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Essay

WE DON’T NOTICE the bloodstains when we first walk through the apartment. We notice the crumbling holes in the walls—small puncture wounds along the alcove where a bed might fit, a crusty gash where the toilet paper holder has been ripped out of the wall—but we don’t ask. We are sweating in the white-walled, windowless basement apartment: my husband Ben and I, along with our red-faced, retiree landlord-to-be and his quiet wife. Around us stands the debris of a very feminine life: metal buckets of fake lavender, a tall shelf full of books on women, rights, and poetry. Two matching papasan chairs stare at a TV; cute shoes lie matched in an open closet.

“We’ll fix those,” the landlord says, gesturing to the holes, looking to my husband. “Of course, we’ll fix those.”

§

The next week, the apartment is empty and the holes in the walls are matte spots so cleanly leveled that I do not see them unless, as I pass, I see the light change on the face of the paint. My husband and I walk through the bare rooms and try to imagine where our boxes and borrowed furniture will go. In the bathroom, we stand surveying the cramped appointments. Ben reaches out and takes hold of the cheap, stretched roller shade hanging askew from the window. His thumb rubs a dark, almost brown streak on the shade; his eyes pause for a moment before tracking to a set of dark spots on the ceiling.

“It’s blood,” he says.

“Really?” I stare at the shade in his hand and look up at the ceiling, trying to imagine what kind of an accident would fling blood to both surfaces.

“I think it is,” he says.

Later, putting groceries away, my hand hits a patch of brownish spots on the freezer door, spackled around and behind the door handle. With my fingernail, I chip at the stain, then, remembering the spots in the bathroom, I rub hard, trying to forget what they might be.

§

The woman who lived here last was a waitress. Her boyfriend was a rapper. She was Russian; he was black. The apartment was in her name, but he lived here most of the time, too, the girls who rent the house upstairs tell us. Many nights the two of them stood together in the wide main basement room, hooting and keening, doing vocal exercises to prepare for his performances. I almost laugh when the girls tell me this; I imagine a slender white woman and a shirtless, lean man standing crouched before each other like animals, intense and absurd and very serious. She is in a tank top; her pale stomach shows. He can’t be too big; his fists, like the holes in the wall, are small. But I can’t divine a face for either; the expressions and features are smudged and particulate, taking pieces from the faces of boys I knew in junior high, teenage girls I have seen in the mall chattering in slippery Russian.

I ask the girls upstairs if they ever heard anything: screaming, crying, arguing. Beyond a final fight, they say, and the barking vocalises, they did not hear or see much of either the woman, who would not look them in the eye as she walked down the driveway to her door, or the man, who came and went in the middle of the night in a battered black car.

§

The ceiling of the basement apartment is thick enough to give us muted sounds from the upstairs house of feet treading, the floor creaking, water shushing on and off in the kitchen sink. Walking the small, walled horseshoe of basement rooms while carrying laundry to the bed or shoes to the closet, I never hear voices. Once in awhile I hear a sneeze or a cough. I wonder what they hear of us.

In our last apartment, a coast away, the long bedroom window opened to a ruined garden that nobody, save a crying dog, ever visited. The ground of the garden rose in a bowl and the sounds of life in the other apartments rolled and floated in it: one person tinkering in a room, one door easing open and shut, one man who talked to himself in a high, mocking voice and then sang, full-throated, for hours. When Ben and I fought in the evenings, we could hear a faint echo of our voices reverberate in that open space. Later, as we lay in bed exhausted with anger or perhaps repentance, the breeze from that window would bring the reply of a small child’s cries. She was somewhere in our building, calling out not in pain or anger, but in a kind of elated defiance. Her voice seemed close to a window, as if she were standing on a bed, holding onto the chipping tile window ledge as she stared out into the dark and screamed.

