Break-in

Daniel Riley

No shattered glass. No chilling draft. The house is sealed. The cash, his watch, her purse with the sunglasses, earrings, and credit cards. They are missing. The speakers, DVD player, desktop computer—all wedding gifts—are left untouched. The hardwood didn’t compress, didn’t squeal, didn’t inform. There’s a clock on a table in the bedroom that says it’s six-twenty-nine. Monday morning is weightless, still, the pre-dawn ghost having slipped in and out before the clock alarm sounds, a swift miasma.

 

***

 

A golden Saturday. Spanish tiles baking. Stucco dripping from the walls. Jenna’s on the inside. The coffee maker goes here, the dining room table there. She’s moved the boxes away from the front door, parting a path to the kitchen. When the cardboard skims across the hardwood, the friction pitch winds like a toy whistle. The floor is thousands of honey-colored strips of oak, illuminated by the west-facing windows. Jenna’s head of hair, thousands of honey-colored strands, is made electric by the glow. There’s only one more box. It’s long past dinnertime.

Max, arms and back burning numb, makes the final trip from the U-haul and shuts the front door to the house behind him. Places his box on top of another. Extends his hands over his head, bones crack. Nearly touches the ceiling. Reaches for Jenna. Kisses her on the lips, tastes the salt. Traces the dampness underneath her ponytail. Through the moisture where her hair meets her neck. Fingers down between the blades, along the ribbed undershirt, bumps in the spine protecting the nerves, across the small of the back which is wet too. Lifts the elastic of her cotton shorts with his longest finger. Follows the fragile lines of her panties to where they disappear. Moves to the shower.

            Max fucks his new wife Jenna on the marble tiles of their master bathroom in the early part of the Saturday evening that they move everything in.

 

***

 

            In bed, after the shower, after dinner, the marriage still feels unofficial, tenuous and sticky, like wet paint. The wedding was in San Francisco a week ago, at her parents’ chapel, and then at the club. A caravan of childhood friends, college housemates, parents’ coworkers, and distant cousins snaked their way from Second Presbyterian near Golden Gate Park along the shore, a silky ten-minute excursion to the reception hall above the ninth green at Cypress Hollow. The band was comprised of Jenna’s uncle and three other men who grew up in her father’s neighborhood. Classic tunes, dancing, cake, a giftwrapped coffee maker. The honeymoon was at a vineyard near Napa. It belongs to the family of Jenna’s college roommate. Wine, Spanish tiles, stucco, lovemaking as though they hadn’t before.

Jenna’s father helped with the down payment on the home near Los Angeles. Three bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms, new hardwood. A porch, a partial ocean view, a fifty-by-hundred-and-thirty-foot lot. A fig tree, rose bushes, a healthy patch of well-manicured kikuyu. A garage with shelves, a driveway for two cars, a gas line on the patio beckoning a propane grill. The schools, the parks, the beach. The thirty-minute commute for Max. Twenty-five for Jenna. One-point-two million dollars. Average. Property taxes, one percent of the final sale per annum. Twelve thousand dollars every year to the California government. Which is fourteen percent of Max’s salary. Sixteen percent of Jenna’s. He is twenty-seven years old. She is twenty-five.

They are married: The bride, 25, is an immigration lawyer at the firm Murphy and Bourne. She graduated magna cum laude from Stanford and received a J.D. from Boalt Hall. She is the daughter of Mrs. Melinda Devine and Dr. James Devine of Palo Alto. Her father is a professor of economics and her mother is associate director of alumni affairs, both at Stanford.

She meets her husband at a dive bar in Santa Monica on a Monday night. Her roommate has left the bar with a director from New York, in L.A. to shoot a music video for the roommate’s favorite band. The director invites the roommate to the set. Jenna lives four blocks away and the roommate wants to show the director their apartment. Jenna is alone, black top, straps and buttons, jeans, sandals. Lipgloss, mascara. She sweeps her cell phone off the table into her purse, which rests beside her, open like a mouth. She finishes her beer and considers the quarter-full pitcher resting across from her. She waves at the guy sitting at the adjacent table. His friend is in the bathroom. He acknowledges her glance as though he’s expecting it. Do you want this, Jenna says. You’re not going to finish it? Max asks. She shakes her head. I’m leaving, she says. I’ll take it if you stay, he says. She stays. They talk: whether the bartender is the owner; if the middle-aged blonde sipping the crimson merlot, draped in the stoplight-red cocktail dress, is in fact a prostitute. She answers yes to both; he answers no, but only because he thinks contention is amusing and seductive at first. Max’s friend comes back from the conversation he’s found outside the bathroom. Jenna says she’ll see them around. She walks to her apartment. Her roommate and the director are watching MTV2 in the living room, waiting for one of the director’s videos to play. Jenna wants them to move to the bedroom. She realizes she’s left her lipgloss on the table at the bar. It’s inexpensive. She wants to go back anyway. Max is sitting where she left him, back to the door. Her lipgloss is on the edge of the table, upright, on its end. His friend has gone home. Something makes her order another pitcher, which she lowers onto the table so that it sloshes onto Max’s bar napkin. She swipes her lipgloss as she slides into the seat across from him.

