I know we all have a story like this.
When I started the Pacific University MFA program (three years ago this month), I converted our small house’s guest room into a writing room. I guess “converted” is a strong word—I bought a glass vase at Crate & Barrel, filled it with rocks and pens, and set it on the windowsill. Remodel complete! Each night at 7:00 I would head into the cozy space, shutting the door to my husband Matt and The Daily Show. I would sit on the bed and write as much as I could until I grew too exhausted or irritated with myself. It was a quiet space, a serene space, a space where the world only had to exist as I required it to.
Until it wasn’t.
A few months into my routine, a new set of neighbors moved into the house about ten feet away from my writing room window. They were the third occupants to claim the house in the short time we’d lived in ours, earning the revolving door home the nickname “the apartment.” The first renters bumped bass beats that soured Saturday morning sleep-ins. The second had kids that trampled through my front yard, flattening the tulips. But watching the new SUV pull up on the third set, complete with a blue ball sack swinging from the tow hitch, I knew I was in for the worst.
The only family member I ever saw coming in and out of the house was the patriarch, a short man with wiry red hair who reminded me of Curley from Of Mice and Men. Slightly hunched in his small-guy swagger, he scowled from door to driveway, working just as hard to avoid eye contact with me as I was with him. A few times I heard a pack of kids playing in the backyard, and found balls in our grass to toss back over the fence. But they remained corralled and unseen, a unit living an invisible property line away.
At night, clattering away on my writing room laptop, I could hear Curley shouting next door. Occasionally the errant “fuck” or “shit” would punctuate the air with a staccato of rage. “That guy is a total dick,” I complained to Matt. “I can hear him yelling in my writing room.”
“Yelling at whom?” Matt asked.
“I don’t know, I can’t tell.”
The frequency of Curley’s outbursts jumped over the summer, until one night in August, when his familiar tirade was joined by a woman’s voice. No words, only animal-like groans and voices rising until I heard the unmistakable sound of force against wall, and a woman’s wail.
My fingers froze over the keys, and I eyed my cell phone on the bed. Had I just heard what I thought I heard? I wasn’t sure. Was this something you called 911 over, when you hadn’t actually seen a thing?
I decided I needed a second opinion. I turned the light on in our bedroom, where Matt was just starting to nod off. “I think I heard that asshole next door beating on his wife,” I said. “Should I call the cops?”
“Huh? What did you hear?”
“I don’t know, yelling and crying. And something banging around.” The more I tried to recreate it, the further away it slipped from me, like a dream after you’ve finished brushing your teeth in the morning.
“Just mind your own business,” he said, rolling over in bed away from the light. “Maybe it was just their TV.”
A few weeks later I was telling my friend, a neighbor down the block, about the night. “That poor woman,” she said, shaking her head. “You know she’s terminal, right?” I shook my head. “Some kind of cancer… She’s in hospice care right now. I see the nurse coming and going during the day.”
Could I have saved a dying woman an ounce of grief by dialing 911? Would the police have even shown up, filed a report? Had I heard what I thought I had, or was my doubt self-preservation? After all, how can you feel bad about something you convince yourself you’re unsure of?
Apartment Neighbors Number Three are long gone, and we’ve now moved from the house with the almost-perfect writing room. But the woman I did not see lives in my head, and I can hear the muffled sobbing all over again when I see stories like the case of Nigella Lawson being choked by her husband in bustling public, in broad daylight. As you’ve likely read, the charismatic chef was squeezed around the throat by her husband, Charles Saatchi. Three times. They were having lunch at a restaurant. There were waiters, other diners, photographers obsessively documenting the entire incident. No one called the police. No one even stopped to ask if Nigella was okay. Witnesses describe themselves as “gasping in alarm” and complaining that it was “utterly shocking to watch.” Yet the cameras kept rolling while the crowd kept quiet, allowing the couple to leave without interruption.
Are we too polite? Too scared? Too utterly shocked? What makes our knee-jerk reaction cowardice instead of action? Does the embarrassment of calling out a man being inappropriate carry more weight than helping a woman clearly in need?
Maybe it would have been embarrassing that night in the writing room, trying to articulate what I thought had happened to the 911 operator. Maybe it would have been uncomfortable, having the cops come over and take statements. The whole affair likely wouldn’t have been good manners. But I’m certain it would have been less shameful than knowing, for the rest of my life, that I did nothing.
I hope these questions are taking hold of the consciousness of everyone in that London restaurant, and everyone like me, who has let a woman slip through the cracks because they were too afraid. All of us have the capacity to be better than common cowardice. The next story of a famous face being abused shouldn’t end with snapshots and speculation. It should end with one person standing up and demanding a man to stop. The shame should rest squarely on Curley’s shoulders.