Hey, so...I've never done this before, and I'm not normally very good at gauging whether stories that are true are interesting, so forgive me in advance if this is one of those close encounters that isn't exactly in the spirit of things.
So, when I was a kid, the thing I was most afraid of was...everything. But after that, a close second was Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. Have you ever read that book? It's about this little kid who's transported to this dream world called the Night Kitchen, where he meets these three giant Laurel and Hardy-looking chefs who are trying to bake him into a cake...it's a whole situation. It had everything I was terrified at the time: public nudity, almost being eaten out of politeness, big men with mustaches and uncertain agendas...my dad read it to me for the first time when I was maybe five or six, and for years after that, I'd have these terrible recurring nightmares about there being bakers under my bed who were trying to bake me into a cake. It didn't matter whose bed I was in, or whether the lights were on, I was one wrong move away from being cooked alive.
Fast-forward about twenty years. I'm living in Providence going to grad school, and I'm feeling pretty solid about my relationship with baked goods and the men who make them overall. I've stopped checking for little kid bones in every mom and pop shop before I destroy a crate of muffins...you know, all just really healthy, regular behavior. My car had a flat, so my girlfriend and I were taking the bus home. It was late, we were exhausted and starving, and it was that kind of slushy winter where everything in the city turns the same color and you want to sleep for days. And as we walked, I don't know why, but I thought about that book, and I remember really wanting to tell her that it was the first book I ever remember affecting me that way, just...getting into my bones and twisting around, making me afraid. But I couldn't figure out why it was so important to me to tell her, so I just...didn't.
There's this really particular sense of dread that comes in those few seconds between realizing something's not right and figuring out what it is. It feels...eternal, infinite, those couple seconds where the shape of what's wrong hasn't quite solidified yet. We got to my door and saw that it had been forced open; the lights were on inside, and there we were on the street, trying to figure out what to do next. Everything was so still, and there we were, just two idiots with our backpacks in the slush, looking at all that stillness coming from my windows. She called the cops while we went inside, hoping we could figure out what had been stolen.
The first thing I remember feeling was how hot it was. The heat had been cranked to eighty-two degrees, and the heater was blasting to offset the chill from the open door. There were all these...all these indelible imprints of life Nothing was broken, nothing was missing—except, I found out later, one of my t-shirts, some jeans, and a pair of my shoes—but everything was so lived in. Wet clothes I didn't recognize were on the bathroom floor near a toilet that had been used and not flushed. The plastic wrap on some pre-sliced veggies had been decimated and left on the coffee table; whoever was there loved celery and only the stalks of broccoli, had eaten an entire cup of ranch dressing. My sheets were wet; I didn't find out why or with what.
And the apartment smelled...fucking amazing. Under the wet, under the smells of sweat and sick and strange, there was this hot, sweet smell. My girlfriend yelled from the kitchen. The oven was on, the door left open, and on the top were these squat, crooked chocolate chip cookies, you know, the ones that come from the log of cookie dough? They were soft, weird sizes, under-baked, maybe, and they hadn't even had time to cool.
When the cops came, they surveyed the damage and asked us if anything had been stolen. The answer didn't feel like yes, but it didn't feel like no either. When we didn't know what to say, they shrugged it off and said that these things happened sometimes, that probably someone had wandered in thinking the house was theirs, that we should contact the landlord about fixing the broken door, but there wasn't much they could do. We were lucky, they said, that the oven being left open hadn't started a fire.
They left us to clean up the mess (we tossed the sheets, but kept the cookies. Money was tight), and that was that. As soon as they left, I felt this tug in my gut, and I ran to check under the bed, like maybe I might see some glimpse of a fat man in a chef's coat, waiting to pull me under. He wasn't there, nobody was. Just a few overdue library books, some socks, and all that stillness.
Thanks so much, everybody, have a nice evening.