In the summer after my first year teaching, I moved into an apartment with a linoleum floor, dark walls, and two large windows on the east and west sides of the building. Someone who’d lived there before me had broken the garbage disposal so that it spit food particles outward, but I didn’t tell the landlord because I wasn’t sure how to. Instead, I bought a drain stopper from Home Depot, and another as a backup, in case the first accidentally fell in and got ripped up and spit out.
The apartment was in a beige motel-style building in a neighborhood that bordered a park. People in the neighborhood had matchy curtains and front porch swings and strollers. I didn’t have those things, but the neighbors still smiled at me when we passed on the sidewalk. I would click pause on my headphones, but not take them out, just in case the person said hello or commented on how nice a day it was: that way, I could hear and respond if they did, but not look like a fool if they didn’t.
I put an old couch and a bed and a table in the apartment and piled my papers and bookson various open surfaces. I left the windows open all day, which made me feel like an islander or like I was airing out a paint job I’d done myself. I sat on the couch below that window and wrote songs on my guitar, or ate looking at the empty wall opposite me. It occurred to me that, though the open windows mainly served to encourage breezes and set the mood, it was a nice plus that I would be heard through the building should I choke and die on a piece of kale or a scrambled egg.
A couple lived in an apartment on the ground floor. It kills me to say, but I don’t fully remember their names. Hers may have been Laney. His is no longer in memory. Mine was Carly. They had two camping chairs and a miniature charcoal grill set up on the concrete walkway outside their unit, which was underneath the metal staircase to the building’s next level, which was my level. They often wore pajama pants and zip-up sweatshirts.
One evening I came home as the sun was setting, carrying a plastic box from the Container Store in which I intended to store old shoes. They sat in their camping chairs, and the shadow of the stairs fell over them like a barcode. A pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer rested on the ground between them.
“Another scorcher!” I said. It had been about 75 degrees that day, which was nice for Colorado. I was quite awkward sometimes, back then.
Laney widened her eyes, and the wrinkles around them expanded. “I know! I’m like – ” she said. She flapped her zip-up and panted.
“You stay cool and have a wonderful evening, darlin’,” she said, jutting her neck outto smile.
Her husband nodded and raised his PBR in recognition. A bit of ash fell from the cigarette in his lips onto his Slipknot t-shirt. His cheeks indented into his eyes he when smiled, in an arc shape like the way you draw a sun rising above an ocean. He looked like a cartoon getting high.
Early on in my tenancy, I began to notice the couple’s yelling. Usually at night, usually outside their unit on the walkway. I could never tell what their fights were about: they were less disagreement than shootouts, firing insults both precise and pointless, in the way violence often is. They loved all those anatomically descriptive phrases that overuse has rendered meaningless. Bonehead. Asshole. Cunt. I imagined them lunging among beer cans, trying to avoid upturning the mini grill or bashing their heads into the staircase.
“What is that?” Miles would say every time they started up again.
“What is that?” he said one evening in June. He was sitting on the couch by the window, looking out.
“Pineapple or passion fruit?” I said, holding a box of popsicles out to him.
“Is it the people downstairs?” He took passion fruit. Ironic, I thought, considering the temperament of our intimate relations.
I nodded and sat. “It’s just the king of all broken hearts, isn’t it,” I said. I stared out the window screen. I’d found myself saying things like that often: things I thought could be interpreted as pithy, clever. As if I were testing new material at an open mic, or trying to say something so profound everyone would just shut the fuck up.
Miles took a bite of his popsicle. We were sitting on opposite sides of the couch. His cheeks were dry and flakey. They always dried out after sex. I didn’t know if it was an external or internal phenomenon – sweat evaporating, leaving a salty desert on his face, or an intimacy that transformed him so deeply he began to molt. Perhaps I had a powerful emotional effect I didn’t notice I was exerting.
“It sounds like they need some help,” he said, frowning.
I nodded slowly and waved my popsicle in the air like an old-timey professor might his tweed arm. “Isn’t all language a cry for help?” I said.
The new apartment felt like an opportunity. I could carry into it all the things I was and arrange them in all the ways I wanted to be. I could drape the old couch in a lightly patterned tapestry, and coat the table in a light glossy sheen.
That was what I wanted to be: light. Gauzy. Floating in a Nantucketine scene, the windows ruffling, the furniture lean and spare, a trance of coffee and rosé. I wanted to be wearing a just-see-through flowing dress in white: everything white. I wanted to breeze. I wanted never to use the sink.
