One of the she scariest months in my life has to have been October 2002 when two very disturbed individuals went on a 3-week-long shooting spree in an area that included most of the DC metro area — and many the places I regularly frequented. All together they killed at least 10 people, targeting random people for what seemed to be no reason.
My son’s elementary school canceled recess during that time. My son’s soccer team canceled all games and practices. Buying gas terrified me. Getting from my car to a public building suddenly became something that resembled a obstacle course — we walked quickly in a zig-zag pattern until we were safely inside. Playgrounds were silent. No one was on the streets in our neighborhood. Trick-or-treating for Halloween was scheduled to be canceled. Every day I worried that one of my kids or husband (who refused to let the sniper attacks make him give up riding his bike to work) would be killed during the day.
Then suddenly it was over. The snipers had been caught and the streets were safe again. The DC metro area breathed a collective sigh of relief. My son and husband among them.
One of those men is scheduled to die this evening and despite the fear he and his accomplice put me through 7 years ago, I cannot be glad about that. I don’t like it that our country puts people to death. Of course people will counter my argument with — what if it was one of your kids. Or your parents. Or your husband. I cannot possibly know what my thoughts would be in that case. I only know now that despite our country’s long history of having the death penalty, people still kill each other. I don’t think the death penalty is working.
About 9 years ago I realized I’d never spent the night in a motel / hotel room by myself and it bothered me. I’d eaten at a restaurant by myself. I’d seen a movie in a theater by myself. I’d traveled by air, train & car by myself. I felt that the next step to independence was to spend a night in a motel room by myself. I sort of obsessed on it for a few years. Then I forgot about it and moved on to other obsessions.
So when I found myself getting too sleepy to drive another 5 hours last week on my way to visit my relatives in Mississippi and stopped for the night in at the Comfort Inn in Chattanooga, Tennessee I didn’t immediately remember that I’d never stayed in a motel or hotel alone until I was sitting on the love seat of my room eating take-out from a nearby fast food restaurant.
I think the hotel is relatively new — the room was clean and didn’t have that “hotel room” smell that usually makes me wonder what underlying odor it is covering up. The window opened a little, so I was able to get some fresh air. I didn’t bother turning on the air conditioning — it was warm, but not that warm. I had a king sized bed, a spacious and clean bathroom and as far as I could tell, was the only person on my floor. I had a great view of the mountains as well. I slept well and awoke rested for the remainder of the trip. Breakfast, which was included in the modest price of the room was okay — I’d had better.
On the way back from Mississippi I was not sure I was going to stop along the way to sleep. Had I left my Aunt’s house earlier I might have made it all the way home that night, but when I got within 4 hours of my town I hit a heavy rainstorm. Since I hadn’t eaten dinner I thought it best to stop, eat and get some sleep. I again looked for a Choice Hotel — they’d always been reliable. When I saw that Salem, Virginia had a Quality Inn, I took the exit and checked in at the hotel. The front desk staff person was nice. She asked if I minded facing the pool — I said I didn’t mind and was checked into a room very close to the lobby. I didn’t go to my room right away, but got some take out food instead and brought it back to the hotel. I grabbed my overnight bag and computer from the car and headed to the room. The key didn’t work, nor did the second key I was given. Finally the front desk staff person walked to the room and was able to make the key work after a few tries. I didn’t plan on leaving the room until I left the next morning, so didn’t really worry about whether the key would work when I tried it.
The room smelled like a hotel room — that cloying sweet smell that resembles the smell some public bathrooms have. This room had two double beds and a very small, but clean-enough bathroom whose door would not open all the way. The room itself didn’t feel very clean and the carpet near the wall was noticeably dirty.
The room also had a sliding glass door which led to the courtyard which housed a swimming pool. I opened the door, but quickly closed it and tried to figure out how to lock and secure it. I was able to lock it and pull down a inadequate-looking security bar, but the J-shaped lock wouldn’t fit into its security holder. I fretted about this for a while, but ended up feeling semi-safe.
After eating my take-out food (standing up near the table — I didn’t want to sit on the bed and eat and was too lazy to pull the chair closer to the table) I got ready for bed. It was then I noticed the faint splatter of what looked like either dried blood or dried feces on the wall behind the nightstand. My mind immediately raced through all the slasher movies I’d seen in my youth (not that many, but one would have been enough) and tried to work out how the person had been stabbed so the blood would squirt on the wall between the beds. They would have had to been standing in front of the nightstand — maybe talking on the phone. I wondered if the body was somewhere in the room — I checked under the beds and in the drawers. No corpse. I actually hoped the stain was feces instead. In hindsight I think it might have been cola or root beer on the wall. The vending machine doled out plastic bottles, and a hand-written sign did warn consumers to wait a while before unscrewing the cap. I wasn’t thinking too clearly that night, however.
