No one likes to be woken up by a phone call.
Personally, I don’t like to be woken up at all. I don’t care if it’s the morning sun filtered through lace curtains, with the sound of bacon snapping on the stove, and the smell of coffee curling under my door. Let me sleep!
But even worse than that, clearly, is a phone call. I don’t care who it is. Doesn’t matter. A ringing phone is always an unwelcome sound when you’re trying to sleep. But the phone I call received a few months ago might have been the worst wake up call of all time.
Wednesday — 6:30 am:
Ugggghhhh…. What the fuhhhh? …… Who the fuhhh?
I fumbled for my cell and snapped it open. My eyes were still welded half shut.
“Is dees da Peeestol?” A menacing voice whispered.
“Whaaaat? Pistol? Yeah…” I was still groggy. “Who’s this?”
The voice hissed, “Yoooouuu staayyy awwwayyyy from myyyyy wiiiiife! Yooouu heeear meee!! STAY AWAAYYY MYYY WIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFFFFFE!!!!!!!!”
The hissing quickly escalated into screaming that was distorted through my phone’s speakers, “UNDASTAAAAAAAND???????!!!!!!!! I GET THREE WISE GUUUYYYYS FROM HOWARD BEACH COME TAKE CARE OF YOUUUUUUUU!!!! YOOUUU FUUUUUCKKKIIIINNNNNG-”
“Yes sir – no – I understand – sir – I never -”
“I FUUUCKKINNNGG KILLLLL YOOOUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!! AAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!”
I was laying in a pool of sweat with my open phone still in my hand. My breathing was labored. My heart was pounding. A mafia death threat is a very effective alarm clock.
My roommate was already up, making herself breakfast. I stumbled out of my room into the kitchen. I probably looked like I’d seen a ghost.
“Hey, are you okay?”
My mouth felt numb. My words drooled onto the floor, “Someone just called. Said they’re going to kill me. I – I -”
I fell into the table, knocking over a half-full can of beer left from the night before. I started to clean it up. “I – shit. I’m late. I -”
“Pistol, I’ll take care of that. Go do what you need to do. What the fuck is going on?”
“I don’t know.”
As I drove to work, all I could think about was her. “What am I going to say? What is she going to say? What is happening?”
To fully explain, we’re going to have to rewind a couple days.
Hmmm, we might have to go back even further. Let’s take it back a year.
It was a sweltering August afternoon when she first walked into my office. She was sporting late model stilettos that made her whole body swing, except for her hair. It was ironed high and tight, and burned to gold. She was beautiful, sure, but the shadows in her face had been carved by cruelty.
I let her begin.
“Meester Peestol? My name ees Nikkita. I am new teacher here at Patriot.”
The day Nikkita stepped off the street and into my office, I hadn’t yet become a dean. Back then I was a full time teacher in the Foreign Language Department. And if I’m out of place in the deans office, then I was a freaking alien species in that department. Hell, I don’t even speak a foreign language! And to this day I’m profoundly unsure how to even spell the word “foreign.” I before E except after R, I guess.
You see, I did this teacher recruitment thing where they lure fresh blood talent into the education profession by offering to let you start getting paid teaching right away, before you know what the hell you’re getting into doing. It’s kind of a win-lose situation all around.
So there I was, a 25 year old weirdo from the South in an office with two spherically shaped Ecuadorian grandmothers, two Sicilian Sopranos fans, two batty Jamaicans, one snarling, snapping Jewish lady, one narcoleptic Jehovah’s Witness, a woman with the nickname “Sick Mind”, a gay Puerto Rican dude, and Nikkita. Interesting group.
Before Nikkita arrived, my lunch mate had been one of the Crazy Jamaicans. The only thing she and I had in common was that we were both new to the building and both originally from southern climes, but that was way more than we shared with anyone else, so we bonded. She told me that she had been driven out of her last school by a racist plot, which seemed like a plausible scenario to me from what I’d seen in this city so far. Plausible that is, until her demons started to show.
Her face was compacted and folded in on itself like a toothless person’s. I can’t remember if she told me, or if I just assumed, that she had been picked on mercilessly as a child. And it seems that her life as an adult hadn’t turned out much better. She told me her husband had recently contracted AIDS from a prostitute and that both her sons were in prison. One of them had been a college basketball star and she claimed that he had never even had a single beer.
“Really?” I was a bit surprised by the sober/felon dichotomy.
“Yesss, he neva drink or smoke nuttin’.” She said with her hand on her heart. “But he sell you a whole trunk full o’ crack!” She laughed.
