I can hear Rips pounding on the living room window. “This will be the last time you lock me out of your house!”
“If you break that window, I’ll call the police!” my mother shouts.
He pounds a few more times for good measure, then leaves.
My mother finds me in my room on the computer, researching strategies for stopping different types of stalkers: simple obsessional, rejected suitor, resentful, delusional, erotomanic, narcissist, paranoid, those with false victimization syndrome.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“I’m trying to figure out which type of stalker Rips is, but he sounds like all of them.”
“He is something else. I remember how he was so proud of himself for calling here every hour, on the hour. He told me how he followed my car one time from a bar up north to a certain house. But I had never been to that bar; he must’ve mistaken someone else’s car for mine.” She pauses. “What did I do to deserve this?”
I can’t think of anything. “I don’t know. You don’t deserve this.”
“I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.”
“Why don’t you get a restraining order?”
“Who knows what he’d do in retaliation? I think he’ll stop if we’re patient.”
“Some Web sites say stalkers might not leave you alone until you move or until they murder their prey.”
She sighs. “You know what he reminds me of?”
“The Cheshire Cat.”
I search for a picture of the Cheshire Cat on the Internet. Sure enough, its wide, narcissistic smile resembles that of Rips. They are both jokers, except the joke is only funny to them. I’m a cat lover, but the Cheshire is one cat I’ve never liked, considering how it treats Alice in Wonderland—giving her wrong directions and framing her for things she doesn’t do. I’m beginning to suspect that Rips enjoys torturing us, like a cat playing with a mouse before eating it. I feel as though we’re trapped in a fairy tale like Alice in Wonderland, which has always been my least favorite fairy tale because Wonderland is not at all wonderful and the story is not really a fairy tale—it’s a waking nightmare.
Summer comes, my mother is lonely, and the stalking doesn’t quit. “I’ve changed,” Rips says, although he doesn’t say if it’s for better or worse. She finally gives in to his pleas and agrees to give him another chance. I point out that if this doesn’t work out, it’ll be even harder to try to break up with him the second time. She knows this, but is tired of him stalking her and knows he will stop if she goes back to him. “Do you really think this will work out?” I ask. She says no.
By the end of July my mother says he is having difficulty controlling his temper again. In early August I come home from work and listen to messages. My mother drives up in her car, looking upset. I go outside to meet her.
“Rips left a snotty message for you,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“Look what he did to my car.”
The first thing I notice is a large dent above the front passenger-side tire. Then I see scuff marks along the hood. “What happened?”
“I went to his house and he yelled at me for being late for our fishing trip,” she says.
“That’s when I told him, ‘We’re through. For good.’”
“You broke up with him again?”
“Yes. I got into my car to leave, but he leaped across the hood from the passenger side, reached through my window, and pulled the keys out of the ignition so I couldn’t leave. He threw the keys as far as he could into the woods.”
“Wow. That’s scary. Good thing you didn’t go on vacation with him. You might not have come back.” I am trying to stay calm, but inside I’m wondering how Rips is going to take this second breakup.
“I was freaked out, but I told him to go get the keys and he finally did, and I drove away. I turned around and went back to get my air mattress when I realized I had forgotten it. That’s when he pointed out the dent he caused when he leaped across my car.”
“You should report this to the police,” I say. “When he took away your keys, isn’t that false imprisonment? Weren’t you scared?”
“Of course I was scared. But now I’m more angry than scared because of this dent. I wish I could report it to my insurance company.”
“You mean your insurance doesn’t cover damage caused by out-of-control ex-boyfriends flying through the air?”
That’s when I see a familiar white car slowing down and pulling into the driveway. It’s too late to run inside, so we stand ground by my mother’s car.
“What are you doing here?” my mother demands as he gets out of his car. “I told you I don’t want anything to do with you. Especially after the dent you put in my car.”
He looks at her car in mock surprise. “Dent? What dent?” He laughs. “A deer could’ve done that.”
“You need to leave.”
“Hey, I brought your dog leash back.” He hands her a leash she had given him years ago. We don’t currently have a dog.
