I was never really sure why I walked out on the balcony the first time. Of course, I know better now, but at the time it seemed the hand of fate that brought me there. If I hadn't checked the view, I would never have taken the apartment. There were lots of things wrong with the place, such as its small size, battered condition and a distinct lack of furnishing. The landlord, one Alfred Gomez, was eyeing me like a cat on a mouse. He was trying to talk me into high rent, but I was neither willing or capable of paying it. His chances of success were therefore slim, even without the rats' nest in the corner. The more I looked the less I liked, and I was already formulating excuses for leaving.
Before I could say anything, I got this peculiar notion that I wanted to see the balcony. I knew it was the weirdest, most irrational thought that ever popped into my head, but it was impossible to resist. In short order I was standing outside, trying not to gag on exhaust fumes from nearby traffic.
I've always hated the view in The City, even from high elevations. Unless I'm at least thirty stories, there's nothing I want to see. I prefer to be indoors whenever possible, so I was utterly repulsed by what I saw from the third floor. Tall, dark buildings loomed over me like filthy sentinels keeping vigil over the concrete. Laundry hung from frayed clotheslines the way battered flags fly over battlefields. I found the air nauseating; high enough to capture the full fragrance of exhaust and human waste, low enough to prevent such odors from dissipating. Most of all, the noise pestered me without reprieve. I'm told that most people get used to The City until they don't hear the noise anymore, only unusual sounds. Not so, for me. I've never heard things that people talk about, like a pair of birds nesting outside a window, or the whisper of trees in Central Park. The dissonance never goes away. Even when it rains, the noise is there.
Having confirmed that everything was just as bad as expected, I turned to go. I knew precisely what I would say to Mr. Gomez: it was a beautiful apartment and I wished I could rent from him, but such quality was far beyond the meager earnings of a starving artist such as myself. My speech vanished when I saw her.
I've thought myself a writer for many years, and writers are supposed to be good with words. Words are the tools of the trade, the means to put food on the table. Yet, words fail me whenever I try to capture her. She's like no woman ever before or since, I swear it. Had she been Cleopatra, Rome would have surrendered to a man. She's tall for the average woman, but not to the point of intimidation. Her dirty blond hair falls in waves around her head, streaked with lighter locks in her bangs. She wore extremely modest apparel, but it couldn't hide her fantastic body. She strikes me as shy and quiet most of the time, but there's an ineffable quality to her that defies description. It's as if she radiates an inner strength and beauty so great it makes my heart ache. She moves with the grace of a dancer in everything she does, if it's sitting at a meal or walking across a room. At the moment, she was pushing an old, shaggy broom back and forth across her balcony, so preoccupied in her chore that I'm not sure if she saw me or not. I stared unabashed; my tongue was dry and dusty from hanging from my mouth. When she finished with her sweeping, she flipped the broom up to her shoulder. At the same time her hips swung in a sexy little arc before she disappeared through her door. My blood was boiling with lust as I rushed back to Mr. Gomez and interrupted him as he was attempting to straighten out a picture frame that wouldn't hang right.
"Who's the woman living next door?" I demanded breathlessly. There must have been fire in my eyes, because he did a double-take. Then he smiled with what I considered a conniving little smirk. I wondered what he thought he knew.
"'Dere ain't nobody 'dere, sir." His accent was thick and definitely not native to The City. I couldn't place it. "Dy's people lookin' at it t'morrow, but 'dere ain't nobody 'dere now."
My face fell into a deep frown. "Don't be ridiculous. I just saw her!"
Mr. Gomez shrugged wryly. "Maybe ya saw 'er in some diff'rent buildin' an' t'ought she wuz closer. I dunno, but I do know 'dere ain't no woman next door. I kin show it to ya, if ya wants." His smile never left his face, and I was convinced he was hiding something from me. But no, I decided. I would wait and see this scam through. I shook my head.
He grunted at me, then folded his arms resolutely. "Are ya gonna take it 'r not? I got people comin' up later t'day, and I t'ink dey's gonna rent if you don't." He gave me a challenging stare.
This was pure bullshit, and we both knew it. He was in no position to pass up any tenants if his entire floor was empty as it looked. I hesitated, then amazed myself by asking, "How much?"
"A t'ousand a mont' in advance."
I snickered softly. "With or without utilities?"
"Wit'out. You pay 'dem yourself."
I lifted my old, weather-beaten hat from my head and tipped it to him. "Thank you very much for your time, but I'm afraid not." I turned for the door.
"Wait wait wait," he said fervently, putting himself between me and the exit. "If dat's too much for ya, mebbe we can arrange terms."
"I couldn't afford more than three hundred with utilities."
"Hell no! I ain't no charity! I'd be broke in less'n a year!"
"Then I'm not the only one being scammed. My family owns places like this on the other side of the state. We rent bigger and better than this for three and a quarter with utilities." I took a disparaging glance about the room. "We didn't ask for it in advance, either."
"Dis ain't no hick town, boy. Dis here's da City. T'ings don't cost the same as where ya come from."
"True, but by that comparison, this place wouldn't go for more than a hundred. If you don't like my offer, I'm sure the people coming later today will love what they see just as much as I do."
He fidgeted, and this surprised me. I expected better from him. Haggling is an art, and I was taught by my father whom I think is the best.
"I'll go eight-fifty," he finally said.
I refrained from chuckling at his noble sacrifice. Instead, I nodded pleasantly and stepped around him to reach the door. As my hand was turning the knob, I heard him say, "I kin go five-fifty, but dat's as low as I go!"
"Five-fifty with utilities," I said firmly.
"All right, all right!" he shouted. His face was now beet red. "Wit' da damn utilities! But I want my money up front afore ya move in, an' afore I gives ya da fuckin' key!"
I held out my hand and he shook it roughly. There was no doubt that I had agreed to far too much for the entire floor, but I took it. I had to know about the mystery woman; I had to meet her.
The last of my cash went to paying "Al," as he preferred to be called. Once my name was on the lease, he immediately became quite agreeable and promised that if there was anything I ever needed, I was to come downstairs and knock on his door day or night. After that, the only time I ever found him was when he wanted money. Spending the last of my free cash hurt, but I knew I could at least afford future rent working full time at Rooney's Restaurant on Third Street. Being a short-order cook isn't glamorous, but it gives a man enough free time to work on a Great American Novel if he chooses. After I became rich and famous through my writing, I could afford to quit the restaurant; maybe buy my own if I chose.
