A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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When I was in junior high, my mother forbade me to speak to anyone outside our home. So I sometimes went whole days without talking. Muteness was like my superpower. It allowed me to move about unnoticed. It made me invisible.
Of course my mother didn’t mean, Go mute. She meant, Don’t attract Social Services. “Don’t tell anyone what goes on in this house,” she would say to me. “If anyone finds out, they’ll take you away.” She saw danger everywhere and established elaborate rituals to keep threats at bay: nailing windows shut, hiding, checking locks for tampering.
She saw shadowy men: the stranger in the side yard, the military-looking guys trailing us. (“It’s the same three men from last night, Heather.”) I figured the neighbor was probably looking in our windows — he was known for that behavior — and we lived in a military town. The soldiers weren’t following us; we were just in front of them. But I went along with her paranoia. If I offered other explanations, it only made her more anxious. “How do you know these things?” she would ask. “Who have you been talking to?” My mother often couldn’t bring herself to answer the phone or talk to neighbors. Making friends was out of the question. Anything with a frame around it — windows, paintings, mirrors, screens — seemed to make her especially fearful. She detected noises that I could not: “Did you hear that?”
I did not hear that.
My mother wouldn’t let me invite anyone over, ever. No guests inside the house. I couldn’t wear jeans, short skirts, tight tops, makeup, or anything black. We made our own clothes or bought them cheap at a sale barn outside of Orlando, Florida, where we lived. In junior high I owned two pairs of pants and one pair of giant orthopedic shoes. I was ugly and hairy because she banned shaving legs or armpits. These were her rules. If I didn’t like them, I could go live with my father. And sometimes I did.
Holed up in a shabby duplex on the west side of Orlando, my father wore bras under his guayabera shirts and pantyhose beneath his pants and makeup on his face. He shaved his legs, arms, and chest, put on nail polish, and drank gin with his eggs and toast in the morning. When he got mad, he hit people. I couldn’t walk past him without his grabbing me and pulling me to him.
When I left either parent’s house for school in the morning, I passed into a different world, one in which I didn’t understand the customs, much less speak the language. I rehearsed my lines — Hey, y’all want to hang out? — but I couldn’t figure out to whom I might say them or how.
SOMETIMES my mother would disappear for days at a time. Sometimes I’d find my father passed out in the driveway in the morning when I walked to the bus stop. Worried he was dead, I would feel his throat for a pulse.
One day in the fall of tenth grade, Joe, a boy I’d known in elementary school, found me alone on a bench at lunch: the weird, quiet girl in unfashionable clothes, chewing on her pencil’s crumbling pink eraser. He said hi to me as if he’d discovered a long-lost fellow tribe member. He acted as if I were normal, as though we were friends. He led me dumbstruck to a table in the back of the school library, far from the librarian’s desk. I walked behind him, my silence surrounding me like a cape.
Two guys were sprawled at the table: Randy, whom I’d also known in elementary school, wore frayed denim bell-bottoms and a dashiki. (This was in 1979.) He had before him a deck of cards and a knife. The other boy, a curly-haired blond named Louis, wore a rumpled oxford shirt and pressed khakis. He was holding a book by Plato. The two did not say hi. Weirdness radiated from me.
“Why is she here?” one of them asked.
Joe said I was cool, and he ushered me toward the empty chair.
I sat down and put my head on the table, my brown hair concealing my face like a curtain.
EVERY morning when I got to school, I went to the library. I heard people whisper: Heather hangs out with guys. I was getting a reputation. At last. This social promotion was completely unexpected, terrifying, and welcome.
If any of the four of us had a quiz or a test, we would all stay for school. But if no one had anything, we would wait for the morning bell and then, one at a time, walk nonchalantly out the big double doors of the library, as though going to class. Instead we’d hoof it through the sandy parking lot, fanning out across the back field and into the woods.
Randy was the one with the car, a yellow Torino. He’d pick us up on the corner, and we’d take off down Mills Avenue, tires screeching, as though leaving a crime scene — which, as truants, we sort of were. Joe always sat in the front with Randy. I was always in the back with Louis. The eight-track blared the Beatles, Styx, Cat Stevens. Someone — often me — had a bottle of vodka. (A half gallon sat in every room of my father’s house, and fifths lined his counters.) Louis would complain operatically about Randy’s terrible taste in music. He wanted Verdi. He wanted to drink Hennessy. I would smile and recross my legs, hoping he would brush up against me.
