Issue January 23, 2012

Literary LEO 2012

Short Fiction — Third

An Elegant Mess

BY LAUREN LLOYD

“My downstairs neighbor might be dead”

She said the words nonchalantly, as if they had no meaning or consequence. I could hear her talking through the vent in my ceiling. There was no answer, no response to her surprising statement. However, I could hear her one-sided conversation as clearly as if she stood in the room with me, telling me that she thought I may be dead. That is the beauty of living somewhere that was built before the invention of television. You had to listen through the walls for your entertainment. At least that is my theory for why these walls are as thin as the skin of an octogenarian.

“Nope. The place doesn’t smell like death or anything like that. I just haven’t seen or heard the guy since the day he moved in.”

Once again, there was no emotion or even concern in her voice that I could detect. It was as if she had been pondering this possibility for quite some time and felt suddenly compelled to share her conclusion with someone. I made the quick assumption that she was on the phone, but I had also learned never to assume anything about the girl upstairs. As she told her silent friend, I had met her the day I moved in. I had made my first wrong assumption about the girl upstairs the moment I laid eyes on her.

“Hello there new neighbor! I’m Amy.”

I rolled my eyes before I turned to face the smiling, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, big-titted beauty behind me. I could just hear it in her voice, “RA RA SIS BOOM BA!!!!” Just what I needed, a cheerleader for a neighbor.

“Hi.” I responded with as little enthusiasm as I could possibly muster.

“Welcome to the neighborhood! You are going to LOVE it here. You can walk literally anywhere you could possiblY want to go!!!! See ya around the building.”

Yep. Cheerleader.

“See ya.” The delayed response was too late. She was already bouncing up the stairs and out of earshot. My quiet, pathetic response was no match for the racket her high heels made on the worn wooden stairs. I envied her easy self-confidence. I wanted her the instant I heard her bubbly voice behind me. Girls like that do not even entertain the idea of guys like me. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, imagining the type of guys she would entertain: Guys who played sports in high school and college but are now lawyers or successful businessmen. Certainly not quiet, shy musicians … well, aspiring musician. Pathetic.

I remember the first night in my new home like one remembers their first bee sting. The first time a bee stings you, it is a warning to avoid all bees in the future. Not just bees, actually, any black and yellow bug with a pointy butt. The wailing that startled me out of an already fitful sleep was so loud and so heart-wrenching that it took me a moment to realize that I was actually awake and not still stuck inside my own nightmare. The girl upstairs was still bouncing through my head when my blood turned cold. The wailing was a person. It was her.

Night after night, I awoke to the gut-wrenching sound. I wondered if the other tenants were also laying in their beds, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sobbing to stop. I tried to decipher her wails. She was definitely speaking during these nightly breakdowns, but the words were so distorted from her sobs, it was next to impossible to make them out. It was also next to impossible for me to imagine the bubbly girl from my very first day making the noises that flowed through my vents in the ceiling each night. Her existence had become a source of total curiosity for me. Each day was defined by this fractious routine. She left the apartment each morning before 8 a.m. She would return each evening around 5 p.m. A few hours later, her friends would start to trickle in.

Her apartment is a gathering place where people of all sorts meet before heading out on the town. By 10 p.m., the apartment is completely vacated and I am left to imagine where she goes and what she does every night. Wherever it is that she goes, I do know what she is doing. She is running from the very thing that creeps up and escapes her as she is deep in an alcohol-induced coma.

“No, I don’t really think he’s dead … but how fucked up would that be?! I mean, I’ve never even seen anyone come over to hang out with him or anything! It’s really freaking me out.”

Well, that snapped me out of my little flashback! I love her little one-sided conversations. They always make me feel invisible.

“Oh shit! Did I tell you that I went to that new speakeasy and I found my drink? It’s called Elegant Mess!!!! How perfect is that?”

Her words are on repeat in my head, “It’s really freaking me out.” I have to get out of this room and get some fresh air. Clear my head. As I walk down to my favorite little hole in the wall, I try to forget about her piercing words. I try to forget about her. I tell myself that I need a hobby. And yet, I cannot disentangle my own life from hers. She has become a part of me. She is my existence. I wait in anticipation for her conversations, for her parties, for her stories, and even for her pain.

Four beers later, I walk back to my apartment. It is dark and brisk and I have timed it just right so that she will already be out by the time I return. I gently open the front door to the old mansion with its peeling paint and squeaky doors. I tell myself to get some tennis shoes, these boots are way too loud on the ancient wooden stairs.

“Hey!”

“Shit!” Not exactly the response I was hoping for when I finally saw this complicated creature again. My heart is racing and I can hear my blood pounding and I must have forgotten in all the confusion that I am too shy to speak to this elegant mess of a girl from upstairs. “You just scared the complete crap out of me.”

Her bright blue eyes are piercing and her laugh is ringing through the halls of this old mansion. I used to think this mansion was an old biddy who needed to be put out of its misery, but at this very moment it is made beautiful by her sad presence. Flawed, but beautiful. And suddenly, as she stared into my soul, I feel extreme guilt. I’m guilty of knowing things about her that no one should know. I can now see that her enormous smile and tinny laugh are facades for me, not for her. I feel dirty, like I’ve been rummaging through her garbage. Standing before me, I feel as though she knows that I know. She is an enigma that I need to solve to survive.

“I was just talking about you. I thought you had died in that apartment! I never see you.”

“I know.” The words came out before I could stop them or even think them. The silence was deafening. The silence was worse than her very worst wailing.

“See you around, maybe.”

And it was over. She didn’t cry that night or the next or the next. Three days later and I am sitting on my bed in silence. There have been no one-sided conversations. No high heels bouncing on the wood floors above me. No music. No late-night visitors. No visitors period. Life upstairs has stopped and, in turn, my own life has been put on hold. Tonight, I can’t take the torture anymore. I slowly, silently, ascend the stairs. The door to her apartment is short and dark brown wood. It looks like the door to hell. My palms are sweaty and my stomach is turning. I gently rap on the door with my knuckles. There is no answer. I turn to head back downstairs. But something stops me. I have made it this far. I made one hard knock and this time the door pushes ajar. There is no one there. Now, I start to feel nauseous. What has happened?

I peek around the door. There is no sign her anywhere, but the apartment is immaculate. Beautiful, just like her. Not perfect, by any means. A perfect reflection of her. There are stacks of books and records lining the walls. As I start to explore each room, panic sets in. Surely my elegant mess wouldn’t do the unthinkable? The apartment is a still-life. There is a dirty coffee mug and wine glass in the sink. There is a stack of dirty clothes in the hamper in her closet. I have checked each room, except the bathroom. I slowly open the bathroom door. The shower curtain is closed. I can hear her words, “My downstairs neighbor might be dead.” I think I might pass out. I place my hand on the shower curtain and begin to pull it to the side.

Nothing. I exhale and think, did she leave and just forget to lock the door? But I know the answer almost before I think it. She’s gone. She’s never coming back. What am I supposed to do now?