Moving in wasn't much of a chore; all I needed was to transfer my clothes from one box to another, then drag in my mattress and desk. I love my desk: a pure oak antique with a rich brown finish and a desk set to protect it from my aging typewriter. I took great pains to make sure that the machine didn't scar the wood in any way, and often preserved the desk at the expense of the typewriter. The latter hadn't been in good condition when I got it, and it tended to fail on me when I needed it, but I didn't let that bother me. I'd become fairly proficient with a pen, even though I hate them. After five years of writing my Novel my handwriting was almost legible, but I still dreamed of the day when I could get an electric typewriter. The short stories I'd published brought in money, but never enough. Part of the deposit for Al came from those meager returns, and I begrudged every dollar spent. That particular piece had been a hastily written story about lovelorn men in a singles bar, the idea taken from an evening with my friend Bill York. Bill's a great guy, and if it hadn't been for him and his car, I would never have gotten my desk moved in.
It took me two hours to finish moving and arranging the sparse furniture to make it look like I actually lived there. Most of the time was spent in transit between my old college dorm and my new apartment. That accomplished, I thanked Bill, sent him home, and went to raid the fridge. Heavy labor always gives me an appetite, and appetite makes me forget trivial facts, like the fact I hadn't stocked the fridge.
My new refrigerator was a monstrous thing, probably old enough to date back to Methuselah, but it was cool to the touch. I could afford to ignore the distasteful green color as long as the insides were cold. However, I realized its contents could not be so easily ignored. While I hadn't remembered to buy food, the previous tenant had. I found three hairy objects resting beside a clear bottle containing a black, viscous substance. The three hairy things were unidentifiable, and sort of looked like they were ready to give birth. After a quick debate on whether to call the hospital or the vet, I shuddered and shut the door.
My stomach complained loudly, but I told it to be quiet as I headed for the balcony. It didn't want to, but I did my best to ignore it by listening to the night sounds of The City. Night sounds are subtly different from those you hear during the day. They're softer, more mysterious and seductive, but infinitely more dangerous. Like a rattlesnake, they mesmerize you while they approach for the kill.
I wasn't really thinking about what I heard. My mind was obsessing over the woman next door, the woman Al claimed didn't exist. I leaned over the edge of the railing and tried to get a glimpse into the apartment, but it was dark. She could have been a hallucination, or maybe I'd been scammed after all. The odds were good that Al had danced her in front of me as bait for the lease, and I fell for it. There it was: I was locked into the lease for a year and nothing could be done about it. The more I thought about it, the more angry I became. Angry with Al, with the woman, but most especially with myself. I hate to be conned, especially with I my eyes open. Al probably made a better deal than expected, and was right now laughing at the naive college boy he'd just snookered. He was a better actor than I'd given him credit for.
I stalked back into my apartment and slammed the glass door shut. I slumped down at my desk in a huff, then sighed deeply. My bad mood was born of disappointment and sharp hunger pains. It occurred to me that the only way to distract myself would be to write something, so I took out a blank sheet of paper and slipped it into the typewriter. I hit the uppercase T and the machine promptly jammed without making a mark. Fiddling with it earned me nothing but ink-stained fingers, so I picked up a pen to write. After a period of brilliant brainstorming, I realized I was stymied. Inspiration explored other venues while my page remained as blank as my mind. At some point during this frenzy of inactivity, I fell asleep.
The only way I knew that I had fallen asleep was when I woke up. The reason for that was someone in the next apartment slammed their door loudly. The noise made me jerk my head up sharply; an action I instantly regretted. My neck had developed a nasty kink, and I swore creatively while massaging it. While I tried to come fully awake, I looked around my dull, dingy room and saw nothing of interest. A police car rushed by in the street with sirens screaming frantically. After a moment I found the strength to sit up, which didn't improve things. My stomach gave me a firm reminder of how hungry it was, but there was nothing I could do. I didn't have the money to buy a hot dog.
Another noise came from next door. Someone shoved chairs around while muttering angrily. I listened for several minutes without attaching importance to anything as my brain struggled to clear away the last shrouds of sleep. Finally, I came fully awake with an astounding thought. She was real! She was making noise next door! I hadn't been conned after all! A burst of strength surged through me, and I dashed out to the balcony, thinking I might catch a glimpse of her. She was real! I nearly danced for joy.
This euphoria lasted for a bit, until I calmed down. I realized it was preposterous for me to hope that she'd come to her window this late at night. I also doubted she would appreciate me knocking on the door like a damned voyeur. However, she proved me wrong by stepping into the night air. The light from her apartment streamed out like rays from heaven, setting off the highlights in her dress and hair. She seemed even more angelic than before; she was dressed so that her figure was enhanced rather than masked. Her hair danced in the summer breeze and in the light it crowned her like a halo. Her back was turned to me, but I heard a sharp crunch and knew she was eating an apple. My stomach instantly protested although I couldn't hear it over the beating of my heart.
She lifted her head as if to listen. She turned around and looked me in the eye with no trace of surprise on her face. Her expression was angry, but her eyes were bright and not unkind. We regarded each other in silence for long moments. Finally she said, "Are we going to stand here all night, or shall we introduce ourselves?"
Her melodic voice broke me out of my trance. I grinned foolishly and said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm uh . . . Andrew Rollins." I reached across the railing and offered my hand.
Her face lifted in a wide smile and she took my hand. The solid grasp of her fingers surprised me. "My name is Laura. Laura Eidolon." Listening to her talk made me think of wind chimes on a sunny day.
"I'm very pleased to meet you. I just moved in today, and I haven't met any of my neighbors. I didn't expect any of them to be quite so stunning." The moment I said it I immediately regretted it. To my relief, she merely batted her eyes modestly and looked down at our clasped hands. It eventually came to me that I was prolonging our contact, so I withdrew. I couldn't help thinking about how smooth her skin was and how pleasant it was to touch.
She laughed at my obvious embarrassment, and there was no sting in it. Then she gave me a discerning look and said, "Have you eaten yet?"
