Down the Hall: Part I

By Ophelia Webb

Locked out. And of course the one person to happen by is Hot Neighbor Guy. He’s too good looking for his own good and judging by the stream of beautiful women who go up and down the hallway weekend after weekend, he knows it. No one with him tonight, though. 

But she’s too embarrassed to ask for help. This is one of those things that is inexplicably mortifying--no one wants to be the neighbor girl who locks herself out of her apartment while she’s holding a bag of Chinese food and longing to watch reruns of the Golden Girls.

She’s standing there, staring at the door. It’s too late to call the landlord. A locksmith will cost a fortune that she does not have to spend out of her meager salary from the brain deadening work as an admin assistant at an arts non-profit. 

“Are you… all right?” he says. She doesn’t notice that he is standing outside his door, looking at her.

“Perfectly fine,” she said. Though her growling tummy disagrees.

He looks like he is about to say something. Then he opens his door, looks back at her and says, “Okay, just wanted to be sure.”

Then he goes inside his apartment and she is subjected to a very unpleasant combination of relief and despair. At least now that he’s gone inside she can eat the Chinese food. She sits on the floor and begins to rustle in the bags when she hears a door open down the hall again. 

And it’s him. He’s taken off his sneakers and his sweater and is now down to his t-shirt and his socks and there is something so intolerably charming about that.

“Are you locked out?” he says.

“Um,” she says. Considers lying for the longest second ever. “Yep.”

“Are you--Is someone coming?” he says. The concerned look is back.

“Nope,” she says.

“Do--Uh, why don’t you come in?” he says, gesturing to his own apartment.

“Me?” she says, pointing to herself. Her eyebrows may have just shot off of her forehead. “Come in?” Like she’s been invited to the cool kid’s club.

“Yeah,” he says. Smiles. “Unless you want to stay out here.” He holds up his hands. “No pressure or anything. Just if you, you know, want to.”

“Um,” she says. Enthralling conversationalist, she is. “Sure.”

His place is sort of what she thought it would be. Spare, modern.  Boring. Dark, matching woodwork furniture. Dark leather couch. All probably from Ikea.

“Make yourself comfortable,” he says. “It’s not much, but…”

“It’s great,” she says. He does surprise her by having a Kandinsky on one wall, and a Dave Matthews poster on another. He seems way too cool for Dave Matthews, and way too lame for Kandinsky.

“I’m sorry about your door situation,” he says. “I could break it down for you, but I’d hate to have to pay for that.” 

He sounds a little too proud of himself. Maybe he isn’t too cool for Dave Matthews.

“It’s fine,” she says. “I’ll probably just take the train up to my cousin’s house and come back in the morning.”

“How far is that?” he asks, opening the fridge.

“About half an hour,” she says, hoping the inward groan isn’t reflected in her voice.

“Want a beer?” he says. Holding one out to her. Some sort of fancy IPA. Of course.

“Sure,” she says. Though she isn’t particularly fond of beer, or of drinking in general. But it’s a nice gesture, so she accepts.

“Seems like a long way,” he says. “I know we don’t know each other or anything, but you’re welcome to sleep on my couch. Nothing weird, scout’s honor.”

Well, she assumes that.

“I don’t know,” she says. Because she doesn’t.

“No pressure,” he says.

“Thanks,” she says.

“You’ve lived here a while now,” he says, sitting on the counter. Of course he’s a counter-sitter. 

“Couple of months,” she says, leaning in the doorway, sipping her beer. She’s trying not to look at him, but isn’t able to help herself.

“What do you do, again?” he asks, even though she’s never told him.

“Soul sucking admin job,” she says. 

“Oof,” he says, making a face. 

“That’s what you get when you go to art school,” she says. 

“Oh, no kidding,” he says. Is it her imagination or does he look kind of impressed? “You’re an artist?”

“Well,” she says. “Yes. Not professionally or anything. I call it my second shift.”

“Really cool,” he says. “My mom is an artist.” Ah, maybe that’s where the Kandinsky came from. “I don’t have that talent. I mean, I’ve modeled for artists and stuff, but I can’t do the thing.”

