“Thus, I always began by assuming the worst; my appeal was dismissed. That meant, of course, I was to die. Sooner than others, obviously. ‘But,’ I reminded myself, ‘it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow.’ And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten– since, in either case, other men will continue living, the world will go on as before. Also, whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably.”
― Albert Camus, The Stranger
I peeked my eyes open and saw a shadow hovering at the end of the bed. I rolled back over and awoke a few seconds later to a scream. She told me later that I screamed too. I don’t remember.
“THERE’S A MAN! THERE’S A MAN IN OUR ROOM!” Caitlin sputtered pulling herself closer to me in the bed. The shadow didn’t move. Its long body swayed in the dark.
“What do you want?” she stammered at him.
His voice was cool. It was calm. It sounded calculated, premeditated, and in control.
“Can we turn on a light?”
My best friend and I both quickly turned to the side table nearest to us and searched for light switches. Only one came on, but I don’t remember which. Things like light switches don’t matter when there is a stranger in your hotel room.
The dim light from a bedside lamp wasn’t much, but it was all we had. It was enough to cast a soft yellow glow across the room onto the lanky figure towering over us. He stood there, slightly bent back at the pelvis as if he were leaning on air. His left hand held his right forearm close to his torso and his face was high and stern, as if he stood there judging us. A printed cap sat backwards atop his head and a white towel from our resort draped around his neck and off of his shoulders. His skin was as dark as the room had been before. His body blended in with his black baggy t-shirt and dark wash denim. He clutched a small metal box with a piece sticking out of it in his right hand, which he held close to his belt buckle.
The stranger’s eyes shifted back and forth between us as mine gazed blankly forward unable to focus on anything. Now that we were able to see this man, and he was able to see us, we felt exposed and defenseless. We pulled the white hotel comforter up closer to our chests as if a blanket made of feathers would be enough to shield us against him.
“Why are you here? You need to leave. You’re not supposed to be here. Get out,” Caitlin yelled beginning to get angry.
No muscle in him moved. His head was still slightly tilted back. His mouth was emotionless and flat. But his eyes cast off sinister glares at each of us.
“You need to leave. I’m going to call the police.”
“Don’t call the police,” the stranger warned us in his unemotional voice.
“Why are you here? What do you want? You need to get out,” she continued as I sat there unresponsive.
“Can you just leave? Can you please leave?” I begged him.
“Listen. Listen. I didn’t come here to cause trouble,” the stranger tried to alleviate our fears as he sat down at Caitlin’s bottom corner of the bed.
“What do you want?” Caitlin shouted again.
“Do you want money? We can give you money,” I offered.
“We’ll give it to you if you just get out,” Caitlin pushed on.
“Listen,” he hushed us. “No. No, I don’t want your money.”
“What do you want?”
“Can you please leave?”
“Listen. Listen,” he continued as he stood back up. “ I’m not here to hurt you. I just need some help. I need a few things and I need you guys to help me out. You never know when God is watching. You never know who might be an angel. I need a few things. Now I ain’t here to hurt you guys. I need you two to help me out. I trust you guys. I need you guys to keep calm. You never know who might be an angel. Angels come in all shapes and sizes. You never know who might be God.”
I didn’t know much about God or angels. I had been an atheist before I even knew what the word meant, but somehow I seriously doubted that the stranger in my hotel room was either of those things. I wanted him to leave though. I wanted a light bulb in his head to go off, for him to realize that he had drunkenly wobbled into the wrong room by mistake, and to apologize as he hurried out the sliding glass door from which he came. The stranger wouldn’t leave though. He was here to stay for now.
I stared into nothing. I imagined this all going wrong. I thought about what might happen if the stranger grew angry with us or what he might do if he didn’t get his way. I imagined the police showing up to a crime scene that had once been just an ordinary hotel room at a resort in San Diego. I could see the white down comforter I was hiding behind covered in our blood. I pictured the bedside lamp and phone strewn across the floor indicating to the cops that we struggled to fight off the stranger.
“I need food. I’m very hungry.”