The teacher’s cafeteria was where we’d talk. It was a basement room so the windows were just little slits way up next to the ceiling with bars on them. There was no air-conditioning. Only a six foot tall industrial fan that drowned out conversations, blew the styrofoam plate out of your hands, and chopped off your elbows if you wandered too close. It was a fitting place for convicts and castaways like us.
I liked the Crazy Jamaican. She was kind to me, and she was smart, but she was also prone to spasmodic fits of inappropriateness. I remember one time, we had parent-teacher conferences after school and I asked her if she was going to go home beforehand or just wait around until it started.
“I’m gonna stay here,” she said as she tidied up her desk.
“Well, what are you gonna do for three hours?” I asked.
Without skipping a beat, “Oh, I’ll probably masturbate.”
I tried to pretend like nothing out of the ordinary had been said, just as I did the time I sat down next to her in the teacher’s cafeteria and she said in a sing-songy voice, “You gonna sit with the black nigger now?”
“And how are you this morning, Ms. J?” I responded while removing my plastic knife and spork from their wrapping and attempting to saw through a pancake apparently fashioned from cardboard. I was too focused on the important things to be distracted by what she had said. Anyway, it was just another rain drop in the Crazy Storm, and as unpleasant as such downpours could be, I had to give her credit for being just as likely to grace me with a casual quote from Shakespeare as she was to dip her tongue in the rancid ink of the corrupted regions of her brain.
Being around Crazy Jamaican made me feel like an attendant at an insane asylum, charged with looking after patients who only occasionally took her medication. And to think that she was the one in the department that I got along with the best …until Nikkita showed up.
Being new, Nikkita would sit and eat with me and Ms. Jamaica at first. And just as I had, she soon learned to ignore her ravings. But after Ms. J. made it a habit to refer to her exclusively as “Rich Bitch”, to her face, followed by a bizarre and extended giggle, Nikkita and I slowly weened ourselves from her company. I still considered Ms. J. a friend. I just started giving her a little more room to rave.
And then it was Nikkita’s turn to open up..
We discussed our lives every day, down in the teacher’s cafeteria, picking at our $4 lunch with a spork and miniature plastic knife, in between grading endless homework assignments. Although I wouldn’t have characterized us as anything more than work friends, but we did develop a certain, sincere closeness.
“I was like a piece of furniture in that house,” she said. “I had to get out.” This was why she went back to school to become a teacher, she told me. To escape an unhealthy marriage of convienience. And I began to wonder if it wasn’t to meet someone to help her escape even more.
As friendly as we became, Nikkita’s behavior could be unsettling at times. Every couple of months, with no warning, her eyes would glaze over with a thin sheet of ice and she would subject me to what can only be described as the Russian Silent Treatment. The Russian Silent Treatment, for those who are wondering, is a lot like other silent treatments, only scarier. I chalked the phenomenon up to two equally probable causes. One: I had unwittingly violated some Russian code of conduct by falling face first into a steaming pile of spinach while battling a cruel hangover at her table one too many times, or Two: she was in love with me. And since I’m pretty sure that falling face first into a steaming pile of slop while at the mercy of a vicious hangover is practically the Russian national past time and therefor should not have caused her any offense, I’m gonna have to go with option number two. I mean, being angry at someone for no reason is the universal sign of love, right?
During summer vacations, I would always receive at least one email from Nikkita, telling me that she missed our conversations and that she considered me a true friend. I would always respond in kind, parroting her message back to her. The difference being that for me there was nothing more to what I felt than what I actually said: I also consider you a friend, I miss our conversations too, I hope you enjoy your vacation. And even that was kind of an exaggeration. Her words, on the other hand, seemed to tremble slightly as I read them, from the force of the reservoir of emotion that was pushing against them on the other side of the screen.
During our lunch time discussions, the topic of family would sometimes arise. She told me about her children. And about her husband, a wealthy businessman from Turkey. More than once, and unprompted, she mentioned that she was having marital difficulties. She said she wasn’t happy, that it was more of a partnership than a relationship, and that the only thing keeping her there was the children. I removed my microwaved grilled cheese sandwich from its plastic casing. I sipped my coffee. I listened. But I never pried and I never took a position on the issue.
Then one dank June morning, with clouds rolling in from the East, and the cafeteria fan hacking away at the humidity, Nikkita put her papers down, leaned in, glared over her reading glasses, and told me in hushed tones that her husband had become furious the day before when he learned that she had been invited (along with everyone else in our department) to a party at a male math teacher’s house. The teacher was from Ecuador. He was friends with everyone in the department, and came up to about Nikkita’s waist. The notion of there being anything between them was absurd.
