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Lucky

cat peaking from behind a curatin

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

Did I ever tell you about the time I got Lucky? Lucky, my cat, that is. It was the summer after I’d graduated college – a particularly rough time for me in more ways than one. For starters, my boyfriend of two years had just broken up with me, saying that while it was nothing personal he just wanted to put college behind him (which evidently included me). Needless to say, I was beyond devastated, especially because I’d been totally head over heels for this guy and really imagined myself being with him for the long run. Plus, hello? How was that not personal?

To make that summer worse, while most of my friends were moving in to new apartments, all hyped about things like furniture shopping and employment benefits, I was jobless, with no offers other than the one from my parents: I could move back home and continue my job search there. Not exactly desirable, but I had no other choice.

But, about a month later, I got a glimmer of hope. My friend Cara, and college roommate of four years, knew the funk I was in and invited me to come stay with her in Boston. She’d gotten the job of her dreams, working in PR for a design firm. The position afforded her the rent on the cutest one-bedroom apartment, where she could walk to everything – all the trendiest shops and restaurants. Plus, it was near public transportation, so she didn’t even need a car. But Cara deserved it. She was super smart and truly talented, with the most generous spirit – so generous that her offer to come stay with her was rent-free.

“Look, thank you. I really appreciate the offer,” I told her, “but I wouldn’t feel right not paying you, and right now I just don’t have the money.”

“Then come just for a month,” she said. “The job market’s great here. You can go on some interviews, get a new perspective on things. We can be roommates again – if only temporarily. Plus, you’d be doing me a favor, because you know I can’t cook.”

I know, right? Cara is just too nice.

And, admittedly, getting out of dodge, sleeping on her sofa, sounded like just what I needed. I could give myself thirty days – enough time to see if the change of location might make a difference in my job search, not to mention in my perspective on things. And so, I said yes.

Just days later, I’d already packed up and flown out to Boston. It was great to be with Cara again. She showed me around the city and took me to all of her favorite touristy spots, like the Freedom Trail and Harvard Square. During the day, while she went off to work, I stayed in the apartment editing cover letters and following job leads in the area. By the time the first full weekend hit, we were more than a little ready to hit the city and have some fun.

Cara insisted on taking me to her favorite bar, a place called The Panda. I could see why she liked it; it had a hip-modern-industrial vibe, with blue-toned lights and concrete floors. It even had a cute little panda bear as its logo. I remember blotting my lipstick on one of the napkins, over the panda’s belly.

We sat at the bar, ordered a couple of pretty drinks and caught up on the day. I was excited to tell her about the job interview I’d scored at a local radio station, with the help of our college’s alumni circuit. We toasted to the interview, as well as to our friendship, as cheesy as that might sound. But this was the best I’d felt in a really long time.

After about an hour, we ordered a second drink each, along some chips and salsa. But, when the bartender brought everything over, he said the bill, including the food, had already been taken care of, courtesy of the lone guy sitting on the other side of the bar.

Cara and I turned to look. The guy, probably around our age – or maybe a little older – waved in our direction. And he was cute – really cute, with dark, wavy hair and pale blue eyes.

He came over and introduced himself. His name was Paul. He worked in security system sales and was in the city on business, meeting with a corporate client. I remember he had a shy little smile. His whole demeanor was somewhat shy, and he remarked on it too – on how awkward he felt coming over to us, buying our drinks (which he admitted was sort of cliché). “It’s just that being on the road all the time, traveling all but a few precious weeks of the year,” he said, “it gets pretty lonely. And you two looked like you were having so much fun.” He went on to tell us how he’d been trying to be more spontaneous, then apologized again. “This is probably just really awkward,” he said, his face flashing pink, which was actually super adorable.

That’s when Cara chimed in, telling him about my spontaneity in agreeing to join her in the city. “You don’t even understand how major that is,” Cara said, “because my friend here is a Type-A planner, so dropping everything, coming to live with me for a month… It’s a pretty big deal.” She shot me a wink, then invited Paul to join us.

He pulled up a stool. “Just tell me to leave at any point,” he said. “I won’t be offended. It’s just really nice to be out talking to people. Usually on these trips I hang out in my hotel room, ordering room service and watching TV. So, thank you.” He grinned.

