Authors: Tim Waggoner
Gray-Hair looks plenty confident too. What’s more, from the way they’re talking, it’s clear they know each other. Gray-Hair seems to be trying to convince her of something. He smiles often, his gestures are soft, his manner conciliatory. Liana, on the other hand, appears to be berating him. She scowls, and her gestures are sharp and emphatic, but despite the attitude she projects, I can see that she’s trembling. I’m sure Gray-Hair can, too.
There’s a good twenty feet between us, not to mention a door, so I can’t make out what they’re saying. I can hear their voices, but not individual words. The rhythm and cadences of their sentences seem off somehow, and I’m not sure they’re speaking English.
I’m tempted to sneak closer to the door so I can hear better. Part of me feels guilty for wanting to spy on Liana, but part of me feels driven to do so. What if something’s seriously wrong and she needs my help? What—
The conversation ends and Liana turns toward the door. I’m afraid of getting caught, so I whirl around and run back to the apartment, careful not to slam the door so Liana won’t know I was out in the hall spying on her. I run to the couch, sit, and force myself to breathe evenly.
I hear Liana’s footsteps as she approaches the door, along with the stomping of work boots as Gray-Hair heads back upstairs.
I’m tempted to grab a magazine off the coffee table and pretend to be reading it, like some clueless sitcom character. But I resist. She walks into the room, but instead of joining me on the couch, she stands there, looking at me.
“I wanted to get some air,” she says. “It was too…” She pauses, searching for the words, finally settles on “Much. It was too much in here.”
I nod as if I understand.
Then she comes over to the couch, kisses me with trembling lips, and I kiss her back. Soon she’s not trembling anymore, and this time when we make love, it’s good. More than good.
Even with the occasional stomping going on over our heads.
* * *
Later, we watch a movie on pay-per-view. We turn up the volume higher than normal because of the stomping. It’s intermittent now, but still distracting as hell when it comes. I have my laptop out, pretending to be doing work, going over proofs of photos, enhancing here, lightening, darkening, whatever the image requires. But my mind’s elsewhere.
The movie is a relationship drama, the kind of film my ex calls a full-boxer, meaning that she’ll weep so much she’ll use an entire box of tissues. Liana doesn’t cry, though. Instead, she watches the movie with intense concentration, as if she’s studying it. Learning from it.
We’re sitting side by side, but she’s so absorbed in the movie that she’s not paying attention to what I’m doing. I minimize my photo program and log onto the Internet. I do a search on
Sons of Babel
, and I find a biblical reference from the book of Ezekial: “The sons of Babel came to her, and defiled her with their whoredom.” A sick twist of nausea grips me, and I try to tell myself that it’s a coincidence, that it has no bearing on Liana. But I can’t help thinking about how she spoke to Gray-Hair as if she knew him. I search a bit more, but I find nothing on a business called Sons of Babel. Whatever work those men do, it seems they don’t feel the need to advertise, at least not on the Web.
Next I look up
I have more luck this time. An online dictionary tells me that it’s an old-fashioned word meaning “descended or related on the distaff side.” I know
, but I can’t see how the word applies to the three men upstairs. I remember once more what the man who came down to apologize, Mr. Mustache, said:
Important to me and my Spindlekin.
Was he trying to say the three of them are related? Maybe
is some kind of regionalism, a term that’s common enough wherever these men are from.
I close the program and glance at Liana. Her gaze remains fixed on the TV screen. I think of how I could do an Internet search on her, if only I knew her last name. And it occurs to me, with more than a little surprise, that I haven’t felt the need to ask for her full name, not once since I met her. And I still don’t.
I shut my laptop, put it aside, and scoot closer to Liana. She reaches out to take my hand and we watch the rest of the movie, doing our best to ignore the pounding footsteps of our new neighbors above.
* * *
She asks me to join her in bed that night. Not for sex, I know, but because she’s nervous. It’s close to midnight, and the stomping is still going on overhead, has been incessant all evening.
Liana is lying shivering in bed, the light on. She’s wearing one of my T-shirts, and I’m wearing a T-shirt as well, along with a pair of boxers. I slide beneath the covers with her and move close—but not too close. I feel awkward just lying next to her, so I reach out to take her hand. But before I can find it, there’s a deafening crash from upstairs, as if someone’s lifted a piece of heavy furniture and dropped it right above us. I’m surprised that chunks of plaster don’t break free and shower down on us.
The crash startles Liana so much that she rolls toward me and grabs hold of my body. It’s less an embrace than a desperate reach for something solid to hang onto, and I know this, but it still feels good to have her body pressed against mine. I gather her into my arms, my nostrils filling with the sweet-rank smell of her. Does her trembling lessen? Maybe, just a little.
Fifteen minutes pass, and the stomping comes at increasingly longer intervals until finally it ends. I figure maybe the men upstairs are ready to settle down for the night, and I wait to hear the creak of bedsprings, the heavy sigh of someone settling into his bed, deep breathing or even snoring as sleep comes on. But there’s nothing, and I get the impression that the men are above us, standing still. Listening.
Liana kisses me then, and although I’m self-conscious, we make love again. I can’t stop imagining the three men upstairs listening, crouched down, ears pressed against the floor, but despite this, I manage to give an adequate account of myself. Liana climaxes…I think. Her body shimmies from side to side beneath me, almost like the undulation of a serpent, and she makes a strange soft laughing sound created by inhaling instead of exhaling. But she’s relaxed and cuddly afterward, so I figure, what the hell. Everyone gets off in their own way, right?
We lay holding each other in the dark, and I’m starting to drift off when she begins talking. She almost whispers, as if she doesn’t want the men upstairs to hear.
