(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

Jeanette had moved from Washington, DC, by way of Ohio University where she earned a master’s degree in film studies. She arrived in Los Angeles ready to launch her career as a film director after more than a decade stage managing regional theater. My neighbors, Rob and Amy, held a barbecue in her honor knowing full well that what Jeanette cherished above all else was a sense of community.

Rob and Amy lived in the duplex next to mine. We shared a wall, a yard and a palpable affection layered with dimensions—length, depth, breadth. We grew herbs and vegetables, we composted our waste, we ate like epicureans, and we enjoyed fine wine by candlelight, firelight or starlight. We believed in the idea that only the right things happen. We asked deep questions and attempted to answer them, and when we couldn’t, we’d divine meaning from both sensible and absurd sources, measuring each with equal weight. In a place where people came carrying big, artistic dreams, ours was an enclave of the idyllic, framed by a mosaic tile garden that was literally a work of art. Raised flowerbeds ringed the perimeter, a maze of concrete benches rose up from a tapestry of colored cement, and a towering fig tree in a vase of stone proclaimed its status as centerpiece.

From the moment Jeanette entered our beachside haven, she immediately knew that she’d arrived. I had been the one to tell her that our landlord was moving his graphic design business out of the converted garage and preparing it as a rental unit. I urged her to wait while he completed the renovation, not knowing that it would fall far behind schedule. Still, Jeanette was convinced that this was her new home. She spent months sleeping on various couches, including mine, while her tiny oasis was being prepared for her. When she finally moved in, she lived there for fifteen days.

In ICU, Jeanette had been intubated and put on a ventilator. As a result, we had to wait to question her about what she saw and what she remembered. In the meantime, the only timeline I could establish was my own.

February 8

5:00 PM – I walked to the hardware store. I needed three long screws to secure the kitchen threshold I kept tripping over.

5:30 PM – I left the hardware store and headed to the clothing store across the street. I intended to walk through the alley behind the store but I had a strange and momentary thought; the image of someone being beaten flashed through my mind. I decided not to go through the alley and instead entered the store from the street. In the store, I tried on two pair of sweatpants. I had an odd, recurring feeling that I needed to go home. I left.

6:00 PM – At home, I unlocked the outside gate and entered the yard. I noticed that the gate to the side yard was open. The side gate was never open. I assumed that someone who’d never been there before had come to visit Jeanette. I didn’t think too much about it. If I did, I would have realized that Jeanette would have had to unlock the front gate for a visitor, and then they would have used the path on the other side of the house.

6:01 PM – I closed the side gate and entered my house. It felt odd. There was an uncomfortable energy I couldn’t identify. I stood in my living room for a long time, uncertain. I walked through the house, room by room, looking for an intruder. I had the sickening sensation that someone had been here.

6:10 PM – I sat on the couch. Something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was. I tried to read the newspaper. I couldn’t concentrate.

6:30 PM – I made dinner. I don’t remember what I ate; I only remember that I ate at the table in silence, waiting for a sense of the familiar to return.

7:00 PM – The phone rang. It was Jeanette. “Tess, can you come back here?” Her nose was stuffed up. She sounded like she’d been crying but her tone was oddly unemotional. I told her I’d be right there. Then I stood, put on my jacket, grabbed my keys and slipped my wallet into my pocket as if I was going somewhere and didn’t expect to be returning for a while.

I pulled the door closed behind me and took an extra moment to make sure that it was securely locked before winding my way through the courtyard. Jeanette’s front door was only about twenty feet from my back door, hidden behind a planter box and a wall of bougainvillea. When I arrived on her doorstep, my breath left me. “Oh, Jeanette,” I gasped upon seeing her.

She was absolutely drenched in blood, her white sweater saturated red. She stood as if presenting herself: erect and with her arms stretched out at her sides. Look at me, she seemed to be saying.

I noticed blood on the door handle as I entered, and a pool of it covered the carpeting behind her.

“Have you called anyone?” I asked her, reaching for the bloodied phone.

“Just you,” she said.

I dialed 911. An emotionless female dispatcher answered. “911, what is your emergency?”

My mind was racing. I gave her the address and said I needed help.

“Do you need the police, the fire department or the paramedics?”

