Sidebar—The Woman Upstairs|
It was a crazy night. I couldn’t stand to stay at home, there was too much quiet, too much noise, too much, too much, I had to get out. Went for drinks with some of the girls from work, had a couple, but they talked too loud, the club was too smoky, I got bored. Went for a walk, the street lights hurt my eyes. Millers flew around all the lights, gnats, beetles; bugs all over the damn place if you looked up.
Tripped over the broken sidewalk a couple times. I looked down after that.
Tired of the lights, tired of the bugs, tired, tired, tired………turned down one of those streets without so many lights……
Quieter, cooler, nobody to bother me.
I go to work everyday, I pay my bills, I do what I’m supposed to do during the day, but the nights……..the nights are crazy. What are you supposed to do then? What are you supposed to think about? The lights are too bright at night, I can’t sit still…..I have to go walking.
……….Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to that. You in a hurry or something?
I took my shoes off and carried ‘em. The street was clean, the cement was still warm, who needs grass?
In the dark, on the cement, walking.
Somebody else on my street, walking from the other way, shoes slapping the concrete, a big guy with big shoes, making plenty of noise. Too much, maybe.
I told him so. When he got close, I said, “You make too much noise.”
“Ma’am?” he said.
I had to laugh. Ma’am. Ha. “You should take your shoes off. Be quiet.” I walked a circle around him.
He stopped and peered at me. Lots of people have trouble seeing in the dark, did you know that? Not me.
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
I know him. I remember his face, I’ve seen him taking his garbage out to the trash can in the back. He lives in my building. He looks different.
“No, ma’am, I’m Officer White. Are you OK?”
That’s it, he’s got on a uniform, blue with gold buttons. And a gun. He’s got a gun. No wonder he looks different.
“Are you on duty, Waldo?”
He hesitated. “No, and I’m not Waldo.”
“Of course you are, you can’t fool me, I’ve seen you before. Where’s your car?”
“Ma’am, do you need some help?”
“I sure do, Waldo, I need some help. Come on over here and help me.” I suppose he thought I was nuts. I suppose I was. I probably still am, what do you think?
He acted like he didn’t want to get too close. Like a cat that ain’t sure it wants the piece of meat you’re holding in your fingers……but it does. And it’ll come up if you wait long enough.
That’s why I don’t have a cat. Not patient enough.
“Don’t you have a squad car or something? How come you’re walking down the same street I am?”
“My partner was giving me a ride home…..and he stopped…..I didn’t wanna wait.”
“I don’t wanna wait, either. I’m interested in right now.” He was kinda shy. Needed some encouragement. “Oh my,” I said. “I feel like I might faint.” And I put my hand to my head. Shut my eyes. I always lose my balance when my eyes are shut. Especially when I’ve been drinking whiskey and soda.
He fell for it. “I think maybe you’ve had too much to drink. Do you live around here?” He put his hand on my back, right down here. Big hand, I leaned back against it, like I really was gonna fall, he slid his arm around me, and I laughed. What would you do, if you were right where you wanted to be, so easy?
“Don’t kid around, Waldo,” I said, and opened my eyes. He was taller than me, so I had to look up. He needed a shave. “If you say you don’t recognize me, I’ll cry.”
I could feel the heat from his skin coming through the fabric of his uniform. I wondered if he could feel me. Maybe he was so warm, he couldn’t tell anything about me. Maybe that uniform was in the way.
You know why I couldn’t stay in my apartment, you know why I couldn’t sit with the girls, you know why I walk down the street in the dark……..I was waiting for him to know it too…….
“I think maybe you have me confused with somebody else,” he said. “My name’s not Waldo.”
“I’ve seen you in the morning, outside. I’ve seen you getting your mail. Who do you get letters from? Your mother? Your girlfriend? Your cat?”
“If you tell me where you live, I’ll help you get home.”
Uh-oh, that was a mistake. Or maybe not. If I hadn’t stood up, he mighta let me fall. I think I made him mad. He didn’t wanna touch me anymore; so I guess I said something he didn’t like. Wondered what it was. Wondered what difference it’d make.
