It was already an unusual day. All my regular Thursday business had been cancelled, so I was at home, taking the time to catch up on some reading. My husband (henceforth known here as Mr. Koz) was working quietly at his computer on the other side of the room. Our peaceful silence was suddenly broken by a series of bloodcurdling screams that sounded as if they were coming from directly outside our front door. More screams and shouts followed as a man and woman argued in Russian, which I don’t understand, but which Mr. Koz does. Following him fretfully to the peephole, nothing was to be seen, but the argument was clearly taking place in the hallway just outside our apartment. Mr. Koz understood that someone had a gun, and we beat a quick retreat from the front door to the kitchen, where we were separated from the hallway by a room. Straining my ears to hear around the corner, I silently cursed myself for once thinking, in my foolish youth, that the best concerts were the ones that left you deaf for hours afterwards. But I heard the familiar cadence of the building manager, and the voices, though still agitated, lowered in pitch. We tiptoed to the next room to listen closer, but it was a little too close for my comfort. Unable to understand a word anyway, I scampered to perch nervously on the living room couch. A swirling static in my head registered that I had a lot of laundry to fold. Do I hear sirens? Already? That was incredibly fast. It couldn’t have been five minutes since the first screams pierced the air. I jumped about a foot off the couch as a volley of shots suddenly rang out from one end of the hallway, and a nearly simultaneous burst of running and shouting from the other end, another shot, “Put your hands up! Put your hands up! Put your FUCKING hands up!” Wow, I thought. Someone left a pair of sandals on the floor. They should have been put away.
Moving shakily across the room, Mr. Koz and I peeped nervously through the door. I saw nothing, but turning away, I heard the disembodied voice of a man groaning in agony, soft, then louder, then soft again, as if a ghost were passing the threshold. I returned to the living room and distractedly began folding laundry, worrying about our kindly manager, jumping at the loud knocks now emanating from up and down the hall. Soon enough, our knock came, doorbell ringing urgently in unison. Opening up, I jumped once more at the sight of pools, smears, and sprays of blood on the floor and wall. Wow, I thought again, all that blood, yet not a speck seems to have landed on our doormat. A short, slightly cross-eyed officer began to question us, writing our answers very slowly on a small piece of paper, while a tall officer spoke gently to a terrified boy in an adjacent apartment. More police arrived at the scene, looking around, joking in a nervously casual way when the cell phone on the floor began ringing. Hey, it’s for you, wanna pick it up, ha ha, that guy won’t be checking his calls for a while. Humor, our strongest defense against angst. What is the root of that word, humor, I wondered, and does it share the same origin as human? Another cop arrived at the scene, the radio on his hip announcing a robbery, an accident, a suicide attempt. “This place is sure going to hell,” he said, laughing. I noticed that the little white slips of paper on which the officer was recording our information matched the little folded sheets scattered variously on the floor, and I jumped again when I realized that each little bloodstained tent represented a spent bullet casing.
When the officer finished questioning us he said that someone else would be arriving soon to take us to the station for an official witness report. As my big plan for the day had been to read a little, do some painting, and work on a clay project, I was dressed in my grubbies. I dashed to take a quick shower, and was just toweling off my hair when the doorbell rang again. Throwing on some clean clothes, I walked out to see Mr. Koz talking to friendly looking officer, who was waiting to take us to the station. But we have a Kozlet, we told him, who must first be picked up from school. Our entire block by this time had been cordoned off, and there was no way to move our car, so we followed the officer down the hall. “Be careful,” he kept saying, “Don’t touch anything.” I looked around at all the evidence, thinking how convenient it was to have a clear path through the blood, just wide enough to walk through without stepping in anything. I picked my way gingerly through the bloody labyrinth, thinking what a good thing they had replaced those old carpets with tile. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back; step in the blood, who’s gonna clean off that crud? sang a childish voice in the back of my mind. My heart skipped a beat when I spotted a large, glistening pool of blood right outside the manager’s door and I wondered: Why do people do this? And furthermore, why do people pay money to sit together in darkened rooms watching people pretend to do this? This is not fun. This is not meaningful. This is horrible.
