Last night, there were shouts poking at my dreams. I lay caught, in and out of consciousness until Peter’s voice pushed me awake.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
I was now fully aware of the shrieking that for so long had been sticking needles in my sleep, the occasional low growl of a man’s voice, and a continual thud that sounded like a body being thrown against a chain link fence.
Peter leaned over me and peered out our window: open, no screen. For weeks now we had chosen the vivid sounds of the city over the crushing third-floor summer heat. The fight was taking place across the street and halfway down the next block from us, but it sounded like it was happening only feet away. Peter was sitting up.
“Are you going to go out there?” I had said the first thought that came to me.
“I’m going to call the police.”
As I listened to him give our address and start to explain the situation to the operator, I couldn’t help but notice his willingness to call them so quickly. Peter, like me, was wary of law enforcement’s ability to always help people, especially people who didn’t share our white skin. A few weeks previously, I had come across an American-Indian man named Louis lying in the grass alongside Hiawatha bikeway. It was night. Louis was barely conscious from alcohol, and his ankle was twisted awkwardly. Everyone else just kept on biking.
When I called Peter, unsure of what to do, he was pretty adamant that law enforcement might make the situation worse. As it turned out, someone else had called the police anyway. When they came, I couldn’t help but marvel at their lack of empathy.
Yet now Peter was the one calling the police. Like most people, he still relied on them to come to the rescue when someone’s safety was in jeopardy. And, frankly, I didn’t have a better idea. I was still stupid from sleep and hadn’t even managed to sit up and look out the window.
Peter wasn’t done talking to the operator when I heard the screech of wheels on asphalt.
“I think they drove away,” I told him.
He repeated the information to the operator and I heard her ask in a monotone voice if they should still send a car.
“What language were they speaking?” Peter asked after he hung up. “I’m going to talk with the police again tomorrow.”
“Spanish,” I said.
“I thought they were speaking Somali, but maybe you’re right.”
I began to doubt myself. I didn’t speak Spanish. Peter spoke a little. I held little hope that anything was going to come from this police call.
Later, we were too horrified to fall asleep. Peter held me tightly. I marveled at how, as a woman, I felt no fear in his arms, only comfort and security.
“I’m so lucky you don’t hurt me,” I murmured.
“It’s sad that you have to feel that,” he replied.
I thought of the woman outside and wondered where she was right then. My mind played with different scenarios. She could be badly injured, raped or even dead. Perhaps that type of thing happened to her all the time. Or perhaps this one night would scar her for the rest of her life.
I wondered if any of the neighbors had heard — if their windows had also been wide open, breathing in the city, or if they had promptly shut out the noise, grumbling that this type of thing happens all the time. Or perhaps they too had tried calling the police.
I wondered how often fights occurred outside my window. Like the sound of sirens, the sounds of fighting seemed to frequent my dreams. It sounded familiar.
The next morning, my body felt frozen, like it had been injected with lead during the night. I warmed up a mug of rice milk and wandered outside to sit on one of the couches on the front porch. Shivering, I curled my knees up into my chest. The temperature had dropped significantly since the day before.
I looked down the street to where the fight had occurred and that sickly feeling thickened in my chest, sucking any remnants of happiness out of me. It occurred to me that perhaps this was a small glimpse of what trauma felt like. Except, if I had actually seen it with my own eyes, it would have probably felt much worse. And if it was someone I knew and loved, I might not get over it for a long time.
And if it had happened to me, then it might always live inside of me.
I almost felt embarrassed by how trauma-free my life had been. I was aware of a growing desire to do something to prevent domestic violence, but I wondered how long that sentiment would last. How traumatized did we have to be before we are willing to fight for something? Before we are willing to never stop fighting?
But, if we are too traumatized, would we even be able to fight at all?
My housemate Emily came outside and joined me, a small bowl of yogurt, strawberries, and granola in her lap. When she asked how I was doing, I hesitated. I wanted to be honest with her, but it wasn’t even eight in the morning and she was about to head to work. I wasn’t sure that my story would be a sunny start to her day. Lately, though, I had been complicating the notion that I always needed to make things pleasant for people.
After I shared what happened, she told me about the night that our housemate Gabe had moved in. She had taken him on a tour around our East Phillips neighborhood and, when they got to Lake Street, they had come across a younger woman beating an older woman up in a van. It was night. The ceiling light illuminated their fight.
“I think they were Somali,” she added, almost apologetically.
Gabe and Emily had stopped and stared. But the women noticed them and waved them away. “It’s ok, it’s ok,” they cried.
Ultimately, Gabe and Emily kept on walking, but Emily kind of wishes they had done something.
I wondered what I would have done in that situation. Would I have tried talking to them? What would I have said? Would I have tried to stop them?
I had an image of myself talking to two little kids. “That’s not ok. That’s not how we treat one another.” Who was I to try and tell them that? But it still wasn’t ok.
I hated to admit it, but it seemed like the smarter thing to do was to indeed call the police. But what would that do besides perhaps convince the woman that perhaps, next time, she should do the beating up in the privacy of her home instead of out on the street?
I had no sense that this woman doing the beating was any worse of a person than Emily and I. But she had a different sense of acceptable ways to treat other people – in all likelihood, neither the police nor myself could do anything to change that.
The lead feeling in my chest migrated down to my stomach and up to my throat. I remembered that I had come outside with the intention of meditating and told Emily that.
“Right now?’ she asked.
Though my housemates and I often practiced meditation on the front porch when it was warm enough outside, I realized that it probably seemed kind of bizarre that I wanted to start right in the middle of our conversation. But I didn’t really care. I was done talking.
As I settled into a cross-legged position, it occurred to me that perhaps we spent too much time on the front porch with our eyes closed.