by Josh Capps
Iwas in bed when I heard Rose in the apartment above mine. Rose sounded like she was in the middle of another argument. But I'd just started to hear her. Who knows how I'd blocked all the noise out. I hadn't been asleep since just before midnight. Shane had nudged me awake then. He'd had another nightmare, but wouldn't say anything else. He nudged me until I rolled over. Then he turned his back to me.
I said, "Nightmares?" I said, "Was it a bad one?" I moved close to his body, giant against mine, and put a hand on his side. He bunched a pillow against his chest and flabby stomach. After I asked him about the bad dreams, I felt him nod. He breathed heavy and frightened. He took up most of the bed. Diagonal, terrified. I used gentle words, rubbed his bulky shoulders. Then Shane was out.
I said, "It's all right. You'll be fine."
Now he was still asleep, even with Rose making a racket. He rolled back towards me, still grasping the pillow. The sheets and thick comforter looked flimsy, twisted near his waist. His breathing had calmed a little, but now he was snoring.
There in the middle of the night, Rose's loudness and Shane's snoring.
Floyd wasn't loud, though. Floyd wasn't much of anything. I assumed it was Floyd that Rose was yelling at. Rose would shout and stomp, and in the time I figured Floyd was quietly responding, there was nothing. A while back, Rose had given me the scoop on Floyd. She told me he was a man of few words.
I said, "You must win every fight."
She laughed, and she said, "Oh, he can claw his way back with just a look." And I laughed right along with her, for a while.
Tonight I figured that Floyd must've given Rose quite a few looks.
My bedroom was dark, but my eyes were adjusted. The clock glowed anyway. I could focus on the other things in my room—clothes hamper, pile of my bras and undershirts, smoke alarm on the wall, heating grate in the floor. I ran over a few numbers in my head, added and subtracted some hours from the time I needed to get ready for work. The upcoming morning was my early early-shift, and I didn't want to think of that. I squinted until I could see the frozen half-moon through my blinds. I tried to match Shane's crackling snores with steady breaths of my own. I squeezed my eyes until they could only relax. But I couldn't get to sleep.
I said, "Shane," but I was only talking to myself. I whispered his name, then mine.
Soon, things were picking up above me. Rose finished a rush of words, topping it off with a shriek, and something got knocked over. One of her few pieces of furniture, maybe. There was a crash and more shouting. There was a familiar buckle in my stomach. I pushed on Shane, but he didn't budge. He was going deeper. Even his snoring seemed muffled.
A door got slammed, and there were footsteps on the stairs outside my window. I saw a figure pass by. There were still a few noises in Rose's apartment. I could imagine Rose was pacing. I'd heard her pacing a hundred times. After a while, I decided to do the same.
I pulled on my robe and went to the kitchen. My feet didn't last long on the cold tile. I stood on the rug, at the sink. Shane had done the dishes, left them to dry on the counter. He'd stacked them far from the edge. I lit a cigarette and pulled out the plate I sometimes used as an ashtray.
I leaned against the counter and smoked the cigarette. I finished that one, then lighted another. I paced around the kitchen and tiny hallway and bathroom, smoking over the plate. I dumped the ashes into the toilet. I put my cigarette down, and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked closer.
It's really something to look at yourself in the dark. I turned and tugged at my robe and looked at my side, my backside. I pulled the robe tight over my chest, then looked at my breasts. Then I let the robe loose. There were shadows in the mirror, blurred areas. I smiled to see my teeth in the dark. Then I had this idea to go upstairs and check on Rose. If I didn't check, she'd be fine. I could still hear her moving around. But, eventually, she'd probably come down and tap at my bedroom window. She's done that, a few times. She did it last month.
I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, once more, then tied my robe and started for Rose's.
Her metallic apartment number dangled from the door frame. I knocked, going from one foot to the other. I pulled my robe tight in front, crossed my arms. There was no mistaking the cold. I saw my breaths. It was as cold outside as it was black. A breeze made things worse. But I could see into Rose's apartment through the little window in her door. Things looked warmer. All the lights were on. Nothing was knocked over. Then Rose blocked the view and opened the door.
