Notes on a Violent Act

Alyse Burnside

In this story there are facts and counterfactuals. A doorway divides them.

The facts: Two men come in the night. Everyone is home—me, A, and our roommate, Cooper. The men have guns but they don’t use them.

It is Cooper who opens the door when the men come. When the men pull their guns from their sweatshirt pockets and point them at Cooper, their faces turn to stone, like ripping a mask from your face to reveal an even more frightening face.

In the end, the men leave, the police come, and no one has to die.

“I thought, fuck it, I thought I was dead meat,” Cooper would say later. “I just jumped on the big guy. It surprised the hell out of him.”

I will try to reconstruct this image over and over again. It is the only beautiful image. Cooper’s arms spread out like bat wings as he jumped straight onto his fear. No rules to the fight, just animalism.

The sound they make as they struggle is like the whirring of a thousand machines malfunctioning at once. A transformer blown somewhere in the distance followed by blocks of car alarms. You’ve made the mistake of your life, the big man says before he stomps on Cooper’s head at the bottom of our stairs.

At the first sound of the men’s voices, I feel their danger. I fumble to unlock my phone and dial 911. An operator asks me many questions I do not know the answer to. The men will hurt us, the men will hurt us if you do not come quickly, is all I can say before I drop the phone to the ground.

The men are strangers. Human beings with mothers and fathers, maybe children. Very possibly the men have many people who love them, and some who haven’t loved them well enough. One of the men is built like a sofa and the other is very thin. Both have deep, bellowing voices.

The skinny man bounds up the stairs and throws himself at our bedroom door. On the other side, A and I move the dresser against the door and throw our weight at it. With each push from the thin man the door swings open against our weight, then shut like a pendulum.

Maybe the skinny man wants us to die, but we do not. Maybe the skinny man wants us to die not because he would prefer a world in which we no longer exist, but because the power of his gun changes him. The power of his gun is a cloak draped over him. The power of a gun can make even good men bad and maybe he was never that good in the first place.

I see so little of the actual events. An arm, unbodied, reaching through the crack in our bedroom door. A grey mass of hooded sweatshirt. A’s face drained completely of color. The love we hold for one another, the whole size of it made almost sentient by the intensity of our fear, in the face of it leaving us forever.

I feel suddenly my own capacity for violence. I brandish a bronze antique lamp from the bedside table like a baseball bat. I beat the arm that reaches through the crack in the door until it goes limp, until the man screams and then retreats.

Then, silence. Everything pulsing and shuttered. Policemen suddenly there with guns drawn, kicking open closet doors and shining flashlights under beds. Small rivulets of blood drip from Cooper’s left ear onto his yellow shirt.

The police ask us if we are sure the men were strangers, and when we assure them the men were not known to us, the police ask us if we bought drugs from the men. There are fingerprints unique to the men on our door knob, but the police do not want to collect the evidence. The police ask us if the men had accents. The police do not ask us anything more.

Cooper sits in an ambulance while paramedics wave a finger in front of his face for his eyes to track. They ask him who the president is, how many months are in a year, the name of the cat who loves lasagna but hates Mondays. They wipe the blood from his ear and insist he goes with them. At the hospital, he is put into a machine where they take pictures of the slow bleed in his brain.

A and I stay with friends. We don’t sleep. Instead we tell the story over and over again, our hands shaking around glasses of liquor. We hold each other with an urgency we’d never felt before and have never felt since.

I call the police station and talk to the detective assigned to our case. “So strange what happened,” he says. He asks me again if I had intended on buying drugs from the men. “I’ll just be honest with you, it’s not likely we will find these guys” and “It really is kind of like a trauma what happened to you,” he says before hanging up. I won’t hear from him again.

We visit Cooper in the trauma wing. There are no chairs in the hospital room, so A and I lean on the window ledge next to Cooper’s bed. A mess of tubes run in and out of his arms and his nose. Law & Order: SVU plays in the background, showing a woman running alone in a park at night.

“We totally crushed it, guys,” He will say in the days that follow the incident, meaning, we are here to tell the story. Meaning he jumped onto his fear. He saw the face that meant him harm, and he acted on it. He feels somehow larger than before, almost infinite. It is only months before A, too, will say without uncertainty that she’s almost completely “over it.”

I once believed I would react this way too, like those who’ve seen death and now live with twice the tenacity. Instead, for weeks following the break-in, I don’t stop drinking. I stay on friends’ couches because I cannot bear to return home, where the dresser is pushed out of place and a small pool of blood has dried on the bedroom floor.

The man at the liquor store stops carding me, greets me as though we are becoming friends, begins suggesting new alcohol he thinks I might like. Something about his kind levity makes me cry in his checkout lane. The kind of slow silent crying that twists at the back of your throat, as if you are a rag wrung out.