She nearly tells him that they never had a model who looked like him in a single one of her life drawing classes, but she shuts up right quick and drinks her beer.

“Is that what you do?” she asks. “Modeling?”

“Well, I have,” he says. “But really it sucks. I thought it was an easy way to get by, but there’s so much competition. I’m one more tall guy who looks nice in a t-shirt and a suit. I know that sounds lame--”

“It does,” she interjects and he laughs.

“No, no, hold on,” he says. “But it’s true, I’m just one more. Nothing special about me. So I cut that out. I had some idea of acting when I left high school, but I’m no good at that either. So what does a kid do when he’s thought he’s special and he gets to the real world and realizes there’s a bunch of people way more special than he will ever be?”

“Stripper or garbage truck driver,” she offers.

“Close,” he says. “I’m a bartender.”

Of course he is. “Must be really hard being pretty,” she says. “The tips must be terrible.”

“You,” he says, pointing at her, “are sassy.”

“Can’t help it,” she says. “Do you have a fork?”

“Oh, sure,” he says. “I forgot about your food.”

He hands her a fork and leans against the wall and watches her eat at the table, where he’s situated her like a good host.

“Um,” she says. “Do you want some?”

“No,” he says. “I’m watching my carbs.”

Of course he is.

“Literally,” she says. And he laughs again. But he takes the hint and stops watching her eat.

“Well, if you want to stay I can get you some blankets and stuff,” he says.

“Sure,” she says. “Okay.” Because now that she’s crammed down a bunch of fried rice and orange chicken, she is too tired to think of walking to the train station and going all the way out to her cousin’s house, just to come back early in the morning.

“You usually have company, don’t you?” she says because she is feeling a bit more brave and a bit feisty with all of his pompous silliness. He doesn’t impress her.

He laughs and has the decency to look embarrassed. “Well.” He shrugs, puts his hands up. “Well, yeah.”

“But not tonight,” she says while she watches him stack the pillows and blanket on the couch.

“No,” he says. “To be honest, she bailed on me.”

“Heartless,” she says, though she has not convinced either of them.

“It’s fine,” he says. “It’s probably good that I spend some time by myself every once in a while. Not that I’m doing that now, actually. But I was going to spend time by myself.”

“You don’t like to be alone,” she says. And it isn’t a question. It’s why he invited her in.

“Not really,” he says. “I mean sometimes. But at night I get bored.”

She assumed he probably meant lonely. “Isn’t that exhausting?”

“What is?” He goes to put his empty bottle in his neat little crate where he keeps the empties.

“Never being alone,” she says. “Just thinking about it makes me feel tired.”

“I like being around other people,” he says. “I never notice you have any company, so you have the opposite problem.”

Touche, monsieur. 

She hopes her face isn’t as scarlet as it seems. And here she thought he’d never paid any attention to her and he basically just called her out on the fact that she hasn’t had sex in months. Months. 

“I’m new to town,” she says, shrugging. “You have to meet people before you can invite them over.”

“Well, I’m glad we’ve met, then,” he says. “Now you can invite me over.”

She looks at him closely. Was that facetious? But he’s turning away and walking down the hallway. She hears him rummaging through the closet and he shuffles back a moment later with a little pile of a neatly folded blanket and a couple of pillows, all in varying shades of blue. 

They say good night and when she is positive that he is safely tucked into his bed, she takes her bra off and stuffs it in her bag like any woman with sense would do. And she lays in the dark, wondering why she feels sort of giddy.

***

Three days later, there’s a knock at her door and she disentangles herself from her laptop and goes to answer it, feeling all sorts of puzzled. It’s him, Hot Guy, and he’s smiling and holding something.

“Is that a casserole?” she says. Feeling stunned.

“Sure is,” he says. “It’s what my mother always does when someone new moves in. I asked her for the recipe.”

