They say that in times of crisis, you find out what you’re really made of. I prefer not to get in such situations, because I’m a wimp, and I don’t want to have to acknowledge that. It was already hard enough to decide, when I was about 15, that maybe being a spy just wasn't the best career choice for me, because it involved the possibility of getting shot (not to mention being tortured, ewwww). But danger comes out of the blue sometimes.
For instance, in Philadelphia, in 2004, on a cold December Monday, around 11 p.m., I left a friend’s apartment with a Tupperware container full of cookies. She’s from Michigan and had just hosted a fantastic “cookie party,” in which each guest brings their own homemade (or not) cookies, and everyone exchanges delicious treats, thus ensuring a varied and yummy selection of holiday cookies for everyone.
I actually thought about asking for a ride home, because it was late, but I only lived a block away. I have no idea why it even occurred to me to ask for a ride home, but the thought came and was just as quickly dismissed as silly. I lived in Old City, in a cool old apartment building, which, granted, was on a tiny alley-like street, but the area is usually packed at all hours, and my street had two popular bars on it. So, in spite of my initial, and unusual, apprehension, I wasn’t concerned about being alone. I even decided to take a shortcut through an even darker, narrower alley.
And then I did find myself alone. Almost. By myself, on a deserted city street, in the middle of the night, and, just at the mouth of my shortcut, facing a group of four burly, loitering men who stood there leering at me. It was too late to turn away and choose another direction casually, so I, perhaps foolishly, kept walking toward them. As I reached them, instead of moving aside as a group, they stepped apart from each other. I would have to walk right between them.
So what did I do? I walked right up to them – I mean right up – practically leaning against the biggest, closest one, lifted up the Tupperware, peeled off the lid and, in my brightest, most game-show-hostessy voice, said, “Hey guys! Want some cookies?!”
Instantly, those wolves turned into puppies, or little boys, really. Their faces lit up and they crowded around my Tupperware.
Then I pointed to the cookie I had been really looking forward to eating, and said, “Except that one. That one’s mine.” And the one closest to me me a strange and cold look and said, “What do you mean? I can have it, if I want it.” And I knew, as he said that, that my initial fear had not just been paranoid or overreacting, but I looked him right in the eye and said, firmly but sweetly, “No, that one’s mine.” And if it’s possible to back off without moving an inch, he did. He backed off.
They all took a cookie or two, and I put the lid back on, gently pushed my way between them, and turned down that dark alley toward my apartment. As I walked the longest quarter-block I’ve ever walked, one of them shouted, “Hey girl! Come back!” And I lifted my left arm up and waved good-bye without looking back. And walked, one foot steadily in front of the other, until I turned the corner and turned the key in the apartment building door. At which time, I ran down the hallway and pounded the button for the elevator, heart racing.
I was pretty amazed with myself, looking back, and thought the whole thing was pretty funny, as if it had happened to someone else. Never in a million years would I have imagined myself handling a situation like that in such a way. So casually, so confidently.
Which brings us to this afternoon.
In imagining worse-case scenarios, a special talent of mine, I’ve always planned that, if someone broke into my house, I would grab a phone, go upstairs, climb out on the roof, get away and call the police (or just leave by the front door, if that was easier, of course). It’s not inconceivable, and if it gets down to semantics, I prefer the word concern over paranoia. Someone was shot near my house not too long ago, and the shooter did get away for a little while (fortunately I have friends who are also good at being concerned, and one called me to warn me that I should lock the house down).
So just now, sitting at my computer, with my husband having left for work twenty minutes earlier, I heard a door open, creeeeeeeak, and then shut. I knew instantly it was not one of the cats making trouble; that was a sound only a human could make.
My blood ran cold. Quietly, I stood up, pulled the curtains aside, and looked out the window to see if my husband’s car was in the driveway (conceivably he could have forgotten something, although he always says “Honey, it’s me,” as he comes in, or calls beforehand to let me know he's coming back). But the car wasn’t there. And that sounded like the front door, anyway, on the other side of the house.
So, with a cell phone and the house phone sitting right in front of me on the desk, do you think I even tried to call 911? NO. Do you think I ran up the stairs, which are right in the office, to climb out on the roof? NO. Do you think I even tried to open one of the windows, to escape? Pshaw.
Without calling the police or taking any other safety precautions, I grabbed up the closest weapon – a pair of scissors, of course, this being my studio and all – and, anger flooding in to replace fear – started to stalk out of the room to find out who the hell thought they could just saunter into MY house without permission. I, after all, had things to do this afternoon, and I intended to deal with this intruder straightaway.
I always thought I would be a coward in such a situation. I suppose it’s reassuring to know that I’m not actually a coward, terrified as I might have been. But, perhaps more alarmingly, I am clearly lacking any sort of sense of self-preservation, which is maybe even just a little bit scarier than the idea of someone breaking in.
Fortunately, for my husband’s sake, he called, "Alison?" just as I lifted the scissors up and prepared to enter the next room.
Yep. He forgot his ID card.