"Uh . . . no, not yet." My stomach gave me an extra vicious kick, but I managed to stay calm. It wouldn't be proper to filch a meal off someone I had just met. "I'm afraid my kitchen is a little understocked to treat you to a proper dinner."
I couldn't stop myself from saying the worst possible things. And yet, she reacted as if I'd given her the best compliment she'd heard all year. "No, no, I want to treat you. I was supposed to have company tonight, but they didn't show up. I've got dinner ready and no diners. I'd be pleased if you'd join me."
Oh, but my stomach was willing to hug her for the suggestion. All the same, I insisted on being proper. "I wouldn't dream of imposing on you like that."
"It's no imposition at all. Please, since you haven't eaten, come dine with me. I'll be glad of your company."
"Well, since you put it that way . . . " I leaped over the railing and landed square in the middle of her balcony. It wasn't a difficult jump even with my acrophobia. She laughed with her beautiful voice and led me inside.
The interior of her apartment was beautifully decorated and richly furnished. All the surfaces were sparkling clean, and the walls had a fresh coat of paint on them. All light fixtures had tastefully decorated shades over them. It was quite the opposite from the hovel I had just left, and I said as much. I asked why she stayed, when she could obviously afford a better place.
"Oh, I couldn't leave," she replied easily. "This is my home; I'll never move away. I've been here so long that Al regards me as part of the furniture. Sort of a joke, you see." A shadow seemed to cross her face, but it was gone in an instant. I was too distracted to really pay attention.
Dinner was godsend in the form of a three-course meal. There was chili with hot spice, spaghetti with homemade marinara sauce and a pan of tuna noodle casserole, just the way I like it. There was a large bowl of salad and dressing on the side, with two dishes of corn and peas for color. French bread with butter and cheese sat on the side of the table, begging for attention. The wine was a fine Chianti, and went remarkably well with everything. I had too much wine too fast and became drunk before I knew it. It was a sumptuous feast, and I wolfed down a serving of each before she'd managed half her spaghetti. I never refused an offer of more.
It was the first real meal I'd eaten in two days, and the first real food I'd eaten in months. Since graduating from college I was living off greasy-spoon restaurants and canned goods. I hadn't been home in all that time partially because I found The City conducive to my Muse, and partially because my parents hated what I chose to do with my life. My parents and I weren't speaking. Neglect had gotten my stomach to plot mutiny, but this meal put all wrongs to right as far as it was concerned.
An hour later I pushed back my plate and wiped my mouth with a napkin. I had gone through two helpings of everything, plus a third of the casserole. After my tenth glass of wine, I decided that the evening had turned out far better than I could have dreamed. I was pleasantly tipsy (or so I thought), and I was enjoying the company of the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She was, at the moment, observing me with a quiet smile. "That was absolutely delicious," I told her. "Those friends of yours don't know what they missed."
"You're much too kind, Andrew," she replied with a blush. I decided her blush made her pale skin even more beautiful.
"No, I'm really serious," I said, and leaned forward to clasp her hand. "Please, call me Andy. Andrew is a man who should be answering the phone in my father's office."
She laughed softly, then looked down at our hands. At first I thought I had gone too far, but when I started to pull away she held me firm. Again, I felt strength flow from her. "No," she said in a whisper. "I like to hold your hand. You have strong hands, Andy."
I blinked in surprise, not sure how to respond. "Uh . . . um . . . I'm not much of an athlete," I stammered out of control. "I write a lot, and I cook so I use my hands a lot. . . ." My voice trailed off uncertainly.
"Swimming was my favorite sport, so I never used my hands quite as much. But I've always admired men with strong hands like yours." The way she looked at me, I thought I would evaporate from raw emotion.
"I -- if you like to swim, we could go to Cape Cod." My eyes were caught in her gaze, and I couldn't break free if I tried. I don't think I wanted to. A long silence fell over the room, but neither of us noticed.
All of a sudden, I came out of my trance with a snap. I stood up, still locked in her grip. "I should help you with the dishes."
She stood up and drew near. Her arms folded themselves around my neck and I felt her warm, soft lips press against mine. I was drowning in the sensation, utterly helpless and too enthralled to care.
We stood like that for a long, long time, lost in the intensity of the gentle kiss. We parted after a time, and I picked her up to carry her to the bedroom. She felt so light in my arms when I set her down, she seemed to float like a feather. I lay down and kissed her again, renewing the passion inside me.
After an eternity, I broke away, feeling confused and bewildered. I didn't know what was happening, but I knew that I didn't want to hurt her, or myself. Things were moving too fast, and I didn't know what it would do to us. "I . . . we shouldn't . . . I don't have any protection with me, or . . . ."
"Shh," she whispered, and pulled me down to kiss her. I stopped resisting. In fact, I stopped caring about anything except the woman in my arms. The rest of the night melted into a glorious union, a night of fervent passion and love. My heart was lost in this mysterious Laura Eidolon, but somehow the mystery didn't matter anymore.
The next few weeks went by in a blur. I worked extra hours at Rooney's to pay rent and a few other necessities. As soon as I cleaned out the refrigerator and stocked it, I invited Laura to a dinner of my own, to thank her. It wasn't as spectacular as what she served me, but Rooney's taught me a few tricks.
I was as good as my word about Cape Cod. In a few weeks I managed to save up enough money that I felt capable of taking a bus trip outside The City without breaking myself. The money was well spent. She turned into a kid with a new toy, or maybe a kid with a toy once lost and newly found. In her black one-piece, she played and splashed among the waves, then astonished me with her ability to swim. I could've sworn she was part dolphin the way she leaped and soared both over and under the waves. I've always been good in the water; I even managed to qualify as a lifeguard, but she swam circles around me as if I were a rank beginner. I've never met anyone who loves water more than her.
The morning stretched into afternoon, and I decided I was hungry. With her hand clasped at my arm, we approached a food vendor for hot dogs. We were waiting in line when she whispered in my ear, "I'd like a jumbo with just ketchup."
Our turn came and the vendor promptly threw two dogs into two buns so I could put the fixings on myself. While I was busy with that, he asked, "Ya wanna soda 'r somethin' with that?"
