“Who Are You?”

We live in a community of carefully manicured landscaping and expensive imported cars. There are guards at the gates and walls all around. Our address is voted “Best Community” for five years straight, and there is rarely, if ever, any crime. We know most of our neighbors, and while we don’t socialize much, we always smile and greet one another while getting into our vehicles in the mornings for work.

It is a calm, quiet Friday evening, and our neighbors are gathered in the communal pool area behind our homes to enjoy outdoor weekend grilling with their families. As is usual at this time of year, the communal grills are lit, and there is the clinking of beer bottles and wine glasses. I can hear their voices in the distance, chatting and laughing and enjoying one another. The smells and sounds of normalcy and contentment pervade the darkening sky.

A little later that night, I am reading in my bedroom. I have just turned on the light beside my bed. I enjoy my usual quiet reading time. I like to read a little after dinner and before throwing a load of laundry in the washer. I have just started to read a book about Rwanda. Sometimes while I read, my husband catches sports or the weather on TV. We have the rituals of an average upper-middle-class family that is content in knowing that all is pretty much right, and not a lot can go wrong.

But on this night, my husband, Marc, leaves early to board a chartered boat for deep-sea fishing. We have family friends joining us for a short visit this weekend. We sometimes take our visitors night-fishing at this time of year. There is plentiful grouper to be caught, and late nights on the gulf are cool and breezy. I enjoy our special night fishing trips. But this time, for some reason, I decide to stay home.

I can’t say precisely why I don’t go. I love that trip. Just this morning I made up a little beach bag with bug repellent, a ponytail holder, towels, a book, and a few other odds and ends. But when it’s time to leave home, someone or something in my head, or maybe in my heart, tells me not to go. And thankfully, I listen.

*****************

At this time, I am content with my life. My two children are still in school, and it seems to me that our family is pretty much where it should be. I am satisfied with the knowledge that I am still married to my high school sweetheart. He and I go golfing together once a week and a party or two once a month.  Our business is profitable, and our taxes are paid. Our address is respectable, and we drive late-model cars. Nick, our son, is a senior in high school, and we plan that next year, he goes to college. Christine, our daughter, attends the best private prep school in town, and she does very well. I volunteer to work on the school’s yearly Gala Event and sometimes bring in donuts for all her teachers.

We all go to Mass on Sundays, and we usually enjoy lunch out after the service. I make sure our meals at home are nutritious and well-balanced. I attend yoga several times a week in tight, colorful spandex with my special mat tucked neatly under one arm. I do vinyasa flows without stopping and can control my breathing better than most. There is nothing I can’t dream, plan, calculate and execute calmly, coolly, and with relative ease.

To be sure, I don’t claim we are perfect. My husband sometimes drinks more often and in larger quantities than I like. We sometimes get angry at each other for this reason or that reason, but nothing too problematic. And my husband, well, he golfs- a lot. And I have been dragging him in and out of therapy from about the time we married. But isn’t that to be expected after being together since we were 15 and 16 years old? The point is- I’m happy. Everything is under control and, for the most part, just the way it should be.

*****************

It is early evening in the summertime. The sun sets late at this time of year. After the intense and scorching heat of a typical Florida summer day, families come together to visit with each other and relax. My son rushes into my bedroom and at me in a fluster of desperation. “Mom,” he yells wildly. “Can you hear them? Don’t you know what they are saying about me!” I throw my book down on the bed and prop myself up on my pillow.

Nick is pacing and walking around the bed; his eyes are wide and fearful. He is jabbering at me, hands flying and walking in quick circles around my bed. “The neighbors,” he starts again. “They’re saying I’m a fag. They are all huddled up talking about me, and they want to come and get me.”

I look at Nick in confusion, disbelief, and horror. WHAT? Could our neighbors really be saying these terrible things about my son? It is hard to believe. “Nick, what do you mean?” I ask. “Why would anyone be saying these things about you? Are you sure?”

“YES,” he yells again with even more force. By now, Nick is starting to show signs of rage. “Come to my window and listen if you don’t believe me,” he says, pointing to his bedroom.

Nick begins to look at me with disapproval and then disdain. His lips curl up to one side in a snarl, his eyebrows come close together, and I can see many grooves and lines on his forehead. What have I done? I am only asking questions. I can’t imagine that our neighbors are plotting against him. I throw my legs over the high bed and shoot quickly up to attention. Nick gets behind me and pushes me along the hallway to his bedroom.

