Saturday night I’m at the kitchen window listening to my neighbors fight. Theirs is the only light on, pungent and pouring out onto the fire escape, illuminating a coffee can. I’ve counted five cigarette butts so far.
“I can’t keep doing this, bro,” the girl shouts. Glass shatters thick against a wall in their apartment. “I can’t keep doing and doing this.”
The kettle screeches and out goes the mug in my hand and the spoiled red wine all over the windowsill and all over me. Who knows why I’ve set water to boil. A jilted habit of steeping tea to sleep when I had patience with myself. A phantom limb.
There’s a sprint of shouts, one voice trampling another, and then a long, feral cry. My cat when I was a kid yowled like that when she pawed at a mouse trap. We freed her and she crawled into my mother’s dresser where she stayed for weeks and weeks, burrowing into her fear. The world became a mouse trap.
“Yo I’m fucking bleeding from my fucking face,” he shouts over the girl shouting about her mouth.
And I am breathing slow into the cup of my hands.
The kitchen light comes on and Gly stands, squinting like he’s tracked a smell from elsewhere. November outside, I’m reminded; wind sweeps into the open window.
“What is…” He looks past me, an earbud pinched between his fingers. This is Gly’s apartment; he rented me my room seven, eight months ago. I came with cash and moved in that morning. He was kind not to ask questions, I paid what I could in advance. “Jesus, are you bleeding?”
“Wine.” On my sweater and on the white of the windowsill and on the knife of my arm. “I’ll clean this up.” I clear my throat to get his face into focus. “The neighbors are fighting.” We’ve been found out, us three.
I live in the maid’s room. It’s the maid’s room if this were still a single-family apartment from the Second World War. It’s small and dark with a sink that juts out of the wall, where the maid would wash her face. A narrow bathroom is attached to the room so the maid’s unmade body would not have to mingle with the rest of the house.
A month ago Gly offered me the spare bedroom, larger. A woman neither of us saw much of lived there for months, now she was gone. New York frustrated and disgusted her. He could clear his stuff out of the closet, he told me. He wouldn’t charge me much more. But I don’t want anything more to fill, to grow.
I have nailed rugs to the walls of my little room, placed dim painted-glass lamps everywhere and tucked soft, low furniture—bean bags and pillows and thick blankets—into corners, so it is like I am living inside of a womb if a womb were a room. A place where you fight to keep your eyes open, where your heart rate slows to a crawl.
Another screech from outside and Gly is one bare foot rammed into a sneaker and then another. I find a cuticle to gnaw on and follow behind. I ride on the coattails of agency.
“Yo!” He hammers their door. Silence, suddenly. “Cut this shit out or I call the cops.”
“Alright so call the cops.”
“Shut up are you stupid?” the girl whispers. Then loud, formal, and firm: “Please don’t call the police. We’re okay.”
I reach for him and feign exhaustion. “Forget them,” I say. I feel, suddenly, so embarrassed.
Gly leans into the keyhole. “It’s two in the morning. Shut it down.” Then he goes back into his room and goes to sleep.
They must be Robert’s tenants, the couple. Before them were two men studying for the LSAT. Brothers, I guessed, since that apartment is a one-bedroom. I got their textbook in the mail and I knew they must have been Robert’s tenants. Clueless, temporary. Nobody living long-term in the building ships anything of value here. Phone books are liable to be looted.
Robert is our building’s super. He rents vacant apartments for three weeks at a time, (“Cash only, no questions asked”) while the building’s management company primps listings on reputable websites for dignified lease holders, not the mangled type like Robert lets in. Steadily employed single women and couples are sought after. Women with nude manicures, couples with muffled shopping list squabbles.
If there is news of a prospect from the management company, Robert’s tenants disappear and a herd of Robert’s friends arrive. Bachata blares through a marathon of renovations and outside of the apartment, wads of tinfoil and cans of iced tea appear. The next morning it’s silent. Maybe Robert’s sweeping and maybe humming softly near the rehabbed apartment, maybe an X in masking tape over the door frame so paint can dry. Gly was one of Robert’s tenants before he became a dignified leaseholder.
Three in the morning the girl wants him to just open the door and grow up and talk to her. We share a wall: my bathroom and their bedroom. He’s locked her out, sick of her bullshit. I shiver beneath the open window in the bathroom. The cold air keeps me awake, keeps me with them.
She says, “Open the door please?”
“Just—just could you please open the door?”
He says, “I’m fucking bleeding from my fucking face.”
“Bro” turns to “Baby.”
“Baby, let me look at it.”