“They were nice to me at first. They always are. But before long they begin to act as if they own you. They want to keep you for themselves. They say it’s to protect you, but really it’s about control. You have something they want, and they’re determined to maintain their access to it, no matter what it takes. You go along with it, tell yourself that this is the way it’s always been, the way it’s supposed to be. But deep down inside you don’t believe it. You dream about leaving, going off on your own, but you’re so afraid. What if they find you and take you back? What if you discover you really don’t want to be free? What if they’re right and you can’t take care of yourself? That you do need protecting?”
It’s the most she’s ever said in one stretch to me, and she pauses almost as if the effort of speaking so much has wearied her and she needs to rebuild her strength. I feel I should say something to fill the silence, but I can’t think of anything.
I imagine I can hear breathing above us. Heavy, as if they’re sleeping. Or maybe awake and turned on by their voyeurism.
“I remember the first time. I was barely a teenager. Still a girl, really. I was taken to a hotel by a man. A nice man, someone I trusted, although I was scared just the same. I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen to me, but I was turned on too. After all, this was my purpose, wasn’t it? What I was made for?
“Once we were in the room, the others arrived. They took off my clothes and…my memories aren’t very clear after that. I just remember men gathered around the bed, doing things to me.”
Every muscle in my body tenses, and a cold pit yawns open in my stomach. I try not to imagine the scene Liana has created for me, but it’s impossible. The visuals and sounds my mind conjures to bring to life the scenario Liana has painted are bad enough, but what really hurts, what cuts like a jagged rusty knife sawing through my guts, is the thought of what thirteen-year-old Liana must’ve felt as the men went to work on her. Trapped, dirty, used, helpless, debased, small, worthless save for what pleasure her body could provide to men…
And defiled her with their whoredom…
I don’t realize I’m crying until I feel Liana wipe a tear from my cheek.
I can see well enough in the bedroom’s darkness to know that Liana puts her finger to her mouth to taste my tear. Before I met her, I might’ve found this strange. Now I find it touching.
“I can’t cry right now,” she says.
“That’s okay. I’ll cry for both of us.”
She rolls over on top of me and begins licking my tears, like a cat lapping spilled milk. My penis swells and soon we’re making love again. This time I forget all about the men upstairs, and it’s the best yet. And when I come and I feel her vagina clench around my cock in a strange way, if I feel something round, slick, and fleshy bump against the head of my penis, I don’t worry about it.
* * *
I’m drowsing in the afterglow when I hear Liana’s soft voice close to my ear.
“You’re not like them, Richard. I’m more to you than just something to look at, something to touch. For the first time in my life, I feel like someone really sees me.”
She snuggles closer, and I want to reply, but I’m so sleepy…
* * *
My eyes fly open and I’m instantly awake, heart pounding in my ears. The clock on the nightstand says it’s 3:14. Liana’s sound asleep beside me, curled up on her side, naked beneath the covers and snoring softly. I sit up in bed, awake but disoriented. Did I have a nightmare of something? I can’t remember—
I hear a loud crash from the other room.
I throw back the covers and jump out of bed. Liana rolls over, but she doesn’t wake. I stand there, shivering from a combination of being naked in the cold air and from the adrenaline surging through my system. I listen, motionless, straining to hear something over the triphammer thrum of my pulse.
I left a pair of sweatpants lying on the floor next to the bed. I grab them, slip them on, and head out into the hall. I close the bedroom door behind me gently, so as not to wake Liana, which is crazy, really. I mean, if two loud crashes haven’t pulled her out of sleep, why would the sound of a door shutting? But I do it anyway, then I flick the hallway light switch. If someone’s broken into the apartment, I want to be able to see them.
Of course, this means they’ll be able to see me as well.
I head into the living room, wishing that I was in the kitchen instead. I’d really like to be holding a sharp butcher knife right now. The hallway light provides enough illumination that I can see no one’s there. I’m confused. I know I heard the crashes come from out here. Was I only half awake when I heard them and still partially dreaming?
I get an answer a second later when I hear three foot-stomps above me—halting, erratic—followed by another crash. The impact is so forceful that objects in my apartment—knickknacks on shelves, pictures hanging on the walls—rattle, and I feel the vibrations through the soles of my bare feet.
Silence for several moments, and then more foot-stomps, four this time, followed by another crash.
Another interval of silence, longer this time, then foot-stomps and a crash.
I try to picture what’s going on upstairs. It sounds like someone carrying something heavy, hurling it forcibly to the ground, then picking it up and starting the process all over again. After listening to a few more rounds of this, I revise my image to that of a drunk who staggers a few steps before collapsing to the floor, lying in a stupor for several moments before rising unsteadily and trying to walk once again with the same unfortunate results.
I think about the one
, the drunk who came to the patio. Did Mr. Mustache continue drinking the rest of the night until he reached a dangerous level of inebriation? If so, why aren’t the other two doing anything about it? Surely they can’t sleep through this racket.
Then again, Liana is.
And maybe Mr. Mustache didn’t drown his sorrows by himself tonight. Maybe the other two are sleeping it off while their companion staggers around the apartment falling on his drunk-ass face over and over.
I stand there while this bizarre cycle continues to repeat above me, trying to decide what to do. If the asshole upstairs really is falling down that hard, he’s bound to hurt himself. Part of me thinks that it serves the sonofabitch right for being dumb enough to get that drunk. But part of me thinks maybe I should call the cops. If the guy’s
drunk, he might need to go to the hospital. He might have alcohol poisoning. If nothing else, he’ll have injuries that’ll need tending to. A busted nose, maybe, or a broken arm. He’s hitting the floor damned hard.