“But he is jealous like a rabid animal, Mr. Pistol. Last night he took me down into the basement and he told me he ‘knows’ I am having affair. He said he will give me two weeks to settle whatever it is I am doing, and after that, if he ever finds out that I am cheating on him, he will kill me.” Her face settled into a mold of defiance as I digested her words.
The image of her husband giving her the ultimate ultimatum in a dark basement was terrifying, yet I couldn’t help but suspect that she was not doing all she could do dissuade him of his convictions, and that maybe she took some pleasure in turning the screws on him when she could.
“Are you having an affair?” I asked point blank.
“Mister Pistol! Of course not! If I would have an affair then I would get a divorce and then I have an affair. But I am married! I told you, I will be married for my children!”
“So why does he think that you are?”
“He is crazy! What do I know why he thinks what he thinks? What do I care? If he wants to think this then he can think this. He will not find anything because there is nothing to find.”
“Well I hope he doesn’t think anything about me… because of our emails.”
“He cannot see that. That is my private account. There is a password for this. He never sees this.”
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel that I was a player in this game, whether her husband knew it yet or not. I didn’t know whether I was a pawn or a knight, but I could feel Nikkita’s finger pawing at my head as if contemplating her next move.
The children were still awake when Nikkita’s husband ordered her into the cellar. A single bulb hung from the ceiling, slapping the right side of her face in shadow. She stared at the floor as he hissed, “You have two weeks to take care of this. After that, if I find out you’re still cheating on me, I’ll kill you.”
At least that’s what she told me.
They lived in a notoriously “connected” neighborhood near the school. It’s an area where portraits of local mob bosses hang in the place of honor. Even the children there know that Rats get what’s coming to them, and that their names are never to be spoken again. And it’s not uncommon for construction projects in that part of town to be delayed due to the discovery of buried human remains. In fact just a couple years ago, two kids were playing in a vacant lot a couple blocks from the school when they tripped over a skeletal hand poking out of the dirt. The FBI came in immediately to investigate, hoping the body would prove to be Sammy Fat Fingers — the victim of a suspected mob hit during the violent power vacuum of the mid 1990’s. It wasn’t.
But Nikkita’s husband was a non-Italian outsider. Even worse than that, he was brown-skinned. He stood out so much in fact, that when he first drove through the neighborhood in his Mercedes, looking for a house to buy, he was pulled over by the police and questioned as to what he was doing there (like I said, the neighborhood is connected). But move there he did, and he has since built a successful business that serves much of the neighborhood, so it would be easy for him to get in touch with the kind of people who specialize in delaying future construction projects. Still, I believed Nikkita when she told me that she wasn’t having an affair so I wasn’t too worried about her safety. What I didn’t know at the time though, was that in less than a week, it would be my own life that was on the line.
Without getting into the details of how this came about, let’s just say there are 3 people you should never joke about.
1 – Someone’s Mother
2- Someone’s Wife
3- Someone’s Child
So, one hazy morning Nikkita was telling me about her son…
That evening, after what I thought had been an innocent exchange, I was on my couch staring at my computer, waiting for someone.. anyone, to communicate with me. NYC can be a lonely place. Then an email from Nikkita appeared. The sight of a message from her always made me a little uncomfortable but this one was sending me especially weird vibes.
I clicked on it and peeked from behind my fingers to witness the gruesome scene unfold.
How DARE you speak like that about my son. I have never been so insulted in all my life. He may not be interested in girls at the moment but he has plenty of time for that, and at least I can say that he is not a FAILURE in love like you! Don’t ever speak about my family again.”
I was struck with a mild panic as the room shrunk in around me. I couldn’t think. I just sat there, waiting for the pieces of the situation to settle, and the picture to clear, before I stumbled over the keys to respond.
“Dear Ms N.,
I am so sorry I offended you. As you know, I consider you a true friend and I would never intentionally hurt you or speak badly about those that you love. What I said was an extremely poor and ill-considered attempt at humor – something I am guilty of all too often. It was immature and rude and I have learned an important lesson from it. I hope you will forgive me.
I spent the rest of the evening staring at my computer, waiting for her message of forgiveness to appear. But it didn’t. I started getting paranoid and I was finding the whole thing more and more disturbing. I don’t like it when people get angry at me, and Nikkita seemed to become furious at me on a regular basis, often for slights as minor as not being chatty enough during breakfast. She scared me, frankly. My spindly nerves were no match for her Russian, bear-trap intensity. I decided that the best course of action would be to just calm her down and then back slowly out of the cage. I feared it was either that, or before I knew it I’d be catching a sharpened stiletto heel to the neck while I slept.
