Pique

Nina Ficenec

The tenant in 2C has been ill for quite some time. I expect she won’t return. Any day I’ll get a call from her mother who cosigned on the place to tell me, apologetically, they’ll need to cancel the lease and I’ll tell her, of course, given the circumstances there will be no cancellation penalty and I hope her daughter gets well soon, really, and what a lovely young lady she was or, I mean, is.

I imagine them sending the girl to the Alps for treatment, nuns dressed in white and blue lacing her food and drink with holy water, a vision of the Virgin in the garden, crowds of people throwing themselves down at her withered feet, each one wanting a touch of her frail grace, each one becoming more enthralled, limbs crawling over torsos and reaching out, wanting, clawing, eviscerating, the girl’s consecrated molecules being handed out one by one, paraded and encased in individual lockets, blessed lockets that are modest and sacred, yearly pilgrimages to her pearl adorned altar which shines brightest atop an attainable peak. Attainable because, after all, people need assurances with salvation.

The tenant in 2C painted her living room blood red when I specifically told her she can’t paint the walls. She’s only physically lived in the apartment for two months and it looks like she’s been here all her short life. She keeps pictures tacked everywhere in her bedroom. She has lots of friends. I wonder if they know about her condition or if they think to check the obituaries to see if she died.

She hasn’t. She’s still here.

She wears only thong underwear. Her cup size is a 34-C. Her pillows smell like honey and lavender. She has a cute blouse I think looks better on me. It compliments my smaller breasts and the eggshell looks nice with my tanned skin and dark waves. I take it. Her Ipod consists of radio pop and a few surprising ones like Eazy E and The Cars. I play Boyz-n-the-Hood and pop and lock badly. Her fridge is almost out of wine coolers and I grab one, a green one, and make a mental note to buy a 12-pack later, just in case. I want to ask her mother if I can have her couch. The leather licks my body and I let it. I’ll let it swallow me whole. But now I can’t. Because my husband Alan just text asking what I want for dinner.

U mean ur eating here tnit

Yes shd I brng food

Yes pls

My husband Alan has been fucking his best friend Louis’ wife Penelope for the past three years and I honestly don’t quite mind. I know I say don’t quite mind, implying my honesty isn’t genuine. I guess I should say I don’t mind my husband fucking his best friend Louis’ wife Penelope who is prettier and more accomplished than I am with bigger breasts and nicer teeth and a job with my husband at an environmental non-profit which they both clearly find fulfilling except during those times when I feel like I need my husband. Like when there’s a jar of pickles I can’t open, a casserole dish at the top of the cabinet he can reach more easily than me, or like when I go to the trouble to cook a meal and he says he won’t be home until late. How late?

Vry lt sry

His best friend Louis works from home in computer technology. Occasionally I’ll text him during these moments of solitude and, of course, he’s alone, too. When he texts back I can tell he has no clue.

Shes out fighting for the cause [smiling emoji]

Shes being a superhero [fireworks emoji]

Out with our boy working on the fundraiser [smiling emoji] [hands clapping emoji] [planet Earth emoji]

I grab a bottle of wine from 3A. The couple who live there are out to dinner at a French joint about twenty minutes away. He’s proposing to her tonight. He left the receipt and insurance for the ring in a shoebox under the bed. By the price, I know it’ll be a lot nicer than mine. He makes good money. She doesn’t have to work but does anyway at the college. When I see her at the gym we chat for a little bit about mundane things, most of which I tend to lie about. She’s reading the collected stories of John Cheever and I tell her I’m reading Raymond Carver even though I’m reading Robbe-Grillet and isn’t it funny how when Cheever and Carver taught together they did more drinking than teaching? No, no, not funny ha-ha, but funny as in odd and sad and how many good stories do you think we missed out on from so many brilliant writers because of cancer, yes, cancer, my brother had cancer I can’t remember what kind but he’s okay now.

Yes, so sad. So not funny at all.

Alan brings Chinese for dinner. We eat it on the livingroom floor from the cartons and watch a show about the inner workings of the universe. We don’t really speak much these days, though I do tell him about the girl in 2C.

