Things changed. National Guardsmen roamed the subway terminals now in their fatigues and black berets, brand-new assault rifles cradled in their arms. The homeless were suddenly visible again. Irony had reached the far end of its arc—Johnny Cash was covering Depeche Mode’s homage to Johnny Cash. It was a confusing time for me, after my neighbor went missing.
“Who?” Jenny said.
“The guy in 2B,” I said. “I forget his name. But it’s been days since I’ve seen him.”
At 6:45 every evening, my neighbor and I would converge from opposite ends of the block like somebody walking up to a mirror. Once at the stoop, we’d grimace at each other and say, “Hey, what’s up, thanks, cool, alright.” We’d enjoy the mailbox moment, inspecting our envelopes with the focus of men at adjacent urinals; then, eyes on the floor, saunter in a way that suggested we were not following each other up the stairs. After a round of key jangling, we’d open our doors at opposite ends of the hall and, with a last glance-and-grin before crossing the threshold, shut doors and lock locks.
Static from the outer reaches of the universe came to me through the phone receiver. Finally, Jenny said, “So what are we doing this weekend?”
“I think it was Maximus.”
“Anyway, that whole thing with the ringing turned out to be nothing. Did I tell you?” She knew she had. Telling me a second time was her way of chastising me for forgetting to follow up about it. “I got them irrigated and now my clothes hiss when I move and the sound of my own chewing’s driving me crazy.” Truthfully, I had trouble keeping up with the various ailing tracts in her body.
“Geronimus?” I asked. “Heronimus? Something Roman. You told me so obviously you know.”
“I’m talking to a deaf person here. Can we talk about something real for once? Can we? And not some bullshit fantasy of yours?”
The residue of past arguments made it impossible for us to ever have a pure moment. It was combustible stuff, this residue—and each word a spark—making every conversation an exercise in damage control, in taking and offering the least offense.
I unscrewed the cap on my beer and, holding the phone’s mouthpiece to my forehead, pulled a long, sudsy gulp. “OK,” I gasped. “When are you coming over?”
The real problem was that Jenny was just Jenny to me. Her lips were no longer the kiss-raw genital echo they’d been those inaugural weeks; now they were plain old Jenny lips, cracked and bleeding in winter, greasy while slurping Thai noodles, painted on increasingly rarer occasions. She had become, as of late, so unmoored from me that we found ourselves—on our way back, say, from Sunday brunch somewhere—drifting as far as five or six paces from each other. A stop-and-linger at the local kitsch store window led to half a block of catching up on days I felt like catching up, or—on days that I didn’t—a phone call (after not finding her at my apartment) trying to untangle the misunderstanding around what the plan after brunch was exactly. “I told you I had work to do.” “You don’t just disappear!”
I interpreted the permanent interment of her contacts in their little screw-top coffins and the donning the black horn-rims as an act of hostility. I couldn’t remember the last time she took her hair out of its ponytail, pulled back so tightly that dead-on she looked bald. And it wasn’t like she didn’t own slinky dresses or a decent pair of fuck-me boots. These days on “date night” she bounced along beside me like someone being baby-sat. She came to me on the days she worked in her chinos and bleach-yellowed oxford smelling of fried onions and boiled chicken. All of this I took as personal affronts, so that by the time she opened her mouth to say something at the end of a day, she was already at a disadvantage.
And who had I become—to her, to myself? Lately, with Jenny, I seemed to be someone else entirely. He was a mask, a foil, some part she had driven me to play. I detested this guy.
As I started in on the dishes, I continued our bickering in my head. I squeezed out some dish soap into the stagnant pool. An orange grease-slick dilated like something shocked, revealing a sunken pot with burnt meat sauce stuck to the bottom. I turned on the faucet and let the water froth, then left the dishes to soak. Wandering the confines of my apartment aborting tasks, I imagined myself being filmed—opening a pile of mail, looking for a CD to play, separating the strewn clothes into a Mine pile and a Jenny pile, leaving the two mounds as I went on to start something else—an imaginary camera on me the entire time, my self-esteem bolstered by millions of viewers, fans and critics interpreting my inability to stay focused, my meandering around the house as meaningful meandering, important meandering, a semiotic-generational meandering. I pictured this raw, aimless footage—me staring into the empty fridge, me flipping through the Daily News television insert for twenty minutes before realizing it was three months old—being edited into something funny and tragic and hopeful.
But we were careful with each other that night. I opened the door to Jenny, flushed and pink-cheeked, snow melting into drops on her coat. She found the odd root vegetable or two in my crisper. She cut off the flowering portions and popped open dried and canned stuff I didn’t even know I had. She boiled a pot of water. She chopped and sautéed dinner, the peculiar odor of dust baking off the long-disused broiler preceding the more pleasant one of things being caramelized.
At that moment I was grateful. I felt as though I were being rescued.
The evening, however, went downhill after that. We sat on my futon. I wanted to say something but she preempted it by switching on the tube. We descended into a labyrinth of reality game shows and cop dramas and fell asleep without a word. I woke at three and turned off the television. Jenny, in a stupor, undressed. I did the same. We lay naked next to one another. I slipped into a dream where we were fucking and got up several hours later to find her, and her pile of laundry, gone.