“Good, now go.”
“Rips, you’re not welcome here anymore,” I chime in, and eventually, with a smirk and a shrug, he leaves.
My mother reports the incident two days later. I expect that the police won’t understand why she didn’t report it right away, but I am surprised when the investigating officer, a young man about my age, tells her she needs to stop bothering the police about things like this.
When the deputy comes back to our house after getting Rips’s side of the story, he is businesslike, crisp, and cool. My mother is nervous and frightened.
“There are a few things you told me that are a little shady,” the deputy says. “It seems unlikely to me that he would be able to leave that dent and still leap over your car. The impact should have stopped him.”
She is upset that he doesn’t seem to believe her. “He did it, I am absolutely sure. I heard it. Then all of a sudden his face was in front of mine through the windshield.”
“And you said you went back to his house after he leaped over your car? You were unclear about that.”
“I went back to get my air mattress—”
“How long was it before you went back?” “Just a few minutes; I turned around.”
“And you didn’t notice the dent until then?”
He continues to question her about what happened, concluding she has no proof that Rips caused the dent. She grows more upset with each question.
“Were you afraid when he jumped over your car?”
“I—yes—of course I was.”
“But you drove back after he found your keys and gave them back to you. That’s not going to look good to the district attorney. And since you waited two days to report what happened on Saturday, that’s not going to look good either. I know you said you were afraid, but why did you wait so long?”
“Everyone reacts differently to fear….” she struggles to explain. She would explain it better to me later, when she wasn’t so upset: She was angry that he had her air mattress, and she stood her ground to get it back. Fear is an emotion. It doesn’t always yield actions that are reasonable or logical. If everyone had the typical reaction to fear, there would be no heroes in the world. Firefighters wouldn’t rush inside burning buildings. Police officers would run from criminals instead of racing to apprehend them. And not all women run away when they’re afraid.
She was also afraid of the stigma and other consequences of “tattling” on him.
“Survival mode,” I offer. “She was in survival mode.”
My mother is nearly crying now, and the officer says, “I wish I could understand, but I can’t.”
How could he understand? As a white male, 250 pounds and over six feet tall, in a position of authority, he has probably never been bullied in his entire life. He is dominant in every way.
“And on Saturday during the fight, was he swearing or being physical?”
“No, he wasn’t, not exactly— ”
“See, when I picture something like that, he would be swearing, threatening you, swinging his fists….”
“He wasn’t like that. He’s very controlling. He wouldn’t take no for an answer; he wouldn’t let me leave!”
The deputy’s point is that in the eyes of the law, Saturday’s altercation was just an argument. The police can only do something if Rips is physically violent or swears, we are told. Therefore, we can’t stop him from calling or stopping by. He can trespass, he can stalk, he can call incessantly—as long as he is somewhat friendly about it. We can’t do a thing about it, and neither will the police. Not unless there’s a restraining order. And never mind Rips’s history of previous stalking; we won’t be able to obtain a restraining order until we have recent documentation of his behavior.
So we have to wait.
The deputy says he has told Rips we want no contact with him, yet he has also explained to him that he has the right to call and stop by because there is no restraining order.
“We’re sitting ducks,” my mother says.
We barricade the doors that night.
The phone calls start two days later, and by Thursday Rips is driving over two or three times a day. We ignore the phone calls and hide when he knocks on the door. He leaves after a few minutes but returns within the hour.
He leaves so many messages the mailbox becomes filled. The content is all the same: “I love you, I miss you, I’m sorry; want to do something later?” Like nothing has happened. Like they haven’t broken up. Just kiss and make up.
Things don’t escalate to terrifying until Friday night.
I am scheduled to work late, and by the time I get home, a thunderstorm is building. Rips calls at 11:00 p.m. but doesn’t leave a message. I figure he will be done for the night—even stalkers need their downtime—and my mother has opted not to go out, so we don’t have to worry about Rips driving to all the area bars searching for her like he usually does.