“We don’t have any food.” Caitlin informed him.
“Can we just give you some money for food and you can go get it?” I begged him.
“No, no. I don’t want your money. Look, you can have my wallet,” he said throwing his wallet to us across the bed. “My ID is in there. You can take my money and go get some breakfast.”
“We don’t want your stuff,” Caitlin told him. We didn’t touch his tattered wallet and eventually he took it back after urging us to go through it a few more times.
I wanted so badly to throw open the glass door and bolt out of that room. I wondered whether the stranger would catch me and if he did, then what? Would he drag me by the ankle back into the room making sure to block off all the exits better next time? Could he tie us up with phone cord and shower curtains? Was he here to rape us? Would the pillow I had just woken up on be used to suffocate the life from me? My family was 3,000 miles away on the other side of the country. Would they be getting a call that I had been murdered? Would my one-year-old son spend the rest of his life without his mother? I didn’t know. Each minute felt like it went on and on forever. Every second felt as if I were being lowered further and further into the ground. I lost more and more hope of making it out of that room alive as time went on. I mentally came to terms with the fact that I might die in that hotel room before the sun rose above the Pacific.
“Why are you getting so upset for?” he asked when he noticed tears welling in my eyes.
“You’re scaring her!” Caitlin scolded him. “I don’t like you. You’re scaring my best friend.”
Caitlin’s sassy attitude made me nervous. I didn’t want to anger the stranger. I didn’t want to give him a reason to make us stars on the 6 o’clock news.
“We thought you were a ghost,” I tried to pacify him. I couldn’t even bring myself to look anywhere except forward into nothing.
“At least a ghost would leave,” Caitlin muttered.
“Are you scared of ghosts?”
“I’m really scared of ghosts,” I admitted.
“I’m not scared of nothin’ but God,” the stranger declared as he pointed towards our lightless ceiling.
I wondered why a God fearing man would break into the hotel room of two young college girls. This man spoke of God, but I saw the absence of God in his emotionless eyes and in the dark of our hotel room.
“Why don’t you go to a church? They help people. If you need help, they’ll probably help you, right? That’s what churches do.” He shook his head no disapprovingly.
“They can’t help me. They don’t help me.”
“What do you need help with?”
“I need some food because I’m very hungry. I need to take a shower. I need a change of clothes and I need a plane ticket to New York.”
Caitlin laughed at the stranger’s absurd requests.
“What do you need a ticket to New York for?”
The stranger smiled again.
“You see, you guys don’t know this yet, but I’m a star. I’m a star and I need to get to New York and I need you guys to help me. So I need some food because I’m very hungry. I need new clothes. I need you guys to buy me some new clothes.”
“If you want to be a musician you should go to L.A.,” I tried to advise him. I naively hoped that he would decide I was right and voluntarily walk out of the sliding glass door in search of LA, as if it were that easy. “My cousin has a band and a record company flew them all the way to L.A. all expenses paid. Got them the penthouse at some hotel and helped them write songs and make a website and they did a photo shoot and everything. You should go to L.A. That’s where all the musicians go.”
The stranger shook his head again so I gave up on selling him the dream of L.A.
“Can I at least have my phone?” Caitlin demanded. She sounded like a middle school student fighting with her mom. I admired her for being able to ask for exactly what she wanted from the stranger. I wasn’t brave enough. I thought that anything I say might push him over the edge or trigger him to lash out at us. I flinched waiting for the stranger to tell her no.
“Your phone is over there,” the stranger pointed towards my corner of the room behind a chair.
Caitlin and I were both shocked that the stranger knew exactly where Caitlin’s phone was, but relieved that he gave us permission to have it. My phone was on the table by the TV across from the bed. I had left it there to charge by the outlet beside the sliding glass door from which the stranger entered. If he were to see a phone upon entering our room, it would have been mine. Caitlin’s phone was charging too, but at the only other available outlet, which was behind the chair next to my bedside table. The stranger not only knew that there was a phone hiding on the floor in back of the chair, but he knew which of us it belonged to. After some discussion later in the day, we decided that he must have pushed the buttons and seen the backgrounds to figure out whose was whose.
