WHEN I OPENED MY EYES at about 2 a.m., a man was standing at the foot of the bed.
I had fallen asleep reading, so a lamp was on. I could see that he was naked except for a piece of light fabric, like cheesecloth or nearly sheer curtain, tied around his head to cover his face.
I lived alone. My first thought was, "I don't have these kinds of nightmares."
Then he moved, and I realized he was real.
• • •
The intruder appeared in the summer of 1981. I was 28, single, a graduate student at the University of South Florida. I was planning to move from one apartment to another, but the renovations weren't quite finished on the new one when the lease ran out on the old one. A friend who was out of town for the summer offered me her place, a first-floor apartment in Hyde Park near downtown Tampa, for the meantime.
The only catch: No dogs allowed. So my German shepherd and my little Scottie mix were staying with my brother for a few weeks — the only weeks in my life I'd ever been without a dog in the house.
The night it happened, I had gone to see the big new movie of the summer: Raiders of the Lost Ark. I came home with John Williams' rousing music and Indiana Jones' fearless spirit ringing in my head. And frankly, I think that might be what saved me.
• • •
When I realized the man was real, I bellowed. I didn't scream or shriek, I bellowed — a roar of noise I didn't know I was capable of making. It surprised me, and it surprised him, too. He jumped.
That jump made my inner Indy kick in, I think — that and the fact that my would-be assailant obviously didn't have any concealed weapons. In that moment, I wasn't frightened or confused. I was furious, enraged, as angry as I have ever been, before or since.
I was so furious that I jumped up off the bed and went after him. I was swinging my fists and still bellowing at the top of my lungs, a stream of every profanity and obscenity I knew, every few words interspersed with "Get out! Get out get out get out!"
He tried to grab me, going, "Shh! Shh!" As if I were in on it, as if I should cooperate — which only made me madder. He shoved me down on the bed, I shoved him off of it, back and forth, him trying to get one hand over my mouth and yanking at my nightgown with the other, and me still bellowing.
At one point as I twisted away, he was behind me and pushed his head between my left arm and my side. I locked my arm around his head and slammed the heel of my right hand under his nose.
That crack was the most satisfying sound I've ever heard.
This time he jumped off the bed, backed away with his hand over his probably broken nose, cursed me (in a whisper). He sidestepped into the next room, which was the kitchen. For a moment, I couldn't see him, but it sounded as if he was scrabbling around on the counter.
Before I could get up to run, he was back, one hand on his nose, the other behind his back. He uncovered the nose long enough to pick up my purse from a table and throw it at me. "Give me your money," he rasped.
I threw the three dollars in my wallet (starving grad student) at him. I didn't know what he had behind his back. Had I left a knife on the counter? The only thing I remembered was a spoon and ice cream bowl, but I wasn't sure.
"Don't move," he said as he backed toward the kitchen window. I had left it cracked a couple of inches because I had sprayed for bugs earlier in the day and the odor lingered. The window faced the alley. Its bottom ledge was almost 6 feet off the ground. It didn't matter.
From the kitchen I heard, not in a whisper, "I'll come back, and next time I'll kill you." Then I could hear him climbing out, squawking a pained curse as he straddled the ledge, before he thudded on the ground and ran away.
I slammed the window shut and locked it, noticed the bowl but no spoon on the counter, armed myself with a nice sharp chef's knife from a drawer, turned on every light in the place and called the police.
They were great — several officers showed up almost instantly and treated me with utmost respect (in 1981, not a given).
Later, when it was almost dawn, as they packed up their crime-scene equipment, the officer in charge stood on the porch and asked me if I had a place to go, if I needed a ride.
"I wish," he said, "there was something women like you could do so all we had to do was come over and bag the guy's body."
• • •
He probably was suggesting I should get a gun. I'd never owned one, never fired one except for some unsuccessful skeet shooting in summer camp, never wanted one.
What I wanted that night was my German shepherd. A few years before, I had come home to find a pried-open window and torn screen — and on the floor inside, a pool of blood and a torn-off shirt sleeve, guarded by my dogs.
Would a gun have changed the equation that night? Surely it would have if the intruder had carried one. My willingness to fight him — not that I took the time to think it through — was based on his not having a size advantage (I'm 5 feet 8, he was roughly the same) or a weapon. A gun in his hand would have led to a different ending for this story, and I was incredibly lucky that it turned out as it did.
But what about a gun in my hand? Solid statistics about self-defense situations are hard to come by, but it's likely that if I'd had a gun the intruder would have taken it away from me — guns are so often used against their owners in such situations.
If he hadn't, though? I think about that rage, that blind, overpowering fury I felt. And I'm afraid I would have used it.