By Joseph Lewis
Of all the things I remember the night it happened, I can’t for the life of me remember why I went to the grocery store that night. It might have been more beer that I didn’t need, or a meal for the next day. I don’t even remember if I bought what I was looking for. I doubt it. The world in which I left my apartment that evening in the rain to go to the grocery store was vastly different than the one that was thrust upon me when I left it. Had I known, had I felt even the smallest hint of strangeness or dread or doubt, then I never would have ventured out into the rain and driven to the store. Maybe I did have those feelings and I ignored them anyway.
I lived alone then. I had lived in such a way for many years, and despite the protests and inquisitions from non-single friends and family alike, I was happy where I was. My space was mine and mine alone, and only I dictated my nights, my weekends. My life. Friends were worried I was depressed, that I was blocking something out by being alone, and I had always wondered why Americans equate being alone to loneliness. I had lots of friends and saw them when I chose to. It was at a time in my life when I found the constant invites and social obligations exhausting. I grew up in a loud household, and I just wanted peace in my adult life. Of course, that all changed the night of the grocery store trip. I lost those friends quite a long time ago. But at least no one now can accuse me of being alone.
So, into the rain I trekked out. It must have been 8 or 9pm, not late but not early. But it was a Friday. It was a Friday, and I had the whole weekend to myself. I usually did, if I wanted it that way. The store was busier than I expected, and I assumed everyone was out grabbing their weekend goodies. I knew exactly where all my items were, yet I chose to go down every aisle anyway, even the superfluous ones. I still don’t remember why. I was zoning off between my list and the messages on my phone. A few of my friends had asked me to meet them out for drinks, go to a party, watch a movie. But it had been a long week, and I wanted nothing more than to stay inside and enjoy my own time. I ad-libbed and grabbed a few things that weren’t on my list. I still can’t see them in my mind’s eye. I don’t remember what music was playing on the speaker, or how loud the customers were being. All the familiar ambient sounds blended together. I remember hearing the rain pelting down on the tin roof. That much I remember. It was raining so hard, why didn’t I just stay in? I ask myself every day. But the moment I saw her, my life changed forever.
A younger woman, closer to my age, turned the corner into my aisle and seemed to be looking right at me. I remember the look of fury, the pure hate, the anger on that face as she looked directly at me. I remember thinking “Thank God she’s not looking for me.” But then, as it turned out, she was.
“There you are!” She screamed as she stormed down the aisle, walking so hard that even the items on the shelves seemed to shake. “Who the hell do you think you are, disappearing like that!” She was looking directly into my eyes. I’d never seen her before, not anywhere. I’m good with faces.
I turned around and saw no one behind me. She must have mistaken me for someone else, I thought, but the closer she got the angrier she appeared. I could feel my heart speed up and had instantly wished I had stayed at home. The crappy weather nights always seemed to lure the wild ones out from their hiding places. She could have been on something. Those types stumbled in there, too. Just walk right by her and you never have to see her again, I thought. And I did just that. I began to walk by her, and then she reached out and grabbed my cart.
“Don’t!” she screamed. “Don’t you dare ignore me. Don’t you ever walk past me without acknowledging me again. How dare you!” And then she pushed my cart hard-she was clearly stronger than me-and pushed me up against a stack of shelves.
“Miss, you’ve mistaken me for someone else,” was as all I could get out. My face turned red from embarrassment. In the corners of my eyes, I could see other people hearing the commotion and watching us.
“Look at you.” She began taking the items from my cart and throwing them on the floor. “Always fucking up simple orders. None of this was on my list. You’re only ever thinking about yourself. Do you even know how lucky you are that you have me? Do you know any other woman on this planet who would put up with your shit besides me?”
I tried to push the cart away, but I felt myself pinned up against it. She was grinding her teeth so hard I thought they might shatter right there in her mouth. It was getting hard to breathe, and I thought I might pass out. I turned my head and saw a member of the staff walk down the aisle walkie-talkie in hand. I’d encountered crazy people in public before. Shouting, wandering around aimlessly while others pretend to not notice them or laugh at them outright. I felt like my position was plain to see. That I’d never felt saner and more lucid than that moment when this woman had pinned me up against shelves with bloodlust in her eyes. I saw hope and help coming. How wrong I was.