“You made me a casserole?” she asks. She realizes with mortification that her hair is tied into something resembling a rat’s nest and she is wearing her granny sweater over a holey pair of leggings with her fuzzy fox socks. Not the condition in which to receive any visitors, let alone the attractive neighbor offering casserole.

“Sure did,” he says. “It’s probably still warm.” 

It smells delicious. It’s coated in cheese and she can see something green poking out beneath that might have been broccoli. 

She takes it from him and stands there, feeling awkward and hating herself for seizing up and stammering like an idiot. Finally she manages to ask him if he wants to come in.

“Nice place,” he says, sliding his shoes off at the door. Her place is much different than his, sparsely furnished with a vintage couch and a battered coffee table. Some of her old movie posters and a few paintings have made their way onto the walls, but most are leaned against the wall, waiting to find homes. Books are piled on the coffee table and on the shelves that she’d spent hours putting together while coloring the air with language that would have made a sailor blush.

“Want some casserole?” she asks. 

“Absolutely,” he says and settles on the swamp green couch without asking. Typical man, claiming the room he’s in without even noticing he’s done it.

She brings two plates back to the living room and sits across from him in a burnt orange velvet chair that she acquired at a garage sale and watches him dig into his food with unrestrained enthusiasm. She feels jealous that he can eat without feeling self-conscious as she and all of her gender have been conditioned to be.

“Not bad,” he says. “Not bad.” And true, it wasn’t. It tasted rich and salty and homemade. It was touching, actually. An old world gesture and she couldn’t help but like it.

“I don’t know your name,” she says. “I think you told me once, when I moved in. But I don’t remember.”

“Thank God you said something,” he says. “Because I forgot yours too. Eric.” Then he reaches across the coffee table to shake her hand.

“Liz,” she says, shakes his hand. It’s large and warm.

“You’re a reader,” he observes, studying her book shelf crammed to the max.

“Sure am,” she says. 

“I used to read all the time,” he says. Sounding a little sad. “Now I just… don’t.”

“You can read?” she says, gravely.

And he laughs. “Shocking, I know. Oh, hey.” He spots the crates in the corner. “You have a record player?”

“Yeah,” she says. “It belonged to my dad.”

“May I?” he gestures to the thing and she nods. He abandons his plate on the coffee table and goes to the crates full of records. It takes him only a moment to find one he wants to hear and he puts it on. 

“My dad had this same one,” he says over the sound of Willie Nelson singing.

“It’s a good one,” she says. She has been inhaling the casserole while his back is turned and now she takes her plate into the kitchen, leaving his plate to be revisited.

“Is that your art?” he says, looking around at the walls. She points to the ones that she’s done. “That’s amazing. Do you have stuff in galleries?”

“No,” she says. “I don’t have enough work right now. Working the other job sucks everything I have and when I get home I just turn into goo.”

“I can understand that,” he says. “I don’t have a hobby or anything like art, but that’s why I don’t read or anything anymore. The bar shifts are very long and very tiring. I just want to come home and turn my brain off.”

They talk for a while longer before he takes his plate to the kitchen, rinses it off like a good boy. And then he takes his leave of her. He’s smiling when he goes and she can’t help but read into it, though she orders herself not to. She tries to watch the Golden Girls, but she’s too restless. She turns off the TV and walks around her apartment until she picks up a paintbrush and starts dabbing pigment onto some heavy watercolor paper. 

She’s still restless, though, and she doesn’t stay at her art table long. Her body feels hot and there’s a gentle ache between her thighs. She can’t stop thinking about his smile and the smell of him, the warmth coming off of his body when he stood near her. With a sigh, she finally allows herself to sink onto the couch and slip her fingers into her panties. She’s already hot and slick, throbbing with her need for him. She’s so far gone that in no time at all she’s stifling a cry and the orgasm sweeps through her like a hot, golden wave.

She lays on the couch for a long time while she waits for her heart to slow, thinking of what it would feel like to rest her head on his chest and listen to his heartbeat.

This is the first part of a two-part series. You can read part II here

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In addition to being a writer of fiction, Ophelia Webb is also a visual artist. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and many, many books.