I hesitate to mention what I did for work in an effort to avoid it defining me. I am not what I do, contrary to what’s said about that; or rather, I am not what I do for a living. Who would hold a person to the eight hours spent sleeping as a measure of the kind of man he was? My eight hours at work were just as compulsory, and as inert. It required of me a certain mode of dress, a certain conduct toward others. My interior life there was busied with the usual fantasies: that gust of courage which might allow me to say certain things to my superiors, to coworkers I despised, to subordinates I longed for. I was required to remember things and relay these things to others. I gave input when prompted. Sometimes I delegated. There were lunch breaks, coffee breaks and cigarette breaks (until I quit smoking, at which time I began taking fresh-air breaks). I went to this place five times a week, no more, and took off the occasional nationally appointed three-day weekend. My work schedule made me a good candidate for one of those cards you could swipe through a turnstile every seventeen minutes for a month, but I found myself these days walking back to the apartment rather than completing the circuit on the subway.
Then it was Saturday. I was coming back from an overnight at Jenny’s. A postal handcart with its rubberbanded handle was parked by the front steps. I unlocked the front door and caught the mailman mid-sort: the entire row of mailboxes was tilted forward so as to allow him access to each through the top. We exchanged hellos. He asked my apartment and then offered several envelopes out of his stack.
“You wouldn’t happen to know by any chance,” I asked, “if the guy in 2B did a change of address in the last month or so, would you?”
“No,” he said
, “but if he doesn’t come for it soon I’ll be filling out a fifteen-oh-nine on him. Will you look at it in there?”
I peered into the box and saw a tubed mass of envelopes and catalogues. “I could hold them,” I offered.
“And I could go to jail. I can’t just hand this off to you, just like that. He gives you the key, that’s between you and him.”
Shortly after that, however, my neighbor’s mail began appearing in with mine, and as a result I learned some things about him. For instance: his first name was “Darius,” last name “Mies” or “Mieskowicz”; he was eligible for several major credit cards; and apparently his subscription to Guitar Player had run out. Also, I learned it was exactly five brisk strides from my door across the hall to his and with an ear pressed to the door, one got a thrumming, submarine hum—which was either coming from the apartment or from inside one’s own ear. The door handle was icy and, when turned, opened. The mail I’d slid under his door lay scattered on the other side among an accumulated litter of take-out menus.
“Hello,” I asked into the darkness. I felt something move, and as I was piecing together a reason why I was bothering him, I heard a voice.
I stepped back and shut the door.
The voice had come from above me. It was a neighbor, coming down the steps. She appeared on the second-floor landing holding a potted plant.
“Locked out?” She was young, pretty.
“I wasn’t thinking,” I said, and then, patting myself down, “I must have left them in my other jacket.” Even as I said it I realized that I wasn’t wearing a jacket. Or shoes.
“Do you have a fire escape?” She leaned the plant onto her hip and jingled the keys in her pocket. “Because, if you promise you’re not a burglar or a rapist, I could let you climb down through mine.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, there’s no fire escape.”
She gestured with her chin at my neighbor’s apartment. “You live there?”
“Yes,” I said. We both regarded the crooked gold sticker-stencils, “2B,” on the door with the measured silence one gives to a painting at an art gallery.
“Because the guy I’m staying at’s is right above you,” she said, “and there’s a fire escape up there. That’s weird, isn’t it? It should come down right outside your window.”
Sweat prickled my scalp. I felt strangely disoriented in this lie, expecting at any moment my neighbor to open the door and ask what was going on. “The problem is,” I said, “I do, but the window that goes out to it’s locked.”
She seemed satisfied with this. A moment of silence passed.
“It’s probably best,” she said. “I’m only crashing there while he’s away. He’d be pissed if he came back and found out I let some stranger into his place, right? I’m totally the worst housesitter! Look at this thing.”
She held out the plant, which I noticed now was dead. It rattled as she turned it this way, then that, dry husks floating to the floor by her feet. “I need to find a replacement. But do you think that’ll work?”
I shifted my posture—the whole time I’d been holding onto the door knob, which had become warm in my palm—and before I knew what I’d done, my wrist turned and the door clicked open.
This, of course, didn’t escape her notice.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s lucky! You should have that fixed, huh? Just think if you actually were a burglar or a rapist. Well of course if it were actually you, you’d be doing it to yourself, so I guess it wouldn’t be so bad, or at least not a crime. But if it was me? I could just go on in there and do whatever I wanted, wreak havoc, which for me is, like, not watering your plants.”
She seemed to be waiting for me to make a move.
I said, “There’s a hardware store down on Seventh that has plants in the window. I don’t know if they’re for sale, but it’s worth a shot, I guess.” My cheek muscles ached from smiling politely. I examined my socks. It occurred to me that she knew I was lying, and was, for some reason, playing coy. Was this a dare? I let the conversation lapse, but she continued to wait there. I stood my ground until I couldn’t stand it anymore. The only place for me to go now seemed to be through my neighbor’s door. “Well,” I said, “Good luck.” I turned and stared at the rusty nameplate beneath the peephole for a moment before stepping inside.
It was cold in here, and still. I swayed awhile just on the other side of the shut door, listening for her footfalls down the steps. Through an open window somewhere a truck rumbled past. I felt along the wall for a light and turned it on.
The place was empty.