The bridegroom, 27, is an architect at Christopher Rennie and Associates. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors from Columbia with a degree in architecture and design. He is the son of Meredith Ridley and Richard Ridley of Playa Azul. His mother teaches at Mira Vista High School in Hermosa Beach. His father, a general contractor and founder/owner of Ridley Construction, is retired.

The night Max meets his wife, they’re kicked out of the bar after last call. They grab food at a twenty-four-hour taco stand, sit side by side on a bench by the water, and head to her apartment as the sun comes up opposite the ocean. The music video director is on his way down the stairs when they get to the door of her building. Jenna kisses Max, his right hand finds her temple, her cheekbone, her chin. Jenna catches her breath with her eyes closed. Max walks back to the parking lot near the bar, gets to the office early, washes his face in the bathroom, and brews a pot of coffee. No one notices that he’s wearing the same shirt he wore the day before.

 

***

 

In bed, after the shower, after dinner, on that very first Saturday night in the house, Jenna asks for a back massage. Max straddles her hips and Jenna wriggles out of her shirt. He kneads her hot skin, the tan underscored by an emerging magenta from his hands.

“We did it,” she says.

“We get to sleep in tomorrow,” he says.

“What about church?”

“We’ll go next week.”

Jenna exhales suggestively as Max toggles a knot between a pair of knuckles.

“I’m very happy,” she says.

“I am too.” They’re quiet for several moments.

“This is our home,” she says.

“You and me.”

“Not for long.”

“When are we going to tell them?” he says.

“When everything’s put away. When we’re settled.”

“I’m still worried that your parents will think the marriage was because of this.”

“They know when you proposed. They can do the math.”

“It’s going to grow up in this house. Play in that lawn. Climb that fig tree,” he says. Jenna sighs as all ten of Max’s fingertips cascade from her shoulders to her thighs on either side of her spine.

 

***

 

            The Sunday paper has two stories sharing space on the front page of the Metro section. One is about a murder: two college kids, a night of drinking, a casual fistfight, one falls, hits his head on a curb, bruises the brain, dead. The other story is about a shark: found in a recreational seawater lagoon, swam in through the inlet pipe, chewed the safety grate, bit a man’s foot off, they shoot the shark, dead.

            Max is reading the newspaper in his plaid pajama pants and a battered Columbia basketball t-shirt, sipping coffee and sopping up the syrup with his last forkful of pancake. The doorbell rings.

            A man who looks like his boss and a chubby blonde girl with braids and polka dot socks, have all four of their feet on the doormat. The girl thrusts a plate of gingerbread cookies—umbrellas, beach balls, sunglasses—toward Max’s chest.

            “I’m Tom Waters. Welcome to the neighborhood.” Max takes Tom’s extended hand.

“Max Ridley. Thank you.”

“We live in that one, the blue one. This is Madison. My wife Dianne baked the cookies.”

            “Thank you. I love gingerbread.”

            “Did I see someone else moving in yesterday?”

            “Yeah, it’s me and my wife. She’s in the shower.” Tom nods his head and looks into the house, at the boxes, the sofa, and the television set. Madison softly sings the melody to a song Max has never heard.

            “If you ever need anything—I helped an electrician after high school. Our house is about as old as yours. Some of the outlets were shot when we moved in.”

            “I’ll check it out. Thanks for letting me know.”

            When Max shuts the door, Jenna pops out from their bedroom in a yellow towel that covers no part of her legs.

            “Who was that?” she says.

            “Neighbors. They brought gingerbread.”

            Max and Jenna are shuttling novels to their alphabetic bookshelf when Jackie Briggs stops by to introduce herself. She teaches second grade and divorced last June. Jackie insists upon helping them unpack. She tells them about her ex-husband and his gambling, and manages to read the backs of the books while she talks. Jackie says the neighborhood is quiet, except for the house three down where the band lives. She says her husband had to call the police on them every other weekend.