Wondered if he was left-handed or right, and how long it would take me to find out. ‘Cause I knew I would……mad is the next thing to it, you know. If you can make ‘em mad, you’re half way there…….maybe farther than that.
“I’ll make it easy for you. I live on the floor above you, and around the corner. I’ve got the corner window. I think I’m ready to cry, now. You got a hankie? Never mind, I’ll look.” And I stuck my hand in his pants pocket.
He grabbed my wrist. “Stop it. You’re drunk.”
“Ha. You wish. Actually, I’m much more boring when I’m drunk. Not drunk, something else. Guess.”
He frowned. “You live upstairs from me?”
I sighed. Snapped my fingers a couple times. “Keep up, Waldo. Dance me home, and I’ll show you.”
“Are you the woman who……” he didn’t finish what he was gonna say. It was just as well. He knew who I was now, he’d heard about me, and what had happened up in my apartment, and I knew he knew.
“You’re treading on dangerous ground, there, Waldo. Dance me home.” I put my arms around his neck.
He shook his head. “Ma’am……”
“Ma’am what? You keep calling me ma’am, you might make me mad.” I lowered my tone, maybe I was talking too loud, scaring him away. You know about loud noises and wild beasts. “Help me, Waldo. I could use some help.”
That was the right thing to say. He was thinking about it.
“Dance with me, Waldo.”
“I don’t dance. Come on, now, I’ll help you get home.”
“I bet you do, I bet you just don’t know it.” I whispered in his ear. He liked that, he was just pretending that he didn’t. I could tell.
He wouldn’t dance. I danced around him for a while. Then I danced up against him. He grabbed my elbow and kept walking. He tried to make me think he was uncomfortable, like he didn’t want me to rub up against him. I just laughed. I’m laughing now. Don’t act like you don’t know it.
“Oh, Waldo, don’t be such a poop.”
“Stop calling me that. My name’s not Waldo.”
“I have to call you something, don’t I? Huh? Don’t I?”
He sighed. “It’s Wendell. Wendell.”
“Close, but no cigar. Hey, Waldo,” I said, “You have a girlfriend?” And pulled his gun out of the holster on his belt.
That got his attention. I think I scared him. He grabbed my hand, pointed the gun up into the air, and tried to take it away from me. I let him have it back so he wouldn’t have anything to concentrate on except me. Wrapped my other arm around his neck, and skooched up real close. Let my hips do the talking. “See? I knew you could dance if you really wanted to.” And then I kissed him.
He pushed me away. “Jesus fucking Christ. You wanna kill us both?” But he glanced at my mouth before he put the stupid thing back. “Don’t do that again.”
Yeah, he couldn’t fool me. He liked it.
And then I got tired. Real tired. That happens sometimes, I just get really tired all of a sudden. Dancing for five blocks isn’t a walk in the park, you know. I was too tired to walk anymore, so I sat down. He didn’t notice for a few seconds. I was happy to see him come back when he noticed I wasn’t walking beside him anymore. Or I woulda been happy if I hadn’t been so tired.
“What’s the matter?”
What do you think’s the matter, Waldo? What are you thinking about? How hard is this gonna be? I was too tired to actually say any of that, but I thought it.
“Come on, get up.”
I was glad the street was clean, I don’t like getting garbage in my hair. I curled my arm under my head anyway.
“You can’t lay down in the middle of the street.”
Wanna make a bet?
When I woke up, I was right where I wanted to be, and I didn’t even have to be awake to get there.
We were sitting on the sidewalk, and the side of my face was pressed up against that starched, pressed uniform. It didn’t smell like starch. It smelled like man. You know what I’m talking about. He’d been wearing it all day, and it didn’t smell like laundry anymore, it smelled like him. I took a deep breath.
My bottom was on the cement, between his legs, and my legs were curled around his thigh. It was great, except I think I was sitting on a big piece of gravel or something, and I had to move.
“You awake? Come on, let’s get you home before you pass out again.”
