Dec. 14, 2013. It was nail-biting cold. The sort of cold that foreshadowed snowflakes in the coming days but still coddled them in gray-blanketed skies. Baltimore always made me feel that way: on edge, like the world was on the brink of burning up but then changed its mind last minute.
It was an ordinary night, or as ordinary as it could be. I wasn’t even frightened when I felt the icy steel against my temple. Or when he was shouting for my purse. Or when his shoulder brushed against mine. He even sported a ski mask and dressed in all black for the occasion. There’s something truly amusing about clichés, even those of appearance and even at moments like that.
Although much of that night is still a blur, I can’t seem to forget about the $28 — all the money I had on me. Maybe he was behind on his cable bill, or maybe he just wanted to go to the movies. Christmas was just around the corner, and a sweater paired with a scarf would have been an excellent gift.
Then he scampered away down a back alley, trying not to drop all of his new possessions, my possessions, like a newborn giraffe just learning to take its first few steps. Or maybe more like an umbrella frame — just a broken stilt of a man.
He took my cell phone, my purse, my peace of mind.
I vividly remember the authoritative voice of my father — a retired police detective — asking if I was hurt and telling me to stay calm. Stay calm? My entire universe had just turned retrograde, and even Dad, the quintessential cop, had no better advice than that? I guess it wasn’t his fault. We all seem to revert to clichés when we’re not sure how to help.
I wish I had been at the trial. But hey, I was in college; I had a class.
Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t trying to be noble. It’s not like I wanted to attend this legal spectacle to bear witness against a wrongdoing. I just wanted to look into his eyes, maybe even figure out his motives. I’m sure we could have worked it out that night. I surely would have given him something if he’d asked. Right?
Now that I think about it, I’m glad I wasn’t in the courtroom. I’m almost sure my stare would have burned holes through his shirt. Only three months’ probation — a small price for the many months I would be wallowing in self-pity. Sorry, another cliché.
I know what you’re thinking. But don’t worry, this isn’t a segue into why there should be stricter gun control laws, or how mass shootings on college campuses are more common now than they ever were. My traumatic experience isn’t an excuse to bombard you with gun-related statistics, like how there have been 205 school shootings since 2013, or how a total of 12,942 people were killed in the U.S. in 2015 in gun homicides, unintentional shootings or murder/suicides. No, this isn’t about that at all.
I’ll tell you what it’s about.
It’s about the ability of one person to take pride, security and dignity from another, by using the very object he feels gives him pride, security and dignity. It’s about desperation. You can throw survival of the fittest out the window. Who needs that when you have a gun?
It’s about not being a victim, even when the term might as well be painted on your forehead. It’s about not cringing when you hear your father unload his rounds after a long day of policing. It’s about holding back disgust while you listen to a local TV anchor report on shots fired in a neighboring town. But don’t worry, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.
The weeks following that night were even worse than that night. I had been swept into a nightmare, always looking over my shoulder, thinking twice before stepping out past dark. I mean, in a sense it was my fault. How dare I roam the streets flaunting that $28? I felt as if there had been a sign on my back that shouted, “Here, please take as you wish!” If anything, I was asking for it. I mean, I’m a woman, after all.
But I digress. That’s another subject for another day.
Everyone I saw after that night was a suspect. Everyone was a shadow, lurking and waiting. My grades plummeted. Obsessions festered. A lonely apartment became both the enemy and the cruel soother. All transactions were made with credit cards. I would never be caught dead with cash in my purse, even if someone held a gun to my head.
Oh, man, more clichés. They’re always amusing. Even at moments like that.
Wantagh native Rebecca Anderson reports for the Wantagh and Seaford Herald Citizens and attends Columbia University’s graduate program for journalism. Statistics from www.thetrace.org. Comments about this column? Randerson@liherald.com.