Break and Enter
Technically it wasn't a break-in because I still had the key she gave me. There was no breaking involved, and since she never took the key back or changed the lock, there was an implicit invitation to enter anytime I wanted. It's true we hadn't spoken in months, but in my defense, I had no intention of going inside without her. I thought, if she's home, she'll either slam the door on my face or invite me in to talk about what happened. If she's not home, I'll just leave the blueberry pie and the note on her doormat and call it a night.
So with a pounding heart and a pie in my hands, I stood at the end of a narrow hallway, staring at the brass knocker on her door. Her name is Eliza. Among the many things I learned about Eliza, in the two months we dated, was her love of blueberry pie. She also loved Ray LaMontagne, Cuba, salsa dancing, yoga, meditation, architecture, and her daily Zumba class. The pie was meant to show her that I had been listening to her, that I still cared for her (to borrow LaMontagne's lyric), and that I wanted a second chance. I knocked.
Nothing. Now I suppose on some level I knew she wouldn't be home. It was Thursday, and every Thursday after Zumba she went to her parents' place for dinner. At that moment she was probably chatting with them about architecture (both were architects) and dining on some healthy post-workout meal like arugula and pear salad with walnuts and a light balsamic. Perhaps if I hadn't cut off our relationship, I'd be there with her right now. But then again, it had been more than three months since I'd last seen her. Routines change.
I knocked again. No answer.
I discovered that I was relieved she wasn't home. There would be no angry slamming of doors, no brutal rejection. I began to put the pie on the ground when, suddenly, a flash of yellow fur descended on the box. A dog. I pulled the box out of its reach. A golden lab sat at my feet, its eyes on the pie, nose twitching.
"Rocky, come here!" an elderly woman across the hall called. A memory returned: Eliza and I wrapping up our third date, our bodies buzzing with wine, and this neighbor was letting Rocky out. I remembered this old woman's glasses and how they magnified her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said, searching my face with those big eyes. "Did he scratch you?"
"No, no, I'm fine," I said. My heart pounded. I felt like she'd caught me in the act of something sinister.
"He won't bite," she said. "Though he may eat your pie if you're not careful. I usually leave him out in the hallway while I vacuum."
"No problem. How long does it take to vacuum?"
"About fifteen minutes," she said. "Maybe twenty. Rocky sheds like you wouldn't believe. And he hates the vacuum."
I realized then that I didn't want to come back in fifteen minutes, because Eliza might be home then, and I was too afraid to confront her. And that's when I remembered the key. My fingers reached into my pocket and fingered its sharp notches. As if I'd done it a thousand times, I pulled out the key and put it into her lock. "Have a good night," I said, and went inside.
"Tell Eliza I said hi," I heard her say as I closed the door behind me.
It was a mistake. I felt that in my core. I stood there in Eliza's kitchen, looking around, too afraid to move. The apartment hadn't changed since the night I broke things off. That night, we sat on her sofa and I told her I wasn't ready to be in a relationship, which was only partly true. The rest of the truth was: I knew I was falling in love with her, and I was certain a smart, kind, beautiful woman like her would break my heart. "Well, we can just be friends and take things slow," she said, her green eyes searching me for the reason behind my actions. "We have a real connection. Why would you do this?" At the time, I told myself she wasn't really sad, just disappointed that I wouldn't keep her company until someone better came along. "I just can't," I'd said. "I'm sorry." I hugged her and left. I didn't even cry. I felt like I'd done a good job of protecting myself. The tears came later, in my therapist's office, when I realized I was wrong.
So there I was, standing in her kitchen with a blueberry pie. Across the hall, the neighbor's vacuum hummed. Given the circumstances, I should have left the key and the pie on the kitchen table and walked out. Had I left then, I could have explained to her later that I didn't mean to enter her place, but the dog would've eaten her pie. But I didn't. Instead, I put the pie on the kitchen table, opened the door and depressed the lock button on the knob, and began my exit, but right before I closed the door, I stopped. If she was following her workout routine—and she probably was—I had at least an hour until she made it home. I was already there. And her stuff—not the buried stuff, but the stuff just laying around—could tell me something about her life. So why not take a quick look around? Just a glance, nothing more. Sixty seconds, tops.
