Twelve months after Jose vacated the second bedroom, twelve months spent eating peanuts and microwave pizza under the hum of reality TV—Fourteen months after he found me jerking off to Facebook pictures of his sister, taken when she could still walk, and he punched me in the face, and she stopped coming over to watch Cops—Sixteen months after the night she cried, drunk, at the taco joint; I leaned on her wheelchair and we kissed while Jose slept in the booth—Three hundred and thirty six months after I was born, three hundred and thirty six months without ever getting laid—I looked at my bank statement and said “Maybe I don’t need that much personal space after all.” And for the first time in my life, I was the guy who needed to find a roommate rather than the guy who needed a room.
I did what you would do. I listed the extra room on Craigslist. I did what you would do. I sat in the living room on four separate nights after four separate twelve hour shifts at the Wells Fargo call-center just to tell four separate guys that I couldn’t take anyone without steady income, or with ferrets, or with a kid, or with a cocaine addiction. Because otherwise where do I draw the line? And none of them seemed too disappointed to have come out here for nothing but I certainly was because when I decide to get something done, it gets done.
The fifth prospect was named Spake and when I talked he scratched his ear and looked at my mouth the way you would expect a deaf person to. He kept smelling his hands. He came from old money.
He said he could pay a year up front in cash and at the end of the day, that’s all you really need to hear. And it was the end of the day and that was all I really needed to hear.
When he signed his name, rather than do the typical big first letter plus scribbles, he etched out each letter like he was carving it into granite. The paper ripped a little but I got it laminated.
He said he didn’t sleep and would try to be quiet. He said he had never watched TV before. He said “My, these walls look thick.”
The morning after he moved in, I walked into the kitchen and saw a small circle of blood and chipped toenail on the tile floor. I followed the bloodline into Spake’s room but he wasn’t in there. I walked back into the kitchen. A yellow sticky note was on the fridge. I pulled it off and read it.
I tried to drop a paper towel over the crusting blood but the air conditioning blew it away.
It was Saturday. I wanted powder sugar donuts and strong, dark coffee. I walked to Dunkin’ Donuts.
The restaurant sits on the edge of Phillips Highway, bisecting the trees that shade our apartments, looking like an enormous birthday cake with its orange-icing roof and pink lettering. I’ll never be able to explain the desire I sometimes have to get enormously drunk and slam my car into it.
When I walked in, I felt sweat in my armpits and regretted not putting on deodorant or brushing my teeth before leaving.
Standing at the end of the line was Marisa, my neighbor from a few buildings over. She’s about nineteen or twenty. Thickly built with pale, adolescent skin. We had rapport. When I see her dog pooping in the grass, I laugh and do the fake shielding-my-eyes thing instead of bitching like Mr Robinson. They did not have rapport.
I had failed to advance past small talk; it’s hard to flirt when there is a dog shitting next to you.
The dog was in line with her now and Marisa was wearing sunglasses. An old act. Anyone could see that the dog wasn’t wearing a service vest but when was the last time you confronted someone you thought was blind?
When she saw me, she pulled up the sunglasses and winked and put them back down. When I walked closer she felt my face and said “Paul! How are you doing?”
I laughed and scratched her dog’s nose; he sneezed. “Living the dream, as usual.”
I could still feel her hand after it was gone; when was the last time someone had touched my face?
“Whose dream?” she asked.
“Lately it feels like the old Middle School bully who used to stick his finger up my ass and is probably still repeating algebra.”
“I wonder how fresh those pink frosted donuts are” she said.
“I got a new roommate,” I said. “Even with all that overtime it was getting too expensive.”
“Do those look stale?” She was breaking character and openly staring behind the counter. The line moved three steps forward.
“It’s too soon to tell how he’ll be,” I said. “But we didn’t get off on the right foot this morning. He stepped on a mouse trap that I forgot to warn him about. He’s at an urgent care center or something.”
She snapped her head over and tilted it at me. “A mousetrap,” she said drily.
