Lauren Gatta

He had never given up being ashamed of his family name, which was common and dull, a blunt single syllable at the end of his birth certificate like a period. It was not a name that opened doors or contained possibilities or told him anything about himself. He had hoped his whole life that it would transform into something exotic, a name of the Old World with Cyrillic flourishes and too many consonants, heavy with excess syllables, a name like a burden of history to wear on the tailored shoulders of his suit jacket. I thought this was pathetic, like a little girl quietly hating her parents, hoping her lineage is all a lie and she is secretly the princess of an obscure nation.

With a eugenicist’s spirit of coveted superiority, he hoped to discover himself to be a secret Romanov, spirited from the hands of vengeful Bolsheviks by royalist sympathizers who were probably shot for their troubles. Freshly installed in the New World, his brave ancestor exchanged the cursed, ancient name for the direction he had traveled, West, and so the royal lineage was disguised and forgotten, except in the blood of this new, aspiring son. One day he would discover in his tongue the forgotten Russian language, in his pencil strokes the lost alphabet, and somewhere one of those gilded eggs would open to his touch alone to reveal the family crest and restore him to his proper place in infamy. He spoke of Europe like a corpse. I tried to explain to him that the Old World had become New thanks to merciless time, that in my experience most of Europe was America by another tongue and with older monuments. He wouldn’t hear of it.

Probably, he was just like me, the great-great-grandchild of a hungry Irishman on a boat. The disdain he had for this prospect made me bitter. What was so bad about being no one? No-ones could become whomever we wanted.

I know all this not because of intuition, though Joseph “never Joe” West wasn’t a hard character to read but because he told me all this in the few weeks he lived with me in the apartment I had once and would soon again share with Freddy Emerson. I’d met him because he was one of Freddy’s boys, for longer than most. Freddy didn’t love him — Freddy had never been in love. Our joke was that between the pair of us we were one healthy individual; Freddy fucked but never loved, I loved but scarcely fucked. But Freddy didn’t even like Joseph in the docile way he liked the milquetoast boys who typically shared his bed, the ones who complimented his taste and offered vague opinions about this artist or that composer. Freddy and Joseph would stay up until the small, bleak hours fighting about philosophical treatises and the nature of God. How either of them knew shit about such heavy matters was beyond me; neither of them were so much as pen pals with the divine. I think they got off on it. Freddy denied it when I teased him over scrambled eggs in the morning, said it was exhausting, that it couldn’t go on.

I’d never liked Joseph either. I’d been doing a lot of thinking and reading about normal-looking people who do awful things and wondering what the cause of such craziness could be. I concluded they were not quite human, but something sharp and predatory, some kind of land-shark, born in man’s skin. I was increasingly suspicious of the men with elbow-patched blazers and nice shoes who stood next to me on the subway. Joseph had this perpetual smirk, and when he met me on his way out of Freddy’s bedroom, while I waited for my coffee to brew, he made a condescending comment about the superiority of Earl Grey tea. He fit my profile.

“If your boyfriend kills us in our sleep, I’ll make you sorry,” I’d told Freddy, but he didn’t know what I was on about. All the same, Joseph was soon discarded and replaced with another, prettier young man, an economics student at Columbia who read The Economist and had opinions on stocks.   

Not long after that, Freddy had what his mother politely termed a nervous breakdown. Andrea Emerson, who’d never liked me, not even once, arrived to scoop him from the apartment and deliver him to Florida, where the warmth would do him good. That, and the best therapist couches that money could buy. She chewed me out like I was the cause of it all, though where she’d been when her eldest, dearest son cried his nights away with only me to hold his hand was not a question she cared to answer. She left me with quiet walls, empty doorways, a spare bedroom and all of Freddy’s crap that hadn’t fit in the matching suitcase set.