“You mean the college girl? Such a shame. We should send her family a card.”

“That’s a good idea. Why are you always so full of good ideas, babe?”

He looks at me and smiles. We’ve been together thirteen years and we both look a lot better than we did back then. We’ve grown into ourselves, our bodies toned, his obviously a bit more muscular but I’m better at pacing myself. We work out together sometimes and while he wears himself out after an hour I can keep going for two more. This is how we’ve always been. It’s why I took this job as property manager for this building eight years ago, because we get a discount on the rent and I could manage the bills while he figured out who he wanted to be, while he went to school, to different career paths he ended up hating, real estate, acting, writing, even at one point opening a TexMex food truck to now being an environmentalist who doesn’t even recycle but is still well-intentioned.

I’ll probably outlive him.

When we fuck that night I keep a close eye on his face to see if his eyes are open the whole time. They’re not. While he’s inside me I squeeze as hard as I can and he lets out a low groan and pulls on my hips. He feels erect, but not as erect as he used to, at least from what I can recall. A part of me wants to take him out and measure him, start keeping a record of his erections to chart their consistency. I could group them by season, by work flow, Pen flow, the cycles of the moon. Is Louis fucking Pen right now and is he thinking she’s been wetter before? Probably not, because he’s a fucking idiot.

The building consists of nine apartments spread over three floors. Ours is the street-facing bottom right two-bedroom. When I look out the window from our livingroom I can see Mr. Farmer across the street at his deli checking out two college boys. His husband Mr. Farmer whose name is Dylan joins him and checks out the boys, too. Then they look at each other and laugh, put their arms around one another’s shoulder and walk back inside, flirting and smiling.

One night while Alan was out late I turned off the lights and watched them while they closed up. They were arguing and Mr. Farmer whose name is Dylan stormed out into the night, leaving Mr. Farmer to clean the place by himself. I followed Dylan to the bar around the corner and sat at a high-top near him. He drank gin and tonic with two twists of lime. I ordered the same. He started chatting with the bartender and when they laughed I laughed, when they smiled I smiled, when they watched a bullfight on T.V. I watched with them. The bull and matador reacted to one another like rivers converging and emptying into the ocean wildly, wave swallowing wave swallowing wave, the surface rising higher and higher until the oceans covered all the land and ripped the ground from under me, my legs kicking and kicking but just never hard enough, Alan sinking by my side then remembering he had a lifejacket on and rising happily to the blue sky above. I found myself gasping for air at which point the bartender asked if I was okay and I lied and said my drink just went down the wrong pipe. Mr. Farmer, Dylan, that is, had already left.

I replace the wine coolers in 2C which leaves me three to drink myself. Halfway through the second one I get a text from Louis.

Hey.

Hey

What are you up to right now? Want to grab a late lunch? [chicken leg emoji]

For a brief moment my chest feels like it’s going to crumble before logic kicks in and tells me he probably wouldn’t be using an emoji if it were about Alan and Pen. In fact, he’d probably call.

Dpnds do I hv to rder chken?

We meet at Bell Point Park where every weekday about thirty different food trucks line the perimeter. I order a lamb souvlaki with pita bread from Opa’s Little Greece. Louis orders a meatball sub from Lino’s. I’m wearing my new blouse from 2C with some cuffed jeans. He’s dressed in dark-wash jeans and a worn Jawbreaker t-shirt with a gray cardigan sweater that reminds me of Mr. Rogers. We sit in the amphitheatre where a local theater group is rehearsing a series of Beckett’s one-acts.

“Which one is this, Jeanne?”

A man on the stage is sitting on the stool with a fiddle talking with another man in a wheelchair about women and corned beef.

“One of the Rough for Theatres. I don’t remember which one.”

I hand Louis a napkin and we begin to eat. Louis, like Alan and me, has also gotten better looking with age. His eyes remind me of the sea in winter and are contrasted by his dusty brown hair which looks gold at different times of the day. He and Alan met in their high school Spanish class. Mine and Alan’s first date was a double date with Louis and this girl named Kelly who Louis dumped after a year because “she wasn’t going anywhere.” One would disregard such harsh judgments as premature as none of us at the time were old enough to even legally drink, but Louis actually was normally pretty spot on with his assessments.

