The menacing neighbor woke me up just before dawn.
I heard the jangling of the chain as she let the dog out to relieve itself; then she screamed at my window, “I can say anything I want on my property! You’re surveilling me all night!”
She’s been saying that a lot lately. She told the police on Thursday that Michael presses his face against the window and watches her all night without sleep while whispering racial slurs at her. She says that he and I walk around her building in circles at night, and that we run on the porch taunting her and then run off. She also makes lurid comments about Rosie’s sex life, and threatens to have us raided by the police and dragged away in cuffs, which she did on this occasion: singing to herself about how fun it would be when the sheriff got to our house tonight. “The sheriff, it’s gonna be the sheriff, toniiiiight, oh boy toniiiiight, tonight’s gonna be so lit…”
I was pretty sure she couldn’t actually get the sheriff out there. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t grate on my nerves, immensely, especially since I spent three hours the day before trying to tell the police that I had a restraining order against her. The police patted her dog and let her yell and scream at us while standing less than the required fifty feet from us, and call 911 on us multiple times in the same afternoon.
I was beginning to think madness is contagious. I felt like I was going crazy from listening to her for so long. I was already sleep deprived from yesterday’s tantrum, and it had taken a long time to get to sleep at night. I didn’t need to be shaken out of bed so early.
My neighbor used to have signs calling Michael, Rosie and me obscene slurs in her window; now she has signs invoking Psalm 91. I looked at them as I got ready for the day. She thinks she’s taking refuge in the wings of the angels of God against our preternatural persecution. I have been asking for that same grace.
As soon as it was late enough in the morning, I drove down to the police station to ask why the police hadn’t enforced the restraining order they encouraged me to get in the first place. This whole thing was the police’s idea. I hadn’t called the police on the menacing neighbor in over a year– not even when she destroyed my garden and threatened to do it again. I was too afraid she’d be shot and it would be my fault. But when she flashed me while Rosie was playing in the yard, I didn’t know what else to do. I finally listened to the people telling me to call the cops, and I did it. The officer told me they couldn’t do anything unless I got a restraining order, and another officer I spoke with later said the same thing. So I went to the courthouse and got one on their advice. And now I was driving to the police station, to ask why she was still allowed to do this.
At the Steubenville police department, there are two astonishingly tacky paintings on the walls. One of them, labeled “The Protector,” is of a white angel overshadowing a white police officer, who is holding hands with an adoring Black boy. The other is the ugliest painting of Archangel Michael I’ve ever seen. It’s on the wall across from a large canvas which the local elementary school students were compelled to sign; the canvas says “thank you for keeping us safe!” I stood underneath the “thank you for keeping us safe!” canvas and kept my eyes on the ugly Saint Michael as the police officer yelled at me for what seemed like ten minutes. It’s hard to tell because of the mask he wore, when all their pink faces and shaved heads look the same, but I think he was one of the same policemen who encouraged me to get a restraining order a few weeks ago, and promised that he could do something to stop the menacing neighbor only if I had one. He made it sound to me as if it would be no problem getting one when she has been harassing us for six years. This time, he said that it was her word against mine and the police had no idea who to believe– the people just trying to mow their lawn or the woman ranting about neighbors spying on her through the window all night. He kept on saying “Look, you don’t like her, she doesn’t like you. You’re going to have to work this out.”
I went home and tried to brush it off. I’ve been trying to brush it off since she moved in six years ago. I took the family out to run errands– we had to return library books and buy groceries before the weekend.
It was my first trip to the library without a mask on in over a year. The library allows vaccinated people to go unmasked now, and I got my vaccine a month ago. I smelled the perfume of well-loved books instead of my own breath against a cloth rag, for the first time since March of 2020. And then I started to panic.
I leaned against the children’s reference shelf, breathing deeply, while Michael helped Rosie gather a stack of books. I had the illusion that I’d cleared out the panic attack completely by the time we drove to the grocery store, but it started again in the fruit section. I handed Michael the bank card and asked him to pick out some avocadoes, and made a bee-line for the car.
My stomach twisted in the car on the drive home.
I realized that I could not go into my house. I just couldn’t, that was all. I couldn’t stand the thought of the neighbor, her dogs, the off-chance of a raid from the sheriff. I let Michael take Rosie and the groceries in, and I went for a drive.
I drove for two hours. If I’d had any sense I would have driven to someplace interesting, like Pittsburgh or nearly home to Columbus. But instead, I drove around and around Steubenville like a tigress pacing a circus cage. I drove through miserable LaBelle and down to the park, up Sunset and through Hollywood Addition, until I popped out at the Orthodox graveyard, and I kept driving. Every time I pulled into a parking space and thought about going home, I would panic and get sick again. Just before dark, I found myself low on gas in the Rural King parking lot, facing their display of garden plants. I thought about growing an elaborate garden last year, how the neighbor destroyed it, how my friends helped me re-plant. I thought of the sacks of beans and gourds I brought to the Friendship Room to share with people. I thought of my garden seeds at home, that I was too terrified to plant. Every time I turn my back on the neighbor’s house I’m afraid she’s going to attack me. And then I got sick again, badly sick.
I texted two friends, one in Chicago and one here in town. I explained that I was never going home again and that my current residence was a Rural King parking lot.
I don’t have many good friends. But what I lack in quantity I make up in every other way, because my friends were immensely kind and understanding, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to be trapped in the Rural King parking lot unable to get home because an abusive neighbor threatened to get you killed by the sheriff. The local one asked me to drive the short distance to her house, talked me through calming myself enough to drive further, and then reserved me a few nights at a hotel near campus. The one in Chicago sent me some money to get a dinner and some groceries for the hotel mini fridge.
I came home just long enough to pack one of my notorious cloth shopping bags with pajamas and three icons: Christ, Mary, and a much more aesthetic rendering of Archangel Michael. Rosie stuffed her backpack and carried Bicentennial Corduroy, her favorite bear. Michael opted to stay home most of the night in case the house was vandalized. And I drove one last time, to a hotel a mile from my house.
The crisp sheets were a treat, but I couldn’t sleep well. Every time I drifted off a noise would shake me awake.
I wish I had a different Mary Pezzulo to show you– one who was heroic and had exciting adventures. The one I have to show you is a mess. She jumps at a sudden noise. She can’t even sleep in her own house, and she can barely get to sleep anywhere else.
I wish I had another world to show you– one where problems have easy solutions and we can all just get along. But I don’t. I live in this world, where everyone claims to be on the side of the angels and very few people will do anything to help. The police can’t be bothered to help, they shouldn’t be dealing with people as disturbed as my neighbor anyway, and I was wrong to let myself be convinced to get them involved. There is nowhere safe for my neighbor to go. Mental health care in America has always been an abusive and neglectful joke of one kind or another. There is nothing I can do about that. She’s going to spread the madness to her neighbors like this until she dies, or angers the wrong policeman and really does get locked up. The society we’re in is broken.
Mostly I just want to apologize for not being online very much the past several days. I’ve been too sick and exhausted to write. But I’m back now.
Let’s try to do what we can to make it a more just world.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.