We go to see a few places, but we make all the landladies nervous. Marie suggests we wear sunglasses when we greet them so we look less drugged-out. With our surgical masks on, plus the shades, we look like bandits. It turns out our bruised eyes only put the old ladies more on edge if they can’t see through to the pupils. One mutters something about the devil you know being better than the devil you don’t.
I whisper to Marie as I push my glasses on top of my head, “She doesn’t trust people who won’t show their eyes.”
“Eyes are windows to the soul,” Marie answers vacantly.
One landlady isn’t put off by our cloistered eyes. She looks to be a hundred years old and maybe can’t see much anyways. She unlocks a dismal little unit for us, points out the obvious, bathroom and a sleeping alcove for those who don’t want to use the pull-out couch in the living room; then she offers us tea. “I like this apartment the best of all,” she says while she clangs around in the kitchenette. “I often sneak away and have a snack here or take some rest.” I look over at the narrow iron bed. The chenille bedspread is disturbed, and I can see the impression of her body’s small comma in it.
She motions us toward the chairs around the dining table. “The sun hits my favorite chair just right in the afternoons. It calms me down. I’ve been so nervous since my husband died.” Her features contract and I wait for her to cry, wondering what it would take for to her stroke out. She doesn’t. Cry, I mean. Instead, she ducks back into the kitchenette and brings out a tea tray, landing it from a weird angle onto the table. What shaky hands she has. Thin, too. It would be awful if her wrists broke with the weight of the teapot. She’d cry then, I bet.
“You girls aren’t a couple, are you?” She peers at Marie while pouring a stream of tea into the cup, spilling some.
Marie blushes stupidly. “You can’t ask that. It’s not allowed,” she says, drawing her brows together in a frown.
“She’s the only one looking for a place,” I say, sidestepping the question. “I already have one.”
“I ask because I can never tell about these things. I didn’t realize my husband preferred men until our first anniversary had passed and I was still a virgin.”
This is vaguely interesting, so we sit there and listen. With her memory unlatched, she tells us all she knows about men and love. It isn’t much, but it takes her a long time to spit it out. She talks until our tea turns cold.
Marie decides to take the place. When we’re done with her paperwork, I tell her I’m surprised that she wanted this particular apartment, with this particular landlady. The old woman already gave us her whole life history, so her entertainment value is gone, in my book anyways.
“Why pick her?”
“She reminds me of my granny.”
“Was yours as clueless as this one?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You know she will just let herself into your place any time she wants to take a nap or sit in her sunbeam. She’ll tell you she forgot the apartment was yours, or deny she ever rented it to you.” Marie shrugs. Not my monkey, not my circus, I mutter.
That night, after Marie drops me off, my rooming house cracks open, inviting me in. It is old and crumbling, and it stinks of mold. The grey rooms can’t hide their ghosts, the suicides who died from poison pills and gunshots. The space here is opaque and dense. To someone with no real vision, it might seem organized, all of a piece, tightly woven. But to someone who can see, the threads are loose, the pattern in disarray. It is disorganized as the thinking that redefines everything—threats soughing through the wind, trees perpetually falling, a friend’s double-cross.
I climb the steps to my room. My roommate is there. She keeps staring at me, bony knees pulled up against her chest, rocking and rocking in my chair, the one piece of furniture I’ve carried with me from apartment to apartment. The roommate won’t talk. She only stares, never blinking, forever rocking.
I stand behind her and tip her chair all the way backward and then all the way forward. She slides out of the seat like a pudding, plopping onto the floor. She doesn’t protest, so when she climbs back into the chair, I do it again. And again.
On the walls, the grey has begun to shimmer. I’ll take that asa sign I’ll be living with Marie before long. I just wish I liked her a little better.
Cheryla Snell’s books include several poetry collections and her Bombay Trilogy novels. Her work has been widely published online and in print, and anthologized in a Best of the Net and others. Most recently her writing has appeared in journals from India, UK, Scotland, Canada, Greece, USA, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her husband, a mathematical engineer.