By J. Arthur Scott
I was distracted reading a work email on my phone when I first pulled the letter out of my mailbox and didn’t notice the address until I reached my apartment. It was meant for my unit, 3A, but in the next building over — the twin of my own. Bold green font promising a special offer inside meant it had to be junk mail, and for a moment my mood fell as I considered tossing it in the recycling. Instead, I left it on the counter and went to change out of my shirt and tie.
I opened my dresser drawer and reached for a flannel shirt, for a night of delivery noodles and a few more pages of the book I’d been meaning to quit; then chose a black t-shirt instead. Returning to the kitchen, I opened the refrigerator to grab a beer but paused with my finger curled around the bottle’s neck. I had already stopped at my usual place on the way home and didn’t want to seem drunk. The refrigerator slid backward as I closed it, stirring the air in the kitchen. I noticed a ripening smell from the trash as I stood for a moment to look at the magnet poetry I composed for myself on the freezer door. Then I picked up the envelope from the counter and headed out, stopping at the door to slide into a pair of loafers and take my jacket down from its hook.
The building next door was better maintained than mine. The evergreen bushes in planters on either side of the entrance were healthier than the ones in front of my building, and none of the lights in the entryway were burned out. I knew my fob worked at the glass doors because I had been through the building a few times to use the laundry in the basement when our machines were taken. I recognized the layout of the stairwells that flanked the elevator and took the one on the right, wondering, as I did in my own building, whether one was the quicker option. When I reached the third floor I realized the unit numbers circled the hallway in the opposite direction of the ones on my floor, and I had to backtrack to find 3A.
At first I heard nothing, and my hopes waned. But then voices became audible within the apartment. One of them grew louder quickly, and I worried the person speaking would open the door to find me lurking on the mat. So I knocked; except I didn’t knock with any force. I brushed the door with my knuckles and then tapped faintly. The voices went silent. A chair slid across hardwood. It was clear they’d heard something but weren’t sure what, so I gave the door two sharp, upstanding raps.
The door opened, and I faced a woman about my age with dark, curly hair carrying a wooden spoon and wearing a men’s dress shirt backwards so its back covered her front. Tomato sauce snaked down one of its darts. Behind her, a small, dim living room opened into a lit kitchen on my right side, as though I were seeing my own apartment reversed in a mirror. A man turned from the stove to watch us. He was thin, with salt and pepper hair trimmed short and glasses slipping down his nose in a sophisticated way.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
I held up the letter, covering the print with my fingers, and said, “They delivered your mail to me by mistake.”
The woman looked at the letter in my hand, but before she could say anything, a squeal pierced the room from the street below, followed by the violent crunch of metal. The woman spun away from me as the man hurried to a window. She joined him and they stood together looking down at the street. The man said, “Good lord.”
I remained at the threshold, shifting from one foot to the other, and said, “Mind if I look?”
They turned to me and then looked at each other. “Sure,” the man said.
I stepped out of my loafers, parking them next to some other shoes near the door, and set out for the unoccupied window across the living room. The couple watched me thread a path around a coffee table and recliner, and only looked out at the street again once I reached the window. I saw headlights blazing a strange angle across the pavement and smoke or steam rising into the air. At the edge of my line of sight, if I pressed my forehead against the glass and looked down to the left, I could see a car mashed up against a young tree that had splintered into pale shards. The upper portion of the trunk and branches lay across the sidewalk where they had toppled. A bicycle lay on its side on the blacktop, its rider lying near the opposite curb and the contents of the rider’s pack strewn in between.
“We should call 911,” the man said.
“I’m sure somebody already did that,” the woman said, perching one hip on the sill and cupping a hand against the glass to block the glare.
“But what if no one has?”
The woman didn’t respond, so I said, “I’ll call.”
“No need,” the woman said. She pointed out the window. A car had stopped about thirty feet up the street, and its driver approached the scene. She walked toward the building, and I lost sight of her below.
“There’s a term for this,” the man said. “It’s wrong to just ogle.” He looked at each of us, but the woman kept gazing out the window, holding her spoon away from her body.
I leaned to the side to change my view but couldn’t tell if anyone was still in the car. The man walked back to the kitchen. He sat down at a small breakfast table and said, “I don’t think we should keep watching.”
Neither the woman nor I moved, and a moment later he said, “Janine.”
Janine didn’t answer him. Instead, she turned to me. “What’s your name?”
“Travis,” I said.
“We’re not hurting anybody, right, Travis?”
“It’s objectification,” the man said. “I’m not trying to be dramatic, but that’s what it is.”
Janine snorted and turned to watch again. I looked at her, then at the man. The man glanced at me before picking at something on the table and standing up to tend to the pot on the stove.
The room was much darker than I ever kept mine. The surface light under the microwave and a shaded lamp on the breakfast table were the only illumination in the apartment, as though the couple had simply turned on lights as the night set in and hadn’t needed to expand their orbit yet. Their appliances were the same make as my own, and even in the ochre light of the kitchen, I recognized the glossy white tiles of the backsplash above their counter. Someone had designed these units to feel as contemporary as possible five years earlier, and mine felt dated already in a way theirs didn’t. A siren chirped twice and red lights crossed the wall, washing from one end of the cupboards to the other and splashing across the living room before starting back around. The man glanced up for a moment but didn’t stop stirring. I had left the door to the apartment cracked open and regretted not closing it behind me. Harsher light spilled into the living room from the hallway like the end of a party.