The guy was even better looking up close, with his warm smile and great taste in clothing. I also couldn’t help noticing that he was physically fit, the way his pullover clung to his chest… Plus, he was sporting the perfect amount of facial scruff (a personal weakness).

I wasn’t the only one to notice his appearance either. A couple of women at the bar were clearly scoping him out. One woman even inched a bit closer, as if she wanted to work her way into our conversation.

Cara shot me another wink, which totally gave her intentions away. She wanted me to have some fun. “And, why not?” she said, when Paul excused himself to go to the restroom. “This guy is super sweet.”

“Okay, but need I remind you that I just broke up with my boyfriend?” I asked her.

“All the more reason,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be serious. The guy’s here on business, so he’s not looking for serious either.”

She was right. I deserved a little flirting fun. And so, when Paul got back from the restroom, I let down my guard. We ended up talking for two hours straight. While Cara had joined a couple playing pool, Paul and I covered topics ranging from where we’d both gone to school to our mutual affection for true crime stories and blueberry cheesecake.

“Thank you,” he blurted out, in the midst of it all. “I’m having so fun tonight.”

“Of course,” I told him. I was having fun too. Paul seemed like the whole package: smart, and funny, and interesting, and well mannered.

“Traveling’s enabled me to see all over the world,” he said, “places I probably never would have, but it’s also made me feel like a stranger all the time, if that makes any sense. I go into office buildings all over the world… But I’m just this faceless person to everyone, you know? They don’t know me. I never really get to know them.”

“Well, I hope you’re feeling a little less like a faceless stranger tonight,” I said.

He smiled, thanked me again, then told me he was in town for a few more days. “Any chance I could see you again?” he asked.

My gut told me no. It was too soon. I was too vulnerable. Plus, what was the point in going out with someone I’d probably never see again? But, since this new being-spontaneous thing was working out for me so far, I took a chance, and told him yes. We exchanged numbers, then we parted ways.

As Cara and I walked back to her place, I filled her in. She couldn’t have been more excited for me.

“So maybe it’ll be love that’ll get you to move here permanently,” she said.

“Except he isn’t from here,” I reminded her.

“Oh. Right. Where is he from?”

That was the weird part, because I couldn’t really say. In our more than two-hour conversation, it seemed he’d been from everywhere, but nowhere in particular.

“I think he grew up in a suburb of Baltimore,” I told her, “but he also spent part of his childhood in Monterey… He went to college in Chicago, then started his career at a tech company in San Francisco…”

“A real-life nomad,” she said.

Still, I wanted to know more. Did he have his own place or stay with family in between trips? Or maybe he just went from hotel to hotel…

The following day, Paul and I made plans to meet at an Italian place on the outskirts of the city. The subway let me off a few blocks from the restaurant. Paul was already waiting out front by the time I got there. His face lit up when he saw me. I felt like mine did as well. I mean, I was really excited to see him again.

“You look great,” he told me.

He did too – in dark washed jeans and a light blue shirt that matched his eyes.

“So, shall we?” I asked, moving toward the entrance.

But Paul remained firmly in place.  “I take it you didn’t get my text,” he said.

I shook my head because, no, I hadn’t. Apparently, he’d left his wallet back at the place he was staying.

“So, I’ll pay,” I told him. It was no big deal. He’d paid the previous night. This would make us even.

But he wasn’t having it. He refused to let me pay. Plus, he said that since he hadn’t grabbed his wallet, he also didn’t have his ID. “The place I’m staying is just a few blocks away,” he said. “Would you mind it if we walked back to get my wallet.  I’m really sorry,” he repeated, explaining that he’d tried to text me about halfway here, when he’d noticed he’d left it but that he hadn’t wanted to turn back and make me wait…

My gut reaction: This was a bad idea, something Cara would’ve told me too. I could almost hear her voice in my mind’s ear, reminding me that I didn’t even know this guy, and pointing out this could very well be his lame-o idea to get me back to his hotel.

“Look, don’t worry about it,” I told Paul. “You don’t need an ID. We just won’t drink.”