§

We find blood on other things in the apartment: a doorjamb, the metal hatch that hides the electrical panel, a low space on a bedroom wall. Every surface is white; the blood is inky brown, spattered and feathery or congealed in long teardrops as it fell. Often, Ben and I find the blood together as we are completing a task. We see it, stare at it, and say nothing. His thumb will rush to pick or press at the blood, wiping it without a word. One morning, I stumble to the dim bathroom and I can see, even in the dark, that he has washed the blood off the shade and ceiling. A muddy bruise still stains the hatched plastic fabric of the curtain.

We fight on Sunday afternoons, perhaps because his school studies and my long days of work leave us little time to bicker on the weekday evenings. We sit across from each other in the main basement room: one on the couch, one in an old orange chair. He is stony; I shriek. He finally shouts and I cry, the sound chiming flatly against the low ceiling. I think briefly but blankly of the house above us and what it can hear.

In the aftermath, we get up and pass each other without a word. There is nothing: no footsteps, voices, heartbeats of washers or dryers or sucking pipes. The quiet of the house seems as conspicuous as the hush of a crowd—as if, even though we are alone, we are watched.

§

There are in fact three windows in the windowless apartment, three small, shaded portholes we could bust, if lucky, and shimmy through to escape fire or smoke. Waking up on a Monday after a fight, staring into the flat darkness, I often wish for the light of our old apartment’s windows: not only the long garden window, but also the full bank of windows that filled the front of the apartment with sun and a view of a street and the fog and cranes of a canal.

I looked out these wide front windows one evening and saw the little girl who screamed at night. She ran past our apartment, chased by her mother. Her father’s hoarse voice shouted out at her from the open door of the apartment next to ours, a huge end unit where three college boys lived. He visited them often. Craning my head from where I stood cooking dinner in our corridor kitchen, I watched the little girl run back and forth as she and her mother yelled at each other. The little girl had dark hair, her tiny ponytail still soft with new curls that shook as she ran.

Soon, the men came out to smoke and crowded against our window, blocking the late evening light. Inside our apartment, I stepped closer to them, catching glimpses of the little girl standing amidst their legs. Her mother was there too, reaching a hand down to her daughter, the tops of her dangling breasts fat and chapped, looking like fruit gone veiny and bad at the skin but still thick and ripe at the heart. Above the mother’s breasts were small eyes; somewhere in between was her mouth, open, laughing, almost panting. The father’s mouth was like this, too, but cracking out of a black-stubbled face that I would never see shaven. Later, I would glimpse the tattoo portraits on their calves: his of her, hers of him, their plain features caricatured in doe-eyed, dreamy busts.

§

The mother was young, no more than twenty-two, I guessed, and likely lying when she told me she was married. I had known girls like her; in adolescence, I had been shy and shadowed by them, jealously loved by them, and in turn, obsessed and bored and frightened by their sadness and their stories. Later that week while Ben and I fought, I imagined the mother in their east-end apartment, lying on a messy bed, humoring the little girl’s play and listening to our high-pitched cries, sounds that might at first have been mistaken for the birds that dipped down into the garden at dusk. The next morning I heard a knock on the front window and before I opened the door, I could smell her standing there: a moldering scent of must and smoke and cheap food, like a familiar perfume whose presence piques the body with a sharp, almost sexual fear.

She was standing on the doormat in her socks, eyes dizzy and skin ruddy with sleep. It was ten o’clock. Her red hair was matted at the temples and she wore her husband’s loose, studded leather jacket over a T-shirt and plaid flannel pants. She remembered my name. It took me a minute to remember hers.

“Can I use your cell?” Jessie asked, holding out her hand.

“Sure.” I gave it to her.

“Thanks,” she waved, padding back down to her apartment, where the door was still open. I could hear the TV’s music and the little girl’s brief, demanding yell.

In a couple of minutes Jessie was back, the silver phone warm with the heat of her hand. I felt it cool by grades in my own as she stood in the doorway, talking idly, the unsure focus of her eyes hovering at my ears, the crown of my head, my neck. She was talking about her mother, her sister, someone she had called to ask for money, but the conversation seemed little more than a scheme to stare at me. Once, her gaze caught mine, probing and passing so quickly that I felt a pang of shame, as if she knew something and were testing to see if I could tell. I thought of last night’s fight, only hours past. I imagined that she had truly heard us.