I checked my email again when I woke up. Nothing. I gnawed on my thumbnail as I realized that if she hadn’t gotten my message, then I would have to apologize to her in person, requiring courage and humility – attributes I have in short supply. Or if she did receive it then her no-response must mean that she was too far over the edge to be coaxed back to sanity. I was in a bind. I sent her a text message as I drove through red lights on my usual roller-coaster drive to work.
“Did u get my email?” I wrote. “I am sorry! I care about u and I would never do anything to hurt you or your family. -Pistol”
I considered avoiding the cafeteria all together that day, but the siren-song of those cardboard pancakes was too strong. Then I saw her. She sidled up to next to me and flashed a shy smile.
“I think we both learned something important,” she cooed. “What I learned is that I should not write emails when I’m angry. I’m sorry I said those things about you. That was not fair.”
Really? I thought. It’s over just like that? Apparently that deeply personal attack was just something she does when she gets a little miffed, apologizes for and then instantly moves on from. Note to self: Keep email (and scissors) away from Nikkita when she’s angry.
“It’s fine,” I said — relieved but a little confused. I put on a friendly face as we ate, but internally I was planning an escape from this increasingly terrifying relationship.
“Eeees deees da Peeestol?” Growled a voice on the other end of the phone the next morning. “Yooouuuu stay away from my wife! YOU HEAR ME?! I SEND TWO WISE GUYS COME TAKE CARE OF YOU!!! YOUUU MOTHAAAFUCKAAAAAA!!!!! – click”
Being awoken by an anonymous death threat can put you in a weird mood, and as I made my way to the car that morning my legs felt like I was walking on floating blocks of sea ice. I zombied my way through my first two classes and then I went to the cafeteria as usual. Nikkita was waiting for me there and she approached me briskly.
“We have to talk,” she said, glancing around the room suspiciously as if we were spies on the streets of Berlin.
“I do not know what he is going to do,” she said. “He is capable of anything.”
“I thought you said he couldn’t get into your email,” I growled.
“It wasn’t the email. It was the text message. He looked at my phone and saw your text. Then when I was getting into my car this morning I heard him screaming at someone inside the house. I went back and confronted him but he said it was just a wrong number. But I knew. Pistol, I am sorry.”
The text message. It’s always the text message. “I care about u and I would never do anything to hurt you..” Damn. It looked bad, I had to admit.
I spent the rest of the day imagining the “two wise guys” that would be coming for me soon. I’d probably be looking out of my fifth story window and see two burly men get out of a ratty blue sedan with fake tags. One would be carrying a tire-iron. But it would be the other – the one with nothing in his hands – that would scare me the most.
Or maybe I would be staggering down the street after a night of drinking and I’d get a canvas bag over the head, a punch to the gut, and stuffed into the trunk of a car, Goodfellas style. As soon as they popped the trunk and ungagged me, I’d blurt out, “Whatever he’s paying you, I’ll pay you double!
“Sorry bud. It ain’t nothin’ poysonal,” they’d say.
And that was as far as I cared to imagine..
The next day, back in real life, in the teacher’s cafeteria, Nikkita glided up and gave me a wink.
“He says he’s sorry.”
“He’s not going to call you to apologize, but -”
“No, I’d rather he didn’t.”
“But he is sorry. I talked to him and it won’t happen again.”
And just like that, as casually as if he had apologized for getting a little too drunk at my holiday party, he decided he no longer wanted me dead.
After “the incident”, Nikkita gave me a honeymoon on the psycho-angry thing for while. I was polite and friendly and I even still ate with her sometimes, but any conversation that approached personal issues felt much more awkward than in the pre-mafia-death-threat days, and I was trying to extricate myself from the meal-plan altogether.
But it wasn’t easy. When I stopped coming to breakfast, she started sending me emails, asking what was wrong. You would think that I wouldn’t have to explain that once your husband threatens to have me rubbed out, that I will never be comfortable around you again, but I guess not.
Ironically, even though I felt an unequivocal desire to end our friendship, I also felt more sympathy for her than I did before. It was painfully obvious that she was desperate for love and that this hellish job was her only hope for it. I had always marveled at how someone like Nikkita, who didn’t need the money, could work at a place like Patriot every day. But I guess there are some places that are even worse. And for her that place was home.