Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Intruder Alert

                                                                                     {image by Nixie Michelle}

Lead him away from the children.

It was the only thought running through my mind as I stumbled through the dark hallway of my home. I banged my arm against the wall loudly, knowing the intruder would follow me as soon as he had recovered from the vicious attack in the bedroom. I frantically groped my way to the front door. If I could just lure him out of the house, the kids might be safe. Finding the deadbolt and gripping the cold, brass knob, I twisted it to the left as the intruder entered the room.

“Sophia! Soph! Babe – it’s me!”

The voice was Mike’s. I turned around quickly to see. He stood there in the hallway in his white BVD’s and socks, staring at me with a perplexed look on his face. As the veil of sleep and shadows receded, I realized the stranger I’d been trying to escape was my husband.

“Jesus Christ, Babe! What the hell? It’s just me.”

Just moments before, I had woken in a panic. I sat up and looked around. Squinting in the darkness of the bedroom, I did not recognize the stranger breathing steadily underneath the pastel quilt beside me. I jolted out of bed, screaming. The stranger jumped up and ran around the bed, grabbing me roughly around the waist. He clasped his hand over my mouth to stifle my shrill siren. Like a wild animal, I bit down as hard as I could on the meaty hand before throwing a sharp elbow into his protruding gut. The burly man grunted and stumbled back into the darkness of the bedroom, freeing me from his grasp long enough for me to dash out of the room and down the hallway.

Now, standing at the front door, still poised to rip it open, I stared at the dark figure that I’d been running from. It was Mike, my husband of almost 14 years.

Leaning back against the wall next to the front door for support, I slowly slid down it into a crumpled heap on the cold linoleum floor. A rush of adrenalin had been coursing through my veins, and the stinging metallic residue I had felt in my groin, stomach, and armpits I could now taste and smell.

As terror and confusion gave way to relief and exhaustion, I cradled my knees and dropped my head onto my arms. Hot tears fell onto my skin. Apparently, I had been crying. Stray tears created dark blue streaks as they grazed my light blue cotton nightgown on their descent.

“What the fuck was that all about, Babe? I mean, shit - one minute I’m lyin’ there in bed and the next you’re screamin’ bloody murder. I thought there was someone in the house with a gun or somethin’.”

Mike held his right hand gingerly in his left. I noticed something dripping from his hand onto the linoleum and remembered I’d bitten him - hard.

“Oh my God, Mike, you’re bleeding!” After pausing, I added, almost in a whisper, “I’m so sorry.”

I stood up from my collapsed position on the floor of the entryway and shook my head, perhaps an attempt to also shake off the psychological trauma I had just endured. I tried to prepare myself for dealing with my husband’s wound and the crimson dots now collecting on the floor under him. But as the realization that I had physically harmed my husband in the safe confines of our home fully struck me, I couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with me. I’d never actually hurt anyone before. But dreams like the one I’d just had were happening more often, almost every night now, and the sense of doom was increasing with each one. Filled with overt warnings to escape, to grab my children and get out of the house, they rattled me awake. I would sit upright, trembling, often covered in a thin film of cold sweat, my throat tight, stifling a scream.

There had been a few other nights when I’d acted out. One night I ran into Jackson’s room and picked him up from his crib and stood there for a moment, waiting for whatever had terrified me to materialize. Blinking, I forced myself to see through the cloud of my dream, finally realizing that my children and me were home, safe. I carefully placed my slumbering son back into his crib and covered him with a blanket before creeping back into bed with Mike, who had never woken up.

Fully upright and finally feeling a bit more stable, I stepped toward my husband. I took Mike’s injured hand and cradled it carefully in my own, leading him to the hallway bathroom. He flipped on the switch and we both squinted in the harsh, fluorescent light before assessing the injury. Thick drops of blood dripped into the freshly scrubbed sink, spattering the otherwise pristine white bowl. I turned on the cold water, rinsing the crimson droplets in a swirling pattern down the drain. The design reminded me of an art project I’d done with the kids at the daycare, in which they had attached paper plates to an old record player, turned it on, and squeezed red paint from a recycled ketchup bottle onto the spinning paper plate.

“I’m sorry, Mike,” I apologized again in a whisper.

I was now overcome with exhaustion. As an obedient Christian wife and mother, my biggest worries and fears consisted of simple, everyday household occurrences - finding a missing shoe right before the school bus would arrive, running out of graham crackers, or making arrangements to get to Couples Bible Study on time. I could handle the daily rigmarole, but waking up in terror in the middle of the night on a somewhat regular basis was beginning to take its toll on me.