I let the door close and lock me inside. Passing through the kitchen to the living room, I noticed, on the coffee table, an anthology of Latin American poetry. On our first date at this apartment, we sat on that sofa and she read aloud to me. I don't speak Spanish, but I wanted to see if I could glean the emotional content, maybe catch a glimpse of the beauty she saw. I couldn't. But she told me it was about stars, and there were other meanings that would be lost in translation, and wouldn't it be lovely if we could travel to Cuba together?
"That would be great," I'd said, thinking: She's going to leave me for some handsome Cuban. Now, before you think I'm being unreasonable, consider two things she said that made her breaking up with me seem inevitable. One: "I've been the one to end every relationship I've been in." Two: "You're the first white guy I've dated since college." If that's the case, then maybe she doesn't really like white guys, and if that's the case, what is she doing with an Irish-American ginger like me? The whole thing made no sense. Even as she had heaped praise on me—about how she found me handsome, hard-working, and kind—I couldn't see why she wanted me.
I entered her bedroom. Her pillows were scattered on the hardwood floor and her blanket hung crookedly over the mattress. Beside her bed was her diary. I knew it would be; I'd seen it there the night we lay in bed, curled up together, fully clothed, talking and kissing until I had to catch the bus home. I stood there, looking at her diary, a little book with "I avoid clichés like the plague" on the cover, and I hoped that something else about the room would tell me about what her life was like now, because I didn't want to open it. It felt wrong, whereas everything until that moment—yes, even walking around her apartment—felt like an accident.
I was walking back into the living room when the vacuum stopped and I heard the sound of a key in the door. I froze. For a moment, I simply couldn't believe it. But I knew the sound of her keys. Eliza was home.
I thought I should shout hello, so she wouldn't be frightened at the sight of a man in her apartment. But for some reason, I decided not to—though to say I was making any "decisions" in those panicked moments would be a stretch—and as the door swung open, I backpedaled into her bedroom, dropped to my belly, shimmied under her bed and covered my hiding spot with the blanket.
As soon as I did it, I wished I hadn't. My heart was pounding so loudly I was sure she could hear it. I breathed deeply, inhaled dust, and then stifled a cough. She dropped her keys on the table, next to the pie. Then I heard the soft shuffle of cardboard as she opened the box.
There was a long pause. And then my cell phone vibrated.
"You came into my apartment," Eliza's text message read. She was not angry, not yet. She was putting the fact between us to see how I'd handle it.
"I'm sorry," I wrote back. "I wanted to leave the pie on the doorstep, but there was a dog in the hallway."
"I must have just missed you. The dog is still out there," she texted. Her footsteps grew louder until they stopped next to the bed. I imagined her looking around the room, scanning for moved or missing items. I was thinking of a reply when I heard her say aloud: "Hey, you're not going to believe this. Mike came into my apartment when I was out and left a pie in my kitchen."
The lamp on the nightstand clicked on. The bed creaked under her weight. "Yeah, I know," she said. "Yeah, totally. I'm a little freaked out. Not a word for three months and then, surprise! Here's a pie."
My heart began to pound. I began imagining alternate universes in which I was not hiding under her bed. In one, I shortened my shower by a few minutes, dressed myself a bit faster, and took an earlier bus. In another, I took a later bus and arrived after she returned home. Shoulda coulda woulda, said the man under the bed.
"Well, I gave him a key, but I never asked for it back," she told someone, probably her best friend, Janie. "He just sent me a text saying that he was going to leave the pie on the floor in the hallway, but there was a dog outside, and the dog would have eaten it. So I guess I shouldn't be so freaked out. But it's strange, you know—" She paused. "Right, I mean, it's creepy. I get home and there's this pie."
"Blueberry. My favorite. And he left me a note. Hold on, let me get it."