It’s my first time on this side of the wall. I heard once in one of those painful little circle meetings of mangled people that what we were doing there was not following court orders but Holding Space for one another. That by doing so, we were learning to Hold Space for ourselves. I kept the face I keep when I stand in an elevator but in my head I was laughing. I was averting their battered faces, squirming under the garish lights of the church basement. Now I am thinking if this is holding space: me breathing on the other side of this painted plaster with Bro-turned-Baby. I am wondering if how much I am holding is enough. If space is enough, if my empathy is palpable.
“Please please please.”
When at four in the morning the sobbing ceases I worry she’s fallen asleep outside of their bedroom door, limb clinging to limb for heat.
On Sunday morning music blares from their bedroom. In the instrumental lull, pine moans beneath their weight. I’m in the shower, quiet beneath the running water.
“Here?” I hear him ask. “Like this?”
Her gasp, her voice on tippy-toes. Against the wall we share, I graze my hungry body and ask myself the same. Razors of exhales, theirs then ours.
They are showered and smoking on the fire escape in sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up. Hovering over one cigarette like a cartoon cut-out of trouble. I remember the morning after can have a pleasant scent. You can will yourself away from any exhausting epiphanies. The early hours unravel and every apology is a whisper. Guilt, the sullied feeling. Who to soil it with.
The clouds have parted; the weather is being generous. Gly walks in with dirty dishes and dumps them into the brimming sink. I have been very still in the crack of the curtain. If they notice us in the window they’ll go skittering back inside, out of the sun’s arms.
“Damn. They look so young.”
Bleach stings beneath my nails. I tried with the stained windowsill.
The train is crowded for a Sunday. Something somewhere is signaling wrong and a reroute is necessary and every few stops commuters fume. The tourists on their morning excursions are blissful and dopey. They’re gathered around the train windows like children as we cross the bridge. A man standing behind a woman fishes greedily beneath her scarf, beneath the collar of her sweater for the skin. She doesn’t flinch. It’s the most natural thing to her.
I’m late but it’s Layla and she couldn’t care less when she actually notices. It’s only us two for the brunch shift. I met Layla at one of those mangled people meetings so we have a shorthand. She smokes needle-thin joints halfway into the day and half-asses her side work and I’m not bothered by any of it. We can share a silence.
Just two tables in the restaurant so Layla fusses with the playlist: sleepy R&B she calls “Afternoon Sex Music.” Tobey the floor manager would tell her to leave it alone but he’s in the basement pretending to sort out our timecards.
Tobey is a sinking ship because of his drinking. Who is he fooling down there? The woman who left him used to work at our restaurant and she left that too. He’s not had anything stick to him for very long. Layla wants me to ask about the gash on Tobey’s eye since I’ve known him longer. Whatever happened, I am already sorry.
What are the neighbors doing with the afternoon? Fucking is a thought, fighting is another. I have no memory of doing much else when I was on the other side of the wall. We ate ice cream and carefully. We had to mind the broken ring finger, the tender wrist. All of the little piles of his I’m sorry and my I’m sorry stacked up to who would have to hold the cold container. Who started it? That’s who plays nurse.
I am at the server station, rubbing at a stain on my apron. I have to breathe slow through my nose today. It is taking me some time to hold down the sour stench of the rubber floor mats.
Layla’s table is two girls in fake fur coats and slips meant to be dresses. Sneakers. Dirty curly hair. They showed IDs but they’re fake and we’re slow. “So I’m just gonna serve ‘em and if Tobey wants to come up here and say something about it he could come do his job and run this place.” Layla sticks a wooden spoon into a pitcher of sangria.
I call a staff meeting and Layla never refuses, just asks if we can sneak something from the top shelf this time, just a little. We stand outside and gulp the bourbon, the singed vanilla, from our mugs, huddled like one crooked body against the rain. “A fight with a cook in her new restaurant. She’s gonna get a restraining order,” Layla says. A kitchen rumor. “Tobey shoulda beat her to it.”
I know I have to thank the dull hum in my head, that no news is good news. I know I have to say, even if it feels like chewing on fucking air, alone is better than ripping through one another. But the silence of my life now is deafening.
“So have you just completely given up on the cuticle biting thing?” Layla asks.
I surrender them, both hands, to my lap. “No, it’s on the list.”
“Get it up there, get it to the top of the list.”
We know we have to clean Tobey up before our shift’s over and dinner service starts and the real servers get here. Before he’ll have to do more than sit at the end of the bar with a stack of papers and his miserable staff meeting mug. If Tobey gets fired I’ll have to show up on time always and Layla will have to stop doing just about everything. So we three cram into the boys’ room with Layla’s concealer and blot gently with our fingertips. I on the eye and Layla on the cheekbone. He winces and we wince in solidarity. For a second we’re a mouse chorus of ache and Tobey even smiles and it’s not so ugly.
“I feel like a monster,” he whispers in the tiny room. The bathroom light is dim and reflects the red walls so it’s difficult to assess our handiwork.
“Well then you feel worse than you look,” Layla says. Good to start somewhere.
