Chico sweltered in the summer months, as did many of the northern California agricultural areas; this day was no exception. There was stillness, an oppressive heat that followed us with every movement, each box and piece of furniture we moved. Sweat rivulets decorated our t-shirts as we combined our two lives into that little house located on the edge of respectable Chico. The sad, run-down neighborhoods with suspected nefarious activities were just blocks away.
This 1940’s rental was actually a converted garage on an alley behind its original house. Painted a pale green with forest green window trim, it was my fantasy house. Compact, it had everything we needed. This realized childhood fantasy home included a small patch of green healthy lawn and empty flowerbeds, which begged for daisies or verbena to decorate them. Completing the quaintness, this miniature yard was surrounded by a white picket fence. It was barely 600 square feet: a living room, two small bedrooms, bathroom and a kitchen that just fit a table to seat three. I was going to make this house a home for Dennis and me!
Forty years ago it was considered scandalous to live as a couple outside the sanctity of marriage. I did not care; society would not dictate my life’s parameters. Divorce was a part of my childhood narrative: Mom’s acrimonious one and then my elder sister’s marriage executed out of desperation and doomed from the start. I vowed to take my leap into marriage only after much thought and practice. At 15, I vowed to my mother, “I will live with the man I believe I might marry before I make a legal marriage commitment.” This goal was coming to fruition.
Once the couch, bed, and varied boxes were relocated to the new abode and our medium sized McNab/Queensland cross dog confined in the little side yard, Dennis left for his ranch hand job in Grass Valley, two hours away. I would miss his energy and support. He was different than the many young men I had dated by that point in time. Just 23, he exuded self –confidence and was secure in his sexuality. The feisty, opinionated woman I was at 22 never threatened Dennis. He embraced who I was with no designs on controlling or changing me; he had unconditional positive regard for me. This serious commitment with him felt right.
Dennis’ leave-taking was shoved emotionally aside. I was filled with excitement for this “leap” and my energy was its own buzzing entity! Inside and out, up and down, lift and push. I moved, sorted, hung, tucked, scrubbed and unpacked like a whirlwind for several hours. I was so jazzed to be fulfilling this long-time goal with a man who seemed to be in my life for all the right reasons.
First I created a path between the boxes in which to walk through the small living room put the kitchen table in place under the small west window, and our plastic dishes in the tired, white painted pine cupboards. Next I focused on the stove. Globbed with the greasy residue from past tenants’ meals, I sprayed the oven racks with Easy-Off and then carried them outside to the lawn where the strong fumes would dissipate. The kitchen was too small to allow them to stay in that poorly ventilated room. Once the designated time was complete for the chemicals to work, I brought them back into the small, green-tiled kitchen to rinse. By this time, it was nearly midnight. I knew this wondrous move-in high needed a break. Monday and my Chico State on-campus job loomed. It was time for bed to prevent a zombie status the next day.
This house’s bathroom was tiny. With marbled green and black linoleum that was lifting at the corners, it also had a bathtub, a toilet and a 1940’s pedestal sink with separate handles for hot and cold. These three pieces were in such close proximity I felt I could brush my teeth in the sink and shave my legs in the tub at the same time! About two feet above the toilet was a single paned, clear glass window with no curtain. I had it propped open to snatch whatever airflow the steamy July evening would share. I wonder if anyone can see in that window? rattled in my head as I climbed into the tub. I assured myself that if I could not see out, who could see in?
I found the warmth of the claw foot bathtub water a sweet release from my hectic tempo for the past five hours. I did not need a shower to sing; a bathtub song was as perfect a way to celebrate how great I was feeling. As my voice crashed through the hot air, I caught a slight movement from my left peripheral vision. Without turning to look, my emotional mind took over.
Oh, the breeze is moving the tree branch near the window.
Then my logical self roared back.
No, Judy…it is July 1st hot as hell without a fucking night breeze, and there is no damn tree next to that window.
This thought resonated and could not be denied. I turned my head left to look fully at the window. I froze. There, in the right corner of the window frame, was a sliver of a male face, tuft of a brown haired buzz cut, right brown eye seeing me naked, vulnerable, and terribly alone.
Anger surged through me as if a switch had been pulled. How dare he invade my space, my private place, and my citadel? How dare he make me feel unsafe in my own home? Later I was to think: and why hadn’t our damn dog barked? I knew Ben was mellow but fiercely devoted to Dennis; perhaps I didn’t merit a safety bark? My enraged response pierced that now early morning hour.
“You get out of here!!!!”
I heard the dead leaves in our garden crunch under his feet as he strolled out of the yard via the picket gate that separated our converted garage house from the house in front. His languid pace was sinister; there was no distress on his part for being caught. Why? Fear strangled my anger; I shook all over.
I called the Chico police. An officer was there within ten minutes. Our dog did not bark at him either. Some watchdog. After determining there were indeed footprints outside the bathroom window and checking around the house’s east side, the officer’s advice was, “Close and lock all your windows and lock the front door.”
Thanks, buddy. It is 90 degrees, swelteringly humid and this house has no air conditioning. All right.
I understand now that his advice was all he could really give, but I wanted to eradicate the episode completely. Why couldn’t he magically channel the pervert and lock him up?
I did follow his instructions, going to each old, creaky window, slamming the single paned windows down. There was only a front door that I closed and locked. Then, dressed in a pink and white striped, short-sleeved seersucker robe, I lay down on top of the blue and white floral quilt on our double bed. Staring at the ceiling, I did not sleep a wink. The funky rose-patterned wallpaper danced before me. My mind was running on “What if?” all night long. What if he returns and rapes me? What if he returns and murders me? What will I do? I was yearning for a good, old-fashioned wooden baseball bat to bash the offender in the head!
