Mendoza is keeping his distance. He’s still outside a lot. He smiles at me. He watches me. But he doesn’t speak to me. When I have to walk by him on the steps, I pretend he is invisible. If I don’t see him on my way into the apartment, I look for him when I get there.
I have a new coming-home routine. I drop my keys on the stereo speaker--the place we always drop our keys, it’s just a few feet inside the door--then I reach down behind it and grab the knife I keep there. The pointy end sits in the groove, in the left corner. I want to be able to grab it without thinking. I check every room, behind doors, the closets, under the bed. Then I put the knife back and try to study.
Something wakes me up. I look at the clock. Little after midnight. I wait, breathe, try to identify what what I heard. It's hard to hear over the seashell sound in my ears. There’s movement outside my bedroom window. I sit up, then scooch closer to the edge of the bed. I put a foot on the floor, lean over, so I can look behind the curtain without moving it. Mendoza is standing outside my window.
His pants are down around his ankles. His hand is where you would expect it to be. His head is thrown back, eyes closed.
I turn away, roll across the bed, and right onto the floor. On my hands and knees, I crawl out the door, down the hallway, into the living room, and grab the phone. Police. I give my address, mention that detective. Babble about missing underwear. Shake. Cry.
“Do you know who the man is?”
“Yes. It’s my upstairs neighbor, Jose Mendoza.”
“YES. I saw him. It’s HIM.”
Two young-ish cops arrive. I am still shaking and crying, but I am also triumphant. It’s him!! I knew it! I explain the series of events. The cops are attentive. But I’m also slightly afraid that they think I’m nuts. I’m a little, uh, animated.
I lead them into the bedroom, jabbering. “So my boyfriend talked to him and things seemed to calm down a little. I mean, of course, he was still watching me, walking by my kitchen window every five minutes, but he wasn’t speaking to me or trapping me in the laundry room. But then tonight—see look, I’ve been sleeping with a knife in my bed”—I pick up Eric’s pillow, so they can see. “And anyway, tonight, I woke up, and I saw movement there, and I sat up.” I make my way toward the window, to demonstrate. “And I looked behind the curtain, like this, and there he was. And there’s a light back there, so I could see pretty clearly.” Then I draw open the curtain, so they can see where he was standing.
Et voila! There is a splotch of liquid on the window. It is a remarkably telling splotch. A clear point of impact, surrounded by a pool of liquid, with a few smaller splotches alongside. And a thin, helpful rivulet making its way down the window. The tableau practically glows white, the way the light is hitting it.
My mouth drops open.
“Oh my god. That’s what those stains are!” I smite my forehead. “I’ve been seeing those stains for months. I didn’t know what they were. I thought it was bird poop!”
I might just puke. Oh, this sucks. I’m suddenly acutely aware that they’re young guys. Good-looking guys. And suddenly my shorts and tank top seem like way too few clothes. I think they are as surprised as I am, just as uncomfortable as I am. I’m embarrassed of my existence. One of them obviously, desperately, wants to laugh, but he knows he can’t. He simply can’t. The other one is practically straining with the force of the telepathic order he is sending: Do NOT Laugh, Shithead. The would-be laugher keeps it together, but his punishment—he must be the junior partner—is to be sent outside to cut a piece out of the screen. Evidence.
“You can identify the man who did this?”
“Yes. My upstairs neighbor, Jose Mendoza. Can you can arrest him for this?”
“Yes. We’ll go up and get him.”
“He has a wife and three kids.”
The cop, reasonably, shrugs at me. “You’ll be safe here tonight, but he’ll probably bail out tomorrow. And you should call the detective in the morning.”
I sit in the living room and listen to the cops walk up the steps. Pound on the door. Low male voices. A high-pitched female voice, speaking rapid Spanish. I turn off the lamp in the living room and watch as Mendoza is taken out to the police car, hands cuffed behind him. After the car leaves, I turn on the lamp again. I call Sylvie Trucking.
The phone rings very early in the morning, it’s still dark. I reach over and pick it up. I’m sleeping on the couch. I don’t want to be in the bedroom.
“I’m afraid to stay here. It’s not going to stop, Eric.”
“No, it’s not.”
“This is more fucked-up than I realized. I first noticed those stains months ago. This has been going on for a long time.”
“Yeah. He’s probably been outside that window when I’m home, you know. When we’re—”
“Oh, God. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“That’s the first thing I thought of.”
Silence for a moment.
“Eric, he’s going to hurt me. Eventually. Especially now, that I had him arrested. When he gets the chance, he’s going to fuck me up.”
“He’s not going to get the chance, Karen. No way. No way am I going to let that happen. This asshole is not going to fuck up any more of your life. Everything is going to be fine. You’re finally getting out of that stupid job and you’re headed to a real college, where you belong. That hasn’t changed. We’ll come up with a new plan and we’ll get you to DeKalb, in one piece. Swear to God.”
“Okay. I’ll pay my half until the lease is up, but I gotta go somewhere else.”
“I don’t give a shit about that. We’ll walk on the lease or I’ll pay it. I don’t care. I’ll deal with that later. Now, the cops said he’ll be able to bail out today?”
“Probably. I guess, if he has the money. I don’t know. It’s Friday, so I’m heading into the city after work. I’ll work my shifts at Blues, stay with Greg as usual. But the cats can’t go more than two days without me. And I have work on Monday, of course.”
“I’ll get home by Sunday night.”
“Where are you?”
“You have a load coming home?”