I went to Goodwill and bought white flowered dishes, found white curtains online, and bought bouquets of fake flowers at the craft store. I hid the things that felt heavy: clunky old boots went in the closet next to my binders from high school. My mother hated this about me – that I kept those binders. She threatened to throw them out every time she visited, but I never did. They preserved something both unremarkable and a world away. Like a letter under glass at a museum – grandmas could trace their fingers over sentence diagrams and labeled nuclei and remember when their lives were a fill-in-the-blank. I could have this memory without the cost of admission.
But no matter where the binders went and no matter how many fake bouquets I bought, I couldn’t make Nantucket. Against the linoleum floor and greyish purple walls, it all looked childish: a poorly played game of house.
Toward theend of June, I began to turn away from this vision. Instead of white and floaty I would be cluttered and artsy. I told myself I’d been wrong about Nantucket, that it wasn’t who I was. On the contrary, I was quirky. A bit chaotic. Strange. I had tangled hair and deep conversations. Artist.
I took the shoes out of the closet and put the white dishes in. I pulled out the binders and stacked them next to the couch for use as unreliable coffee tables. I stuck postcards and hand-written quotes and stickers I peeled off telephone poles to the insides of the kitchen cabinets. I put the fake flowers in tin cans. I lined the baseboards of each room with books. I was very quirky, indeed, and very mysterious. You simply couldn’t figure me out.
Miles noticed these décor choices from his seat on the couch. He’d smile and nod at them, greeting the strange doll collection and the tattered posters as if he were a guest in their home, rather than mine. He avoided the pages of handwritten lyrics scattered across the floor like they were shattered glass. Sometimes he’d notice something new and say, “That’s nice.” Then he’d ask, “How was your day?” And I would say something like, “One of the stardust of ages,” or “A life of ticking clocks and the eternal ham sandwich.” Below his feet, the lyrics would say something like, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me” under a nest of cross-outs.
One night we were in bed with the windows open and a very bright moon coming in. Miles had the sheets tucked organizedly across his chest so he looked like a little boy or a hospital patient. He kissed my forehead dryly and I moved into the space near his neck. He cheeks were beginning to flake. He was moving his pointer finger in swirls across my upper arm.
“That feels nice,” I said.
His finger paused and lifted. “Ready?” he said. “I’m gonna spell something.”
“Okay,” I whispered. His finger fell in a pool of moonlight. It was such a soft touch.
C, he wrote.
“C,” I said.
H and A, he wrote.
“Cha,” I said.
He giggled a small giggle in his throat, like a little boy or a bully. R. C.
“Charc,” I said. He wrote more letters.
“I don’t know,” I said, pulling my nose up to balance against his and looking deep into his eyes. “What is it?”
His laugh came out then. He laughed and laughed. “Charcuterie,” he said.
I laughed a little too. Then I lay down. “Oh,” I whispered. “That’s a good one.”
Outside, the yelling began.
In my first year of teaching, I’d become close with a few students. One was a girl named Billie who was in my Advisory. Our Advisory was all 7th Graders and all girls, ten of them. We’d meet in my room every morning and be grouped together for field trips and assemblies. I came to know the girls in such a way that that sometimes we’d fight to the point of yelling and crying as we made up. I felt I was making a maternal rite of passage. Though perhaps it was more sisterly than mother-daughter in nature. Whether I was the older or the younger I’m not sure.
Billie sent me a text message one afternoon, which wasn’t an atypical form of communication for the school year but hadn’t happened frequently that summer.
“Hi Ms. P,” it said, with a red heart emoji.
“Hi Billie!” I typed back. “How is your summer?”
A broken heart came as a response.
“Uh oh,” I responded. “It sounds like you aren’t feeling great. I am here to talk whenever you want.”
Billie responded, “It’s my dad.”
I looked out the window from the couch where I was sitting. My chest began to spasm like an animal shivering in a bath. I felt a wave of heat come over me. I thought for a long time and then I sent back, “I’m so sorry, Billie. Want to talk about what’s going on?”
In the five-minute spell before her response came, I shifted my body to lean my head on the back of the couch. The window was open behind me, and a soft breeze came through. I stared at the wall across from the couch, on which I had begun to mark in pencil the heights of things I thought might be interesting: a tortoise, a barstool, a can of soup. It seemed it could be a sort of installation they’d discover after I moved out or died: What is height? I thought of Billie. She’d fit between the first ever female biped who evolved four million years ago and the upright piano. I thought of her dad, maybe a foot or two taller. In the range of the average white rhinoceros and the width of a highway lane. Above them both at the top of the wall was St. Paul’s Cathedral/MOON, sketched in with their respective multipliers: x45.6/x157,674. At the bottom, was a circle in which a red blood cell was marked invisibly. Approx. 7.2 micrometers.