Her words penetrated slowly, as if being transmitted through water. “I need the police,” I told her. “I’m with my friend who’s just been beaten.”

Jeanette was still standing in front of me, motionless.

“Should I send the paramedics?” the woman asked.

I looked at Jeanette, confused. She seemed completely alert and functional. “Do we need paramedics?” I asked her.

Her face was a mask of blood. She blinked but didn’t answer.

“Yes, we need paramedics,” I responded, finally getting a grip on my faculties.

The woman told me to administer first aid, and that help was on the way.

I hung up the phone. First aid?

“Come here,” I told Jeanette, taking her arm. “Lie down.”

I helped her to the floor, then grabbed a towel from the bathroom and held it to her face. As I sopped up blood, I could see the damage. Her face had been cut down her nose. No wonder she sounded stuffed up. Her right cheek was crushed and gashed, and the eye above it was only being held in place by swelling.

“I don’t know what just happened,” she said.

“You don’t remember anything? You didn’t see anyone?” I glanced around the room but I already knew that whomever had done this was gone.

“My nose hurts. Will you get me some ice?”

“Of course.” I moved toward the kitchen and pulled the ice tray from the freezer. We are so far past ice, I thought.

“I don’t know what just happened,” she said again. “I don’t know.”

I dumped a few cubes into a dishtowel and returned to her side.

“What happened to me?” she said, looking at herself.

“I don’t know, honey.” I tried to determine where to put the icepack. And that’s when I saw that the blood in her nostrils and in places on her face had coagulated. This didn’t just happen; she’d been unconscious for a while. I reached for her hand. “I want you to put this on your face. I don’t want to hurt you.”

She took the ice.

“Jeanette,” I held her free hand. “Do you know what day it is?”

“It’s Monday.”

I scanned the rest of her body, wondering if there were more injuries, wondering when help would arrive. She is not okay. This is not okay.

“It’s February 8th, 1999,” she continued.

Her sweater was so drenched I couldn’t tell where else she might be bleeding.

“I don’t know what just happened.”

I thought she might be on the verge of going into shock, and I needed her to stay alert, if for no other reason than to keep me focused. “How many fingers am I holding up?” I said, forming the peace sign.


“Who’s the president?”

“Bill Clinton.”

“Do you have health insurance?”


I plummeted. Oh God, we’re going to need medical care. A lot of it. I suddenly felt even more helpless. And alone. When would someone arrive? “Jeanette, I want to pray. Will you pray with me?”

“Uh huh,” she said, her face buried in the towel.

Now, for the record, I’m a world-class prayer. But as I grasped her hand, I had no idea what to ask for. Suddenly, the floodgates opened, and I was drowning in my own sense of shame. If there was ever a moment when God needed to enter the room, this was it. I was already on my knees, and I simply froze with paralysis. Finally, as the tears started to come, I began mumbling. “Dear God, wherever two or more are gathered, you are. Um, thank you for being here with us, and, um, help me,” my mind was completely blank. “Help us,” I whirred in neutral, absolutely directionless. I worried that Jeanette was relying on me to be profound. I worried that my words were critical, as if they had to be precise. When you pray, you’re supposed to be specific. I couldn’t even manage to be vague. “This is so wrong,” I finally said. “Dear God, help me find a way to make this right.”

The police arrived first but the paramedics weren’t far behind. And once I was no longer in charge, once I had stopped being Jeanette’s main source of aid and comfort, I began needing my own. I kept dropping to my knees, lightheaded. I entered an altered universe. People spoke to me and I answered, but I wasn’t present. The room was lit up with flashing lights. Two-way radios crackled. Uniformed men tended to Jeanette, cutting off her clothing to look for wounds and moving her onto a stretcher. Others searched the house. I floated somewhere close by. Jeanette was beginning to lose consciousness. She repeatedly asked the paramedics if this was real or if it was a dream. And she kept asking for me. “I’m right here,” I said, reaching for her outstretched hand while doing my best to not pass out.

In the midst of the frenzy, I noticed that I was covered in Jeanette’s blood, and I had no real sense of what I’d touched while I’d been there. The only part of me that was still in my own body had the distorted feeling—borne from too many late night cop shows, I’m sure—that at that moment I was probably the main suspect in this hideousness.

…go to Part 4