She had been saving for years. It was her dream vacation and her excitement at being in Scotland was only slightly exceeded by all the anticipation. She went alone, but told herself she preferred it that way – more freedom to come and go as she pleased. She didn’t meet anyone – the other guests at the hostels were much younger than she, and mostly trying to drink as much as possible and have sex with each other – but she spent the two weeks revising her fantasy of the rough-edged but gentle Scot who would fall in love with her and carry her away to his ancestral castle.
Two days before she was due to return, she felt an unexpected sinking in her heart. On the plane ride home the feeling spread as a kind of numbness to her chest and arms. At Kennedy, as she jostled with the crowds watching their luggage come out of the wall and grabbing it off of the conveyor belt, she found herself crying. She tried to tell herself she was just tired, jet-lagged, but she knew better. It was a wonderful trip, she insisted firmly, but the wall of damp heat outside the sliding doors of the airport hit her like someone slapping a hysterical woman. Not wonderful enough, said the sticky cab seat. The disconcerting mix of good and bad smells from the city streets added: Not wonderful enough to change you.
The cab pulled up to the door of her apartment building, and the driver announced the fare. For a moment she sat there, unable to lift herself and her luggage out of the back seat. Finally, prompted by annoyed glances from the driver, she dragged herself out, and to the lobby, to the elevator, found her key on the ride up and pushed open the door to her apartment.
There was music playing. Loud, Spanish music that made her start to sway despite her confusion. She looked down and instead of her heather-blue runner saw a brightly colored throw rug, and unfamiliar shoes. She took a step backwards. She must have gotten the wrong apartment. For a full minute she stared at the number on the door. 314. This was her number. Could she have the wrong building? But her key had worked.
She stood perfectly still for several more minutes, while one fast, joyful song finished and another just like it started up. Then, leaving her luggage in the hall, she stepped again into her apartment, through the front hall and into the room that served as her kitchen and living room.
Everything had changed. Her furniture, her decorations were all gone, and in their place were other, brighter and more modern things. The walls, off-white before, had been painted deep reds, blues and greens, a different color for each wall. The kitchen counters were piled with food, much more food than she ever kept in her kitchen and everything, even the bowl of fruit, seemed chosen for its color. She heard voices in her bedroom, but she was not afraid. The energy flowing through her, like the music playing, was quick, ready, powerful. She walked into the bedroom, pushing open the half closed door.
Two dark, laughing people turned towards her in surprise, smiles still frozen on their faces. They were both half dressed, and the man seemed to be in the act of spinning the woman around in a dance. The man yelled something in Spanish, and she turned, not afraid but full of life, joy, purpose. She walked out of the apartment, past her luggage in the hall, and rode the elevator down to the street, to the corner where there was a pay phone. She dialed 911, pushing the buttons almost fondly, and tried to keep her broad smile out of her voice when someone answered.
“Someone has broken into my apartment,” she said confidentially, as if sharing a secret love with a friend, “Actually, they’re still there.”
Several hours later she stood again in her apartment, this time with a detective. They had tracked down her landlord, who verified her identity, and the two dancing people were at the police station being questioned. She was showing the detective photos of her apartment, taken a few months ago to send to her mother in Maine.
You say you’ve been gone two weeks?” he was saying, looking at the pictures and then the apartment over and over. “They must have moved in right away. God knows how they got a key – the lock’s not broken. Maybe you forgot to lock it, or maybe they know a locksmith who could have made one. They seem to be crazy: So far we haven’t gotten a straight story out of them, but it doesn’t seem like they’re homeless. They must have spent thousands of dollars to redecorate. Your old stuff is probably long gone. You can sue them for damages, but who knows if they have money to pay you or not. Or you could sell this stuff, it isn’t junk, it’s probably worth a lot. Are you okay? This has to be unsettling.”
She shook her head, meaning neither yes nor no, meaning that, actually, she was fine, everything was fine for the first time in a long time. Her apartment, her life, had been baptized with music, color, sex. As the detective went on talking she ran her fingers over a thick oil painting on the wall. She would not redecorate.