My bosses were oddly sympathetic – they didn’t just want to know why I kept coming in late for work but why I was having so much trouble sleeping at night. I didn’t know, so I just looked at the floor, feeling my cheeks flush.
Which is why I’m on medical leave now. Timetable? “Open-ended.”
This time I ask the question, and once again a room falls silent. After a moment the guy leading the support group leans towards me and says, softly, “You know, a lot of us have nightmares.”
Something connects inside me. Nightmares. Goddamn right.
Like when I woke up that morning to a guy climbing into my bed, getting ready to punch me. I sat up and in a moment he was gone, taking the fear with him.
Some nightmares are imaginary and some nightmares are real.
A year earlier I was a social worker in the Bronx. I’m in the lobby of an apartment building waiting to meet with a family I work with. A teenage girl comes in, then a guy. The guy corners the girl. She tells the guy to leave her alone. “It sounds like you’d better go,” I say. “Mind your fucking business,” the guy says. I’m between them. The guy has his fist cocked back but all I see in his eyes is fear. “Move or I’ll punch you.”
I make him to be about 16.
I’m on the floor. Blood is pouring out of a busted lip. There’s something so wrong about the feeling of a busted lip.
I must have blacked out. My head hurt. The girl was still there. The guy was gone.
These are the things I remember, usually at night. Fear is such a funny thing. The memories come at night, the fear comes in the day.
I remember a teenage girl on a bench near a park in the Bronx, two other teenagers above her, raining down on her with their fists. There’s so much blood. You can’t pull the two girls off, they’re like magnets, but they run when a cop shows up. The cop just shrugs when I offer to give a statement so I leave; I’m late to see a family.
I remember a cop talking about how the neighborhood used to be when white people lived there; he’s nostalgic. I’m thinking, you racist bastard.
I remember a guy hitting a cop with a two-by-four, two blocks from my office.
A funny thing. Sometimes you’re afraid when you shouldn’t be and sometimes you’re not afraid when you should be.
I remember standing outside my office smoking a cigarette when my phone rings. It’s my boss calling from inside the office – “Get inside. Now.” I’m pissed about her tone until I realize someone got shot right across the street, at the dollar slice pizza parlor where I eat most days. We can’t see the body through the office windows, just blood pooling from behind the bus shelter that obscures our view. The police and paramedics take a long time to arrive. When they load him into an ambulance we realize the guy isn’t dead because they have to push him into the stretcher; and he yells, “Matelo.” “Kill him,” a coworker translates. The police don’t react; they stay in a tight-knit circle, talking to each other. A Hispanic guy comes out of the pizza place and uses a hose to wash away the blood. The guy who was barking out prices for stockings returns to his stool by the fire hydrant. A minute later the street is full again. A year later I’m still numb.
I often miss that job – even the bad parts. The late nights. The shelters and the projects. The stories of abuse. The bruises on a kid’s arm. I especially miss the bad parts because I could do something about them; or failing that, I could at least bear witness.
But I don’t miss the blood. I never want to see blood again.
When I started the job kids would tell me about blood – classmates’, strangers’, parents’, their own. The blood was often their excuse for misbehaving. I didn’t always believe them – it was my job to be skeptical. That was before I knew about blood.
That was before I got off elevators carefully, checking sight lines to make sure no one was waiting for me.
Before I started wondering, every time I met someone, whether I could hurt them or they could hurt me.
Before this anger that has no name.
They say the Bronx is getting more violent – more violence, more killings, more blood. It hardly matters. You only need to see blood once for it to get in you, change you. Make your future open-ended.
Trust me on this.
I see it in my dreams.