She was sixteen years old, returning home from a day’s work at Alexander’s, the department store where she worked as a wrapper after school. She was some fifty feet away from her apartment building when she saw a man in a sheepskin coat. This was unusual, because it was a warm day in the beginning of June. But what made her notice him wasn’t the coat but his eyes, which were two black coals or black fiery lakes or black mirrors or…. She was used to blank eyes of customers who waited for her to wrap their purchases at Alexander’s, or the eyes of her manager who materialized at her counter to inform her that her wrapping technique had to improve before she could be considered for a promotion (though she was as clueless about the meaning of ‘promotion’ and why it was to be desired as she was about the more superior ways of wrapping a package). In Russian there are two words for eyes: a poetic “ochi”–soulful, burning, magnetic eyes–and a routine “glaza”. This man had ochi.
While she was thus walking, fascinated by the stranger’s ochi, she saw him disappear behind the corner. She followed her daily path that led from 66th Road to her apartment building and there she saw him again. He was entering her building through the basement door. The thought that he might be one of her neighbors made her head spin. She walked through the first floor entrance and pressed the elevator button. How should she introduce herself? She should be careful not to say anything he might misconstrue as boring, lest he think she is no better than her customers at Alexanders’. And maybe she shouldn’t start speaking to him herself, or he’ll think that she….she…
She didn’t finish sorting out all the possible ways of getting acquainted with the object of her day dreams, when the elevator door opened and there was the man himself. She stepped inside, she eyes lowered, because she was a shy girl not used to being drawn to a person of the opposite gender with as much force as she was to this stranger.
Thankfully, he was the first to break the silence.
Goosebumps covered her skin the instant he uttered the first syllable. They were not caused by fear; they were goosebumps of excitement. His speaking to her in the elevator could mean only one thing. He felt for her what she felt for him, even though she wasn’t sure yet what it was that she was feeling.
“I,” he said in a rumbling voice , “…won’t harm you…”
This was an odd start, but what did she expect? Would she expect this interesting person to introduce himself to her in one of those ridiculously formal ways, what’s your name, and how do you do, and do you go to school, and so forth?
Something cold touched her neck. She looked down – it was a blade.
The elevator was going up, not stopping anywhere. She lived with her parents on the top floor.
“Give me all the money you have, and I won’t kill you.”
With steady hands she opened her bag, fished out her purse, took out two twenty dollar bills, which was all that remained from her first paycheck, and gave it to him.
The elevator stopped at the top floor. She got out, the door closed silently with him inside.
She rang the doorbell. Her mother opened, looking at her in her usual way, with pity for her difficult future.
That was when the fear caught up with her. It all poured out of her: the incident in the elevator, how she had been held at knifepoint, how she gave away all the money she had.
Her mother called her father at work, and then she called the police. Twenty minutes later three huge men were sitting in their small kitchen, writing out a report. They said that in the past week five other women had been held at knifepoint and robbed in the elevators of their buildings in their safe neighborhood. The robber said the exact same thing to each of his victims: “I won’t harm you. Give me all the money you have, and I won’t kill you.”
A week later there was a call from the local police precinct. They’d got him, and although they were pretty sure he was the one, she had to go and identify him, in a safe way using a one-way window: she would see him, he would not see her.
She went to the precinct and did what she was told to do, looked where she was supposed to look. She saw six men standing in a row, facing her. She recognized him, and the goosebumps that covered her flesh were of the same kind as that first time, far superior to goosebumps of mere fear.
“That’s enough looking,” said one of the cops. “Do you recognize the one who held you at knifepoint?”
“The other five female victims have identified him. They all pointed at the same guy. Because of his rather distinctive appearance they said i.d.’ing him was a piece of cake. Now we just need you to i.d. him, so we can put him behind bars.”
“But I can’t tell which one is the one.”
“Go home, young lady, think about it. If you decide you want to take another look at them, give us a call.”
She went home and thought about it. She could not give him away to the authorities. If he was to be put behind bars, it would not happen because of her.
She did not call the cops; they called her.
“Are you ready to come in and take another look?”
“May we ask why?”
“Just…I don’t know… I’m busy.”
“Young lady. Do you realize that without your i.d.’ing him we have to let him go? Think about this. If the next girl he holds at knifepoint doesn’t have the money he wants, he’ll kill, you realize that?”
“So are you going to come and i.d. him?”
She still didn’t know what possessed her then, why she did not do what every sane person should have done. She had no idea what happened to the man with the soulful eyes. He must have been released. And it’s possible that, thanks to her misplaced feelings for him, a woman–or women–had been stabbed to death. That’s what an innocent interest in a man’s ochi can lead to.