With freshly tightened braces, I met my father at his law office across from Macy’s for the train back to Long Island. He announced a detour to St. Marks Place. My philandering dad needed an expensive haircut.
In those months before Woodstock, I was a barely pubescent yeshiva girl who longed to drop acid, talk philosophy, and trail Dylan. In other words, the East Village was paradise. As he headed into Paul McGregor’s Haircutter on St. Marks, Dad said he’d need about an hour and a half. I suspected hanky-panky. I was not going to sit and wait. So I headed over to the East Side Book Store, where I was pulling The Plague off a shelf and feeling sophisticated when a long-boned man approached. His black hair fell in waves; his jaw was as angular as a carpenter’s square. “Camus?” he asked.
He introduced himself and suggested a walk on Second Avenue. He was older than my brother, younger than my father. I had time to kill, but he made me nervous. I didn’t know how to break away without exposing my mistrust, which embarrassed me.
Passing Rapoport’s kosher restaurant, this John Berger declared he was one of my tribe, and I chided myself for thinking ill of a fellow Jew. We reached the corner of 6th Street, and he announced, “This is my block,” and surprised me by adding, “I’d love to photograph you.”
I might have been in ninth grade, but that didn’t make me an idiot; I knew about human behavior from reading the Ann Landers column. What’s more, I found myself homely. Flatter me and I knew you were insincere. Sensing this, he clarified that he was interested in contrasting my red hair and the brilliant vermilion snaps of my black slicker against the day’s fog. I painted, so I understood. Still, I hesitated. He suggested the roof of his building instead of indoors, which seemed safe. I could always scream, I thought.
After the rooftop photo session, he started seeming more garden snake than viper. I tentatively followed him into his flat, a studentish mess of props, women’s clothes, and lighting.
“Would you?” He flashed a silk kimono. I laughed. He didn’t push the issue but passed me a packet of photographs. “My work,” he said and then slipped into the nearby bathroom. Listening for suspicious sounds, I put down The Plague and eyed the images in my hand. Unbeknownst to my mom, my father kept the kids’ bathroom stocked with Playboys, but the images this stranger had given me were so pornographic, and I was so naïve, that they took me a few gasps to comprehend.
I sped for the exit. Locked. The bathroom door flung open. His was the first erection I had ever seen, let alone one aimed at me.
“Let me out now!” I shouted, and managed to fumble the door open as he tried to stop me. I skidded down the stairs. Hitting the second landing, I realized I forgot to grab my paperback and, in a moment of epic stupidity, reversed course and pounded on his door. “Book, please!” As I ran away again, Camus in my fist, he pleaded after me. “Just let me masturbate!”
On the train to Baldwin, my dad pretended he hadn’t had a hookup, and I pretended I hadn’t been a fool. At home, Shabbos dinner perfumed the house, the smell of tomato soup and roast chicken like Valium. Minutes before my mother lit the candles, I phoned my brother, in college at Stony Brook. “He was just a pervert,” I explained. To which he answered, “Whatever you do, don’t tell Mom.”
I always wanted to write about what had happened, until I didn’t. Then one day last year, while traveling in New Orleans, I flipped on the hotel television and saw a profoundly familiar face, along with the words “Serial killer Rodney Alcala sentenced to death.” The killer had the same flowing hair I remembered, though it had turned to steel wool. I tried to dismiss what my tangled gut knew.
I Googled till dawn. I read that he had fled from California in 1968 after his first documented crime, the rape and beating of an 8-year–old girl, and surfaced in New York City, taking classes at NYU. He had, chillingly, been a contestant on The Dating Game, which identified him as a photographer. Later, police would indicate that he lured his victims with a camera. Other killers do that, of course—photograph their prey. But then I read something else. The murderer had used the alias Berger. This January, a Manhattan grand jury indicted him on murder charges for two cold-case killings.
Even now, I struggle to understand how I, then a tiny, painfully shy girl, escaped. After my panic at the locked door came indignance that he had fooled me, which must have mustered some fight I didn’t know I had. Had I whimpered instead of demanded, would that have been the end?
The detectives had found a cache of Alcala’s pictures and posted them online, a bid for leads to more missing girls. I searched them hoping to find those he took of me, my hair blazing against the gray sky, as if they would answer the question I can’t make myself stop asking.
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