and be quiet. I was in my bed. It was 3am on a hot August night. I had nothing on but my underwear. As he came towards me, he took off his pants.

I didn’t have much time to assess the situation before it all happened. It looked like he had just climbed through my second story window; I found out later he had been in the house for a while. I didn’t know where my sister and her friends were; I found out later they had gone out to watch the thunderstorms. In the flat lands of Illinois, you could watch the storms cross the farm fields for miles, lighting striking the ground as it goes. It can be quite beautiful.

I had gone to bed early because I had to work the next morning. My waitress uniform was hanging up, ready to go. I was working my way through community college. My sister Grace and my two other roommates were grad students and had teaching assistant positions to subsidize their living expenses. One of Grace’s best friends from New York was in town for a visit. I left them downstairs partying with some of our other friends when I went to bed. Our two other roommates had not yet come back from their summer break.

The four of us had just rented a house together. The houses in the neighborhood were run down and the rent was low, which is a draw for college students like us. I got the smallest room at the top of the stairs and was given a break on the rent. We had put some sweat equity into the house; painting and doing some minor repairs before we moved in just days before. We didn’t even have our phone hooked up yet.
I think it was more of a crime of opportunity than anything. He saw everyone leave – not knowing I was still in the house – and decided to see what he could get. We later found a camera, a checkbook and some other smaller items on the floor by my window. Maybe this was just a first pass to see what we had and he grabbed items that would be easy to carry. When I woke up, maybe he decided I was an easy target. I don’t know. All I know is that when I did wake up, he was coming towards me.

Before I could get myself fully aware of what was happening, he was on top of me and had my arms pinned above my head, holding my wrists. I was very glad I had my underpants on. He would have to get them off before he could rape me. He started to put his mouth on my breasts, but he still had his gun in one hand. He put it down and that is when all hell broke loose.

I really don’t know what made me do it. I was always a tomboy. I was on the swim team and was pretty strong. I had a friend in high school who wrote in my yearbook that he always liked me even though I could beat him up. I was also brought up in an age of female empowerment. I was not going to go down without a fight.

Before I could think about the possibility of dying I grabbed for the gun, but he wrestled it from me. He put it to my forehead and pulled the trigger. The gun went off and I was momentarily stunned. Then I put my hand up and felt where he had fired the gun. I realized that I hadn’t been shot. The gun either wasn’t loaded or it jammed, or it was a starting pistol like they used in my swim meets. My forehead stung like I had a bad burn, which I did.

Then I got angry.

I starting punching and clawing at him, screaming every vile word I could think of. I basically went berserk on they guy. I guess he figured it wasn’t worth it so he got up, put his pants back on and left the room. I had won! I got up, turned on the light and put my bathrobe on. Moments later, he came back in the room saying he forgot something. It must have been the stuff he had gathered and put by my window.

I have no idea why, people tell me the adrenalin had worn off and that I was in shock, but I started to help the guy! I had dreams for months afterward that instead, I picked up a swimming trophy from my dresser and hit him over the head with it, sending him tumbling down the stairs, breaking his neck. I also had dreams that I shot an intruder, explaining to him that that I was killing him because of the other guy – sorry. But no, in reality I was helping the guy, but he must have been as flustered as I was. He left without taking anything except the tip money from my dresser.

So there I was, alone in the house with no phone and no idea where my sister and her friends were. I was afraid to go outside to get help, so I turned on every light in the house, got the biggest knife from the kitchen and waited for my sister and her friends to come home. It seemed like hours before anyone got there. When they did, someone rushed out to phone the police and my sister stayed with me. When the police got there, they were pretty impressed with me for fighting him off. I was just thankful to be alive. The possibility that it could have easily gone the other way was already sinking in.

I was taken to the hospital where they performed their usual rape kit screening. Even though I wasn’t raped, he had left behind certain evidence on my underpants and perhaps on my body and under my fingernails. The police bagged my sheets and my underwear.

I never set foot in that house again. I stayed with my boyfriend until we found another house to rent. Whoever did this gave us all another very good reason not to come back. When my sister and her friends were out running errands the next day, they found a machete stuck in the middle of the living room coffee table when they got back. The machete had been left in the house when we moved in and my roommate Jon decided to keep it, but he had put it in the very back of his very large closet. This means that whoever did this, found it and made a point of letting us know he found it. We got the message loud and clear. Grace and her friends packed all of my things for me that day and everyone cleared out.

The only physical injury to me was the nasty burn on my forehead which, thanks to vitamin E oil, left no visible scar. The mental injuries left scars that have taken a lifetime to dissipate. I am not even sure they are all gone, even after 31 years. My writing this is proof, I suppose, that those scars run pretty deep. I can only imagine what it is like for the unlucky ones, the ones that didn’t fight off and beat up their attackers.

The manager of the restaurant where I worked read about what happened to me in the paper. Instead of sympathy, I got a lecture about leaving my window open in a neighborhood like that. I couldn’t believe it. I was in my own bed, in my own house, in the middle of the night and somehow it was my fault. I can only imagine what it is like for women who are date raped. Did the man have no sense of decency? Thankfully, he was the only one that uttered such stupidity, to my face anyway.

A couple of years ago, I was telling my then 19-year old sons how vitamin E helped heal a bad burn on my forehead, backing up a recommendation Greg had made to Roy about using vitamin E oil to help Roy’s gums heal from oral surgery. When they asked about how I got the burn I decided to tell them the whole story. They were just a year older than I was when it happened. If I could live through it at their age, they might as well know about it.

When I finished the story, Roy said “Wow, Mom! Can I tell my friends? They already think you’re cool. Now they’ll think you’re really cool!” Of course I said yes. Now that I told them I had no problem with other people hearing about it. Maybe it would be helpful for their friends to hear my story. I’ve thought about that over the past two years and I think that my story may be empowering to other people.
However, I never told one part of the story to anyone – until now- which is perhaps the real reason that I am “going public”. I had one more opportunity to catch the guy and I let it pass.
When the police were at our house that night, they got a call that a man had approached a taxi driver wanting to cash in a bunch of change and one dollar bills. Could it possibly be the same man that attacked me? They knew he had my tip money. Deep down I knew it was him. I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach. But I hesitated and said I wasn’t sure. I froze. I think I was just glad it was all over and that I hadn’t been raped. I had beaten the guy off and all he got was some loose change and a bunch of dollar bills. Everything could just go back to the way it was. So, they didn’t pick him up and that was that. They never caught my attacker.

Even though this has always nagged at me, it was due to my own personal disappointment and shame that I possibly let him get away. Given the recent news regarding a rapist who escaped prosecution because his 14-year old victim refused to testify, allowing him to go on to rape other women and children, I now realize my attacker also may have gone on to hurt other women. He may have even used a loaded gun the next time – if there was a next time.

My motto used to be: “Don’t go down without a fight”, now I add “and finish the job when you have the chance”.

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