Watching TV one afternoon, Audrey and I were startled by a loud crack, like someone slapping the side of our house with a sheet of plywood, immediately followed by a motorcycle roaring away. Audrey got up and looked out the window. “What the fuck was that?”
I walked outside and looked at the house. “I think it was just that motorcycle backfiring,” I said.
A few hours later, Audrey found a 9mm slug on the kitchen floor, its head crunched to one side after going through the wall beneath the sink and hitting a door frame on the other side of the kitchen. “Baby,” she called out, “someone shot our house.” The bullet looked like a shriveled worm.
We called the cops, but the officers just told us what we already knew: they couldn’t do anything. One cop put the bullet in a small baggie before giving us a case number and his card. “Call me if anything else happens,” he said. He was calm, almost nonchalant—compared to other shit he’d seen in Fresno, someone shooting a house wasn’t a big deal.
I wasn’t very shaken up, but Audrey was terrified. When she was a freshman, her school was shaken by a brutal shooting, and our house getting shot reminded her of walking through her high school after it re-opened and seeing bullet holes in walls, windows, and doors.
We’d only been living in Fresno for a year. Aside from friends from my MFA program, we didn’t know anyone here, so I felt sure that the shooting was random—just some asshole that suddenly decided to shoot a house. The police also told us that this was most likely the case.
Like me, Audrey loved our house, a gray 1960s bungalow, refinished with new insulation, floors, and fixtures. But now she wanted to move. I told her that things like this just happen in Fresno. Everyone we knew here had had something stolen from them. During the first week she lived here, my friend saw police gun down a shirtless tweaker wielding a machete just outside her apartment.
Audrey and I looked at some other places, although we both knew that we wouldn’t find a better deal, or a better house. We paid $1,050 in rent for a large house that, in Denver, where we’d moved from, would’ve cost at least $2,000 per month.
“If anything else happens,” I told Audrey, “we’ll move for sure.”
We’d been engaged for a year. Our wedding was set for the following summer. It was the first house we’d rented together, so Audrey also wanted to stay, although she’d have trouble sleeping for the next few months, and she’d never want to be alone in the house.
The real reason I didn’t want to find a new place: I knew Audrey and I weren’t right for each other, that I needed to break up with her before the wedding. For the past few months, I’d woken up every day and tried to talk myself into doing it, playing the conversation in my head on an endless loop. I thought about how shitty it would be if we moved just before I ended our relationship, but it would be another year before I finally got myself to break up with her.
Six months earlier, someone had stolen my bike from a shed behind the house.
The shed is about eight feet away from the bedroom where Audrey and I slept. The sharp pang of metal against metal jolted both of us awake. The thief hit the metal latch on the shed with a hammer or some other blunt object, knocking it and the Master lock completely off. We got up, peeking through the blinds.
We could hear someone rummaging through our stuff. I called the cops and a squad car pulled up in front of the house within minutes. “Someone might still be in there,” I told the officers.
The two burly policemen slowly walked into the shed, guns drawn. After turning on a flashlight attached to his gun and shining it into the shed, the cop in front yelled, “Is anyone in there?” The other cop looked over his partner’s shoulder, pointing his pistol toward the left corner. Audrey clutched my arm.
The thief had already bolted, taking my bike but leaving Audrey’s. I’d gotten things stolen from me before, so I knew about the feelings of violation and anger that fill the aftermath of a theft. My bike was a Bianchi fixie that I’d customized, once taking it completely apart and putting it back together just to understand it better.
I wondered if the person that took my bike had watched me put it in the shed. The idea of getting watched has always scared me, so I started to feel unsafe in the house—a cold uneasiness on the back of my neck that lingered for the next two or three months. I knew that the thief probably needed money in a way I’ll never understand. Still, part of me hoped they didn’t know how to ride a brakeless fixie, that they’d get plowed at a nearby intersection.
I’d moved to Fresno three months before Audrey because she needed to finish one last semester in Denver. We’d started dating a year earlier. From the beginning of our relationship, we both knew that I’d be moving within the next nine months for school. She was about to move to this small city to be with me, although she’d hated it since the first time we visited. My bike was stolen during one of her weekend visits.
“Shane’s car has gotten broken into like four times,” I told Audrey the next day, talking about my friend from school. “It’s just Fresno.” Somehow, this was my way of trying to convince her that moving to this polluted, crime-ridden city with a staggering unemployment rate wasn’t a mistake. Now, I wonder if part of me was trying to tell her that it was.
When we first met, I loved hearing Audrey talk about art and heavy metal. She’s an amazing abstract artist, and she loves Mastodon and Neurosis—two of my favorite bands.
The first time we hung out, Audrey said, “Neurosis is like a symphony of the apocalypse.” I couldn’t wait to go on another date, especially after looking at her art, which is heavily influenced by Julie Mehretu, whose work is a postmodern mish-mash of Jackson Pollock and Hieronymus Bosch. Audrey’s paintings made me feel like I was looking at an architectural drawing of her brain. We fell in love fast, and I quickly started thinking about asking her to move to Fresno with me, which she sensed.
One morning, as we lay in bed, talking and laughing about a movie we’d watched the night before, Audrey suddenly said, “If you want me to move with you, you’re going to have to put a ring on it.” She was joking, but only half-way.
It was way too soon to be thinking about marriage—we’d only been together for seven months. But, during the days following that morning, I also thought about how risk is part of any long-term relationship. At some point, you have to take a leap, and I didn’t want to end our relationship without knowing where it could go.