Over breakfast at the Cuban place on Michigan Avenue, the boys would go on and on about sexual intercourse: favorite positions, what sex acts they wanted to try, X-rated films. I would blush, but not because of Randy’s detailed description of cunnilingus or their competition to see who could come up with the most synonyms for cock or cunt. I was fairly certain that I’d seen more hours of porn at my father’s house than all three boys combined. Videos played on a television in his dining room, and Hustler magazines were piled in the bathroom, the hallways. I blushed because I did not know how to be a normal person. I blushed because I did not want the boys to find out how much I knew about their favorite topic. I blushed because I was pretending to be Little Miss Innocent, and the lie made me uneasy. I blushed because all three boys were looking expectantly at me, waiting for me to talk.
“Do you even know what sex is?” one of them asked.
My face, my arms, my chest flushed red.
“I want your cherry, Heather,” said Randy.
“You told me you already took it,” Louis said to Randy.
“Guys. Guys. Guys. Come on,” said Joe.
Did they love me? I loved them.
After breakfast we’d speed downtown to the Orlando Public Library, where I’d curl up on the second floor with the psychology books. I had questions: What did my mother suffer from, and was I going to get it, and, if so, when? Was my father gay? He often had women in his bedroom at night. What was he? He’d recently gotten laid off from his accounting job for drinking in the office. (The bra couldn’t have helped.)
Responsible truants, we timed our arrival back at school with the dismissal bell, and we showed up as scheduled for our after-school lives: Randy and I always had to work. Joe and Louis were expected home, unless they had chess club or yearbook. I was a cashier at Disney, where I wore a burgundy polyester skirt and a striped shirt: no jewelry, no makeup. Selling expensive dolls and plush toys required almost no talking.
I felt happier than I’d ever been. With those boys I had something like a family.
Then Cole arrived.
ONE foggy winter morning in 1980, as I waited for the school bus, an older-looking boy, almost a man, came out of the mist, his gait so stiff and jerky it was like watching a frozen person walk. His name was Cole, and rumors about him had already spread through the school: He’d seen his father murder his mother with an iron rake, then shoot himself in the head. Cole had watched it all from the porch, or maybe from a perch in a tree in the side yard. All this had happened someplace north or west of us. Now he lived in my neighborhood with some distant relatives, the upstanding Prentisses, whose lawn was perfect, whose cars were washed every Saturday morning, whose concrete driveway was sparkling white.
People said Cole was nineteen. He’d failed a grade, or maybe two, because of his troubles. His last foster family hadn’t been able to keep him; he’d been too much to handle.
At the bus stop the other kids usually talked about the sitcoms they’d seen the night before. I didn’t know the shows — my mother didn’t have a TV — and I couldn’t understand why they enjoyed repeating the same jokes they’d all just heard. So I was standing alone by the century plant, chewing on my hair, pretending this was not my life, when Cole appeared. He wore a strange grin — superiority crossed with agitation. The kids stood around him in a circle.
They talked about the story of his parents’ alleged murder-suicide.
A boy shot an imaginary rifle at Cole, who said to each of them in turn, “Guten morgen.” His voice was stately and peculiar, and his skin was leathery, oily. “Fellow beings, I come in peace.”
I prayed he wouldn’t notice me. He came right over. He smelled like metal and sulfur. “Guten morgen, fellow human.”
I took a step back. Everyone was watching. My face burned. No, no, no.
“I’ve come in peace.”
I sensed that he had not come in peace. I stepped back again, but there was nowhere to go except into the spiny century plant or the crowd of kids.
Cole laid his heavy hand on my shoulder and looked at me intently, as if he knew me. “You’re the only one who is pure,” he said. “You’re the only one.”
