A/N: Jen: Thank you so much for your review! I'm glad that you liked the first chapter. I'm also happy to hear that you think Myra has some depth. I know the summary sounds a bit...cliched and trite, so I'm trying really hard to make her unique. I hope you continue to read the story!
She'll let you in her mouth
If the words you say are right
If you pay the price
She'll let you deep inside
But there's a secret garden she hides -Bruce Springsteen, "Secret Garden"
After two months passed, I was convinced of two things.
Number One: After hearing the evening serenades of 1005's infant, I never wanted to give birth.
Number Two: If I gathered the courage and finally said "Hello" to the guy across the hall, he would realize we were soul mates. Or ask me out on a date. Given the context, my first epiphany seemed quite rational.
On the contrary, the second was silly and naïve. I was aware that my prayers for intra-tenant romance ranked unlikely, if not mortifying. Despite this, it didn't stop me from standing outside his door, challenging myself to knock, then eventually scampering back into my apartment.
I take responsibility for our first encounter. It was September. Manhattan buzzed with indescribable energy. Central Park thrived with the type of green only postcards contain. The twilight dissonance of taxi cabs had evolved into a welcomed lullaby. I'd come to New York to make a career in publishing. During my undergraduate years, I'd earned an internship at Random House. I thought this would secure a position once I actually applied. Unfortunately, I was told to build my resume and then reapply. So, I hadn't been rejected, but I hadn't been hired either.
On this particular Saturday, I was quite happy. I'd been offered a staff job on a small newspaper. Metropolis carried a reputation for conservative favoritism. Normally, this would be a turn-off. But work was work and I needed credentials. Now, I was a few steps away from obtaining my rightful spot at Random House.
I'd accepted on the spot, thrusting my hand into the editor-in-chief's open palm. He'd been startled by my exuberance. But he grinned, fingers curling, his shake done with satisfaction. His aftershave burned my nostrils, but his jovial disposition was infectious. I admit that I can be judgmental. But my prejudices are annulled by the prominence of outstanding virtues. My Mom insisted that New Yorkers were notoriously unfriendly, that the job market was a shark tank. In her eyes, I was diving into the ocean slathered in blood. Mr. Stephan Frattell proved a rare exception to my Mother's prophecy.
I headed home, half-delirious. I imagined cutting up my Starbucks smock or burning it. Perhaps I'd dump the ashes onto my manager's desk. Reggie had always been rude. He'd caught me drinking an iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts. From then on, Reggie believed I was a traitor to the company and a disgrace to baristas across the nation. I politely told him that he was overreacting. He sentenced me to a week of bathroom clean-up.
Mentally harvesting this spree of debauchery, I strolled up the stairs and down the hallway. On the walk home, I'd been listening to my IPod. The hall was deserted and I felt electrified. Blinded by my bliss, I sang along to Duran Duran, Hungry Like The Wolf, to be exact. Just as I wailed with the chorus, 902 opened his door. I yelped like a kicked puppy. A laundry bag slumped behind his broad shoulders. His wavy hair had been slicked back, though a few strands awkwardly fell across his forehead. He smiled, confidently revealing a chipped tooth. The smell of oregano floated from his room and into the hallway. Overwhelmed, I scurried into my apartment like an unwanted mouse.
From that point on, he appeared with heightened frequency. I'd come to associate 902 with my affinity for social incompetence. Each time I passed his door, my cheeks ignited, my palms covered in sheens of sweat. Bumping into 902 was also discomposing. I felt as though I'd caught Santa squeezing out the chimney.
It was a Sunday, which meant a trip to the laundry mat. I stuffed the cloth bag without concern, the gold stitches about to split. Placing the bag into a rickety shopping cart I'd coveted, I dragged it down the stairs and onto the street. The cart was meant to be recycled. After a thorough dousing of Lysol, I stored it in the basement, behind the bike racks. So far, no one had stumbled upon my recovered loot. The wheels moaned, handicapped by orange rust. The sun lingered like a wounded solider fighting to his death. The sky had turned a dusty violet. Bits of orange pulsated across the horizon like pieces of a smashed bottle.
I wheeled into Quickie's, relieved at the lack of patrons. Machines hummed, many of the dryers quivering. I chose my favorite machine, nestled in the back corner. I'd never done my own laundry until college. Proceeding the addition of this responsibility, I found it soothing. While Amy was out, tossing out smiles like loaded grenades, I would fold clothes in front of the TV. I divided the garments into piles, pleased with my organizational skills.
I was about to dump a handful of bras into the washer, when an amused stranger coughed. I felt like I'd been punched in the gut.
