Moira’s boyfriend Jake had a discomforting habit of looking over people’s heads. It wasn’t completely his fault. He was freakishly tall, after all. He couldn’t be expected to look down all the time. But still, you had to imagine that he knew exactly how small he could make a body feel and just didn’t care enough to do any different.
The two of them lived together in a walk-up on Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg. He taught public high school biology while she served lattes to fellow gentrifiers at a place called Turn & Coffee on South Fourth. This was back during that odd year when no one was completely sure if we’d folded into the next millennium yet or not, and there was the sense among the first wavers of a new swell of yuppies building up behind them, preparing to break hard on the far shores of Flushing Avenue.
Weekdays, they woke at 6 and ate breakfast together. Then Jake left for work and Moira went back to bed for another hour, leaving her just enough time to go slowly on a secret cigarette down to South Fourth, arriving within a few minutes of her start time at 8. One morning that fall, Moira was lying on the cusp of falling back to sleep when she was roused by a knock at the apartment door. Jake? Maybe he’d forgotten his keys. She rolled out of bed and was staggering through the front room when she heard a man’s voice from the hallway.
“Diane?” said the voice. “Are you there?”
The comfortable sleepy fog dropped right out of Moira’s toes and she froze right where she stood. She wasn’t Diane. She shook her head no. The only Diane she knew of was the name on their mailbox in the lobby, a long-departed former resident. Ergo, she didn’t know the man at the door. Ergo part two, she needed to tread very carefully.
“Diane, baby, I can hear you in there,” said the voice at the door. “Just come to the door and talk a minute.”
But Moira was not Diane. Any friend of Diane’s would know she didn’t live there anymore. Two words flashed across the backs of Moira’s eyes: home invasion. And with them, a feeling like zooming out very quickly, her mind’s camera going from her own eye level to an almost weather satellite view-type of the city and its, what, eight million people, buzzing around and bumping into and sometimes hurting each other.
She felt her body swimming in the volume of an empty apartment. She stepped backwards towards the kitchen as carefully as she could, nearly falling over the kitchen counter, thinking to herself at the same time the words kitchenette, which was comforting, and steak knife, which was not. Then backwards into the bedroom, backwards until she reached the bed, carefully pulling back the blankets and slipping beneath them. As quietly as possible, she lifted the phone from its cradle on the bedside table and dialed the high school.
“Is this an emergency?” asked the receptionist. More knocking. Of course it was. Moira listened while the receptionist called Jake over the intercom, and a minute later, he was on the line.
She pushed it all out on one whispered breath. “Jake there’s a guy here who’s knocking on the door and asking for a Diane and I don’t know any Diane what should I do?”
“Wait, wait,” said Jake. “Slow down. Someone’s trying to break in?”
She covered the outside of her mouth with one hand and recapped the last few minutes, beginning with lying comfortably under warm blankets and ending as the receptionist answered her call.
There was a pause, and she imagined him holding the phone to his chest and shaking his head at the wall. “Well don’t let him in! Is the door locked? He’s probably a debt collector or something. Just ignore him and he’ll go away.”
The knocking continued in bursts this whole time.
“Moira? I just started prepping my classroom. Are you – ”
She hung up. Asshole.
Whatever happened to better safe than sorry? It wasn’t like she was freaking out over a cockroach or something. Lauren, who served as manager at T&C for all of three weeks before packing it in and moving back to San Francisco, had been pickpocketed by two kids asking for band donations. Girls got followed home on the bus, followed home on foot. There were practically weekly training sessions on what to do if you found some homeless guy beating his meat in the bathroom. So in other words, this was a possible emergency, no matter what Jake said or didn’t say.
Of course she could yell at the man to go away. But that would mean more or less acknowledging that she was home by herself, which she definitely didn’t want, knowledge equaling power and all that.
Instead, she determined to make herself as small and as invisible as possible, taking the phone off the bedside table and holding it under the blankets, which she drew up to her chin as the knocking continued, slowed, and finally stopped. She waited, counting out five silent minutes on the clock facing the bed before poking her way back towards the front of the apartment. The guy, whoever he was, was gone. She peeped through the peephole. Gone.
She was late but not super late for her shift with Shay, short maybe for Shania or Shayla or Shayna. (She’d never said.) Shay was queen of the clarifying question.
“He was asking for Diane?” asked Shay. “But you don’t know a Diane?”
“How bizarre is that?”
Nod. How bizarre.
By dinnertime, Jake had his rationalizations all worked out.