Nick is much taller than me. At this time, he is 18 years old and six feet tall. He is fast and strong, having trained and competed in three triathlons the year before. His eyes, which are naturally big and expressive like his father’s, are an arresting hazel and seem to change color with his moods. Tonight, his eyes are wide, wild, and tinged with blue. Something about the desperation and anger in his voice makes me pause, question, and wonder. What is going on?

Nick’s bedroom is dark. He does not turn the light on but goes directly to the window facing the back of the house. Shutters cover the windows in this room with vertical slats. He slowly opens the shades and peers cautiously through a slat. I can see outlines of people in the public space behind our property where they are mingling, chatting, and laughing carelessly over slowly sizzling steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs.

Nick opens the slats further, crouches down, and moves closer toward the window. Now he presses his ear against the windowpane. “Can’t you hear them talking about me, Mom?” he asks again.

I pull closer, also crouching, and put my ear against the window too. I strain hard to hear what he hears and to see what he sees. But I only hear the happy and satisfied chatter of our neighbors enjoying the evening in the presence of their loved ones and friends. I want to believe him. I really do. But looking desperately into his wild eyes, I finally say, “No, Nick. I don’t.”

*****************

Nick looks down at me with more disdain and even disgust. His eyes narrow, and he clenches his fists. I can see tiny beads of perspiration collecting on his forehead. I notice he has stubble growing on his chin. I wonder when he last shaved? “Well, I’ve had it,” he finally says to himself. “I’m not going to let anyone fuck with me this way.”

At this point, Nick leaps up from where we are spying through the slats. He takes a few giant leaps and runs outside his bedroom and through the house. He throws open the front door, flies around the side of the house towards the public patio in the back.

By the time I figure out that Nick has gone to confront our neighbors, I have a hard time catching up. He moves quickly and powerfully with the strength of youth. Once I finally reach the small group of people huddled together in a circle by the pool, I try to discern what is happening.

One man, not much older than Nick, is holding a cold can of beer in his hand. His eyes are bloodshot, and he is slurring his words. It appears he may have been drinking beer for some time. I see him go from calm and at ease to annoyed and then aggravated. “What the hell is your problem, man?” he asks. There is a tinge of red flush that begins to move across his face like a closing curtain. “Who are you? What do you want?” He bombards Nick with questions, and Nick is ready with quick replies.

“I know you are talking about me,” Nick shouts. “I can hear you from my room in our house. Who the fuck do you think you are? You can’t just trash me and expect nothing to happen. I won’t let that stand.”

The young man looks at the older woman and man standing nearby. His eyes widen, and he looks at who, by now, I take to be his parents in disbelief. “What the hell are you talking about? Who the hell are you? What’s your problem?” he asks again, his posture unfurling like a snake getting ready to attack.

Suddenly, the older woman says in a high-pitched voice, “What’s going on here? What do you want?” She also has beer in her hand. It looks as if she may have been drinking for some time too. Then as she looks at Nick, then to her husband, then to her son, and finally to me, “What’s wrong with him? He ain’t right!” she shrieks.

Nick and our neighbor’s son inch closer and closer together. Each young man seems to grow taller as their eyes lock. Their arm muscles start to twitch. Their jaws begin to move and clench. Their fists start to grasp. There is peculiar electricity in the air. I can see this is going bad fast.

“He ain’t right!” the woman screeches again.

I am trying to read people’s faces and bodies to understand what is going on. As I search for clues, my eyes find the older man, and he looks at me intently too. We seek each other’s faces for a moment. I wonder how I can express to him that I don’t know what is happening. I want him to know that this is not about them. I shake my head slowly from side to side and shrug my shoulders slightly to indicate that I, too, am at a loss.

The man seems to read my thoughts. He steps forward between his son and mine. He calmly pivots toward his son, gently grabs his arm, and says, “Matt, just calm down. It’s alright. Leave him alone.”

I take a big breath and slowly begin to release air in a long, drawn-out sigh. He seems to get it, I think to myself.

“No, dad,” says Matt. “Who does this guy think he is? He can’t just storm up on us like that for no reason and get away with it.”

