From “We Die at Night”, in Women in Strange Places: Stories
(c) 2009 Celeste Ramos
The night I killed Mary passing sirens woke me at eight. The gurgle of traffic continued right after the sirens faded. They reminded me that in the event of an emergency, the world continued to turn.
Melatonin again. The bottle that kept them fresh looked like the bottle of aspirin I kept by my bed.
I was always prone to accidents. It wasn’t uncommon for me to pop three melatonin instead of three aspirin. This mistake would crush me into a void of half-awake nightmares. By the time I woke up, like when I woke up that evening, I had to walk around my apartment and stumble over dirty clothing and stacks of books on the floor for several minutes at a time. To remind myself I was awake.
I held on to my walls like a blind person as I walked to the bathroom. I ground the chips of paint into my palm.
I was brushing my teeth when someone knocked at the door. I rinsed and spit as fast as I could, because I didn’t want the person to keep knocking and think I wasn’t home. I had just moved to the city not a month before and I didn’t have any friends.
The floorboards moaned under my feet as I went to the door. Looking through the foggy peephole into the hallway, I saw my next-door neighbor, Matilda. Her already fat face had widened in the peephole. She looked like the Cheshire Cat with uneven hair and a cigarette. All she did was stop by about every other week to deliver mail to me that was crossed to her box. She also gave me gossip for two minutes about people in the building I’d never met.
I actually didn’t want to open the door. But it was either my voice or hers in my ears.
“Hi Therese, mail for ya again,” she said.
The ghosts of over-cooked dinners and trash lingered in the hall. A baby cried behind one of the steel maroon doors.
Matilda cocked her head to the side. “You look sick.”
“No,” I rubbed my eyes. “I overslept again. Sometimes I take these pills – ”
“Do you know Gary Sullivan, that gorgeous waste of a man?” She lowered her voice suddenly. “He’s gay you know.” She raised her thick voice again. “Anyway, he’s apparently got that new BMW that’s outside, can you believe it? In a neighborhood like this. I wonder just how he got it.” She raised an eyebrow at me and ashed onto my welcome mat.
Before I could complain she said, “Oh where’s my head. Here.”
She shoved two bill-pregnant envelopes into my hands. I strained to remember what time it was. Matilda kept talking, shooting names at me with that slingshot of a mouth of hers. The names had rumors and four letter words attached to all of them.
“Matilda – ”
“And then there’s that adorable new couple that just moved in, the ones who fuck way too loud – ”
“Matilda, please. Do me a favor. Remind me what time it is.”
Her eyes didn’t leave mine as her wrist drew up to her chest. She glanced down and said, “Eight-twenty. You got plans?”
“No I just got up, you see, and sometimes I forget – ”
“Oh jesus. It’s eight-fuckin’-twenty already. I need to get movin’. Crystal’s supposed to tell me about what happened at Selma’s birthday party last weekend. Her shady mafia boyfriend took her to Vegas. I’ll see you. I’ll see you later! And get some help for your drug addiction, you’re too young!” Matilda turned around and scuffed off down the hall in her slippers. She left a trail of sound behind her, long after she had turned the corner, until I heard her door echo shut.
I stared at the raised detail on the walls. The wood trim that came up to knee height and then stretched up and over into the ceiling, and the positions for the chandeliers to hang. Most of them were broken. Or stained by neglect. Such an old building. So pretty.
I left the door open after I drifted back into the apartment. The bills went on the kitchen counter.
I had to do something. Anything. I couldn’t sit at home anymore like that. Waiting. Listening. Looking out the window, past the fire-escape rail.
I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know what normal people did on a Friday night alone.
The building’s super was usually an invisible man that left notices about pipes and year-old work requests under the doors. He walked by and then stood in the doorway and looked in. His jowls shook when he spoke.
“Hey! Lady you can’t leave this door open like that! Anyone could come in here. You wanna get robbed or somethin’?”
I got up and rushed to the door. I hoped he would ask me how I was. He didn’t.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” I said. “Force of habit.”
He pulled the doorknob and shut the door himself.
That made me feel awful, like he’d locked me out of the world.
I had to do something. I had to experiment and go out.
