The corner of my bed in my second-floor bedroom almost perfectly matched up with the corner of the windowsill that provided me a view of the pitched roof over the front porch and the parking lot below it. If I raised my head from my pillow and leaned just a little, I could see the red hood of my car, in front of the path to my house. If somebody came from the parking lot up the walkway, I would be able to see them before they passed under the roof onto the porch.
The house I lived in, in my junior year of college, was a part of a complex of houses aimed at college students. The appeal of having separate homes instead of confined, clustered apartments drew many of the students who benefited from the wealth of their parents out to this community about five miles from the campus core. During the school term, multiple house parties bled out onto front porches, into the pool, and onto the communal greenspaces in the middle of the complex. Drunk people were always walking up and down the streets, flitting from party to party as if they were bar hopping. It wasn’t uncommon to hear loud yelling, laughing, and music from Thursday to Sunday, and any other time there was an excuse to celebrate (which happened often).
During the summer, though, the place became almost ghostlike. Many of those wealthy students went home for the summer or found corporate internships in business or engineering or whatever, so the parking spaces became emptier, the parties became fewer, and the drunk people on the streets almost ceased to exist. The only place you could find signs of life most nights was at the pool, where the music was as loud as ever.
The house I lived in was on the back end of the complex, backing up to a fence that backed up to a major highway. I was too far from the pool to hear anything that went on there, and by summer the houses on either side of mine were emptied out. My roommates, two guys I had been friends with before we moved in together and whose relationships with me had soured over the course of nine months, were not living in the house. One had effectively moved in with his girlfriend after a nasty fight with myself and our other roommate several months before, and the other had taken one of those corporate engineering internships in his hometown.
This left me alone in the house. It had five bedrooms, each of which was equipped with a code lock door. Unless you had the code, you could not access the door without a master key to the house, which residents were not issued. So, after my roommates left, there were four locked doors that I could not access. It was just my room, the living room, and the kitchen.
By this time, I had already started to hate where I lived. The bad relationships with my roommates, coupled with the never-ending uncleanliness of the kitchen (neither of them ever did a single dish), and the posters around the first floor depicting anime, video games, and super heroes that I did not understand or care for as a decorative style, made me largely unwilling to be outside of my room for longer than it took to use the microwave or retrieve my cat from playing downstairs. For the first few weeks of essentially living alone, I was quietly undisturbed, waiting for my lease to end in August so I could move.
Sometime in mid-June, I started hearing my roommate (the one living with his girlfriend) coming into the house in the evenings. I would hear him come up the stairs and enter his room, and sometimes I would hear other movements in the house. Occasionally, I would hear voices, so I assumed his girlfriend had come with him. Not looking to start conversation with anybody, I never left my room when I heard that they were there. I just finished my evening and went to bed. By morning, nobody was ever in the house, and neither of their cars were outside.
At some point, I read something online about a girl in a complex across the highway having squatters in her home. Like me, her roommates were all gone for the summer and she was living alone. Somehow, two people had figured this out and were staying in a space she never used or saw. She found them when she heard voices downstairs. She stepped out of her room and they were in the living room. They bolted from the house when she saw them, and she moved out immediately.
After this, I started to question what I heard in the evenings. My roommate, a 6’4” behemoth of a person, had always run up the stairs, making noises akin to that of a tiptoeing elephant. Since the summer, though, his steps had become lighter and slower. He no longer took the stairs three at a time. If I looked out the window, I never saw his maroon Mustang, or his girlfriend’s tan Tahoe. There was never any evidence on the first floor that they had been there.
I paid more attention. I didn’t always hear noises, but I did hear them pretty often. I wasn’t making them up, because when the front door opened, my cat’s ears perked up and he sometimes even stood up. He heard it, too. There was never anything put into or taken out of the fridge or pantry that I noticed. I started to run out of the house as quickly as I could and looked over my shoulder whenever I was in the kitchen. I no longer let my cat roam around the house, and my door was always locked.
For a while, nobody believed me. My friends and coworkers thought it was the paranoia of being alone for the first time. My family thought similarly. It wasn’t until a night when I got so scared being in the house that I put the cat in his carrier and drove to stay with my parents across town that they began to believe me. We called the safety officer for the complex. He looked in every room and found nothing but a plate of cookies the engineer roommate had left on his desk before leaving for three months. I asked for him to check the attic space, but he said nobody could get up there, despite my dad being able to touch the door in the ceiling with his fingertips when we did our own investigation. I spent the night in the house again.
A couple of weeks after that, my elephant roommate moved out. He turned in his keys to the office and never had access to the house again. I still heard the footsteps and the voices. In the end, I moved out a week before I could move into the new house I was leasing with my younger sisters. I stayed with my parents for that week, only returning to grab the rest of my stuff with my parents present. We cleaned out my room and my part of the kitchen. My mom took out the trash, even after I half-joked that she should leave it for my remaining roommate to deal with. I turned in my keys, relinquishing my access. For the next three weeks, before the engineer roommate came back, nobody had access to that house.
On the day the roommate returned, I received a text. It read:
Hey Amanda, I saw the condoms in the kitchen trash. I guess you had fun this summer ☺.
Aside from the inappropriate prying into my personal life, which I chose not to address, I was stunned by his text. There were condoms in the trash can.
I told him they weren’t mine. He didn’t believe me.