My chest continued to tremble nervously. I became excited for Billie’s response. I became, quickly, desperately excited, the heat reaching outward from my ribcage to crystallize in sweat beads across my upper lip. I wondered, as I wiped them with the neckline of my shirt, whether it is our best or our worst quality that the pain of others motivates us.
A text appeared then on my phone screen: “No thx.”
The last time Miles came over, we stood outside my apartment looking at the tarred, mechanical roof of the building next to mine, eating popsicles. He was so nice. I was tired of nice.
“Maybe I’ll begin a life on the road,” I said to him.
“Wouldn’t you like to eat beef jerky all the time? I would. Many Slim Jims are in my future.”
“What about your students?”
“Studentship is but a fleeting experiment,” I said.
He took a bite of his popsicle. It was July 4th.
When he left, I went downstairs to go for a walk. The yelling people’s door was open, and on the walkway stood a fold-up table draped in a waxy American flag tablecloth. The tablecloth was pulled tightly over the corners of the table, its inner white layer exposed like the underbelly of a dead fish. Two bottles of face paint lolled in the middle of the table.
A kid came out from behind the building on a scooter. He wore cargo shorts and an ACDC t-shirt and was scootering directly at me, looking down. When he was two feet from where I was standing, he noticed me and quickly scraped the toe of his sneaker against the concrete walk, tripping over himself as he slowed. “Sorry,” he said, a foot from my chest.
“That’s okay,” I said. I wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t noticed me.
“Honey, where are the sponges?” Laney came out of the apartment. “Oh, hi sweetie!” she said, stopping in the doorway as she saw me. “Happy Independence Day!”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Mom,” a voice yelled from inside. In the shadows behind Laney, a saggy brown couch sat against the wall, a black plastic cup holder pressed into its wide arm and a reclining handle dangling loosely from its pilled suede flank. A lanky figure walking past it through the darkness, the light of a TV flickering on his face. “They’re right here Mom, Jesus,” the person said when he got to the doorway.
“What is, honey,” Laney said.
“Happy Independence Day to you too,” I said.
“The fucking sponges!” the person said. He was older than the scooterer. He had a pale face and dark circles under his pale eyes and pale hair, the front of which stuck up and to the left. He was holding three small star-shaped sponges in his hand. They were yellowed and misshapen. Crispy blue paint clung in vein-like patterns to their edges.
“Aw, thank you, sweetie,” Laney said. “Carter, you ready, hon?” She walked toward the younger boy with her hand outstretched toward his cheek. He swatted her away. “You want a face paint, sweetie?” It took me a moment to realize she was talking to me. “Stay, we’ll give you some cute little stars for wherever you’re heading out to!”
“Okay,” I said.
Laney arranged the two boys and I around the flag table and shook dollops of red and blue face paint onto a paper plate. She was wearing red and blue flannel pajama pants that hugged her fertile-looking hips. They were frayed across the bottom, and the threads dangled onto the tops of her feet like strings of saliva. Her hair was held against the back of her head in a large-jawed clip. “We’ll do our honored guest first,” she said, smiling at me and squeezing Carter’s shoulder. Carter looked at the table.
Patiently, Laney dunked and pressed the paint-dipped stars against my cheekbones. Her fingertips were soft on my skin and her pinky gently held back the hair that fell in the way. She was deft at handling a face. Charcuterie, I thought.
At some point, the man came to the doorway and stood leaning against his frame, spitting into a Gatorade bottle.
Laney said. “We hear you up there, girl. Sounds good, sounds really good.”
It took me a minute to understand that she had not meant, “We hear you up there having sex, girl.” She had meant singing. I almost wished it had been the first.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hope I’m not bothering you.”
“With that voice?” she said. “Mm-mm-mm. No sirree.” She pressed a blue star into my left temple. The paint was cold and had separated like yogurt into glop and liquid: a small rivulet ran down my check and traced my jawline.
“You keep going, alright? You keep on singing. You’re going places.” She stepped back to admire her work. “Too cute,” she said, looking at my face.