On the bus I sat behind the driver. I put my purse on the seat next to me: taken. Cole sat right behind me, leaned over the seat, and talked and talked and talked in a thick drawl. I tried not to listen, but trying not to is the same as listening. Cole cycled through four topics: the Holocaust, Bruce Springsteen, Jesus, and me — specifically the inevitable future relationship he and I would enjoy. He talked as if his words were fighting with his tongue. I had the sense that he was about to burst into flames.
Cole followed me into the library. While I took my usual seat, he stood at the head of the table, pontificating loudly about the numbers of people killed in the concentration camps and how insane it was that we walk through our days not knowing these facts. He held a finger in the air as he talked.
“This is the library,” Randy said quietly and firmly. “Dude.”
Louis announced that he had a test in first period and left.
Cole showed up at the library again the next day, and the next. The four of us stopped skipping school together. I had lost my safety net, my wild-but-functional boy-home in the world.
By the end of Cole’s first week, kids at school were calling us lovers. A teacher came up to me and thanked me for befriending him. I hadn’t befriended him. I feared him. I didn’t speak to him. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him, but he had latched on to me. Cole followed me to work; he followed me home. I did not know how to get rid of him.
In the evenings he sat at the edge of my mother’s driveway, legs crossed, chanting or reading aloud from Be Here Now, by the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. I could see him through the bathroom window. I kept the lights off, stayed low, and tried not to be seen.
My mother was surprisingly untroubled by his presence. Sometimes she even went out and talked to him. I was perplexed: Finally here was a real threat, and she wasn’t afraid? A boy was stalking me, and she — who hated boys, who had more than once called the police on Joe and Randy and Louis — wasn’t angry? When I told her he was bothering me, she said it was important to be kind to people like him. She said he seemed nice and interesting.
No. No, no, no.
ONE evening Cole invited me to his house. I didn’t want to go, but I had no strong sense of self, nothing to steer by. I had no way to say no. “Just come,” he begged. “Once. See how I live. Then I promise to leave you alone.”
The Prentisses lived two streets over. They weren’t home. All they did was pray and work, Cole said. We weren’t supposed to be in the house. Cole was allowed only in the breezeway between the house and the garage. That was his room. And he could go into the kitchen, but only at mealtimes. His bathroom was in the utility room around back. They couldn’t stand him, he said. The sight of him made them sick.
“I want to make love to you,” he told me.
I laughed reflexively and ran home, fast.
That spring, every day, there was a letter in our mailbox from Cole — ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty pages long, written with thick blue pen in his backward-slanting cursive. It always said the same things: the Holocaust had been terrible, we were surrounded by pitiable people, God was here, and Bruce Springsteen was the new Christ. Cole claimed that if we had sex, I would be completely transformed, and so would he. I felt dirty reading the letters, and I threw them in the neighbor’s trash so that my mother wouldn’t find them.
One night I came home from work around nine o’clock, and there was Cole at my mother’s kitchen table, drinking lemonade. Never before had I seen my mother like this. She looked happy.
I moved in with my father.
COLE shadowed me to my father’s house, too. He sat on the low wall around my father’s pool, reciting passages from Be Here Now. I’d come home from my late shift at Disney, and Cole would be seated swami-style on the welcome mat wearing nothing but sheer red shorts. He would look down at the tent of his erection and say, “We waited up for you.”
I called the police and told them a boy was following me and wouldn’t go away, but they said he hadn’t committed any crime.
My father said it wouldn’t kill me to be nice to the poor kid.
But it could have killed me. We were both seniors by then, and Cole had grown fixated on the idea of our skipping the graduation ceremony and committing double suicide. He wrote about this plan at great length in his letters: First we’d have sex. Then we’d take pills. And he’d finish us off with a gun.
I didn’t show these letters to the police or anyone else because I was irrationally afraid that people would associate me with Cole, that they would think we somehow matched. My deepest fear wasn’t death at the hands of Cole, although I did fear that. I was more afraid of being like him. What if I was the girl version of him? Like my mother, he heard voices. He was trying to make friends with them, he said, but some of them were horrific.
Even if he didn’t murder me, I worried that I would soon turn into my mother.
And Cole would be there. Waiting.