I insisted that they weren’t mine.I told him that I thought there was a squatter in the house, and that he should be careful, because they really weren’t mine. I hadn’t had use for a condom all summer. If I had, I would have had more decency than to dispose of it in the kitchen trash. I don’t think he believed me, but I had proof of something strange going on.
That same day, the girlfriend of the other roommate came into the store I worked at by total coincidence. I asked her if they had been in the house, and if they had put condoms into the trash. She said no, questioning why anybody would put condoms in the kitchen trash.
I never talked to either of my roommates after that. I don’t know if weird things kept happening. I do know that I have all of the proof I need to know that somebody was in that house who wasn’t supposed to be. That is enough to know that I was in a potentially dangerous situation.
I tell this story now as a kind of shocking but meant-to-be-lighthearted story. I play the condom thing up for laughs. I tell people that I’m fine, that I’ve gotten over it. I put more emphasis on the invasion of privacy that my roommate inflicted by questioning my sex life than the potential invasion of my home. It’s a story that I bring up in conversation by saying nonchalantly, “I had a squatter in my house for a summer.” I have put a protective layer of comedy around the fear.
In truth, I never had a good night’s sleep in the house I lived in for the next year. If I was spending a night in the house alone because my sisters were out, I slept on the couch, ready to make a run to my car. I had my keys handy and a plan to just grab the cat like a football to get him in the car with me. I put on Disney movies to drown out the creaks of the old house because they put me on edge. I had to take off my Apple Watch because it constantly told me my heart rate was alarmingly high. One night, the sound of a tree branch scraping against one of the windows in my bedroom led to a two-hour ordeal in which my dad had to come over and do a sweep of the backyard. I even avoided the door to the detached garage when I took out the trash in broad daylight because what if somebody was in there?
For grad school, I moved from Texas to Northern Virginia, near D.C. I took a trip up with my parents to apartment hunt, and the only one that I felt comfortable with was a secure-access, electronically locked and surveilled complex. I now live in a space so small that nobody would be able to hide, but I will still hear a noise at night and freeze with fear until I can convince myself it was nothing. I have checked the one rack in my closet that is tall enough for a person to fit under, even though the clothes are undisturbed, and I have to double-check that my door is locked every night before bed. My boyfriend has learned this and checks for me as a habit.
I am, admittedly, better than I was in the last place. I can sleep again, and I don’t constantly think of an escape plan. But I worry about one day when I want to live in a house again. Will I be able to handle the multiple entrances, the rooms, the closets? What will happen when my partner is out of town and I am left alone? My boyfriend now lives with me about 75% of the time and I don’t sleep well that other 25%. Even my childhood home, when I return to visit, doesn’t feel as safe anymore even though nothing remotely bad has ever happened there.
It makes me wonder how the trauma of women who experienced something like this for real can cope with the day-to-day. Not that I am negating my experience, but I know that my fears have become reality for others. I am afraid of being harmed by an intruder, of being assaulted or killed. I know that statistically most of these acts of violence do not come from strange intruders. They come from people who are known to the victim, people they care for and love. I have been fortunate enough to escape these violences. The fears I live with, of somebody coming into my home and harming me, are not fears of experience. They are fears of anticipation, of knowing that it happens to so many women and it can happen to me, too. My fears manifest in a stranger, a blank face, footsteps on the stairs, because I am lucky enough for them not to manifest as somebody I trust. But the fear is still there.
Is it a part of being a woman that means I must fear this, whether from a friend or stranger? Is it a fear that I will be able to shield my daughter from, or is she bound to fear this, too, to always anticipate harm because she is a woman? I know I have been fortunate, but will she be? Will her fear be only the anticipation of harm that comes with being a woman, or will it be realized? I cannot protect her from this, can I? I can try. When she is young and under my control, I can keep her from those who may do her harm. But as she grows and becomes independent, I cannot.
These are more manifestations of my anxiety. I do not know that I will have a daughter. I do not even know that I want children at all. Regardless, the questioned safety of a person who may or may not ever exist is merely a projection. It is a way to feel like I can control what is uncontrollable. If I can imagine that I could keep my maybe future daughter safe, then I can control the situation. This idea of control is something I am working on in therapy, that I think stems from my uncertainty about safety. Like my imagined escape routes, protecting somebody who does not exist provides me a focus that is not on my own inability to actually change anything. I am safe now, but I cannot guarantee that safety later. Right now, as I write this, somebody could bust through the admittedly weak lock on my door. It is not likely, but it is also not impossible.
For now, I guess, my best coping tool is humor. It is not where I want to be, nor where I need to be, but it’s what I can offer. I can laugh about my need to check the lock. I joke with my sister about the time she found me at 5 in the morning sleeping on the couch, halfway through Lilo & Stitch because I was scared of my own bedroom. And, mostly importantly, I can ask with a smile, who the hell leaves a used condom in a kitchen trashcan?
Amanda Ganus is an MFA student at George Mason University where she studies creative nonfiction. A native of Lubbock, Texas, she was raised on football, Tex-Mex, and books, not necessarily in that order. She has brought all of that with her to Fairfax, Virginia where she now lives with her cat, Augustus. When Amanda isn’t working, she enjoys visits to museums, cooking, and watching too much reality television with her partner. Occasionally these activities are interspersed with writing.