I watched from my place at the table as Laney decorated Carter’s cheeks. The older boy and the man watched from the doorway. Laney held Carter’s chin in her palm. When she pressed the sponge into his cheek, he flinched and the star smudged. Laney smiled and reached for a paper towel, wiping off the blurred star. On her second attempt, Carter flinched again.
Laney kissed his forehead. “Stop fidgeting, honey,” she said, her voice soft like they’d make the voice of the moon in a children’s movie.
“Let me do one on you,” Carter said, snatching the sponge from her hand.
Laney squatted down so he could reach. When he pressed in the star, she held still, staring up into his eyes with her mouth slightly open. He held the star still for a several seconds. When he was done, she stayed squatted for a moment, smiling up at him. Then she stood and looked at the man. “How does it look?” she said.
The man nodded and spat in his bottle.
That night, the face paint didn’t come all the way off. I scrubbed at it with a bar of soap and a washcloth, but a soft blue outline remained. I lay in bed running my fingers over the faded shape. The window was open.
“Fuck you and your stupid life.” It was Laney.
“Right back at you, cunt.”
I wondered if the stars were still full color on her cheeks.
A memory comes back to me in a dream: a professor at the front of a lecture hall, cold-calling. He picks me. I stand. “The nature of the naked breast,” I say. “The folly of man in his masturbatory search for love,” I say. “Kafka-esque. Sartorial. Pseudo-Kareninanian.”
“No,” he says.
In the morning, a coworker texts me. He teaches history and wants to know how my summer is going. I write a song that day with the lyric, “Momma says, ‘Beauty is pain.’” That night, he is in my bed.
His name is Austin and sleeping with him feels like sleeping with a man. Not a body, nor a soul. A man.
After, the window is open and someone is yelling. “What’s that?” he says.
Someone yells, “You ain’t worth shit! You ain’t worth shit!”
“The ache of desultory loneliness,” I say. No, I don’t say that in real life. In real life, I say, “Nothing.”
“That’s so weird,” he says. He laughs through his nose.
I decided to put the fake flowers on the back of the toilet. I’d woken up one morning with the sudden realization that the bathroom walls were white, and therefore, that room could be my one vestige of Nantucketness. I took a clear glass jar and a fake bouquet from the kitchen table and cleared the lotions and tissuesoff the toilet lid. I wanted, for a moment, what I’d wanted in June: to make something nice. Or, rather: to make something nice.
It didn’t look nice. It looked like fake flowers on the back of a toilet.
Austin slept over often. He didn’t ask about the high school binder coffee tables or the pages of handwritten lyrics across the floor or the marks on wall. He fucked me loudly and then he slept loudly, and sometimes he ate before leaving in the morning. One morning one of the quotations from inside of the kitchen cabinet fell in his cereal. It said, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality – Frida Kahlo.”
“What the fuck,” he said. He took the slip of paper out of his bowl with two fingers and flung it onto the counter. Half of it was soaked in milk. “That’s fucking disgusting,” he said. I was watching him from the kitchen table, a mug of black coffee in my hands. He pointed at it, coiled up on the counter like a rain-displaced worm, and looked at me. “Really, Carly?” he said.
I didn’t say anything. He poured a new bowl of cereal and ate it standing up.
Later, when he was gone, I unraveled the quote and flattened it out on a plate. I thought, looking at its half-weakened body, that there must be something admirable about the yelling couple. Something deep and rich.
At some point in late July, the yelling began to wane. Maybe two nights a week spurts of vulgar language came through my windows, but they carried on only half as long and half as loud as once had. It was as if Laney and the man were tired of putting on the same show night after night, but knew the rest of us needed something to listen to. Something to make us feel less bad.
One of these evenings, I sat on my couch alone, writing lyrics. My guitar lay on the floor near my feet. As the sun began to set, I put my pen down and turned toward the window to listen. It had become something of a nightly ritual, stopping what I was doing to try to hear something from below. Like a child kneeling to pray before bed. The staircase outside cast stripes of shadow into my living room. Its wrought iron rails were rusted and warped like some wartime artifact, flaky with tetanus. They reminded me of Miles’s face.
It came soon, in muted tones. I listened and looked at the stairwell. There were, I noticed, two popsicle sticks on the bottom step. I didn’t remember that Miles and I had ever sat there. It was sort of cute, to see that. I had never really enjoyed the popsicle itself, but seeing the remnants there on the stairs, I remembered enjoying the experience of eating a popsicle with him. The little wooden sticks. It was sort of cute.
“You worthless bitch.”
