FICTION WINNER- 'Neighbors'
By Murray Dunlap
The apartment door clicking shut wakes me. Charlotte walks in, smoking. She drops her cigarette into a beer bottle on the nightstand and lifts her gray sweater up and over her head. Feeling safe in the darkness, she unhooks her bra, exposing small, well-shaped breasts, eggshell white within the triangles of a bathing suit tan. I watch her surreptitiously, my eyes fully adjusted to the night. Charlotte pulls one of my t-shirts from the dresser, struggling to find the appropriate holes. She kicks off leather boots and stomps out of her jeans. The trademark logo of Havana 59, the restaurant where Charlotte works, is stitched into her panties. She crawls into bed as if her bones are made of rubber. I smell tequila, smoke, perfume, and sex when she presses against me, spooning beneath linen sheets.
“I guess. We drank too, too much.”
“I can tell.”
“What’d you do?”
“Worked till eight. Drank a beer at The Garage. Ran into Shane.”
“How is he?”
Charlotte clutches at my waist, and I can tell she is spinning. She buries her face between my shoulder blades. The smell of her makes me sick, but I don’t say it. I reach back and make sure she is covered. The alarm clock reads 4:52.
“Shit. My pill.”
Charlotte gets up, becomes dizzy, and claws at the bed for balance. After a second of close-eyed concentration, she goes to her knees and digs through her purse in the dark. I hear jingles, clicks, and finally, “Got it.” She swallows the pill without water and fumbles her way back to bed.
“I wish you had told me you would be so late.”
“I worry about you.”
“You’re not my boyfriend.”
“I know, but when you drink sometimes, you…”
“What’s all this?”
Charlotte turns so that we lie back to back. Her toes press into my calf, and I can’t believe how cold they are.
I sleep fitfully, waking often and my throat becoming sore. I click off the alarm before it erupts, slip out of the bed, and tiptoe to the shower. I work Saturdays and let Charlotte sleep. I dress in the darkness, feeling for my boots and easing out into the den. I leave a note on the coffee table, Dinner tonight? Stop by at seven. —Ben. But I know that when I get off work, she will be gone. Out with other friends, other men, drinking and standing close. Charlotte lives next door, and the proximity is wearing me thin.
I stop by Charlotte’s to see what she has planned for the weekend. Her roommate, Amy, answers the door.
“Gone, gone, gone, Ben.” Amy twirls and sips root beer from the can.
“She drove over to Wintergreen and met up with some guy named Charles. She says he’s a dentist. I bet he makes good money. I’d like to meet a dentist.”
“Yes. Well, I…”
“Want to go down to Havana 59 and get a drink? Charlotte says that margaritas are half price right now. We should go get a drink. Don’t you need a drink? Come on, Ben. Let’s go!”
Amy twirls again and snatches up her fleece jacket. Behind her, leafless tree branches hold still beyond the window. Frost collects in the corners of the glass panes. Amy purses her lips and blots a napkin against them. She smiles, crimson red, and latches on to the crook of my arm.
The bar at Havana 59 is crowded with rich 20somethings and rich 50somethings. It is a brief period of time when parent and child can occupy the same space without collision. They glow with artificial tans and beaming white teeth. I check myself in the bar mirror but wish I hadn’t. Amy, however, smiles and twirls and squeezes my hand.
“Margarita time! I want mine frozen, lime, and make sure they put it in one of those funny glasses that look like a goldfish bowl. And a straw. Don’t look at me that way, this is fun.” Amy twirls away.
I order without getting into specific types of glasses. A dark, plaintive-eyed girl taps my shoulder, offering up a tray of cigars, but I pass. The girl moves down the bar with manufactured enthusiasm, and I suddenly regret my decision. It is as though I have hurt her in some unseen way. Neon blinks on the girl’s face through hazy cigar and cigarette smoke. A white-haired fat man buys a cigar and slips the girl a twenty. She tucks the bill into her hip pocket and smiles.
Amy catches up with old friends at an adjacent table. She tugs at her blonde hair and taps a suede cowboy boot. The couple at the table looks up to Amy’s face with eyes wide. They grin and laugh and lean forward as she talks. The bartender brings my drink, scotch, and Amy’s fluorescent green fishbowl. I am at once embarrassed by the bowl and relieved that the right one came. Amy returns and we drink and talk, our conversation passing from pleasant to sexual as the alcohol works our blood. In a show of bravado, or possibly fear of exclusion, we both purchase Cuban cigars and step outside. The cobbled terrace shimmers in lamplight, the Virginia night is cold, and Amy’s hand slips into mine.