I hadn’t gone out on my own yet. I was too afraid. I moved to the city from a small town for a job I was offered but didn’t get. I had to scramble for whatever job I could find, and I managed to get one as a temp secretary. As a temp I wasn’t supposed to work long hours but I asked for them anyway. What else was I going to do? I’d worked at more offices than I could count and I got good at accepting people’s pleasantries in the workplace as half-hearted attempts toward friendship. But I learned quickly that people only like small talk because it reassures them that they’re “nice” people.
My commutes were strange to say the least. The subways were a maze of signs, blurred faces and metal grinding against metal. I’d learned not to look people in the eye unless I had to. The world in the city became a world full of necks, shoulders and varying bodies.
In dreams, people I associated with were decapitated.
Going out at night wasn’t a big priority. My street looked like an incision in the neighborhood map. The street was two blocks long and connected two major avenues. I knew what went down on streets like mine. I didn’t want to deal with it. But I had to get out – I couldn’t stand hearing echoes of doors and voices in the hall all night. Watching movies that didn’t make sense because I’d pass out then wake again. I needed to live my life in some kind of color.
When I got out of the shower I stood naked and dumb in front of my miniscule closet. I didn’t know what to wear. All I owned were nightgowns and office clothes, slippers and pumps. I’d outgrown a pair of jeans that were out of fashion anyway, and a tight red sheath of a dress that made me look like a spoiled tube of lipstick. I didn’t know what normal people wore to go out.
Figuring that it was the city and no one really examined you the way they did back home, I decided to mix and match. I’d wear my puffy clouds pajama tank top, with a short black skirt that belonged to one of my favorite office suits, and a pair of black pumps.
My reflection laughed at me. I didn’t think I’d make it past the corner of my block. But in truth I looked alright enough. I just wanted to go to a loud bar and get drunk enough to start up a conversation with someone.
I didn’t know what kind of makeup to wear or how to do my eyeliner. I organized my face as best I could; I’m sure I looked like a clown or an accidental goth girl. It had been so long since I’d done my face up for a night out. And even then, I didn’t know how to do it the normal way.
When I was on the street I knew guys wanted me to look a certain way. The guys I had the potential to meet at the bar would be different than the guys I met on the streets back home. The guys back home wouldn’t talk except to call me honey. And of course, they’d ask me where I wanted them to tuck the bills before we got started.
I leaned against the mirror on my wall. I gave myself an assignment: I would talk to people for at least ten minutes. I imagined myself at a crowded bar talking to people, shot glasses on the bar, phone numbers on my forearm. It was going to be nice to ask people what they did with interest. Where they were from, too. God, I was worried I’d sound like a broken record after a while, I didn’t know what to do after certain bits of conversation. Seemed that after the “what’s your name?”, “what do you do?”, “where you from?” formula the only result was to ask was if they wanted to go “have a party” with me.
I planned to take the train downtown and walk around like a stranger lost in her own backyard. I had enough money in my purse to have a few drinks and take a cab home.
Before I left I smiled at myself in the mirror. An adventure. That’s what I kept calling it. I’d do what I wanted to do without having to worry about something happening to me. I had learned how to take care of myself by virtue of moving so far away, and now, this night would be the first test.
The voice in my head that never believed in me was right. I wouldn’t make it past the corner of my block.
My street was extra popular for prostitutes during the hour before I walked out of the building. Tucked away between the legs of those two avenues, it was dim enough for business, quick drop offs and picks ups. That kind of thing. I saw two get into a car through the window at the front of the building. Just a flash of them. Glitter from one’s dress, lip-gloss from the other’s red lips. The dark car rolled away a few seconds after. Everyone else, for now, was done with my street.
Mary had just crossed in front of the door as I opened it, like a black cat crossing my path, or a ghost ducking from view. She passed by me so fast that all I caught was the smell of her perfume and the sound of her heavy breathing. She smelled like those dandelions that grow through the cement around junkyards.
She was in a hurry. Her purple heels snapped like the gum in her mouth against the pavement. A brown car was at the corner and it slipped into my peripheral vision on my right. A man shouted, “Don’t you walk away from me!”
Mary walked faster, and as she did she dropped some make-up out of her open purse.
I picked up the gloss and eye shadow and ran up to her. I grabbed her arm. I still don’t know why I did it – I felt consumed to make sure she had these things. Maybe I was that desperate to look someone in the face and do them a favor.
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