I know some part of the neighbors’ afternoon must have been spent on cleanup. The glass, the bare toes dancing around the kitchen and the living room, cautioning one another, ashamed and bewildered by the mess. The shards, the nooks they’ve traveled into. What was this that had spilled? And who without the swollen face. That’s who goes dealing with the food delivery man, procures the cigarettes, forgets the trash bags, and goes back out into the rain.
“I found this musky-ass perfume that makes me smell like shiitake mushrooms but like, good.” One girl leans across the table and lifts her nest of curls. Offers the other the nape of her neck. A flash of breast, and when she slumps back in her chair, the veil of silk over the nipple. When did I last sit in my skin without disquiet?
Tobey, Layla, and I are at the server station mingling with our mugs, trying not to pay attention to the girls, one glare glints off another. But their fur coats hang careless from their chairs now that it’s warmer cause the sangria’s gone. Their legs buzz, crossing and uncrossing beneath the table.
They pay in cash and Layla pockets it since Tobey’s too drunk to remember that they hadn’t paid before he checked our drawer for the day. We stuff our aprons into a filthy tote in the staff closet and take our money to a basement bar that isn’t slow even on a Sunday night. I watch Layla dance in her dirty T-shirt and the men watching her. When the room swells with body heat I push into the center and close my eyes. I have to practice not to flinch.
There’s a sign in crude capital letters taped to the front door of my building:
DON’T LET THE HOMELESS GUY IN HE’S PISSING ON THE LOBBY FLOOR.
But I check and he’s there. Asleep with his doughy feet sticking out of the wool blanket. Socks neat beside his shoes. He must have been the kind of child who made his bed.
There’s a diluted shouting in the hallway. I can’t focus so I can’t find my keys so I spill everything out of my bag onto the welcome mat Gly bought when he signed a lease. Above, fluorescents flicker menacing.
“Do you want to do this or not? You’re a pussy, bro. You pull this on me every week. You wanna go? So go already.” Here come the wispy threats from one, the knowing groans from another. Here comes one slam—a bedroom door. The hammer of her fist against a wall. My keys are in my coat pocket.
I’m unwell in my bathroom. Bro-Baby is there, on the other side of the wall, occupied with his nightmare. And I, a woman on her knees staring into a toilet still in her coat. I turn the shower on and undress on the floor.
Cornflower bruises used to bloom around my eyes. Nights I spent knocking down doors or slamming them shut. I split his lip with a ruby ring he gifted me and next morning he washed the blood gently off the gem and gifted me again. Mornings we sat dumbfounded. Dumb. Like our bodies had sprouted the wounds overnights. We shied away from mirrors, repulsed by one another. But then I always wanted to show him and I always wanted to see.
It has occurred to me that I would like to sleep. I throw my feeble weight against the bathroom wall and yell for them to just shut up. The gypsum crumbles into the gap between us. Again, again, again I slam until there is nothing to the feeling, the dull of my knuckle bones. Silence on the other side. I chase a steady breath.
Then it’s days of their music and my shower running and suddenly they’re gone. The food delivery guy has seen more than I have seen. I listen to Robert scrape the bedroom walls with plaster and at midnight when he’s finished, I pick the lock on the door. Twice I’ve had to do it in our apartment, it works if he didn’t use the bolt lock.
Inside is empty save for a dead plant in its plastic pot and window curtains draped over the radiator. In the fridge a stick of butter still unopened and the debris from dried herbs. The mirror door of the medicine cabinet is cracked and sitting unhinged in the tub. Paint buckets for tomorrow in a tower by the door. I walk into the bedroom but I won’t turn the light on.
I hope they claim a corner of the world devoid of one another and keep their word.
The new tenants are an elderly couple with a small, old dog and a doormat that says PLEASE WIPE YOUR PAWS. They have a lease. One night the woman is struggling to open the mailbox.
“Can I help?” The dog snarls so I stop.
“Ocho, would ya give it a rest already?” She yanks the leash, and Ocho sits but continues to scowl. Two milky eyes twitch manically. “He went blind recently, so everyone’s a problem.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It happens with old age. He saw what he needed to see is how the vet put it,” the woman laughs and it seems to make Ocho happy. He stands and wags his tail.
We say our goodbyes, good and neighborly. I don’t point to the barricaded space beneath the stairs and tell her that a homeless man used to live there. It used to smell like bleach every morning, now it smells like rotting apples, some cleaning solution. Now fluorescent light burns into every dismal corner. She doesn’t need to know. Repairs are underway. And I should want them, I know.
Darina (Dasha) Sikmashvili was born in Lubny, Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared in New World Writing, Always Crashing, and X-R-A-Y. As of fall 2020, Darina is pursuing her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. She’s at work on a novel. www.sikmashvili.com