The crimson pools and splatters gave way at last to a long trail of drips that traced our route through the winding hallway and down the stairs, where they ended in a puddle at the bottom. The officer led us around the corner and I thought faintly, no you’re going the wrong way, the gate at that end doesn’t open. But open it did, and to such a scene as you couldn’t imagine. Yellow tape, red tape, police, reporters, cameras, generators, antennas, helicopters, cars parked at crazy angles, a huge, rumbling police trailer, and the stunned faces of strangers I realized were my neighbors. We were led to a clearing and told to wait. Standing in the middle of the street as a circle of activity buzzed all around us, I felt like I was floating in the calm at the center of a storm. Someone on the third floor was yelling in Russian that he was going to sue the police for making him miss a meeting. Our officer returned and took us to his patrol car. A nearby school had let out, and swarms of teenagers were standing behind the police line, blank faces staring reproachfully at me as I sat in the back of the cruiser waiting to go pick up my child.
On the way to school, we discussed what we would tell the Kozlet. I don’t believe in lying to kids, but in a world where children already have much to be anxious about, the last thing one needs to know is that someone has just pulled a gun in your apartment building and you can’t go home because your front door is a blood-soaked crime scene. Stepping out of the panda onto the curb in front of the school, I ran into another parent, and seeing her horrified face, for a split second felt embarrassed before thinking, wait a sec, I didn’t do anything! I told her there had been an incident and we were witnesses and needed to get the Kozlet. He was just sitting down to a snack of milk and graham crackers, so I finagled a fresh carton of milk to take with us while Mr. Koz went to gather his things and explain our situation. The Kozlet was excited to ride in a police car, and to see inside the station. When he asked why, we told him simply that there had been a fight in the hallway, and the police needed us to tell them what we had heard.
The first thing we saw as we entered the station was a row of suspects chained to a bench, which impressed the Kozlet very much. We followed our officer through a long corridor, past a lot of old photographs of Hollywood, which I would have loved to stop and look at, to a room with a lot of cubicles and a wooden bench at the end, above which were some framed movie posters, all of films having to do with police and detectives, natch. We sat under Dick Tracy. Our officer started to interview us, but we asked if we could take turns because we didn’t want our child to hear. He agreed, so I was shown into a dreary waiting room, where the Kozlet did his homework while I tried not to appear terribly alarmed that there was a man handcuffed to a chair in the corner. After a while, we were brought back into the other room and told that the investigation had been taken over by other detectives, and so our officer was being dismissed from our charge. My family was shown into a large room with more cubicles. Above each cubicle hung a quaint, carved wooden sign, like the kind you get your name engraved on to hang above your mailbox. Juvenile, Homicide, Burglary, Robbery, and so on, some embellished with little slogans or pictures. I passed a group of neighbors from my floor, huddled together somewhat closer than would normally be expected. I recognized a tall, nice looking teenager who had been smaller than the Kozlet when we first moved into our building a decade ago, and when our gaze met, I saw the pleading fear in his eyes, silently imploring, Why? My grip on Kozlet’s hand tightened as we were swept along in the brisk wake of our officer, weaving our way through the cubicles, past our mailman twiddling his thumbs, finally to be deposited in a corner office where some extra chairs were brought in so my family could be seated together.
For the next five hours in that small, stuffy room, I would be extremely grateful that I had managed to squeeze in a shower and change of clothes. The officers and detectives were all very kind to us. Every time someone passed by, we would be offered a cup of coffee, water, or a snack, and apologies for keeping us waiting. It seemed to puzzle them somewhat that in spite of our exotic names, we were both English speakers, because they kept coming back to ask us what language we spoke before disappearing again. I had some crayons in my purse and that occupied the Kozlet for a while. There was a tall stack of flattened boxes in the corner, and on top of it I found a very strange children’s book about sleep apnea and “drowsy driving.” I thought it was very odd to write a book about drowsy driving for children, who obviously can’t drive, and I figured it must be a veiled attempt to reach parents who would otherwise ignore the subject. It was poorly written and badly illustrated, and was probably in there simply because it seemed to glorify the authorities who keep the world safe from drowsy drivers. After a couple of hours, we had exhausted all our resources for entertainment. The officer whose desk sat outside our door, who had been chuckling at the Kozlet’s loud questions and my attempt to keep him contained for so many hours in the little room, gave us permission to use the computer, so we were able to go online. After the Kozlet played a few games, Mr. Koz went to check the news. A tiny paragraph mentioned our incident, and what little information it gave seemed confused. By now it was Kozlet’s bedtime, and we were all hungry. The only food available in the station was junk food: cookies, candy, and Gatorade.