By this time, I am standing in front of Nick, peering up at him. His pupils are dilated. I search for my son in those tumultuous blue and green pools, but I can’t find him. I don’t know where he has gone. “Nick, let’s go,” I encourage him calmly and gently. “Let’s go back into the house and talk. All of this is a misunderstanding. I am sure we can work it out.”

“NO,” he shouts, pushing me to the side. “I am not going to let these assholes talk about me to everyone in the neighborhood. They are going to pay.”

“He ain’t right!” screeches the old lady again.

The older man now has his son pulled to the side and is talking to him quietly and in earnest. His son’s head is bent towards him, listening. The older man takes his son’s elbow and starts moving slowly away, towards their own home. His son gives Nick a long, side-look glance and then nods slowly at his father.

“Nick, let’s go back in the house,” I plead again. “Just give me a few minutes, and we will work all of this out.”

As the older couple and their son begin to move away, I tug on my son even more. “Nick, please,” I say again, “Let’s go back.”

Nick’s furrow softens, and he seems to relax just a little. He looks pleadingly into my eyes. “I swear, Mom,” he says. “They are talking shit about me.” He seems defeated. “We will figure this out,” I say encouragingly to him and then silently to myself.

I nudge Nick gently toward the house, trying to think of what else to say. “Let’s call your Dad,” I tell him, trying to inject some optimism in my voice. “He’ll know what to do.” Once we walk through the front door, I lunge for my phone on the dining room table and make a frantic call to Marc. The call goes directly to voicemail. “Marc, there is something wrong with Nick. He is acting crazy. I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know what to do. Call me back, please. HURRY.”

After my frantic call to Marc, Nick heads for his room. Once there, he closes the door. I remain downstairs confused, exhausted, and then grateful that we seemed to have escaped a bizarre and potentially violent encounter. I lay down in the family living room and begin to decompress. I wonder if what just happened was a nightmare. It can’t have been real.

Not long after I put my feet up to rest and take a sip of cold water to quench my dry mouth, Nick comes in from his bedroom and starts at me again. “Mom!” he yells angrily at me. “This house is bugged. Do you think I don’t know? Do you think I’m stupid?”

My jaw slackens, and my mouth drops open. I look at him in dismay. “What?” I ask my son. “What are you talking about? Our house is not bugged! Why would anyone want to listen to our conversations?” He looks about the house and then finally points at a smoke detector and sprinkler heads on the ceiling in the living room’s corner. “There!” he states with satisfaction. “There’s a bug.”

“Nick,” I replied in dismay. “That’s an alarm. It has been in the house for years. It is not a bug, I promise you.

Nick looks at me with agitation. I am trying to soothe and console him, but instead, he seems to be getting angrier. “Mom,” he says again. “I’m not an idiot. You can’t fool me. I can tell it’s a bug. I am being recorded right now! If you don’t make this stop, I will break all the bugs in the house. I’m serious.”

I believe that he will start to break up the house. The only thing that occurs to me is to distract him from these odd beliefs and thoughts. “Where is all of this coming from? What is going on?” I think to myself in desperation. “Nick, let’s go sit on the front porch,” I suddenly suggest. It’s the only thing I can think of doing at this time. Maybe if we sit and talk, he will be distracted, and these odd thoughts will subside. Nick looks at me with suspicion, but finally, he agrees.

Once we are on the front porch and settled into our chairs, I look over at my son and scrutinize him. He is such a handsome boy. He has thick, light brown hair that settles into a slight widow’s peak above his hairline. It is hard to distinguish all the cowlicks sticking up throughout his hair. His eyes have always been big and expressive, but tonight, they seem even more so. He has a strong, masculine jaw. His lips are a youthful light pink. He has a prominent nose, but not too much. He looks so much like his father.

“Listen!” commands Nick harshly, straightening up in his chair. “I can hear them talk about me again. They don’t think I can hear them, but I do. They are saying I’m an idiot, and an asshole, and a fag!”

I strain to open my ears somehow. I am trying very hard to listen to what Nick hears. But there are only the sounds of lively far-off chatter in the darkness.

“Nick,” I start again, “There is no one talking about you.” I am becoming increasingly flustered and frustrated. I can’t figure this out. What the hell is happening? Who or what has overtaken my son? This has to end. It’s beginning to get late, and I’m exhausted. I feel like fainting.

