It’s Thursday. Edie is at acro practice. She gets hangry after training, so I leave the gym and run out to the Walgreens on Decatur and Tropicana, to pick up a snack for her.
Every Walgreen’s looks the same, I think. Check-out in the front. Freezer wall on the far side. Pharmacy in the back right. Foot supplies and toothbrushes on each side of the back wall. Because feet and teeth should be on the same wall. Duh.
I get Edie some jerky, a Pellegrino.
A family walks in. In a line, like ducks. They are of the together-not-together variety. The guy is in his early 30’s, not tall. I find out later his tattoos are gang tattoos. A girl walks behind him. She is beautiful, four or five-years-old, all brown eyes and big lashes. She doesn’t smile, but she’s not sad. The woman is behind them. I think she is the mom, but I later find out she is the girlfriend.
I recognize this duck-line immediately. My family used to walk places, like the mall, in this duck-line. My mother always set the pace in front, my grandmother at the back, my dad off in Sears looking at tools, and me, I tried, ever-unsuccessfully, to be equi-distant between my mother and grandmother to piece them together, even when they were long past being pieced together.
This duck-line makes me remember. It is a slight, almost invisible, sign of trouble.
The man is carrying a phone. He is also angry. Bitching, both in Spanish and English, to the girl? Or maybe the woman? I can’t tell. He is mad at one of them, and I’m hoping it’s not the kid, but she seems to be in her own world. The yelling isn’t touching her. I walk by them, toward the front of the store, as they take the far aisle to the back of the store. We whiz past each other, but he doesn’t make eye contact. He is clutching the phone with a balled up fist. He is shouting and swearing, and doesn’t care that I hear, or anyone else can hear, or that swearing at your family in public might be strange or uncommon behavior. He doesn’t stop.
The woman is, well, blank. Like you could write anything on her, and she be it.
I’m chastising myself for not bringing the book I’m reading, because Edie will be training for the next two hours, and David is home with the rest of the kids, and I can sit in the viewing area, alone with all the other acro-parents, and speak to none of them, and read actual words in books, which I like to do, but rarely have the chance to do. But I didn’t bring it, so I go up to the magazine rack at the front of the store, and start plowing through the cooking magazines. I have Fine Cooking in my hand, when I hear the dude in the back of the store start yelling, like really yelling. Loud. The people up front, a very youngish man, who is a customer, and a very youngish woman, who is a cashier, are loading his things into a bag. They both stop.
Everyone just waits.
There is more yelling.
“Don’t you leave.”
”I’ll kill you.”
“You fucking bitch! You fucking bitch!”
And from around the corner, I see the woman coming out of the far aisle, next to the freezers, and walking quickly, but maybe not quickly enough, toward us. She has the phone in her hand, now, and she is putting it to her ear, but I don’t know if she has dialed anyone, or if she is just trying to leave, or if she doesn’t know what to do. I say, with Fine Cooking, in my hand, “Are you safe?”
I say it so loud that I startle myself as I hear it rip through the store. The very youngish people, the barely-adults, at the check out turn to look at me.
I expect the woman to say ‘Yes.’ I expect her to say, “Yeah, me and my man always get into it…He’s a blowhard, but he’s fine.” I expect her to crack a smile and say, “No worries, he just had a little too much” – give the hand signal for drinking – “…and needs to blow off some steam.” I expect her to be like, “Relax man, this is Vegas. This is how we are.”
I think this is going to happen because I always have these long delays in acceptance when emergencies happen. Like I’m not the one who ever knows exactly what to do, or understands what is happening. I’m not the one who leaps into the flames. I’m the one still wondering if this is actually fire or something that looks a lot like it. My mind trucks along slowly in crisis. I’m the woman who is standing there with Fine Cooking in her hand thinking, this isn’t so bad, while her brain slams around her head like a title-a-whirl, trying to rouse her from my blindness and stupidity.
I know this is true because I lived in NYC when 9/11 happened. I remember watching the TV thinking, “It’s not even 9am, no one will be in the tower yet….”
I kept thinking that, as flames engulfed the buildings, and another plane went in.
“No one will be there. It’s too early.” I was so sure. My brain was resolute on this fact.
I hung onto this so stubbornly that it was long minutes before I could even grasp what was happening and how many lives were at stake, and that people were, in fact, already in the building. Thousands of them were already in the building.
So yeah, I do not give good emergency brain. Truth.
So I’m startled when the woman says, “I’m not safe. Please call 911.”
And that’s when I see the dude, and the little girl running to catch up with him, taking three steps for his one, and he rounds the corner of the far aisle, and says, “Give me back that phone, bitch!”
I ask the woman, “Is that your girl?”
“No,” she says.
I’m thinking about how to get to the kid, but I know I can’t take someone else’s kid with me, because that’s kidnapping, like time in jail, kidnapping. I put everything on the front counter, including Fine Cooking. I say, “Call 911” to the very youngish woman, but I know she won’t. She’s just bug-eyed and looking around, not sure how to make this stop. The barely-adults in this case are useless. I have going for me old age and lots of experience. I decide to go with that.
I say to the woman, “Get in my car.”