"Sorry, but I'm using this machine," 902 informed.
My hand hovered in the air, a lacy bra dangling like a broken arm. Should I forfeit my dignity and escape? It was such a tempting proposition, but my body refused the offer. Forcing out a sheepish smile I hoped translated as charming, I put my arms behind my back.
"I'm such an idiot. I'm sorry, I should have looked before I loaded my stuff," I apologized.
However, I didn't remove my belongings and 902 didn't budge. His eyes wandered to my hidden arms. It was surreal, to be in his presence, as though he were a magazine advertisement sprung to life. However, he appeared the sort of man not advocating Calvin Klein underwear or aftershave. There was something about the lack of aggression in his demeanor that suggested reluctant restraint. He knew it was more acceptable to be reserved rather than passionate.
"Well, I'd forgive you, but since I don't know your name, I suppose I can't."
Was he flirting with me? Or did I just imagine the newly added lilt in his voice? Perhaps he felt sorry for me, revealing intimate articles of clothing to a perfect stranger.
"My name's Myra. Myra Reed."
"Ah, I see. Well, don't worry about it, Myra Reed."
I giggled, immediately loathing the breathless tremor to my voice. I shuffled over to my laundry bag and shoved the bra into the bottom.
"Did you already add your detergent?" 902 wondered.
I stared into the washer, my clothes a cotton mound. I plotted a way to ask his name without sounding completely cheesy.
"Yes," I said, with undeniable guilt. 902 thought for a moment, though it seemed he'd come to a conclusion long before he'd asked his question. Introspection exaggerated his attractiveness. Wrinkles rippled across his forehead. I thought of college professors with pipes teetering between their lips.
"I've got an idea."
"Since you've already added detergent, it would be unfair to make you take out your clothes. Why don't we just share this load? You added detergent, I'll pay for the wash. Sound like a good deal?"
"In theory," I coyly began.
"In theory? And why not in actuality?" he pressed.
I couldn't believe my audacity. It was as though I'd opened my mouth, but a different voice emerged. Let it be known, I have terrible flirting skills. I don't know what qualifies as flirting and what doesn't. When I actually want to flirt, I analyze my actions. I fear that once the words leave my mouth, the object of my attraction will realize I'm a phony. That I don't know what I'm doing, that I'm only recycling years of books and John Hughes movies.
"Because, I don't even know your name. I'd feel a little weird about sharing my laundry with a complete stranger."
902 chuckled and stuck out his hand. I stared at it for a moment and then gently placed my palm into his, my fingers grasping his knuckles. They were large, though round and prominent beneath his skin.
"Fair enough. The name's Aubrey Welles."
"Aubrey Welles," I repeated, as though I'd heard his name on the radio.
"Now that we're acquainted, may I do the honors?"
"Honors of what?"
"Why, inserting the quarters of course."
I nodded and moved out of his way. Aubrey dropped the lid. He reached into his pocket and pushed coins into the slot. He pretended to slip a gun back into his holster, blowing off excess smoke from the barrel.
"Do you always do your laundry on Sundays?" I inquired.
I hopped onto the table behind me, adopting a passive expression. Amy said that if you appeared too interested in a guy, then you would scare him away. Usually, I didn't listen to my best friend's relationship advice, as she'd dump a guy within the first week of dating. However, this instruction was suddenly appropriate.
"Most of the time. Why, do you have a preference?"
"Um. No. Not really. Well, maybe I do. I like to relax on Sundays."
"So you relax by…doing your laundry?" Aubrey teased.
"You're making me sound a lot more boring than I actually am," I criticized, though I wasn't positive that his character assessment had been far-fetched.
"Boring? I'd never think that! Especially since you have the courage to serenade the hallway with Duran Duran. Boring girls hate impromptu karaoke, let alone Duran Duran."
I felt queasy at this candid reference to my public karaoke session, but ignored the crescendo of my voice.
"Then what do boring girls listen to?"
"Oh, hell if I know. Maybe Barry Manilow?"
"What if I said I listen to Barry Manilow?"
Aubrey sat next to me, long legs swinging back and forth.
"I kid you not. I am Mr. Manilow's number one fan," I boasted.
"You're full of it."
"All right, maybe I'm fibbing. But I think you're maybe giving me way too much credit. I'm only exciting because I live in an exciting city. Back home, I shed my alter ego."
He chuckled, which I appreciated. Sometimes the only way I find to sustain a conversation, especially with a member of the opposite sex, is to be self-degrading. It's an involuntary instinct, like throwing up after drinking too much. You just watch the contents of your stomach flow into the toilet, knowing that it will eventually pass.
