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Authors: Tim Waggoner

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BOOK: The Men Upstairs
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I suggested she call the police, but she didn’t want to do that, said there wasn’t anything they could do. I couldn’t just leave her there, so I asked if she wanted to go somewhere and have a drink or maybe something to eat, but she said no, she was afraid her friends might find her. They would be looking for her.

I could take you to my place. No one would know you’re there.

At the time, I told myself I’d made the offer because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. In retrospect, I should’ve realized just how serial-killer-creepy that must’ve sounded.

“I’m happy to help,” I say. “Is there someone you, uh, want to call? Family, maybe?” I almost say
Family or friends?
but I remember how she used the latter word earlier, so I avoid it.

She doesn’t have a purse with her—another sign that wherever she’d been, she left in a hurry. I have no idea whether she has a phone with her, so I take my cell out of my pants pocket and hold it out to her. But she shakes her head.

“There’s no one.”

I put the phone back in my pocket. Is she telling me she has no family or that for some reason she can’t call them? I don’t ask.

I keep the heat turned down when I’m away. Pam’s a social worker, and though she makes enough money, she still insisted I pay spousal support. I wanted to fight it, but my lawyer told me there was no point.
You’re a man living in the state of Ohio. You’ll lose.
So I pay spousal support and try to save money where I can. Photography isn’t always as lucrative a career—or as glamorous, for that matter—as movies and TV make it out to be. I turned the heat up when we came in, but it’s still a bit chilly, and I worry that Liana’s bare feet may be cold. She’s sitting on the couch, her feet on the floor. If they were cold, she’d be sitting at an angle, feet tucked beneath her. Still, I ask her if she’d like to borrow a pair of my house slippers, or maybe a pair of socks.

Again, she shakes her head. “I’m fine. But thank you for offering. You’re very considerate.”

She sounds almost surprised as she says this, as if she’s not used to people being kind to her, and I feel a pang of sympathy. I don’t know what else to say, and whenever I run out of words, I always feel the need to do something, anything.

“Tell you what. It’s close to dinnertime. How about I go in the kitchen and whip up something for us? You can sit here and rest for a bit, maybe watch some TV.”

I don’t wait for her to tell me okay. I pick up the remote from the coffee table and turn on the TV. It displays the channel I had on last, CNN, and a news anchor’s voice fills the room, saying something about the economy. I hand the remote to Liana.

“Feel free to change it to whatever you like.”

She looks at it for a moment, just like she looked at the bottled water I gave her, like she’s not quite sure what to do with it. But then she accepts the remote with another smile and turns her attention to the screen.

I stand there looking at her a few seconds longer, unsure whether I should say anything else. Then I turn and head for the kitchen, wondering what I might have in my meager larder to feed my guest.

* * *

Spaghetti, of course, with sauce out of a jar, and poor man’s garlic bread: butter and garlic powder spread onto hotdog buns and heated in the oven. Far from a gourmet meal, but I do have a bottle of Merlot I’ve been saving, so I uncork it. I don’t have actual wine glasses, though, just some cheap disposable plastic cups. They’ll have to do.

When I go to get Liana, I find her still watching the news, only on mute. I don’t ask her why, but she explains anyway.

“I like it better with the sound off. This way I can imagine what they’re saying. Besides, language only masks what people are really thinking and feeling. It’s a terribly limited tool.”

I want to make a joke, ask her what she’d replace it with—semaphore? But she tells me this so sincerely, so matter-of-factly, that I know she’s not being ironic, and I fear my joke would fall flat.

“Time to eat,” I say.

I’ve already set our places and plated the food. I put her at the head of the table, and I sit next to her. She makes no comment on the food—no, “Looks good” or “Mmmm, I’m hungry” or “You did a great job considering what you had to work with.” Instead, she begins eating and continues to do so at a steady pace until her food is gone. At no time does she pause to make conversation. I attempt to fill the silence a couple times. I say something about the weather, and when that fails to elicit a response from her, I talk a little about my work. I’ve added few decorative touches to my humble bachelor abode, but I’ve hung several framed copies of photos I’ve taken. I direct her attention to the one closest to the dining table, a black-and-white image of a waterfall I took at a nearby nature preserve.

