(Link below to my new essay in the Chicago Tribune. Or read here.)
A Stranger At the Door
It was a frigid December night, and I had just settled into the plump cushions of the living room couch with a book, when I heard a sharp rapping on the front door. The sound startled me, mainly because it was 8:45 p.m., pitch-black outside, and I was alone. My husband had left two days ago for a conference.
I sat thinking for a split second about who could possibly be at my door at that hour, outside in the deep freeze just north of Chicago. I live on a really quiet street, about a block off the main road. Hours might go by without any car or pedestrian passing directly in front of my house, a small, modest house over one hundred years old.
Another moment passed, more sharp rapping, and then a face pressed against the square window in my front door. As I looked over my shoulder from my perch on the couch, I made eye contact with the eyes in this face. A woman’s face. She was saying something, but I couldn’t make it out.
I wish I could say that my first instinct was to leap off the couch to help this mystery woman. But I hesitated. All the bad stories about women who open their doors to strangers – stories told daily in newspapers and magazines, on the nightly TV news, even stories dimly remembered from long-ago slumber parties. Be afraid, be very afraid. I don’t tread fearfully in my daily life, but still. Strange people at the door when you are alone in the cold and dark… that makes you think a bit.
What went through my mind was this: What if I open the door, and she isn’t alone, but has an accomplice hiding behind that big shrub, and then they both come in and murder me? As a writer, I am nothing if not one to jump to immediate conclusions. To see entire plots unfold before anything even happens.
I opened the door. If I was murdered, so be it. I had had a good life. And in my version of a life well-lived, I couldn’t not open the front door.
She tumbled into my living room. “Gracias, gracias… My phone – is dead.” Speaking mostly Spanish, but interspersed with bits of English, the woman indicated to me that she was lost, her phone was dead, and she needed to call her sister who was supposed to have picked her up at the train station, but hadn’t. So she had decided to try and walk to her sister’s, but had gotten completely lost in the dark.
I flicked on the gas fireplace and offered to make her some tea while we waited for her phone to charge enough so that she could show me her sister’s address. I figured that if she had a murderous partner in the bushes, he was probably frozen by now.
Oddly enough, a similar situation had just occurred the previous summer. I had just taken a late evening shower, and when I came out of the bathroom in my robe, a young woman was sitting on the living room couch with my pajama-clad husband, crying. A stranger to the area, she had taken a wrong turn, then another, and was now completely lost. Even the GPS on her phone wasn’t any help to her now. She was too agitated to think properly.
“She needs to get back to the highway,” my husband said. “Do you think you can get back there?” he asked the young woman.
She shook her head, crying harder, and I got her a box of tissues.
“Well, then, we’ll get our car and you can follow us,” said my husband. “Once you get on the highway north, you can’t miss the turnoff you need.”
So, at 10:30 at night, in our pajamas, we drove the ten minutes to the highway entrance she needed, waited until she passed by us, and then headed back home.
My first thought upon seeing that young woman was also not so charitable. Maybe I have seen too many true-crime murder stories where the woman is sent as a decoy to lure the unsuspecting older couple to their doom.
This new stranger and I chatted freely, even with our language difference. She was from Brazil, was in some kind of medical field, and was visiting the University of Chicago. Her sister apparently lived close to me, and their signals had gotten crossed; thus her predicament.
The cell phone lit up, newly charged, and I saw that the address she needed was only about half a mile away. I offered to drive her there, but she called her sister, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, and in less than ten minutes the sister was there in her Volvo station wagon.
The two women thanked me, and ran off into the cold, dark night. I never saw her or heard from her again.
Sometimes, at night, when I am alone, I think about these women. I also think about how I don’t think I would open my front door to a man. I think of my house, and wonder why two strangers felt safe enough to approach it. Maybe it’s because I always leave the front porch light on until I go to bed. Maybe it’s because of the front porch itself, which seems to say, “Come. Sit a spell. You are welcome.”