Short fiction for guests of the Wordfeeder
Saturday, October 1, 2011
The street was busy that evening, as usual. Three narrow, unmarked lanes, one of them for alternate street parking, the one on the other side blocked by a delivery truck here and a service truck there. The pavement was still damp from the late afternoon rain, just a bit of steam rising where the sun breaking through the clouds was doing its job. There was still and hour or so of daylight. People, mostly young in this neighborhood, were coming and going in between and around each other, avoiding garbage bags that wouldn’t be collected until late that night, and the occasional piece of throwaway furniture left at the curb. Racks of fruit, flowers and other stock protruded from the front of stores that were thriving on the flow of locals coming home from work. It was noisy with the sound of traffic and of people talking, too many to hear what any of them were saying.
Stepping quickly across the street, between two badly parked cars and onto the sidewalk, she walked up to the door to the right of the Gyros place that was in the bottom of the converted tenement where she lived, five tall flights up. Without looking left or right, she put her key in the lock, the key with no chain to help find it, turned it, pulled back the heavy metal door and stepped into the dimly lit hallway, looking ahead to a brighter light at the bottom of the staircase.
Finding it easier to almost jog up the stairs, she kept her right hand on the banister and watched her feet to make sure she navigated the wedge-shaped steps at the top and bottom of each flight without tripping. She was is good shape, her legs toned from the months she had lived there and from the occasional running she did along the river to clear her head. On the sixth floor, her breathing quickly returning to normal, she smiled a polite greeting at the woman who lived in one of the apartments that faced the street, on her way down, her new baby hanging out comfortably in the Snugli on her chest. Turning to her left, she walked down the hallway to her apartment door that had long ago lost count of the last time it had been painted over, dark green this time.
Jill, an aspiring screen writer, paid the rent by doing research for a national news magazine. A fact checker, she spent her days reading, mostly on-line and at libraries, alone, with virtually no real interaction with anyone which was good, because “interaction” wasn’t something she did very well. Jill was pleasant enough, actually very nice, but found small talk difficult and didn’t make friends easily. Tonight, like most nights, she would make dinner, maybe watch some TV while she caught up with the little email she received and shopped for what she needed, and could afford, on-line. And then she’d write until she was too tired to keep going. Eventually she’d fall to sleep with the little flat screen her parents gave her still on in the corner.
“Hey, Jill.” It was Pete, her neighbor who lived in the flipped version of her studio and with which she shared a common wall. Pete was coming out of his apartment, through his door across the hallway from her door, on his way to the garbage cans that lined alley beside their building. He’d been stalling for a couple of minutes inside his place, hoping for the opportunity to run into her. It was a bit creepy, but well intentioned. His voice, pleasant, but a bit higher than you’d expect from looking at him, startled her, but then it always did. Something about this guy made her nervous, but in a good way. They’d moved in about the same time, but hardly talked. She wanted to, but didn’t really know how, and he was too timid to take the initiative.
Pete, by he way, worked for an up-and-going-nowhere apps software company, experimenting, in his spare time, with something so secret he wouldn’t tell anyone about it, if only he knew anyone who asked.
“Oh, hi,” she blurted back, followed by one more “oh” when she realized that, turning so quickly to look at him, her hand still on the key in her door, that the top button of her blouse had become undone. Modesty had always been a problem for her.
“Sounds like a state,” was all he could think to say. “Imbecile,” he thought to himself.
Stuck with what his comment, he had no choice except to go with it. “Oh-hi ..oh.” Pete couldn’t help glancing down at the open button, but was embarrassed and quickly returned to the face that he so looked forward to seeing every day. “Uh, is there anything I can take down for you?”
“Sure. ..Sure. Give me a just a second.” Turning the key for the deadbolt, and then the knob she pushed open the door which closed by itself behind her. “Trash? I just took it out this morning.” Not wanting to disappoint Pete, Jill grabbed the morning paper she was looking forward to reading that night, frantically separated the pages and stuffed the less interesting ones into her kitchen trashcan. Pulling out the bag, she grabbed one of the twister-ties she kept in a shot glass on her counter. “Wait!” she said shouted, noticing the black newspaper ink on her hands, “I’ll be right there!”
“No problem,” Pete reassured her. “You know, these walls are so thin, you don’t have to shout,” he said in normal voice, basically talking to himself.