IN August 1982, three months after my high-school graduation, I took a Greyhound bus to the state university in Tallahassee. I had saved enough to pay for one semester. My parents were adamantly against my going to college. My father wanted me to keep living with him and get an accounting job. My mother wanted me to get a secretarial job, like her, and stay in Orlando until I was “a little more mature.” I knew a girl at Disney who was getting her two-year degree and planning to become a flight attendant. Could I pull that off: smiling, flying, no Cole?
I was certain I wouldn’t make it through my first year. Too much madness, not enough money.
I’d envisioned college as pleated plaid skirts, falling leaves, and rooms lined with books. I hadn’t expected professors in shorts and herds of kids in khakis and white oxfords carrying cases of beer, talking to each other about the previous evening’s television shows. I’d thought college would be like the library table in high school, but instead of skipping school, we’d stay at the table and turn into smart people.
I spent Friday nights and weekends reading in the library. I went to the cathedral on Sundays, awestruck by the beauty of the service, the music, the ritual. I took art history, literature, geology. I made it through the spring semester and dared to think I could do it again for another year. I worked three jobs to pay for it all. I spent my free time alone, riding my bike, hiking in the forest, learning the names of plants. I knew more trees than people.
I became an au pair and lived half the time with an artist and her two young children in a beautiful old Florida bungalow. I prepared meals for the kids, who sat at the dining-room table drawing pictures. At night, falling asleep, I replayed in my mind those days with Joe and Randy and Louis, riding in the Torino, the boys singing “Rocky Raccoon” at the tops of their lungs, my hair streaming in the wind.
Joe went into the military. Louis went to a university up north. Randy went into his family’s business. I heard Cole went to the state mental hospital.
I GRADUATED early from college, got a job, lost it, and scurried back to the English department for graduate school. Cole sent me letters from the mental ward, thick packets of them in worsening handwriting. I’d begged my parents not to give him my address, but my mother, feeling sympathetic toward this maligned person, told Cole what he wanted to know. The letters were filled with the same old obsessions: the Holocaust, sex, death, me. His hospitalization was a mix-up, he said. He had a profound understanding of reality and happiness. I had to share his vision. He’d be out soon.
He called my dorm room so many times, my roommate moved out. I got an apartment and an unlisted number, but my father, certainly drunk, gave it to Cole. There was a period of about six months when the phone calls stopped. Had Cole died? If he’d killed himself, was it my fault? Then he started calling again, many times a day.
I contacted the campus police, who gave me a telephone-taping device to document the harassment. With proof, they said, I’d be able to get a restraining order. But I was dating and didn’t want my personal calls taped. I also didn’t want my parents’ calls taped: my mother speaking in her elaborate code; my father so inebriated his words ran together. I was still painfully shy, but I was getting better, putting together a life for myself, and I couldn’t bear the thought of Cole interfering with my hard-won happiness.
I wanted to create a new past, a viable future as a career woman, a wife, maybe even a mother. But how did one do that? I felt saddled with this mad boy-man who came with me wherever I went.
EARLY one spring evening I was nestled on my garage-sale sofa, reading poetry by a famous poet from New York. I had been asked to introduce the poet the following night at the visiting-writers series, and I was sick-to-my-stomach nervous about speaking into a microphone before several hundred people. I deeply regretted having agreed to do it, and even as I was reading the poems, I was planning the call I would make to my professor to bow out, the excuses I would give.
My phone rang, and I answered, thinking it was probably my professor asking me to bring something for the event.
Cole begged me not to hang up. It was life or death, he said. I heard traffic noise in the background. It had been many months — maybe a year? — since I had last heard from him. I’d almost forgotten to worry about him.
I held the phone away from my body and didn’t say a word.
He said he was free. He was just around the corner at a Wendy’s. If I would come and meet him, just for one hour, just for thirty minutes, he promised he would never contact me again. I needed to hear him out. Ten minutes.
I hung up. I was introducing the famous writer the next day. Now Cole was lurking around campus and might try to come to the event. People might think I knew him. Were you lovers?
The phone rang again. I thought about taking it off the hook, but I was afraid that, when I went outside the next day, he would be there, and I would meet my gory end. So I answered and politely said hello — it could have been someone else.
Five minutes, Cole said. He would never bother me again. “I am the only person who knows you, Heather. The only person who cares about what happens to you.”