“I’m not drunk, Waldo, you know I’m not.”
“Then what’s the matter with you?”
“I’m just tired. I need to rest. I need to sit on the sidewalk for a while with somebody’s arms around me. Wouldn’t that be OK? Just for a few minutes?”
I could feel him thinking. When he relaxed, I knew I could close my eyes again, he’d keep me from falling any farther……..
I dreamed about him. I dreamed I knew him, that we were married, that he came home everyday and took me to bed. In his uniform. Some dreams you can’t wait to wake up from, but that one…….I used to try to have that one again, but I never could seem to.
He was looking at me funny when I woke up. I think I said, “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting,” before I was all the way awake. “You know, I love this uniform,” I said. It was scratchy against my cheek, not slick; I rubbed my face against his blue chest, nuzzled the buttons, worked my way up till my nose hit his collar……..
“We’ve gotta go,” he said, but he didn’t sound like he sounded before, like it was just a job, like it was something he had to get done. He sounded like……it was something we were gonna do together, and that sounded fine to me.
So I kissed him again, just for a second, before I got up off his lap, and this time he didn’t push me away.
“Hold onto me, Waldo, so I don’t dance away into the mist.” There wasn’t any mist, but he knew what I meant. He twined his fingers with mine, and we walked that way all the way back to our apartment building, up the stairs, down the hall to my apartment.
I had my keys in the pocket of my dress. He stopped, pulled his hand away from mine, and clasped it with the other one behind his back. “Will you be OK now?”
“No. Can’t you look inside for me before you go? Look for them? Make sure there’s nothing and nobody there?”
I thought at first he wasn’t going to answer me. Then, “What are you talking about? Who do you think will be in there?”
“Sometimes they’re in there waiting for me, Waldo. So I have to go out. But then I have to come back.” I moved close again and lay my head on his shoulder. “Can’t you help me?”
He was real still. Then he took a deep breath, and his arm was around me again, and he said, “I guess I could look.”
He took the key out of my hand and opened the door. I threw my shoes in, and waited. I knew he didn’t understand, so I explained it to him. “I’m waiting to see if anyone throws them back out at me.”
“Has that ever happened?”
“No, but you never know. There’s a first time for everything.”
He took a step in the doorway. I stopped him with a hand on his face. “You should kiss a girl before you come inside,” I whispered.
If he’d been one of those guys who was ready to bang anything on two legs, who reached for your skirt if you said hi, who unzipped at a moment’s notice, I’d have pushed him down a manhole before we ever got here. But he wasn’t.
He wasn’t that kind of guy, but he knew what I was saying. “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” he said, just before I kissed him again.
“It’s a bad idea,” I agreed. “But I don’t like the ghosts. I want them to go away. Can you help me with that?”
He didn’t ask me who they were, he didn’t ask me to explain at all. He looked in my eyes. He made me cry.
You get an idea about men by the way they look. You know what he looks like, so you can understand, I expected a bull in the bedroom. Powerful, furious, passionate. Quick.
I can never be sure of men now. Can’t tell when I see them who they are. That night I discovered it’s impossible to really know any of them till afterward, you can’t see what kind a man is till he touches you.
His hands on my skin…….sure of himself, sure of me…..I thought it, what I wanted, and he did it. No grabbing, no haste. I felt he touched me because he liked to touch me, not because he had to cover all the bases to get the home run.
And then there were the kisses. Kisses and more kisses. A soaking rain of slow kisses……..don’t stop, let me drown in the rain, I said. I don’t think he heard me. I didn’t hear most of what he said to me, either. It didn’t matter. Wrapped around him, I felt safe, and I didn’t need the words to know what he was saying to me.
His forehead touched the pillow next to me, his breath gusted in my ear, his hands underneath me pushed my hips up toward him…….I kept my eyes shut, ran my hands down his back, and up his neck, savored the slickness of the sweat we made between us. Could have stayed that way forever.
Afterward, when he took a deep breath and started to move away, I wrapped my arms and legs tighter around him. “Stay. Please, Waldo, just stay right here.”
