At Knife Point, 1974
“Do whatever it takes to make sure you’re the one who walks away,” said Frank, my office mate. Outside the window behind him, a February San Diego rain dripped from the thorns of a massive agave. “Gouge out an eyeball, cram your fingers up the guy’s nose, punch him in the balls, and when he’s down on the ground, stomp on his neck and crush his larynx, whatever it takes. Get it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Makes sense.” Squeamishness had no place in Frank’s ex-convict world, and he didn’t think it should have any place in mine. I wondered if it were squeamishness, though, that prevented my blows from falling, or some sort of force field. When I tried to fight back against my boyfriend Jimmy, my fists and feet felt like the positive ends of magnets trying to smack the positive ends of other magnets: pushed back, repelled.
Frank was on parole from a murder conviction. He’d spent fifteen years locked up in the California prison system. Prison, he said, had pared him down to a man of few words, but he made sure those words counted. He was a slightly-built white man with a thin moustache and perpetually compressed lips. I was a sixteen-year old runaway, a short, curvy, dark-haired girl with muddy green eyes. Maybe Frank and I got on so well, right from the beginning, because we both liked to read. It was our literacy that put us at desk jobs rather than out in the field. We shared the office work, the filing, and the phone calls at an Episcopalian agency in San Diego that provided day work for released convicts.
“Whatever it takes! Only in self-defense, of course,” yelled Carlos from the kitchen behind my desk. “But, mira, if you get a guy down on the ground, if you stomp on that neck hard enough, you will break the larynx for sure, and he won’t be getting up to chase you.” Carlos was another no-heavy-lifting employee, and another man on parole from a murder conviction. Unlike Frank, though, Carlos’ years in prison seemed to have expanded him. He was average height, with a healthy-looking bronze tan, a barrel chest, and thick, muscular, hairy arms. He habitually stood with his shoulders thrown back and his arms slightly akimbo, a posture that said both “Let’s take this outside” and “Let me hug you.” He drove the van that drove the men to the day jobs.
“And if you carry a knife, no one should even know you got that knife until it is already stuck in his gut.”
I imagined sticking a knife into someone’s gut. “Right, Carlos. Makes sense,” I said, thinking of how sawing through chicken cartilage made me cringe.
Before being hired at the Episcopal agency, I’d been fired from a chambermaid job at the Islandia Hotel. When I got home from work that day with the bad news, Jimmy punched me in the face. That was where he always hit me. I hated appearing in public with visible lumps and bruises. I hated the way people looked at me, the way I imagined they pigeon-holed me. I hated the questions they asked, and I hated it when they asked no questions at all. I knew how people put me in a category – one of those girls who lets her boyfriend beat her, who will do anything to be loved – as if there were nothing more to me than this. My own flesh seemed to buy into that conclusion. Living with Jimmy, the skin around my eyes developed a memory for bruising, and the slightest smack would make my eyes swell up and shut, or at least make old bruises re-blossom. This time, he broke my nose. I didn’t go to a doctor, and I didn’t try to get my job back. Instead, I went into hiding.
Unable to make the sixty-five dollars rent on our apartment without my paycheck, we moved to the Annex Hotel, a rooming house. The first week there, I sat in our room reading library books. The room had just enough space for a single bed, a chair, and a chest of drawers. All of the furniture, including the mattress, sported cigarette burns, and the deadbolt on the door wiggled as if it had once been forced. The window led out to a black iron fire escape, where I sometimes sat and smoked and looked at the brick wall ten feet across the alley. The wall was the west side of the corner saloon that stayed open from seven a.m. to four a.m., seven days a week.
Every so often, I walked down the hall to the bathroom to check the progress of my healing in the mirror. After the first beating, I didn’t recognize myself, but disfigurement had taken on a familiarity, almost as if I owned two faces.
If I felt particularly sorry for myself, I would whisper “I love you” to my reflection. This had made me feel better after the first beating, but the ritual was losing its power. Sometimes I hung out for a few minutes in the communal kitchen to heat water for tea. Inevitably, I met the other tenants, who all seemed to be on a second-shift clock, emerging from their rooms well after noontime. When I ran into people in the hallway in the daylight hours, they were often disheveled or sleepy, but always friendly. No one seemed shocked or disgusted by my face. I started talking to people while Jimmy was out working, or looking for work, or whatever.
For a few weeks, before I was hired at the Episcopal agency, the rooming house was my world. Hovering over an abandoned storefront, it was a second-floor dimension few people noticed, perhaps because the first floor was boarded up. Sometimes police officers stood at the bottom of the oak staircase and shouted up names of people who were wanted, but the officers must have questioned the rickety nature of the staircase or even the substance of the second floor because they never walked up those stairs. They shouted up a name, and no one responded to them, except to yell meaningless obscenities. But on Sundays, little old Jehovah’s Witnesses ladies climbed the stairs in their pumps and stockings because the invisible was real enough to them. They knocked on doors, looking for tenants who were desperate enough to accept Jesus as a personal savior, and we hid in our rooms, terrified.