I did a little work then read some email messages on my cell phone. I couldn’t bring myself to shut off the light near the bathroom — I was still nervous about the security of the sliding glass door — so I tried to fall asleep with the light on. Surprisingly, I did fall asleep rather quickly.
I awoke to a woman’s voice and checked my phone to see what time it was. I thought I’d overslept and the woman was calling a child. The clock on my phone read 3:15. The woman called again, and just as I realized she was saying, “Sir! Sir! Excuse me Sir!” I heard a loud knocking sound from the hotel hallway. I thought the woman was talking to someone in a room close to mine and was knocking on the door. The knocking continued and I wondered if she’d mistaken my room for one that held a man. I walked to the door, calling out, “Who is it”? More knocking, more insistent this time. I asked, “Who is it? What do you want?” Just more knocking. I then realized that I could peek out through the peephole to see who was outside knocking on my door. Since I didn’t have the foresight to grab my glasses before I went to the door, all I know about the person knocking on my door was that it was a man in a long-sleeved dark tee-shirt with writing on the front. I said, “I don’t know you. Go away!” The knocking stopped. The telephone rang. I answered the phone, but no one was on the line.
At this point I was really frightened. Isn’t this when the killer often strikes in slasher movies? I thought maybe he’d gone outside and was going to break into the room through the sliding glass door. Maybe he was already in the room, hiding behind the draperies that covered the door. I hung up the phone and was about to call the front desk when it rang again. This time I shouted, “Who is this? What do you want?” At first there was no answer, then a woman’s voice asked me if I had another guest in my room. I said I did not, but that a man was knocking on the room door. She explained that she just wanted to make sure that he didn’t belong in my room.
I then heard her outside again, asking the man which room he belonged in. He mumbled that he didn’t know.
I came close to packing up and leaving right then, but was more worried about what was outside the room than what might get inside. I turned on the television and then climbed back into bed — sure that I’d not sleep a wink anymore that night. Again I surprised myself by sleeping for a couple more hours — waking to the sound of my alarm clock at 5:30 am.
I didn’t shower, having seen Psycho several times, ate a quick breakfast (better than the Comfort Inn’s was) and checked out. The front desk staff person, a man this time, asked if everything had been okay. As I began to list the problems, he said, “Oh, I understand you had a little problem last night. So sorry about that. Sorry for the inconvenience.” I replied that I’d been very frightened and he said that the man was found sleeping in the hallway and was drunk or high. He then went on to say that they were concerned about security, but there was nothing they could have done to prevent that — the lobby couldn’t be locked.
So, I’ve had two vastly different nights staying in a hotel alone. I don’t think I’m going to look forward to doing it again anytime soon, thanks to the incident at the Quality Inn of Salem, Virginia.
My daughter has discovered The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I knew she would at some time or another — I’d assumed they still taught it in schools, then I saw it in a poetry packet that she brought home from school and felt a long forgotten excitement in my chest. When I initially asked her what she thought about it, she said they had not gotten to it yet in a bored teenage voice.
Just before spring break she said, “Mom! I LOVED Prufrock!” in a not-so-bored teenage voice. She was animated and excited and quoted lines from the poem to me. We discussed the meaning of stanzas and wondered who the women were who were discussing Michelangelo.
I vividly remember reading Prufrock for the first time. I was a Freshman in college. I remember loving the rhythm of the syllables in the poem. I remember loving the pictures the words and lines painted. I remember wondering how coffee spoons could measure time or how eating a peach could be something daring to do. I was young with my whole life ahead of me. I was not going to be like this middle-aged man. Ever. I’d never be afraid like he seemed to be. I’d never regret missing out on things, because I knew I’d do it all. I had plans. Our professor was a middle-aged man. He tried to explain the poem to us from his perspective.
Reading the poem again, now in middle-age, is much more painful than it was when I was 19. At 19 I thought the man a fool for his regrets. I felt no pity for J. Alfred Prufrock. But now, I see where he is coming from. There are days that I have similar feelings to this man. Days when I regret things I’ve not done, and some that I have done. I’ve been shy all of my life and sometimes dealing with strangers has been frightening to me.
Mostly I think I’ve lived a good life so far — I’ve taken some risks — as a young adult and again as an older adult. I’ve faced a few fears and conqured them. My mom and aunt seem to think I can do it all, while my daughter seems to think I should have done more.
Some days I feel like giving in to my fears — staying home when I don’t want to face strangers. Having someone else make phone calls for me. Driving far out of my way to avoid having to drive in a city (yes, NYC, I’m talking about you). Other days, I take a deep breath and just DO. I go to meetings I’d rather not attend. I make those phone calls I was avoiding. I take the shorter route to Sarah Lawrence which goes through Manhattan (so say the signs).
What’s next? Eating alone in a fancy restaurant? Applying for a new job? Going birding with a bird group?
“And how should I begin?
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”
–From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Elliot