FRESH FROM a divorce, I am 25 and in my very own first apartment. It is August 1978 and I am sitting up in bed reading -- what else -- Ms. magazine, relishing for once not having someone telling me to turn out the lights and go to sleep.

The apartment, with real wooden floors and thick plaster walls, is on the ground floor of a vintage townhouse. It is quaint, cheap and in one of Washington's better neighborhoods; full of jogging young professionals and blue-haired old ladies with little dogs. I love it.

Safe. Secure. I am snug in my own nest at last.

Suddenly I hear clumsy rumblings on the porch outside my bedroom. "Cats," I think to myself as I flip a page. "Or racoons. Didn't one of my neighbors say raccons roamed around here at night?"

No. No cats or raccoons out there, I realize with a sickening lurch as I hear a man's heavy breathing and soft moans. Terror bursts into a wild shriek in my mind, but I am frozen; silent. As I force myself to slowly step out of bed to phone the police, I hear him cry out in ejaculation.

By the time the police arrive, he is gone.

The next day I phone my ex-husband to borrow our friendly but ominous-looking large dog. I go to the hardware store and buy a dead-bolt for the porch door. Soon the incident recedes to the file labelled "nightmares" in my memory.

Michael's insistence that I return the dog becomes for the moment more threatening than the faceless intruder. When Michael bangs on my door one morning demanding the dog, I surrender her.

August 1979. A year later. A year packed with pitfalls and progress in becoming a grown-up. I can now hail a cab with aplomb. I buy hardback books, cope with auto mechanics and pick up the tab in restaurants.

I also occasionally get depressed, lonely and fraught with what I suspect are endemic anxieties about where my life is going.

But the apartment has become my home, filled with newly acquired, carefully chosen posessions.Many of my neighbors are now good friends, and last summer's moments of terror are forgotten.

They cruelly flash back when one night I am awakened by the strong sense of a strange presence. A hand is slowly pulling the blanket off me.I turn to see a large, dark form crouching next to my bed.A small cry of fear escapes from my throat. Someone, I realize, is going to kill me.

He draws up to his full height -- about six feet -- and says in a low, almost-pleasant voice, "Be quiet. I won't hurt you." Oh god, I think to myself. I picture a physical struggle ending with me getting my throat cut.

Incredibly, I become angry. Here I am coping with all this angst and now I'm going to get raped" I don't need this, I think in a rush of disgust. Afraid to look at him, I stare ahead into the darkness and growl through clenched teeth, "Look would you please get out of here? I want you to leave right now."

"Okay," he says and turns and leaves my bedroom.

I don't believe it. What if he changes his mind? Or helps himself to my television on his way out? Like a small dog who suddenly realizes he has terrorized the mailman, I leap out of bed and run after him shouting "Right now," pointing to the living room door.

I lock the bolt behind him and lean against the door, shaking.

The police arrive. Within a few minutes my apartment is filled with officers and detectives asking questions and taking fingerprints.

Was it the bathroom window? The front door? The back porch again? I don't know. I don't want to think about it. I can't feel that vulnerable now when I need to feel in control of my life. I just want to leave. I go to work.

Despite my morning's bravado, I pack a suitcase and temporarily move in with friends. It is a month before I return to the apartment. Then I have someone stay with me for another month.

I make a few attempts to find another place to live, but as winter comes on, I become cozy and complacent in my apartment once more.

One recent night I brew myself a cup of herbal tea and tuck myself under my quilt, drowsily reading a slow-moving novel. They are almost imperceptible, but my ears pick up the soft sound of footsteps in the grass outside my bedroom window. Once I would have ignored them. Now, sharp as a slap, I am alert. All my senses strain to catch more sounds.

White ruffled curtains cover both my windows. But on the window alongside my bed, there is a small gap between the curtain's edge and the window frame. The gap reveals a sliver of blackness. Through that sliver, the intruder, I know, is watching me.

Every muscle shaking with fear, I go for the phone. As I dial police, I hear the sounds of his sexual release.

"Hey," I say to the officer on the phone, "This is the third time, this has happened. Every time it happens, everyone says how lucky I am. Well, next time I might not be so lucky. Are you waiting for me to get raped or killed? Are you guys putting 2 and 2 together or what?" I shout.

"We'll look into it, hon," the officer says off-handedly. Hon? HON? I stare at the black plastic receiver in my hand. Hon?

I sit up the rest of the night, lights blazing, peering anxiously at crevices of darkness.

The next night, Suzanne, my neighbor, sits on my sofa, chatting. It is late and I am so sleepy I hardly hear what she is saying. But if she leaves, I will be alone and the intruder can get me. I cannot let her leave.

I smile and nod enough to keep her talking, wondering whether he is at the window, lurking, waiting. I think I hear footsteps. I must not let Suzanne suspect anything is wrong. I don't want to scare her. Nervously, I eye the window.

What if it isn't locked? While Suzanne is here, I must check. So scared I can barely walk, I go to the window, lift the blind and scream at -- what I think now was -- my own reflection. I stay at Suzanne's that night and resolve to move.

Soon I will leave the apartment. Until then I keep my curtains and blinds drawn. I think I have sealed every opening through which I can be watched once night forces me to illuminate the place.

Fear propels me out of bed several times before going to sleep to check once more whether I have locked all the windows and bolts. As I go through this ritual I tell myself I'm being too melodramatic about the whole thing. Like some character in a gothic novel, all I need is a candle and a shawl, I think sarcastically.

But during the night, a shutter flapping in the wind or the groaning of the heating pipes are enough to jolt me awake.

I sit up, heart pounding, not daring to look next to the bed. At last I blink in relief at the empty space and drift back to sleep, wondering if I'll ever feel safe at night again.

At 26, I am now a grown-up, I am afraid of the dark.