I’d heard from Billie again the day before. Her father had been hit by a car, she said. He was still in the hospital. I’d told her I was there to help however I could. She hadn’t answered.
The yelling wasn’t yelling this time. It was just talking. Slow, low talking. Almost bored talking. “You worthless fucking bitch,” the man said slowly. “You worthless fucking lazy bitch.”
Somebody kicked something. Then Laney said, “Like you’re such a big help around here, asswipe.”
It quieted. A train sounded in the distance. There was hardly any light anymore. The stairs had lost their shadow. Below, something metallic fell over and part of it spun against the concrete for a while before settling. It was quiet again, and then a different sound came. I looked out through the screen as if I could hear better with my eyes. It got louder. Laughing. Someone was laughing. Both of them were laughing. Both of them were dying laughing.
I turned back toward the inside of my house and looked down at the lyrics on my lap. The writing was scrawling and stretched out, in a way I thought they’d like if they ever found my handwritten drafts posthumously. I saw a phrase I hadn’t remember writing: “killing me.” After a moment, I realized the l’s were really stretched out s’s. Kissing. Kissing me. What a terrible cheesy line.
I threw my pencil at the wall like a spear. Wherever it landed, I thought, I’d mark the height of kissing.
A couple days later, I got home in the evening. I’d been at school setting up my classroom before the year started. I’d taken some books from the baseboards of my apartment and a few of the less tattered posters to decorate the walls. At the last minute, I’d unstuck three quotes from the inside of the cabinet to put around the boarder of my dry erase board. Austin had come in from setting up his classroom down the hall while I was taping them up. He’d grabbed my hips.
“How does it look?” I asked him as he pushed me up against the board.
“Good,” he’d said, his face in my neck.
When he left, I texted Billie. “I’m thinking of you and here if you need anything,” I wrote.
Laney was sitting in her camping chair when I got home. She was alone. “Hey, sweetie,” she said.
“Hey, Laney,” I said.
“How you doing?” She smiled.
“I’m alright,” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m great,” she said. She was speaking softly, less animated than usual. The hem of her sweatshirt was flipped inside out and she was picking at the lettering of the crumpled washing directions tag. Her fingernails were done, long and red. “I am just great,” she said. She looked up, still holding the tag, and jutted her neck forward to speak, as if leaning into a microphone at a testimony: “I got myself a job.” The sun was setting at her eye level.
“You did? That’s great,” I said. “Good for you.”
“I’m gonna be an Avon lady,” she said. She sat back in the camping chair and looked down at her tag again. As if noticing it for the first time, she let go and swatted it away, flipping the sweatshirt hem right side out again. “Yes, yes, I am.”
Austin had said something about her a few days ago. About the way her face was – boring, he’d said. A boring, regular face.
“That’s great,” I said. “I’ve heard good things about Avon. Who doesn’t like makeup?”
“Right?” she said. “I mean, beauty isn’t my first choice, but you know, it lets me stay home with the kids, make a little money, you know.” Her nose crinkled in a smile.
“Totally,” I said. “It sounds great. Congratulations.”
“Well, thank you, honey. Thank you very much.” She took up the hem of her zip-up again. “You know,” she said. I had taken a step to go but paused and looked back at her. She was staring at her fingers on her sweatshirt. She cleared her throat. “I love those kids more than anything,” she said. She looked up at me and smiled. “Anything on God’s green earth.” She laughed to herself. “Anything on God’s green whole entire universe!” She reached her neck out toward me again. “You know?”
On the arm of her camping chair, the weight of her elbow had worn through the outer layer of nylon to expose the chair’s frail bones. A lattice of white threads was all that was left. It cradled her arm like a baby. It seemed then that that was all there was, those fraying synthetics. I was 5 feet 7 inches. Taller than the arm of the camping chair, shorter than the metal staircase. I looked at Laney’s face.
“I know,” I said.
She smiled at me again. “Yeah,” she said.
I congratulated her again and began to climb the stairs.
In my apartment, the light from the bathroom was on and the white walls shone brightly under its fluorescence. You could see all the colors in the fake flowers on the back of the toilet. I took off my shoes and sat down on the couch. The lights in the living room were off, but the sun was still setting outside, painting the shadow of the staircase across the floor.
Isabelle Stillman is a writer, teacher, and musician. Her fiction has appeared in The Voices Project. She teaches high school English in California and released her second album, Heartrender, in the fall of 2020. Isabelle is currently pursuing her MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University. You can find her work at isabellestillman.com and on Instagram at @isabellestilmanmusic.