Breaking and Entering
I woke up to a man standing in my kitchen and I never could have expected what he did next.
Nothing in the apartment looks out of place as I scan my living room in the grey morning light, bleary-eyed and hungover from the night before. From the couch where I lay, I can see that the TV is still on, as is my party dress. The mascara I carefully applied just 12 hours earlier has migrated into the crevices of my eyes, causing them to burn as I try to make out the time on the cable box. It’s 5AM on Saturday and already hot in the modest third floor apartment where I live with my friend Nisma.
We didn’t bother getting AC when we moved in, because we thought the and large open windows in every room would produce enough airflow to keep it cool. They don’t. And my parents hate that we keep them open, because they think any open passage is an invitation for strangers to break in, a concern I brush off because they’ve never lived in the city and don’t know any better. “We’re on the third floor, how could anyone get to us?” I ask with a rhetorical innocence that only the genuinely naive can achieve. For, as my parents know, I have never lived in the city either and cannot honestly answer my own question.
What I am about to discover is that the answer is standing right before me.
My head is pounding as I sit up and reach for my phone on the coffee table next to the nightcap I poured last night and never drank. It’s a Disaronno on the rocks, a drink I consume regularly, because as a working professional I have come to understand that dark liquor on ice is a sign of sophistication. Yet being only three weeks a working professional I am too naive to know that the kind of alcohol matters, and I picked the wrong one.
Why did I have that last drink at the party? I hope I didn’t say anything stupid. It was an elegant, exclusive little fete at the house of the Improper Bostonian magazine founder, I only got in because my cooler and impeccably behaved boss brought me as her guest. I check to see if she texted just in case I have something to apologize for. She hasn’t, which I take to mean that I’d managed to hold my liquor long enough to leave without incident.
Another person who hasn’t texted is the model I chatted with for most of the night. What was his name again? Ralph? Richie? He’d ridden the subway with me all the way back to the North End and walked me to my door, even though he didn’t live anywhere near that part of the city.
What an easy target I must have been, I think, recalling our meeting. There I was: young, a little drunk and a lot out of my element. If my wide-eyed, over eager banter didn’t give me away, my outfit definitely did. It wasn’t so much the clothes themselves but my swagger in them. The cheap fabric and slightly too-tight fit was a blatant advertisement for mass production, making my confidence in them ridiculous.
I didn’t have a prayer against Mr. Perfect who said all the right things and had skin so pristine that it looked like he’d never made a mistake in his entire life. I contemplated inviting him up — obviously — but the pain from my recent breakup was too fresh, so I left him at my front door, frustrated and alone, after a teasing him with a ten-minute make-out session.
I’ll probably never hear from him, but right now I don’t care. All I can think about is my throbbing head and cotton mouth. I stare at the glass of Disaronno, wishing I could turn it into a cold glass of water. Or is it water into wine? It doesn’t matter: I’m no angel today, let alone Jesus, so I give up and look towards the kitchen trying to muster the energy to get up for-
Something isn’t right.
The glass bowl — the one on the little table below the kitchen window, the one that holds those fake yellow lemons I hate — it’s been knocked over. And the lemons, they’re scattered all over the floor.
I don’t remember stumbling last night. Then again, I didn’t intend to sleep on the couch either. Maybe I was drunker than I thought? Thank goodness the bowl didn’t break. Nisma’s mom gave it to us when we moved in, and I think it was expens-
My heart is beating with such alarm that my entire body shakes. Instinctively, my knees bend, slowing drawing my legs up towards my chest as my arms gather them together in a tight embrace. I feel my hands join in solidarity, fingers intertwining to form a feeble lock around my calves. It’s a futile gesture, but my body doesn’t care. It knows the danger before me and has no time to consider that this protective recoil makes me look small and weak, despite the fact it’s intended to defend me.
There is something else out of place in my kitchen.
It’s a subtle misplacement, because technically it’s the type of thing that belongs in every apartment. Only the more I think about it, the more I am certain that this thing in my kitchen, it definitely does not belong there. It’s a terrifying kind of clarity, for I can identify this “thing” in my kitchen as a man, but I cannot not for the life of me determine who this man is.
My apartment is a tiny configuration of squares on the third floor of a five-story brownstone on Prince Street, a half block from Hanover Street in Boston. There’s no elevator in the old building, so Nisma and I have to walk up three flights of narrow, iron stairs to reach it.