Back at my apartment, we tear at one another, clothes coming off and hitting the floor. I pull back the sheets and we’re in, grappling and gripping and gasping for air. Our sex is electricity and heat. Ice groans and cracks at the windowpanes. I can’t help myself, and I imagine she is Charlotte, pressing against me. I slide my fingers over her breasts. Cup my hands to the small of her back. I flex my hips. I kiss her mouth, her elegant neck. I reach for her hands and squeeze.
Charlotte and I have never done any of this. We drink together, eat together, and for a month now, sleep together, but nothing more. At once I realize I have fallen in love with her. And I’m fucking her roommate like a dog in heat. I open my eyes and look at Amy, flushed and beautiful. I run for the bathroom.
Charlotte returns on Sunday, and I know Amy tells her everything. I just know. Charlotte and Amy live in 3f, and I live in 3g. Our doors face one another, squared off like gunfighters. The floor plans are a mirror image. I turned my second bedroom into an office. A roommate would save money, but living with guys makes me nervous. I’d live with Charlotte if I could. For nearly a week I come and go at times I think I can avoid them both, staying at work as much as I can. I work for Richmond’s outdoor outfitter, Blue Mountain. Tents, backpacks, boots, and everything else conceived to make a trip into the unknown comfortable.
At the store, Shane lances price tags through double-stitched, chemically treated shirts. I fold. Shane checks his watch.
“You’re still here.”
“Are you fucking Charlotte yet?”
“What? No. Not exactly.”
“You don’t want to go home, do you?”
“I’m broke, I need the hours.”
Shane catches his thumb on the tagging gun, and an orb of cherry red blood swells between flesh and nail. He presses a paper towel down on it hard.
“What makes you think I want to fuck Charlotte?”
“Who wouldn’t want to fuck Charlotte? Charlotte’s good stuff. And didn’t you say she was sleeping with you? But ‘not sleeping with you,’ whatever that means. What the hell are you up to out there?”
“Sure, she sleeps at my place sometimes. Doesn’t like sleeping alone. But nothing else. We haven’t even kissed.”
“What the hell is that?”
“Look, it’s good. It’s a best friend I can lean on without feeling like a faggot.”
“Hmm. And now you don’t want to go home.”
“You fucked Amy.” Shane grabs a handful of red beard and grins.
“Yes. You fucked Amy.”
“Damn, what was that like? I bet that girl twirls in bed. Good stuff, that twirling. But neighbors. Shit.”
“Might be a problem.”
“Never fuck a neighbor. That’s the rule. You can’t escape.”
“Gee, thanks. Go tape your thumb.”
It’s late, but Charlotte and Amy’s door is open. They leave it that way when they want me to stop over for a drink. I have about six more steps to decide what I should do. Charlotte pokes her head out with three steps left.
“I thought I heard you.”
“Where have you been all week? I’ve got the dirt on you.” Charlotte points a finger at my chest and cocks her eyebrow.
“Come in, Amy’s out.”
I step into the apartment and take a seat in a wicker chair near the door. Charlotte brings me a beer. She is wearing her hair down and casual. Her jeans look new— the way she fits in them, more sensual, more perfect— and her white silk shirt floats over her breasts, giving me the illusion of visibility. I quickly look down at my beer.
“What, it was stupid. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? What are you talking about?”
“Well, she’s fun. I mean, sure, I like her. How was your dentist?”
“Charles is my cousin.”
“He’s great. We drove over to Wintergreen and went skiing Saturday. Had a blast. I called in sick Monday so we could catch a few more runs. You should have seen me on the blacks. I skied better than when we went.” Charlotte scratches the back of her hand with pink fingernails. “I think I finally learned how to relax. Loosen up a bit.”
“Really. So he’s your cousin. That sounds like fun.”
“You’re acting funny.”
“No I’m not.”
“I’ve just been working too much this week. Inventory.”
“Oh. Well. Are you going to ask Amy out for this weekend?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t do this.”
I drink my beer and stare at the television while Charlotte lights a cigarette. Clint Eastwood is cutting a guy down with his Colt. He tells the guy how stupid he is after the guy is dead.
“What are you doing this weekend? Out of town again?”
“No. I thought I’d stick around here. Watch an apartment fling unfold.”
“We could get dinner.”
“I think you better do that with Amy.”
Charlotte steps to the window and presses her hand against the glass. Ravens caw. She pulls her hand away and shakes out the cold.
“I’m wiped out. I think I’m gonna go crash. You coming?”
“I think you better do that with Amy, too.”
I stand up and take a step toward Charlotte, but she is already making for the kitchen with the empty beers. I let her go, and walk back into the hall. I stop for a moment between our apartments. With both doors shut, I can almost touch them at the same time. I’m an inch shy. The light in the ceiling buzzes, and I look at the collected moths, trapped and filling up the glass dome. I smell snow as a draft sweeps through the stairwell door. For now, I am content to stand here, in between apartments, neither tenant nor neighbor. It is late, the light flickers, and I swear I can hear the city groan.