I started to ask Laura what she wanted to drink, but she wasn't there. I never noticed her leave, but I decided she might be shy about having to go off in search of the ladies' room. "Two Cokes," I replied. She didn't return by the time I finished dressing my dog and paid for the food.
I headed over to the women's lavatories, but I didn't see her. Then I turned around to see if I'd missed her in the crowd somewhere, and almost bumped into her.
"I usually don't drink soda, but I can make an exception." She tenderly retrieved her dog from me and took a big bite, smiling happily.
I handed her one of the cans and asked, "Where did you go?"
A frightened expression came over her face, and she stopped chewing for a moment. Eventually, she swallowed and said sheepishly, "I . . . uh . . . had to use the ladies' room. I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
I smiled at her to take the sting out of my words and bit into my own dog. "Hey, no problem. I was just surprised." I quickly forgot the incident.
In the next few months, I discovered my writing had taken a turn for the better. During the day my mind would be filled with ideas for my Great Novel, occasionally broken by clever anecdotes which I transformed into short stories. In the first two weeks I rattled off and published three short stories, earning myself over a thousand dollars. I added another fifty pages to my Great Novel almost without pausing to breathe. Laura was by my side the whole time, cooking for me and reminding me to eat when I couldn't be bothered to stop, pulling me away to make love to me whenever she could. If I hadn't had to work at Rooney's, I probably never would have left my desk at all, and it was looking like I might even be able to quit that job with all the extra money coming in. Laura kept a sense of humor about it, though. I remember I wrote a quick story about a couple who met, fell in love, and married in a matter of days. I thought of it early one morning while lying by Laura's side, so I jumped up to put it on paper. The point of the story was clear and vivid when I began, but faded rapidly as the words appeared. When I was finished, I couldn't even recognize my own idea, and thought about trashing it. Laura insisted I submit it, and it startled me by not only getting published, but earning good reviews.
By the end of the third month I was getting offers from major publishing companies for book deals and various submissions. I decided that I was not qualified to sift through the confusing legalese, so I asked Bill York to help me out. At his recommendation I hired an agent who negotiated the best deal for me with a $50,000 advance plus royalties.
Al noticed the mail coming to me, and mentioned the improvements to my apartment where before I had no money to even buy food. He started talking about rent increase at the end of the year, and maybe renegotiating the lease, since he was giving me "charity." I simply smiled at him and asked when he was going to get around to installing little things like light fixtures and smoke alarms. The thought of getting the building up to city safety standards made him scowl and stalk away. The look in his eye said he'd much rather wring my neck and take my wallet, but I didn't worry about it. Our situations didn't change a whit.
Once, I mentioned to Laura that we could afford better surroundings, so why didn't we move somewhere together? She immediately stiffened and started to cry. I promptly withdrew the suggestion and never brought it up again. I didn't know what made her stay, but as long as she did, I wouldn't move.
When it came to who she was, I knew very little. She rarely talked about herself, and when she did it was always in the past tense. She spoke briefly of her parents in upstate New York, some of the friends she'd had there and how she used to dream of swimming in the Olympics. I noticed that she never talked about any local friends, or what she was doing with herself in The City. I only assumed that she worked or had some sort of fund that she drew from, but there was no proof either way. She was always home when I was, and spent all of her time with me. She had the smallest of paths and no future; her world seemed to consist entirely of me. It made me worry.
I decided to set an example, so I told her everything I could about myself. How my family and I didn't get along, and hadn't since I was barely into my teens. How I grew up in a quiet little town just south of Buffalo on the other side of the state. I told her of the freedom I felt once I reached college, and some of the antics I did there. I showed her the Great American Novel and let her read a few pages of it. She seemed impressed, but I couldn't be sure of her sincerity. I'd been having my own doubts in spite of my flurry of writing, partially because I kept hearing my father's voice preaching how "this writing nonsense" would come to nothing. I spoke of my plans for the future, how I once thought I wanted to go into law, then politics, but discovered that I enjoyed writing most of all. There was a kind of euphoria in expressing my thoughts and feelings for all to share.
One night I was typing furiously away at my new computer when Laura snuck up behind me. My fingers were a blur against the keyboard, struggling to keep up with the flow of material coming from my head, and it didn't look like either would stop. I was riding a wave of success (or at least a big ripple), and it produced a high unlike anything I'd ever known.
Laura put her arms around me and started to nibble on my ear from behind. She knew this turned me on so much it distracted me. I squinted through the sensations, to try to see the screen. "My dear," I said, pausing at the keys. "If you keep that up, I'll never finish this."
She muttered a lustful, "I know," and kissed my neck. She worked her way across the back and attacked my other ear. She was a stickler for equal attention on both ears.
I managed to type three more words before having to stop again. "Honey, may I please finish this page?"
"No." I suppressed a shudder as she licked down my neck and started to caress my chest. She was awfully good at distracting me.
I stubbornly typed away letter by letter, making a supreme effort of will to make each word come out correctly and in the correct order. I finally declared myself satisfied with the evening's work and saved the document. My life would be full of little distractions that might never come again if I didn't take full advantage of them when they appeared. I turned around and planted a deep kiss on Laura's mouth. She smiled into the kiss and returned it with equal passion. I stood up, tackled her to the floor and took my fair revenge.
Half an hour later, I brought her a cup of coffee and sat on the bed where we had finally settled. The bed was very new and the springs squeaked loudly as my weight settled on it. She thanked me and kissed me on the cheek. "You're a sweetheart, you know."
I shrugged and sipped at my mug. "I like to spoil special people."
"You do a good job of it. I feel spoiled rotten, and I love it." She gave a deep sigh of contentment and settled back against the pillows, which were just as new as the rest of the bed. I leaned against her and started nibbling on her ear the way she'd done to me before.
She pushed at me lightly. "God, you're gonna get me started again."
I chuckled. "You think I don't know that?" I returned to where I had left off, which lead to some artful kissing. A very warm, comfortable and secure feeling washed over me, and I whispered to her, "I love you, Laura. I never thought I could love anyone so much."
Her body went rigid. I lifted my head in surprise and regarded her carefully. "What? What's wrong?"
Tears started to fill her eyes, and she shook her head. "Don't do that."
"Don't do what?"
"Don't love me. You don't want to say that."
