The Way In
by LAUREN CIERZAN
There’s a system to it, really. By calling it a system, you don’t have to call it fear. Scan the windows for movement as you sidle up the driveway. Look for shadows, lights once off now on. Ease open the door and listen. No footsteps, no strange shifting weight, no breathing. Move fast, pave a trail of brightness through every room, switch flipped before you step through a doorway. Reach the bedroom, lights on, door shut, check the closet, jerk at a sudden shiver in the floorboards and realize it’s only car tires on the main road running past or the neighbor’s stereo seeping through the walls or the dryer or the refrigerator or any other appliance alive with electricity, and then.
Then, you try to forget about the system. Bide your time and wait for the metal grunt of a roommate’s key. Forget until the stillness between midnight and dawn. Besides the cars ploughing wind on Main Street, there’s too much to hear in a quiet house. Try not to hear locks being forced, windows whining open. Try not to hear the wrongness of a stranger’s rustle. Ignore anything that is not the slow, warm breathing beside you and keep a hammer by the bed.
It started at thirteen. Before then, I remember only a bedtime nervousness, vague fear dissolved by night-lights and counting backwards from a hundred. Seventh-grade year, I read ‘In Cold Blood’ for the first time. Any safety I felt sleeping in a place with so many ways in, Truman Capote beat to a pulp and left for dead somewhere between describing the Clutter family in their quaint Kansas home and killer Perry Smith’s coldly quipped: “I thought he was a very nice gentleman…I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” In the period of sweet innocence prior to reading that sentence, I slept without second thoughts. There was no trying. It was what happened when I laid down, an on-or-off operation. Awake. Asleep. There was no feverish middle ground. Our house was old and fussy, the floors groaning with arthritis. Any sound loud enough to shake me conscious had, before, been chalked up to a ghost, at best, at worst, some goon from the Twilight Zone re-runs I watched through gapped fingers. Now, I knew. The occasional thumps, the shapes and shadows, had nothing to do with undead anything or some guy crawling around in criminally bad prosthetics. They belonged to psychopaths that were absolutely going to murder me and my family in our beds, regardless of our shining personalities. And so, the system was born.
There was an incubation period, a kind of festering. In Cold Blood was followed by consecutive crime drama benders. C.S.I. and its various location incarnations. 48 Hours. Law and Order, namely Special Victims Unit. I added deranged rapist to my list of night terrors. Pacing the library’s Criminal Justice aisles meant too many details memorized. If forced to be home alone, I triple-checked the locks, ran up the electric bill, and locked myself in my room with the family phone. Waiting, for the familiar crash of parents’ voices or imminent doom, whichever came first. Why do we feed our fears? There are reasons, maybe. False relief, the same as tonguing sore teeth or peeling a scab – induced pain, that added pressure, wheedles the original ache down to a joke. An unconscious grab at adrenaline or simple instinct or all of the above.
I nursed my anxiety like most people nurse grudges. Perhaps that’s all it ever really was – resenting a man for writing a book good enough to scare me neurotic. I slept with the lights on regardless. It was Chicago that straightened me out. Independence and self-awareness played their parts, but the city pulled the strings. College time came and I was lost. There was a feeling, a fist white-knuckling my heart, that dared me to go somewhere new and see if I made it out alive. Where I really wanted to be was nowhere, not home, not some unknown place. Nowhere sounded safe.
Sometime during a summer of willing that to be a possibility, Chicago came as a half-thought. I knew it vaguely, a city exclusive to school trips and family weekends. It was familiar and foreign and that was enough.
In fall, I went. Relatives hugged me goodbye and tucked halfjoking reminders of my inevitable assault, rape and/or murder into graduation cards. Cities were, after all, dens of sin and crime and so on. I went anyway. The first night, I stood in the dark of my dorm room and took in a fourteenth floor view, waiting for a chill to spasm in my chest. It coming meant clenched sheets, sweat, hours questioning the quality of the deadbolt. I studied the constellations of lit windows, the lake tugging patiently at the shoreline. Laid down and still looking, I thought about the lives behind each light long after sleep pulled me under.
For three years, the chill rarely paid a visit. The system rusted from lack of use. I had scares in Chicago, as does every other person living there. There’s only so much you can expect from a million people fighting for the same job, the same bus seat, the same air. We are all quietly afraid of each other. Cynicism, likely, but mostly just animal nature. Despite those moments, the dark times I staggered through there, I always slept easy, the quilt half-on and the blinds open. The lives and the lights they tethered to kept a knowing calm. The smallness of my apartment was a strongbox, several stories’ worth of height an assurance. A bird in a nest.
Not long ago, I left. To be home had come to mean being with a someone two hundreds miles away, so boxes were packed and I watched the Sears (never Willis) Tower shrink in a rearview mirror. I live in a house now. A place with so many ways in. I thought I had forgotten, but the first nights here proved otherwise. Sleep kept light by noise, broken by tires biting pavement or books shifting on a shelf or gravel footsteps. The homeless community claims our driveway as a shortcut and I listen to shoes kicking stones past my window well after 3 a.m.
It’s lost some of its old edge. I wake less often, sweat-pricked rather than soaked. It’s soothing to share a bed. The tension will always be too familiar. It will always stab, shoot steel through my veins. But there’s a system to it, really. By calling it a system, I don’t have to call it fear.
The steps have stayed the same. The hammer hides on a nearby shelf. The chill never changes, frosting my ribs under piled blankets. Often, he does. Him. I see his face through closed eyelids, street lights strobing its features in the dark. It’s a shifting composite image, rifling through memories of every stranger to unnerve me with a stare. His eyes are pupil-less, black as a shark’s. The hand reaching for my doorknob is always meaty, always callused and cracked to shit. I hate that hand, and I hate him, a man that doesn’t exist. Sleep comes only because I know one thing. I’ll be ready for that moment he opens the door.
Lauren Cierzan is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Michigan. She tumbls here.
Photographs by Todd Hido.