After rewinding the scene in my head over and over as well as my reaction and what preceded the violation, I realized my creepy peeper had to have been a neighbor who saw Dennis leave and knew I was alone. By going outside with the foam-covered racks, I made myself visible: approximate age, gender, size, etc. I verified just whom Dennis left behind.
Dawn arrived and found me exhausted from the lack of sleep and my thoughts running wild. I made my way to work, riding my bike through quiet walnut tree-lined summer streets. Daytime gave me a semblance of safety; for which I was grateful. Due to the time of the peeping incident I was only able to get in touch with Dennis the next afternoon. He lived with his maternal aunt and uncle during his workweek. He was angry; he wanted to find this man and “make him hurt.” His sense of helplessness was evident. I appreciated his reaction but knew there were no real options. We were struggling college students, each paying our own way and with another year to complete; he could not quit his summer job to help assuage my sense of fear. It was my issue, and I needed to figure out how to cope.
Once at work, I talked and talked about the experience. I worked in the Advising Office with professionals whose job it was to listen and problem solve. I had many great listeners; I chose female staffers because I felt they could relate. Many just listened; some empathized or told me of their similar stories. These chats did help to quell my sense of powerlessness. Often statistics were shared with me that people who choose to peep seldom do more than just that. Whether that was true did not matter; it served to make me feel a bit safer.
All echoed, however, “Lock your doors and windows!”
Of course. But I could not abide by the locked windows in Chico’s typical triple digit summer temperatures.
And cope I did. Watching certain television shows at night were nixed. Any themes of violence would conjure ugly images of my own safety with the creeper living so close. Newspapers were out. The reporting of violence seemed to be rampant in this format. Talking. I shared with friends, family and coworkers my fear of his return and how vulnerable I felt. This gave me a sense of release and garnered their feedback of positivity. “You can get through this” helped me to move forward. My journal was quick to fill with my thoughts; feelings of anger and fear when I felt the people in my world were tiring of my possibly illogical fears. It was a positive start on the way to putting the intruder’s impact behind me. “Start” is the operative word. He was not done with me.
Pit baths in the dark became my nightly ritual. Without the light on, no one could see in. And there was no way I was going to get into the tub, even in the dark, to bathe again. It made me feel too vulnerable. So about two weeks after the first incident, a Wednesday evening around 9:30 p.m., I was washing my face in front of the sink with the light was off. I heard leaves crunch outside the bathroom window. My intuitive self became alert. The sound reverberated because someone or something heavier than a dog was walking on the leaves. I climbed up on the toilet to see out. There, seven feet from the window, was a man standing on the other side of the waist high white picket fence, leaning to enable a view through the bathroom window. He had not heard my climbing movement but did not act startled when I growled,
“You get the hell outta here…”
I assumed it was the same man. Too dark to make out distinct features, he most certainly was male given his masculine silhouette. Once again, he strolled away with no sense of urgency. It was as if it was his right to look through my window at me. Grrrrr.
I was not going to call the police. What could they do? Not one damn thing. This time, due to the earlier hour, I was able to get ahold of Dennis, as he was my first thought with this second incident. His uncle answered the phone, passing it to Dennis. His advice was, “This is what you are going to do: call Cliff and have him come over with his gun.”
So I called Cliff, a former high school friend of Dennis’ who was also a Chico State student. Living just two miles away, he came as quickly as he could. I was so grateful. A very calm and reflective kind of guy, he was just what I needed to balance out my sense of urgency. “It will be alright now,” he said kindly. He stationed himself on our couch, which was on the wall across from the front door. His shotgun was stationed strategically on the rug below him. I slept much better this time!
The voyeur never returned the rest of the summer. And he certainly did not try anything once Dennis returned home to stay at the close of August. My guess is he realized shortly after the second incident that I did not live alone, and Dennis’ bearlike countenance was something he did not want to challenge. Was he ever caught? Did I ever get a sense that I saw him in area? Honestly, I rarely saw anyone outside in that neighborhood. Because our little home was a converted garage on an alley, we did not witness day-to-day comings and goings.
I gained two important things as a result of this man’s need to invade my personal space: an expanded sense of self-empowerment and empathy. Dennis did return home on the weekends, but I had to learn to feel my own sense of power to cope during the week alone in that house where I had experienced the violation. He could not do that for me. As far as how he felt about the incident? He expressed how it was difficult to relate to my situation. It truly is a very gender specific experience. I am an example of our culture’s gender conditioning; I do not react to insults in a physical way as many men tend to. Dennis’ first response was to assert that he wanted to hurt this man. I too felt anger but knew my interior thoughts of fear would be my biggest challenge. Certainly Dennis’ presence during the week at our home would have helped, but that was neither practical nor smart. Sharing my feelings with caring friends and family and journaling my thoughts of rage, vulnerability and growing self-empowerment were tools that were instrumental in this exercising of self-advocacy and healing. And then there is empathy. I knew that a man looking through my window at me naked in the tub couldn’t compare to a sexual assault. As a result, my respect for women who survive any level of violent crimes soared. How brave they are. I can only imagine the extensive self-talk and sharing they need to do to be able to move beyond such societal ugliness. Not only am I the sum of my experiences, but also I am how I choose to respond and grow emotionally to these life happenings.