The manager did not look at her but instead looked at me, from head to toe, with a look of disgust. “Ma’am, is there a problem here?”
The woman seemed to be pushing the cart harder into me. I felt dizzy. “My dumbfuck husband can’t seem to get out of his own way. You’re just causing a scene now, Jim? See everyone looking?”
Jesus, she knew my name. I looked at the manager, who still looked at me like I was the one pushing the cart. “Sir, I have no idea who this woman is. I have never seen her before in my life. Please ask her to leave me alone.”
Then the woman started crying. She relented from the cart and I could breathe again. She crouched down on the floor and began to cry like an animal. “He always does this to me. See how mean he is to me?”
The manager knelt next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “Ma’am, would you like me to call the police?”
She shook her head violently. “No, I just want him to stop doing this to me.”
The manager looked up at me as if I’d killed his own mother. “You should be ashamed of yourself. I’m not going to call the police this time, but if I catch you abusing her here or anywhere else I won’t hesitate to call.” Other customers were lining up behind him, their numbers growing in strength. Of course, they’d believe her, I thought. They don’t know either of us. They probably just think I’m some abusive asshole. Fine. That’s fine. I’ll walk out of here and never come back again.
I pushed the cart back, tired and angry from the accusations. “Do whatever the hell you want. I’m leaving.”
“Asshole,” someone said as I walked by. I didn’t stop to take names. In the corner of my eye, I saw her crouch down and cry on the floor. I hope you find whomever it is you’re looking for. I walked out of the store into the rain, no groceries, nothing to show for my time. The world outside felt different. It felt as if eyes from some unknown dark places were watching me, as if the whole world had trapped me under some invisible thimble that I would always be a part of. I was tired, and I couldn’t wait to get home and sleep this one off. I’d never come here again, and I was annoyed that one crazy woman had ruined the most convenient shopping locations for me, but I could live with that. I’d drive to Mars if I knew that I wouldn’t run into her again.
I had half a bottle of wine at home waiting for me. It was empty once I got into bed and turned out the light. Outside, I could still hear the rain beating down on the rusted metal shell of my air conditioning unit. It sounded cold, and I was happy to be inside, and warm. I shut my eyes and tried not to replay the events that transpired just hours before. As I was dozing off, I swore I saw her face flash and stay on my retinas, the way the outline of the sun can if you stare at it too long. Imagine spending the rest of your life with that image literally burned into your eye, I thought, then chuckled.
The pounding was on my door, there was no doubt. I was the sole top floor unit. They must have the wrong door. Some drunken idiot forgot their apartment or went looking for their friends. It’s happened to others. I tried to chuckle it off. KNOCK, KNOCK! I thought of the event at the grocery store and my heart skipped a beat. That’s when I heard the jangling of keys at the door.
I sat up in bed. They have the wrong door; I could just go and tell them. But it was late, and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Lots of freaks out there, I knew that now. But the person outside my door stuck their key into the slot and turned it with ease. Then my door slammed open.
“Jim! Goddamnit Jim, where are you?!” her voice screamed in pained, angry, pure hating rage.
I recognized the voice before I even sat up in bed. It was from the woman in the grocery store. For a moment I panicked. Maybe she followed me home? That’s possible. She’s insane. But how did she get my key? Maybe mine fell out of my pocket? But then I would I have gotten in. So that explanation was less plausible. Maybe I left the key in the locks, and she found it? I looked over and saw my set of keys on the dresser. Fuck.
“Jim! Jim I know you’re in here!” I could hear her stomping down the hardwood floors of the hallway. I jumped out of bed and ran to the door which had no lock. I was dressed only in my boxers, and I didn’t like the visual possibility of a half-naked confrontation with this madwoman who would simply not leave me alone. I held the knob in my hand and pressed my weight up against it.
Knocks on my door. Angry. Hateful.
“Jim, wake the fuck up!”
I opened my mouth to speak but realized then that the fear had collapsed itself into me, and I was left speechless. She began to turn the doorknob, and with all my strength I pushed against it. But she was strong.