I also knew why Audrey said this: most of her previous relationships had ended badly, and she needed a sense of security. Looking back, it’s easy to chide myself for pushing our relationship to a place it wasn’t ready for. But I also keep thinking about how we all crave promises of security and permanence, making those promises and getting consumed by them even though we know that nothing is ever guaranteed.
On April 24th, 2012, I asked Audrey to marry me. We were walking through a park near my apartment. The surrounding trees and foliage looked bright and lively after a long, bleak winter. I told Audrey how I could see myself getting old with her. As I knelt down in the grass, she said, “Oh shit!”
We went to a Bad Brains show that night to celebrate.
One week after our house was shot, I got out of bed to let the cat outside. Like every other morning during the past months, I’d been staring at the ceiling after I woke up, trying and failing to think of a good way to tell Audrey that I didn’t want to marry her. But these thoughts dissipated when I saw a kitchen knife on our porch, set on one of the brick blocks next to the small staircase. The serrated blade pointed directly at the house. I didn’t want to believe that someone had set the knife there to intimidate us, but it was hard to come up with another scenario.
We called the cops again. “Have you ever heard of someone doing this before?” I asked the officer.
“I don’t think it’s a threat,” the cop said. “That type of thing doesn’t happen much in real life.”
Audrey and I tried to think of other ways the knife could’ve ended up on our porch. Maybe one of the people who push shopping carts down the street dropped the knife, and then someone walking by found it and set it on the porch, thinking it might be ours. Still, neither of us could see the knife as anything but a threat, even though this didn’t fully add up, either. We had no enemies in Fresno, and our neighbors were all friendly. On the day I moved in, Chester, who lives across the street, came over. After introducing himself to Audrey and me, he gave us a grocery bag full of fresh squash and zucchini from his garden.
The only explanation I could come up with for getting threatened was that it stemmed from resentment. Sitting on a corner lot with no fences, this house is super nice, with rose bushes and a large palm tree in the front yard. Across the street to the south, the block is capped by a shady apartment building, a run-down bodega, and a corner frequented by hookers, crack heads, and drunks. The neighborhood is mostly safe; there’s just a gnarly patch at the Belmont intersection, right next to the 180.
Talking to neighbors over the next few days, I asked if they’d ever heard of anyone putting knives on people’s porches. They hadn’t. Audrey and I both have new-ish Subarus, so I knew we seemed like privileged motherfuckers to people on the south block—and we were. But the guy who lives next door has a new Prius and black Jetta, both of which he parks in front of his immaculate house, so I wondered why someone would target us. Also, the house across the street is newer and a lot bigger than this one. Although Audrey and I didn’t want to believe that the shooting and knife were connected, it was hard not to.
Now, breaking up with Audrey seemed even more urgent. The knife intensified the pressurized anxiety she’d been feeling ever since the house got shot, and I felt guilty about not moving. I wanted her to feel safe. If I wasn’t constantly thinking about ending our relationship, I would’ve moved immediately after the house got shot. I just wished there was a way out of the situation that didn’t involve emotionally devastating Audrey.
I showed my friend Shane the bullet holes in the wall and door frame a day or two after the knife incident. I told him about my wealth inequality theory, but he didn’t buy it. “Someone’s just trying to fuck with you,” he said.
We went outside and stood in the street, trying to figure out where the shooter had been. We both knew we were being silly, acting like we were on CSI or The Wire. But, somehow, standing in the street and pointing an imaginary gun at the house made me feel better, like I was figuring out why someone had shot our house and put a knife on the porch as I stared down imaginary sights on my hand.
A week later, I woke up to discover that someone had stolen a chair and table from our porch. I thought about not telling Audrey but knew this wasn’t the right thing to do.
When I told her about the furniture, a year or so after I proposed to her, I felt a sickly dread in my stomach as I looked at the ring on her finger. Part of me wished that the situation was black-and-white, one of us cheating on the other or doing heroin in secret. The reality was that I still loved her, but I wasn’t attracted to her in the same way. I kept coming back to the frustratingly true cliché that I wasn’t in love with her anymore, whatever the fuck that means.
Knowing that I should break up with Audrey so she could move into a place where she’d feel safe, I brought up the idea of getting an alarm system. I knew that home security systems are mostly ineffectual in themselves. They’re largely for peace of mind, assuring you that nothing will change when you leave or while you’re asleep, even though this assurance isn’t a guarantee, much like the promise to marry someone. Houses with alarms still get broken into all the time.
“If anything else happens after we get an alarm, we’ll move for sure,” I told Audrey.
At this point, I was done trying to convince myself that I could be happy with her. At dinner, we’d focus on our food, our conversations consumed by long silences. She and I both knew I was unhappy, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of hurting her, even though I also knew that asking her to stay in the house was fucked up. It would be another year before I finally mustered enough resolve to stop floundering.
Although she wanted to move, Audrey reluctantly agreed to try the alarm. After the ADT person installed our system, I set the code, a combination of my and Audrey’s birthdates.
Audrey and I broke up over a year ago, but I still live in the house. The small ADT sign—a blue hexagon that emits the threat of consequence like electromagnetic pulses—sits in the front yard. Although it makes me feel safer at night, I also think about Audrey when I see it, often wondering if I made the right decision and wishing there was some way to know for sure. Ever since she moved out, there’s been a looming emptiness in the house, and I still hear her asking me if I want breakfast when I wake up.
After the alarm was installed, nothing shady has happened, aside from someone stealing a grill from the backyard. Even so, I don’t feel comfortable leaving the house alone for more than one night. When I leave town, I constantly worry about someone breaking in.
J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His first book, Heavy: a memoir of Wyoming, BMX, drugs, and heavy fucking music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in Fall 2015. You can check out more of his writing here: jjanselmi.com