This week, for some reason, the right side of my torso has been in pain. Not the usual pain that we all feel, the stress in our shoulders from hunching over our laptops and phones. Not the tension that runs down through our jaw and neck from holding back unsaid words. A pin-pointed pain, sharp, just below the ribs. The pain has been so bad that I took a day off from work to visit the doctor, who said he didn’t think there was anything wrong with me.
And so I focused this morning’s meditation on pain, approaching the pain like a crying child or like a friend who suddenly, without warning, snaps at you. There’s something it wants to tell me, this pain. I created an open space where I could ask it, what do you want to share with me?
And the pain said, Remember.
And I remembered.
It’s September, which is about the same time of year. I was 21 years old, managing a retail location down near Wall Street, a two-level store that was only open M-F 8-5:30 – ridiculously limited hours but the Financial District, in those days, was a ghost town outside those hours. People traveled in for 9-5 jobs, then traveled out again, sometimes pausing at bars near the subway stops, but not really interested in shopping. The store sometimes had a few customers between 8:30-9 or 5-5:30 but most of the sales came at lunch, between 12-2 when it became so crowded that you couldn’t move through the aisles. Despite the limited hours, the store was surprisingly profitable, number 3 in the company or something like that.
I had opened the store at 8 am that morning, just me and a security guard named Steve, a cool guy with gold glasses and gold front teeth, one featuring a small diamond. My assistant, Pat, hadn’t arrived yet – not unusual with the subways those days. Steve had just unlocked the front door and we were leaning against a table at the front of the store, idly chatting. Each till had been prepared with exactly $150 in small bills and change; I had prepped the day’s deposit and change fund, and stuck it – against all the rules – in a drawer in the cashwrap, a drawer with a gimcrack lock, so that – when Pat arrived and took command of the store – I could quickly grab the cash and checks and take it to the bank a couple of blocks away.
The first person to enter the store was a man carrying a white plastic bag. Steve and I watched him. He didn’t move like a customer. Customers entered, paused and looked around to get their bearings, wandered over to a display and picked something up at random. Or they looked around until they found one of us and asked a question. This man moved quickly down the main aisle. Steve and I exchanged glances. A shoplifter? We’d watch him as he returned to the door and, if his bag bulged with merchandise, we’d stop him. We kept chatting. I think – it was so long ago – that maybe Steve was a DJ and that’s what we chatted about. Or maybe his little daughter…
Out of the corner of my eye, I registered that the man was returning up the aisle along the side of the store. Maybe he was a customer and had a question. Steve said something funny and my head was turned towards him, looking at him. I laughed. And then I felt something hard pressing against my ribs. Right there, where the pain is today.
The man didn’t say, “This is a stick-up” like they do in the movies. But it was something like that. Enough of a cliché that my subconscious mind assumed it must be a joke. My first thought was that some of my high school buddies – guys who were on the other side of the country – were playing a joke on me. I turned my head, still laughing, to tell them to cut it out.
“Don’t look at me,” the guy said, nudging me with the gun and I froze. Then he said to Steve, “Lock the door. Don’t get funny or I’ll shoot her.”
I stopped laughing.
Steve walked slowly to the front door. As he walked through the glass vestibule, he turned and looked at me and our eyes met. “He’s going to run,” I thought. But after a moment, Steve locked the door and came back. (He told me later he was going to run but then he didn’t.)
The man handed me his white plastic bag – he must have been carrying his gun in it when he came in. He was dressed in light clothing, tight beige pants, a tan sweater, no room for a gun – and waved me towards the registers. “Put the money in it.”
He trained his gun on Steve and moved to where he could keep an eye on me. I opened the first register and put the bills and the rolls of coins in the bag. I hestitated.
“Do you want the loose change?” I asked. I didn’t know – this was new to me.
“Just the bills!” the guy said impatiently.
I moved from register to register, putting just the bills in the bag. I thought about – but didn’t mention – the money in the unsecured drawer, thousands of dollars of deposit plus hundreds more that I’d ask bank to make into change to get me through that day. Outside the plate glass windows that overlooked us, people walked by in their own little worlds. No one noticed what was happening.
I started to hand the bag back to the guy and he motioned towards the stairs up to the mezzanine. “What’s up there.”
“Nothing,” I said. “They’ve moved out.” There had been a store within a store but the tenants had moved out and we hadn’t spread into their space yet. “They’ve moved out. It’s empty.”
“Where’s the safe?” He asked. My blood ran cold. I didn’t want to move out of the brightness of the main floor with this man. Steve and I led him down the back stairs, through the downstairs sales floor, through the employees only door, through the dungeon – a huge room stacked with obsolete merchandise that I kept asking for permission to mark down and discard but it wasn’t in the budget – and into the darkness of my tiny office, most of which was filled by the huge safe.
I opened it. Since the deposit and the change fund were upstairs, it didn’t contain much. A few bills, which I put in the bag, and boxes of rolled change which he had said he didn’t want. And my wallet. We didn’t have lockers so, in violation of more rules, I kept my wallet in the safe. I asked if he wanted me to give him the money from my wallet and he tossed a roll of duct tape on the floor and gestured impatiently with the gun.
“Lie down on the floor.”