§

Walking past Jessie’s apartment on the days I worked, I peered through the blinds on their long windows and saw the same corridor kitchen, living room, and bedroom hallway of our home. The warm air rimming their apartment smelled like her and I walked through it quickly, barely breathing as I surveyed the toy-littered floor and the opalescent eye of a huge TV. Sometimes I saw food on the kitchen counter: a white bowl, an orange-hued, slumping bag of bread, but usually it was empty. The morning Jessie came to our apartment and asked for food, I tried to make kind small talk as she stood awkwardly in our kitchen, waiting for me to fill a plastic sack with apples, cheese, and the green and white packs of butchered game we had brought back from home. It was the last of the meat. I was barely making minimum wage; Ben worked day labor on a construction crew. It was hard for me to slip it into the sack.

She took the bag and left quickly. The next day, she brought it all back.

“Joe’s dad sent us money,” she said. “I told you I’d pay you back.” She handed me the bags and stood in the doorway, talking hungrily as she had the first time she knocked. I could smell her smoky scent rising faintly from the food in the bag. Her eyes roamed me and the rest of the room; I knew that she wanted to come in. I didn’t want to let her.

I was sitting at my living room desk later that week staring out the wide front window, shades half-closed, when I heard a door bang open and small feet slap down the walkway. Suddenly, the little girl stood at the top of the west-end stairs, only a few feet from me. Through the thin pane, I could hear her breathe.

“Izzie!” Jessie yelled. “Izzie.”

A grating rumble grew louder as Jessie walked past pulling a plastic laundry bin, dingy clothes and sheets bulging from the flower-shaped cutouts. She was wearing Joe’s jacket and the metal studs clanged against the rail as she jarred the bin down the stairs, grabbed Izzie’s hand, and shook her.

I was still sitting at my desk a couple of hours later as Jessie began to bring clean, dry laundry back up to their apartment. Her arms were full when Joe bounded up the stairs behind her, passed her without a word, then whirled around and backed her against the rail. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I caught plainly her apologetic mewing and his final, harsh shout. She did not look up when he turned away and ran down the walkway to their door.

§

The next time I saw Jessie, she was hunched at the bus stop late on Friday afternoon. Her red hair hung frizzy in the fog and her leather jacket gaped around her shoulders. I was lugging grocery bags filled with wine, bread, and a few other things we needed for a dinner party. When I said hello, she glanced up and looked away as if she had not seen me.

“Hey, Izzie’s at your house,” she said, staring out at the street. “Joe’s in jail. I just have to go down with some papers.” She stepped out into the street to look for the bus. “I know you’ve got friends coming over, so.”

She did not turn around as I said goodbye.

Up at our apartment, the windows were bright and the glass was glazed with heat from the kitchen. When I knocked, Izzie opened the door. Flecks of dried gravy colored her lips and chin; I touched her head, briefly grasping the soft curls, and brought the grocery bags into the kitchen. Ben leaned close to kiss me and said: “Joe’s in jail.”

“I know. I saw Jessie at the bus,” I said.

“They had a fight.”

His words hung in the air. We had fought hard, stupidly, a couple of nights before. I had thrown something; he had grabbed my wrists to try to stop me, at once furious and protective. We had struggled. We had never done this before.

“Izzie’s okay?”

“She looks fine. Jessie’s neck’s all bruised.”

I put the wine on the counter and slipped a heavy, round loaf of bread from its brown bag. I tried to think if I had seen Jessie’s neck; it had been hidden in the jacket’s flipped-up collar.

“What happened?”

“He got drunk or high with the guys next door and then—I don’t know. I think he came back and tried to hurt her and she stabbed him and called the police. It was late last night,” he said. It sounded almost comical, false as he reeled it off.

“Did you hear anything?” I said.

“No.”