At last, a detective came to get Mr. Koz. It didn’t take long, and I was hopeful that I would be next. But I wasn’t. We waited some more, and Kozlet started trying to sneak out of the room. A lady officer came and kindly put her arm around my shoulders, offered more unhealthy snacks, and asked if we would like to go out into the courtyard to stretch our legs, but I didn’t want to risk being away when the detective came looking for me. Finally, finally. My detective apologized for the delay, saying that all the offices used for questioning were full, and we would have to conduct the interview upstairs so that I could take my child home. We went into what looked like a large classroom, with rows and rows of blue chairs. Fighting with an old falling apart tape recorder and grumbling about budget cuts, the detective finally turned to me and smiled and we began the interview. It didn’t take long. I had been so frightened at the time, and so many hours had passed, that it was hard to recall everything I had heard. I apologized for having so little to report, and she smiled and said not to worry, that it was like putting together a puzzle, and even my little piece would be valuable.
Returning to our waiting place, I was immensely relieved to see our manager, looking pale and distraught, but at least not mortally wounded. It was well past Kozlet’s bedtime, and my detective, a pleasant older woman, seemed determined to get us out of there. She arranged for a van to escort the lot of us back to the building, and we squeezed into the back seat with our neighbors, whose silence seemed all the more grim against the excited chatter of my innocent child. Arriving at the scene, it was immediately apparent that we were not going to be allowed back in. Detectives were still swarming the grounds and yellow police tape held us across the street from our home. The sky was growing dark, and the Kozlet realized for the first time that something truly serious was happening. He began to cry and I held him close, turning my back to the prying, expressionless eye of the news camera pointed our way.
They had started letting people from the other floors back in, but our apartment was in the midst of the crime scene and even if we’d been allowed to enter, there was no way I was going to let the Kozlet see what I had seen. But we were told that it was unlikely the mess would be cleaned up before 3am, and no one was to be admitted to our floor before then. One of my elderly neighbors was frantically asking for her medication, and a frustrated officer went in and out several times looking for it. While I called a friend to see if we could spend the night, Mr. Koz found out what had happened. A new tenant, a young woman, had moved here to escape her much older, violently abusive husband. He had tracked her down, confronted her outside her apartment and stolen her keys, threatening to shoot her if she did not give him their child. This was the shouting we had first heard that sent us running to hide in the kitchen. Our manager had been trying to calm him down when the police arrived on the scene; panicked, the gunman unloaded his weapon. A man had also been shot by the police, but it was not clear whether or not it was the estranged husband.
Thankfully, our friends were able to put us up. We stopped for dinner on the way, and with the first bite I began to feel weak and shaky, losing my appetite as I started to come out of shock for the first time all day. I missed the newscast while I was putting the Kozlet to bed, but Mr. Koz said it didn’t say anything we didn’t already know. The gunman had been caught, but there seemed to be some confusion about who had actually been shot by the police. That night I dreamt that I was driving a tiny car, which suddenly rolled over and over; I emerged unhurt, but the car was dented and pieces were falling off. I was trying to put the car back together when I woke up.
In the morning, we dropped Kozlet off at school, then headed home. I knew they had promised to clean everything up, but I dreaded going in all the same. As we pulled into the garage I noticed that the glass door of the lobby had been smashed. Someone had obviously power washed the pavement, but I could still see the remains of bloodstains on the concrete stairs. I shuddered at the same time I knew that eventually they would just blend into the patina of city grime. Entering the hallway, I smelled a tang of chemicals that couldn’t mask the odor of blood. For the first time, I saw the bullet holes in the walls. Vigorous cleaning of the floor had scraped away the glossy finish of the new tiles, leaving behind a ghostly map of the bloody trail I had so recently navigated. A particularly noxious stain was still piled with chemicals. It looked like someone had vomited a bowl of hummus onto the floor.