“Jim, let me the fuck in. This isn’t funny.” The cellphone on the dresser was too far for me to reach in order for me to call the police. Even with all my weight up against it, I could feel the sheer brute strength of her, turning the knob, opening the door and pushing me back into my own room. Finally, I relented. I stepped back quickly from the door and let her fall onto the floor while I ran over to dresser, grabbed my phone, and dialed 911. She looked up at me and screamed like an animal.
“Don’t you dare call them again! Don’t you dare!” She got back up onto her feet, ran over to me, and began slapping me header and harder as I shielded myself from her blows, which stung hard against my bare torso. Slap after slap, each hit angrier than the one before. “I’m good to you! I’m fucking good to you, and this is how you treat me? How fucking dare you do this to me, Jim!”
“Hello, 911?” They were on speaker, and she could hear it just as well as I. She grabbed my arm, bit into it hard, so hard then I lost my grip and the phone dropped onto the floor, but thankfully did not shatter. She grabbed the phone, then rushed out of the room into the bathroom, where she began frantically flushing the toilet.
“Wait!” I said. “Stop!” I ran into the bathroom, where she was on all knees and flushing the toilet, and she growled like an animal.
“I won’t let you leave me!” She screamed, and water began to erupt over the toilet seat, onto the floor. It began to soak her knees, or hair. She did not seem to notice or care.
“Who the fuck are you?!” I screamed. “You’re going to flood the whole apartment. Get the fuck out of here before they come and throw your ass in jail.” My words did not sound very convincing. Fear was obvious in my voice. She looked over at me.
“Get the fuck out of here?” she said, mocking my voice. “Before they come and throw your ass in jail.” She started laughing. “You fucking coward, this is my apartment. They’ll come for you. Everyone will see what you’ve done to me, like you always do!” As she said that, she slammed the toilet seat down and began smashing her face up against it.
“Stop that! Are you fucking insane?!” I could see blood flowing from her mouth and nose. I tried to stop her, but again the sheer force of her strength was too much for me. Her blood mixed with the rushing toilet water on the floor. I knew it would be just a matter of time before it began to leak into the unit below.
Just then, I heard pounding at the door. “Police, open the door!”
The woman finally stopped smashing her face against the toilet seat. Her face was covered with blood and bruises, and her left eye was swollen shut. She looked up at me and smiled. “I’ll get it, honey.”
“The hell you will.” I slammed the door shut, twisted the knob off, and left her in there as I ran down the hallway to open the door. Standing there were two taller, stark looking policemen, one of whom kept trying to look over my shoulder.
The shorter one spoke first. “We’ve gotten a few complaints about some disturbances up here. Domestic disturbances.”
“Yes, officer. This crazy woman broke into my apartment, she stole my phone and threw it in the toilet, and now she’s locked herself in my bathroom. She hurt herself…”
“Hurt herself how?”
“She was hitting her face against the toilet. Like I said, she’s fucking crazy.”
Behind me, I could hear the bathroom door gently open. How she did it, I’ll never know. But before I knew it, the officers were looking past me as the woman-battered and bruised-walked down the hallway slowly, sobbing quietly. She was no longer the possessed, iron woman breaking down doors and tossing me around like a ragdoll. Now she had morphed herself into a shorter, more vulnerable version. She even looked shorter than before.
The officer for the first time looked concerned. “Ma’am, are you ok?”
She started crying. “Yes officer, I’m ok.”
“Do you feel safe at home, ma’am?”
She walked up beside me and held my hand. Her grip was still tight, like a concrete statue’s clenching down onto mine. What could I do?
“I do, officer. Really. It’s ok.”
“Ma’am, you know you are welcome to press charges.”
She held back tears. Of rage, or sadness, I could not tell. “I don’t think that will be necessary, officer. We’ve just had a misunderstanding here, that’s all.”
The cop looked back at me. His eyes narrowed. “If there’s anything you want to say, you better say it now. If we get called back here again, I’m taking your ass in.”
I looked at the three of them. The woman looked at me and smiled. Not a fake, gotcha smile, just a smile that was as real as if “we” were real. My heart palpitated as I realized the gravity of my situation. These two clearly weren’t going to believe me. Even if I told them she didn’t live here, that could take hours-or weeks-to explain. How many people have live-in partners that weren’t on the lease? Or that had no photos together? The matter would have to be settled afterwards, between the two of us. I was terrified of them leaving us alone together, but there was clearly no way they were going to believe me. Not now, anyway. Years later, I would pinpoint this moment as the moment when I could have maybe changed it all. Maybe I should have spoken up or plead my case to the police or-fuck it-just simply run out of that apartment screaming, never looking back. I’ve played all those alternate timelines in my head many, many times. But those paths weren’t the one I chose. After the cops left, she began putting her things over one of my chairs and looked at me:
“Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me, don’t even think about me. I’ve had just about as much as I can take in one night.”