This left me with a full suite of problems. Firstly, my instincts as a friend meant I should be motoring down to see Freddy in Florida weekly, though that was unaffordable. We were left with our static-filled Skype dates and a few ironic postcards with coded obscenities written on the back in Sharpie, the way we used to cuss each other out on Post-it slips left on the kitchen counter we when didn’t do our dishes. Secondly, and worse, Freddy and his family allowance had been paying the rent. I was already plotting to seduce the landlord when I found that, before Freddy made his futile escape attempt from this plane of existence, he’d visited the bank and withdrawn a modest sum of money. This had been left under the radiator of all places in an envelope labeled To Jess, stick around. It was enough to get me by. Third, and worst of all, I didn’t want to live alone. Our mutual fear of empty rooms was how I’d ended up living with Freddy in the first place. He’d always said I could be replaced with a dog, but me, I needed conversation or I ended up talking to the walls or my occasional nighttime hallucinations. I’d always slept poorly and imagined gun-toting house invaders or vengeful wraiths in every shadow. By the fourth Freddy-less day, I left my laptop on all night, playing old episodes of “Parks and Recreation” like a rain machine so I’d at least have voices to fall asleep to.

On the fifth day, Joseph West came looking for his cuff links.

He wanted to know how Freddy was doing too, but this didn’t come up until 10 minutes later, and I wrote off his concern as fraudulent, like a sociopath’s smile. He was the same old shark.

When Joseph rang my doorbell, I was jumpy, and he seemed like an omen. I wondered if he wanted to break into my apartment and checked his hands for knives. Nothing so blatant, but I still didn’t trust him, with his tailored khakis and narrow hips. He’d grown a beard on his jawline the way lichen grows on a rock, which didn’t help with the murderous look.

“What’s up?” I asked him and showed him in, because my mother raised me right. He turned down my offer of coffee.

“I think I left something in your residence.” The cuff links had real pearls on them, about the size of a dust mote and were monogrammed with initials that were not his. His brother had picked them up at an estate auction and delivered them to Joseph as a Christmas present. Turns out, Freddy had invited him to the opera one night, and Joseph had put on his best suit, cuff links included. Because opera is the great musical aphrodisiac, so Freddy claims, they ended up in Freddy’s bed after, minus the nice suits. Somewhere along the way, the cuff links had managed to roll under the bed or behind the radiator. They’d spent a morning hunting before one or the other of them had needed to get to work. Before long, the boys had split, and Joseph, out of chagrin, put off returning for his lost possession. He would have waited until Freddy returned from his, ahem, holiday, but he was driving to D.C. for a job as a law clerk, and the cuff links just couldn’t be left in New York. Had I perhaps seen them?

“Pearls?” I asked.

“Pearls,” Joseph confirmed, hopefully.

“My mom had a thing about pearls,” I reminisced, stirring creamer into my coffee. “My dad gave her a beautiful necklace of pearls after I was born. She believed that only women, well, people who were assigned female at birth, should be allowed to wear them. Because the pearl, the way the pearl is made, reflects the suffering that people with what we think of as female anatomy endure.” These were the kind of chestnuts I used to tell Freddy all the time, but without him around, they clogged up my head. I was thinking about starting a journal.

“I don’t know much about that,” Joseph smiled up at me. “I’m just looking for my cuff links.” He tried to give me a stupid look, like a cow, but I didn’t buy it. He had shark teeth.

“Who did you say they belonged to originally?”

He shrugged. “My brother never told me.”

“I’ll ask Freddy if he ever found them.”

That’s when Joseph asked how Fred was doing, with all the usual platitudes. “I wish I’d known he was in such a bad way. … I had no idea he would have done something like that.” People had been singing that song to me ever since. Joseph’s version was: “I just don’t understand. Fred had everything.”

“Logic doesn’t have much to do with it. Nobody who tries to kill themself sits down to make a pro-con list.”