Still, he was adamant, saying if I’d prefer I could wait inside the restaurant while he went back to get his wallet. “It shouldn’t take more than twenty or twenty-five minutes at most,” he said.

But I ended up caving: “No. It’s fine. I’ll walk with you,” I told him. It was a beautiful night. Plus, I hadn’t been to this – more remote – part of the city yet. As we walked, Paul asked me questions – about my job search, moving from home, and if I minded starting over someplace new.

“Where do you live?” I asked him.

“Here, there… All over.” He grinned. “Never in the same place for too long. That’s why I always feel like a stranger.”

At that point, we’d been walking for a while, taking one side road after another. All of the neighborhoods looked so similar, blending together, with their three-story homes and red brick buildings. He pointed us down yet another side street. It looked almost like a back alleyway. A handful of college-aged guys stood in the middle of the road, making videos of one another doing stupid stunts, like this one guy was attempting to walk barefoot across a pile of broken glass, and another guy, clearly drunk, sang Happy Birthday, while standing on his head, not far from said broken glass.

“Right there is the upside of being a stranger,” Paul said. “They don’t know us. We don’t know them. People can do whatever they want – make complete fools out of themselves if that’s what they choose – without feeling bad or self-conscious about it after.”

“So, is that you do?” I asked him, mostly joking.

But his response struck me weird: “People say it’s easier to be yourself once you’ve gotten to know a person, but I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “People are far less tolerable once they’ve gotten to know you. It’s much easier to let loose, and be your true yourself, when you know you’ll never see that person again, when they’re just a faceless stranger.”

“Am I a faceless stranger?” I asked.

“Not at the moment.” He smiled.

I smiled back, but the mood had suddenly shifted – awkward and somewhat eerie. Did he actually prefer not getting close to anyone? Did he have attachment issues? And, if so, how did I fit in? Had hitting on me at the bar the previous night truly been an act of spontaneity? Or had it been more about anonymity? To him, Cara and I had just been random strangers at a bar. What difference would it have made if we’d rejected him?

I looked away, suddenly feeling as though I were being examined under a scope. It was only then I noticed. We’d stopped from walking.

The guys doing stunts stood huddled in the street. “Let’s ask her,” one of them shouted.

“Why are we stopped?” I asked Paul.

Paul motioned to a plain brick building, maybe two or three stories high, and said that it was his place, an apartment rental his company had leased.

I was about to tell him I’d wait outside, when I noticed the stunt guys coming toward us. One of them was slurring his words, shouting in our direction, asking if we wanted to play a game. It looked like the drunkest of the bunch had something hidden in his pocket, where his hand was tucked.

“Come on,” Paul said, ushering me toward the building, through a narrow door, what seemed to be a back entrance. He locked the door behind us.

A moment later, something crashed against the door panel, making my insides jump. I dropped my clutch. Had one of those guys thrown a beer bottle?

“I’m so sorry,” Paul said, picking up my bag, placing his hand on my shoulder. “I should never have brought you back here. This is such a shady area. I should’ve had you wait at the restaurant.” He went on and on, seemingly embarrassed, saying he’d already complained to his company about the apartment’s location, and that they’d pulled this kind of thing once before – on a business trip to New York, trying to save a little money. He promised he would just need a minute to grab his wallet.

We climbed a steep staircase. Paul unlocked another door, and we entered the apartment, which turned out to be a lot nicer than I expected, with vaulted ceilings, a wide-open floorplan, and dark wood floors.

I waited in the living room while he went upstairs to search.

“My wallet’s probably in the bedroom,” he called out, also telling me to help myself to the bar, where there was an open bottle of wine.

I checked out the bar: a fully stocked liquor cabinet, which didn’t make sense. Why would an apartment rental have a bar? Unless maybe he was meeting clients here… I didn’t know, nor did I understand the array of coats hanging by the door. They couldn’t have all belonged to Paul. Did they belong to the owner?

I poked around a bit more. In the kitchen, I found a loaf of bread and a gallon of water by the sink… I opened the fridge. It was jam-packed – all three shelves, which also made no sense for a company lease, for someone travelling… I went to peek inside a cabinet, just as a floorboard creaked.