"Well, it's true, and it's a little late to object. What's wrong with being in love with you? We've been so close for the past few months, I can't believe it's been real."
Her eyes began to stream, and her face contorted with misery. "No, it isn't right. Please, Andy, don't do this to me. I . . . I can't accept it. I can't let you love me."
I leaned back and watched her for a while so I could collect my thoughts. She was a beautiful, witty, intelligent, gentle and totally confusing woman. I didn't know what to expect from her. "Laura, I don't understand. What do you mean, you can't let me love you? Is it me you're afraid of? You know I'll never hurt you."
She gave a loud sob and smacked her hand against the pillow. "No! No, it's not that. I know you'd never hurt me, it's just . . . I . . . Andy, I'm so sorry!" She immediately broke down into incoherence. I reached out and cradled her through it, slowly stroking her long, silken hair. I hated not understanding, but she wasn't going to explain it just yet so I waited. I realized the best thing was to just hold her and let my questions lie.
It was at least an hour later before she was calm enough to talk. I started to slowly press her, but she refused.
"Laura," I said firmly. "Tell me what's wrong. Don't hide this from me."
She stared into empty space for a while, then shook her head. "I can't, Andy. Don't ask me."
"I have to. You're a part of me, and it hurts me to have this between us."
She closed her eyes tightly, then began to speak in short, clipped sentences. "I . . . when I was . . . younger . . . there was a man . . . I fell in love with a wonderful man. He was so nice to me, so loving . . . he gave me my bracelet . . . we were going to be married in June, but . . . on . . . the day of the wedding, he . . . died . . . car accident . . . by the church." She paused to sip at her coffee, which had grown cold. There was something odd about her as she spoke, as if she was becoming older and more frail. "He . . . he lived in this apartment, right next to mine . . . I can never leave because I can't leave him. He told me he loved me right here . . . just . . . the night before he died." She burst into a fresh flood of tears. I held her close and whispered over and over that it wasn't her fault, that it was the past, but she only cried harder and clung to me desperately. We fell asleep together, but when I woke in the morning she was gone.
I wondered how long her secret had been hidden inside without being told. I now felt I understood the strength in her; only the strongest souls can bear such grief for so long. She didn't show up for the rest of the day, so I waited. When she was ready, she would come. In the meanwhile, I sat at my computer and began to write again. My writing took on a noticeably different tone, one of thoughtfulness tinged with sadness.
The Laura Eidolon I fell in love with returned to me in time. A short while later, we began to explore The City again, and I was surprised by how much longer she had lived here, yet she knew little to nothing about it. We wandered around hand in hand, looking through little street shops, admiring different styles of paintings and sculptures, listening to the corner bands which played for tidbits, and admiring each other nonstop. I couldn't resist leaning over to kiss her on the cheek or lips every few moments, or sneaking a quick nibble on her ear.
I took her to South Side Sea Port, which was a final resting place for old sailing ships. There was even an old relic of the "Fredonia Class Sea Vessel" series, named after my old hometown. The fishing ship had been designed for the rough waters of the shallow Lake Erie, and turned out to be perfect for ocean fishing. I mentioned this to Laura, who clapped her hands in admiration and gave me a quick grin.
The main reason I'd taken us to the port was so I could take her to the first Banana Republic Clothing Store I'd ever seen. It was a blast from the past for me, and a new delight for her. She went wild looking at all the clothes, and eventually settled on a hat for me to buy while she went to look at something else.
The sun had turned crimson before we finally started for home. Walking the streets at night was out of the question, but I had no cash left for a cab, so we took a train. I know the subway very well, and I wasn't worried. Laura was constantly checking maps and destinations to make sure we were on the right train until I smiled at her and invited her to sit by me. I gave her a big hug and whispered softly in her ear about what I was going to do to her when we got home. She giggled softly and stopped fidgeting.
Taking the subway is not the quickest way to travel; we had a long way to go and several changeovers before we neared our stop. Laura rested her head against my shoulder and kissed my neck softly. I stroked her hair and smiled to myself.
My good feeling passed when a gang stepped onto the car and looked around, seeking prey. All the other passengers shifted uncomfortably, hoping the kids would just go away. No dice; the gang looked for this as proof they could be cowed. As they approached my seat, I tensed for a fight, but Laura held on to my arm tightly and whispered, "No, dear. Don't do anything. I promise they won't bother us. Just sit here and hold my hand."
My nerves were shrilling that this was the absolute wrong thing to do, but I did it anyway. As our fingers entwined, I felt a peculiar tingling sensation, and I felt dizzy. My nerves were really getting to me.
The gang passed us without remark, and without even looking at us. I turned to Laura in astonishment, but she kissed me quickly before I could say anything.
The car door on the far end slid open and snapped shut again. Someone hadn't closed it properly before. The gang members turned together and stared at something unseen by the door.
"Yo, Jay! Ain't no G's gonna be thrashed tonight!" one of them called out. There was a brief pause, before another one said, "Hey, hey, don't be dissin'! This is our stop, right bloods?"
They looked remarkably nervous, and kept looking at the door as if some specter was haunting them. When the next stop came they pushed out of the nearest door and left us alone. The passengers let out a collective sigh of relief. I gave Laura a curious look, but she winked at me with tired eyes and snuggled up to me comfortably. I realized I was tapped out as well, and rested my head against hers.
The most curious thing happened on the final leg of our trip. We were five stations from home, and people were shuffling on and off in a trance-like state. Through my sleepy eyes, I watched them and made a mental note on how people rarely got on or off trains with a sense of purpose. The exceptions were perhaps tourists, and sometimes businessmen. Everyone else I saw just seemed to be along for the ride, not really caring where they were taken, so long as it wasn't where they were coming from. I was thinking there might be a good story in there somewhere . . . .
All of a sudden, I noticed that Bill York was sitting on the train a few feet away. I was startled, but I waved to him while he looked my way. He didn't so much as meet my eyes. It was as if he didn't know me, or never saw me.
A frown crept over my face as I got annoyed. Was he so tired he wasn't paying attention, or was he mad at me for some reason? I knew I'd thanked him with dinner for setting me up with the contract agent, but he wasn't that kind of guy anyway. I cleared my throat loudly, but he continued to ignore me. I started to get angry.