“It’s definitely very odd, unexplained, I’ll give you that,” he said while he stirred chickpea curry in a large pot. “But there has to be a cause and effect here. If, as you say, there was a threatening element to this man, we know that people threaten when they themselves feel threatened. This man clearly feels threatened. What have we done to threaten him, or what other threats is he associating with us and is it in our power to replace that association with something positive?” He left the spoon in the pot and put both hands on her shoulders, “Now babe, I’m certainly not saying you’re the…”
This was pretty much straight out of the Understanding Your Ghetto Students books he kept bringing home from who knew where. Jake was not a worrier, had somehow become even less of one since moving to Williamsburg, which meant that Moira, by default, worried quite a great deal. She worried enough for two people, including two people’s worth of worry about what kind of weirdos were roaming the halls and knocking on strangers’ doors while Jake, protected by his I’m looking just above your head gaze, wandered the world at ease.
“Plus, I’m not entirely convinced that this is a threatening situation,” he said, “and not merely a situation by which you feel threatened.”
But it wasn’t merely an anything situation, because the guy was back at it the next morning.
“Diane!” he called from the hallway. “I’m begging you to open this door! Please open it right now!”
Moira had slept fitfully, was already standing in the doorway to their bedroom watching the front door. She tried to think like Jake and reason her way forward. For all she knew, the mailbox was a coincidence and the right Diane was living two doors down and waiting at that very moment for her husband or whomever to come back and say he was sorry. Wouldn’t she want to know? Because that’s what this seemed to be leading to, an apology. And if the guy only knew he was wasting his time barking up the…
Moira cleared her throat to speak, but he beat her to the punch.
“Hey bitch, open the door! If you don’t open the door I’ll knock it in but you can’t keep me out much longer!” The knob rattled but didn’t turn.
Ah, no. Fuck that. If Diane was out there, she could tackle this one herself.
Moira waited for the police standing against the bedroom wall with just her eyes and the top of her head poking sideways into the doorway like a cartoon snoop, phone pressed to one ear. From outside came an apology, and then another burst of yelling, another apology, and then the creak of boots moving down the hall towards the stairs. By the time her buzzer rang, it was safe to say the man was long gone.
Two officers, Rhonda and Ray, took her statement in the hallway.
“We haven’t heard from anyone else in the building,” said Rhonda, “but my guess is that someone’s got a relative staying with them and that person’s maybe wandering around, a little confused.”
“And you didn’t get a look at the guy?” asked Ray. “Could you, from his voice, get an idea of, ah,” he looked at Rhonda, “some sort of maybe physical description? Generally speaking?”
No, she could not.
“Again?” asked Shay, as she steamed soy. “Can’t you get, like, a restraining order or something?”
A guy waiting for his four-shot latte offered two cents.
“These older junkies,” he said. “They run out of money and then they get the DTs and they can’t think straight, so they go back to their old haunts because they’re confused. They’re scary but harmless. Relics.”
He smiled as he stuffed two bills in the tip jar. Moira and Shay looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
Jake was at school until late for parent-teacher conferences, so Moira met up with a friend from college, Adi, at The Keap Heap, a repurposed warehouse on Keap Street. One of Adi’s old bandmates was performing with his new group.
“But what do you think I should do?” asked Moira during a break between songs.
“Seriously, that’s the question,” said Adi, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag before flipping it around and placing it between Moira’s lips. “What does Mr. Kotter say?”
“Thought so.” He focused his eyes on the cigarette. “There’s a love story going on here, Mo. An ugly one but still. This guy knows he’s gotta do everything he can to win her back.”
“Retch,” said Moira, but smiled as she blew smoke through both nostrils.
Her knees were wobbly and her eyes bloodshot by the time she made it home a little past midnight. She stopped outside the apartment door to collect herself, leaned against the wall and slowly sank to the floor. When her head began to dip to her chest, she got up and crept inside. Jake was long asleep.
The next day and the next day and the day after that were all of one piece. Moira woke with Jake, went back to sleep, and strolled to work, cigarette in hand. The man never came back. Poof, just like that. The days of Moira’s life unspooled and fell away, the present compressing into the past, until she finally departed what she later thought of as her formative years. She left Jake for Adi, left Adi for a linguistic anthropologist, and left the anthropologist for someone very much like Jake, only kinder. She and Kinder Jake had one child, a girl, and moved to Long Island, where she got her real estate license and then opened her own brokerage. Williamsburg became practically shorthand for urban renewal, and she could marvel, walking between meetings, that she had been there at the beginning. Sometimes she detoured along Havemeyer, tracing familiar doorways like hieroglyphics from an almost forgotten era. She would find an excuse to stop in front of her old apartment, fish a cough drop out of her bag, say, and wait until the candy dissolved. Then she would walk back towards the new towers along the water, watching the many foreign faces passing by, waiting for someone to light up in recognition.
Jeff Bakkensen lives in New York with his wife and, someday, a dog.