She began to take off her clothes, then plopped down on the other side of the bed-the vacant side. There was no way I was going to sleep here, I thought. She’d wake up in the middle of the night and strangle me. But as I began collecting my pillows and some clothes to use as a blanket on the couch in the living room, she turned over quickly.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
I threw my arms up in exasperation. “I’m going to the living room to sleep on my couch. I don’t know you, I don’t know why you are doing this to me, but in the morning I want you out of here. I don’t know what you’re on, but you can go sleep this off somewhere else.”
She stood up in bed and looked at me with the coldest eyes I’ve even seen. “If you don’t get back into bed this second, I’m going to kill your family.”
“You don’t even know who my family are! You don’t know anything about me. You’ve either got me completely confused with someone else, or you’re so high you don’t even know where you are. Now you’ve had your fun, and you need to go back to whatever hole you crawled out from.”
She looked at me a long while with the blankest face I’ve even seen as she slowly processed what I had said. Then she knelt, tucked her head between her legs, and let out the loudest, most painful, hateful, saddest cry I’ve ever heard. I heard my neighbors banging on their ceiling underneath us. I dreaded the police coming back. They couldn’t have gone far at this point. I ran over to her and tried to calm her, placed my hand on her back as if we truly were some kind of couple, and I actually cared.
“Get away from me!” She screamed, then howled louder, like a wolf trapped in a bear trap. The whole block must have heard. I know our entire building did. I began to hear knocks on the door. I knelt next to her. I was exhausted and terrified and at a loss. I couldn’t call the police. Could I call family? Friends? What would I even say? I hadn’t even seen most of them for a while.
“Look, I promise if you stop screaming, we can just go to bed.” I was on both knees, pleading to a madwoman that I had never met to spend the night with me. “I promise we won’t fight anymore. I’m sorry.”
Her howls lowered. I could hear myself breath again over the sound of my beating heart. My head was pounding. “Are you still mad at me?” She asked. Her body trembled.
“No,” I said. What else could I say? “Of course not.”
She laid down flat on the hardwood floor, trembling, her loud cries now reduced to pained whimpers. “Take me to bed.”
I shrugged. I picked her up, carried her to the bedroom, and tucked her into my bed. As I began to walk back out into the hallway, she turned over quickly and asked: “Aren’t you coming to bed, too?”
I shrugged. “I have to turn off the lights.”
“Well, hurry back.”
As I turned off the lights, one by one, as slowly as I could, dreading the moment where I would have to go back into the bedroom. Would she strangle me in my sleep? Would she suffocate me with a pillow? Or maybe, just maybe, I’d wake up and she’d be gone, with only the imprint of her body left behind on the other side of the bed-gone from my life forever-never to be seen again. I could live with that.
I laid down next to her and kept my eyes open as long as I could. I closed them slowly. Maybe it was all part of a bad dream. Maybe I never even went to that grocery store. I smiled. I liked the narrative, so I went there as I closed my eyes.
Three years later, I still think of that night. I think of how I should have escaped, how that, if I truly understood the full gravity of what was happening-and what would follow-I would have just walked out of that apartment and never looked back. But then, the other part of me says that she would have found me anyway, that she would have found me in the deepest caverns of the arctic, or the coldest, darkest reaches of space where not even starlight can penetrate. No matter where I went, there she was. Had she always been there, waiting for me, looking for me? Was I always destined to be this prisoner?
The next morning, she was still there, but the apartment had changed overnight. I don’t know how. I must have only been asleep for a few hours. Maybe less. But as I walked out, there were pictures on the wall of us together, that must have spanned months. Years. I could see strange furniture that clearly was not mine. In fact, very little of it was mine. I checked the calendar. It was the next day. Now everyone would believe that she was indeed with me and had been. Maybe I could just break up with her? I’m sure she’d only kill me. The large screens outside my window looked more like bars now, and the apartment looked darker, even with the morning sunlight pouring in, as if some unseen entity was filtering it, shrouding us in prolonged darkness. One moment she was asleep in bed, and then the next she was in the kitchen, wearing one of my shirts, cooking something terribly and making a mess. She looked at me without smiling.