The bed exhaled and then she walked to the kitchen. A few moments later, she returned. "Dear Eliza," she read. "Please take this as an apology for what happened between us. I'd like to explain what I did and what's happened since then. What you said to me as I was saying goodbye is true: we do have a connection. I would like to rebuild it. If you don't, I understand, but please know I'm ready if you are."
She paused. "So what do you think?" she asked.
After a long pause, she said, "Let me text him. I'll call you later. Oh, by the way, how are you?" she said. I could hear some distant voice on the phone but couldn't make out the words. "Thank you. I didn't mean to make this call all about me. I just didn't know what to think!" There was a pause. Then some laughter. "I know, right!" And one final laugh. "I'll call you back. Bye. Love you."
She texted me again: "So what happened to you?"
A few responses occurred to me. "I've met with my therapist more often," came to mind, but for obvious reasons I decided not to mention that, even though it was true. My therapist had convinced me that, while Eliza was beautiful and smart and an all-around great catch, she had chosen me, a young, gainfully employed, not-half-bad-looking single guy who was unable to see the good in himself. So I settled on this reply: "Would you meet me at El Cerro Grande tonight?"
The wooden bed frame creaked as she rose again. I moved the blanket aside and saw her standing beside the kitchen table. Her brown hair was tied up and she wore a tank-top and running shorts—her Zumba outfit. With a fork she carved out a chunk of pie and then slowly raised it to her mouth. As she chewed, she closed her eyes, as if her response depended on the quality of the pie.
I covered up my hiding spot again and waited.
"I love the pie," she texted.
"I'm already in town, if you'd like to meet now."
Her footsteps shook the floor as she returned to her bed. "I felt so sad when you walked out," she wrote a moment after returning to bed. Now comes the anger.
"I'm sorry," I wrote. "I was so stupid."
"Maybe, but maybe you weren't. I need context." That's Eliza—everything needs context. "I don't know what it's like in your mind."
I was thinking of a reply when she sent another message: "And I want to know. I miss you."
"I miss you too."
"I wish I could see you right now," she wrote.
"Meet me at El Cerro Grande," I wrote. "Or wherever you want. Just name the place and I'll meet you there."
A moment later the answer came. "I'm in no condition to go out. I just finished Zumba and I'm a mess. Come back here. I'll cook something."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"It's an emotional place for me," I lied. In fact, under any other circumstances, I'd have loved to be there.
"I'd rather not go out tonight," said Eliza. "Just know that you can come here anytime."
That was all I needed—solid proof that what my therapist told me was true. Eliza had strong feelings for me. I was good enough. And yes, maybe she would someday break it off with me, but then again, maybe she wouldn't—who can control that? In that moment, I believed my therapist's wise words: Love involves risk, but it's worth it. So I held in my mind all the signs of her affection and replied: "All right. I'm coming." Then I moved the blanket aside and shimmied out from underneath her bed.
When she saw me, a look of disbelief crossed her face. Her green eyes studied me as if I had invaded earth from a distant universe. I opened my mouth to explain—and that's when she screamed.
I began hearing words come out of my mouth, explanations, all of them reasonable, if only she would listen, if only the context were still important to her, but her screams became louder and louder, and she pointed toward the door. "Out, get out! Fucking creep!" But what hurt, what really hurt me, was that she looked at me as if I were there to hurt her, to hurt her again, when all I wanted was the love I nipped in the bud. Her green eyes widened as if she'd just learned something new about me. But everything she was learning was wrong, and I was learning that I didn't know Eliza as well as I had thought.
About the Author
Peter Biello is the organizer of the Burlington Writers Workshop, Vermont's largest and most active public writing workshop. He's the managing editor of "The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop." By day, he works as a producer/announcer at Vermont Public Radio, and work has appeared on PRI's This American Life, NPR's All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Sunday, and bustedhalo.com. He holds a BFA in Creative Writing from U-Maine Farmington and an MFA in Fiction from UNC-Wilmington.