Laura noticed my irritation and looked up to see what was wrong. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she did I called out, "Hey, Bill! Aren't you going to say 'hi' or anything?"
Bill turned around and looked utterly startled. "Andy? My god, how long have you been there? I didn't see you!"
"I got here before you did, old man. Are you drunk again or just getting senile?"
He shook his head and grinned at me. "Good joke. I know that seat was empty when I came on because I thought about sitting there. You weren't there."
I turned to Laura. "Do you know why . . . ." The words died in my throat. She was gone. Again.
Bill laughed. "Oh, I get it! You're a ghost, and you're talking to Casper! You're a riot, Andy."
I paid no attention to him. I looked all around, trying to find where Laura went. The doors hadn't been opened, but she was nowhere to be seen. Finally I turned back to my friend. "Sorry, Bill. I seem to have lost track of someone. Catch you later, okay?"
"Sure. Call me tomorrow and we'll go for shots."
"See you." I walked up and down the car, but I found no trace of her. I stepped on to the car behind us. She wasn't to be found there, either. I turned around and bumped into her.
"Where did you go?" I demanded, trying to get my heart to settle.
The look on her face was unreadable. "I . . . um . . . I'm sorry, I just . . . ."
I waited impatiently, but she was unable to finish. She shrugged and looked guilty.
"There's something you're not telling me," I accused. "Every time I talk to someone, you vanish. I could see it in other places, but how did you manage it here? It was like you melted away. Would you please explain?"
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. An expression of pain crossed her face. "I'm sorry, Andy. I . . . I'm sorry."
I hugged her. "You can't explain now, huh? Okay, we'll talk at home. You'd also prefer not to talk to Bill, right?"
"Okay. We'll sit in here."
We rode the rest of the way home in silence. She seemed on the verge of either tears or confessing, but she did neither so I hadn't a clue of what she was thinking about. I made myself wait.
I opened the door to my apartment, let her in, closed and locked it. I turned back to face her. "Okay, now what's going on . . . ." My voice trailed off for the second time that night. She was gone again.
"Laura," I said as I walked into the kitchen. She wasn't there. "Laura, don't run away from me." She wasn't in the bedroom either. The bathroom was empty. "Laura, you're really starting to upset me!" The entire apartment was empty, except for me. "Laura?"
I went to the balcony and looked around. Both our apartments were dark, but there was no other place for her to go. I hopped over the railing and rapped on the glass. There was no response.
"Laura! Stop this! Come talk to me! Laura!" The door turned out to be locked, and I peered inside to see where she was.
The apartment was empty. Devoid of any life. Not even a single chair stood in what had been a vibrant, comfortable home. I had sat there earlier that day. It was impossible.
My head hurt, and I was confused. What was going on? I tried the door again, but it was firmly locked. My shoe bounced off the glass pane twice before I finally broke through. Then I undid the lock and opened the door.
The apartment was musty, dirty, and hadn't been occupied in years. Yet, it was the same apartment where I had eaten that delicious meal, made love to a beautiful woman, fallen in love . . . it didn't make sense. None of it made any sense.
I wandered around, looking for something I could cling to for the sake of my sanity. Anything at all. I ended up in the bedroom.
Nothing was familiar to me. The bed was just a boxspring with no mattress, the way mine had been when I first moved in. There was a tape outline of a body next to it. The outline matched the proportion of someone about Laura's size.
I stepped back against the wall, trying to make sense of it all. In doing so I kicked something, and bounced it away. It was a gold bracelet, glinting in the light of a nearby street lamp.
"Laura?" I whispered.
The sound of her dress rustling behind me made me jump. "I haven't been honest with you, Andy. I'm very sorry. I guess I can't lie to you anymore."
I turned around. She stood next to the wall, her hands clasped behind her back. She looked very old and very tired. Her hair didn't have the life in it that I remembered, but I seriously doubted that any of her did. "How long have you . . . ." I couldn't finish it.
"How long have I been dead?" she asked. "Twenty years. In 1976 I was to marry to a very wonderful man who was a terrible driver. He died the day of our wedding because he was in too much of a hurry and wasn't paying attention to traffic. He hit a truck turning a corner at 35 miles an hour. It wasn't much of a crash, but he wasn't wearing a seatbelt, and that was all it took. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital an hour later. I came straight home and swallowed a bottle of pills. I don't even know what they were; I just took them. I locked the door so no one could stop me, because I didn't want to live without him. So I didn't.
"I didn't realize my mistake until I woke up hours later. Jerry died on the streets by accident. His soul went to Heaven or Hell, or somewhere that souls are supposed to go when their lives are finished. I'd like to think he went to Heaven, but I know what a devil he could be." She gave a halfhearted giggle at her own pun, and the skin crawled at the back of my neck.
"I wasn't so lucky," she continued. "I died here by my own hand. This is where I stay, forever alone. At least, that's what I thought until you came. I tried to make you come out to the balcony, to see if I could make you see me. You did. I was able to reach inside you and see who you were, and I realized that you could make me feel . . . not alone. I saw that you could make me be happy again. I haven't been so happy in twenty years. That's why you rented from Al, and why I did everything that I've done. Being a ghost gives me a few special advantages, but I didn't mean any harm by it. I just wanted to . . . to feel again, to love again. I needed to be close to someone, and you were perfect. I never meant to hurt you."
I stammered and raved. My mind refused to accept any of this. "But . . . but . . . you were real to me! You . . . you made dinner that night . . . made love to me . . . went outside with me . . . . " I couldn't find the words I needed. I couldn't express what I felt, because I barely knew what that was.
She nodded sadly. "It was real, from a certain point of view. So long as you were near me, I could make anything real if I wanted to bad enough. As long as I stayed near you, I could go anywhere I wanted. I just couldn't be seen by anyone else, so I made people overlook you. Everywhere we went, nobody ever saw us unless you specifically caught their attention. When you did, they could only see you, and you couldn't see me anymore."
"You're dead," I whispered to myself. I was in shock, although I didn't recognize it at the time. "We made love . . . ." My mind was urging me to quit before I lost my sanity. I stubbornly focused on the problem in my head, trying to comprehend the impossible. To say that I was failing would be an understatement. My world was falling apart.
