EL PASO – When I was nineteen and in college, my friend Gary House told me that I was too open with people, that I ought to be more cautious, more afraid. Some people were not nice; they might want to hurt me. I argued with him and stated that openness was the best defense, at least for me. After hours of discussion, I didn’t sway his opinion and he didn’t sway mine. I did, however, consider what he said long afterward. Women have to consider these things.
The next year I lived with two roommates in a rental house near campus. I was dating an engineering major and together we visited a commune in Placitas, New Mexico once or twice. The year was 1968, and the Albuquerque area had its fair share of hippies and scruffy-looking people. Some of them took drugs and it showed in their eyes. Of course there have always been people with intense, droopy or crazy eyes, even without drugs. One of the people we met at the commune in Placitas, Hiram Black, had crazy eyes and wild hair. Hiram also liked to visit our rental house and call his mother in New York between saying odd and disconnected things. We didn’t really think he was a threat, but we were never totally comfortable during his visits.
One morning I was in the house alone, not naked but not dressed. I was working on a paper and did not want to be disturbed. Hiram came to the front door. I didn’t answer. Hiram came to the back door. I didn’t answer. Hiram came in the house through the kitchen window. I hid in my roommates’ closet. I heard him. First he walked through every room, washed his face noisily in the bathroom, helped himself to some juice in the refrigerator and came to stand outside the closet door. He stayed there and breathed heavily for what seemed like forever. I was jammed in a small closet jam full of two women’s clothes: winter coats, shoes and boots, cotton and wool. I was terrified and sweating. I knew he knew I was there, even though I was trying not to make a noise.
Eventually, Hiram moved into the living room and began to audibly flip the pages of a magazine. This lasted perhaps another ten minutes. Then there was complete silence. I couldn’t hear where Hiram was in the house. I couldn’t hear whether Hiram was even in the house. My estimate of the time I spent in the closet was close to half an hour. It could have been less. I was in a state of partial sensory deprivation. The only thing I could do was sweat and listen. And since Hiram wasn’t making any noise, the only thing I could listen to was my own terror.
At some point I decided that dressed or not, Hiram or no Hiram, I could not stand to be in the closet another second. I came out and looked around, at first cautiously, until I was satisfied Hiram was gone. He was. I took in great gulps of air and washed my own face noisily in the bathroom sink. What was the lesson here? Was Gary House right? Did I need a weapon? Should I take a karate class?
No. I came to believe that the lesson was not to hide in closets, real closets or metaphorical ones. I could have thrown a pair of jeans on and answered the door, told Hiram I didn’t want any company and closed it again. But I had been a coward, unwilling to confront the reality of the day, and hid, unsuccessfully at that. If Hiram had wanted to hurt me, he could have, that day or some other. But he never showed up again.
And I grew into a fearless woman with a case of claustrophobia. Hiram was a good teacher.