I had been pretty calm until this point. Now I began to panic a little, shaking, trying not to cry, certain he was going to shoot us in the heads. He told Steve to bind my wrists with the tape. Then he put his gun down just out of Steve’s reach and bound Steve’s wrists with the tape, tight.
Then he backed out of the “Don’t call the cops,” he said and backed out of the room.
“Oh god,” I muttered. “Oh god oh god oh god.”
In my head, I pictured the guy hurrying back through the dungeon, up the steps, through the door, up the stairs to the main floor, down the aisle, and out onto the street.
When I thought enough time had passed, I removed the tape from my wrists – Steve had tied me loosely so I could get out – and reached up, slide the phone off the desk, and dialed 911, whispering. Then I cut the tape from Steve’s wrists and, after a moment’s thought, called my boss, safely in an office a few miles away.
We made our way back upstairs cautiously, in case the guy still lurked. Squad cars – far too many for a simple stick-up where the guy got maybe $400 – pulled up outside, akimbo to the curb, sirens blaring and cops rushed in, guns drawn. If the guy had still been there, there would have been a shoot out and Steve and I would have been dead.
Finally the cops calmed down and started asking questions. Most of the cars left. A few customers had entered the store after the guy had left and before we came upstairs. I rang them up while answering the cops. Two cabs pulled up in front of the store and out popped my boss – a VP – several directors and several district managers. They had been meeting – probably budgeting – when I had reached her assistant, and had all piled in to help.
My assistant, Pat, walked through the door and took in the chaos.
“What’s going on?” She asked with a bemused look. I introduced her to my boss, told her she was in charge and Steve and I were going to the station to make a statement. And then I took her aside and muttered hastily, “The deposit and change fund are in the drawer under register 1.” And we left. It’s the only time I’ve ever ridden in a squad car.
Steve and I spent several hours at the station, giving statements – the cops seemed amazed that the guy had put the gun down on the floor when binding Steve – and looking a mug shots. I had already formed a picture of the guy in my head and he didn’t look like any of the guys in the book. We were pretty sure the cops would never find him, and they didn’t.
When we left, we were on our own. We weren’t even sure where we were – it wasn’t our neighborhood – and neither of us had the cash for a cab, so we walked. As we walked, we argued good-naturedly about the guy. “Drug addict,” Steve told me knowledgably. But I disagreed – he was too calm, didn’t have that strung out look that all of us who lived in the city in the 80s recognized as a drug addict. He looked too clean, almost clean cut, not street. I thought he was maybe light-skinned black; Steve insisted he was Hispanic. Maybe. Maybe Dominican. Did his gun look like that gun, there on the bus-stop ad for Lethal Weapon? Steve thought it did. I thought the movie gun was too long, too shiny.
Eventually we found our way back to the store. The circus had calmed down. The cops had left. Most of the grey suits had left, just my boss and one of the local dignitaries were still there. Pat was at the register with the morning staff. It was close to lunch time and the store was getting busy.
“How are you doing?” my boss asked. I told her I was okay, tossing it off with a smile. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off.” It wasn’t a question. I started to say, No, I needed to be busy, but then I agreed. I grabbed my stuff from downstairs and took the subway home.
When I got to my apartment on the Upper West Side, I locked the door. Top lock. Bottom lock. Police lock – a long metal stick, one end of which tucked into a metal channel in the floor, the other end fit neatly into a loop on the door itself, sliding over into a deadbolty-contraption, bracing the door against forced entry. Looking back on it now, it sounds crazy. But it felt normal in those days.
I moved around the apartment automatically, kicking off my shoes, dropping my bag near the door where it lived, changing into non-work clothes, getting a cup of tea. Sitting. Reading. Retreating into myself, unable to think about what had just happened.
There was a knock on the door and panic set in. I wasn’t expecting anyone. I sidled up to the door and squinted through the inadequate peephole.
“Flower delivery.” I couldn’t see the delivery guy, just the giant arrangement of flowers that covered his face.
“Thank you,” I said. “Just leave them.”
He hesitated. I scrambled for my purse and slipped some bills under the door.
“Just leave them,” I repeated. “I’m sorry. I can’t open the door. I got held up today. I can’t open the door.”
He picked his tip up off the floor and left. When I heard the elevator door close behind him, I opened the door and dragged the flowers inside. They were from my boss. I put them on the table and forgot about them until my roommate came home that night.
“What are those?”
“My boss sent them to me. I got held up today.”
I returned to work the next day.
A guy from Loss Prevention came to the store and took me through it again. Told me I should warn the managers in the neighboring stores what had happened, which I dutifully did, making a pilgrimage one block in each direction, asking for the manager, introducing myself, explaining what had happened. It was almost the worst part of the whole ordeal. I felt stupid, like I was bragging or drawing attention to myself. It was New York City; everyone expected to get held up at some point. I was lucky it had turned out so well.
The company hired an armored car service to do the bank run.
And that was it. No counseling. I didn’t have a therapist. I never heard back from the cops. I didn’t talk about it much.
But, for a long time afterwards, I had a strange sensation, about the size of a quarter, on the right side of my ribs, where the gun had rested. The body remembered.
And then it didn’t anymore, overshadowed by other stresses, other injuries, emotional attacks.
Until this week, when it returned.
Who knows why now.
Who knows if that is really it or if it will turn out, in time, to be something medical after all.
Who knows if a something medical could be caused by a buried trauma.