Outside the liquor store, winter is relentless. The wind slaps from all directions, and I walk hunched over with one hand gathering my hood at my neck and one hand wrapped around a bottle.

A man, day drunk and wild, darts from behind a dumpster. “Good morning, baaaaaby,” he yells and steadies himself against a stranger’s car door. I raise my bottle towards the man’s head, like I could kill if I had to. “Whoaaa,” he says, with his hands held up to frame his face, fear shining in his eyes. This quick penchant towards violence is new and it shakes me.

I see the first therapist with an opening. She is young and nervous and tries many techniques out on me. Each visit she invites me to wrap myself in a fleece blanket, but I don’t. A whole year passes and I tell her the story in a hundred different ways.

My therapist believes in the healing power of a controlled narrative, though I doubt a narrative’s ability to be controlled.

And when it was over, how did you know it was over? she asks, and I can’t answer. The liquor is my first thought, its reliable comfort, its ability to slow what beats too fast. It isn’t over, is my second.

“If I could only know why the men came and what they wanted, I think I could stop feeling so afraid all the time,” I tell her. “I question your ability to know what it is you need to heal,” she responds.

What if healing meant creating instead of knowing? Homework: give me five possible scenarios for why the men came to your house. Of all the houses. “Remember,” she says, “in the end you all survive.”

The men wanted a cup of sugar.
The men wanted to splay us open, to cut into us like ripe fruit.
The men wanted fifty dollars and a laptop.
The men wanted something we could never give them so they left.
The men wanted

Tell me instead how it feels inside the body to remember. I close my eyes. There is a force in my chest and it is spinning, hot and mercurial.

Can you imagine this sensation as an object? Yes, why not. It is a pillar of impossibly blue water. It flows upwards and falls against itself. Subsumes itself, first slowly, then too quickly. It breaks its own walls, rushes out all over the room. Good, she says and smiles.

The visual brings me no relief. I’m just trying to please her with the strangeness of my image, because I want to believe in the strangeness of her process. Fear is not an object. It is nothing tangible. If anything, it is vaporous, indescribably large and impossible to grip.

Then it was over! How did you know? She wants me to describe the living room where A and I sat, our hands cupped around glasses of liquor, telling the story to our friends, who wouldn’t stop apologizing to us for the actions of men they didn’t know. She wants me to say it ended there.

My fear is a state of being. Not an event, not a night, not a mood that lingers or a habit hard to break. It changes me. It sinks me deep into myself. It changes my face, which looks harder to me now, sharp even. It’s paler, almost blue in some light, and my eyes, like deep wells, are filled with worry.

A and I move to a new apartment, one without a doorbell. I go to the hardware store and buy new locks, all kinds of locks—slide locks, deadbolts, chains. I put a lock on each door in the house so our home looks like a panic room. I buy flood lights and a security system. It is false comfort. My worry is worst at night, when each sound gives way to memory. For over a year I only half sleep. I sit in my therapist’s office, imagining my fear as all kinds of abstract images. Water, steel, hot red light, a pulsing stereo speaker.

I request a recording of my 911 call. I think I want to hear the panic in my voice, want to make sense of it. The recording comes in an email months after the incident. It is almost fourteen minutes long. I delete the email, no longer desiring proof of my fear.

There are no remedies, just time. Each day the night moves away from me, and this is something to be thankful for. Time erases nothing, yet somehow makes memory softer. The men inhabit my mind each day, sometimes many times a day. It becomes something of a prayer, the way I think of them first in the morning, and last, before bed. I think of the way they threw their bodies around in my home, the blood they took, the blood they could have taken. I thank whatever force prevented their taking more.

Because I have no choice but to think of the men, I try to think of them as children. Each time with a different face. I think of them in school pictures, wrapping their small arms around a grandmother, rounding third to home, stumbling hard over many syllabled-words at a spelling bee, witnessing a violence they’ll never understand nor forget.

I wonder if the men think of me too. I wonder how many they’ve harmed, I like to think we were the last. I wonder what it is like for them to look into the faces of those they feel tenderness towards. Those they couldn’t imagine raising a hand to. I wonder how it feels inside their body to remember, what kind of object their fear becomes—a gun, maybe.

I wish they could have seen my face contorted with fear I’d only imagined before. I wish I could have seen theirs too. The ugly parts alongside the beautiful details their mothers have memorized. I like to think I could hold both.

Alyse Burnside headshot

Alyse Burnside is a writer working on a collection of essays about surveillance culture, the fear and seduction of seeing and being seen, queerness, and loneliness. She is currently living in Brooklyn.