The first time the alarm in the house went off, I was on the couch, snuggling a novel, José Saramago's Blindness. The stereo filled the living room with slinky rhythms of world beat and jazz-fusion. I was caretaking the house and two cats, several weeks in a quiet neighborhood on the south side of Santa Fe while the owner traveled to the Far East to commune with elephants.
Almost midnight and the alarm screamed throughout the house. I ran from room to room, turning on lights. I tried to remain calm. I hadn’t heard anything before the alarm went off. Surely it was a mistake, but still my heart crowded the back of my throat, the hair on my neck stood at attention. I called the alarm company.
No, I could not detect anything suspicious. No broken glass, open windows or doors that had been tampered with. It was late spring but a cool night. I had closed and locked everything before turning on the alarm. There was no answer to explain what had happened. The technician from the alarm company reassured me there was no threat.
After resetting the alarm, I tried to regain a normal breathing pattern. I made a cup of Tulsi tea, rechecked all the rooms of the house, coaxed the cats out from under the bed, and then went back to my spot on the couch. My eyes grew heavy as it neared 3 am. I tossed Blindness onto the coffee table and curled onto my side. At that moment, the bedroom seemed too far away. The lamplight and the low stereo sounds did not interrupt my ability to fall asleep. I felt the cats step lightly around my legs, find cozy spaces behind my knees and against the curve of my ankles, tuck noses to tails, give a few rounds of soft purrs and then become still.
Suddenly, the alarm blared again. I was on my feet and on the phone with the alarm company before I had entirely woken up. This time, we needed to investigate. Where was the system being triggered? A flashing number “15” on the control panel indicated the trouble was coming from the living room. My tongue swelled. I panted, and my eyes bulged.
Whatever it was that was trying to get into the house or trying to get me was already in the house and in the same room I had been in all night. I hadn’t checked behind the couch or the closet. I could feel all the nerves in my body prickling and snapping. I started to tremble.
I grabbed a kitchen knife and while still on the phone with the technician, I charged into the closet. Finding nothing, I lunged behind the couch—nothing. It’s true, I was afraid, but I was just as angry and desperately wanted the terror of false alarms to come to an end.
I searched the room and saw the alarm unit mounted in the northwest corner, flashing orange like the eye of a cigarette, at me. My adrenaline drained as I realized it had been my presence that had been triggering the alarm that night.
I was the thing I most feared.
For months following that incident, I turned this idea over in mind again and again. I had been the thing I most feared.
I couldn’t help but think of my exploration of identity. I had been taught both by my assimilated mother and by the communities of rural Ohio towns in which we lived that anything other than white and English-speaking was not only “different”; it was not to be trusted. I grew up abiding by these terms, vigilant in avoiding what was different and feeding an irrational fear of all that was “other.”
It continues to occur to me that this behavior created a struggle within me, where I couldn’t fully acknowledge who and what I was because in doing so I would see I had no place in those communities and in my own family (that had adopted being color- and culture-blind in order to survive).
Once I did fully begin to accept who and what I was, what surprised me and surprises me still, is that I’m the thing I was taught to fear and that the fear internalized is just as real as the all the fear I have that exists in the world at large. The fear I have for myself is bound in layers and layers, embedded in my own skin, present even in deepest material of my bones. It is alarming.