My Very First Hostage Situation: Suburbia Sanctions

…this is the moment I realized that narrowly escaping death is one of the most exhilarating feelings on Earth.

Story by Sabrina Cognata - sabbyc@gmail.com Photos by Giovanni Gastel
Photo © Giovanni Gastel

Photo © Giovanni Gastel

It’s as though I was born to succinctly weave in and out of trouble. I can’t begin to explain to you the countless amount of times where I went out of my way to choose the least likely, if not crazy, option in life. Trouble always finds me, and usually, it’s disguised as a present.

I think this is probably true for most people, but most people will go out of their way to disarm a bomb once they realize they’ve been gifted with one. And maybe this is because I am the bomb. I know how to be careful. It’s not an inherent ability that gives me a competitive edge. It’s just the sign of truly damaged goods and, really, all of it’s just apart of the wild circumstances that make up my life.

My father is a former District Attorney. Look it up if you want. He convicted rapists, drunks, murders, junkies, and thieves. At the time he is doing all of this, I’m my father’s only child and all the people he convicted during this time know I exist. This is a particular burden for a child. Especially when you’re being constantly reminded of this fact.

“I want to play outside!”

“We’ve been over this. I can’t let you go outside by yourself and I don’t have time to watch you.”

My mother bends over to look into my eyes, likely hoping to convey the importance of what she’s about to say, “There are men who your father sent to jail who are not happy with him. These men know who you are and who knows what they would do if they saw you playing outside by yourself.”

What my mom doesn’t realize is that the crisis you prepare yourself for isn’t the personal hell you actually have to deal with.

It’s the ‘80s in the San Fernando Valley where all the homes sink into the earth like the housing equivalent of a paper doll chain. Most of them are filled with small but growing families, senior citizens, or the obtusely insane.

As I look back on it, my childhood is infused with constant run-ins with amazingly bizarre characters, each situation molding me for my next chance encounter with a criminal, pervert or mental patient. Junkies making out with light posts, a man in gym shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and dress shoes exposing himself and the neighborhood transvestite all helped me in my journey to embrace the absurd.

Photo © Giovanni Gastel

Photo © Giovanni Gastel

As a small child you assume everyone’s life mirrors your own. I simply figured everyone’s closeted gay uncle got held up at the liquor store while they were waiting in the car. What’s stranger is the adults in my life have never acted as if anything happening was that crazy. By the time I am involved in my first hostage situation, all I can do is hope that the news reporter on the scene will want to hear my story.

Evenings in my parents’ house are pretty typical, my father works late and my mother plays the role of both parents. By bedtime, my mother’s internal stress meter has exploded in such a way that the main rule is that we have to be in bed and silent, even if we are not tired. Since I’ve spent the majority of my life in a manic frenzy I’d often lie in bed from 8:30pm until after midnight listening to sounds of the world around me. The darkness becomes a siren calling to me. I know the outside world continues to exist even though I am stuck in bed, and the idea of it infiltrating my home and life seems impossible.

Every night seems the same when you spend at least two hours trying to lie there in silence. Sometimes I bother Gia with questions to pass the time.

“What if I sold shrimp?” my voice drifts into the darkness.

“How would you get them?”

“Probably from fishing.”

“Can you catch shrimp by fishing?”

“I think you catch them with a net.”

“How would you sell them?”

“Tom! Tom! Let me in,” a woman’s voice outside silences us. I sit up in the darkness, looking for Gia. She motions for me to open the window. I slink out of bed, the voices outside continue as I unlock and slide open the window. The cool air hits me and for a second I am frozen in place, “Go away, Goddamit. Go away, Nancy!”

It’s our neighbors, Tom and Nancy going at it. A large tree between the properties obstructs my view, but with the window open I can now hear everything.

Gia and I exchange concerned looks before we decide to tell our mother what’s happening next door. It didn’t make sense at first, but nearly nothing a child tries to explain to you in a hurry ever will. My father is working late and my mother told us to go get our brother and younger sister while she called our neighbor.