Caitlin crawled across my side of the bed to get her phone and then got back in next to me. I saw her texting someone and I tensed up again in anticipation as I waited for the stranger to monitor her actions or take the phone back. I was also afraid she might call the police against the strangers warning and anger him.
“What time is it?” I asked her. I could see out the glass door that the sun had still not risen. Caitlin showed me her phone screen, which displayed that it was only a little past 4 in the morning. To us though, and our families, it was more like 8.
“I’m going to go to the bathroom,” Caitlin scoffed, no longer fearing the stranger now that she had her phone. She got up and walked past him into our bathroom. She seemed more annoyed by his presence than anything.
A phone didn’t make me any less afraid of the stranger. Sure, we could call the police, but he was there in the room and he would know. We’d both be dead long before the police would show up.
My stomach sank when I realized that Caitlin was about to leave me alone in the room with the stranger. I looked out of the glass doors longingly as the red glow of dawn began to shine down on the dewy grass. The stranger grew unsettled at my constant quiet staring. He spoke more about God and angels in disguise and needing things from us. I looked around for the presence of God in my hotel room, but all I saw was a stranger standing there. He stared me down with cold black eyes and I sat there waiting for his next move.
“Do you believe in God?” the stranger asked me.
I didn’t move for a minute. My eyes frozenly locked onto the empty air. He asked again. This time I half-heartedly nodded. I don’t know why I didn’t tell the stranger the truth. I guess I just didn’t know what the stranger might say back if he found out I didn’t.
“Do you really?” the stranger asked again accusingly. When I absently nodded again he went on another rant about how God was the only thing in the world he had to fear.
I thought about how absurd this was. This man had waltzed into our hotel room unafraid. He wasn’t afraid that he might bust into the room of a family. He wasn’t afraid that someone might call the cops. He wasn’t afraid that a man with a weapon might shoot him down in defense. He wasn’t afraid of being caught by a twenty-one year old and her twenty-year-old friend on their weekend vacation. He wasn’t afraid of the consequences of his actions. The only thing this man claimed to fear was an imaginary man in the sky whom there was no definite proof even existed. He had never spoken to God, never seen God, and never heard God and yet God was the only thing in the world this man feared. I thought of all the things a person might fear. Snakes, spiders, serial killers. Drowning, heights, death. Public speaking and strangers in your hotel room. All of them, real threats that could be seen and felt and dangerous, none of them God.
I wondered how long the stranger had been in our room while we slept and what he had been doing during that time. We know he had given himself a tour of our room by the way he knew where our phones were. Caitlin finally came out of the bathroom.
“What’s you guyses names?”
We stayed silent. We didn’t want him to know our names. He asked again in a less patient tone.
“Caitlin,” she gave in.
“And what’s yours?” he looked at me. I hesitated still trying to come up with a new name. Again the stranger asked in his new pushy tone.
“Alexa,” I lowly mumbled. I realized we weren’t quick enough to think of fake names and we probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with our story later. I didn’t want the stranger to catch us in a lie.
“Caitlin, why don’t we just go get him some food?” I asked knowing it might be the only way we could lure the stranger from the room.
“No! I’m not buying him breakfast!” Caitlin said not picking up on my subtle hint to her.
“Let’s go to breakfast. He said he’s really hungry,” I urged her. The stranger protested the idea of leaving again, so I tried to reassure him that we were all good friends and that the buffet we had been to yesterday would be well worth it. I named out things we had piled on our plates yesterday. Caitlin finally understood why I cared so much that the stranger get a lavish resort style breakfast and agreed to come with us.
“Okay, but if gon’ leave here we gotta act cool. I don’t want to make a scene. So no crying or anything. You gotta keep calm,” he warned.
“Ok. Got it,” Caitlin sharply replied. She finally knew that we would soon be out of this room with the stranger so she didn’t bother playing nice or acting like she cared. I, on the other hand, made him believe we were friends.