I hung up. Before the phone could ring again, I called the campus police and told them the boy from high school who had been harassing me was at the Wendy’s on Tennessee Street. The man from the mental hospital was here. He was here.
They couldn’t do anything, the officer said. It wasn’t illegal for him to be in town.
I WALKED out of my apartment that night wearing jeans, white sandals, and a long-sleeved flowered blouse. The air was sharp and fresh. The sunset was pink and violet, like sherbet. I walked down College, then over toward the Wendy’s. The little girl in her striped shirt and red pigtails beamed on the restaurant sign.
I stood across the street in the shadows and saw Cole leaning against his car with his head tilted back, lips murmuring into the air. He looked smaller, thinner. He wore dress pants and a misshapen gray T-shirt. I felt I was making a mistake. But, then, I always felt I was making a mistake: walking into a classroom, going on a date, eating dinner with a friend. Everything I did felt wrong, wrong, wrong.
I wanted this to be over. I was sick of waiting to be murdered.
Cole circled around the Barracuda, his same old car. His hair was short and shoe-polish black and stood up like a stiff brush. College kids walked in and out of Wendy’s, talking and laughing.
When the stoplight changed, I came out of the shadows and crossed the street. Cole saw me and broke into a huge, strained grimace, as if wires were pulling up the corners of his mouth. He looked at the sky and prayed aloud. Then he dropped to his knees, hands together and raised over his head. A group of diners by the door to Wendy’s saw this and made faces at each other. It was like being out in public with my father. I simultaneously wanted to protect Cole and to pretend not to know him. I stepped closer, near the hood of his car. He moved to hug me, but I stretched out my hand to keep him away. He admonished me for never having written him back. Then came a stream of hard-to-follow talk. He had a new tic, a jerk of the head and shoulder, like wild punctuation for his run-on sentences. He had scratches on his forearms, and angry punctures, like bug bites. His face and body shuddered as he talked on and on.
“Get in,” he finally said.
“I can’t,” I said. “I don’t want to.”
I thought at first it was a stick lying across the seat. Then I saw it was a rifle. It seemed banged up, not cared for.
I had to see the place where he’d grown up, Cole told me. He reached in and moved the gun to the driver’s side of the car. I had to see his boyhood home, and then he would leave me alone, if that’s what I wanted. “Heather, Heather, Heather.” He said my name over and over. He opened the passenger door. I felt everyone watching: kids on picnic tables across the parking lot; diners in the restaurant, eating under hanging ferns. I did not want to make a scene. As I slid into the seat, my fear somehow dissipated. I became oddly less anxious. I felt vindicated. I told you. I told you he was a dangerous psychopath. I told you I wasn’t being hysterical and blowing things out of proportion.
He closed the car door from the outside. Hard, but not too hard. As if we were on a date.
I got in because I was worried he would blow his head off, and that I would get in trouble for it and also be forever traumatized by it. I would always be known as that girl who got brains on her flowered shirt in the Wendy’s parking lot. As he walked around the car, I watched through the windshield, worried he would shoot the kids sitting on top of the outdoor tables, eating double cheeseburgers and chili from paper cups and failing statistics but not that worried about it.
I felt a fluttering, as if the fabric of the seats were alive. I looked down. The car was infested with cockroaches. There was rustling coming from the back seat, which was packed to the roof with clothes, shoe boxes, black plastic garbage bags.
© Vicki Reed
Cole got in and quickly gunned the car in reverse. I saw startled looks on the faces of the students as the Barracuda squealed out of the parking lot and veered into the flow of honking traffic on Tennessee Street.
Everywhere around me was movement. Cockroach feelers protruded out of the vents. Cole had one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the rifle as we flew down Tennessee Street. I was not afraid — or, at least, I was less afraid than I had been while waiting for this to happen all these years. But it was beginning to sink in what a terrible mistake I was making.
I’d taken a rape-prevention class at the student union when I’d been a freshman. I remembered the slender instructor saying over and over: Don’t go where he wants you to go. Do anything you have to do to escape. Do not get in his car, no matter what. I formed a plan to hop out at the next light. But when I reached for the door handle, my hand went into a hole in the door, down into the space there. I drew it back quickly. My mother had predicted this very situation; she’d warned me my whole life about men with cars that had no interior handles, so you couldn’t escape.