"And where's back home? The Bat Cave?"
"More like Vermont."
"I went camping there. Quite a few years ago," he offered.
"Did you like it? I've never been camping. The closest I've been to camping is hiding out in the brush behind my house. When I was eight, I told my mother I was going to run away. After an hour, she still hadn't come out to look for me. I went back inside and never tried to run away again," I wistfully recalled.
It struck me as odd, to be so personal with a distant acquaintance. My family preached the value of secrecy; family matters should remain off limits for the outside world. Our house represented a fortress; society was trained for the scent of sin. I learned to suppress intimate details, utilizing academic achievement to shield the truth of my own incompetence.
"It was ok. I went with my father. It got cold at night, much colder than I anticipated. My sister and I went wading in this lake and I came out with a handful of leeches on my foot. We made s'mores when he fell asleep. It was the only good part about the entire trip."
I was struck by his sour expression. His resentful undertones had escaped his voice and translated onto his face. I wondered if I'd said something wrong. But it was an innocent question, not malicious.
"You have a sister?" I casually asked.
The disdain vanished. He nodded.
"Yeah. She's three years younger than me. Her name's Christina."
I looked at Aubrey, legs spilling over the table's edge. I studied his oval-shaped face and then his hands. A linear scar ran diagonally from underneath his pinky to the corner of his wrist. The moment still felt surreal and sudden panic clogged my throat. It was all right to gaze at your neighbor from afar. However, with this conversation, I had cut the caution tape. Objectification actually protected your pride. Without adding personal details, the chance for rejection was non-existent. I had opened the door for real attachment, an attachment that would likely result in bruises.
"Three years younger? So what would that make you now?" I coaxed.
He laughed, automatically alert to my strategy.
"Twenty-three," I admitted.
I tried to picture a teenage Aubrey, sullen and with shaggy hair. He believed that he was different from his father, though they shared a similar girth and height. However, Mr. Welles manipulated his height to accentuate his authority. I imagined Aubrey's sister, small and willowy, with a pencil-thin mouth and raccoon-eyes. Silently contemplating his past, I knew that my earlier apprehension was ridiculous. Certainly, nothing would evolve from this encounter.
Adolescence in suburbia had taught me to dream big. New York was the perfect place to put years of lessons into practice. But two months had passed without reasonable results. I'd landed a job, but not the job I'd envisioned. I'd gotten my own apartment, yet went to bed alone and woke up alone. City Life was the same shade of Suburban Life. I had accepted this fact, tolerated it. Aubrey Welles was the sort of male lead I repeatedly cast in my "Future." These imaginary Romeos were manufactured from a single mold, yet possessed a distinct affection for individualization.
During lazy summer nights, friends and I would pile into someone's shitty car, the speakers shaking, the passengers tossing around someone's pack of cigarettes. We'd predict our futures, armed with cynicism because it would be much too painful to admit fear. Aubrey would be the sort of man I'd conjure over the blare of Springsteen. The embodiment of a gentleman, attached to glamorous expectations like a price tag.
"You said you're from Vermont, right? So what made you come to New York?" Aubrey wondered. I sheepishly shook my head, suddenly aware of my silence. I felt the impulse to apologize, but did my best to kill the feeling.
"Nothing that hasn't already been said by other people. I went to college here. Got my BFA, moved back home for a little bit. Decided that I left my heart here and got an apartment. I'm trying to get a break in the publishing industry. For now, I'm working at a newspaper," I informed.
Embarrassment had influenced my speech. I purposely left my explanation vague. He smiled, as if I'd praised a movie that he hated. I gazed at my hands. I curled my fingers into fists, and then hastily interlaced them, as if in prayer.
"Well, for someone who just moved here, I'd say you're doing pretty well. One of my college friends decided to move here. She was from Louisiana. A real sweetheart. After about five months, she decided she couldn't handle that much independence. She moved back home."
With this reference to an unknown female friend, I deliberated whether or not to re-classify Aubrey Welles.
"Did you also go to school around here?"
"Ah, no. Stanford. But I'm a New Yorker, born and bred. California's great, but I couldn't imagine living there."
This newfound indication of his intelligence was intimidating, but not enough to warrant permanent effects. Aubrey apathetically shrugged.
"It doesn't have the same…the same flavor that New York has. Even LA. Sounds really silly when I say it aloud, but I don't know how to express it any other way."
I stared at the washer. It was blindingly obvious that he was meant to be my neighbor and nothing more. I read somewhere that modern dating resembled a caste system, in the sense that people dated within their own rank. The pieces were coming together; Aubrey was above me, an untouchable, like a set of diamonds in the Tiffany's window.