When I got hired at the Episcopal agency, the idea of working with ex-convicts didn’t bother me because many of the men who lived in the Annex Hotel were ex-convicts, and I had grown to like some of them. But they weren’t all as kind to me as Frank and Carlos, who liked to give me advice about how to protect myself. Some of the men at the Annex were petty thieves, and others were violent offenders. One Saturday morning, after Jimmy had gone off somewhere, I opened my door to find Fat Robert, one of the petty thief types, holding out two candy bars to me.
“Here you go,” he said. “I always like something sweet the morning after, and I thought you might, too.” He was assuming I’d had a big drunk the night before for some reason, maybe just because everyone else in the hotel had. I didn’t bother to correct him; I was hungry, and I liked candy. We chatted for a couple of minutes, and then he toddled off down the hall as I began to gobble the candy bars, which were Clark Bars, too heavy on the nuts to be one of my favorites, but still a welcome treat.
About an hour later, there was another knock on the door. “It’s me, Fat Robert.”
I opened the door, and there was Fat Robert, his dumb-ass pork-pie hat titled at an annoyingly jaunty angle. Standing behind him was Eugene, who was not fat. Eugene was in his thirties, a convicted rapist, still powerfully athletic from days of lifting weights in prison. He had one of the few rooms in the hotel with a kitchenette. I had been in that room a few days earlier with Frances, who stayed in the hotel off and on. We’d gone down there to cook up some pinto beans and salt pork because the stove in the community kitchen was on the fritz. Frances was known as someone who did not take any shit. Just in case anyone doubted that, she kept a straight-edge razor hidden in the side of her bra, under her armpit, a wholly admirable practice in my eyes since I was desperate to toughen up.
Eugene’s room also had a triple bureau with a large mirror, and draped over the mirror were about a half-dozen pairs of women’s panties. While Frances and I checked the beans, he told us the panties came from women he had recently raped. Frances rolled her light green eyes at this; we both believed he had been in prison for rape, but we thought the panties were empty bragging about imaginary recent conquests. Like most of the residents of the Annex Hotel, like me until I got the Episcopalian job, Eugene rarely left the premises. It was as if we all had some form of agoraphobia, or some secret fear of daylight, or of cops, or of mothers walking down the street with strollers, or of someone asking questions.
At my door that morning, Eugene eyed me up and down over Fat Robert’s hat.
“See you later,” Fat Robert said, as he skittered away like an overfed roach, and Eugene stood alone, glaring in my face.
“You’re fucking Fat Robert,” he said.
I laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous,”
“You’re fucking Fat Robert, and you can fuck me, too.”
It was still morning and no one else in the rooming house had yet come to life. Rage and panic competed in my body, and for a moment, rage won. I was enraged that anyone would think that I, a young, attractive white woman who had her own young, attractive white man, would ever consider fucking a broken down old black man named Fat Robert who hid a bald spot under a pork pie hat.
“Fuck you,” I said to Eugene, and I slid out of the door way and stomped down the unlit hallway to the daylight of the open back porch. That was the panic part; I didn’t want to be caged in my little twelve by eight foot room. I didn’t want to be backed into a corner. Eugene followed me out.
“You’re fucking Fat Robert and now you’re gonna fuck me, too,” he yelled. He kept repeating this like a mantra as he stomped down the hallway after me, as if the inescapable logic of it would eventually penetrate into my stupid white girl brain.
“Fuck you,” I said again, unimaginatively. “I wouldn’t fuck Fat Robert with a ten-foot pole, and I’m not going to fuck you, either.”
We had both made it out onto the back porch, which overlooked a vacant lot that had morphed into a dump. Busted shopping carts and amputated car parts lay in the dirt, in the process of being overtaken by chicory and thistle.
Eugene pulled the bowie knife he kept on his hip out of its sheath. “Oh yes you are,” he said, as he placed one flat side of the knife under my chin. I remembered Carlos’ advice about not letting anyone know you had a knife until you had already stuck them with it. Eugene was making a mistake. My chin rested on the smooth, cold metal. I felt the curved point barely pressing into my flesh. He lifted my chin with the knife. I did not resist that lifting. The air on the back porch was cool and moist; fog from the bay had rolled in overnight and had not yet dissipated. He lifted my chin higher and higher, millimeter by millimeter, all the while repeating his syllogism, “You’re fucking Fat Robert and now you’re gonna fuck me, too.”
Maybe it was the disgust I felt at the thought of fucking Fat Robert. Maybe it was outrage at Eugene’s unstated middle term: any woman who fucked Fat Robert was open for business. Maybe it was my brain’s reaction to having my chin lifted into a progressively defiant posture. Maybe it was pent-up rage. Maybe I was thinking of Carlos. Whatever it was, it made me curse and scream at Eugene. My head tilted back, my eyes narrowed, and my mouth ran with a river of obscenities. I balanced on the point of that knife until Eugene stopped his own yelling, let his arm fall to his side, and let his jaw drop, looking at me like I was a crazy woman. Then I broke away and ran back down the hall to my room, slammed the door and turned the lock just as Eugene started banging his fist on the door, still yelling. I pushed my little chest of drawers in front of the door and panted.