There are two other apartments on our floor. To the right of the stairs is Hot Guy’s apartment. He works for some big corporation, Nisma and I decide, because he’s always wearing impeccably tailored suits and expensive-looking shoes. We would ask him about it, along with his name, but the truth is we rarely run into him. Instead, we gather whatever data we can by studying him through the large windows in our kitchen, which, by way of the of the puzzling architecture, provide a perfect view into his living room. We make such a habit of gazing at him — the glow of the television set illuminating the curls of his hair and sharpening his chiseled arms — that he has become our evening show on idle evenings when we’re home drinking Disaronno, because we are too broke to go out.
At the end of the short hallway are the other two apartments: ours and Nice Couple With The Loud Dachshund That Wakes Me Up Every Morning. My bedroom shares a wall with theirs, so I rise every morning to the dog’s pitchy barking and go to sleep to their wild boudoir escapades. What makes it worse is that Nice Couple are not pretty — both overweight, hairy and disheveled — so imagining their greasy, flabby bodies rubbing against each other while the dog yaps is not entertaining. But the most infuriating thing about them is that they’re really nice, so I don’t have the heart for any passive aggressive wall-banging, music-blaring or dirty looks in the hall. Instead, I lean against my doorway and chat with them almost daily about my love life and resent how sweet they are.
The door to our apartment opens into the kitchen. It has been “updated” with cheap white cabinets that hang off the hinges like sagging cheeks held in place by toothpicks, and a pine wood floor. Or at least I think it’s pine — I can’t be sure because it’s drenched in an inch of some clear coating that makes it look more like a caricature of pine wood caked in too much hair gel.
Sometimes I think that the only aspect of the apartment not pretending are the windows, because they actually look as old as they are. Reaching approximately five feet high and made of rusted metal frames and thick glass, they are so heavy that once Nisma and I manage to get them open, we resolve to leave them that way until fall. What we didn’t expect is how the open windows would transform the apartment into a receptacle of sweet and savory aromas from the restaurants and bakeries below. Every morning we wake to the smell of cannoli and fall asleep to the whiff of marinara — an excuse I use to explain why my pants fit tighter than they used to.
My favorite feature of all is the large archway between the kitchen to the living room, because in a way, it’s the only aspect of the apartment that even hints at grandeur. Though it’s mostly a giant letdown, as it leads only to our meager living room, a space so small that what Nisma and I call a “couch” is really a love seat, and it still has a commanding presence in the room. In fact, the apartment itself is so tiny that I can practically be in the living room, both bedrooms and the bathroom at the same time if I sit on the corner of the “couch” and stretch my arms and legs out in the right position.
Normally such a feat amuses me, but on this particular morning it is terrifying, because from where I sit I am a mere eight feet from the stranger in my kitchen.
Though his exact features are hard to make out in the early morning light, I can see that he is wearing a light blue t-shirt and plaid shorts that look like boxers. He is caucasian and shorter than my refrigerator. His hair is light, but I can’t tell exactly what color, and it falls a little longer than his eyes. He looks like he’s just gotten out of bed, which is impossible, since no man lives in the apartment.
I sigh with relief. It’s Nisma’s boyfriend! Well EX-boyfriend now. They broke up for the tenth time this week, and while I’m dreading yet another night of wine-induced ranting about how he never plans anything and I love him, but I don’t know, do I? — right now I am relieved that it is Dillon standing in my kitchen and not an intruder.
What is Dillon doing up at this hour? He and Nisma rarely emerge before Noon and it’s not even 6AM. Also, I thought Nisma said she was going home to see her parents this weekend. She mentioned it before she left for work yesterday morning. I remember because she left with an overnight bag, so she could hop on a bus to Connecticut from her offi-
I turn my head to look behind me into Nisma’s bedroom. Her door is wide open, suggesting, seducing me into a realization I don’t want to admit: she is not here.
I gaze longingly at her bedroom — I can’t look away. I’m trying to stare her into existence. And Dillon, he’s right behind me, standing in front of the refrigerator about to make fun of me for falling asleep on the couch in my party dress. Dream over.
Instead I see clothes covering practically every surface in her bedroom, and I’m certain some of them are mine. This annoys me greatly, because I’ve seen her pass out in bed under a pile of clean and dirty clothes with a midnight snack half-eaten beside her. No matter what she says, I always wash the clothes she borrows whenever she returns them.
