Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The first time they came

The first time they came, I was not at home. There was a sign that they were coming but I did not realize it at the time.

A friend had come over with her young daughter who wanted to see the strange-looking lizards that lived in my backyard. They were a scary-looking species and I remained afraid of them even while knowing that they were even more deathly afraid of me. After all, I was human and naturally capable of cruelty.

So we
went outside, and there behind the back door was a pair of dirty white sneakers I had never seen them before. They were placed neatly side-by-side next to the door, as if the owner lived inside with me. I wondered briefly if they belonged to a male friend who had recently moved to the US. But his feet were large, over-sized really. Perhaps they belonged to one of the gardeners who came to cut the grass, I thought idly.

It was already twilight and the lizards had gone to bed so we went back indoors, closing the door behind us but not fully locking it. When I went to lock up properly later, I glanced outside. The shoes were gone.

I should have known. I should have put it together. But I did not.

They came back several days later. They cut a neat square into the wooden back door. I wondered afterward why no one had heard the sound of sawing wood. I marveled at their ability to do such neat work in the pitch dark. Having carved out the
wood, neatly, they must have then discovered the burglar bars inside. I had gone to a lot of trouble to persuade my landlady to install those burglar bars. She had laughed sarcastically, stating that nothing had ever happened there and why was I being so paranoid? I insisted, pointing to the high crime rates on the island. She relented. They were made of reinforced steel. They could not be sawed through.

So the bandits then went around to the front of the apartment and broke down the door. They completely ransacked the place. They turned it upside
down. The police said afterward that it seemed as they were looking for something. I didn’t understand what I owned that could have invited such a thorough search. I was not a drug user. I am allergic to gold.

But it didn’t take me long to figure out. It was the single US dollar of top of the bedroom TV. It was the last dollar remaining from a trip I had made to the US Open several months earlier. It was a joke, testimony to what a wonderfully expensive time I had had at Flushing Meadows that I had come back empty-pocketed, except for a single dollar. I jokingly cal
led it my tennis dollar, a reminder of an exciting trip, proof that my love of this sport has always come at a cost, which, when I can afford it, I am happy to pay.

And on that island where I lived for a while and which I will never even visit again, knock wood, fingers crossed, God please – on that island the US dollar used to be king. The dollar ain’t worth shit anywhere now but back then it had served as a distraction. A single US dollar on top of my bedroom TV had turned the bandits into a frenzy of searchers. They must have thought I had more. They turned over every inch of the apartment. They flipped the mattresses and left the freezer door wide open. My clothing was scattered on the floor, all drawers emptied, make-up strewn.

In the end they took just a few items including an unopened bottle of Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds perfume, and of course, my single US dollar. I figured that one of the bandits must have been thinking of Valentine’s Day, which was a few short weeks away. Imagine that, I thought, a bandit who, in the middle of his frenzied search of my apartment had stopped to think of his sweetie as he plopped my unopened bottle of perfume into his bag. I didn’t really like the perfume anyway. That’s why the bottle was still unopened. It had been a gift. I had always suspected that I had been re-gifted.

But I am forever grateful to that US dollar and the greed it had inspired. A greed that left a team of bandits oblivious to the other valuable items in my apartment as they searched desperately for more money. And the truth is that I had none. I was still recove
ring from my expensive trip to the US Open.

Friends helped me to clean up. I considered moving. My landlady changed both doors, back and front, and installed more burglar bars. Like the rest of the island, I now lived in a cage. And after a while I started to feel safer. I stopped double and triple-checking my locks. I started sleeping with the lights off.

My friend and her daughter came back during the day to watch the scary-looking lizards. The truth is that they were gentle creatures, their brown and black ugliness a camouflage that allowed them to blend into the color of the mottled stone walls to which they clung. I regret not having taken their pictures before I fled the island, after the second time they came, and I got a firsthand lesson in trauma.
(Part 1 of 2)

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