Suddenly, Nick shoots up in his chair. He stands straight up as if to attention and cocks his head slightly to one side. It’s as if he, too, is straining to hear. He is stretching the limits of his hearing, and then finally, he nods and says to himself, “That’s it.”

He jumps to the chair’s side, turns around, and again begins another wild dash behind the house. Holy shit, I think to myself. Now what?

I grab my phone and call Marc again. The call quickly goes to voice mail. I call him back. I need help. I desperately need help.

No answer.

*****************

Once again, we are behind the house, in the public quad, with the pool, the lights giving off a lovely reflection in the water. The palms and hibiscus gently sway in the evening breeze, and there is a smell of grilled meats. I can hear the soft chatter of our neighbors as they enjoy each other’s company. The older couple and their son are gone.

This time, a group of young men, maybe four or five, are huddled in a circle, joking and playfully jabbing at each other. I can see they know one another well and feel comfortable in each other’s company. They have beer bottles in their hands, and their glossy eyes prove they have been drinking too.

These men are probably in their twenties, and they are fit and strong. They are laughing and joking and having a good time. I recognize one of them. He lives close by. He is a sheriff’s deputy. I always liked the fact that we have law enforcement in the community.

Nick rushes up to the middle of the huddle and breaks into the group. “What are you doing here?” he screams at the men. “I can hear you talking about me. I know everything you are saying. If you keep this up, you will all be sorry.

The young men look at each other in utter confusion and dismay. By this time, I have called Marc at least half a dozen times. All I can think to do is to keep calling and desperately hope that he will answer.

The young deputy walks out of the group and moves slowly towards Nick. “Who are you?” he asks in a confused and pissed-off tone. “Where do you live? What do you want?”

He is slurring his words slightly, and his brow furls in confusion and annoyance. “Who are you?” he asks Nick again.

I step quickly between the two of them.

“We live here,” I tell the young man. “We live close-by,” I say again, pointing to our house. The young man looks at me and then again at Nick. He is trying to make the connection, but it comes slowly.

“He’s not feeling well,” I try to explain to the deputy. “I’m trying to call his father for help. He should be here soon.

At this moment, my cell phone finally rings. I look down and see it’s Marc calling back.

“Hey,” he says. “What’s wrong? We just got back into cell coverage range.”

“It’s Nick,” I begin to explain frantically. “He is acting really weird. There is something very wrong with him. I don’t know what it is. We are having problems with the neighbors. You had better get here quick,” I tell him.

“I’m on my way,” he replies, sensing my urgency. And then he hangs up his phone.

For the next twenty minutes, I try to keep Nick and the young men by the pool calm. I try to explain to Nick that these are our neighbors, and they are only there to have a good time. I try to explain to the group of guys that Nick hasn’t been feeling right today and that once his dad arrives, everything will be fine. I keep repeating myself over and over, but neither Nick nor the guys are convinced. I am not convinced either.

The young men begin to circle Nick. They are closing in on him even while I try to act as a buffer to keep them apart. “Hey!” Nick calls out to one of the guys. “Don’t touch me! Don’t you fucking touch me!” he says.

I can’t see that anyone has touched Nick. I am not sure what he means. Nick’s warning just infuriates the young men more. They look at each other again, then at Nick, and mainly ignore me. What can I do? I wonder to myself. I can’t shield Nick from these men. I don’t have the strength, and he won’t let me. Our neighbor takes another step towards Nick, and they are nearly face to face.

*****************

Just then, Marc’s truck comes screeching up and pulls to a halt in the nearby parking lot. In just a few seconds, he is out of his vehicle, runs toward us, gets between all the guys, and pulls Nick quickly away from the group. I feel like fainting from relief. Marc holds his son firmly to him and steers him toward our home.

I tell the deputies that everything is fine now. I apologize profusely, explain that this is not like our son, and handle him from here. The deputies are not sure, but now that Nick is leaving the area, there is not much they can do.

“Who are you?” our neighbor calls out to Nick for the last time. I wonder that as well.