I turned to look for the ambulance and said, “Looks like help is here.”
“Yup,” Janine said. She looked over her shoulder to the kitchen. “Lon, do you need a hand?”
Lon said, “Nope, I got it.”
She watched him for a moment and then turned back to the window. Even in the dim light I could feel her eyes stick on me for a moment.
“I bet other people are watching just like we are,” I said.
“Like you are,” Lon said. His back was turned to us as he stirred the pot. “Travis, do you watch reality shows?”
“Not really,” I said.
“See, Janine. Not everyone watches that stuff.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” she said.
The man turned to us from the stove. “It has everything t —”
“That was last week we were talking about that. And like I said, that show is totally produced. It’s basically scripted.”
“And like I said, cues for catfights aren’t the same thing as a script.”
“That line was better the first time,” Janine said, “and I haven’t even been watching this season because the DVR is full of SVU.”
Lon laughed. “Travis, you watch SVU, right?”
“Never,” I said.
“You’re missing out. I’ll watch all night if I’m not careful.”
“Also,” Janine said, pointing the spoon at Lon, “how are your football games not a reality show?”
“Because it’s live sport,” Lon said, smiling at her and gesturing back with his own spoon. “You should have stuck with SVU. I’ll allow that SVU is voyeuristic, after a fashion, but you lose me at live sport. Categorical difference.”
Janine shifted against her windowsill to face me, her spoon still pointed at Lon. “You hear that, right? I’m not alone here? ‘After a fashion’?”
I nodded and gave her a knowing grin.
Lon said, “Okay. We don’t need Travis to play scorekeeper.” He moved to the refrigerator and pulled out a covered bowl.
She went on, “And why do you and your friends insist on using ‘sport’ in the singular? Did you all read the same book as kids or something?” She turned to me. “Have you ever referred to pick-up basketball as ‘sport’?”
I hesitated and enjoyed the expectant look they both gave me. “All the time,” I said.
Lon nodded in satisfaction as he set the bowl down on the counter. Janine rolled her eyes and turned away from us at her window. I could tell from the set of her shoulders that she was feigning annoyance, and I wished I could watch the slow smile lift her frown as she thought of her next gibe at Lon and me. Janine and I watched in silence as the EMTs finished loading the cyclist onto a board. A small crowd had gathered on the far sidewalk, and their faces shone in the lights of the ambulance like a grim congregation between hymns.
When the quiet crept on for too long, I said, “Does your closet door come out of its track?”
Lon pushed his glasses up and said, “Once it did, I think.” He looked at Janine, but she just shrugged.
“That’s so funny,” I said. “Mine comes out all the time. I’ve given up on it at this point and just leave it open.”
“Huh,” Lon said.
“Are you sure you don’t need a hand?” Janine asked him.
“No. Almost done,” Lon said.
Janine switched hips again and arched her back to stretch. The room slipped back into silence as she and I watched the EMTs close the rear door of the ambulance. Another arrived without a siren. Janine looked over at Lon and raised her eyebrows. He raised his own back at her. How long would it take to learn that language? She lifted her eyebrows higher, and Lon shrugged. To shrug like that?
Janine said, “Well –“
“It’s funny,“ I said, looking out the window but feeling their eyes on me again, “how in some parallel universe where we met the first week of college, we’re old friends now, the three of us.”
Janine and Lon didn’t say anything.
“And we’re in these exact same spots.”
Lon looked at Janine and then back at me again, rocking on his feet. “Yeah, I definitely made some close friends freshmen year.”
“Exactly,” I said.
Janine turned to Lon and raised her eyebrows again. I tried it too. It felt good, like being part of some little piece of excitement.
Lon cleared his throat and said, “The sauce is just about done. I’m putting the farfalle on.” He hesitated, letting that update hang in the air.
Janine stood and approached me. “Thanks for returning our mail.” She took the envelope from me. “Looks like a credit card offer.”
“Is it?” I said.
She didn’t respond. She just looked at the envelope a moment longer and then back up at me.
“Well,” she said, “thanks anyway.” She walked past me toward the door, and I followed.
“That accident was really something, huh?” I said, slipping into my loafers.
“Sure was,” Lon said.
I stepped into the doorway, turning to look back. “See you around.”
Janine held the door with one hand and gave a half wave with the other, smiling just short of her eyes. Deadpan to the last. I walked out, heading toward the stairs, and she closed the door behind me.
Outside the building, a team of EMTs was helping an old man stand up from the spot where he’d been sitting against the wall. The car wasn’t as mangled as I expected it to be: just a caved-in bumper and dented quarter panel. I crossed the street to stay out of the way and saw that the rider had been carrying groceries. A red cabbage and three limes had made it to the opposite curb intact. From the far sidewalk, among the dispersing onlookers, I searched the windows of the building and spotted Janine and Lon on the third floor.
They were each at their own window, silhouetted against the light behind them. Lon had taken my spot. As I watched them, I wondered whether I was just scenery, or if they could pick me out in the crowd. Lon disappeared from his window, and Janine turned, calling after him. Probably razzing him a bit, like she did. I laughed out loud, startling an old woman in a nylon jacket who hurried past me. Then I headed for my building, thinking that I might bump into one of them on the way to the subway some morning soon.
Copyright 2019 Scott