My heart instantly clenched.

I peered over my shoulder, spotting a cat in the doorway. Did it belong to the rental too? Nothing made sense, except the obvious: I needed to leave.

“Paul?” I called.

Where was he? A clock on the wall bonged eight o’clock, rattling my nerves. Beside it was a door. Did it lead to a stairwell or maybe another way out? The door was open a crack, as if beckoning to be opened. I reached for the knob and pulled the door toward me, feeling my skin turn to ice.

My eyes slammed shut. Every nerve in my body pulsed. I was sure I’ve must’ve been seeing things.

But I wasn’t.

The closet was full of boxes, stacked on shelves. Each one had a photo attached: photos of woman with missing faces; the faces had all been cut out.

The women were all different – dark haired, auburn-haired… Some of them in dresses, others wearing jeans… One was on the beach; another appeared to be sitting at a park.

Faceless women.

At least twenty of them.

Collected there for anyone to see.

With trembling fingers, I reached out to grab one of the boxes. It wasn’t heavy. There was no writing on the box itself. I lifted the lid to peek inside, nowhere prepared for what I would find:  a silver hoop earring; a movie stub; a skinny straw, stained with lipstick; a used tissue, a membership card (but with no photo and no name)…

I took a step back and went to grab my phone, dropping it in the process. It clamored against the floor; the sound radiated to my heart, echoed inside my brain.

I went to go pick it up, noticing right away.

On the bottom shelf.

Another box.

On it was a photo of me – from last night, walking home with Cara, by the bagel shop we passed.

With tremoring hands, I opened the lid. Inside was the napkin from The Panda Bar – the one I’d used to blot my lipstick (my lipstick stain right over the panda’s belly).

I backed away, my pulse racing, my mind reeling, and hurried for the door.

But it was locked.

And there was no bolt.

It was just one solid panel, no place for a key – or at least none that I could detect.

Don’t panic, I told myself, peering up the stairwell. Still empty, so quiet. I tried a side window, and then another – both locked. My head spun. What could I do? Where could I go?

That’s when I remembered: entering the building… It’d appeared as though we’d come in through a back entrance. Was there an access point somewhere else? There had to be. I hurried through a dining area, spotting a window on a far wall.

At the same moment, the lights went out. Chills ripped through my core.

A floorboard creaked.

The cat meowed once more, rubbed itself against my leg. Meanwhile, a drizzle of sweat ran down my face. I held my breath and tried the window. The pane lifted, giving way to a fire escape. I crawled out onto a metal platform and reached for my phone.

Where was it?

Not in my hand.

Not in either of my pockets either.

My pulse racing, I began down the ladder, picturing him following, knowing this must’ve been planned – everything – getting me here, disappearing upstairs, shutting off the lights…

I jumped down – about six feet – onto the sidewalk, still unable to find my phone. Those stunt guys from before were gone now.

My heart continued to thrash inside my chest – so loud and hard I could hear it in my ears. I heard something else too. Another meow. The cat sat crouched on the metal platform, readying to pounce. Once it had, I scooped it up and ran for my life – down the narrow street, cutting between buildings, taking turns left and right… Finally, I made it to a main road, where I found a cop and told him what’d happened.

He took me for a ride. Together, we searched the streets, looking for the apartment. At one point I thought I spotted it, but it’d been a dead end – both literally and figuratively.

The following morning, we searched some more, but things looked so different in the light of day. The police also tried to locate my phone, but its last pinged location had been the subway stop. It was no longer traceable and I never got it back.

To this day, I have no idea who that guy was or what his intentions were – or why he’d kept those boxes in his cabinet. I’ve spent years asking myself questions, trying to figure it all out. What I can only guess: He’d wanted to keep those women close, but he also wanted them to remain faceless strangers. Maybe that way he wouldn’t feel judged for whatever he’d done – for however their belongings had wound up in a box to begin with.

Sometimes, at night, when I lay awake in bed, unable to sleep, I can still hear the velvety tone of his voice telling me how people are less tolerable once they know you, how it’s easier to be yourself in front of faceless stranger.

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. But I now had a cat. I named him Lucky and flew back home to move in with my parents.