I was thrilled to be moving out of my parents’ house. A fresh start, a new beginning, a medicine cabinet absent of my father’s Viagra, etc. My new apartment came furnished, and, as I realized upon moving in, peopled. More specifically, it included a woman sitting on the couch in a sweater and plaid skirt, reading from a stack of magazines on the coffee table.
“I think you’ll find she really spruces up the atmosphere,” my landlord said.
“Oh,” I balked. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Do you want to take her job away? Her brother’s on drugs.”
“My mother’s on the street,” The woman mumbled, eyes adrift within a vintage issue of Time.
“Her little boy,” my landlord added, “is practically two-dimensional.”
“Okay,” I relented. “I guess it’ll be nice to have company.”
The woman on the couch flipped a page.
“She’s not really here for that, dear,” my landlord said. “Think of her more as a picture in a magazine.”
During my first few days in the apartment, it became apparent that the woman on the couch took her job quite seriously. She was there when I awoke and there when I went to bed, eating only little granola bars that never disrupted her reading. Sometimes when I was out of the room I would hear her taking quick steps to the bathroom, closing and opening the door quietly before scuttling back to the couch.
After a week I moved my desk out to the living room, and together we filled the silence, clacking keys punctuated by the rhythmic turn of another glossy page. I tried talking to her one day, politely asking the name of her son, but she only looked up at me briefly, her eyes disapproving, before returning to a black-and-white issue of Life. I was eating raisins at the time and tossed one at her playfully, but this provoked no reaction. A minute later, I saw her hand slowly gravitate towards the black dot of raisin on her sweater, picking it up and bringing it to her mouth tentatively.
When I watched TV, I would occasionally catch her watching with me in my peripheral vision, but she lowered her gaze quickly as soon as I looked over, blushing as she ran her eyes across the page with dramatic speed.
I started listening for her exit as I lay in bed at night, the floor creaking underneath her cautious feet, the door marking her departure with a final click. At what time she arrived in the morning I had no idea, so the plan I devised required that I not go to sleep. After she left one night, I crept out of bed and returned to the living room, watching a couple of late-night movies. When she re-entered the apartment (at five a.m. exactly) I was ready, sitting in her spot on the couch with a 1955 Cosmopolitan. I wanted badly to see her reaction, but of course keeping my eyes down was essential to this whole operation, and I could only hear her uncertain steps across the room, the silence of her pausing in front of me, and then the steady sound of a more assured stride, out of the room and further into the apartment. I smiled, thinking that I had won (won what, I wasn’t sure), but when I rose and followed her through the hall, she spun around and darted past me, returning to her couch-post as if it had some sort of magnetic power over her. I stood at the edge of the couch and sighed, then lumbered to my room in defeat and went back to bed, hearing a page flip over as I pulled up the covers.
It went on regularly for another two months. I stopped trying to interfere. Sometimes I talked to her, but in the way one might talk to a pet, without actually expecting a response. Good morning, as I entered the living room after breakfast. Goodnight, as I retired to my bedroom. Hey there, as I breezed into the kitchen after going to the store. How’s Life? In both senses of the word, I mean — in general and in print. It was on a Wednesday when I came into the living room to find a note sitting in her place on the couch, folded neatly with a miniature paperweight on top of it. Today is my son’s birthday, it read. I will return to work tomorrow. I put the note in my pocket and tried to go on with my day, making coffee and sitting down to work at my desk. I waited to hear the thick, wavy sound of laminated magazine pages turning over, but of course it never came, and I suddenly felt uneasy in my own apartment. I looked over towards the empty couch, not really recognizing it, the entire room taking on an alien quality. I rose and brought my computer into the kitchen, which felt more familiar, but even from the other end of the hall, her absence loomed like slithering ectoplasm.
When she got back, I sat on the other side of the couch and told her I had missed her. The new issue of People, which I’d placed on her cushion as a gift, lay discarded on the floor. I thought I saw her smile a little, but this may have been imagined.
That night, she did not look down from the TV when I glanced at her during Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She even laughed a bit when Holly Golightley’s landlord walked into his door, which I thought was a dumb part to laugh at, but I took it. When I said goodnight and left the room, she gave a little wave. I smiled all the way to my pillow.
The next day, she never showed up. Her pile of old magazines on the table was gone. My landlord called around noon and explained that she’d been offered more money by another proprietor. I would never see her again. My mouth failed to respond; it seemed suddenly detached from the rest of me. I hung up and spent the remainder of the day in bed, as if I was going through a breakup. It hurt to think of her sitting on someone else’s couch, in someone else’s apartment, reading her same magazines. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t eat. I felt the world flying away from me at a million miles per second.
The next morning, the doorbell rang and my heart skipped a beat, sinking when I answered it to find another woman, dressed in an identical plaid skirt and sweater, standing at the door with a stack of magazines under her arm. I shook my head and asked her to leave. It was too hard. I told her she could still say she was working here so she could get paid. That was fine with me. The woman nodded understandingly, reaching out and patting me on the arm before turning back down the hall.
Weeks passed. I didn’t feel up to going outside, but eventually I needed food, and so I trudged out in a stained T-shirt and sweatpants and walked to the market, where I stopped in the bread aisle as my eyes locked onto my old woman on the couch, examining hamburger buns with her skinny son at her hip. I was about to turn away when she noticed me and approached with a smile.
“So good to see you!” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
It took me a moment to recover.
“It’s good to see you,” I said finally. “You have no idea.”
“I’m sorry I had to leave,” she said. “It’s a great gig, though. Better pay and weekends off. Plus,” — and here she leaned in and whispered — “this landlord lets me read Penthouse.”
“I wouldn’t have said anything — “ I started, but then decided to let it go. “I’m happy for you,” I said. “Really I am.”
Her son tugged on her sleeve, and she told me she had better be off. We hugged briefly, and that was that.
I began taking my computer to the coffee shop below my apartment, sharing a room with several readers at once, but it wasn’t the same. I often imagined meeting someone there, the two of us carrying our tables out of the shop and up to my living room, pushing them together on the carpet. I could see us lifting raisins with uncertain grips, tossing them across the double-table, mouths catching in unison; chew, swallow, perfect.
TIMOTHY DAY enjoys bad puns, stuffed animals with ambiguous demeanors, and the sight of abandoned furniture in natural settings. His fiction has appeared or is upcoming in journals such as Menacing Hedge, The Apple Valley Review, Burrow Press Review, WhiskeyPaper, Literary Orphans, and others. His website is frogsmirkles.wordpress.com.