Cole ran a red light and then another. We drove under I-10, and I saw the sign for Greenville. He was taking me to his childhood home. He wanted me to see what he had seen. A never-ending river of words flowed out of him as he jittered and jerked. I kept my legs gathered tight to my chest so that as little of me as possible was exposed to the bugs, the car, him.
I eyed Cole in my peripheral vision. He seemed rougher, harder, more electrified. He talked about the hospital. Everyone there was insane, he said, completely insane — except for him.
If any girl in Florida was going to be murdered that night, I thought, it would be me. I felt as if this were the moment my parents had raised me for. Being kidnapped by a man with a gun seemed the inevitable summation of my life so far.
My professor would not wonder where I was until the following night, when I was supposed to give the introduction. I lived alone and had few friends. No one was expecting me. I envisioned the headlines about my death and wondered what would happen to all my possessions. It was hard to imagine my parents coming to Tallahassee to pack up my dishes and Elvis Costello records and jaunty vintage skirts printed with boats, teakettles, pipes.
Cole laughed silently as he drove, his mouth open. In the shadows his face looked like a skull. Outside the grimy windows, the pine trees along the highway appeared inked onto the darkening sky. No one knew where I was or would ever find me.
We crept through the town of Greenville. I realized that I had been here before as a kid. To pick up a dog with my father? I couldn’t remember. There were no cars on the street. No people. The town seemed dead. The smells in the car were overwhelming, and I yearned to roll down my window, but there was no handle for that either.
We trundled across an intersection at the far edge of town and down a dirt road, just two tire tracks in the grass. Cole was singing Bruce Springsteen: “Cause I’ve broken all your windows and I’ve rammed through all your doors / And who am I to ask you to lick my sores?” He laughed and leered at me happily.
It was pitch-dark, but the ramshackle house was illuminated in the headlights. The wood siding was unpainted. There wasn’t a tree in the yard where Cole could have perched and witnessed the murder-suicide. He got out with his gun and opened my door and offered me his hand, but I refused to leave the car. I felt safer there. I didn’t think he’d shoot me in his car, because it was his home.
“Ready for the grand tour?” he asked, the rifle resting on his shoulder like an umbrella.
“Let’s go back,” I said. “Come on.” I moved toward the steering wheel. I wondered if I was brave enough to run him down. I wondered how to put the Barracuda in reverse. I was trying to figure it out when he leaned in and pointed the rifle at me. He’d come in peace, he said. He wanted us to go into that house and make love.
“No,” I told him. I sat there in the front seat, arms across my chest like a petulant child. “I’m not doing that.” I didn’t want to go inside the abandoned house because it was spooky and disgusting. The image of his parents’ moldering bodies came to mind. I was exhausted. I just wanted to be back in my apartment, going over the draft of my introduction, writing something wise and funny, never having known Cole.
In the dirt yard outside the unpainted house on the outskirts of Greenville, Cole scowled at me. His teeth were white in the moonlight. He still had the rifle but looked more like a homesteader than a murderer-rapist.
I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep.
I heard him get in the car. He set the gun in the back.
COLE drove to a motel and checked in. Then he ordered me into a room at the far end of the lot from the office, and I went. He sat on the sagging double bed, with its ocher-and-brown-striped bedspread, the rifle beside him. I stood by the door. The concrete floor was painted red. Two crooked sconces were mounted high on the paneled wall above the bed. I saw a phone on the nightstand. Cole took off his shirt. I put my hand on the doorknob.
“I’m not asking for much,” he said.
This caught me by surprise, and I laughed. I was itchy and anxious. I kept thinking a roach was in my hair or crawling down my back. I rubbed my arms, shook my head.
I could run out of the room, I thought. Maybe the motel owners would help me get to a bus station. But I had no money, no purse, no wallet, no ID. People would think I was crazy. Which maybe I was. I wanted to pull my hair out.
Cole took off his shoes. Then he slipped off his pants. His underwear was stained and dingy. I wondered when he’d last changed clothes. He never stopped talking.