The carpet banking the kitchen was littered with pieces of blue notepaper, each branded with Izzie’s sharp, circular scrawl. I picked up the papers, feeling the ridged abrasions on the back of each note. Some of them she had punctured over and over again with the pen. I looked up and saw her sitting under the folding table Ben had set up for dinner, singing to herself as she marched a marble up the table leg. I watched her, her face’s usual hard expression softened a bit in the privacy of play.

The dinner was an engagement party for a friend. I set the table around Izzie, who seemed content to stay beneath it as I spread out a tablecloth and set six places of our white and silver wedding china. When my friends began to arrive, Ben beckoned her out from underneath the table. She stared at the guests and stood beside him in the kitchen while he finished preparing the meal.

Jessie knocked on the window just as we sat down for dinner. When I opened the door, her face was damp and pale yellow under the fluorescent walkway light. She was not wearing her leather jacket.

“Would you like to come in?” I asked her. I meant it.

“No,” she said, her gaze hovering and indirect. “I left all my papers on the bus in my coat. So we’re kind of screwed.” She laughed hoarsely. “I need to find a phone.”

I grabbed our cell phone off the desk and gave it to her, and she and Izzie left.

During the party, the apartment windows remained cloudy with heat. I saw Jessie’s vague form run back and forth beyond the glass, Izzie’s feet slapping and their voices yelling as we drank and laughed, raising our glasses in toasts to our friend and to love, fidelity, and children to come.

§

The days waned quickly that weekend. By five o’clock each evening the bushes and trees of the garden grew shadowed and sedentary, like animals bedding down for the night. Lights from the ground-floor windows lit the saplings in the garden’s trench, so I could tell when Jessie and Izzie were home and when they were gone. I could see their light late into the night and hear their yelling voices, which I mistook once for echoes of our own.

We didn’t see them on Sunday. On Monday, they knocked at our front window. I could hear them breathing and bickering as I peered through the slit blinds. They stood pale and sleepy, still dressed in their pajamas in the early afternoon. Inside, Jessie sat at the table, not eating, not drinking. I sat across from her, watching the blue and brown bruises on her neck ripple as she swallowed and stared. Izzie played at our feet, flaying the same blue notepad, littering the room with its ragged squares.

“My grandfather died,” Jessie finally said, “with my mouth on his.”

Why are you telling me this? I wanted to ask. But I said nothing as she recounted how her father and uncle had refused to obey the dispatcher’s orders, so she, barely twelve, had clamped the phone to one ear, pumped her grandfather’s chest with her fist and breathed into his cocked mouth. “When I did it, his breath came out of him and I tasted everything he had eaten,” she said. “Chicken. We had had it for dinner.”

She sat in the chair staring, talking about her mother, her sister, and finally about Joe, how she and he and Izzie had come to the city with some cash leftover from her grandfather’s money. “Then he couldn’t get a job,” she said, “and he made me dance.” She cried hard for a moment.

“Did he hurt you before?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Yes. I hurt him.” She was touching the bruises, fingering them as if they were the beads of a necklace. “I love him,” she said.

§

While Jessie talked, I watched the window behind her, the sky darkening early as a spate of gray clouds rolled in and dropped cold, spitting rain, stopping the traffic and filling the road below us with crawling red taillights. I thought about the fight Ben and I had had a couple of nights before Joe attacked Jessie. I tried to remember what I had needed from Ben, what he had done to hurt me, but I had forgotten. What I remembered was the heady swell of anger and the thrill of lunging to hurl anything across the room. I remembered Ben’s face blanking in fear, his hands catching my wrists; I wrestled free, screaming and feeling in my stomach the sick terror of having urged each other to this.

I remembered too the first real fight of our marriage, on a snowy morning in a partitioned old house where we first lived. Its other inhabitants were silent as we quarreled and then yelled in the dark. I hit him for the first time: a dull, childish bat against his chest, and I was startled by how physically weak I was against him and by the intense warmth of his body. I came home from work early that day and lay in a scalding bath. I thought of our fight and of my parents’ fights, the addicting griefs and reunions of their bitter quarrels. Even then, years from home, the memory made me want to vomit. When Ben came home from work, we reconciled. But we fought again before the sun went down, and as I mocked him I could feel my anger rising even faster than it had before, breathless and ruthless and wishing he would stop me.