“Mice spread diseases,” I said. “They aren’t sanitary.”
“Well at least you have a gallon of some stranger’s blood on your kitchen floor. That sounds a lot more sanitary.”
It was her turn to order.
“Two pink frosted and a 32 ounce iced coffee,” she said.
“Four eighty-six,” the cashier said.
Marisa handed her a credit card and she swiped it twice.
“It’s saying that the card is declined?” the cashier said in that apologetic customer-service tone that implies the register must be at fault.
“Goddammit,” Marisa said and turned toward me.
“Add on two powdered sugar donuts and another large iced coffee,” I said and paid for it with cash.
“I’m always afraid of that happening,” Marisa said as we walked back. “That one day people will just look at my credit card and be like ‘Yeah this doesn’t buy things anymore. This little piece of plastic bullshit is worthless.’”
Outside of her stairs, I handed Marisa the grease-stained bag and she said “Why don’t you come over for dinner tomorrow night? I’m not poor. My credit card number just gets stolen all the time.”
In the yard next to my building, I saw a plastic bag filled with trash. I walked over to pick it up but stopped when I saw what was inside: a dead cat. Its fur was patchwork, a jigsaw puzzle. Lips peeled by bacteria, framing it’s yellow teeth in a smile. The tail tucked between its legs came up like a mic held by a nervous comedian. How nice it must be to die as an animal and never know your own loneliness.
I backed away and went up the steps and inside.
I heard classical music playing. The blood was cleaned up and I could smell bleach. I set my food down on the counter. A yellow sticky note on the fridge.
I walked over to his room.
“Spake?” I said. “How you doing, buddy?”
I heard shuffling and mumbling to my right.
“Spake?” I repeated.
I heard breaths and taps. They pulsed from the bedroom over to the living room. Out of the vent a yellow sticky note drifted onto the floor.
Marisa’s apartment was decorated by hundreds of clocks, all different types: one grandfather clock hovered over the room, myriad pocket watches hung from nails and wristwatches were strewn across the counter like loot from some heist. Melted Dali numbers looked like they were dripping off the cabinets.
Most of the clocks weren’t working, some ran backward. A vertiginous sight. My eyes had to constantly readjust. So many arrows drifting like compass needles searching for the flow of time.
They ticked ceaselessly.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re a time traveler who tried to kill Hitler but is really bad at math.”
“Watchmaker slash repairwoman,” she said. “My dad taught me the biz after he saw I wasn’t going to college.”
“Oh, I always just thought you sold weed.”
She turned and looked at me.
I held up a brown bag. “I brought wine.”
“That was nice of you,” she said, pulling vegetables out of the fridge. “But I don’t drink.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “I thought it might turn back into grape juice.”
“You can have some if you want,” she said. “It wouldn’t offend me.”
I did want some, but I didn’t have any.
“How’s the new roommate?” she asked. “It’s been… three days now?”
“Well, I’m learning a lot about classical music,” I said.
“Like the difference between romanticism and nee-romanticism?” She started chopping tomatoes on a cutting board.
“Like how to listen to it without disemboweling myself.”
She made a face. “Gross”
“Do you want some help?” I asked.
“After what you just said, I don’t want you holding a knife.”
As I walked home later that night, I screwed open the bottle of wine and took a few gulps. The streetlights counted my steps.
The stillness of an empty apartment. An old pleasure that now vibrated sinister tones. I went straight from the front door to my room and locked myself in, not looking directly at the sticky note that hung on the fridge. Just ignore it, I thought. Who cares. You had a good night. You’re going to bed. There’s a sticky note on the fridge. The kitchen still smells like bleach. You kissed a girl for the first time in sixteen months. Her lips were stiff, but welcoming. They parted a little at the end. She talked about her ex, but who doesn’t? She’s young. That’s what young girls do. You’re going to bed. You have work in the morning. You had a good night.
I took another large gulp of the wine and unlocked the door and went out and grabbed the note and brought it back into my room and locked the door again.
I swallowed two Advil PM with a large gulp of wine and went to bed without brushing my teeth.
