My husband was the first person to tell me that it’s not normal to anticipate having to defend yourself with the knife you’re using to make a sandwich on a Sunday afternoon in your secure third floor apartment. Or to never let a stranger help you carry anything because once you read a story about a man who offered to help carry a woman’s groceries upstairs and then raped her. Or to wonder what the coroner will think of the shade of nail polish that you just chose. My husband is right; being on the lookout for death takes up an unhealthy amount of my brain space. He thinks it’s because I watch too much Dateline and 48 Hours, but this is the way I’ve always been.
When I was a kid there were two intruders in our house that only I paid any attention to: The Man in the Curtains and The Man in the Painting. Every Saturday morning I would wake up around 6:00 a.m. but was instructed by my parents to stay in bed until 7:00, when I could wake them up or go downstairs to watch cartoons. I would lie there for an hour with the comforter pulled up to my chin (I still have to pull up the comforter in bed, even in the summer) staring at the man in the curtains. The curtains were white and ruffled and tied back with a sash, the perfect camouflage for a skinny, shadowy spook. He always stood in profile, and I probably wouldn’t have even noticed him if not for his top hat, cane and prominent nose. I knew that if I stopped looking at him he would slide down one of the rainbows on my wallpaper and sidle up next to the bed, so I glued my eyes to him until the appointed hour, when I could fling off my fear along with the covers. I would settle in on the couch downstairs to watch The Smurfs, happy to let Gargamel supersede my upstairs villain until the following Saturday morning.
The Man in the Painting was even more menacing than The Man in the Curtains. I don’t know the provenance of the painting – maybe my parents picked it up on a vacation, maybe it was a gift – but it hung at the bottom of our basement stairs for years. The basement was our playroom, but the previous owners had outfitted the space with dark paneling and crimson carpeting that cast a somber tone over the lighthearted notion of play. The handmade Victorian dollhouse that would have been the staging for some lovely stories in a cheerier setting instead became the site of some horrific dramas. Likewise, maybe if you’d seen the painting in a gallery it would merely conjure a passage from The Sun Also Rises or make you wistful for the time you spent in Valencia, because the man in the painting was a bullfighter. His black toreador outfit was painted in bold acrylic strokes, accented in red. He wielded a black whip that slithered across the canvas. His face was angled slightly away from us, preventing us from seeing his expression while allowing him to watch everything we did. His gaze even penetrated my She-Ra play tent.
I didn’t ever go so far as to imagine the horrible things that these men would do to me if they ‘got’ me – their presence alone filled me with a nameless dread. Now that I’m older, it’s not these chimerical figures that send chills down my spine, it’s a different sort whose crimes are real and vivid: the sociopathic wife-slayers, the reckless road-ragers, the empty eye-for-an-eye kids in our streets. The Bogeyman has upped the ante and he’s not as easy to shake off with the blankets anymore. But am I that much more likely to fall victim to these dangers than I am to the perils invented in childhood? Maybe the real threat is my own mind. School shootings happen, but if I spend the night imagining and re-playing my own school’s version of Columbine that doesn’t make it more or less likely to occur. It just means a sleepless night, missed work and awkward explanations. I don’t want my husband to think I’m a freak, nor do I want to project my fears onto our hypothetical future children. Life is fraught with danger, but I don’t have to give it so much real estate. Get out of my basement, Man.