“I guess I wouldn’t know.” Joseph waited for me to say something, and, when I carried on staring at him, he glanced under the couch cushion as if his cuff links might be conveniently underneath. “Has he mentioned me at all?” he asked. “Or did I come up before he … ”

“I promise it had nothing to do with you,” I said, to which Joseph looked disappointed, as I’d expected. How like a shark, to dream of killing by breaking hearts. “Fred wasn’t too hung up on you.”

At that, Joseph got an honest-to-God child’s pout. I guess I could sympathize with that. Even real people want to make an impression, to be missed, and it’s a crummy thing to hear that a fling discarded you like an old iPhone. “It’s not you, Joe. He’s like that for everyone, really.”

“Please don’t call me Joe.” My misnomer seemed to cheer him up. “I don’t mean to be petty, but … ”

“Its fine,” I shrugged. “Just don’t call me Jessica.”

“Well, when you ask Freddy about the cuff links, please tell him I’m thinking about him, I wish him the best and to please come and see me next time he’s around D.C. He helped me get this job, you know; the firm’s run by his father’s old partner.” Joseph said this with such unsharklike sincerity that I all at once began to doubt my conclusions. 

I smiled. “It wasn’t for you like it was for Fred, ending it I mean.”

“He’s a great guy,” Joseph admitted. “I wish we could have made it work. I think it was my fault. I thought too much of him, put him on something of a pedestal. I bet that happens to Fred all the time.”

I laughed, because once you’ve seen someone stagger to the kitchen in their underwear and try to stir their coffee with a knife every day of the week for more than a year, you understand their charisma less and less. “I bet Freddy loved that, actually. He loves to be loved, little shithead.” Joseph looked appalled; I ignored him. “Look, I’d love to have a hunt for your cuff links, but this whole apartment is such a mess with all of Freddy’s crap, and Freddy’s room especially is furniture vomit, that I don’t know. It would take all day, and I have a deadline tonight. I’ll ask Fred. I’m sorry.”

“Please,” said Joseph. Do tears sparkle like shark teeth? I was all mixed up. “I’m leaving in three days. I’ll help you look.”

I started to feel sorry for the guy, which was the first sign of trouble. Against even my worst judgment, I opened the door to Freddy’s room. I hadn’t even bothered to try and clean it since first Freddy at his nadir and then his mother at her peak had trashed it, Freddy for the sake of it, his mother to find the sweater from his grandfather and all the other expensive crap she wanted to pack. There were tuxedo pants and unopened toothpaste and a single slipper stacked on top of the pillows like a modern art shrine. Books were scattered. Certain things — sunblock, ChapStick, a stapler — had been hurled across the room, landed, burst and were leaking. Freddy had told me which blazer, still hung in the closet unless it was sprawled by the dresser, had a baggie of weed in the breast pocket. A few loose pills rolled underfoot like a very sad game of marbles.

I picked one up. “Is this a pearl, Joseph?” I joked.

“I didn’t realize it was such a mess.”

“Well,” I said, kneeling to sort through a pile of undershirts, “I tried to warn you.” And we began our hunt. I was happy to toss things back on the ground where I’d found them, but Joseph meticulously folded clothes, hung up jackets and filled the trash can. I eventually acquiesced and joined the cleaning effort.

I asked him whereabouts he would be living in D.C. and he told me a long story about a high school chum who was to be his new roommate, at least until he found his own place. Regrettably, the chum, a local, had a brother getting married the next week, and the apartment was about to fill up with visiting relatives who, family hospitality insisted, were not to waste money on hotels. Joseph would spend his first few weeks in the new city sleeping rough, by which he meant in a sleeping bag by the window.

“Why the fuck are you going down now?” I asked.

“My lease is up,” he explained. “The new tenants are moving in as soon as I leave. I didn’t hear about the wedding until I’d already talked to my landlord, and it was too late.”

“Hell, why don’t you stay here with me,” I said, wanting to be good. “I’ve got a bed, or I will once we’ve finished cleaning. It’ll give you more time to look for the cuff links, anyway.”

