“I can’t breathe”

Trigger warning ahead: violence and foul language


After college, I lived in an apartment on the north side of the city, with my all-star roommates, (please read the sarcasm there) we’ll call them Elizabeth and Jessica. We were fortunate enough to have some outstanding downstairs neighbors. (Please read the additional sarcasm utterly dripping from there, too.)

Downstairs there was a middle-aged woman with long dark hair, we’ll call her Sandra, she had a Bohemian sense of style. If you saw her in the city on her own, you’d assume that she would enjoy herbal teas, patchouli and taking care of a cat or two in a shoebox-sized apartment on the outskirts of the city. Sounds like a perfect neighbor, you say? Well, hang on, because also downstairs was Sandra’s son, we’ll call him Marshall.

Marshall was no more than 20 years old and had you been a young woman walking alone and seen him on the street, you would have crossed the street to avoid contact, perhaps even putting your keys between your fingers in your pocket, just in case. He came complete with baggy pants, truly oversized white t-shirts and two teardrop tattoos on his face, along with various other ink. In short, Marshall looked like the embodiment of trouble. Jessica, Elizabeth and I were not ones to judge, however, so we refused to be afraid of Marshall… That is, until a few months into our lease upstairs from this mother-son duo.

We still weren’t ready to judge when within the first few weeks we were faced with a multitude of sketchy characters that were in and out of our foyer at all hours of the day and night, sometimes with Marshall, sometimes on their own. We passed them on the way in, and we passed them on the way out each and every time we came and went from our apartment. We assumed that growing up in the area we lived might have been rough, and maybe this style of dress, these tattoos, the language they used and the hours they kept were just the norm. When we came home and had to pass all of them on the stairs we always greeted them with a smile and perhaps a cordial “Hello!” Sometimes they would respond, other times they would grunt, or nod, and sometimes we got nothing but silence and a stare. We still weren’t ready to judge.

It was a rainy and cold Saturday, just after breakfast. Jessica, Elizabeth and I were curled up on the couches in the front room, watching a movie, vegging out and snuggling with our cats. When we heard a crash, a scream, and another crash coming from downstairs. Elizabeth quickly paused our movie, and we all stayed completely silent, but made eye contact with each other, as if to communicate a sort of, “Holy crap… That did not sound good.”

All was silent for a good minute. Our heart rates began to fall back to normal, and then, from the floorboards, we heard Sandra yell, “Stop Marshall, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You’re a lying bitch! You stole my goods and you know it! You make me sick, you stupid cunt! You’re always fuckin’ lying!” Marshall spat back.

“Marshall, I didn’t steal anything from you! Please calm down!” She insisted.

“STOP FUCKING LYING!” He screamed.

This same back and forth went on for nearly two minutes, and then we heard a series of crashes, as if they were throwing things at each other, or had knocked something over and it clattered to the floor. We heard Sandra again from the floorboards, this time she was coughing when she screamed out:


Then a crash; and then a silence so deafening that I cannot even begin to explain the weight of it.

Elizabeth, Jessica and I looked frantically at each other, as if to silently, vehemently demand an answer to the unanimous question, “WHAT DO WE DO?!?!?” Our movie still paused on an image of some actor making a seemingly inappropriate silly face at such an inopportune moment. We were hoping with all our might that we would hear a noise that would indicate that Sandra was still alive. Our thought processes had been identical in that moment, we would later discover. They went something like this:

If we do nothing, right now, and Sandra dies then it is partially our fault, because we can call the authorities and potentially save her life. If we call the police right now, Marshall will know it was us, and so will each and every one of his friends that loitered in our foyer to the place that we called “home.”

We swiftly, silently and simultaneously all came to the same conclusion. I stood up as quietly as our nearly 100 year old apartment wooden floors would allow, and tiptoed to the kitchen in the back of our house with my cell phone and dialed 911.

Sometimes I wish I could get my hands on a recording of that 911 call. I seem to recall that I stayed cool, calm and quietly collected as I stated where we lived, what we had heard, and that we were afraid that Sandra may be dead downstairs. That 911 recording could refute my memory, however because I may have been a near hysterical mess, barely able to even state my address, much less convey the urgency of our situation. I guess we’ll never know.

The police did arrive, and quickly! I know because I had returned to the couch, and the company of my roommates as quietly as I had left them, and we stayed completely still and silent, counting the milliseconds until they arrived. By the time they knocked on the door downstairs, Sandra had regained her breath (or consciousness, we’ll never know) and intensely denied there being anything wrong on the premises. Marshall had cooled down just enough as to not rouse too much suspicion, that is until the police asked him to step out into the foyer to answer a couple of questions. We were listening like hawks, from our posts on the couches in the front room, just inside our front door.

The officer started by asking him a simple enough question, “Are you sure there hasn’t been any trouble here this morning?”

“Nah, man. This is bullshit.” Marshall retorted.

“We got a call regarding a domestic disturbance, sir. We take that very seriously. You and your mother haven’t been in an argument, at all, today?”