“I know. I’ll be right there,” Jill answered, proving how easy it was to hear him.
Looking up and at the hallway wall behind Jill’s kitchen, Pete smirked and nodded his head slightly. “It’s okay. Take your time.”
“Here.” Jill flung open her door, her hands clean, her hair down when it hadn’t been before, her top button still open, one arm holding out her garbage bag which Pete took from her. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” and then he just stood there, not knowing what to say.
“Will you be coming back?” she asked, but then added based on the look on Pete’s face, “From the garbage room?”
“So you’re going out?”
“No. I’m just going to the garbage room. ..I’ll be right back.”
Pete started to walk away toward the stairs, but then turned back. “Why did you want to know?”
“Uh, no reason. No reason.”
Pete nodded his head, took two steps backward to keep his eyes on her, smiled awkwardly and then turned rather than risk falling down the stairs.
Her arm down by her side, Jill raised her hand as if to wave goodbye to him. “What am I doing?” she whispered to herself. “Thank goodness he wasn’t looking.”
But then, just as he was starting down the first step, Pete leaned back. Looking down the hallway, he gave her a wave back. Distracted, the three bags he was carrying didn’t clear the stairway wall and railing and he stumbled. Jill started to say something, but Pete beat her to it. “I’m good. I’m okay,” and he was on his way down the five flights to the ground floor.
“See you later,” she said to Pete who Jill was sure he didn’t hear her, and that was that. “Hallway dates,” she called them, to herself of course.
Later that evening, Jill was sitting on her futon, eating a salad out of the large glass bowl she’d made it in, when the phone rang. Not her phone, but Pete’s. She could hear it through the common wall their apartments shared.
“Hi, Mom. ..I’m fine, Mom,” and then he walked away toward the other end of his tiny apartment where it would be harder, pretty much impossible for Jill to hear him.
After all this time, she’d long ago got over her reservations about listening to his calls – using the electronic stethoscope she bought on a whim, so she told herself, at “Spades,” a combination detectives shop and bar she discovered one day when she was out running, it started to pour and she needed cover. For $19.99 on sale, she got a suction cup with a wire running to a box that ran off a battery. She plugged her buds into that, and she was in business.
And so she listened to Pete’s nightly call from his mother, to his side of it, imagining, often mocking what his mother was saying on his side. “Yada, yada, yada. And,” she continued in a the horse falsetto voice she assumed was what Pete was hearing, “did you call Aunt Edna? You know she’s home now from the hospital recovering from her record breaking underarm liposuction.” Jill paused for a second to pinch the non-existent flab under her left arm, shaking it to see if anything flapped in the wind. “..Blah, blah, blah.” And then, unexpectedly…
“No, mom. No, I haven’t asked her out yet.”
Jill stopped chewing, her mouth still full of sweet potato chips and sour cream she was having for a snack. There was no way any crunching noise in her head was going to let her miss this part. “Who?” she whispered. “Who’s she talking about?!”
“When was the last time I talked to her? Mom, are you kidding? ..Today, Mom, when I was taking out the trash.”
“Oh, my God! ..It’s me.”
“Yes, I like her, Mom. She’s beautiful.”
“Actually, ‘really attractive’ is more like it.”
“I’ll take it.” It was a great complement, but for some reason she was disappointed, as if she’d just been downgraded.
“Sexy,” and then remembering he was talking to his mother, “Yes, sexy, but in a casual, not at all slutty way.”
“I’m sexy,” Jill smiled. She felt better now and, flirting with herself, undid yet another button, the bridge of her bra showing just a bit.
“By which he means ‘witty,’ not in a slapstick or vulgar way. ..Wait a minute. How does he know I’m funny? Has he been listening when I read my scripts..”
“And she’s.. She’s…”
“..out loud? ..I’m what? Com’on, spit it out.”
“Gesundheit!” Jill responded instinctively, in a loud voice, realizing immediately what she’d done.
“Mom.” The woman was nothing if not hard to interrupt. “Mom. ..I need to get off. Call me tomorrow,” and Pete hung up.
“Shit!” Jill whispered. “Shit, shit, shit!” This was obviously a moment of high trauma given that Jill never cursed and only recently allowed herself the occasional s-bomb since mainstream cable censors started approving it in shows airing after 10 PM. True, she was troubled by this turn of events, the cursing in particular, the result of an overly polite upbringing she instantly blamed on her own parents. “Okay, I need a plan.”