*****************

Once we are all three back home safely, Nick immediately goes up to his room. I collapse into Marc’s arms and try to describe to him the events of the night. He is as shocked as I am about what has been going on. When he left that afternoon to go fishing, our world seemed in order. Now that he has returned, there is confusion, turmoil, and chaos.

Marc is concerned about the older couple and their son. It’s too late to go and talk to them, so he decides to wait until tomorrow. I am exhausted by the chaos. I have been walking on a live wire for the last few hours, working hard to avert a catastrophe. We seem safe now, but I know that Nick could come out of his room at any minute, and the chaos could resume.

“We have to call the police,” I tell Marc. “We can’t handle Nick like this. He needs help. We do too.” Marc looks at me calmly while he thinks. We have never had the police intervene in any of our family affairs. We have never needed law enforcement for anything at all. It seems like a risk to call them now. To call law enforcement would be to admit that this thing is happening and has grown out of control. And worse, that we’re helpless.

“Jen,” Marc says, “We don’t need to call anyone. I am back now, and I think we are okay.”

I reply that he has not been here for the last few hours. I can hardly describe to him Nick’s madness. I try to explain the encounters with our neighbors, Nick’s belief that he is being recorded, his fury at me for not agreeing with him, his strength, the rage in eyes, his incoherent chatter, but I fall short.

“No, Marc,” I finally say to my husband with conviction, but mainly to myself. “I am calling the police. He is dangerous.” I find my cell phone and slowly call 911.

*****************

“This is 911,” says a slightly bored-sounding voice. “What is your emergency?”

“What is my emergency?” I think to myself. Is it that my son wants to beat up our neighbors? Is it that he believes he is being recorded through the house smoke detectors? Is it that he thinks I am his enemy? It is that my son is hearing voices that only he can hear and seeing shadows that only he can see? Is it that my son is completely bat-shit crazy?

“What is your emergency?” the voice asks again, this time a little more loudly.

“My son is not well,” I finally say weakly. “There is something wrong with him. He is threatening our neighbors. He doesn’t make sense. I think he’s gone crazy,” I am holding my breath as I speak. “We don’t know what to do. I think someone should come.” The dispatcher perks up a little.

“Did you say your son is threatening violence?” the dispatcher asks.

“Yes,” I reply slowly.

“Did you say your son is incoherent?”

“Yes,” I say again.

“What is your address?” she asks. I give her our address. “Someone is on their way. They should be there soon.”

It’s done, I think to myself. And now, I exhale.

*****************

Within  15 minutes, a white and blue patrol car pulls up to our house. Lights are flashing, and a siren blares short, infrequent bursts. This is not a sight we are accustomed to in our family or our neighborhood. I feel embarrassed and ashamed as I look back and forth at the street to see if anyone is driving by or looking out a window. I walk further out of the house and up to the car.

A small, slender, blonde-haired woman pops out from the driver’s side of the patrol car. She is intent and serious. “Hello, Ma’am,” says the officer. She seems qualified and competent. “Did you call 911?”

“Yes, I did,” I reply.

“What seems to be the problem?” she asks professionally.

“It’s my son,” I try to explain. “He is threatening the neighbors. He is acting strangely. He is not making sense. We don’t know what to do.”

“Okay,” says the police officer as she looks at me intently while we walk towards the house. “Do you own guns?”

“No,” I reply.

The police officer’s partner has caught up with us, and by now, we walk through the door. Only now he draws his gun as a precaution. “Are there guns?” he asks me. “No,” I reply again.

I am not used to seeing guns drawn, much less in my house. It pains me to realize that our situation is so severe.

“Where is he?” she asks. “He is in his bedroom,” I reply as I point towards his door. The officer walks calmly to his room. She knocks gingerly, opens the door just a crack, peeks inside, takes a deep breath, and then walks slowly and carefully into the room. About 10 minutes later (even though it seems much longer), the police officer and Nick come quietly out of the room. He walks calmly toward our front door, not even looking at his father or me. The officer stops briefly to speak to me.

“He is not rational,” she says.  “ I want to take him for an examination. We will take him here.”

She writes on a small white notepad and hands me the slip. Then she quickly walks up beside Nick, holds his arm gently, but firmly and walks him to the car. She opens the car door, and Nick quietly sits inside. The officer closes the door smoothly, sits in her seat, flips on the light switch and siren for a few brief seconds, and drives my son away.

THE END

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