“Thank you, Jess, really, but I couldn’t. I can’t intrude and I have all my things, my car … ”

I cut him off. “There’s parking around back of the building, indoor, very secure,” I said like a real estate agent. “Leave your stuff in your car. You’re not intruding, ’cause I’m offering. And when I Skype Fred on Tuesday, you can look over my shoulder and ask him about the cuff links yourself.”

We talked it over a few more times, and finally, Joseph agreed. I gave him the spare key and a parking pass and he helped me put new sheets on the bed.

After he left, with plans to return for good the following morning, I texted Freddy to brag about my good deed. But I was sure I had a selfish motive somewhere. Maybe I wanted to observe a shark up close or maybe it had to do with wanting someone to tease, a kind of uber-Freddy. From what I could tell, Joseph had all of Fred’s pretensions without even a drop of the self-awareness that made Fred bearable. But motivation be damned, at least I was giving the poor kid a better place to crash than underfoot of a wedding party.

Freddy didn’t think much of it. “Yr gonna hate him,” he texted back. It was true our commonalities were basically nil, aside from being theoretically the same species. But it takes all sorts in this life, and I was determined to be a more open-minded and considerate person. Freddy would return to find me canonized.

The first morning, Joseph parked his car in the lot and pronounced my coffee to be bitter. I made us a grilled cheese each for lunch, and he asked if I always ate like a 9-year-old, casting a critical eye on the state of my stovetop. I asked him if he wanted to make dinner, and he said he didn’t know how to use my stove. When I came home that evening, pots and bowls and pans were soaking in the sink amidst gray water and a heap of bubbles. This felt insulting, though it was technically a kindness. I ordered in and watched Netflix on my laptop while he read Tolstoy on the best armchair.

“Joseph, let’s try to get to know each other better,” I proposed, passing him the aux cord. He’d never heard of Bikini Kill, and I couldn’t stand Brahms. We were back to square one.

On the third night, he brought me pad thai and a bottle of white wine. Freddy must have texted him the cheat codes to my affection. The wine was an upgrade from my usual, though the pad thai was cold. After the bottle was drained, I found whiskey in the back cabinet, and we drank our hearts sick. I took a sojourn to bathroom to throw up, but he didn’t hold my hair. I guess that’s a lot to ask on the third night.

“You were right,” the poor sop confessed to me, sitting on the edge of my bed in case I passed out lying on my back and died. “The breakup wasn’t easy for me. I think I loved him.” Presumably he figured I wouldn’t remember the conversation, but he was straight out of luck. “I’ve never been in love before this.”

“Tough luck,” I said with a hiccup. “I didn’t think sharks could fall in love.”

“What?” 

“Nothin’. Why Fred?”

“Only foolish reasons,” Joseph continued, looking away. “He was a lot of things I wanted to be. Well-dressed, well-spoken … ”

“But he wasn’t well,” I interrupted. It was the point in the night where enunciation is a challenge, but this was very important, so I tried my best. “Fred’s rich and likes his job and likes the opera, but he’s not very happy when you get down to it.”

“I know,” Joseph snapped. “But I didn’t know that then. That was never the kind of thing we talked about.”

“Maybe if you’d talked about it, you wouldn’t have fucked things up, and you’d still be together.” I knew this wasn’t true. Joseph would have to be a whole different kind of person, the kind who found the inner life of a lover more interesting than his metaphysical opinions. If Fred had met such a person five years ago, it might have done him some good, but by the time he and Joseph started going out, he was too far into the tunnel of his own mind. The story I told Joseph was a piece of fiction involving two entirely different men, and why Joseph believed it from a poor drunk girl was beyond me.

“Do you think it’s too late now?”

“At least he’s still alive, Joe.”

He left me on the bed, curled up on my side. I could have choked or gone into shock or something, but he left me, some friend. Some shark. I woke up with rocks crammed into my skull only to find him stuffing four pieces of notebook paper, filled with a sociopath’s meticulous cursive, in my face.