The storm starts after midnight and sounds like a bowling alley overhead. I wish my mother goodnight—she is watching the storm out the back window, sans lights—insert earplugs and lie down. But I can’t sleep; the storm is too rowdy. Every time I drift off, I have nightmares that someone is breaking in.
I’ve been trying to sleep for half an hour when my bedroom door opens and my mother tiptoes in.
“What’s the matter?” I ask as she goes to the window. At first I think she wants a better look at the storm.
“Nothing,” she whispers. “Lie back down.”
Realization. “Someone’s out there?” I crawl out of bed and join her.
Rips’s truck is parked in the driveway. We can see it during the flashes of lightning, rocking in the wind and lashed by shots of rain. I begin to quiver. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“I don’t know. I was downstairs unplugging my computer, and when I came up I thought I heard a knock on the door. All the lights were off. Then I heard it again. I saw him walking around outside. I think he went back inside his truck.”
Then why doesn’t he leave? My mother has pulled a corner of the blinds away from the window, but we can’t see inside his truck. The lightning paints the windows of his truck black, like the contrast of an x-ray. I hope he cannot see us looking through the window.
My mother is frightened, too. “Go back to your bed,” she whispers.
I am too scared to go to bed. I stand by the landline phone in my room. If Rips breaks in, I want to be ready to call.
“Is he still here? Should I call?”
“He’s still here…don’t call yet.”
I stand in the dark, shaking, and wonder how many other times he has parked in our driveway at night and sat there while we slept.
The minutes go by and he doesn’t leave. “Please let me call,” I beg.
At least ten minutes after my mother came into my room, she tells me to call 911. I explain the situation to the dispatcher. When we look back into the rain, Rips has gone.
Rips is awake right away Saturday morning, leaving a message for my mother asking if she wants to go for a bike ride and “discuss some things.” When she doesn’t return the call, he drives over. The pattern continues on Sunday: phone calls and visits. He brings his Harley to tempt her. She used to love riding with him.
By Sunday night I am beginning to crack from the stress of being a prisoner in my own home. My heart is racing, my muscles are in knots, I am craving chocolate and chicken noodle soup, and I feel as though I’m having a heart attack every time the phone rings.
Monday is my day off from work and Rips works until 3:00 p.m., so I enjoy a few golden, worry-free hours.
My mother and I have plans to go to town right after she gets done with work at 5:00 p.m. I am walking past the living room at ten minutes to five when I see Rips’s truck pull in.
I dive for the stairwell and check the time. 4:53. I hear him knocking at the door. My mother works from home and has told him many times not to bother her while she’s working, that she doesn’t even get upstairs from her basement office until after 5:00. Even when they were together, Rips would often call or show up around five to check up on her.
I return to the top of the stairs and discover that by peeking at the reflection on the television screen, I can verify that his truck is still there. Through the leaves of a bushy houseplant on the ledge, I can see there is no one at the door. He must’ve gone back to his truck to wait.
But he doesn’t knock again. His truck still sits in the driveway when my mother finishes work and meets me on the stairs. We decide we have no choice but to wait him out. A standoff.
By 5:20 he is still there, and we are weighing our options. We are afraid that if we call the police, Rips will be gone by the time they arrive.
At 5:30 Rips has been here almost forty minutes. I call our neighbor and explain the situation. She says she will take her dog for a walk and take her cell phone along. Ten minutes later, she calls back to inform us that she called the police and they are already in our driveway talking to Rips.
My mother and I go upstairs and see Rips leaning against the police car. Casual, like he has every right to be here. I half expect him to light a cigarette.
Another squad car arrives, and then two officers come inside to talk to us. Not the deputy from last time. These officers have friendly faces and don’t make accusations as they listen to our side of the story. One of the officers says, “Rips kept telling us, Oh, she wants me here. We’re boyfriend and girlfriend. I said to him, ‘Does she know that?’”
These officers say Rips has no right to be on my mother’s property, no right to call, no right to even be on our road. What he’s been doing is considered trespassing, harassment, stalking.
“You should have no problem getting a restraining order after this,” one of them says.
