Break Through

One Friday I came home to a locked door and my living room lights on, their grubby yellowness peeking out from the blinds the same way I did when there was a noise outside like a car screech. I didn’t leave the lights on. I never left them on. I confirmed this when I found a man at my desk.

“One second,” he said.

He pulled out a watch, examined it, his face grimacing at the sight of cheap plastic and a small gray box below the 9 and 3 which printed digital numbers. He slapped it to his wrist.

“So,” he said, coming around to me. “You’re home.”

“I’m home,” I said weakly.

“You’re going to want to stand back,” he said. “Or I’ll kill you. Take off your blazer." I did. "Give me your phone." I did. "Sit on the couch." He didn’t have a gun or a knife. No sadistic Richard Nixon mask. Just a gray hoodie and red gym shorts, and a young face, much younger than me, with a high hairline indicating a future war of attrition with hair loss. This shouldn’t matter but he was white.

His threat to kill me still stinking the air, I tried to imagine how he was planning on doing it if I resisted. The only ways I could conceive was his wrestling me, overpowering me, and choking me to death, or by taking some object from the room, probably not a heavy book, probably a pan, or the glass owl decoration on the shelf, and bashing me repeatedly over the head.

That was generally how I pictured myself dying, anyway. Not literally, but in gist. A stranger. An unsuspecting location. Me, tired from a long day, without professional self-defense training or a weapon. Almost wanting it.

I was one of those people clenching their fists when cars drove by, imagining a window rolling down, a pistol opening fire. I was one of those people sitting in a movie theater wondering about the ill-looking group behind, occasionally snaking up their hands to protect a throat from razors in the dark.

It wasn't that I lived in a trash neighborhood. This was the Energy Corridor, a street that contained two types of buildings: business centers for-rent and remodeled apartments. Everything else was grass and acacia trees and gray streets and walkways propagated by young people in Van Heusen collared shirts and faux-silk ties, either harmless, handsome yuppy couples or business associates, all chatting about daily mundane excitements: the health benefits of rambutan, that new cinema slash brewery on Romero, DIY parenting advice, a resurgent interest in yerba matte. They were clean and fresh, energetic, trimmed, as happily socialized as dogs at the park, the kind of people who might be an associate manager's junior cashier and exude success.

I don't know why I feared them. I think it was their agency, something that had wilted in me. Every day I would look in the mirror and see my stomach bulging a little further, see the stretch marks on my waist and shoulders like scars from an encounter with a tiger. I was alone in the apartment with no girlfriend and no friends and two cats and a job I moved here for and no longer wanted. My face was moving, too, distorting into something like my Dad's, something like an actor given makeup and prosthetics to make him look older.

I didn't like to talk to people. I was very conscious of the yellowing of my teeth (I couldn't afford dental and I drank way too much coffee). I kept my mouth as small as possible when I spoke. I never liked to expose my teeth anyway because one tooth had twisted in my youth as if someone hadn't screwed it in completely. Zombie teeth, I thought, when I examined them in the mirror. They looked like the teeth of the Walking Dead. My parents had asked me when I was eleven if I wanted to get braces. Nope, and that'd been it. They'd never tried again. Probably saw it as a gain. Braces wouldn't be another drain on the vacation budget.

I'd been more confident in my college years. That might be the worst of it – remembering this younger version of myself with social skills, friends, women, hair. My memories of good times had soured knowing that their participants (except for me) had extended their pleasures to the present. I knew they had, too – those successful people of my past. I no longer spoke to them but I watched them on social media. This one, a board game developer. This one, the Senior Analyst at Hexion. This one, researching the neolithic on an island in Greece.

This one, a middling middle school teacher trying to ignore his chins in the reflection of the television screen, who sometimes imagined men in gorilla masks sneaking up his stairs, knives-in-hands, or knives-for-hands.

Coming back to the robbery, the stranger at my desk, smiling now that he'd found my box of watches, was busy unstrapping them and putting them on his wrist, including my Bulova Silver-Tone, a gift from my Dad, expensive and impersonal. Dad hadn’t even engraved his name on it. No For my Son, no Love Always, Your Father.

