This is After a Fashion, Esmé Weijun Wang’s monthly column examining articles of clothing she owns, and the stories behind them.
I was perhaps fifteen when the doorbell rang, and because I was preoccupied, my brother, who is four years younger, answered the door. Because I now know that the man who had come to the door was my mother’s stalker, I’ve injected the memory of his arrival at my childhood home with more detail than I actually possess. I remember—or think I remember—that he asked if the Volvo in our driveway was for sale. Never mind that there was no reason to think that the dark green family car would, in fact, be for sale; if it were up for sale, there would be a sign in its window, and it wouldn’t be parked in our driveway where no one could see it from the road. But no matter: My brother told the man that he didn’t know about the car, but that the man could call our mother, who would be able to tell him. He gave the man our mother’s cell phone number, and then the man left.
What luck on the stalker’s part. How could he have known that his gambit would earn him his target’s private number? What had he been hoping for when he came to the house, the location of which he knew from following our mother home from work on a forty-five minute drive? Did he expect to find children when he got to the house? What would have happened if I’d answered the door instead, bearing an older and more wary face?
Hours later, with the sky darkening, our mother called the house phone. She calmly told me that she would be returning home with our Uncle Wayne—not a blood relative, but her boss—to pick us up. While we waited for her to come get us, I needed to check that all of the windows were closed and locked. I needed to check that all of the doors were closed and locked. We were not to open the door for anyone until she came to get us.
I don’t remember being afraid, though I was old enough to know that something was wrong, and that it was important to obey her in this matter. In about an hour, she arrived with Uncle Wayne. They swept us into the car. For the next few nights, we stayed with my father’s sister and her husband, and then we returned home.
Being the child of Taiwanese immigrants meant that I learned what was normal at my own pace. I didn’t realize, for example, that it wasn’t typical to wear jeans to bed until I was a teenager; though I’d been on sleepovers since grammar school, the difference between street clothes and sleepwear slipped my notice for years. I conflate the discovery of pajamas with the story of my mother’s stalker because in one self-portrait, taken in the months after he came to our home, I am lying in bed, looking into the camera, and I am holding a butcher knife. I’m also wearing a flannel nightgown with lace trim, which means that I must have discovered pajamas by this time.
After the stalker, I slept with a knife by the bed because my mother had begun to sleep with a knife by the bed. My mother bought bulk packages of pepper spray for everyone in the family to use. A new alarm system, installed after my father came home from his business trip and finally learned about the stalker, meant that the windows in our home chirped when opened and closed. Getting some fresh air meant the inevitable, Chirrup . Closing the same window: chirrup . A birdsong, a warning.
I learned that the stalker, after speaking to my brother at our home, began to call my mother, whose tendency has always been to protect her children in all ways—and so I know that the version of events she told me later, at my aunt and uncle’s home, is certainly far worse than what actually reached my ears. He’d told her that he wanted her . He’d been watching her for months. Now he knew where she and her children lived, and he was going to hurt them—the children—if she didn’t give him what he wanted.
I learned later that he had been a gardener for the office building next to hers. Who knew how long he had been watching her, or how long it took for him to work up the nerve to follow her on the long drive home. How long he had waited between following her home and coming to that same house in the middle of the day, or how he’d invented the ruse of asking after the Volvo in the driveway.
I learned these things while my mother told me not to mention any of this to my father, whose business trip to China meant that he would be gone for a while yet longer. She didn’t want to worry him, she said. When they spoke, she acted as though nothing was wrong, and my brother and I did the same when we spoke to him on calculated long-distance minutes about school and homework. His absence was normal to us—for years he only flew home on weekends, and for still more years he would be gone for months at a time. Men like Uncle Wayne served as surrogate fathers, and helped my mother deal with things such as the police, who did find the stalker, and gave him a stern talking-to. My mother assured me that the man had been sufficiently frightened by the police; he wouldn’t come after us again. I neither believed her nor disbelieved her. I only knew that we would keep going.
The correlation between the stalker and my attachment to that flannel nightgown isn’t obvious to me. I’d think that whatever hypervigilance I developed as a teenager would mean an even stronger attachment to sleeping in my street clothes, in case I needed to leap out of bed and run. The butcher knife makes sense to me. The pepper spray that I kept under my pillow makes sense to me. Not the nightgown. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know where it went, though I still remember how it felt: soft, but not soft enough to feel easy; warm, but too warm to be of comfort. When I turn to sleepwear now, I tend toward silky, liquid things that don’t rub against my skin, although a body is more vulnerable when it’s comfortable and unaware—too likely to drowse when it ought to be awake, or sleep too deeply when it should be ready to fight. In adolescence, I made a sartorial concession without ever becoming too relaxed or revealed. A boy I loved told me that I dressed with aggressive modesty.
In graduate school I developed an intense desire to find a nightgown similar to the one I’d had back then. Etsy, as it turns out, is flush with frumpy flannel nightgowns; I could have a collection if I so desired, but I bought just one. In those years, I rarely slept in my bedroom, forgoing it and its Ikea bed for the 1970s mustard yellow couch in the living room, where I could watch marathons of Law and Order: SVU and Criminal Minds until I finally fell asleep.
I’d discovered the latter when I happened upon a 2007 episode called “About Face,” which follows the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit as they hunt a serial killer who removes his victims’ faces. Mandy Patinkin, who left the show after two seasons in 2007, eventually called his role in Criminal Minds his “biggest public mistake,” saying that he “never thought they were going to kill and rape all [those] women every night, every day, week after week, year after year.” Patinkin said about the show , “It was very destructive to my soul and my personality.”
But I watched every single episode, hungry. I fell asleep to episodes I’d seen three, four, or five times before. It was hard for me to fall asleep without the sounds of the voices of people killing and being killed and searching for those who had killed before so that they wouldn’t kill again.
After the stalker, a few weeks after my mother, brother, and I returned to our home, patrol cars drove by on occasion, and then they stopped coming. My father flew back from China. In our beds, we slept.