Rips’s days of blatant stalking are over. Within forty-eight hours my mother and I have filed for temporary restraining orders against him. The following week is the hearing at which we will try to obtain long-term restraining orders.
Rips comes to the hearing. He objects to the injunction but doesn’t put up much fight. When the court commissioner asks if he’s had any contact with my mother after she and the police told him not to, he mumbles and finally answers, “I might’ve, I guess.”
“For me, this is a no-brainer,” says the court commissioner. “If someone tells you to leave them alone, you leave them alone.” He grants my mother the restraining order.
My restraining order request isn’t granted because I am not the primary target of Rips’s stalking. As the court commissioner puts it, I am “collateral damage.”
He talks to my mother and me after Rips is gone. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I could tell right away that Rips was lying. He has Little Orphan Annie eyes.”
I am intrigued. “What does that mean?”
“Have you ever seen the comic strip Little Orphan Annie? Her eyes are tiny; there’s nothing there.”
“That’s what Rips’s eyes are like,” my mother agrees. “Most of the time he won’t even look at you. Maybe that’s why I didn’t know what color his eyes were when I filled out the paperwork asking for his physical description.”
He explains, “Domestic abuse is about control. Most of it has nothing to do with physical violence. It’s about telling you what to do, what not to do, what to wear, isolating you, keeping financial control. Be careful. Rips will do anything to try to fuck with you.”
At first Rips stays away from the house, but my mother has no such protection when she goes out to bars. The restraining order’s rules are unclear about protection at public places, although the court commissioner has told him he is supposed to leave when she is there first. But he doesn’t. He arrives at the bars after she does and tries to buy her drinks and talk to her. When this happens, she is forced to leave. Every time she leaves, he wins. Every time he startles her, he wins.
I am beginning to realize that a restraining order is truly just a piece of paper.
Over the next two weeks the stalking becomes more brazen. My mother is reluctant to call the police. I cut my hair short and paint my nails, then find myself wanting to bite them off. I want to disappear. I want to hide and not come out until this is all over. I want to go somewhere I’ll be safe, but I don’t want to leave the house because he strikes more often when I’m gone.
I fear for my own safety, but I fear even more for my mother’s.
After all, I am just collateral damage.
I know it’s just a matter of time before something bad happens. A week before Halloween, I come home from work at 9:30 p.m. excited to tell my mother that I sold three diamonds at my job as a jewelry salesperson. When I turn off the highway, there is a car sitting by the side of the road with its lights on. As I drive past, I look to see who it is—one can’t be too careful these days—and am surprised to see it is a sheriff’s car. I figure he is waiting by the corner to catch speeders, but as I turn into the driveway a half-mile down the road, I see his car turning around and coming my way.
I cut the engine, sit in darkness, and watch the police car drive past. It’s almost as though he was waiting to see that I got home safely. Something must be up. I look at the house, but the lights are on, my mother’s vehicles are in the driveway, and all seems quiet.
I unlock the house door and hear her talking on the phone. She sounds upset. When she sees me standing there, she interrupts her conversation and says, “Rips has been arrested.” She is telling her sister what happened, and from what I can hear, he has been charged with four counts of stalking. Count one: telephone message. Count two: He walked into the backyard where she was raking, and when she ran for the garage, he left a plastic bag hanging from the front door. The bag was filled with light bulbs.
It gets stranger. Count three: He returned when she was taking a bath. Wrapping a towel around herself when she heard him knocking, she opened the door as he was walking away and threw the bag of light bulbs into his open car door, then locked herself inside the house and finished her bath.
Count four: He returned a third time, leaving the bag of light bulbs in addition to another package filled with pill bottles. It was dark outside and when she opened the screen door, it felt as though someone was blocking it. She thought it was him, but then she realized he had moved her pumpkin in front of the door. That’s when she called the police.
My mother gets off the phone with her sister and tells me that the deputy who had originally handled her case in August had responded to tonight’s call.
