by JANET BRIGNOLA-TAVA
The year was 1978. It was a warm Saturday, and the CYO end of summer dance was tonight. I was hoping my crush of the month would ask me to dance to the song Cherish! I worked in the morning, and took my paycheck to buy a new Betsy Johnson outfit. It was baby blue elephant bells and matching sweater. I was walking up the long hill to Anderson Ave to shop when I saw from the corner of my eye, a blue sedan slowing down, next to the curb I was walking past. I was still thinking about the outfit I was going to buy when the door opened, and I heard a man say, "Hey, girlie, want a ride? This is a steep hill and I can take you anywhere you want to go." I stepped towards the car to see if I knew him. Mistake. I looked in the car. Thirties. He looked like Mr. Anybody. Our eyes locked. I was looking into the total eclipse of the sun. This man could eclipse all the light on earth in one gaze. Unsettling. In my 30 seconds of panic he went in. He leaned over and grabbed my arm and pulled me into the car. He said, "I told you, I can take you anywhere you want to go." For a split second I thought he was going to win, but my family is from Hoboken - west of Willow. The girls wear high heels and lipstick, but they fight like boys...and that is exactly what I did. I pulled. He pulled harder. Then I bit his arm, and when his clutch weakened I ran like hell the half a mile thru a short cut of winding streets not easy for a car to follow. I jumped down the small hill into the woods behind the cul de sac I lived on. I ran up the stairs and turned the key to my house. I hoped to god no one was home. Empty. Thank god. I ran into my room, and pulled the sheets over my head. That started the silence that lasted four decades.
I never made it to the dance that night. I said I was sick. Two weeks later two girls I knew went missing outside my high school. Last seen in a blue sedan. They were found murdered. They were dumped in the woods a few towns north. Raped, beaten, strangled and cut up. A serial killer was on the loose that early fall. The police suspected the first victim was from 1967. It started up again. No killings, and then a few in a row.
Hey, girlie, you want a ride? I can take you anywhere you want to go. It played over and over again in my head. Survivor-guilt kicked in. You live. They die. Everyone was talking about the murders. The coffins were closed at the funerals. Parents were paranoid, in turn, making their kids paranoid. I didn't need any help in that department. I had seen his face, and began the life-long journey to forget it...I never told anyone about my encounter with the killer. I thought if I did he would find me, and do exactly to me what he did to the other girls. As bad luck would have it, my friend's mother was a court reporter during the time of the murders. We were summoned to her house one afternoon to hear the details of the killings. I sat there not moving as she said, "do not take a ride from anyone you do not know. Do not hitch hike. Only get in the car with your fathers and brothers. Do not talk to anyone who is a stranger." Great. Now came the pictures of body parts. It was at that moment that I did not hear another word. Her voice drifted away from my consciousness. My brain just shut off. I am sure I looked normal and sympathetic, but I did not hear one detail of the murders. When my friend's mother was done she gave us desert, and said go out and try not to let it bother you. Yea, right...like that was going to happen. It was only the beginning of learning what to do with all of this. I never slept well for years.
Mr. Anybody hid in every corner of my mind. Behind closed doors, at the top of the stairs, basements, attics, restaurant bathrooms.... anywhere. Everywhere. I now know, at age sixty, I cannot get rid of him. He bought himself an easy chair, and moved into my mind. He made friends with my peaceful thoughts, and became that unwanted guest that never leaves. He only acts up if I allow him to, otherwise he sits in the corner of my mind waiting for the moment to strike.
The killer confessed to 83-100 murders. I guess he lost count. He loved to torture and kill. I cannot believe I had the guts to fight. But I was raised by first generation Italians who knew how to survive. You just had to learn how to fight. I now know the right thing would have been to go to the police or at least my parents. I do not think that staying silent was a conscious decision, but rather the primal need to stay out of harm's way. I am not making excuses for what I did or did not do, rather to make the point that humans have the basic flaw to take care of themselves first.
Some of us go thru life effortlessly. Some of us struggle. I struggled with the guilt of surviving the killing spree. I have made amends for not speaking up at the age of seventeen. I saw his face, and my eyewitness account may have helped solve the case...or more importantly stopped the killings.
There is a movie being made of this monster's life. I will not be watching it. Hey, girlie you want a ride? I can take you anywhere you want to go....
Ghosts haunt. That is what they do - but I have a husband who slays the demons. I have been lucky several times over. Fighting to survive gives you strength you never knew you had. It gives you strength to live your life like you mean it. To be present on this earth for however long that may be.
Janet Brignola-Tava is a PTSD survivor from New York City, having undergone rare challenges few have experienced. She is not simply a writer, but an influential visual artist, having a four-decade career as a decorative fine arts painter. Her adventures in writing emerged with the exploration of a progressive New York writing circle. Janet is very blessed to share her life and career with her husband and fellow artist, Eugene Tava. Together they opened TAVA STUDIOS in 1987 to pursue diverse, unique projects while perfecting their skills in fine and decorative arts. Their proudest joint creation is their beautiful daughter Alexandria Tava who is following in her parents’ footsteps in both art and music.