Pete, too embarrassed to say anything, didn’t and began spending the entire night, until he passed out, thinking about how precisely he would handle their usual running into each other on their ways to work. “I could leave early, or late,” Pete thought to himself, “avoiding meeting her altogether. “No. That would send the wrong message, that I’m embarrassed or, even worse, didn’t really care. …No, I’ll bring it up. ‘I guess you heard me talking to my mother last night. It’s true, I’ve been thinking about asking you out..’ Honesty. That’s good. Yes, I like that. No. ‘I guess you..’ Guess nothing, of course she heard me. Who am I kidding? She was listening on purpose. Why isn’t that creeping me out?”
Meanwhile, over in her apartment, Jill was busy working on her own alternative scenarios on her laptop. “The key is how the female looks. I can’t change the venue. The hallway and stairs are what they are, but how the female lead dresses will set the tone. Okay, okay. What are my choices?”
“Casual and confident. Normal work clothes. Jeans and a t-shirt, maybe with an open hoody. No makeup. I can’t be not pretending to be someone I’m not. I need to be comfortable. Not just me, I need to make him comfortable too. ..Stop, stop. This sucks.”
“How about sophisticated, but tentative so he’ll feel needed? Business casual. Light, but noticeable makeup – if can remember how to put it on. ..Maybe just some lipstick and eyeliner? I’ll be sophisticated. ..Who am I kidding?”
“I know,” Jill giggled, “Instant hard-on. Yes. When has sex ever failed? ..Pretty much every time I’ve tried it, but just in case this is an exception… Besides, I’m desperate, an underrated condition if there ever was one. ..Okay. Flat out. Tank top. I have nice arms. No bra? Men turn into idiots when they see nipples. Light, very light bra. My one and only no-bra bra. Jeans. Bright red lipstick. No bun. My hair down, like I just got up. Run my hand through my hair. Carry my leather jacket down to the curb. Stay close on the stairs, bumping into him… No. Holding his arm once or twice. The heels, high enough to make me careful going down the stairs, but not so high that I actually fall. The navy blue ones will be perfect, but I’ll have to practice. What’s my excuse for wearing heels? What’s my excuse? ..A presentation? No. The Jeans and no-bra wouldn’t be appropriate for a business meeting. Jeez, I work for a publisher, not a strip club.”
And so it went, until she passed out, still in the clothes she’d worn the day before. What seemed like only a second later, the buzzer of her alarm clock jolted her awake. “Whoa!” Jill sat up, shaking her head to make sure she didn’t turn it off and go back to sleep. Checking the time, she knew she was running late. Pete was always punctual, something she counted on to make their frequent “chance” meetings happen. “Shower time!”
Twenty-two minutes later, Jill was at the small round table where she ate and did some of her best writing, pouring a second salvo of Cherrios into what was left of her skim milk, a half glass of orange juice waiting for her nearby, the Today show playing in the corner. In her underwear, she was towel-drying her hair to give it the look she was after. After all that planning the night before, she’d decided to just be herself, turning up the volume just a notch. As for the script, she’d made some final notes. Other than that, she’d decided to wing it.
At 7:50 exactly, Jill put one arm through her backpack, and so did Pete. Both apartment doors opened simultaneously.
“Hey,” Pete said, smiling to break the ice.
“Hey,” Jill laughed slightly back at him, realizing immediately that they were both psyched. If something was going to happen, now was as good a time as any.
They stood there for a moment, just a moment, looking at each other.
“You look great,” Pete told her.
“Thanks. Pretty much the same as usual.”
“No. Your hair’s different.”
“Yeah,” Jill brushed it back with her right hand. “I was running late and didn’t have time to blow it dry. …That,” she thought she was thinking to herself, “and the t-shirt and bra I’m wearing.”
“I.. I guess so.” She was right, of course, but Pete was embarrassed.
“Ooo. You heard that, didn’t you?”
“It’s okay. I like it that you’re so straightforward.”
“Even when I don’t mean to be?”
“Especially then. ..Com’on. We’ve got to get going.” Pete extended his left arm, gesturing for Jill to go first, which she did, but then stopped to turn back. He’d taken another step, leaving them closer together than they’d been, except for the occasional times when they would pass each other going up and down the narrow stairs.