When Gia and I return with the children I hear the phone click, as she hung up, “Tom says it’s nothing. Nancy’s overreacting.”

The phone call seems to end the commotion. The shouting ceases and now we’re sitting in my mother’s bedroom waiting for what happens next. Dominick is in bed with my mother, holding the remote and ignoring everything going on. His angelic blonde curls off put the smug-as-hell smirk he’s wearing now that he’s escaped his own bedtime. I hate him and attempt to angle myself into a similar situation. By now Gia is sitting in a chair watching TV as well and I try to keep my mom talking.

Photo © Giovanni Gastel

Photo © Giovanni Gastel

When you have three kids under the age of three before you’re twenty-five, you learn quickly to never give them a chance to outnumber or manipulate you with their sheer numbers. She realizes what we’re planning to do and sends us all back to bed.

“You ruined it,” Dominick says heading back to his room, never stopping to look at me.

“He’s right,” Gia continues. “If you could have just been quiet we’d still be watching TV.”

I silently slip into bed, feeling a sense of dejection, realizing my inability to shut up just blew my chance to stay up all night watching television. And worse, I blew the slim chance to stay home the next day. I pull the covers up to my neck and wait for Gia to stab at the silence when the shouting starts again, “Tom, this is the police.”

Like heat seeking missiles, the powwow is reconvened in the hallway where we decide to return to my mother’s bedroom. We don’t even knock on the door, pushing it open my mother sits up and snaps at us, “What now?”

That’s when the first shots were fired.

“Get down. Get on the floor.”

We drop down to the ground while my mother races to the baby bed to grab Talia. In my attempt to watch what she’s doing I lift my head and she catches me, “Goddamit, get down.”

I press my face against the floor. It’s cold and I am sweating. The room is enraptured by the silence. For once, I have nothing to say even though I desperately want to say something. Someone asks if we are going to die. We lie there while my mother calls the police this time. They are aware of the situation and have people on the scene. The rest of us make eye contact with each other as if to say, “We did it, we’re not going to school tomorrow,” as if the fact that we could be shot and killed any second wasn’t even an issue.

The 911 operator keeps my mom on the phone, asking questions about proximity and location, and eventually instructs us to crawl to the front of the house. On my stomach, I army crawl through my own home, realizing that the only place I’d identified as safe, isn’t and probably never would be again. More shots are fired and helicopters swirled over suburbia like white doves ringing in freedom.

Photo © Giovanni Gastel

Photo © Giovanni Gastel

By now, my mother’s gotten ahold of my father, “Come home. Tom’s gone crazy and we’re being held captive inside the house.” Stuck. In. The. House. This was one of the first moments I realized the true absurdity of life. We were a perfectly normal middle class family that should be in bed sleeping, but, instead, we’re lying on the ground trying not to get shot. I realize that this could be it. Tom could shoot off another round and a stray bullet could pierce through the drywall and stop my thoughts forever, could kill my mother, my unborn sibling, the police or the idiots gathering outside.

“When are they coming to get us?” Dominick asks, but we were all thinking it. When will the LAPD burst through the doors and move us to safety? Isn’t that how it happens in movies? By now my father is outside in the street with the growing crowd and legion of looky loos waiting to see if this charade ends in bloodshed.

Eventually, a police officer came to our front door explaining to us that it was best if we made a run for it. I wish there was some sort of real plan he’d given us, but after checking to make sure we are all right he says we need to follow him, scooping Gia up while the rest of us ran across the street to safety, the wet grass massaging my bare feet. Freedom everywhere.

There are very specific moments that define who you are in life. And this is the moment I realized that narrowly escaping death is one of the most exhilarating feelings on Earth. When you discern that, often times, terrible things occur without reason, your view of the world becomes warped. And, you eventually welcome the insanity because it’s what you know and it makes you feel alive in a way that safety never can.

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