I remembered an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where a shooter came into the hospital. He pointed his gun at a young doctor who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he didn’t shoot her. As soon as he made it known that she was the next target, she began spitting out information. Later in the show, she explained her odd actions by saying it was something she had learned watching Oprah. That when you face someone that has the potential to kill you, you should try and humanize yourself to them. So that’s what I did to this stranger because even though he was a stranger to me, I was also a stranger to him.
“Let me just get my shoes and my phone,” I said. I gushed on about breakfast to the stranger. I made small jokes trying to lighten the mood. I just wanted to keep him happy. Caitlin was in focus mode. She didn’t bother putting on shoes.
“Let me lock the door,” I mentioned ironically.
“Yeah, the last thing we need is more random people walking into our room,” Caitlin added sarcastically as she began to walk quickly out the door from which the stranger came and towards the lobby of the hotel across from us.
The sun was finally rising slowly. I walked with the stranger who was getting irritated at Caitlin for moving hastily ahead of us.
“Psst. Caitlin. Get back here. Where you going?” he tried to call her back to us. “You forgot your shoes. You need to put shoes on.”
I realized that the stranger was getting nervous and that we needed to keep him calm and happy.
“Oh, don’t worry about that! We’re from the South. We walk everywhere without shoes on there,” I half lied.
“Oh yeah! We always walk around hotels and outside and gas stations with no shoes on!” I realized I took it too far with the Britney Spears circa 2004 reference, but it was all I could think of.
I kept feeding the stranger stories about how great this breakfast would be and telling him about the things we did yesterday while on vacation. I felt kind of bad about it after. I didn’t mean to sound like I was bragging to this man about all the money we had blown on this vacation, but I didn’t know what else to talk about.
We walked over to a small lobby outside nestled between the front desk room and a small café that wasn’t open yet. I peeked down at my phone and realized that it was still only five thirty.
“What time does the café open?” I asked trying to mask the concern in my voice.
“Not until six,” Caitlin said.
“Well, it’s five thirty now. We can just wait here until it opens.”
The stranger didn’t like this. He shifted around and tried to get us to return to the room and get food by some other means. We weren’t about to give up and start over at square one though. Caitlin sat down on a couch to wait until someone showed up. I sat down next to her and the stranger gave in and sat across from us in a woven egg shaped chair.
Rachel Green makes everything better.
This was the first time I had to sit down and casually use my phone. I texted my dad. I felt kind of guilty about telling him what was going on. I didn’t want to worry him. There was no use. He was on the Atlantic Coast and I was facing the Pacific. All I would be doing is scaring him, but it was much later in the morning there and I knew he’d be up. I sent him a series of quick messages as casually as I could because the stranger could better see us in the daylight.
“Dad. Call the police. There’s a man in our hotel room.”
I waited for a reply, but I didn’t get one. Caitlin sat casually on Instagram fed up with waiting for someone else to show up. I continued to make friends with the stranger.
“So what do you guys do for fun?” he wanted to know.
“We’re both students. Caitlin and I are both going into the medical field so we’re just always so busy with school and stuff. We don’t have time to do anything else because we are always so busy doing school stuff,” I rambled to him. I told him about my son, Holden, how we started off alone together and I showed him photos.
“I just really want him to go to college. I want to make sure I have a good job and I can pay for him to go to school,” I confessed to the stranger. I started getting emotional again because I still didn’t know if I would even be making it home to Holden.
“You will,” the stranger promised in his cool voice, as if he really knew.
A few times he tried to talk to Caitlin, but she didn’t bother trying to hide her annoyance with him. The stranger said he didn’t like her. I tried to tell him that Caitlin was always grouchy like that, so people didn’t really ever take the time to get to know her. I kept spitting out lies to keep him satisfied. She didn’t pay attention. Her eyes were watching the glass windows to our right where the front desk of the hotel sat empty.
Then we saw a man came over. He peered into the closed café, shook hands with the stranger, and then sat next to the stranger in another straw seat. He made small talk about the café being closed. He didn’t know what was going on, and we didn’t know how to tell him. He probably wouldn’t have believed us anyway. So we sat there silently waiting.