“You don’t usually wear a tie.”
“In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear a tie. ..It’s nice.” Jill wasn’t just being polite. It was surprisingly fine. “It may be,” she thought to herself, for real this time, “ the only one he has, but it’s a good one. His collar open, his tie loosened just right, enough to be casual, not too much to be sloppy. On top of his light plaid shirt, sleeves folded up twice, he was the perfectly cute techy professional.
“I, uh, have a presentation.” Pete’s voice was tentative.
“No you don’t,” Jill blurted out, she had no idea why.
“You’re right.” Pete took a deliberate breath. “I didn’t want you think I wore it just to impress you.”
“What makes you think a tie would impress me?”
“When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me I looked good wearing one. That, and because I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Smiling, but quiet, Jill turned and walked down the stairs with Pete two steps behind her, neither of them saying anything all the way down, through the building’s front door and out onto the sidewalk.
“Well,” Jill stopped and turned to Pete. “I was thinking..”
“Me, too. ..Sorry. You go ahead.”
“No,” Jill really needed him to go first. “What were you going to say?”
“Well, we both get home about the..”
“Pete!!,” a young woman barged in between them, literally pushed Jill out of the way. “Oh. Sorry,” she apologized half heartedly, extending her hand to shake Jill’s. She was good looking, in a financially successful, briefcase-up-her-ass kind of way. Expensive business suit. More expensive do. “I’m L. It’s short for Leslie. Pete and I dated for a while, quite a while actually, when we were in college.” And then she cupped her hand to the side of her mouth, pretending Pete couldn’t hear her. “..I think he lost his virginity with me, but he denies it.”
“Hi,” Jill was struck, but not entirely surprised by the firmness of L’s grip. “Pleasure to..”
L didn’t wait to make chit chat, preferring to talk to Pete. “Your mother..”
“You talked to my mother?”
“How else was I going to find out where you lived? ..whether or not you were still single?!”
“Leslie, I’m kind of in the middle of something. How about..”
“My point exactly. Look. I’ve go to get to meeting, and I’m flying back early tomorrow. We’ll have a nice dinner tonight, my treat, and then,” she smiled, setting her briefcase down and reaching up to tighten Pete’s tie, her ample breasts just brushing against his chest, “..and then we’ll see what happens next. How ‘bout that?” L finished in a much softer, less arrogant, blatantly seductive voice.
“Look, uh..” Jill had had enough and was beginning to feel like she was in the way. “I’ve got to get going. Pleasure,” she said nodding toward L. “..I’ll see you around, Pete,” and she turned and started walking away.
“Why don’t we meet back here at, let’s say, 7?” L was persistent and confident to a fault. “Unless, you’d prefer..”
“Jill!” Pete shouted after her. “Wait, up!”
Jill barely heard him, but stopped when she did, taking a second to compose herself before turning around and taking the few steps back to where he was dealing with L.
“Leslie,” he said in a surprising determined tone.
“Yes?” She really had no idea what was going on.
“It’s good to see you. Really. ..No. Sort of, but I have plans for tonight and,” looking up at Jill who smiled back at him, “with any luck, tomorrow night and the night after that.” Taking a step closer to Jill, L was squeezed to the side.
“Well, okay,” L raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “Here.” L took out a business card and slid it into Pete’s shirt pocket, patting it after she did. “Call me. I’ve got to go.” And she did, without either Jill or Pete watching her leave.
“I was thinking we could order Chinese tonight. I’ll buy. You’ll bring dessert. I have Netflix. Maybe watch a movie.”
“Okay.” Jill smiled again, mostly with her eyes this time. “That would be nice.”
“Good.” Pete took a step forward.
“Do I get to pick?”
“What we order?”
“Sure.” Taking his bag off his shoulder, he pulled out the menu he had printed last night. “I wrote my email address at the bottom, just in case you needed it, and my cell phone number. Let me know what you want, but nothing weird. No squid, no mushrooms I don’t..”
“Of course not.” Stepping forward, Jill reached up to re-loosen Pete’s tie, letting both her hands slide away from his neck half way down his chest. “We’ll save the weird part for after the movie.”
Pushing back slightly, they both smiled, turned and got on their ways to work, neither of them turning to look back for fear they’d screw something up.
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