“Read this please?” he asked me, putting a mug of black coffee in my other hand as payment. It was a sort of confessional love letter and a melodramatic apology worthy of an old Hollywood starlet and somehow fumigated with a bizarre stink of clinical distance. It ended with “best regards,” which should tell you everything.

“Honey, dipshit, you’ve just got to tell him how you feel. All this can be cut down to six words: ‘I love you, and I’m sorry.’ Or: ‘I’m sorry that I love you.’ Either order works.”

He took back the papers and moved to crumple them but couldn’t. “I put my whole heart into this. This is me.” A novel thing, a shark acting like a poet. I made note in my mental zoologist observations.

“I’m just being honest.”

“Look, I’m thinking I should head to D.C. soon so perhaps you can give it to him. Even if you think it’s bad, I ask that you don’t editorialize.”

“Leaving!” I exclaimed. “But we were just getting to be friends.” He looked surprised at this news. “The wine, the pad thai.”

“I was supposed to meet a friend,” he admitted, “but he stood me up.”

“A date?”

“An ex.”

I belly-laughed, then hiccupped, then lay back down. “What about all this crybaby crap about Fred? Or do you cling to all your exes?”

We fought for nearly an hour. He was like my hangover made flesh, only he never raised his voice but spoke in creepy measured tones. I was the shouter, which rattled the rocks in my head and made my whole body feel like a landslide. When he left, I went back to sleep.

That afternoon, to make it up to him, I took him to an antiques fair in Manhattan. There were two Faberge eggs on display. I’ve seen priests stare at the cross with less devotion. This was when he told me about his Romanov dreams. Because I was trying to behave myself, I didn’t laugh until he was scampering away toward a display of fine china.

On the ride home, I said to him, “One day I’m going to write a movie with a character like you in it,” for the sake of honesty.

“That’s very flattering, Jess. Thank you. Please do change my name, though,” which was when he told me the business about his surname. The sight of the gilded eggs had made him more loquacious by orders of magnitude. All night he gave me tidbits like this. We watched a noir movie while he gawked over the set dressing, the men’s slacks, the wallpaper. Afterward, he switched to a home improvement show where couples with unspecified high-paying jobs buy summer homes in Europe. I rolled my eyes and texted Freddy, who ignored me. We poked around for the cuff links but without much hope of success.

“My mom was always losing things and said they’d only turn up when we weren’t looking,” Joseph told me. “I’m thinking if they’re this lost that’s our best bet.” I took that to mean I wouldn’t be rid of him any time soon.

On the morning of my weekly Skype date with Freddy, he texted me, “I don’t want to talk to Joseph.” Just like that, with a period and everything, which made him seem curt.

“Yr all he talks about,” I texted back. “Pls. Closure for his sake?”

He didn’t respond for an hour, then replied that he couldn’t talk today actually because he was going out on the water with that mother of his. He was really sorry about it, if that was any condolence, but I didn’t believe it for a second. We rescheduled for the next day, but when the appointed hour came I logged into Skype, and he didn’t. I waited 20 long minutes, fearing the worst, and called him. He picked up on the third ring.

“Are you okay.”

“Shit, Jess, I’m sorry. I can’t talk. Family stuff.” In the background, I heard no chattering, no babbling kids, no music. I figured he was in his room with his feet up.

“Fuck you. I’m lonely. Talk to me, Fred.”

“Look, I have to go.”

I announced to Joseph that that I’d be working through dinner. He peered at my laptop. “What do you even do?”

“Freelance,” I explained to him, enunciating. “I’m a freelancer.”

“What does that mean?” I rolled my eyes at him.

“Just let me get working. I have a lot to do.” I shut my door; it took a whole 10 seconds for him to walk away. And he didn’t bring me any dinner, the shark, even though my stomach growled.