"I'm real whenever I'm near you. The love we made was real, and we both felt pleasure. Even the food you ate was real. I can't explain how, but they were."
I sat heavily on the floor, my mind flooded with muddy, complicated thoughts. "This can't be happening to me."
She sat next to me and laid a comforting hand on my shoulder. I recoiled in shock, staring at her with eyes half-blind from madness. Her hand quivered in the air briefly, then dropped to her lap. "I'm sorry, Andy. I never meant to hurt you. I thought I'd grown up after I died and spent so long tormenting myself. I told myself I'd never be so selfish again, if I were given the chance. I guess I haven't grown up as much as I thought. I'm still the same greedy, spoiled bitch as I was when I took those pills. Look what I've done to you now."
The hand that had touched me was solid. Everything about her was real. My mind began to calm, and a plan began to form. Everything was real, from a certain point of view. Certainly, the way we felt about each other was real. I lifted my head and took a deep breath. It helped.
"Andy, what are you thinking?"
"That I love you. If nothing else, I truly love you. I don't think I can stand to be apart from you."
A single tear fell from her eye, and she shook her head. "No, Andy. That was my mistake. You can't be in love with me; it can't work. I shouldn't be in love with you, either. God, I can't do anything right, can I? You're alive and I'm dead. We can't love each other like that, can we? I'm a stupid, stupid girl!"
Finally, all the pieces fell in place. I could almost hear the "click" in my head as my plan came together. "No, you're not," I said firmly. "I know what to do."
She looked up at me, startled. I read the fear in her eyes. "What do you mean?"
I didn't respond, I just ran to the balcony and jumped over to my apartment. She was there, standing by my desk. "Andy, no! If you think you're going to --"
"No, Laura. Don't argue. I know what to do." I brushed past her on the way to the bathroom.
She grabbed my arm and tried to hold me back. She had incredible strength, but just then I could not be stopped. "Andy, no! You can't suicide! You've got everything to live for! Your book, your career, your whole life is ahead of you! Don't throw it away!"
I stopped and shook her loose. "My whole life, everything that really means something to me isn't here. It's there, where you are. It's in death. Those dreams I had, they were just clouds. There's no gold in their glitter; the gold is here with you. Nothing means more to me than our love, so my life will truly begin when I die."
The words hung there in the silence that followed. My intention was out and couldn't be refuted. She fairly crumpled under it. "Please, for God's sake, for my sake, don't!"
"Why?" I shouted. "Give me one reason why!"
She closed her eyes, fighting for control. Then she screamed, "I don't love you! That's why!" Finally, the tears flowed freely. "I never loved you, I just needed you for a while! I needed your strength to go on, and now I don't want you here! It was all an empty act, a lie! I lied to you about everything, and if you die now, I'll hate you forever! I'll hate you for eternity, because that's how long we'll have!"
I stared at her, shocked out of my mind. "You don't mean that!"
"I do! I hate you! You're nothing but a conceited, overbearing ass! You bastard, you only care about easy money and getting laid! That's why I knew I could get to you, just by taking you to bed and giving you ideas for your pathetic stories!" She had begun to wail like a child, a pitiful keening that tore my heart apart. She seemed like she wanted to say more, but she only sobbed and melted away.
I fell back against the wall and slid to the floor. The sound of her crying was loud in my mind, and I knew she hadn't gone away. There was no place for her to go.
I couldn't believe her. She wasn't serious about hating me. Was she?
I looked up at the medicine cabinet where there was a bottle of sleeping pills I bought a month ago. I rarely had to use them so there were enough to make me sleep forever. It would be a soft and painless death. Did I really want to die? Was she serious about hating me?
My head hurt with indecision. I buried my face in my hands, trying to still the confusion inside me. I didn't know what to think.
It was daylight when I sat up in bed. I looked around sleepily, wondering what time it was. My clock had fallen down behind the stand where I'd accidentally bumped it. I didn't remember doing that, but it was understandable. I felt cold and numb, but not much else.
I got up, stretched, then walked out to the balcony. It was a fine summer New York day. I actually heard a bird sing somewhere off in the distance. Laura stood on her own side, looking at the sky with glazed eyes. I don't think she saw anything. I noticed she hadn't bothered giving her apartment the illusion of habitation.
"Want to talk?" I asked softly.
"There's nothing to talk about," she replied distantly. "You can't kill yourself. It's wrong. I can't ask you to, and I won't. I regret committing suicide, even for the reasons I had. It was cowardly and futile. I won't watch you make the same mistake. You never get what you want, in the end." She had her back to me, and wouldn't turn around as she spoke. She didn't stop looking at the sky, either.
"This is different. We're together, and we'll stay together if we die in the same place. I mean, I can see you and talk to you now, right?" I pointed out.
"It's different, Andy. Very different. I don't expect you to understand. I've been dead for twenty years, and I barely understand it myself. Unless I expose myself to someone who's alive and . . . attach myself to them, draw on their strength, I can't leave. A sort of boundary has been placed around me, and I can't move beyond it without help." She waved her hand at the broken glass beside her. "This is what I have, all I have left. I could only leave it because you came along and invited me to come out. You became a temporary surrogate. While I was outside my apartment, I couldn't stray away from you even if I wanted to. Even when you called attention to the two of us, I was always there, even though you couldn't see me."
"We're limited by the place we die?" I asked, thinking quickly. A chill ran through my heart. "Where we die is where we stay for eternity?"
"Only if we die before our time. Only if we die before we finish our purpose. I know what my purpose was, now that I'm dead. I think I do, anyway. I think I was supposed to bring Jerry's child into the world and raise him . . . I don't know if it was by myself or with a new husband. But I killed my child when I killed myself. People who die through betrayal, people who suicide before their time is up, they die improperly and stay behind as ghosts. I think Jerry was able to leave because he'd given me the child. It wasn't his place to see that child grow up. If he hadn't, or if there was something else he was supposed to do, then he'd be roaming the streets now as a ghost, invisible to all. We're given one chance in life, and after we die it's all over. I can never raise my child or bring him into the world, because I took the coward's way out. My curse is to know this forever."