“I might fall asleep. I’ll be too heavy for you.”
I shook my head. “I like it that way. I want you to sleep.”
Silence. Then, “My name is Wendell.”
“I know that. I just like to say Waldo. I like the way it sounds.”
He laughed. I could feel it where we touched, where we were connected. His laughter entered me, illuminated some dark corners…….
He relaxed gradually, until he was a dead, snoring weight on my chest, my belly. Yeah, he was right, he was heavy; I couldn’t fill my lungs, had to take shallow breaths, but it was worth it to keep him with me. I don’t think I can explain what it meant to me to be with somebody who didn’t fuck and run. To feel like if I needed somebody to stand between me and the terrors, he’d be there to do it.
I hated to, but I had to push him off finally, so I could get a little sleep myself. When I woke up the next morning, his arms were around me; he was still snoring, but he came awake fast enough when I pinched his nose.
I suppose you think I’m a slut. I don’t mean to be one, I just do what I have to do, but maybe I am. I don’t know. I don’t feel like one.
Sometimes you wind up with a guy who treats you like that’s what you are the next morning, but not Waldo. He didn’t make me feel like anything bad. The first time in a long time I felt good in the morning…..
I made him some eggs before he left. He watched me while I got dressed, while I cooked, while he ate. Watched everything I did. It sounds creepy, I know, but it wasn’t. It was more like…..he was paying attention.
He said, “Is that where it happened?” and pointed toward the spot between the kitchenette and the door.
I looked down at my plate.
“You go around that place like it was quicksand,” he said. “I just figured.”
“I don’t like to walk there.” He had it just about right. Quicksand. Yeah, that’s what it felt like to me. “I don’t like to think about it.”
He finished his toast, and got himself another cup of coffee.
“If it bothers you so much, why do you stay?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. “This is where I live.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I’ve always lived here.”
“But you don’t have to. You could live somewhere else.”
You’ll laugh at me, it seems kinda funny to me now, too, but I hadn’t ever thought of moving. Never so much as crossed my mind. Took everything I had just to cope; there was no room or energy left for new ideas.
It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.
“I’m gonna go downstairs and change my clothes,” he said.
“I could move.”
He smiled. “Yeah, you could.”
Once the idea took hold of me, I was lost. I ran for the closet, dragged my suitcases out, started throwing my stuff in.
“I didn’t mean this minute.”
“But now that I know I can go, how can I stay another minute? Why should I bear it any longer, if I don’t have to? Thank you, thank you.” I threw my arms around his neck, and kissed him, but I didn’t wait for his arms to surround me; I tore myself away. I had to go while I could; before I didn’t want to go, before I couldn’t go.
He watched me go down the stairs with my suitcases. At the bottom of the stairs, I waved. He didn’t wave back.
I didn’t have quite enough money to get all the way here to Topeka on the bus, but I got pretty close, and then I called my cousin. She came and got me, and put me up until I could find my own place and another job.
I went back about six months later to tie up some loose ends, and I went by the apartment house. Had some kinda dim idea about seeing him again, maybe going out for a drink or maybe something more, but he’d moved, too, by then, and I didn’t know where………
I know what you’re thinking. I coulda found him if I’d wanted to. I coulda written to him while I was gone. I coulda called him on the phone. I suppose I seem like a cold bitch, just taking him home with me for a night, and then cutting him loose.
There’s a little part of me that would like to know how his life went; how things turned out for him…..but it’s not worth the risk. If I ran into him, and he wasn’t the way I remember, that night and the way it changed my life would be meaningless. Ruined. Now, nothing taints the memory, it’s mine forever, and no one can take it from me, or turn it ugly. And it helps me keep my head above the water. Sorta like a talisman to ward off the terrors still hiding back in the odd corners of my mind.
I’m not sure if I’m any less crazy than I was then, but at least I’m not as scared all the time. That’s something.
So there it is. That’s how I know him. That’s all I can tell you about him.
One dark night, a crazy lady met a good man, captured him……….and let him go……..