“I thought you went grocery shopping last night?”
I was speechless. I did, that’s where I met your crazy ass, I wanted to say. What did I go there for? Did I find it? “I didn’t find what I was looking for,” was all I could say.
“Well, you better get your ass back there, we’re out of a lot of things and we’re hosting dinner tonight.”
“Tonight? Hosting who? I was going out to the bar with my friends tonight.”
She looked at me and stopped cutting the scallions for whatever ungodly concoction she was making. “Are you saying you forgot?” She stood there with the knife in her hand. “You did, didn’t you.” She began to tremble. “It’s always about you and your friends and what you want to do, isn’t it?” She held out her arm, took the knife, and began to cut into her forearm. “You never do the things that I want!” She screamed as she drew blood.
“Wait, wait! Stop!” I ran to her, but she backed away, threatening to cut deeper. “I’ll go. I’ll go to the grocery store, ok? Just tell me what you need me to buy.”
And then, that became my life. I had tried to explain it to everyone I knew: friends, family. Even ex’s. But no one believed me. No one believed that she had just suddenly appeared in my life. Everyone hated her, and she hated them, and one day I woke up and they were all gone, just as quickly as she had suddenly appeared in my life. She had fought with them, alienated them, one by one, until I had no one left. No one, of course, but her. She had willed herself to become the focal point of my life. I lost touch with everyone I loved, everyone I could talk to. I gained weight. I hardly slept. I hated her, and I hated myself. Every attempt I made of leaving her, or standing up for myself, ended up in some combination of fighting and physical pain. If cops were called, they never believed me. I began secretly talking to a therapist online, only to have her search my browsing history. She took my laptop and smashed it against the wall, then stomped up and down on it like a furious five-year-old. She had no control over her emotions, which were usually negative. I enjoyed nothing anymore: not my free time, not the weekends. The only thing I had to myself were my own dreams when I fell asleep, but even there I’d find her, as if there were no plane of consciousness where I could escape her. She followed me through all our apartments, where we’d be kicked out one after the other due to our fights. I thought eventually we’d just end up on the streets. Maybe we still will.
I walked through the streets alone when I could. I would stare straight ahead, and not notice the smells, the changing of the seasons, the new restaurants that opened. Familiar faces that did I did not acknowledge. I walked as a machine would, feeling nothing. Occasionally, I would see them, though. Women and men, like myself, walking alongside someone screaming at them, or walking ahead of them angry, and sometimes, just sometimes, we’d glance at each other, and I know that look. That look that says: “I’ve given my life to someone awful. Please rescue me.” I always wonder if they found them the way I did. If before, they were free, living their own life, everything in front of them, their dreams still free. And then one day, suddenly, their partner would appear, and latch onto them and never let go. Maybe they’ve stopped trying to explain it to anyone. Maybe now, like me, they merely accept it because there is nothing left to do but accept.
I’ll never know where she came from. Sometimes, I question whether or not she’s real at all, but then we fight and she hurts me and the scars remind me its all very real. When I go to bed at night, I pray I don’t wake up in the morning. I never knew where she came from, or why. I never knew how she chose me. I only know that once they latch onto you, they never leave. I’ve been in the hospital a few times now, trying to hurt myself, trying to end it, but no matter where I do it, or how, she always finds me. And they always rescue me. The only thing she can’t do is take my aging process away. All I can do now is dream of the day when I’m very old, alone in my bed finally, and take my last breath, the one thing she can’t take from me anymore.
About the author: Joseph Lewis received his MFA in Creative Writing from the NEOMFA program at Cleveland State University. He previously served in the Peace Corps in China where he taught Western Literature and Film Studies at Sichuan University of Arts and Sciences, where he helped to create the university’s first literary magazine, Four Rivers. His work has been published in Novel Noctule, The Piker Press, and Coffin Bell Journal. He is currently in the process of preparing his horror novel for publication. He currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
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