The last time I saw Kelly was two years ago outside of my old therapist’s office. She had just moved back to town and suggested we meet for lunch to catch up. When I got to the restaurant she was sitting at the bar already three sheets in while some guy had his hand up her skirt and fingered her indiscreetly. Because I knew how easily it could have been me or anyone else, how close we all always are to breaking down and giving up, because I didn’t want Louis to be right, I grabbed her and pulled her out of the restaurant where she gave me a sloppy but effective right hook and left with the guy. I didn’t tell Louis or Alan about it, blaming my bruised face on my usual clumsiness.

Louis told me that night on our double date that Alan has a tendency to dream too much and I should try to keep him grounded. When Louis started dating Pen around six years ago I told him she’s a keeper and not to let her get away because he seemed really excited about her and I’ve never been very good at judging people.

“So how’s Wonder Woman doing these days?”

We sit in silence for some time while he chews and swallows his food. I didn’t notice he’d taken a bite when I asked. “She’s doing good. Working a lot. Like Alan. That’s why I asked you to lunch, actually. Thought that since they’re spending so much time together why should we sit around alone? No, not that, I mean, I know you can handle being by yourself. We both can. Maybe because we, neither of us had any brothers or sisters. Just sometimes it’s nice to change things up in your routine. I haven’t talked to you in a while. I mean, we text, but, you know. I want to know what’s going on with you.”

I’m not sure what to say. I’m still a little buzzed from the wine coolers. “Well, everyone paid their rent on time this month, which is nice. But one tenant is about to move, or probably will. Illness. 3A just got engaged. 3B’s little girl is taking ballet lessons and pirouettes in the halls sometimes. The woman in 3C has been leaving various literary paraphernalia on 1C’s doorstep. I’ll have to evict her because of it.”

“Literary paraphernalia?”

“Weird stuff, like, um, pages from Emerson’s Self-Reliance folded over a Polaroid of a disemboweled hamster. A copy of Camus’ The Stranger with every other sentence Sharpied over. 3C has been living in the apartment since before my time. It’s kind of sad, really. 1C’s husband is overseas right now. It’s stressing her out.”

“I imagine.”

“A guy, a writer, just moved into 2A and his brother helps him pay his bills. I don’t think he’s published anything, yet. Sometimes when I see him getting his mail he hesitates before opening it, like he’s scared of what could be in there. The woman in 1B is a hoarder and I probably won’t renew her lease.”

“Really? Like on T.V.?”

You can’t even get into her bedroom the trash is piled so high. She receives packages every other day and most of them are left unopened. She hangs all her clothes in the bathroom and takes showers at the hospital where she works as a nurse. One whole wall in the dining room is dedicated to plastic grocery bags hung neatly on row upon row of small hooks. Stacks of take out and cans of cat food fill up every inch of counter space, all though I’ve yet to find the cat. A small path from the door leads to an ottoman in her livingroom where she sleeps amongst piles of clothes and coffee cups and bubble wrap and more boxes and picture frames where the same newlyweds and the same nuclear family smiles and holds one another behind precisely cut sheets of glass.

Louis looks intrigued. I ask him if he wants to see. He says yes.

We take a cab because we didn’t catch the bus in time. I don’t really feel like talking so I look out the window. When we stop at a light, I watch an old woman trying to walk her cat, bits of fur catching the concrete as the cat struggles and hisses, the old woman pulling and never looking back. The driver, a Latino man I’ve seen a few times at the Farmers’ deli with his three daughters, squeezes between a large tour bus and a catering van and I feel like a sardine and tell him he’s like the James Bond of vehicles for hire. He smiles proudly and blows imaginary gun smoke from his index finger. I want to tell him James Bond never did that but decide against it.