I could have walked out the door. He wasn’t even holding the rifle. He was going on and on about sex and love. He was weeping, tears streaming down his face as he told me how I was the only thing keeping him alive. I could save him: I just had to have sex with him. Such an easy thing for me to do. Nothing, really.
I had never wanted to touch a gun. I’d wanted to die never having set a finger on a gun of any kind for any reason, but I went over to the bed. I picked up the rifle. It was cold and much heavier than I’d expected. It also felt alive, as if it had its own intentions, but I was not afraid. I really believed I was going to die at any second, no matter what I did. So why not behave in a dangerous, foolish, completely atypical manner? Why not pretend to be the opposite of who I was?
I rested the gun on my hip. The floor was cold, even through my sandals. I couldn’t point the gun at him because of all the accidents I’d heard about — friends killing friends, parents killing children. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t want to go to an institution. I kept the barrel pointed at the air in the middle of the room. My finger was nowhere near the trigger, which seemed designed for a much larger finger than mine.
“Get in the car,” I said. “Come on.”
“Put your clothes on. I have to go back. I have a huge thing tomorrow. This isn’t fair at all.”
He looked at me vacantly, then moved as though in a stupor to the bathroom. I heard the shower come on. He emerged a few minutes later wrapped in a towel and reached for his pants. I didn’t want to see him naked, so I turned and looked at the curtains, where I saw a cockroach wriggling its feelers at me. I batted at the bug with the end of the gun barrel, and it flew into the room. Cole cried out — a sound from the depths of hell. I was sure, in that moment, that he would pounce on me from behind, and that would be it.
But he didn’t. Nothing happened. He got up, and we left. I set the rifle in the back seat. I was aware of it there, like a snake.
Cole drove slowly, and I used all my willpower not to think about the quivering movements underfoot. The radio played Hank Williams, then a gospel preacher as we crawled along the old two-lane road that ribboned beside I-10. Dawn was breaking — a beautiful, hard, vibrant morning in Tallahassee. I was freezing. Cole pulled into the Wendy’s. He still wanted to talk. Just five more minutes, he begged. Just three minutes. Just one minute.
I got out. Afraid he would follow me, I took a circuitous route to the campus police station, where I told the heavyset woman behind the glass window that I’d been kidnapped. She couldn’t hear what I’d said and asked me to speak up. I didn’t want the whole waiting room listening in.
I’d thought I would be taken right to a detective’s office. Instead I sat forever in the lobby with a drunk frat boy, two grizzled men, and a homeless-looking woman. I kept waiting for the outside door to open and for Cole to walk in. Finally they brought me to the back.
“Former boyfriend?” the officer said after I’d told him my story.
“No,” I said. “He was in a mental institution.” I sounded unconvincing even to myself. “He may have escaped. He’s armed and dangerous.” I felt as if I were both exaggerating what had happened and underplaying it at the same time.
The officer told me to write it all down. I sat alone in a small room with a legal pad and a pen, but I did not write. I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t say that my parents had told Cole where I was — it was unbelievable, inexplicable. I couldn’t say that I’d gone with him willingly. (I both had and hadn’t.) The world I was from — Cole’s world — was so dark and foreign to most people. I couldn’t be a grad student with a 3.7 GPA and be from that world; there was no dual citizenship. I returned the pad to the officer with nothing on it. I couldn’t write down what had happened to me and hand it to someone. Not yet.
“For us to do anything,” he said, “you have to file a report.”
“He is armed,” I said in the voice of a girl who’d recently turned a gun on her potential rapist. “He could hurt other people.”
The officer looked at me as if I were a schoolgirl tattling.
WHEN I gave the introduction for the famous poet, I hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours. The poet took the podium and corrected much of what I’d said. I hung my head and turned red. At the reception afterward I confided in my one female professor that a boy from high school had held me at gunpoint, and somehow I had talked him into letting me go.
“Old lover?” she asked.
I felt slapped. I did not know how to tell the story even to myself, much less to another person.