I waited until 3 a.m., when I was sure he was asleep, and crept out to go digging in the fridge. Joseph had stocked the fridge with apples and protein shakes and snacking cheese; I had to stick my whole arm in to get the last yogurt cup in the very back, and as I blindly reached the back of hand touched something papery, wedged between the end of the shelf and the very back of the fridge. I snagged it; it was an envelope. In dull pencil, it said: “Joseph.”

“Fuck all,” I said to the fridge. Why Freddie had stuck his memories of Joe in the refrigerator wasn’t mine to guess; maybe Freddie wanted to eat him. I mean that in the most salacious of senses; skinny Joseph would make rotten cannibal fodder.

I took my time opening the envelope. I made myself comfy on my bed, door shut, legs crossed. This was the grand reveal, and I felt it deserved something. I was suspicious; the envelope was fatter than a cuff link should be. Sure enough, there was a letter stuffed inside, scribbled on the back of a spin class flyer in the same black ink as the note he’d left for me. The handwriting was tiny and spidery; the letter was too many lines to count. I was mad; live with a guy for nearly a year, and all I get is four words. Meanwhile, he leaves his rotten ex a soliloquy. I was tempted to rip the thing up and keep the pieces, just in case a ticker-tape parade came along, but I thought I’d rather wave it in Freddy’s face.

As for the cuff links, I was torn. Giving them to Joseph would get him out of my hair and grant me the expanse of Freddy’s room for better houseguests or Freddy himself if he ran away from Florida and came back to me. Joseph around, I wouldn’t have to watch any home improvement shows but would have no one to watch anything with at all, so it evened out to neutral. What tipped the scale was how little he deserved the letter. It was proof that Freddy loved him after all; maybe he’d even hid the cuff links from him in the first place to keep him coming back. The thought of his smug and sharky smile was more than I could take.

And no, I didn’t read the letter. Well, only a few lines, but then I stopped myself. It’s not that it was mushy stuff, and anyway I have a strong stomach. But I do respect my people’s privacy.

I don’t know how long it went on for, no more than a week. Fred became a virtuoso in excuses to keep from talking to me, but at least now I knew why. I couldn’t imagine how embarrassed I’d be to write such a smushy farewell letter to someone and then have to look that someone in the face again. Especially someone like Joseph, with his lichenous beard and Russian daydreams. I tried to understand his special charm. He had a lot of interesting things to say, about television and newspapers and paint colors. Sometimes he gave me summaries of the books he was reading. But whenever I got to talking, his mind and his eyes wandered to Timbuktu, returning only to tell me just how rotten and wrong I was. And yet he always seemed to appear, ready to review his daily criticisms of me.

There was the time I emerged from the shower, feeling polished and clean, and walked dripping back to my bed with a detour through the living room for the towel I’d left on the couch. Joseph was in his favorite armchair with a teacup, reading one of those Russian books.

He glanced up at me and then recoiled like I was a masked intruder. “Dear God, Jess.” He slammed his eyes shut.

“What, are you going to go blind? I’m not that ugly.” I snatched the towel and draped it loosely over my shoulders, not too perturbed. Freddy and I had done this mock revulsion thing weekly. What was different with Joseph was the sigh he released, a sigh with physical weight and form.

“What?” I smacked him about the head with the towel, and he squinted up at me, careful to look only at my face.

“It’s just,” he paused to shake his head. “Jess, where do you think you’re going to get in the world if you live this way?”

“It’s my fucking apartment, that I out of my merciful heart am letting you stay at, as you know, Joe.”

“Privacy is valuable,” he sermonized. “But I believe we place too much of a distinction between the public and private spheres in how to conduct ourselves. Duality is bad for man. Inevitably, our private behaviors will slip into our public worlds.”

“You think I’m going to accidentally go to a job interview in my birthday suit, is that it?”

