I hung up the phone with Harriet and watched as Q searched for his house keys among the piles of dirty laundry and newspapers scattered throughout his apartment.
"Will you be gone long?" I asked. "I can buzz you back in. Besides, it'll give me a warning to put your personal papers back where I found them."
Q straightened up and cocked his head in my direction. "What do you mean?"
"You keep them over there next to the TV, in that file cabinet, right? I'll just have a quick look-see and be done with it. You'll never even know I went through them." I returned to my new book, "Personal History," Katherine Graham's memoir of her years at the Washington Post, and waited for him to leave. "Oh, I'm kidding," I said. "For heaven's sake. Go. Go. I'm not moving from the sofa. Do you really think I would snoop through your private things?"
He moved toward the door, jingling his keys. "I'm not sure," he said.
"I can see that." Apparently he knew me better than I'd thought. "Look, all women snoop. It's just a matter of when and how." I went back to reading.
But he stood there, dirty sweatshirt in one hand, keys in the other. "Is that so? All women?"
"All of 'em. Just a matter of when," I said. I closed the book and poked my finger into Katherine Graham's face, staring severely from the cover. "Even her, I'll bet. Newspaper woman -- they're the worst. She's snoopy by nature and by profession. I'd hazard a guess that no drawer went unrifled in the Graham household."
"Well, this is news to me," he said, uncertain but bored now. "Anyway, I'll be back in five minutes."
"In snooping time, that's an eternity," I told him. He shook his head and started to close the door. "Sort of like dog years," I continued. "I can find those teenage wedding pictures you just sorta conveniently forgot to tell me about in no time at all."
I pressed redial as I listened to him clomp down the stairs. "Continue with this terrible story," I said when she answered. "He went to get a burrito. Who is this chick again?"
Harriet sighed. "She's some kind of junior assistant in media. Young. Just out of college. She was crying in the bathroom so naturally I asked her what was wrong. She said she was cleaning out a closet in her apartment -- she lives with her boyfriend, I guess -- and she found his diary."
"Journal," I corrected her. "Not 'diary.' 'Diary' is not in usage in this day and age, particularly for men. She just happened across it? Yeah, right."
"She's a snooper," said Harriet. "Anyway, she read his diary or whatever and in it he wrote, 'I just don't find Cara attractive physically anymore. She's always been a big girl, but lately our sex has been repulsive to me.' Repulsive! That's the word she said he wrote! How can you ever get over such a thing?"
"You can't," I said. "No wonder she's crying. Now she has to find a new apartment in New York."
"I know," Harriet agreed. "The first mistake she made was not getting on the lease when she moved in. But can you imagine? It's not like she can talk to him about it."
"Well, she could," I said. "I did. A few years ago, I broke into a boyfriend's voice mail --"
"Oh, yes," Harriet said, bright with recognition, as if I'd mentioned an old friend that she'd forgotten about. "I've done that. I think every woman I know in the world has done that at some time."
"It's rampant," I agreed. "Anyway, I hacked in, and it became an obsession. I couldn't stop checking it. It was as if I had to find something to back up the reason why I was doing it in the first place. I kept checking it and checking it, sometimes four times a day, like a junkie telling myself, 'This is the absolute last time.' I'd hear messages from his landlord, the FedEx man, his rugby buddies --"
"Until you heard what you were looking for," said Harriet.
"Exactly. A 'Susan' purring into the phone about what a wonderful time she'd had last night and why did he have to leave and that she'd have to finish herself what he'd started." I began to feel nauseated thinking of it. "I remember exactly where I was when I heard that message: sitting on the floor of my living room, bent over. I can remember the smell in the air, the light coming in from the window -- everything. Ugh. Now I really feel ill." I lay down on the sofa and put my book over my eyes.
"Was that the time that you got so obsessed with checking his voice mail that you had a friend change his password without telling you what it was?"
"Well, this was another time," I admitted. "That time, I'd wanted to save me from myself. Of course, the only wrinkle was that he couldn't get into his voice mail either. So he got wise and then I had to tell him and we broke up after that." There was a little silence. "I was young," I explained.
"Sometimes snooping is a good thing," Harriet said soothingly. "One time when I snooped and found some letters that a boyfriend wrote to his old girlfriend, I was happy. I really was. It made me realize something was going on and I wasn't insane."
"But why don't men do it?" I asked. I thought about the time that Q watered my houseplants when I was on vacation, and I'd come home to find that I'd left a private notebook sitting on my desk next to the orchid. He looked stunned when I asked if he looked through it, and then thoroughly exasperated when I asked why he hadn't. "Women!" he'd growled. "Because, frankly, I don't want to know."
"Better people?" Harriet guessed. "Less curious? There is always the argument that nothing is found out by accident. It's a fairly easy way to get a woman to break up with you if you can plant the right information."
"Another friend of mine found a topless photograph of an old girlfriend," I said. "But it turned out that he'd taken it in college 15 years ago, for an art class. Her question, as was mine --"
"Is why is he saving it?" Harriet finished. She sighed again. "Another time a friend of mine got obsessed with counting the number of condoms in her boyfriend's bathroom. I mean, you really can't come up with many excuses if condoms suddenly start disappearing."
"Does bathroom snooping count?" I asked. "It seems like that territory would be fair game."
"It counts," said Harriet, full of conviction. "But this is always the problem with snooping. If you find the information that you're looking for -- which invariably is something that makes you feel like a piece of dirt -- you don't have any moral high ground. They can always come back and throw it in your face that you violated their privacy."
She continued, "And if you don't find anything, you still feel like a piece of dirt, either because you've been a snooper -- a highly unethical practice, some would say -- or because you've been a bad snooper and couldn't come up with the goods." I heard Q's key in the lock and I sat up. "I gotta go," I whispered, and hung up.
"I figured because you told me you were going to go through my stuff, there's no way in hell that you really would," he announced, as if he'd memorized a speech. He dropped a grease-stained paper bag on the table and looked pointedly at his file cabinet.
"That was a ploy to save me from myself," I said. "This time it worked, but next time we may not be so lucky."