After breakfast, Mr. Koz went to bed, and I began to write. It seemed like only a moment had passed when he reappeared and told me he had to log in to work. I had been writing for four hours. After he logged in, we checked the news. Very little was to be found. It seems that a certain celebrity had accidentally lost her passport up her ass just in time to avoid facing the court for public stupidity. This, of course, is real news. Another boring case of domestic violence is not news. When we finally found some articles on the Internet about our incident, the comments underneath were predictably astounding. “Only in Hollywood!” they admonished, real people hiding behind anonymous judgment. Forget the fact that it could have happened anywhere – it DOES happen everywhere, as every few seconds, somewhere in the world, a woman is being beaten or killed by a man she knows. When we can literally project our fears onto the silver screen, we can fool ourselves into forgetting that what we humans fear most is ourselves. I think I understand now why people pay to see actors pretending to kill each other for the camera. It’s easier than looking honestly at our own attitudes and behaviors. Easier to say “Only in Hollywood” than to say, “That could have been my wife/my mother/my sister/my daughter/me.”
In another blink of an eye, it was time to go get the Kozlet. Mr. Koz was in a meeting, so I had to walk back out through the hall by myself, and before I was halfway to the stairs my heart began to pound and my knees turned to jelly. The cloying odor was overpowering, and by the time I got to my car I was trembling. How, I wondered, are my neighbors taking this? I have already been dealing with trauma issues for years. I tend to analyze everything, trying to see the bigger picture; Mr. Koz and I talk often and at length about difficult subjects; only last week I was philosophizing about Death. If I am still so affected, what about the boy across the hall, who was home alone when it happened? What about the teenager with the pleading eyes? What about the old lady whose apartment now has a tea towel in place of a blood soaked doormat? And what about the angry off-duty policeman who screamed at me when I was walking home after breakfast? “You guys were great,” I shouted after him. “I’m sorry you were traumatized too.” I don’t think he heard me.
By the time I got home with the Kozlet, they were already replacing the glass in the front door. I ran into the manager downstairs and told her how relieved I was to see that she was not hurt. Like most victims of trauma, she needed to tell her story, hear it out loud, try to believe it really happened, try to make sense of it. I sent the Kozlet upstairs to his papa so I could listen. She told me how she had tried to talk down the gunman, how he had pointed the gun at her and knocked the phone out of her hand when she tried to call 911. How he had freaked out and started shooting when the police turned the corner, and how she had felt a bullet graze her shoulder as she turned to run. We stood there awkwardly and I wanted to hug her, but something held me back. I sensed that she felt the same. It would have been too weird, too different. We both crossed our arms and hugged ourselves as we nodded politely at one another. Upstairs, our cheery handyman was patching up and painting over the bullet holes. He wanted to talk too. We danced around the ugly issue that police had shot the Hispanic janitor, who was trying to escape the violence, rather than the actual gunman, who happened to be white. I tried to imagine what I would do if I turned the corner onto such a scene. Hell, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to hold a gun in my hand knowing I might have to use it on another person. If I were in that position and saw a guy running away from the scene of the crime, I would probably have shot him too. The handyman also looked like he wanted a hug. He hesitated, then gave me a tentative fist bump on my shoulder before I bid him good day and went home.
Two days have passed. Or has it been three? I keep losing track. I entered dreamtime the moment I heard those shots. The day after it happened, Mr. Koz and I went on a date. We’d had it planned well in advance, already arranged and paid for babysitting, so we continued on with our original plan to go have dinner at the art museum. Waiting on the patio for him to join me, I tried to enjoy the fresh air and appreciate the view. Instead, I assessed – no, accused – every person who walked by. YOU didn’t just witness a bloodbath in your peaceful apartment building, did you? A jazz combo was tuning up in the courtyard. The drummer tapped his snare a few times; I nearly jumped out of my skin, knocking into my wine glass. I watched the red stain spread across my napkin and fought back the sting of tears.
Last I heard, the woman is still alive. The janitor, too. The gunman is in jail. I wonder how long he’ll be there. Trying to kill your ex-wife isn’t really much of a crime, not in this world, not after 2000 years of indoctrination that women are hardly even human. I don’t expect anything more will be said about the janitor, either. Racism in the West, especially against Latinos, is at least as deeply ingrained as sexism is everywhere in the world. So much so, that most people aren’t even aware of it. It is how it is. For now. The book I was reading when the first screams sounded was the autobiography of Doris Lessing, who’s very old, and has been around and seen a lot. Much of her writing comes back to the observation that we are, repeatedly, so enamored with the present fashion in ideology that we cannot help but believe we are right, though one generation after another may look back and say, what were they thinking?