About a year and a half ago, as I walked home after work at about 11 PM, I passed a couple talking about thirty feet from the entrance to my building. The woman was leaning with her back against the drivers side front window of one of the vehicles parked on the street; her bag was on the car’s roof. The man stood in front of her, close enough that she couldn’t easily move away, with his right hand planted firmly on the spot where the front and rear doors met. Clearly they were arguing, but his other hand was not raised and he did not raise his voice. Nor did she, in any immediately recognizable way, seem intimidated, though they were standing outside the circle of light cast by the streetlamp, so I couldnt see her face. They appeared to be, simply, a couple whod walked out of the restaurant around the corner from my house, which that night was hosting some kind of dance party, to have an argument. I passed by without giving them much further thought.
As soon as I walked up the steps leading to my building, though, he yelled something in Spanish and I heard what sounded like his hand being slammed, flat and hard, against the roof of the car they’d been leaning on. I stopped and listened for about fifteen seconds. It was quiet. I peaked around the tree that was blocking them from my sight and they were standing more or less as they had been when I first walked past them. I waited a little bit longer, and, when nothing else happened, walked into the lobby. Again, as soon as I did so–you’d think the timing had been rehearsed–he started yelling at her again, and this time, from the sound of shaking metal, he was hitting as he did so the alternate side of the street parking sign that was right next to where they were standing.
I stepped back outside just in time to see the two of them walk side-by-side past my building’s entrance. I stepped onto the sidewalk to watch them. He had her purse in one hand and her upper arm in the other and the slump in her shoulders sure looked to me like she knew she had no choice but to allow herself to be led away. Then, as if he felt my eyes on the back of his head, the man turned around, took a few steps towards me and said, the invitation to provoke him into more than words more than obvious in his voice, “What are you looking at?”
He was at least 15-20 years younger than I am, big, though maybe not quite as big as I am, and I have no idea what I would have done if he’d attacked me. It was late; I was very tired; my cellphone battery was dead; every light in my building was off; and I knew my wife and my son were sleeping. The last time I was in a fistfight, believe it or not, was third grade. No matter how good a fight I might have been able to put up, in other words, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be on the losing end of it. So I didn’t say anything to him.
He took another step or two towards me, “Mind your own fucking business, okay? This has nothing to do with you.”
Again, I didn’t answer.
“Look this is not between you and me,” he yelled, and I wondered if he’d woken up anyone else in my building. “It’s between us,” he said, leaning forward, pushing his chest out towards me and gesturing with his hand towards himself and the woman, who was standing, silent and unmoving, a few feet behind him.
“Then you don’t need to hurt her,” I said.
“What the fuck? I’m not hurting her.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Just go home.” It was an order he expected me to follow, not a reassurance that everything was okay; and then he turned back towards the woman, who turned with him, and he hung his arm over her shoulders, pulling her towards him and saying something into her ear as they walked down the block, neither of them looking back in my direction. I watched them for about 20 seconds, went back into my building, took the elevator upstairs and stood by the window listening to hear if there were any further outbursts, but there were none. So I made myself some tea and watched a little television to unwind before getting ready for bed.
I’m not sure that I have much to say about this story, except that every time I try to tease something out of it, I discover that it’s quite a complicated little knot. On the one hand, I do not regret stepping out into the street to be a witness, even if the couple was, simply, a couple having an argument. Nor do I think the initial assumption I made—that there was in him the threat of violence against her—was wrong. It’s much better to be wrong about something like that than not to do anything. On the other hand, though, if I was right, what good did I actually do? Nothing had happened that warranted calling the police; and if he had attacked me for “interfering,” odds are he would have beaten me up. That might have gotten him arrested for assault—if someone saw it and called the cops and they were able to catch him—but it’s not at all clear that it would have made any difference to the woman he was with.
I realize that there’s an analysis of a situation like this which says my presence shifted the focus of violence to where it “should” be in a male dominant culture, between men—and, in theory at least, a part of me agrees with that—but I’m not sure that analysis does much good if I end up bloody and beaten and he goes home and takes his ire out even more forcefully on his female companion.
When I finally got into bed that night, I kept replaying the moment when he hung his arm over his companion’s shoulders and I realized I couldn’t tell for sure if the gesture was familiar, intimate, meaning something like, Look, it’s over. Let’s go home, making his bluster towards me a simple case male posturing; or, if he was actually putting her in a chokehold, the meaning of which, I assume, is obvious. So much of what happened, at least as I remember it, suggests the second reading is accurate, but I could not and cannot be sure. And that haunts me.