Caitlin suddenly jumped up.
“I have to go to the bathroom, “she stated.
“Me too. I’ll come with you,” I volunteered, not wanting to be left alone with two strangers.
That’s when I saw what Caitlin saw. A hotel employee with a walkie-talkie was about to open up the door from the front desk out to us. We ran into him. Caitlin grabbed his arm and started yelling about the stranger. He pushed her off and asked her to calmly explain what was happening. He said that someone had called the hotel and they were about to go out looking around the premises. He took us back behind the desk into the offices to get the full story.
We still weren’t fully at ease. The stranger was still sitting out there waiting for us to come back, but we were finally able to feel safe with another person there with us. They allowed us to sit in the office until the police came for the stranger. They told us later that they originally tried to question the guy waiting for the café to open. They didn’t even see the stranger sitting there with the white hotel towel around his neck.
The hotel man escorted us to our room to wait for the police to come take an official report. The room felt like a crime scene when we returned to it. We were the same people and this was the same room, but we weren’t the same people anymore and this wasn’t the same room. It felt tainted with negative energy. I felt like someone I loved had died in this room, like I had witnessed a horrible murder here, but no one was ever hurt in this room. The stranger didn’t touch us.
When the two officers showed up we told them everything. We admitted we felt bad, that the stranger had asked us for help and said he trusted us and we had turned him over to the police. Caitlin told us that earlier in the bathroom she had called her brother, who was in the Navy staying nearby. She made noise in the bathroom with the sink to hide that she was making a phone call.
We found out that’s how the stranger got in. Caitlin’s brother had been in our room the afternoon before. He sat in the chair and charged his phone before jumping up and walking out the sliding glass door that we hadn’t touched all weekend. Because we hadn’t gone through the glass door, we hadn’t thought to lock it. So the stranger went door-to-door tugging on handles until one slid open. Ours did.
Ours wasn’t the only room the stranger had been in though. We only had one clean towel left, but that wasn’t the one draped over his shoulders. The police asked us if we were missing pearls. We weren’t. We also found a granola from the closed café on our dresser. We made jokes that the stranger brought us a snack rather than taking anything from our room. They filed it as an attempted burglary. We walked around our room looking for anything valuable he might have stolen. Nothing had been taken.
We confessed to the officers that we felt like we had betrayed the stranger and that he might have been honestly looking for help. That’s when they told us. The stranger had a name and a criminal record. He was on parole. He was in a gang. The metal device in his hand had been a meth pipe. The police reports I read later said that he was both high and drunk celebrating the Fourth of July when he stumbled into our room.
After giving individual reports we had to identify the stranger. I buried the bottom part of my face into my sweatshirt. I didn’t want him to see me again. I stood in the opening of the sliding glass door as they drove the police SUV closer, got the stranger out, and made him stand there in the morning light for me to identify. His head was still cocked back with judgment and his wrists were cuffed.
“Yep, that’s him,” I confirmed.
We dealt with cancelling kayak trips in La Jolla, PR people from the hotel, and our worried families trying to get us on the next flight home for the rest of the day. We immediately went to breakfast. We weren’t hungry, but we wanted out of that room and the hotel had given us free breakfast cards. I drank a few too many twenty-dollar mimosas to take the edge off before we had to go back. Eventually they moved us up a few floors for our safety and they gave us each five hundred dollars in spa treatments. The city of San Diego offered to pay for us to receive psychological counseling.
We each dealt with the fear differently. Caitlin blocked it from her memory. She was always good at repressing things that she didn’t want to deal with. I couldn’t do it. Our new room had two beds instead of one and that scared me. We fell asleep to a movie I had wanted to see, but I woke up panicking when a female character screamed.
On the flight home I reread the copy of The Stranger I had bought for the trip. It had new meaning to me now. A man kills another man for no reason. A man stumbles into the hotel room of two young women for no reason. And when I thought about it, a lot of things in life happened for no reason.
I read the police report when I got home. The stranger had sat in the back of the police cruiser crying and muttering something about God. I don’t know though because I wasn’t there.