I say it very strongly, like I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know. I’m ordering this woman around and it occurs to me she already has someone ordering her around, because he is screaming, “Bitch get back here!” and maybe I’m just another person bossing her around, telling her what to do.
But there’s no time to sort out our psycho-emotional hot spots.
“I have my car,” she says.
But I see him coming up on us, and I know he won’t let her drive away, and I don’t want to be outside the car with him. I already see how volatile he is.
I’m walking next to her now, toward the front door. I have my hand on the small of her back, pushing her forward.
“I’m not taking you anywhere. We’ll drive around the parking lot. You’ll be safe in my car.”
“Don’t you do that, bitch!” He is screaming now. We are all fast-walking, as if we are trying to keep this shit normal-looking as we pass people coming ino the store.
I hear his feet quicken. I hear the girl cry out. “Stop!”
I shout, “Run!”
And the two of us take off into the parking lot. And in my head I feel like I’m in an episode of Law and Order, or worse, Charlie’s Angels, or some shit where my hair is blowing, and I’m running to the car to escape the bad dudes. I’m agile and coordinated and on the lamb. But I know if you play back the tape, you’ll see the truth – a middle-aged lady in flip-flops flinging herself across the parking lot and stumbling into her husband’s Mini-Cooper.
The woman is fumbling to open the passenger side door. “He has a knife,” she yells at me.
“Get in the car!” I scream, as I open the locks. I can hear him coming up on us.
We hop in, but David’s Mini Cooper is a standard, so it takes a second to throw it into reverse, hit the gas. I back up the car and he is there. The dude is right there. Outside my window. Banging on it with his fists. Kicking the side of the car. He is screaming for her to get out. I think he can break the window. He pounds so hard, I can feel the reverberations in my body, my seat.
“Vanessa, you bitch!!!!”
His daughter is behind him, in tears, falling apart. She looks sad and traumatized, but also not shocked. Like this doesn’t seem surprising to her. She knows this. She knows him.
I throw the car into first, but not before he opens the door, wide, just rips it open.
I forgot to lock my door. Total rookie move. That would never happen on Charlie’s Angels.
The door swings a bit on the hinges, but stays open. I see all of him, he has his hand on the knife in his belt. His stance is like he is ready to street brawl. He cannot take his eyes off her. “Fucking bitch! You fucking bitch! You can’t leave me you fucking, fucked-up bitch!”
I’m watching the girl shrink behind him, begging him to stop. She is crouched low, holding her stomach, sobbing, but still standing on her feet.
Uh, this kid is breaking my fucking heart.
There is a moment where I think, he can, if he wants to, grab me and pull me out of the car. He could take the Cooper and Vanessa in one stealth move. All he has to do is step forward and grab my hand, which is easy because I’m leaning out of the car trying to grab the door to swing it closed.
But he hesitates. He doesn’t want to knife the nosey lady from Walgreens. He just keeps screaming he is going to kill her, cut her up. I pull the door shut, hit the locks and step on it. The woman next to me is near silent, dazed, while I spin through the parking lot. I drive with one hand, taking turns shifting and steering, and call 911 with the other. I give a long detailed account to the operator.
For what it’s worth, the cops never come.
We drive in circles around the parking lot. She goes from silent for a long time to open just a little. She spills a bunch of it. How he had been her boyfriend for 9 months. How she spoke to his mother in Mexico and she is scared for her son. How he is in a gang. How the gang has a black truck parked outside her parents house since last night. How he threatened to kill them, to kill them slowly. How her mother is a wreck. How he held Vanessa hostage in his house for days, because she wanted to leave him. How he threatened her and screamed at her. How he tried to choke her. How he didn’t punch her, but stuck his knife against her chest. How she made a plan to get out of the house. How she planned to get him to Walgreens in public, and get the phone, and get the eye of someone in the store. How she convinced him to go out for over-the-counter drugs to treat his daughter’s urinary tract infection.
I stop her there. “She has a UTI?”
We are quiet. She knows the next question.
“I asked him. He says he never touched her.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I don’t know…”
We are quiet again.
“Where is her mom?”
We drive in circles and wait for the cops for an hour. Vanessa calls her mom. They talk in Spanish. She is upset for herself and for the black truck. Meanwhile, the dude is calling Vanessa. He calls her over and over. And over. And over. It won’t stop. It’s like he calls, hangs-up, and calls. Hangs-up and calls. He calls until she has to turn off the phone.
But then she turns it on again.
Then, when she is sure she will have to handle this herself, she thanks me, gets in her own car (after I insist on checking the backseat) and she is gone.
The next day, I text her: Hi. Thinking about you. You safe?
She tells me she made a report with the police. That he calls her non-stop. That he says he will never go away. That she belongs to him. She tells me the police say she has to go to family court to get a restraining order.
I think, “She’ll be dead by then.”
I think, “What will this paper do to keep him away when the cops never come anyway?”
I text her a few days later. She writes, “Everything is better.”
But I have no idea what that means.
Edited to add: Some of my readers wrote to me to tell me kids often have UTI’s and that it can be caused by many things, like not wiping properly. I think, when I wrote this, I was so freaked out by the dude that I made a bunch of assumptions based on my fears. It does worry me that she had to ask him if he was touching her. That alone tells me something. But I jumped it a bit on the UTI. Apologies.