The next morning I woke up with a whispering headache. I put on my polo and khakis for work and made coffee. I grabbed a bowl and spoon from the cabinet. In the dusty minutes of sunrise, I had forgotten that I wasn’t alone. A sticky note on the fridge.
Water bubbled behind me.
The cereal box was still in the cabinet. I threw it away and looked around and found an unopened bag of peanuts. I texted Marisa that I had fun last night and was she free on Tuesday?
I looked up at the roof and said to myself, “Some things are good and some things are bad, that’s just how life goes.”
I dug through the closets until I found the apartment layout and brought it out with me, concealing what it was until I got in my car. I pored over the skeletal black lines, searching for evidence that he couldn’t inch over to the walls around my room, frustrated with the ideas I was putting into my own head.
On Monday nights, I try to call Jose then watch Cops for three straight hours and boil spaghetti and pork sausage for dinner. This means that after work I have to spend thirty minutes scrubbing week old marinara residue out of my sole aluminum pot.
Jose hasn’t answered the phone once since he moved out, but I call anyway. I figured if he had changed his number, the line would either be disconnected or the number would have been reassigned, and it’s new owner would have no reason not to answer. Plus his name was still on the answering machine.
When I walked in, throwing away the can of malt liquor I had drank in my car, all the dishes were clean. My pot sat in a new dish rack.
A note on the fridge.
“Some things are good, some things are bad, that’s just how life goes,” I said to myself.
Marisa saw the day old note as as we walked in the door holding pizza and ginger ale. Piano music was playing.
“Is he here right now?” she asked with arched eyebrows.
“He has a weird sleep schedule,” I said.
She got a slice of pizza and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Still making grape juice?” She nodded to a bottle of wine on the counter.
“I think I just need to give it more time,” I said, walking over to the bottle and picking it up. “Actually, this one’s not mine. I don’t recognize the brand name.”
“With wine it’s called a ‘vineyard’ not a ‘brand.’”
“Well, the kind I buy at Walmart is a brand.” I set the bottle down.
“Do you want to watch TV?”
“Go for it,” I said, sitting down next to her. She stared at me. “You want me to turn the music off?”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, I can do that.” I went over to the stereo but it wasn’t on so I said “It’s not on” and looked back at her. She cleared her throat and pointed to the corner of the room where a new record player sat. I walked over to it. “What do I do?”
“Lift the needle up,” she said, and I lifted the needle up.
“Much better.” She grabbed another slice of pizza and turned on some dating show. After it ended, I switched over to Cops. Every time I laughed, she looked over at me.
We fell asleep on the couch and woke up in the middle of the night and moved to the bed, sleeping head to toe.
When I got up the next morning, Marisa was looking intently at a yellow sticky note.
“Is this like, how you guys communicate or something?” she asked. “This is major-league creepy.”
“Keep your voice down,” I said.
“Keep your voice down,” I repeated, softer, and she made a face.
I looked at the time on my phone and sat up. “What are you doing awake so early?”
“I can only sleep in my apartment. I need my symphony of clocks. Are you getting up for work?”
“More or less.” I scratched the back of my head.
“I’m going to go home and back to sleep.”
“I’ll text you later,” I said.
She looked like she was going to say something but hesitated, then said “Sounds good,” and left.
I made coffee and went to work.
When I got home that night, the apartment was completely dark.
“Don’t you want a light on?” I said, mostly to myself, and flipped the switch. I walked over to the couch and sat down. Before I turned the TV on, I noticed that the VCR door was open and a string hung out.
I walked closer and peered in. I saw its white fur. The string, its tail.
A dead mouse.
“Fuck!” I said, jumping back.
I walked over to the fridge, anxious to see what my correspondence would say.
For once, I left Spake a note. Then I took the white bundle out to the dumpster and kept calling Marisa until she let me spend the night. She put me on the couch.
“Hello,” Jose say on the other end of the line. I almost dropped the phone.
“Hey,” I said nervously, excitedly. “How are you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You know.”