When we first enter 1B we’re hit with a blast of warm air smelling of ramen noodles and cooked eggs. Three medium sized box fans are placed randomly atop stacks of magazines to circulate the air. Her air conditioner must be out and she’s too scared to tell me.

“Hurry up and lock the door.”

Louis suppresses a gag as he quietly turns the deadbolt. He takes off his sweater and wraps it around the lower half of his face. He’s hesitant, so I take his hand and lead him through the dining room to more or less the center of the apartment so he can see everything. I tell him not to touch anything so as not to inadvertently cause an avalanche. He says something and I can’t understand with the sweater over his mouth and when he moves it I see his face distorted, pained, a sort of disbelief.

“How does something like this happen? I mean, look at this shit.”

“I know. I couldn’t tell you how it happens. Just does.”

I take his hand again and lead him to the ottoman where we both crouch with our knees to our chests so he can know how she sleeps. His face reddens and he sniffles but I can’t tell if it’s emotion or environment driven or if he’s allergic to something. He stands and maneuvers his way back to the center of the apartment. I follow him.

“How often do you come here?” 

 “Not often. Whenever I feel like I need to.”

The door to the building unlocks. It opens. It shuts hard. We freeze. Footsteps come down the hall, pause, checking the mail, pause, then carry on, settling at the front door. The sound of keys sorting. I grab Louis’ hand and maneuver us as quickly and quietly as possible through the kitchen, past empty pickle and spaghetti jars, past cabinets dotted with food, past the refrigerator whose door is ajar and oozing something sweet smelling onto the laminate, into a small nook in the pantry which barely fits just me. I push us hard against whatever is in there and get us in. The folding door won’t close all the way so I grab Louis’ sweater and place it over our heads and wrap my arms tight around him. We both try to calm our breathing as the door opens.

She shuffles in with what sounds like a bag. We hear her go in the bathroom. I try to get my phone from my front pocket but my pants are either too tight or my phone is too big.

“Your phone.”

My head is pressed against Louis’ chest. His hands are resting on my hips.

“Back pocket.”

I slip my hand around and down into his pocket and slide the phone out. I press the Home button. 6:13. I’m hoping she’s just taking an early lunch break from her swing shift. I relay this to Louis in as few words as possible and he nods. I slip his phone back into his pocket. We hear more shuffling. A television clicks on. The local meteorologist says to expect thunderstorms tomorrow. He tells us not to forget our galoshes. He says it’s going to be a doozy. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness so I look up at Louis. He’s smiling. So I smile. He starts to laugh quietly. I cover his mouth but start laughing, too.

“I really hope there’s no roaches in here.”

“I’m more worried about rats.”

We hear a cat purr at our feet. We muffle more laughter.

My phone buzzes. A few seconds later his phone dings.

Around 9 o’clock 1B leaves. Louis and I go to mine and Alan’s apartment and take a shower together to get the smell off. I carefully wash his hair, making sure the lather doesn’t seep into his eyes. He runs a wet cloth over my back and up my neck. I give him some of Alan’s clothes to wear and place his in a grocery bag. He watches me while I dress and when my shirt slides over my body I feel his hands free my hair from beneath the fabric.

He follows me to 2C and we lie on the couch together and share a red wine cooler that matches the color of the walls. I wonder when I’ll get the call to go ahead and paint it back to white, to empty it out, scrub the whole thing down. I hope the next tenant is just like her. Louis holds me but we don’t say anything. I take a drink. The water in my hair bleeds into Louis’ shirt, or Alan’s shirt, or Louis’ new old shirt and feels warm on the side of my face.

Louis gets a text from Pen and says he has to leave and I go back to mine and Alan’s apartment. I open all the windows. I put on Otis Redding and let the volume drown out the chatter from the street. I make myself a bourbon and water and lay on our less comfortable couch and watch the strangers strolling by, some of them stopping when they hear the music, some adjusting their pace to match the tempo. I don’t know what time it is when I see Alan cross the window. I don’t hear the lock turn. Or the door open. I don’t hear his steps as he walks to the stereo to turn off the music. When he says my name I start laughing at how silly it sounds.