She turns to look at it while methodically chewing a mouthful of spaghetti. She swallows, looks at the photo some more, then returns her attention to her plate and puts another forkful of pasta into her mouth.

“What do you think? Of the picture, I mean.”

I’m not looking for praise, not really. Just trying to get a conversation going. I’m still nervous, so much so that I’ve barely touched my own food. I keep thinking that if I could get to know her, even a little, I might finally relax.

At first she doesn’t seem to hear me. She finishes this mouthful, swallows, and then looks at me.

“When I look at it, I can hear the water whispering. It’s beautiful.”

Again, she speaks matter-of-factly, almost as if she were asking me to pass the parmesan cheese. But I find her reaction quite moving. People have complimented my work before, but never like this, never so poetically.

We finish our meal. She doesn’t offer to help with the dishes, not that there’s much work to do. She does follow me into the kitchen when I take the plates and silverware in, rinse them in the sink, and place them in the dishwasher. I don’t look at her while I do this, but I have the sense she’s watching me closely the whole time. I feel like I’m on display, performing for her almost, and I’m surprised to find I like the feeling.

I refill our wine cups, and we take them with us back to the couch.

I like natural light—photographer, remember?—so I usually leave the curtains open. The sliding glass patio door and the window behind the couch both show that full night has fallen. Liana glances at the window.

“It’s dark,” she says. “You will want to sleep soon.”

“Dark, yes, but it’s not late. I’m a night owl anyway. But if you’re ready to leave, I’ll be happy to take you wherever you want to go.” I try not to sound reluctant as I make the offer. I don’t want her to leave, but realistically, I can’t expect her to stay much longer. I provided a respite for her from whatever situation she’s running from, gave her a chance to get a little breathing room to decide her next move. That will have to be enough. Being a Good Samaritan is its own reward, right? But I can’t help thinking that the apartment will seem so empty once she’s gone.

“I…have nowhere to go.” A pause. “Nowhere I
to go.”

I’ve never been an impulsive man, a fact Pam reminded me of quite often during our twenty-plus year marriage. Even when I work, I take pains to plan out my shots, striving to get everything—the lighting, the shadows, the composition—just right. So I’m shocked to hear the next words that come out of my mouth.

“You can stay here if you want.”

I’m even more surprised to find that I don’t feel nervous at all saying this.

Liana gives me a smile that’s half relieved, half something I can’t name. But it’s a smile, and that’s all that matters.

* * *

That night she takes the bed, and I take the couch. It’s the same the next night. And the night after. I don’t mind, not really. I’m just happy she’s here. Still, I sleep restlessly, I wake often, and when I dream, I dream of flesh sliding against flesh, warm and wet, of mouths moving, but instead of words, what comes out is the hushed whisper of water.

* * *

Liana only has the one outfit, so she takes to borrowing my clothes—T-shirts and sweats, mostly. They’re big on her, which I don’t like since they hide the shape of her body. But I do like that they’re my clothes on her, like the idea that fabric that’s touched my skin now touches hers. But after a few days of this, I offer to take her shopping. She needs clothes of her own. I offer to pay, of course. When Liana left…whatever she left, she had almost no money on her.

She agrees to this with the same equanimity with which she responds to most things, and we head off to Target. A couple hours later we come home with more T-shirts and sweats, though these at least fit her better. I did manage to convince her to buy a pair of jeans, though, along with some tennis shoes. That way if—when?—she leaves me, she’ll at least leave with more than she came with.