            Max and Jenna get pleasant hellos from the street, mothers pushing strollers, chasing toddlers. A couple with a Labrador retriever and Staffordshire terrier mix apologize when the dog chooses Max and Jenna’s lawn to rest and relieve itself. Jenna is moving a box into the open garage, and says how much she’d like a dog that looked like theirs. The dog’s name is Henry. While the woman with the leash bends over to clean up, Henry detonates his hind legs, directing a barking barrage at Jenna’s stomach. Jenna closes her eyes and shields herself. The second owner pulls on the taut mid-section of the leash so that the choke collar engages. Henry yelps, and springs back into his original squat. Jenna hardly hears the extravagant apology.

            Later in the afternoon, after picking a pair of figs to see what they look like on the inside, Jenna notices that the lock on the back door—the sliding glass half-wall—doesn’t hook into place as it should. She walks into the kitchen to tell Max and smells the toaster oven burning sourdough and tomatoes. She sees Max through the kitchen window talking to a man with a black plastic box in one hand and a piece of PVC pipe in the other. The PVC has a tennis ball attached to one end, and Jenna thinks it looks like an exclamation point. She salvages the tomato sandwiches and puts them on two fresh appetizer plates.

            “The guy from the power company’s going to check our meter,” Max says.

            “On a Sunday?”

            “I guess they’re behind. Thanks for saving the sandwiches.”

            “Thanks for making them.”

            “How are the figs?” he says.

            “I guess they’re ripe. We need to fix the lock on the sliding door,” she says.

 

***

 

            On Sunday evening, having set up the television, unpacked the CD and DVD collection, arranged the family photos, hung a small modern painting above the fireplace, plugged in the lamps, and turned up the stereo speakers, Max and Jenna press together on the couch and watch a funny movie until after midnight. Though Jenna is concerned that Max is too exhausted, he fulfills her urges before they pull up the sheets, beginning with her neck from behind, and slowly moving his hands under everywhere, which her body has evidently been preparing for.

            After Jenna falls asleep, Max reads a new book that he’s waited patiently to crack. He’s satisfied when he finishes page thirty, the ten percent mark, an achievement, a measurement of progress. The orange light that bleeds through the lampshade, casting sharp divisions between dark and white on the pages, is extinguished with the twist of the switch.

 

***

 

On Monday morning, Max wakes up at six-thirty and takes a shower. He pulls on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved button-down. Jenna stretches her legs out across the vacant half of the bed, and lets her emptying lungs move sound through her throat, along her tongue, and out across her teeth and lips, an affected triad of pleasure-breaths. Max unzips his jeans and climbs back into bed behind her. He grabs several handfuls of flesh, and traces his tongue underneath her exposed jaw line.

It’s nearly seven-fifteen when Max realizes the cash is missing from his wallet. He’s quiet at first, certain he has left it in a drawer or on the kitchen counter. He wonders whether Jenna has borrowed the money, though this has never happened before. Since she’s moved to the shower, he decides to check her purse anyway. He can’t find it. Not on the bedroom dresser, the side table, or in the living room. It’s at this point that Max moves into the office, the room connected to the sliding glass back door. The desktop computer is shut off, as he left it. His electric guitar and amp rest in the corner. He considers the desk again. The top drawer is six inches open. Inside, the hasty stack of receipts Max had dumped there the previous morning seems oddly disrupted. Max pats his front jeans pockets, his rear jeans pockets, and his chest, as he often does when he thinks he’s lost his keys. And though he doesn’t explicitly notice its absence on his wrist, Max looks to the space between the keyboard and the mouse, where he remembered laying his watch after dinner the night before. The watch is gone.

After searching the house, Max and Jenna determine that the thief took Jenna’s purse—which had her wallet, cash, credit cards, sunglasses, cell phone, a pair of earrings, tic tacs, and hairbrush—Max’s cash, and the watch Max’s father bought him when he graduated from high school. The thief, it seems, either paid no mind to the front of the house—where the DVDs, stereo speakers, and television were all carelessly vulnerable—or was without means to take anything beyond what he could stuff into pockets on his body. While Jenna calls the police, Max slides the naked door of glass, which had been closed back up in parting, a gracious nod of sorts by the thief for having found the door conveniently unlocked.