"Relax," said the man. "We're robbing your house."

We? I scanned the room and noticed the glass clippings by the blinds. He, or They, had invaded my home in the middle of the afternoon, invaded through a sliding door that faced the street and was protected by a wall of spears. The "We" was confirmed when a woman walked in carrying a metal-cast tree with necklaces hanging from its branches. She was like him – attractive, but fading. Joggers, sneakers. A bad hair day avoided by a bun. "What do you think about this on the nightstand?" she said, indicating the metal tree. She saw me, glanced at her man, looked back at me. "You have a lot of your ex's stuff, don't you?" She shook the tree, the jewelry clinking like chain-mail and wrapping into little Gordian knots.

"How did you know it was my ex's?" I asked.

"Your clothes. Men's clothes. And you don't seem the type to own Java Tree throw pillows."

"That's sexist," said the man at my desk. "I picked out our pillows from that guy's house."

"The Mona Lisa ones? With Nicholas Cage's face?"

He pretended to be hurt. "You don't like them?"

I wondered if I laughed, if it'd be a sort of squealing noise, and they'd look at me as if I was a lunatic, and not a prisoner in my own home. I also wondered if they would stop me if I ran, or if they'd watch with mild interest and turn back to light banter and looting. But a strange, unfamiliar voice was tickling my brain meat with whispers of wait. Not wait for the right moment to fly. Not wait for the right moment to fight. Just wait. And also See where this goes.

At that moment, my cat, ever the ambassador, trickled out of the bedroom and rubbed against the woman's legs.

"Oh, hello!" She stooped down to pet his face. "This one's friendly. What's his name?"

"Remington."

"You named your cat after a gun," said the man. He was rifling through my work satchel, apparently not interested in my lesson plans or a reading assignment I had to grade.

"The other one's Jenny," I said. "She's probably hiding in the closet."

"That's a boring name when you have a cat named Remington."

"It's short for Genocide."

"I didn't come up with it," I added. "My ex did. I coaxed her into keeping them by letting her name one."

The woman picked Remy up, and I had a fleeting fear they were probably going to steal him, too. He was a proud cat, with a silver coat and light white stripes. "Who wouldn't want this handsome guy? Look at his fur. It's like soft steel."

"They were stray kittens and they were malnourished and dirty,” I said, launching into an anecdote so well-worn it was ripping at the knees. But the couple paused. I felt their eyes reassessing me, transferring me from some mental category, something like Victim, or Coward, or Burglee, to somewhere else. "They were living on one of my neighbor's porches. But then my landlord called animal control and they started rounding up all the feral cats and taking them to the shelter, so I took them in. We had some battles with fleas, with little rice-like wormy things that fell out of their butts, with each other. Especially with each other."

"Actually," I said, "you're too late. My ex already robbed the place."

The woman gave the man a certain look.

"Well," said the man, my laptop under his arm. "We have some integrity."

They left the cats.

We talked some more, and soon my guests gathered my most expensive belongings into a central pile and sifted through them like when something valuable falls in the garbage and you have to move aside paper plates and orange peels to find it. Judging by their faces, they didn't find what they were looking for.

“We’ll make do,” she said.

The pile was packed into a few of my suitcases, and they left with all the urgency and familiarity of old friends heading to the airport. "See you around," said the man. I crept out to the porch and watched them roll down the sidewalk to a dirty Camry. Strangely, I felt no urge to shout or rush to a phone. When they were gone, I closed the door and was about to turn a series of locks into place when I thought of this threshold between the in and the out. On my side glacial curtains, sanitized air, foamy cream walls reflecting banana yellow light, clean but fraying carpets. On the other, open space, stinging floral winds, rain-slick bushes reflecting sunlight, a utopia of brick veneer surrounded by vegetation and cement.

A box for one, and a sandbox for all the rest.

I left the door – unlocked.