A few weeks after that night, the police called me down to the campus station. I walked there in the pouring rain. Two officers came and got me from the waiting room right away. They’d arrested Cole at the Ponce de Leon Motel. Bizarre behavior had alerted the innkeeper, and the police had found Cole’s car trunk full of firearms, bomb-making supplies, ropes, knives — a lot of suspicious gear. He had escaped from the mental institution a couple of hours east. They had questions for me.
I told them how my parents had given Cole my phone number, how he had lived near me during high school and had been obsessed with me. They wanted the tapes from the phone-recording apparatus. I told them that I’d been unable to figure out how to use it. I told them how he had held me in a motel room with a gun until I had convinced him to bring me back to campus.
“You were dating him?” the officer asked.
I flushed with anger. I explained that I had never dated Cole. He’d never touched me, because I’d made sure he would not.
TOWARD the end of graduate school there was a guy I liked: tall, gawky, kind. His apartment was near mine. We walked to campus together, played tennis. He was soft-spoken, a business major. We were nearing graduation. I could imagine him as a husband, a father, a homeowner, a man to go to church with. A good man.
One evening after tennis he asked me if I wanted to see a movie with him.
“A date?” I asked.
He nodded and blushed.
On the appointed night he came and got me. Seated on the passenger side of his car, I kept my hand on the door handle. I couldn’t follow any aspect of the movie’s plot, and at dinner afterward I listened but couldn’t hear what he was saying, couldn’t speak.
When he parked in front of my house at the end of the evening, I opened the car door, grabbed my purse, and ran down the sidewalk away from my apartment, making a scene, overcome with the urge to break something.
He called once more, but I never went out with him again. I miss him, that chance, to this day.
FOR years I thought I saw Cole in the street, in the foyer of the library, waiting in the hall for me after class.
For years I could not eat at Wendy’s and still can’t.
When I got my first teaching position and could afford a therapist, I opened my initial session with the story of the kidnapping.
“You weren’t really kidnapped,” the therapist said to me after I’d finished. “You got in the car with him. You went to see where his parents died. He brought you back to the Wendy’s. You refused victimhood.”
THE night Cole had followed my orders, I couldn’t believe it had worked: my taking the rifle, my telling him no. But I hadn’t discovered a bold, brave part of myself. It was nothing like that. What I’d discovered was that I could pretend to be someone I was not, and that people could be fooled by this, and that this could save my life.
IN the spring of 2014 Joe came to visit me. I offered him a beer, and we sat on my patio and talked about Louis and Randy, the four of us flying down the road, skipping school. We talked for a long time about our little tribe, the traumas in our respective homes, how lucky we were to have had each other. Until Cole. Joe’s face turned dark.
“You heard Cole died,” Joe said.
“No,” I said. “No.” The news of Cole’s death was like a stone falling in water. I did not feel sad, just tired.
Joe didn’t know the circumstances of the death. “Cole was obsessed with you — crazy obsessed,” he said. He took another sip of his beer. “Scary obsessed.”
I told Joe the story of that night when Cole had brought me to his parents’ house and then to a motel. I wasn’t sure if Joe took it in, exactly. He told me Cole had talked to him at length about blowing up the school. Then Joe changed the subject to the new love in his life. He showed me photos of her on his phone. They looked so happy.
After Joe drove away, I lingered in my driveway. My mother was six months dead; my father, two years dead. Cole was dead. I was alive, and I stood there alone for a long time, watching the sky turn to night.
Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
Every issue of The Sun brings nuggets of pure enjoyment. Sometimes it’s the story, sometimes it’s the writing, and sometimes it’s both. Heather Sellers’s frightening and astonishingly good essay “I’ll Never Bother You Again” [February 2015] was that rare combination.
Heather Sellers’s memoir of being stalked has the suspense of a Hitchcock film and the emotionally abstracted viewpoint of a survivor. Her powers of observation make for a dramatic read.
During her kidnapping ordeal, Sellers shows us how she convinced her would-be murderer/rapist to return her home. Yet, when considering the memory, she says, “I hadn’t discovered a bold, brave part of myself. . . . I’d discovered . . . that I could pretend to be someone I was not, and that people could be fooled by this, and that this could save my life.”
What? It seems to me that she understood her kidnapper and became the person she needed to be to save her life. If that’s not brave, I don’t know what is.