§

Ben got home late. When he came in Jessie was still sitting at the table and Izzie was asleep on the futon. We were quiet as he stamped the loose mud off his pants and peeled off his work boots.

“You’re here for dinner?” he asked her.

“Sure,” she said.

Jessie roused Izzie and took my phone, and they went home to make a call before dinner. I put water on for pasta and stood staring at the stovetop, numb with everything Jessie had told me and with what had played through my mind as she talked. I listened to Ben in the shower, the sound of the water echoing and distant, and I wandered to the bathroom door. It was warm with the heat of the small room; steam seeped over me as I opened it. Ben had just shut off the water and was standing naked, wrapping the towel around his waist. I stepped through the haze and set my face on his damp chest and started to cry. He wrapped his arms around me. He sighed deeply and I could feel his chest shudder, too.

§

I think of this moment while I am standing at the bathroom mirror in the basement apartment. Its silver glass is hazy with spittle and grimy dust, and just fogged at the edges with the last of the steam from my shower. My hair is wet; my body is damp and cold. Ben is gone after a fight. Is it possible, I ask myself, staring at the pale skin, the fine lines ridging my forehead, to love? I remember the feeling of his wet chest hair against my face and the slow fumbling that led us to the bed, and how we could hear Jessie and Izzie’s shouting, crying voices as we made love.

I reach down under the cabinet to pull up the glass cleaner and paper towels that the Russian girl left behind. The paper towels are as thick and soft as real cloth and the cleaner is expensive and sweet-smelling, a brand I would never pay to buy but that I have used gladly, with a satisfaction that turns grim when I remember why she left. We have been receiving her mail: stacks and stacks of home decorating magazines that show china-laden tables, wide armchairs, meals set in perfect gardens. I have been poring over the magazines, thinking of them in her hands, wondering what she would have lingered over.

I wander back through the cluttered bedroom and living room to the kitchen and take a stiff scrubbing pad from the kitchen sink. I will use it to clean the shower, I think. Then I will bleach it and put it back. Walking back through the rooms slowly, my hands reach out to touch the walls, and I remember each place where we have cleaned up her blood. For a moment, I feel that I am trespassing in her small space. It belongs to us now, I think reasonably. She is somewhere else. Her father came to get her, our landlord said, and took her home.

I remember Jessie and Joe’s front door standing open a crack, breathing with the wind on the walkway after Joe had come home from jail and they had been evicted. The door was open for over a week before Ben decided to go into their apartment. I followed him, letting him step first into the rooms and flash on each overhead light. In the living room, the huge TV stood glassy and blank before strewn clothes and toys. The kitchen was bare; the bathroom was dirty. In the bedroom, a giant battleship model lay large and gray on the unmade bed.

“I had this one when I was a kid,” Ben said. He picked up the ship, inspecting it. I stood by the bedroom door, watching him, surveying the room and glancing out into the garden through the long bedroom window.

In the dresser at my side, a half-crumpled piece of paper stuck out of the top drawer. I pulled it free and unfolded it. It was a computer-printed snapshot of a young woman, her hair curled and teased, her smile wide in a round, sweet face. A chunky, fake-diamond necklace was clasped at her thin neck. It was Jessie.

“Look,” I said.

I kept it in my hand while Ben led me through each room again, shutting off all the lights.

Just outside their door, he turned to me. On the threshold of the apartment, half in the dark and half in the streetlight, I saw his face’s lines more deeply and clearly, his features both unmasked and distorted. He was close to me; he touched my face. I could smell the house’s dank scent milking out into the night, mingling with the cool, humid air of the city and the faint musk of Ben’s body. I imagined how my own face must have looked to him, similarly strange and clear, and I closed my eyes while he ran his hand over my cheeks and temples as if they were a map. When I opened my eyes, he was still watching me. I reached up and kissed him as he pulled the door firmly shut.

 

 

This essay was selected for Best CNF, volume 3.


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