“Didn’t Anyone Tell You”

When I was little, my favorite nights were the ones I spent with Grandma Ann watching scary movies.  After Grandpa went to bed, we’d pop a frozen Tony’s pizza in the oven and huddle up on the couch for hours until the TV went to static.  Tony’s pizza and late-night movies were our little secret.  Grandma and me, we loved our vampires and foggy cemeteries and dark alleys and eerie organ music.  Being scared was fun.

When I was 12, Mom and I lived in the downstairs part of an old rental house.  One night, a woman who lived down the street picked up her grown daughter from the airport, and when they got home a man was hiding, hiding in their dark house, waiting for them.  He killed them, yes, but there were also so many rumors about what he’d done to them.

Their house was on my way to school. I walked by their boarded-up, empty house every single day for the rest of 8th grade.  Being scared wasn’t fun anymore.

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I’m 47 now. I got scared this summer.  In June, I spent 2 weeks at the Yale Writers Conference.  One day — the middle Sunday — I decided to wander off campus and explore New Haven.  I’d been in crowded rooms all week.  I couldn’t talk anymore.  I wanted to be alone.

I remembered that I’d read about a famous old pizza joint and figured I’d try to find it.  Off I went.  I hadn’t gone 6 or 7 blocks when I first realized I was somewhere I didn’t belong.  The first prickly hairs on my neck.  I ignored those prickles, told myself I was being silly —- It’s 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, for god’s sake!  Relax! —- and kept walking.  A few more blocks and I was completely out of downtown.  Where had all the traffic gone?  The businesses?  The people??  I turned another corner and stopped.  Just stopped.  I was alone but didn’t feel alone.  And even though I turned around and saw no one, I still ran, literally ran, ran like the alone, scared woman I was, all the way back to campus.

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I was reminded of the New Haven incident this week.  My Yale workshop leader, the brilliant and generous Eileen Pollack, has an essay in the latest Ploughshares about this very subject.  About being a woman, out in the world, alone.  About being scared.  About pretending you’re not scared.  About what can happen.

This issue is dedicated to nonfiction.  Here’s an excerpt from Eileen’s essay, “Didn’t Anyone Tell You.”

One evening, I came home from work to find Ron in his usual spot. He offered me a beer. When I declined, he muttered, “Snob.” I climbed the stairs, fixed dinner in Mrs. Plummer’s kitchen, then showered in the bathroom Ron and I shared. Even when I switched on the fan in my bedroom window, the room remained stifling hot. Dejected, I took off my clothes and crawled beneath the sheet to sleep.  Only to be startled awake in the middle of the night by a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound naked white guy—Ron—towering above my bed.

You can read her entire story here.  Go on.  It’s worth it.

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As for me, my mind drifts back, back to my treasure trove of late nights with Grandma Ann and TV cemeteries and frozen Tony’s pizzas.  Her couch was my safe place.  I wish I’d appreciated those days more, those days of feeling scared for fun.  Scared and safe, all at the same time.  Imagine.

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10 thoughts on ““Didn’t Anyone Tell You”

  1. Josephine

    What a phenomenal post…really, the story. the winding of the fear theme. very nice.

    and the picture–LOVE. that loving hand cradling your head (i’m guessing that’s you) with the cigarette secured between the two fingers. yes. i remember these very nights at my grandma’s. instead of tony pizzas, we made ice cream sundaes and popovers (frozen, cherry popovers).

    once all the women in the family were over to watch salems lot and i was sitting on my great aunt’s lap. when that kid pops out of the coffin with the evil eyes, she jumped out of her lazy boy and her cigarette burned the hell out of the back of my little girl hand. i started screaming and everyone thought i was scared, but it was the cigarette burn. that movies still scares the bejeezus out of me–i don’t know if i’m really scared or literally psychologically burned from her cigarette.

    i’m glad you followed your instinct and ran like the dickens away from wherever you found yourself.

    my gut-fear-instinct is highly sensitive and i trust it 100 percent. what’s the alternative?

    1. Teri Post author

      I love this story! Of course she burned you with her cigarette and didn’t even notice. I swear it was instinctive to duck and dodge all those cigarettes! The women talked with their hands and there was always, always a Marlboro Light in them.

      Now that I think about it, I can recall I had 2 options for walking to school back when I was 12. I walked by this house even though it was out of my way. The main street was “the right way” to go, but my classmates were being driven to school by their mothers, and I was so embarrassed for them to see me walking. Those were my choices, at least as I saw it then: total humiliation or run fast past the murder house ….

  2. Deb

    I agree with Josephine. This is a great post, and I also believe in that gut-fear-instinct and heeding its warnings. I recently watched that old Dracula movie. Yes, the memory of that kind of scared is delicious.

    1. Teri Post author

      And it’s not a fear that men can relate to, I don’t think.

      I have this Bela Lugosi Dracula saved on my DVR, waiting for me. I used to watch Dark Shadows with Grandma after school, and I have the first season of that on my shelf. Barnabus Collins, that hot hot vampire!

  3. girl in the hat

    “I was alone but didn’t feel alone.” Precisely. There’s something about fear that feels psychic.
    For me, the scariest movies will always be The Blob and Jaws, since they were my first scary movies. The scariest thing about them was that my father took me to see them.

    1. Teri Post author

      Surely I’ve seen Jaws 100 times. At least. When the water is dark and legs are flailing and that music starts ….!!!!!

  4. Erika Marks

    Oh, Teri. Such a chilling story from your youth. My heart breaks to think about it. How your memory of that horrific tragedy must have shifted over the years as you grew to understand the implications of the terror. It is amazing to me that we can know fear on different levels: the fear that propels us to face impossible challenges, to do things we might not do otherwise, to shed our skin, to love. And then the fear that is primal, that signals our brain in the basest way to run to safety, to escape danger.

    No matter how old or street-wise we get, that never goes away, does it?

    Glad you’re safe and sound, friend. And that picture is truly priceless. Here’s to having our safe place.

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