At the age of 8, I lived with my family in the first place that felt like a real house. Prior to the Avenue C house — and based solely on the beginning of my ability to remember things — we’d been in a tiny and dilapidated shack almost right in the middle of a high-traffic road followed by an apartment in the suburbs, respectively. When we moved to the house on Avenue C, I stopped sleeping in the same room with my little brother and we got a dog.
My room had a giant picture window that looked out into a giant backyard and I carefully lined my prized possessions underneath the window sill so that I could be near the window when I played with them. I loved that room and began to stretch out in how I interacted with space that felt like it was truly mine. I had a place to retreat to where I would read and imagine all of the places that window would take me. I believed I had the most beautiful room in the whole house and I took special care of everything that came into it.
I read everything I could get my hands on and my family loved this about me. Books were regularly shoved into my hands, I enjoyed describing the stories I was reading to anyone who would listen, and I left the library with giant stacks of books that I devoured well in advance of our next visit. I spent entire days buried in fairy tales and silly tales of Amelia Bedelia or the comedic, slapstick mystery of The Great Brain. I remain thankful for the people who changed my life when they let me borrow the entire anthology of Sherlock Holmes and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy but those would come in later years.
In the house on Avenue C, I discovered the jokes sections in the monthly Reader’s Digest that someone had a subscription to. I used to love “All In A Day’s Work” the most even though I didn’t always get all of the jokes. I still knew they were funny to someone and that pleased me because I loved laughing and regularly sought reasons to do it. For a time, a few of the most recent Reader’s Digest issues made their way into a little pile next to the picture window for when I wanted to refer back to specific jokes that I’d decided were especially clever.
I began to gain curiosity about the other stories I was coming across in Reader’s Digest, beyond the jokes. Everyone knows that stories in Reader’s Digest read a lot like a condensed Lifetime Movie Network original so I started absorbing stories of women being raped at knifepoint, fathers dying of cancer, and someone who was rescued in the mountains by a dog.
I experienced initial bewilderment at the way a lot of the articles would end. It didn’t make sense to me that tragedy would prevail or sickness would win out and I felt surprise at the loss of the happy ending I had expected to find. But even though I felt some discomfort from this departure from Amelia Bedelia, I kept coming back for more. There was something sensual and enticing about these gritty and sensationalized life-as-we-know-it horrors that kept ending badly for everyone. I started to skip stories that seemed light and had good endings, opting for ones that focused on conflict or danger. I especially liked the stories that had sexual elements to them. I recall moments when I would feel empty, feel pity, or feel aroused. My 8-year-old brain was on fire and I’d forgotten about Amelia Bedelia. I still read the jokes but Reader’s Digest became way more of a cover-to-cover gig.
A certain story about a female nurse in a psychiatric hospital who was working a night shift when she was beaten up by a couple of patients still haunts me. Whoever that woman was, her experience was immortalized for me.
She had come across some patients in the ward having sex and made them stop, probably wrote about it in the shift log, did the normal stuff. In the aftermath of this encounter, the same patients cornered her later that evening and badly injured her. They repeatedly hit and kicked her and she suffered a great amount of bodily trauma and some brain damage. One piece of information that burns in my mind 27 years later is the fact that one of the patients who beat and kicked her was wearing steel-toed boots.
Memory is fallible and the chain of events in my mind is fuzzy, but what everyone in my family can starkly remember was that I stopped sleeping. Completely and totally. I was experiencing vivid nightmares and I stopped talking about the stories from my library books, trading them for new words to describe to my mother the things I had grown to fear.
Every evening became an incredible chore and source of huge grief as my parents tried to make everything comfortable and easy for me to fall asleep. Nothing would work for too long and I always end up in deep sobs and real screams. The Reader’s Digests were confiscated once they were identified as the source of valuable information for my imagination to use against me, but the damage was done.
The entirety of everything I had learned and read in those stories packaged itself into a real monster who I visualized waiting for me just outside my beautiful picture window at night. This monster had the form I now knew was one of the most deadly: human. To me, the monster was a man who had wild hair and piercing eyes that were so dark he would appear sightless against the night. His most distinguishing feature was that his mouth was full of blood. The blood covered his teeth and mouth as if he had just fed off of something while it was still living.
My picture window became the canvas for the monster and I saw him everywhere in it. I believed the window would swallow me whole and I would be lost to anyone who might save me, flayed open for the monster’s pleasure which was the most devastating aspect of what I knew about him. In my mind, the monster was perpetually smiling and his grin spanned his face, the blood shining fluorescent. The monster had no fear of me; rather, I sensed that he could feed off of my terror and I came to believe that the unknown of what he would do to me was more unbearable than anything he might actually do. The only thing between us was the picture window and I knew he could see the entirety of me in it.
I felt such horror at the idea of this being, it was ages before I confessed to my mother the specifics of the nightly visions of the monster. I have to suppose that my little self lacked the descriptive words to describe the most gruesome parts of him. Perhaps I had some shame at what my mind had conjured because I don’t remember telling her about all of what I saw in his face. Despite my mother’s best efforts to make assurances and provide explanations about my imagination, her remonstrations were no match for my suffering.
It was devastating in my head and I couldn’t get out.
When my parents decided to leave the house on Avenue C, they chose a two-story number across town and showed me the room they had picked out for me. Alone in that new room, I stood numbly in front of a giant wall of curtains and felt my heart sink at the possibility that a picture window had followed me. The season of sleepless nights and waking nightmares had stolen a bit of freedom and lightness from my body. It had taught me to dread.
But most distinctly, it taught me that the first monster I’d ever know was the one in my own mind.