I wake to the sound of something falling.
In my apartment, this is not unusual. I have a cat–a kitten, really. She knocks things over all the time. She isn’t at the foot of my bed, so I grope for my glasses, get up, and go into the bathroom to see what it is this time.
I flip on the light and look around, confused. There’s nothing on the floor. Then comes another noise like the first. It’s coming from behind me in the kitchen. It’s coming from my front door. It’s coming from a key inserted in the lock and turned.
I live alone, and the key is not mine.
For a minute, I doubt my instincts. Surely, I think, the noise is from across the hall. it’s the neighbor getting in. But the neighbors moved out a week ago. A construction crew descended upon their apartment, blasted out every tile in the kitchen floor, and kept me awake for a night and a half. Now I have no neighbors.
I flip the bathroom switch again and ease my way to the front door. I do not turn on the light. Shaking, I stand on the other side–so close to a person I do not know–and, with my index finger, open the catch to the peep hole. I look through.
There is a man on the other side of the door. I can hear his coughs and grunts, animal noises, so close that the door feels porous. He’s pale, an inch or so taller than the peep hole, with greying hair cropped short on the sides. Maybe it’s the fish-eye effect, but his nose is beakish and his eyes squinted. His key doesn’t turn, so he removes it from the lock. His forehead wrinkles in concentration as he peers down at an entire ring of keys–many more than average. He chooses a new one. He will try again.
The next key enters the lock. My breath catches. My hands sweat. Because it’s the only thing I can think to do, I grab the bolt with my left hand to keep it from turning if the key fits.
It doesn’t. Through the peep hole, his frown deepens. Back to the ring. Next key.
My hand starts to sweat. If the key fits, will I be able to keep the bolt from turning? Will my fingers slip? Will my small, desperate force win out against cold, mechanical steel? No.
The door, which has always seemed solid, turns to cheesecloth–an inch of wood between me and the stranger. I can see him–can almost touch him–from the other side. Surely he can hear me breathe. Surely he can hear my heart pound like a caged animal’s. Surely he knows that I am trapped, frozen, inches away.
My ferocity is gone. The fury I feel when I confront cat-callers on the street, the savagery that bubbles to the surface when I’m faced with an assailant, has deserted me. I am not fierce. I am small. I am terrified. I am vulnerable. I am in tears.
He tries another key.
Adrenaline courses through me. I unstick my thumb and forefinger from the bolt. I close the peep hole. I retreat into my bedroom, close the door, and call the police.
It’s the first time I’ve ever dialed 9-1-1.
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
I do not have an emergency. If the key fits, it will be an emergency. But he’s still outside trying key after key. He’s been there for 15 minutes.
“A man I don’t know is trying to get into my apartment.”
“Can you describe him? Where are you located? What phone number are you calling from?”
I give her the information. She assures me that officers are on their way. I thank her and hang up.
From the kitchen, the scratching continues. Next key. Immobilized, I crouch by the fire escape (a quick exit if he gets inside) and call my dad. I’m a five-year-old child afraid of the monster under the bed. This is more than I can handle. Every minute that passes is torture. The man is patient. He has a ring of keys and all the time he needs.
By the time the police arrive, the man is gone. I buzz them into the building and they do a search but cannot find him.
“He was definitely drunk,” one of the officers says. I’m standing in the doorway talking to them. In one hand I clutch my phone, and with the other clutch an enormous cardigan around me. It’s long enough to disguise the fact that I have forgotten to put on pants.
Maybe he was drunk. Maybe, as the officers leave, they chuckle at the petty fears of a terrified girl. I don’t mind. I would rather have them present and laughing than absent.
Because, if the key fits, the lock means nothing.