My shoulders drooped as I concentrated on cleaning my husband’s wound. I reached my arm around Mike to unroll a few loops of toilet paper, folding it into a thick padded square, and held it to his injured palm. The bite marks were deep. I applied pressure and stood for a while looking at our reflection in the harsh glare of the bathroom mirror. Mike was gazing at the thin line of cracked and yellowed caulking around the sink.

“I need to caulk that.”

He sounded like a Muppet speaking through his yawn. He had already forgotten my midnight panic attack and was concentrating on another task to add to his long list of unfinished household repairs.

I stepped into the hallway onto the brown shag carpeting, slightly crisp with age, to get a Band-Aid and some Bactine from the first aid kit in the kitchen. I returned to the bathroom and took in the stark sight of my husband standing there over the sink, eyes closed and mouth open. His hand had strayed from the running water and now rested limply on the edge of the sink. Mike was a stocky, barrel-chested man, with the build of a long retired football player. With his head tipped back, it gave the illusion that it sprang almost directly from his shoulders. The loose, mottled, pink folds of skin on the back of his neck reminded me of a package of vacuum-sealed hot dogs. Wiry, white hair grew wildly out of his shoulders, chest, and back, appearing in a thick tuft out of the top of his tighty-whities, like a tangle of fishing twine. He was still wearing tube socks, just like he did every night for the past seventeen years, pulled up to the middle of his muscular calves. His pale stomach resembled a flesh colored fanny pack hanging over the tight elastic waistband of his briefs.

I sighed. Watching him standing there like that, in the Costco underwear and socks that I always bought for him in a six pack, I tried to see in him the man I’d fallen for so long ago. Back when I was eighteen, I’d described Mike to my friends as an older, experienced, hard-working blue collar guy with a big heart. He had reminded me of a fair-haired Christopher Reeves. But this man in the bathroom may as well have been a stranger.

An unwelcome thought dashed through my mind. The pit of my stomach churned and a sharp, prickling fear crept up the back of my neck, as if my intuition was screaming from my deeper subconscious, warning me that something was very wrong. I found myself recalling an incident the year before when Mike had been accused of sexual harassment by a co-worker at the hospital where he worked as a scrub tech. I’d stood by my husband, a Promise Keeper and leader of his Men’s Accountability Group, like a dutiful Christian wife should. And yet, something continued to nag at me. Finally, it crystallized in a single, stark question - could Mike be the stranger in my dream who was the threat to my children and me?


I hadn’t intended to say this word out loud, but I did, and forcefully. It pierced the stillness of the house and roused Mike from his trance. He snorted and jerked his head upright, pulling his hand from the running water. I stepped behind him and put my hand on his back. I patted Mike reassuringly, and then traced light circles soothingly through the wiry hairs.

“It’s okay. Here, let me help.”

I spritzed the Bactine onto his hand, which now sported a bright red half-circle from my dental impression, and covered it with two Scooby Doo Band-Aids. I turned off the faucet and whispered to my husband that he should head back to bed.

“Everything’s okay now, Honey. Get some sleep.”

I wiped out the sink, being careful to polish the faucet, and looked up at my own reflection. Amidst the specks of dried toothpaste in the bathroom mirror, I saw a woman with mousy brown hair that hung in chunks over her shoulders. Tired, green eyes stared back at me, and I noticed thin new lines etched into the thin skin around them. A woman, the same one who remembered being called “cute” or “pretty” years ago, stared back at me - a tired, worn-out, older version of that young girl. I had gained weight, “baby weight” as I liked to put it, and no one had called my pretty for a very long time. I wondered if my bed was actually filled with not just one, but two strangers.

When had this happened? How had this become my life? This wasn’t the life I had imagined as a young woman with the world in front of me. This wasn’t a dream-come-true story, like the ones that filled the novels I’d poured over in college English Lit classes. But this was my life. I was proud to be a loyal wife and a good mother. I liked having a family. And anyway, I thought, how do you know if you belong in the life that you’ve chosen, or the life that happens to you? Maybe my life was not a fairy tale, I reasoned, but it wasn’t as bad as my nightmares, either. I decided reality is like suburbia - the “in-between” of what you thought you wanted when you were young and what your life becomes when you grow up. Maybe purgatory was a better comparison - it’s not the greatest place in the world, but not the worst, either.

I rubbed a square of soapy wet tissue on the mirror, trying to erase a few of the toothpaste splatters, but decided to leave it for the morning. Tossing the wad of tissue into the garbage next to the toilet, I flipped off the light and headed back to join my now snoring husband.

I stealthily crawled into bed. I noticed that my hands were still slightly trembling. As I curled up near the edge of the bed, I told myself that the lingering dread I could not dismiss was due to the bad dream, not reality. Nevertheless, I lay motionless, silently praying for the light of dawn.

Exerpt from ILLUMINATION: How One Woman Made Light of Darkness to be released as an E-Book in November 2010