She finally turned and looked at me, pleading with me. "I don't want you to suffer the same fate! I don't want you to pay the price I pay! It's an unbearable punishment, but I have no choice. You do, Andy! You can go on and finish whatever it is you're destined to do! I know some people don't believe in destiny, but it works anyway. We can't escape it no matter how much we want to. We fulfill it or we pay the price. Do you understand me, now? Do you understand why you can't die?"
I shook my head and smiled at her. "What if my destiny is to be with you? What if my destiny is to bring an end to your punishment, to show you that your penance is at an end?"
"It doesn't work that way!" she shouted, clenching her hands into fists. "You're not listening to a word I've said!"
"Then listen to me. I don't give a damn about my destiny! If my curse is forever, then I'll bear it forever, as long as I'm with you. All I want is to be with you. Do you understand that?"
"You don't understand," she whispered, and turned her back to me again. "You don't have a clue about what you're saying. You don't know what it is to be dead!"
"Yes I do. I've known all morning."
She turned and stared at me in horror. "Andy . . . you're lying. Tell me you're lying."
"I'm not lying. I died sometime during the night, I think, and I just woke up a little while ago. The sleeping pills worked, and now I'm as dead as you are." I looked down at what I perceived as my body. "I have to say that being dead isn't quite the way they portray it in movies. I feel alive and well, but I'm not. The only way I can tell is by checking my pulse. There isn't any. It's really weird."
Her eyes grew wide, and she stifled a scream. Then she ran through the door to her apartment and left me.
My grin faded. She wasn't taking this well at all. "Laura, wait!" I put my foot on the railing to jump over to her side.
I couldn't do it. I didn't know why, but I couldn't get over the top. I couldn't leave my apartment.
This last thought was slow in coming. I tried to reach her again, and failed. I tried from another spot, and failed again.
"What's going on here?" I demanded of the air. "Why can't I go to her?"
I kept trying, violently throwing myself into the air so I could get over the railing. Each time, I landed on my side. I couldn't leave, I couldn't get out. I ran back inside and opened a window. I tried to push my hand through the opening, but it wouldn't move past the threshold. I ran to the front door. I couldn't get through it. I ran back to the balcony. "Laura! Laura, come back! I can't reach you!"
She inside her apartment, watching me through the glass. Her eyes were bright with tears.
"Why can't I reach you? Why can't I touch you?" I cried. I was near hysterics.
Her voice came to me shaky and faint. "I told you, Andy. When we die before our time, we're held to a certain place forever. You died in your bed, I died in mine. Now we can never be together. Never." She slowly faded away.
"Laura!" I shouted. "Laura, don't go away! Come back! Come back!"
It was no use. She wouldn't listen to me.
I've been dead for five years. I think I sulked the whole time. I'm not really sure . . . time becomes immaterial. I find myself running through routines and rituals, aware that I do them only because I did them in life. Flushing the toilet, running the shower, cleaning the dishes, or sitting at my desk and writing something. The water runs, the dishes clatter and the pen moves, but nothing actually gets done. It's very frustrating to be dead.
Today, something changed in my routine. The front door opened and Al practically shoved in a handsome couple. No, a family with a little boy. Al himself was looking very fat and smug, dressed in fine clothes and smoking an expensive cigar. He carried a magazine rolled up under his arm, which he took out and slapped down on my desk. "Dis wuz where Andrew Rollins lived, dat poor soul. I wuz his best' frien', helpin' 'im wit his book an' all. I had no idea he wuz gonna up and kill hisself like he did. I went an' finished his book fer 'im, da way it shoulda been."
Al dropped the magazine, and I saw that it was an old issue of Time. I sidled up to it and stared at my own face on the cover. I let out a loud gasp and nearly fell over. The little boy looked curiously in my direction, but said nothing.
When everyone was out of sight, I began to leaf through the pages. The magazine was two years old and battered, but readable. Jesse Jackson had been elected President and was pushing unilateral disarmament, which the editors thought was insane. Eddie Murphy was on his fifth marriage and his umpteenth movie with his new wife as co-star. Clint Eastwood had just finished yet another Dirty Harry movie, and they recommended the public avoid it.
The main article was a review for the book Andrew Rollins and Alfred P. Gomez co-wrote, which Mr. Gomez finished shortly after Mr. Rollins had died a tragic and mysterious death. It was an international bestseller about . . . well . . . it was the Great Novel I'd been working at for so many years. The review made mention of the short stories of Mr. Rollins which became exceedingly popular, now recognized as national treasures. It came a great surprise when Mr. Gomez announced to the world he was publishing a book co-authored by Mr. Rollins, finished as a tribute to the great author. The book was hailed as a "remarkable achievement" and a "fitting epitaph for a bright young mind in the literary community, sadly cut short before his prime." The review mentioned that the only problem was in the final chapters, which appeared to have been written by a child, rather than the "skilled wordsmithing" typical of Mr. Rollins' work.
Al brought the family back into the main room and I hastily closed the magazine before anyone could notice. If possible, Al looked even more pleased than before. "I'm glad you'se wanna rent dis fine abode. I guarantee ya won't regret it."
I sat on the corner of the desk and stared at the magazine until Al picked it up and tucked it under his arm again. After everyone had left, I roused myself to walk out onto the balcony.
She came out at dusk, as she always did. Her routines were as fixed as mine. She took her broom and swept the floor with long, broad strokes, matching them with that sexy bump of her hips. I smiled, thinking of the first time I'd seen her.
She noticed my smile. "What's up?"
"I found out something today."
She waited for me to explain. When I didn't, she said testily, "Well, are you going to tell me or not?"
"My book made the best seller list. I was supposed to be recognized as a great artist, as a 'bright young mind in the literary community' and a 'skilled wordsmith.' I was supposed to be great."
"You never finished your book, you said."
"Al seems to have finished it for me. He put his name on the cover with mine and rode my coat tails into glory. He's rich, now."
"So he has everything, and you have nothing."
I looked at her again, and was struck by her beauty as I always was. "I thought I'd have everything."
"But you don't." She walked back inside without another word.
I watched her go. Tears filled my eyes, tears that I hadn't allowed to come in five years. "I thought I'd have everything," I whispered. "I thought I'd have you."
The tears streamed down my face, and I couldn't stop them. I wanted desperately for someone to come and hold me, to tell me it was just a nightmare and that it was all over.
No one came. No one heard my cries.
No one at all.