I am not a city person.
Even so, when I began waking at 6 am to catch the train into the city, I recognized the need for change. Sure, most people prefer the convenience of a real neighborhood, with grocery stores and cafés, somewhere to brunch on Sundays. I like quiet. I like the indoors, the train, the grocery store where nobody knows my name. I am definitionally anonymous.
And so I dreaded the move, but did not delay it. I looked in Brooklyn, flipping my collar against the air, feeling nonetheless infiltrated. It took a week; the area was well below my price range. When I agreed to the place, I had a sense the realtor hated me, that she felt through my silent façade to something more sinister that I could not identify for myself.
I hired a van to move what I had. There was a lumpy couch, a bed frame and mattress – objects of bachelorhood. The driver mumbled something about a sorry January sight. I felt naked. Other things I had boxed already and they went in stacked at the back – books, dishes, a few magnificent frames with outdated art, clothes. I wondered about this accumulation. It was mine. Me, the Wall Street drone; turned from an identity of liberal political conceit to necessary consumerist. Whatever.
What’s that? asked the driver.
Nothing. I could only mumble. Nothing.
We made our way to the city half in silence. He chatted to me. I made attempts at nicety, but even this thwarted him, and so we both sat knowing I was the asshole.
Brownsville wasn’t the whorishly crowded neighborhood I had imagined. It was quiet when there weren’t sirens and Snediker Avenue seemed dangerous enough to assume I wouldn’t be approached by anyone but the occasional mugger.
The routine was improved, too, because my commute was cut to 45 minutes and in the morning, I could sit reading the Wall Street Journal while the world piled on after me. It was almost pleasant, despite the city.
For two weeks, I was complacent to the point of happiness. I read and walked and slept and ate what I could stomach. Then came the voice.
It was late. I had come home around eleven, straight from the office, and occupied myself making tea and slicing an apple. There was a book – “Crime and Punishment,” I think – and I was reading, eating the apple, and waiting for the water. It occurred to me that I should eat something else, maybe an egg, and I set the book aside.
You don’t love me, said a voice. It was a woman speaking. I looked around. There was, of course, no one there.
I know what you sacrificed, she said, coming here, but you don’t love me.
I was relatively certain that this voice was coming from outside my head. I set the egg on the counter, and gazed at the ceiling. The voice was resonant, velvet. She couldn’t be talking to me, I thought. This is not my voice, I insisted.
Maybe it would be better if you left. Pause. Or I could leave. Pause. You know I love you, what else can I do? Baby? Baby, pick up.
My kitchen was an open space that bled into the living room, and I backed out of it now, keeping my eyes trained on the ceiling. Crunch. I dropped my eyes to the egg running white and yolk over the linoleum. I considered this and went to clean it, but in the kitchen the voice seemed louder, I felt more invasive, as though it were my intention to overhear. I retreated to bed.
In the morning, bits of the egg were dried, but the voice was gone. I had not slept well. The voice had hummed on until late. I made myself toast and a different egg, dressed, and left for work.
A woman in a miniskirt and heavy tights stood near me on the platform and my eyes ran once over the roundness of her ass, before I refocused on the Journal. I wanted to roll my eyes at it – wearing a miniskirt in New York cold – but I also realized a feeling of appreciation and refrained. On the train, we were forced to stand closer and closer together, our shoulders finally brushing when space had dwindled. She knew, and gave me a disgusted look before pushing away through the crowd. Maybe it was more than shoulders that brushed. I tried just to read.
The voice went on all week and I got take out to avoid what felt like sneaky listening in my kitchen. I am a person to keep to myself. I had no interest. Still, there was its pathetic rumor, invading my reading and my dreams. I tried to walk myself to sleep in a nearby park, but coming home only reawakened me and I lay there listening to the scroll of whining bitterness read aloud to an audience of no more than two. But I couldn’t be sure anyone else was listening. I wished for the woman in the miniskirt. Then I wished to be alone.
Leaving work for the weekend, I stepped onto an elevator going down. Two women got on at the 60th floor.
Yeah, so apparently he has a weird sword fetish, one of them said, glancing over her shoulder at her friend as they stepped on. I eyed them both. They weren’t paying any attention to me. They were business attractive.
Like, he owns a bunch of swords, she laughed. And I’m just thinking, honey, this is Manhattan, you better get yourself a real weapon.
The other woman had dropped her jaw, as if ‘getting a real weapon’ were a more significant catalyst for shock than the fact there was some dude out there with a massive sword collection. No way, she said. I thought of the man who drove my furniture to the new apartment.
Yeah, seriously. He wants us to dress as samurai for Valentine’s Day. Could be sexy, right?
The doors opened and a man got on. 44rd floor. As they closed again, I could see the reflection of the second woman wrinkling her nose. Everything about their reactions seemed delayed. As if the dubbing were behind on the TV.
You date the weirdest men, she said. Her voice sounded familiar. Where did you meet him again?
The first woman shrugged. I hired him for a job. We hit it off. You know.
The doors opened again and the man stepped out. 27th floor. Their voices echoed through me like rain pounding on a roof. They were pounding into my head. I had heard that voice before.
We started down and then the elevator jammed. They looked at me. I felt a little sick.
Shit, said the first woman.
Try pressing the emergency button, said the other. I nodded.
The elevator jiggled when I stepped forward, though, and continued down, as if movement were just the necessary reminder it needed.
Jesus, said the one with the familiar voice. And just as I realized it was crazy, my mouth opened.
Do I know you? I asked her. She narrowed her eyes.
I don’t think so.
It’s just, well, it’s strange, but I’m almost sure you know my neighbor. Sometimes – maybe you talk on the phone? Silence. Both women stared. The elevator stopped and the doors opened. We all stepped out, but she did not walk away.
What makes you say that? she asked. I felt suddenly very afraid.
It’s your voice, I explained and thought how this sounded. I mean, I’m never on the phone, but there’s an echo and –
Ok buddy, the first woman cut me off. Anna, let’s go.
I protested, and Anna looked back twice, but then they were gone and I was standing dumb.
That night, there was no voice in my kitchen.
I walked up the stairs. A sickly sweet smell, like rotted fruit, hung in the hallway. I knocked. An eviction notice was posted, so I went to the super’s office.
Something’s wrong in apartment 403, I said.
You’re 303, right?
Yeah. Pause. No response. So I went on, There’s a smell, and usually I hear a woman talking, but it’s really quiet.
The super shrugged, said he would check it out, and continued to sit. Finally, I withdrew sheepishly. I had no idea why I should feel ashamed.
Later, the police came. They questioned me, said the man had been dead for days. Definitely a homicide, one said. Apparently by sword. I felt sick again and asked if I could be taken to the hospital.
I thought how this would never happen in the suburbs. The walls are thicker. It is quiet.
On my desk at work, Anna left a note that said, “How did you know?”
I didn’t know where she might be, so I wrote on the note: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I wished Anna would call the man again. I wished she would call me. I wished for the woman in the miniskirt. I wished for the man in apartment 403. But I am anonymous.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, ChrisWhiteWrites challenged me with “Write an exchange (in the third person) between two people in an elevator, using the words ‘sword’, ‘catalyst’ and ‘valentine'” and I challenged Karla V with “write the impossible in 200-300 words.”