Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Lingering Mystery

The incident happened when I was seven or eight.  My parents and I were living in the suburbs, about twenty miles north of New York City.  But in the Bronx, very close to where we had lived till I was six, my uncle and his wife lived, with their three kids, two boys and a girl, all several years older than me.  The uncle was my mother's older brother.  What I heard of the story came to me through my parents, when they were talking about it between themselves, and from what they said, I couldn't understand why the woman who injured my uncle's wife, my aunt, had acted as she did.  Did they even know? I wasn't sure.  Maybe they knew the reason for the woman's violent action, but they never uttered that reason in front of me.  Or maybe the woman was crazy and acted out of some irrational hatred toward my aunt.

But here's what happened.  They all lived in an apartment building, on the same floor I believe, and both my aunt and uncle knew the woman in question.  To what extent they were friends with her, if they were friends with her, I couldn't decipher.  But apparently there had been some tension among them, something that caused animosity between my aunt and the other woman.  I can't say with one hundred percent certainty but I didn't get the sense then and I don't think to this day that the friction revolved around a sexual triangle of any kind, or cheating on the part of my uncle. Anything's possible, but I highly doubt that.  

In any event, one afternoon, when my uncle was at work (he was a New York City subway conductor for a long time), the doorbell rang in his and my aunt's apartment, she opened the door, and before my aunt could react, the woman from down the hall threw acid in her face.  What precisely happened after that, I don't know, but from the time, I do remember my mother saying something about how my aunt kept her wits about her and managed to think fast even with the acid burning her face.  She dashed over to a sink (kitchen or bathroom, not sure which) and doused her face with cold water. As it would turn out, this action tempered the effects of the acid.  I don't know whether any of her kids were home.  This could have been a school day, perhaps a Friday afternoon.  But at that point, she or somebody called the police and my aunt wound up getting rushed to the hospital.  From what I can remember, there was great worry about scarring and damage to her eyes.  The acid also had hit her hair.  I remember great concern on the part of my parents, and, when we drove from our house down to the Bronx, the worry, of course, that my uncle showed.  My aunt was in the hospital at least one night, maybe more.

To everyone's relief, the acid did not cause severe burns.  Disfigurement proved minor, and in the years to come, if you didn't know the attack had happened, you wouldn't have known from my aunt's face that she had ever been assaulted. But the acid did discolor her hair, turning the parts it had struck from black to white.  In later years, all my aunt's hair went white, and it looked good.

And the woman who threw the acid? Here I have almost a complete blank.  I don't know what became of her.  I don't know whether my aunt pressed charges, though I assume she did, and I have no idea what kind of time, if any, the woman served.  The only thing I do recall for sure is that right after the incident my parents said something about how she had been put in Bellevue for observation.  Even an 8 year old knew what that meant.  

So that's the story, as I blurrily remember it.  There are gaps everywhere in my recollection, and besides that, I'm sure I never had an adequate understanding of the background behind the incident.  On and off now for over 40 years I've wondered about the acid attack, but the weird thing is, I never asked either my mother or father about it.  Nor did I ask my aunt or uncle.  It's not like it's any taboo subject or family secret (I don't think), but I just never brought it up.  Neither did anyone else, at least not in my presence. Now after all this time, my aunt and uncle are dead, as is my mother.  The two male kids of my aunt and uncle died (too young), so that leaves my father to ask or my one remaining cousin from that family.  She, my cousin, would probably be the best person to probe for information. I guess I could say I'm curious about what happened to her mother that afternoon, and why it happened, and that I've been curious for over 40 years.  It'll sound slightly ridiculous to bring it up now, but it's either ask sometime soon or never find out.  And I'd hate not to find out.  I have no plans to do anything with the story, but four and a half decades is long enough to be wondering about what then seemed an inexplicable act.  I just hope my cousin remembers it and doesn't object to talking about it.  What's an incomplete narrative to me, ever irritating because I want the gaps filled, may be something she mentally buried and prefers to keep buried.

Only one way to find out.


David Nemeth said...

My family lived in two different places where axe murders took place down the street from our house. I'm not asking any questions though.

scott adlerberg said...

In that case, David, I can't blame you.