“No. They’re loading me now, for Philly. Delivery Monday.”
“I’ll deal with them, Karen. There are other drivers around. I’ll trade for a load closer to home. Or I’ll make arrangements to drop the trailer somewhere, let somebody else grab it, and bobtail it back. Shit, I’ll walk away from the truck and rent a car if I have to. I’ll figure it out.”
It’s about 2 am. We’re down to our last few nights in this apartment. Eric told Sylvie he’s off the road until I’m safely out of here. I haven’t seen Mendoza since they arrested him. Maybe he’s hiding, now that Eric’s here. Maybe his wife threw him out and he’s staying with a friend, somewhere far away.
Today, Eric loaded the last of his small stuff into his station wagon. He drove it to his parents’ house and left it. He said he didn’t want to take the time to even unload it, he wanted to be here before I got home from work. He got into his father’s Rabbit and drove right back. Eric says it’s like driving a matchbox car, after driving a truck most of the time.
He seems sound asleep. I don’t know how he does it. I can’t sleep. Even though he’s here and I feel safe, I’m so stressed. Our plans have been blown up. My stuff and Eric’s furniture is going in storage. I quit my jobs earlier than planned. I’m not even really working at work, just making phone calls and organizing my office so somebody else can do my work. I’m taking my cats to my mom’s in Toledo. Then I don’t know. Stay there, temp for a couple months? Hang out with Eric on the road a bit? Stay with Greg in Hyde Park, see if I can get some of my shifts back at Blues? They’ll help if they can, they know this isn’t my fault. I don’t have an apartment in DeKalb for two months, until mid-August. And I cannot drain my savings. That money is for school, god damn it.
I hear a noise in the living room.
Jesus Christ. Really? I slide out of bed, hit the floor. Come up on my hands and knees. No point in waking Eric until I know if it’s Mendoza or my imagination. Why does it make me feel safer to crawl when this shit starts? I creep down the hallway, peer around the corner into the living room. There is a leg coming through the living room window. Oh my God. Mendoza withdraws his leg, then sort of louvers his lower body through the opening he has cut through the window screen. I’m frozen. He plants his butt on the sill, then gets his feet squared up on the couch. I’m practically vibrating with adrenalin. So why is it taking so much effort to get up from my crouch? He lifts a hand, removes what looks to be the extra-long screwdriver that he has clenched in his teeth. I turn, take a step or two down the hallway, then I’m screaming for Eric.
I turn into the bedroom and Eric is already up out of the bed. He strides past me, out the door. He is speaking, in almost a whisper. All I hear is “kill that motherfucker.” Shit. Shit. Shit. I’m shaking so hard I can barely make my legs work. I turn back into the hallway, heading for the phone in the living room. When I get to the doorway, I see that Mendoza has turned back the way he came, he’s going back out the window. Eric has apparently thrown himself at the couch, and he has ahold of Mendoza’s ankle. Mendoza is holding onto a bush, trying to torque his leg out.
Eric is grunting, a word here and there. “Pussy. Run from man, dont’cha? Sum bitch.” But he can’t hold onto Mendoza’s foot and get a decent angle to yank him back at the same time. Eric doesn’t have his legs up under him.
“Let him go!” I scream. I don’t care if Mendoza gets away. I’m afraid that screwdriver or knife or whatever it is will be used on Eric.
With a big heave, Mendoza frees his leg, and he’s out the window. Eric gets up, turns, and heads for the front door.
“No.” I get between him and the door. “Don’t chase him, Eric. Please. He’s got a knife or something.”
He seems unable to hear me. “Move.” He’s pushing me out of the way.
“And besides that, you’re naked!”
Eric looks at me. Looks down at himself. He turns and heads toward the bedroom.
I turn and pick up the phone.
Eric comes back down the hall, adjusting his shorts as he moves. He throws open the front door and is gone.
And then I am sobbing into the phone. It’s not about Mendoza anymore. This is a different fear. I give my address, explain. They know the players in this story by now. I slide down the wall. I sit, line open, crying, shaking. The dispatcher asks me questions. I don’t know where they are, what direction they went, what’s happening now. Oh, God. If Eric gets hurt—or hurts Mendoza and ends up in trouble—I’m never going to forgive myself for this. I don’t know how the dispatcher has time to do therapy too, but she tells me that I didn’t ask Mendoza to break into my apartment. I know that. Good god, much longer until I hear sirens?
About a hundred years.
The cops pull up. I slam down the phone and run outside. I come down the apartment steps and I see a cop, standing in the open door of his car, looking at something. Another step or two and I see: It’s Eric. He’s standing there, in his boxers, sucking wind, pointing. Another cop arrives. My legs give out and I plop down on the cement stairs. And sob with relief. Thank god for small miracles.
The cops picked up Mendoza a couple of days later.
We finished moving out. I spent half the summer at home, the other half with Eric, in his truck. He moved me out to DeKalb in August. We remained friends for another decade or so. I last saw him in 1997, when I went to Chicago on winter break from grad school. I stayed at his house in Evanston. He was writing, working on a teaching degree, driving short-haul. He got married a couple of years later.
Charges were filed against Mendoza. I went to the first hearing, in the fall. Mendoza's attorney was fighting the blood draw, to match the semen. I told the prosecutor I'd come to every single hearing. But it was clearly going to go on for awhile. Eventually, Mendoza pleaded to reduced counts, which was fine with me. Eric was on the road, I was in school, and neither of us wanted to deal with him anymore. He got a few months in jail.