* * *

I have jobs to do over the next few days—a couple weddings, and a session for a young tattooed woman who’s interested in becoming an “urban” model, whatever that is. I don’t come out and invite Liana to accompany me when I’m working, but I don’t tell her she can’t either, so she comes along. It’s almost as if she doesn’t want to leave my side, though I sense no neediness about her, and I certainly don’t sense any desire for me on her part. But as the time passes, I can feel us both becoming more comfortable in each other’s presence, and there’s a wordless drawing closer. Our silences—and there are many—are companionable, and I’m rarely nervous around her anymore. She’s still odd at times, but that’s okay. I’m finding I rather like odd.

Liana might not show any desire for me, but I find myself increasingly attracted to her. Her strange scent is compelling, and I breathe deeply around her, filling my lungs with her. I’ve begun to get erections in her presence, like I’m a terminally horny high school kid again, fifteen instead of forty-seven. I’ve taken to masturbating in the shower each morning, if for no other reason than to get some relief throughout the rest of the day, but it doesn’t help. If anything, it just makes me even hornier. It doesn’t help that I fantasize about Liana when I jerk off. The scenarios are varied—sometimes we do it slow and sweet, sometimes we go at each other with the raw abandon of animals. But my morning self-pleasuring sessions always have one thing in common: I come harder than I ever have before. It’s funny. We haven’t so much as touched each other, and I’m having the best sex of my life.

On the way home from shooting the young model in an abandoned warehouse downtown—
It’s industrial,
she explained about her choice of background—Liana asks me about Pam.

“You were married, yes? Tell me about her. About what happened.”

I figured this was coming. I don’t know if Liana has any romantic interest in me, but it’s a natural topic to bring up when you’re trying to get to know someone. Still, I feel uncomfortable. I don’t have many friends of my own. Most of our friends had been closer to Pam than me, and I haven’t had this conversation many times. Besides, I don’t want to bring Pam into whatever relationship I’m building with Liana. If you can call what we have a relationship. But I start talking.

“We met in college. I was an art major, she was studying to be a social worker. We had a geology class together. Neither of us was into science, and geology sounded easier than chemistry or biology. We ended up as lab partners and found we got along okay. After the course was over, I asked her to a movie, and we started going out regularly. It wasn’t love at first sight or anything. Not even like at first sight. But it was…comfortable, I guess you could say. She could be a bit emotionally reserved. You know how some people save Christmas and birthday cards? She doesn’t. She throws them away after reading them. I’m more sentimental, I guess. I’d rather save things like that. They’re memories, you know? I used to wonder why she was so willing to discard her memories. I should’ve seen that it was a sign of things to come.”

I give her a sad smile, sigh deeply, and continue.

“We got married after graduation. It seemed like the next natural step. I honestly don’t remember either of us bringing the matter up. It was just understood. So we made it legal, found jobs, bought a house, the whole nine yards. Eventually she got pregnant. Just like with us getting married, it really wasn’t planned, but we were happy, you know? The next couple decades were taken up with raising our daughter—going to parent-teacher conferences, band concerts, school plays…and if Pam and I weren’t especially close anymore, at least we shared an interest in our daughter.

“Then Emily—that’s my daughter—graduated high school. She’d already applied to several colleges and been accepted by her top pick. That summer she moved onto campus to begin studying music. She wants to be a professional oboe player. You should hear her play. She’s very talented.

“The day after Emily moved out, Pam told me she wanted a divorce. I’d like to say I was shocked, but we’d been so distant from each other for so long that the only surprise I felt was that she hadn’t asked sooner. I argued a bit, more for show than anything. But a few days later I signed a lease on my apartment and followed my daughter out of the house. That was almost a year ago, and aside from discussing the occasional legal matter with Pam, I haven’t spoken with her since. According to Emily, she’s doing fine. She’s dating an orthodontist and is quite happy. I suppose I should be happy for her…or jealous or angry or
. But the truth is I don’t feel anything.”

BOOK: The Men Upstairs
12.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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