It’s a cold Saturday night in Orange County and I’m sitting at my computer desk next to the window. Looking out of the window I can see only a limited view due to the building’s design. My apartment is in a recessed alcove blocked by stairs to the second floor. A shrubbery of significant stature used to reside on the other side of the window but for reasons undisclosed to me that bush had to go. Now, all that remains is a mere dirt patch from which I guess I’m expected to grow crops but don’t be surprised if it’s a dismal harvest. I prefer to gain my produce via conquest or Ralph’s. Beyond this barren soil of disappointment and cropped by the stairs, out the window one can see a few meters of the sidewalk, the trunk of a palm, parked cars, the street, and occasionally the neighbors across depending on the tide of parked cars. As is traditional in apartments, my window comes with vertical “bachelor pad” blinds. Because the Western sun glares at me in the afternoon, I keep the blinds closed. As we’ve discussed, there’s not much of a view to miss, except maybe at night.
When the sun goes down, the streetlights come up and civilization motors out to play. Or drunkenly amble past from the bars a couple blocks away.
Outside my apartment at night, the headlights of passing cars occasionally illuminate the wall behind the window creating spectral shapes. When I was a child these brief flurries of lights and shadows on the walls of our old home were portents of doom- my imagination ginning up all kinds of wicked things a’coming. Now that I’m an adult, these lights are merely the possibility of a wild driver wrecking into my living room. I get this fear not from real life but from an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond which I watched at a formative age. Needless to say and yet I’m saying it anyway, my headlight reflection recognition game is strong. This is important for you to know because on this cold Saturday night, there are lights on the wall. Red and blue flashing lights. And they’re not moving. I know what doom this portends. Outside my window, parked in the street, are the police. Civilization’s jackboots. They wait.
Peeking through the blinds, I see what I believe to be two police cruisers, lights flashing, but no sirens or sign of the officers who belong inside them. Knowing I can walk outside a dozen paces before being seen by anyone on the street, thanks to the stairs and another, still there, shrubbery, I quietly stroll outside in the chilly air. Soon as I reach the end of my walk, I realize this is much more than a mere traffic stop gone mundane. No, this isn’t the typical drunk driving arrest or domestic disturbance call I expected. This is what the professionals on television call, a situation.
Up and down the street, what seems like the entire police force of my town stands guard. I count quickly in my head the amount of law enforcement vehicles I can spot and the number comes up to about a billion or maybe eleven. Cruisers, Chargers, SUV’s (no SVU though), K-9 Unit, a mini-van, and probably a bike cop somewhere looking lanky too. If cop-watching were like birdwatching, I’d have filled up my guidebook and be moving on to a more obscure hobby, maybe pickles. Joining with the two cruisers outside my window, the rest of the police motor pool have their lights on and their engines idling. In the white noise roar, I tread carefully past the remaining shrubbery and into obvious sight of the police officers. A concerned citizen, I want to know more.
They don’t acknowledge my existence.
Near the apartment building’s parking lot, an officer finishes putting up crime scene tape. It looks like what you see on TV. My car is on the other side of the tape. I consider waving to the officer as if to say “Yeah, that’s fine. I didn’t need to drive tonight” but I think better of it. Looking across the street, I see the neighbors standing outside like me. Unlike me, they wear blankets. It’s cold out here.
There’s a human need to stay, I think, to watch. To see what happens next. But really, the better question is what happened before? I wouldn’t know the answer to this question until later the next day. I read about it on the news. Here’s a brief retelling.
A man driving on a busy road about a mile away gets pulled over for a routine stop. He takes umbrage and decides this stop is going to be a different kind of routine. Zooming away from the officer, the man leads the police on a short chase to his residence, an apartment building on my street halfway up the block. Alone in the home, the man holds himself hostage with a knife.
Yeah, the Imperial armada arrayed on my block is to stop a man with a knife from holding himself hostage.
If you chuckled at the description that’s okay, I did as well at the time. When I learned about what had transpired, I didn’t know then how much in common I had with the knife-wielding man. For one, we both lived alone. For two, we both preferred blades over guns. For three, like the man holding himself hostage, I too was trapped. Unlike the man, I didn’t have a dozen vehicles of the law to inform me of my predicament, my situation. Lucky him, right? (No, my stuff was so much less scary in an OH MY GOD I’M GONNA DIE sense. The comparison is for thematic purposes only.)
When you don’t know you’re a prisoner, escape never crosses your mind. But why was I trapped? (Good save. Back on track.)
For decades I’ve slept with a Bi-Pap machine and an apnea mask. I depend on it to get healthy rest. Without it, I don’t really sleep, just a series of short, groggy naps where I can’t breathe well. It’s not pleasant in the short-term and quite detrimental to my health over time. As it turns out, late last year, my lung doctor discovered the settings on my machine were hopelessly ineffective. All of that good sleep I thought I was getting had decayed into barely enough and now finally into bad sleep merely disguised as adequate. The how and why of this discovery is a story for another essay. All that matters right now is to know that up until last November, I had spent potentially years suffering from the symptoms of chronic sleep loss. Among those symptoms are anxiety and depression. The perfect combo to turn an extrovert inward and an otherwise pleasant Tuck into a cranky hermit.
Slowly, at the speed you don’t notice, I let go of the world outside the window. My local friends moved away or just fell out of touch. I thought this was fine, I needed to focus on improving myself and my writing. Other people are distractions, except for the ones you can turn off by walking away from your computer. This was my modus operandi albeit one that I hadn’t been made aware of. Except around the edges, creeping along the periphery, I knew something wasn’t right. The internet will tell you that 2016 was a bad year, and maybe that’s true, but for me, 2017 was the gut-punch. Anxiety over my insurance, my failing medical devices, and national politics combined to make the world seem if not awful than at least medium-bad. To say that I was suffering acutely wouldn’t be accurate, but the symptoms gnawed and kept on gnawing. Thankfully, I never contemplated self-harm, I’ve worked too hard to survive, but I did come to believe that being an adult meant thinking about death often.
With all that we know at the touch of our fingertips, what bigger question is left?
The man with the knife alone in his home holding off the police probably has a multitude of thoughts going through his head too. Claiming that I know what they are would be fallacious so I’ll just say it’s likely at some point he considers how the night will end. Skipping over death, the easy answer is to just put down the knife but if that answer is impossible, what then? Stay awake and hope they leave? We both, the man and I, know this isn’t a solution with a high chance of working but it’s a choice nonetheless and the one we both make. He can’t put down his knife because of the voices in his head or the drugs he’s on. I can’t put my knife down because I don’t know it exists yet. Stuck together, we wait. For him, salvation comes in the form of a flashbang grenade thrown around 1 AM. The police move in and arrest the man unharmed. For myself, three days after using my new Bi-Pap machine I begin to feel like Tuck again. No flashbang needed.
I walk outside my apartment the morning after the night of the situation hoping to find some discarded crime scene tape for a friend who likes that stuff. There’s none remaining. Nothing at all about the block looks like it did the night before. All the evidence, all the proof that this standoff ever happened is gone, except for what I remember.
In memory, I return to the night, standing on the sidewalk just past the remaining shrubbery watching the flashing lights. I look at my neighbors and their blankets out here for the long haul. We feel the noise of eleven engines idling in our bones for what feels only a few moments together mesmerized by a crime we know nothing about. Then, I go back inside and it’s twenty minutes later.
Longer than I knew, the wait.