 

***

 

            After work on Monday, in the early evening, Max helps Jenna call the credit card companies she hadn’t had the time to contact while in the office. The thief took about ninety dollars from Max’s wallet, and one-hundred-and-fifty from Jenna’s purse. The sunglasses were big and white, the kind that covered both eyes and cheekbones. They cost two-hundred-and-fifty-nine dollars. The earrings were just shy of one-thousand, a wedding gift from Jenna’s aunt, diamonds, the price of which she had stumbled upon while browsing an online catalog. Her wallet was leather, and new like everything else. She bought it on sale. Jenna intended to exchange the cell phone when her contract expired in two months.

Max never much liked the watch, but the searing impression made by its odd presentation from his father had led Max to wear the timepiece daily. His father had snuck Max into his office before the graduation dinner while the aunts and uncles poured wine and pulled segments of the sandwich platter. His father closed the door behind them, and unlocked the second drawer of the file cabinet. Without opening remarks, his father handed over the watch—silver, ticking—as though it were a taboo, forbidden idol. His father curled his lips into a dangerous smile and hiked his eyebrows into a flashy demand of consideration. Max met his father’s eyes and nodded as though accepting a role as a co-conspirator, acknowledging the gift’s inherent value and implicit risk.

            The Monday of the break-in, Max picks up a lock at the hardware store on his way home from work. While Jenna cooks dinner, he dismantles the dysfunctional latch and installs its replacement. As the sun burns low, melting at the edge of the concealed horizon, Max finds an old hockey stick that had been carelessly tossed into a deep corner of the garage during the move. After estimating the length of the sliding door’s track with his fingers and arms, Max snaps his hockey stick into two pieces, and places the long end of the shaft into the grooves of the track, a secondary precaution.

Out the front windows, during dinner, Max and Jenna see their new neighbors. Tom Waters and his wife Dianne. Jackie Bloom. Henry the dog. The couple across the street. The old man next door. They come and go. There are runners and walkers, and children and dogs. There is a truck from the power company, the same meter man. These are the people who have gazed across the lawn, into the house, beyond Max and Jenna’s personal belongings—possibly all the way back to the sliding glass door and its faulty lock.

There are cars, passing softly, rubber on asphalt, and even a small sedan that adopts their driveway for the second stage of a three-point turn. While Jenna clears the plates and silverware, Max hears the aggressive clatter of a distant radio, approaching, growing. Max stands, peering over the curtains through the window, the lingering light in the sky projecting onto his forehead. The van with the music—white with spray-painted yellow and blue letters spelling what Max figures to be the name of the band—rages by and aggressively curls into a driveway three doors down. The music cuts out, replaced by low jokes and blended giggles.

In bed, on that third night in the house, Jenna lays her magazine across her chest.

“I can’t believe we didn’t wake up,” she says.

“I was up late, too,” Max says.

“You didn’t fall asleep when I did?”

“I started reading this,” he says, elevating the novel he has bookmarked with his thumb.

“Imagine if we had woken up. What if I opened my eyes and he had a knife or a gun?”

“We didn’t wake up.”

“We need to be safe, Max.”

“That’s why I fixed the back door.”

“I want an alarm.”

“Okay. We can get an alarm. There isn’t a lot of crime usually.”

“My mom said that they’ve caught some surfers up near them, breaking in for meth money.”

“How do they know they were stealing for meth money?”

“That’s what my mom said,” Jenna says. Max exhales and the book falls as though bobbing to the trough of a slow-rolling wave. “Maybe that’s why he left the rest of your wallet. Only wanted the cash, you know?”

“I don’t know.” They’re quiet, staring at the luminescent shapes on the ceiling, cells under a microscope. “How could someone have known about the lock?”

“Maybe he didn’t know,” she says.

“He must’ve,” he says.

“I just want to feel safe, protected,” she says. “The baby, you know?” Max turns over and pulls his wife close, trapping the paperback between their bodies and creasing its pages.

While turning out the lights, Max notices the deep, far-off reverberations of a drum set: the steady thump of the kick, a sudden splash of razor-thin brass. Five minutes later, Max feels Jenna growing heavy in his arms, her breathing tempered and audible. Out in the street, he hears the van tear out toward the stop sign at the intersection. The acceleration wakes Jenna. She readjusts on Max’s shoulder and cracks her lips.

“Do you think he was watching us before he came in?” Jenna says. Max feels the nerves in his back and shoulders freeze inside his skin.

“When?”

“He was in here while we were sleeping, but do you think he watched us have sex before?” Jenna reaches her arm across Max’s stomach and hooks her fingers around his hip.

“Don’t think things like that,” Max says. He eyes the slats in the window blinds where sheets of moonlight enter the bedroom. Jenna’s hand slinks beneath Max’s elastic waistband.

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