“What the fuck are you talking about, man? Get the fuck outta here. Mom, I told you NOT TO LET THOSE CUNTS LIVE UPSTAIRS.” He yelled, just loud enough so that he knew we heard him, upstairs.

The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. We sat in silence, as the police officers eventually left, having nothing more to ask, and no warrant for a search for these “goods” that Marshall had accused his mother of stealing. We slowly realized the gravity of that phone call I had made not an hour ago. Suddenly it all made sense though, people with very similar tattoos with abbreviations in prominent places on their bodies constantly in and out downstairs and these “goods” were all painting a picture that, perhaps, we had been too resistant and naïve to see. If Marshall was a big time dealer for, and perhaps even in a Chicago gang, and we had just alerted the police to the potential entrepreneur business he was running from the apartment his Mother paid for downstairs:

We had just opened a can of worms that none of us were prepared for.

Jessica, Elizabeth and I all got up, once things had gone quiet again, silently showered and got ready for the day, and trooped out of our apartment together, our foyer strangely empty and just as silent as we were. We had decided that we needed to get out of the neighborhood for a few hours so we set out to get lunch down in the heart of the city. Sitting in silence on the train for the bulk of the trip, all sharing this feeling in the pit of our stomachs, I finally broke the ice.

“So… Do you think that Marshall is mad at us?” I asked the obvious question the answer seemed to blink in neon letters in my brain.

My roommates laughed nervously, and Jessica, the slightly country and a little ditsy roommate said, “Angela, how could he not be?”

The melodramatic and bitchy roommate Elizabeth, exasperated with Jessica and the whole situation, finally broke her silence, “We put his whole business in jeopardy… we’ll be lucky if we live until the end of the week. I’m sure we’re on Marshall and all of his friend’s ‘Most Wanted’ list as we speak.”

I sighed. I hadn’t thought that our death was imminent, like Elizabeth did, but I had no doubt that we had made some enemies. What were we going to do? I don’t remember tasting any of my lunch, or much of the rest of that afternoon away from our apartment, for that matter. It began to get dark, so we reluctantly headed home. When we arrived at our front door, we could see a few of Marshall’s friends were in our foyer, and we braced ourselves for anything our wildest imaginations could conjure up.

Elizabeth opened the door to the foyer, and bee lined for the stairs, followed closely by Jessica. I brought up the rear, and it was as if Marshall could smell the fear on me. This wasn’t the first, or the last time, that my roommates would abandon me. Marshall walked straight up to me and, blocking the steps, asked, “Was it you guys who called the cops this morning?”

“I’m-I’m not sure what you mean… I mean, we saw the cops here this morning, but…” I could feel my heartbeat in my eardrums and in the back of my throat.

“Oh, so it wasn’t you…” He said again, sarcastically.

“Why, what happened?” I feigned ignorance, trying to think quick on my feet.

Nothing.” He snarled.

“Oh… ok… well… have a good night! I’ll catch you later!” I forced a smile and tried desperately to sound confident, I pushed past him.

“Yeah. Yeah, you will.” He said ominously.

I could barely feel the stairs under my feet as I tried to ascend them purposefully and with control. Once I closed myself inside our front door, I released a breath that I’m not entirely sure how long I had been holding. Elizabeth and Jessica were standing there, slack-jawed, and asking me for a play-by-play of what had just happened, since they had ditched me and left me all alone. I told them that I needed to use the bathroom before I could even think of reliving that moment of my life. He had literally scared the pee right out of me.

This went on just the same for days, only we were all a victim to Marshall’s almost-threats and relentless questioning because there were times when we were forced to come and go from our apartment on our own. By the next weekend, we couldn’t take it anymore. Together, we trooped to the nearest police station. We asked to speak to someone that had been a part of that call I had made a week prior, but no one was around. Finally, an officer named Tony, he told us to call him that and not Officer Whatever-His-Last-Name-Was, approached us.

Tony listened to our story, and our suspicions regarding the “business” downstairs. He looked Marshall up in the system and said that we were in luck because the police were actually already watching him, even prior to the call that I had made. He said there was not much we could do, that we hadn’t already done by coming in to speak with him. He made a report, and attached it to Marshall’s page in their system. Before we left, he made us all take out our cell phones and save his personal cell phone number into our contact list as “HELP – Tony.”

As we left, we weren’t sure to feel relief or even more at risk. He had confirmed our suspicions and told us that Marshall was known to hang around with some extremely unsavory characters. Tony made us promise that if any of us ever felt that our lives were being threatened that we would not hesitate to call that number, any time of day or night. We swore. Shit, did we ever swear.

Marshall’s threatening confrontations in our foyer lessened as time went on, but so did our cordial “Hello!”s. He and his friends would fall silent, more often than not, when we walked past, and we got into the habit of staring straight ahead with an “I don’t hear anything, I don’t see anything, and I certainly don’t suspect anything” attitude.

The day that I moved out of that apartment was one of the best days of my life. I kept ‘HELP – Tony’s number in my phone until I moved out of the state of Illinois, and thankfully never had to use it.

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