“I explained to him the consequences of his actions back in August, and he actually apologized. He said I did a good job of reporting the restraining order violation. He waited here while another officer looked for Rips. He just left about ten minutes before you came home, after they found Rips at the bar.”
“Rips has already been arrested?”
“Yes. He’ll spend the night in jail and see the judge tomorrow to enter a plea.”
So right now he is property of the county jail. I shake my head when I realize a cop has followed me home on the one night I’m safe.
The restraining order is protecting us, all right. The phone calls, knocks on the door, white cars and blue trucks in the driveway have all stopped. I can walk around the yard without gauging how many steps it will take to run back to safety.
Winter slowly loses its grip. Scabs of brown grass appear from under a bandage of melting snow.
Twice the ashtray in my mother’s locked car is pulled out. The gears in her truck are out of sync once, twice, three times. Her automatic fog lights are turned off. Little things. Things that happen overnight. Things that can’t be proven, things that would make you think you were losing your mind if you didn’t know better.
Bigger things: A week before Rips’s hearing in March, her truck tire becomes so loose it nearly falls off as she is driving. The hearing comes, passes. We learn he has taken the plea bargain and must pay a fine. Two counts of restraining order violations; two dismissed but will count against him if he is arrested again. Still, not even one percent of everything he has done to us.
The brakes in my mother’s truck begin leaking; her car tire goes flat after a night out. She finds a large, sharp rock wedged into the tire.
The air conditioning in the truck stops working; under the hood, a tube connecting to the air conditioner has been pulled apart.
Sometimes, at exactly 3:25 p.m., I see a white car driving past, the figure inside a silhouette.
One night at a bar she sees him come inside, dressed in black with a skullcap pulled over his blond hair.
We find cigarette butts in the driveway, innards pulled out, just the way my mother had taught him. That way, she always said, it couldn’t possibly start a fire. He had changed the way he disposed of his cigarette butts; he had changed for her.
Which is worse, brashness during daylight or shadows in the dead of night?
I don’t believe every relationship has a fairy-tale ending.
I don’t believe every wedding ring I sell will last forever.
I do, however, believe that even the most potent love spells can be broken. My mother gets over him, not because she wants to, but because he’s so atrocious she can’t love him anymore.
He has a harder time getting over her. He needs help—an incentive—and I give it to him.
I buy an outdoor security camera when the Cheshire Cat won’t stop playing tricks, when my rose-shaped solar light is removed from its stake in the ground and laid across the picnic bench one night; when the three main branches of the fledgling apple tree outside my bedroom window are snapped and pointed directly at where I sleep at night. Seeing my camera working, seeing its tiny red LED lights glowing in the dark to tape images of driveway, vehicles, sidewalk, and lawn, empowers me. The camera is equipped to swivel itself like an owl’s head to get different views, and it has the superior night vision of an owl. I name it Hoot—a shortening of its brand name, Hootoo.
I don’t have a dog to help me feel safe, but I do have a night owl. I turn it on before I go to sleep at night; I turn it off only when dawn breaks, when stars and moon fade to light. Hoot is patient; Hoot doesn’t take naps or breaks. Hoot is an ideal protector. Within the first week of installing Hoot, the nighttime occurrences stop.
Nothing shows up on film. A person would need to be at close range to trigger Hoot to begin taping; a person would need to be careless to overlook Hoot’s red eyes burning through the night. A Cheshire cat would never be careless enough to get caught. Still, I would’ve liked to see his face when he walked up the driveway, or the lawn, or wherever he came from—he’s not a ghost, after all—when he looked into eyes colder and tinier than his own and realized someone had beaten him at his own game, claimed a small victory.
Sometimes the only way to get rid of a stalker is to outlast. He’ll stop when he pleases, not when someone tells him to. You can impose boundaries—obtain restraining orders, call police, and buy security cameras—but ultimately no one can make him stop except himself. It might never be completely over. As for Rips, he disappears from our lives slowly, the way the Cheshire Cat disappears from Alice’s view: first his tail, then his body, then ears and nose and eyes, until all that’s left is a crooked wedge of smile hanging in the night.