“Sure,” I said. I wanted to be tactful.
“Look,” he said. “What do you want?”
“Just, you know, to say what’s up.”
“Have you said it yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Look,” he said. “You’re on speakerphone. My girlfriend thinks I’m cheating on her because the same number calls me every Monday and I never answer. This is me proving her wrong.”
“Sorry,” a female voice said into the phone. “This is me being proven wrong.”
“Anything else?” Jose said.
“How’s your sister?” I asked.
He hung up.
After not seeing Marisa for a few weeks. I offered to cook us steaks. Too broke to turn down a free meal, she accepted. I didn’t tell her that, as October brought cooler nights, I had begun sleeping in my car. The apartment door loomed like a gargoyle above the concrete stairs. I hadn’t been inside my apartment for twelve days and had been cleaning up in a Walmart bathroom on my way to work.
When we walked in, I had prepared to steer her away from the kitchen so she wouldn’t see the sticky notes. I was expecting anywhere from thirty to forty.
But there were none. I was surprised at my own disappointment.
“What’s that smell?” She asked.
My first thought was that something is rotting in the fridge. I opened up the door, but it wasn’t coming from there.
“Do you think he…” she put her hands over her mouth.
“No way,” I said. “Could he have?”
“Did it smell like this yesterday?”
“No,” I lied.
“When was the last time you got a note?”
“It’s been a little while,” I said looking at the empty floor around the fridge.
“Should we call the cops?”
“No way,” I said. “Should we?”
“I think we should,” she said, looking at his room. “Unless you want to go in there yourself.”
I didn’t. We called the cops.
I told them that I hadn’t seen my roommate in awhile and that there was a funny smell. They sent two officers over. I showed them a few of the notes that I had kept in my desk. I told them he might have been suicidal. I showed them the contract with his name and signature on it. I showed them the part of the kitchen tile that was slightly whiter than the rest. I told them that he had been living inside the walls and Marisa recoiled when she heard this.
They couldn’t find Spake but they found the half-rot body of a dead mouse wrapped in one of my pillow cases; the mouse I had tossed in a dumpster. It had lipstick on. They asked if I’d seen it before and I lied. Told me to call an exterminator and left without shaking my hand. Marisa said “I have to go.” I took the mouse outside and buried it.
The next morning, I put on his Shostakovich record before I went to work. The apartment still smelled, even without the mouse’s corpse (I had taken to calling her Becky). It actually smelled stronger. A fecund and unrecognizable stench. But it stopped bothering me. When I got home that night, I pleaded Marisa to come over. I waited for her outside, hands spider-like my pockets, pacing back and forth while the moon, clock that it was, lay drily above.
She didn’t want to come inside and kept her arms crossed the whole time we stood there. She said that I couldn’t spend the night at her place because she had work to do and the odor was beginning to stick to me. I followed her to her door and scuttled back when she yanked it shut. I drank bourbon in my bed and fell asleep sweating cockroaches.
Marisa stopped texting me back. Jose either disconnected his line or blocked my number. I threw my phone in the dumpster and didn’t buy a new one. She started taking her dog out on the other side of the apartment complex. At work, they complained about my smell. They discussed it behind my back. They stopped talking whenever I entered a room. I was fired over a clerical error. My teeth were rusting. My fingernails grew out and I painted the windows black.
I did what you would never do.
Spake took over the full rent. Then we stopped paying altogether. He had a cleaning service come every morning. Then multiple cleaning services. Everyday. Then nothing could be clean enough. We started to get groceries delivered: “Leave them by the door.” Then we stopped eating. We stopped needing to eat.
We sprawled. We slithered. We wormed. We writhed.
We did what you would never do.
The landlord chipped the paint off the windows and fumigated the place and rented it to a newly married couple from Connecticut. We watched them in the dark, sniffed them in their sleep. Scurried around at night. We didn’t talk. No need for language.
We did what you would never do.
Outside there was disease and death everywhere but not in here. Not now. Not yet.