Yet today, there are no clothes on her bed. The covers have been stripped back, leaving the tender bottom sheet fully exposed. And there’s something else not there. The most important part of this dumb dream: the crux, the main course the big reveal:
Nisma’s not there either.
And the man, the one in my kitchen, he isn’t Dillon.
The television is shouting at me, promises of a perfect complexion made by B-list celebrities desperately clinging to their final hours in the spotlight, like children extracting every second of play they can from the waning afternoon light. As they yammer on about before and after, flawlessness and impurities, I feel my own skin break out into tiny goosebumps prickling my smooth skin. They crawl up my bare legs, scrambling over my knees to where my black faux taffeta party dress rests on my thighs, wrinkled from the weight of my body pressing up against it all night long. I hear the sound of dry leaves tumbling along the pavement — the rustling of my dress — as I turn, ever so slightly, shifting my weight to face the intruder in my kitchen.
I regret this tiny movement as soon as I make it. For, despite the noise coming from the television, the crackling of my skirt stirs the stranger from his trance and instigates him to take action.
He turns his head.
contemplation in each micro-movement.
I might have missed that he was moving at all,
if every part of me wasn’t fixated,
with every inch of his body.
When our eyes finally meet
he is without expression,
like a scientist,
of me, the subject.
I am a guest in my own home
a character in someone else’s story.
My heart beats furiously,
raging against my chest —
fists pounding against sturdy cage.
Each strike instigating the next.
it cannot escape.
Neither can I.
He does not move.
He does not speak.
We hold each other,
gazes reaching across the empty space
bringing us together.
A thin wire,
threatening to break
any second shattering
a million pieces strewn about the floor
among the lemons.
it’s the only thing keeping me alive
and the clock starts again.
bringing him closer to me.
I want him to leave,
but I don’t want him to move.
As he does,
I too am moved from a trance.
I am startled by his suddenness.
than all his previous movements combined:
his entire body swiveling away from me.
he walks to the door,
he turns the knob,
and pulls it open.
The chain dutifully refusing to budge.
it stops the very thing it’s supposed to keep out
He fumbles the chain.
Awkward like a first date:
Eager lips meet
he tries again.
The chain comes undone
(me still in one piece),
he opens the door
and walks out,
dragging the door behind him.
It’s a courtesy
as absurd as the lock that kept him inside
the safety of my home.
The door doesn’t close. It’s blocked on the chain lock and bounces back open. I’m sitting on the couch, still, knees pressed against my chest, palms sweaty, grasping my legs for dear life. I want to get up, to close the door and lock him out. Light breaks in from the hallway, through the open space he left behind.
I’m shaking from the fear of what could have been. It feels like everything in the world is possible, things I never imagined. To me, now, reality, it means locks don’t work and people get inside. They let themselves in, unwanted. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
I leap from the couch and sprint towards the door, instincts compelling lost mind. The walls shudder as my body forces itself against the hard wood, slamming it shut.
Moments go by, at least I think it’s moments. Maybe it’s only a few seconds. I stay, leaning against the door for support. As my breathing slows, I lift my head and notice the window: screen still lifted, a gaping hole leading into my apartment.
When one door closes, another one opens.
The contents of my purse are sprawled across the kitchen table. I scan to see if anything is missing:
- Bank card
- Keys (which now seem pointless)
Everything is there. Nothing lost. My entire purse — and person — are in tact.
I wonder if I should call the police…
My words are confused and uncertain as I explain why I’m calling. “I’m not sure if this is the right number to call, but I just woke up to find a man inside my apartment,” I tell the 911 operator. “I’m OK, I’m OK,” I add, when I hear her gasp on the other side of the line.
Two men enter my apartment in black uniforms. I tidied up while I waited for them to arrive (my first welcome visitors of the day), so I have to recreate the scene:
“The window, it was open. And the screen, he must have lifted it from outside on the fire escape.”
The men take notes.
“The lemons,” I say, “They were on the floor.”
I point to the fridge. “He stood right there.”
One of the strangers in the black uniform, he looks out the window. “The fire escape, does it lead anywhere?”
“My apartment,” I reply.
He looks at me, expressionless. “No,” I add. “There’s no way to get to the street. He’d have to climb down from the roof and belay off the fire escape above to get here.”
The strangers in the black uniforms, they ask for my phone number and say they will call.
Before they leave, one of them, he turns to me, smiling, “Are you sure you didn’t have a guy over and forget that he was here?”