“If you ever went to a job interview. The trouble with you, Jess, is you don’t believe in seriousness or any sort of standard of behavior. Maybe if you were more professional in all parts of your life, you’d have actual employment. I don’t blame you though; it’s a particularly postmodern problem.”

“Fuck, you kissed Freddy with that mouth? No wonder he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.”

Joseph raised his eyebrows. “What does that one have to do with the other?”

“I mean, he keeps avoiding calling me because he thinks he might have to talk to you.”

“He told you that?”

“It was easy enough to deduce.” By now, the floorboards under my feet were getting soggy; for the love of my security deposit, I wrapped myself in my towel and headed for my room.

That afternoon, I smelled cooking. It was only 4 o’clock, so I poked my head out the door to see what had possessed Joseph to make such a late lunch. Turns out, he was making his best attempt at a feast. Sweetly, it was on the common side. A pan of potatoes roasted to the edge of charcoal, slabs of unmarinated deboned salmon and underdone tricolor pasta. But I shouldn’t be so critical; it was something new for him even to try.

Over dinner, we chewed in silence. Joseph looked in the newspaper, probably for something new to fight about. Finding nothing, he glanced up at me and announced, “The wedding’s over.”

“You want a divorce?” I teased.

“My friend’s brother’s wedding. I’m supposed to start my job in a week. I really should get to D.C.”

“Been nice having you,” I said.

“Could we have one more look for the cuff links? They really do mean a lot to me, Jess.”

I had forgotten all about the cuff links, particularly about the fact that they were sequestered behind a dictionary on my bookcase. I racked my brain for the appropriate way to fake finding them. “All right,” I agreed. “Why don’t you go through Fred’s room again and I’ll look elsewhere.”

“Aren’t they most likely to be in Fred’s room?” Joseph pointed out.

“Sure but who knows. Fred was making such a mess.” He acquiesced, and, while he did the dishes, I made rummaging sounds in the living room. When he was shining a cell phone flashlight on the same nooks and crannies we’d searched a million times, I sat on my bed with the cuff links, waiting an appropriate amount of time. Then I walked into Fred’s room and tapped Joseph on the shoulder.      

“They were behind the fridge,” I explained, smiling with all my enthusiasm. I’d expected a leap into the air “hurrah,” but that wasn’t Joseph’s style. He folded his hands around the cuff links and said “what a relief” without so much as looking at me. Maybe he was onto me. He rolled them in his palm, and, as I side-eyed him, traced his thumb over the initials like they were his own, over the pearl as if it was the key to a world that glittered.

I kept the letter, considering it Joseph’s contribution to the rent.

The next morning I lay in bed listening to Joe pack up his bags, the quiet swish of folding shirts and the metallic zip of suitcases. I thought about putting in headphones, and I tried to read a book, but I kept finding myself listening. I knew the bedroom would be cleaner than a military barracks; I could rent it out for good money in the meantime.

He knocked on my door and pushed it open a crack. “Should we say goodbye?”

“Bye bye.” I waved at him without getting up. “Drive safe.”

He held up the key, dull bronze, and wouldn’t put it in my hand except as a handshake, so I walked him to the door for courtesy. “Say hi to Fred for me,” he said and then left without a sound except the closing of the door and the thud of his feet on the stairs. I left my pajamas in the living room and showered until the bathroom dripped with steam. Then I wrapped myself in terry cloth and turned the TV on.

***

She moved like a wind-up doll — there was a limpness to her and on certain days she would wander through her apartment as if someone had pointed her in a direction and set her off. She would disappear for a few hours claiming she had work, though the nature of this work would never be made clear. Then she’d reappear looming over me; she could talk and talk. She said her name was Jess and never to call her Jessica. She was a woman without a history, without much thought, not the kind of person I ever would have befriended. But she happened to be the old roommate of an ex of mine, and when I was on my way out of town for good, through a peculiar series of events I lived with her for a short while. We got to know each other, though we never reached an understanding, and she remained as blank as porcelain.