Jack smoothed the front of his button down in the standing mirror; turned his head right to left, left to right, examining his sideburns and the shade of his haircut: short and then less shorter and then longer on the crown with a spike. Leaning forward, he growled silently to check his teeth, inspecting especially the spaces between his incisors for any spinach.
He walked through the tight doorway, from his bedroom to the front of his apartment, where a dinner tray table stood by the door covered in randomness: leftover coins from the subway toll machines; half crumpled business cards he’d homemade himself, offering music lessons and editing assistance, anything really to pay the bills; a stack of pictures of Emily and him that his mother delivered to him shortly after his father’s birthday party; a lost button; a half-empty bottle of water; keys; a pack of smokes. And a stack of mail fanned out horizontally in some places to almost resemble a star.
Jack shrugged his shoulders, popped his arms out, shook around a bit. He picked up the stack of envelopes like cards and plucked the first four off like he was about to start a magic trick: make something disappear, make something else appear.
The name on all: Janet Stockton, 17 Whisper Woods Drive, Apt. 2D. The address where they arrived: Jack Rutland, 17 Whisper Woods Drive, Apt. 1D.
Jack had seen a glimpse of a flowing skirt up the steps and at another point the glint and shake of a tendril of hair out of the building door since Janet moved in, perhaps two weeks ago. But he heard more than he saw. Showers taken at night, and brief. A hairdryer. A trashcan lightly beating the thin linoleum, being shaken for the full bag to pop. A vacuum cleaner; a horror movie, somewhere in the middle with only one character screaming; a closet door.
Jack had held off, hoping to run into her on the steps, on the front sidewalk. Hey, hi… I have your mail.
But with four now stacked, three more than one, than an accident, the anxiety was getting to him. He didn’t want to stand in the way of Janet Stockton and her bank statements, her credit card statements, her bills. She must be anxious already, he thought; hoping she didn’t forget to change her address for all of her mail, hoping she followed the U.S. Postal Service’s instructions on moving, on uninterrupted service.
Jack had to see her anyway. He needed to know what she looked like. He prided himself on knowing every face in the building, every car in the parking lot. He was that type – he paid attention and stayed connected to his world in order to navigate it. Surprises, strangers, inaccuracies, anachronisms – things he couldn’t measure or brace for made him shiver, made him shy.
He should be a friendly neighbor anyway. She may need some help and would know who to ask.
Shuffling the mail against his thigh, he exited the apartment and climbed the stairs, counting. Counting, and turning, stepping up, counting, turning. In front of 2D, Jack stood. Shuffled the mail against his thigh. Licked his teeth. Pulled the collar from his neck in the front.
He struck the knocker three times, lightly, instead of knocking on the metal door.
He heard steps. The same deadbolt he had unlatched sounded, like deja vu. The same handle lock clicked and then suckled and then opened. And then presented a woman, a Janet.
“I have your mail.”
The night was dark in places Janet had never seen before.
Perhaps the black sinkholes on the right, boxy and straight and stacked, where the wall should be were book shelves. The deep oval corner – striated like muslin at the ends in grays and dark black golds – above the door (this much she knew) was the spot where light dissipates the most, an ominous black nothing where fear could creep in if you stared too long. This is the hole through which she came, muddled and unsure and stumbly, locked by arms, or lips, or hips with the sound behind her back now, rising and falling like the tide of the ocean when the moon was new and she had stood on the coast all those years back, wondering where the sand dried and the water wetted with each swell.
Janet knew the sound in her ear was resting, rested – unlike her body, the legs especially, twitching with mismovement, restlessness. Looking about the room, eyes darting sporadically, surveying the corner and side she could see without moving from her back indented into mattress soft, Janet looked for a clock and instead found numbers floating where sleep should have come so many hours before. Invisible numbers… but tangible, reachable, decipherable – 4:30 a.m.? 5:15 a.m.? 6:00?
She waited for a faint hint of dawn on the ceiling. She waited for a bird singing the new day’s first song. She waited for a thwap, a thunk, a whack on the floor above her to signal what to do next in this still dark world.
We share kisses like handed-down recipes,
covered in scribbled notes
and spills of former loves and lusts.
We modernize old dishes:
add the hiss of steam,
a gurgle of hunger,
the sweetness of cinnamon,
a dash of salt.
Licking each other’s lips, we test the temperature,
improvise the seasoning.
Hands knead the pulse of me, squeezing and guiding,
flattening and rolling.
Soft pecks and slight tongue,
the backs of knees,
palms on cheeks.
From where we’ve grown, life lines of ingredients
formulate our mixtures – they comfort and warm.
They reminisce of campfire cookouts,
coal stove winters, stovetop holidays.
We learn balance:
when to hold back,
when to add one more pinch.
Improvising and substituting,
bettering what was already made better,
we ready these instructions
for our own childrens’ melting and cooking,
fumbling and burning.
I want to tell a story with full words and slight stops, but it’s too high in the throat. I have to throttle it out into full drive.
Where it started I can’t say- a silent stare into your eyes, a touch that tattooed my skin, a laugh that jumped into the air and never broke. I sing the songs I’ve hung onto for so long, downcast and depressing, and they have lost meaning, they fly into the background, crash, lay flat, and deflate. The music of vision and purpose, one step in front of the other; a defined path and a case for setting it right on foot, out of the wilderness.
Where it starts- a morning yawn that mouths your name, a stretch that shakes of you, a sound that mimics the crisp Spring.
Lost and grasping, I need to refresh this blank page and start writing, but the blank page collects my imagination and pushes it to months of growing older, to hours of talking it over, to seconds of hanging on.
I want to tell the story with full words and slight stops of who we’ve become to each other, of old eyes seeing new again, of old souls finding home. Of saying good morning and meaning it first, of stepping off this brake and enjoying the ride, of turning fear into life.
This story gets written from here, our tongues in their proper places, our lips pursed to start, our throats clear and ready to scream.