Nothing maddened Elliot like someone standing in the doorway, reminding him that indeed other people existed, had their own agendas and needs, occupied space, borrowed his air. Perhaps it was not so hateful as all that, yet he could not deny that the moment a body came to stand outside his apartment, his shoulders tensed and his work went to lead in his fingers.
He complained about it to his friend, Doran, who advised him glibly to close his door, glancing off into the distance as he spoke as though waiting for a waitress to bring something he’d ordered. It was his air even if they were sitting at a park bench or on a sofa in an apartment by themselves.
“If I close the door,” Elliot said. “I lose half the light. And anyway I’d feel locked away from the world.”
Doran tucked a smile into his collar. They were seated at their favorite cafe, two cups before them with dried puddles of coffee in the bottom of each. They had paid up but were loathe to stand, push their way home through the humidity. The waitress had left for the day and only the bartender, wiping glasses and ignoring them, remained inside the cafe.
“So who are these people?” Doran asked. He picked up his cup and glanced down into it with a frown. Perhaps they ought to order another press.
“They are the woman in the flat across from me, who can’t get her wireless speakers to pair unless she steps into the hall and stands near the window.”
“The Japanese girl? With the big leather jackets all year long?”
“Korean, but yes.”
“You know she’s got to stink at the end of a day like this.”
“Because of the jackets?”
Doran shrugged. “Who else then?”
A couple ambled by with identical hairstyles, dressed in clothes of the same cut, though the fabrics were different. Twin pairs of sunglasses masked their eyes. They crossed arms behind them so that each could snuggle a hand into the back pocket of the other.
“Revolting,” Elliot said. “I bet they sit on the same side of the booth at diners, too.”
Doran smiled into the distance, as if turning over a private joke.
Elliot picked up the lost thread of their talk.
“Then there’s this old guy who comes up and stands and looks out the window. His eyes are all washed out. He never responds when I speak to him. Always wears the same robe, coming open a bit, stained at the cuffs.”
“Sounds like a ghost.”
“I think he is,” Elliot said without hesitation. “Tall and gaunt, vague, listless, terrible. He’s worse than speakers girl. When he comes down the hall, I feel every muscle in my body pull tight.”
Doran flagged the bartender. “We ought to switch to drink drinks.”
Elliot fell silent while they ordered. The slant of the sun had shifted now, painting golden highlights onto his friend’s auburn hair. Doran was handsome, bearded and sturdy. He looked exactly like the man leaning against the rail in Renoir’s painting of the luncheon party. He was also fun company, despite his perpetual air of being elsewhere. When they first became friends, Elliot was pained by Doran’s beauty, the swell of his arms, the light hair on them lit by setting suns or golden lamps. His breath left him if Doran glanced at him from the shadows of a street as they walked side by side. That feeling had subsided over time, a little, but today when the sunlight burnished that copper hair, he had to look away.
“So does anyone else stand in the hall and drive you mad?”
Elliot took a breath. “Just a child.”
Doran was glancing away again.
“It’s a boy. Black hair and eyes. I think he lives upstairs with an old woman who’s always coming and going with paper grocery bags, like an extra from a movie. Same scarf and hat, the same end of a baguette thrusting out like a dick yearning for a tug.”
Doran laughed, drawn back fully, for a moment.
“I doubt she always carries the same bag of groceries.”
“It might have been dry cleaning once.”
Doran studied his friend. The fingertips were forever a mess, the nail beds blackened with ink, the pads cut or burned from his instruments. It was a mystery to him how an artist could let his body be mutilated by his craft. He was creative with words, liked by his artist friends, but he had no leanings in that direction. He could barely appreciate art, a fact which often caused lively debate at the kind of parties to which he was invited. The popular myth about Doran was that he only pretended his nonchalance about art to goad his friends. He tried only half-heartedly to shatter the misapprehension. What he was never shy about admitting, however, was that he enjoyed artistic people, their energy and the currents of their moods, even when he thought the yields of their work might be better served as a forth leg on a broken sofa.
“It’s a shame your apartment door isn’t a glass one,” he said. “You could get the light but not have the distraction.”
“It would have to be frosted. Even then, if I heard speakers girl’s Chucks squeaking on the floor I’d freeze up, knowing she was there. And somehow the boy and the old man, though they’re quiet, would make their presence known. It’s about energy.”
Doran then made a magnanimous gesture. “You could use my apartment. I’m almost never home, especially not during the day. I have that space behind the living room that isn’t good for anything real.”
“Art is something real,” Elliot said as the bartender leaned in and placed their cocktails between them. The glasses were dripping already in the heat.
“I meant it’s too small for a proper room, like for sitting or eating.”
Elliot wanted immediately to refuse. There were so many reasons why it wouldn’t work. The plainest reason was that he’d feel like an interloper. That would freeze him up. He’d be shy of leaving half-done works out for Doran or Doran’s friends to see. If he woke up in the middle of the night, wanting to create despite the darkness of his apartment – that darkness which always defied his lamps, beetled his brows, vexed his eyes – all his found treasures and his tools, his ink and pens would be blocks away. His table with its litter would be the purist manifestation of chaos against the Ikea-white backdrop of Doran’s tidy home.
No. It would never do.
And then there was the thought he found more disturbing than knowing the old man ghost was coming down the hall with his washed denim eyes, more maddening than the girl in the jacket, syncing her speaker, or the boy who just stood there, studying him with eyes black as the ink Elliot loved to work.
He imagined relaxing in Doran’s place, letting himself feel safe and creative alone there in the day. The bed where his friend slept would be scant foot falls away, the shower were he stood in the white morning light, water and soap cascading over his stomach and down his thickly formed thighs. He would feel like a husband there in the quiet mornings; pulling himself away a convenient quarter hour before Doran came home would do something to his heart. Day on day it would dispirit him.
It could tarnish his craft and his love of it. His art would fall under the nightly custody of a man who did not love him, could not please or hold or shelter or bear him as he would want in his depth. He shook his head, lifting the cocktail steadily.
“You ought to think about it,” Doran said. “If it would make it easier for you, it would please me.”
And what if you came home and I’d fallen asleep in your bed? Elliot’s mood darkened at the knowledge of what he was offered and must reject. What if I went into your closet and smelled the woolen shoulders of your winter suits? What if I couldn’t stop thinking about the smell when I lay down to sleep? And I tossed and turned through the night, sweating and staring into the shadows and wishing we were a possibility? What if I hated you for it, your kindness that was not enough?
“You’re wearing a strange expression,” Doran said.
“You know I’m moody.”
He laughed. “That’s true.”
“Thanks for the offer, though,” Elliot said. “Maybe I just need to ask the ghost to eat the child and then crawl into the girl’s speakers to keep the music flowing. Kill three birds with one stone.”
When he glanced up, there was a soft smile on Doran’s face that drew a blush from him. The eyes were not distant now; they were studying him closely.
“I’d like to think that someone was in my place during the day, doing something that made them happy.”
Doran didn’t look away. The sun had slanted further, drawing the handsome face with broad slopes of light and shadows narrow like keyholes. Every hair of his beard was clear, the flecks of gold in his brown eyes. He was beauty and mystery, chance and very much he was heartache. Not knowing how to answer anymore, Elliot dropped his gaze.