Suburban Girl

The crimes that would be perpetrated against me were clear. The kidnappers would ascend to the second floor of our suburban home, slice past the screen, pry open the window and find me, the victim, lying innocently in my bed. There would be two men: one fat, and one skinny; one stupid one smart. They would tell me not to scream, that they wouldn’t hurt me so long as I kept quiet, then they would wrap me in a blanket, toss me over a shoulder, and whisk me into the night.

This was my fantasy as a six-year-old.

Coming from the suburbs, my parents gave us warnings, but we were never close enough to truly understand life’s dangers. After dinner, we had instructional, after-school-special type talks about house fires, drugs, alcohol, sex, kidnappings—all hazards presented with the comfort of a casserole. My father mapped out the fire escapes from each of our bedroom windows. His deterrent, sex talk hinged on a Jonathan Edwards Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God type metaphor: “It’s just like fire, you don’t want to get too close,”—the idea of burning or catching was supposed to make sex something to fear—like hell.

My father, however, wasn’t a religious person, though he once stuttered through an abstinence-only sex talk for the sake of my Catholic mother, who sat, pursed lipped, kicking my father under the table to goad us towards a pure life. When I was sixteen, he furtively tucked Planned Parenthood pamphlets under my door, as if to say, “Self-immolation or not, just, please don’t get pregnant.”

Once my father made a family tree and circled the names of all of the alcoholics. The ones who died from alcoholism also got a star. My hereditary line hung heavy with circles and stars. While I was supposed to take heed of my genetic penchant for drinking, I hung the family tree full of floating shapes above my bed and imagined the wandering, starry, perilous lives of those alcoholics. I wondered what stories they would have to tell.

Each of these conversations only sparked more questions for me, opening up a world and reality that my parents had worked desperately to keep hidden.

When it was time for bed, I would beg my father to go through the stories again, “Do the kidnapping one!” And he would repeat the lessons, “Well, you may be alone and someone could come along and grab you,” and he would tickle me and I would laugh and interject, “What could happen? What could happen?” He never got to that part. I knew it was something terrible, but that terrible, was, at the very least, exciting.

Early one school year, a vibrantly horrified PTA was buzzing because a man in windowless van had attempted to abduct a girl in our neighborhood. I overheard the details: a masked offender and a sliding door. He snatched up the 5th grader from her bus stop, but she kicked and screamed and made so much noise that he suspended the mission. The take-away here was never to get in a van with a stranger, make noise and try to fight off an assailant if you are having a near-abduction experience. I stood close and listened to the outraged mothers continue to invoke the horror: “I just can’t believe it. So, so awful. Can you imagine? And in our neighborhood? I never thought something like this could happen.”

I had only one feeling and it wasn’t fear: I was jealous. And I saw opportunity.

I knew there must be a kidnapper lurking somewhere in the subdivision. I wanted a crack at being the victim. The next day, I found a major intersection in the suburb—there were four very CRITICAL stop signs. I sat down on the curb, and peeled string cheese. I crossed my legs and tried to be seductive.

I already knew what I would do, which, was the direct opposite of what I was instructed to do. If they offered me candy, I would smile wide, like I had never tasted candy in my life. If they said they needed help finding a lost dog, I would say, “Hmm, I think I saw him up the street! Let me help!” If they said that my parents had been in a car accident, I would tilt my head naively and ask, “Really? An accident? What happened? Are they okay?” fully aware that we would not be on our way to the hospital.

Once at the mall, I hid in a clothes rack until my family had wandered off. I stepped out and waited for a perpetrator. My kidnapping plan was foiled within 20 minutes when I was picked up by the security guards. They took me to a private room where I watched monitors of surveillance cameras scanning the mall for my family. I almost hesitated, when they zoomed in on my father in his polo shirt, khaki pants and loafers, my mother’s tapered Jordache jeans and the bobbling, innocent heads of my brother and sister. Begrudgingly, I conceded and sighed, “Yes, that’s them.” A few minutes later, my parents entered the security room and took me in their arms. Before I could engineer another escape, I was strapped in the mini-van and shipped back to the suburbs.

When I was 13, I started to sneak on the bus to downtown Seattle. I looked longingly down dark alleys, watched homeless people, and observed the twitching drug addicts and trolling prostitutes on the back streets near Pike Place Market. Getting closer didn’t invoke fear. I wanted to understand these lives that were so foreign to me. I saw that there was something mysterious in a life of danger—like it is a life that has been lived.

Leaving for college meant that I was finally breaking away. I thought about the places that seemed most dangerous, the ones that invoked scenes of crime and fear and mystery. I thought about the seediest place in the country—a place full of sordid characters, where I imagined dead bodies, and muggings, and clandestine desert burials.

Tucson, Arizona.

This was a starting point. We took midnight trips across the border into Mexico. A few years later I moved to Manhattan and lived in an ominous studio apartment on Avenue D. Later, I started cross-country trips alone staying in motels with flashing signs off the interstate. I have parked my car and slept in New Orleans alleys post-Katrina. I have wandered alone in the backstreets of Bangkok, climbed to rooftops with drifters in Morocco and jumped on the back of motorcycles with strangers in Vietnam.

Nothing.  Danger has always seemed to permeate and lurk, but never to touch me.

At night, I still fall asleep to the lull of police procedurals and real-life crime stories: 48 Hours MysteryLaw and Order SVU– Dateline and CSI. I throw words like “perp” into my daily vocabulary. Sometimes I have fantasies about finding a dead body. On my morning run, I have looked for a protruding limb, a noticeable stench coming out of a trash bin, or a swollen body, floating in off the coast.

I think if I do stumble upon a dead body, that maybe I wouldn’t call the police, like I would already know how to handle it—“Looks like we’re going to need a rape kit for this one.” I have learned the investigative techniques: scrubbing the fingernails for DNA, the examination of blood spray patterns, fingerprinting methods, and how to test skin and fibers for gun powder.  I know expressions like rigor mortis and putrefaction. I have considered the role of the entomologist and the stages of larvae or the settling of blood that can determine the hour of death.

I have explored near desolate paths and alleys, engaged recklessly, never indifferent but affixed to the possibility of a crime. But, there is always a distance. The windows are still there. I gaze freely. These are the things that could never happen to me. These are fantasies, only a suburban girl can have.

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