She said my name, then said, "Well, I'll be . . . It's so good to see you. You were awake, huh?" She wore what I'd seen her wearing earlier in the day. She smiled, and the fleshy bag under her neck jiggled. She said, "Oh, oh. Come in. It's so good for you to stop by. I'm always asking you to, and now you did."
"I'm here," I said, and followed her into the living room. I took a seat on the couch. Rose pulled up a folding chair. I said, "You've got it warm in here. That's good." I said something else along the same lines. Rose started to stand again, then returned to her seat.
She said, "It's so cold outside." She said, "It's really cold. My mom would say, 'That's Missouri.'"
"Where did that heat wave go?" I said. And that was the truth. Where did it go? One of those nights Rose had knocked on my window, Shane and I had just finished fooling around. But we'd been sweating from the unexpected warm weather, too. The window had been cracked, even. Hot, I'm telling you. We'd finished, and he'd rolled over. I'd done the same. We'd been ready to sleep naked. Then came Rose's knocks.
"Jesus," Shane said, but we laughed about it. What can I say? It wasn't much, but at least it was something we could laugh about at that point. We had a burst of laughter, right there in bed. Then Shane covered himself with a sheet, and I said a few words to Rose through the crack in the window. Shane made faces at me, and I tried not to giggle. I put on Shane's tee-shirt, letting it hang below my knees, and I went out and sat with Rose on the front steps.
On the steps in the dark, I'd brought two glasses of iced tea and Rose had told me things, opened right up. She told me about the checks she got every month, about her mom and her sister. I figured I'd just nod until she got tired of blabbing. That was when she told me all about Floyd.
With every light on, Rose's apartment was like daytime. She talked to me from the kitchen, where she was fixing soup. It could've been lunch, the rooms were so bright. She said, "You have to let me fix you something. Remember?" She said, "I've told you to come on up and we could talk and eat, or have a drink, or something? I'll fix something warm."
"Don't go to any trouble, Rose."
"It's no trouble," she told me. Her voice was meaty and fresh. "No trouble, no trouble."
So she stood near her little stove, stirring the pot. Even though it was so late. And it was late. Outside, it was pitch dark, but seemed ready to break, any minute. I pictured myself having to take a shower and have my coffee, in less than an hour.
Rose said, "You're up so early. It's an early shift, right?" She said, "I always see you leave when you have an early shift."
"Yeah?" I said. I started to stand, ready to help out with the soup, but stayed put. I looked around the room and wondered what piece of furniture had been knocked over. There were two chairs, a footstool, a small table. Little else. Nothing to crash.
I said, "Actually, I couldn't sleep . . . You?"
Rose said, "Well, Floyd was over again. We fought." The soup was beginning to smell great. A thick, delicious steam started floating out of the pot. Rose knocked it away from her face. She said, "I tried to remember what you told me to say when he argued with me . . . but, I couldn't think straight."
I said, "Did he give you his looks?" Before she could answer, I said, "Did something get knocked over?"
She looked up from the pot. She said, "Oh, oh. He wasn't looking at me then. And I kicked over that footstool. Can you believe it?" She pointed at the footstool behind me. She laughed at this, then stopped. She drew a sharp breath, and said, "Oh, gosh. We woke you up, didn't we? You heard the screaming and you woke up?" She said, "I'm so sorry . . ."
I shook my head, but she was squinting, knocking away steam again. I said, "I was already awake, Rose. It's nothing." I stood up, straightened my robe.
"I'm really sorry about that," she told me. "Oh, jeez. I was probably loud. But then Floyd just up and left, and that was that. But you heard that, probably."
I came into the kitchen to help. I asked Rose where the bowls were. She turned off the stove, and motioned toward the dirty counter. There was a half-opened bag of paper plates and bowls. There were some plastic spoons and forks, too. I found a ladle in the dish drain. She said, "You were already awake, though?"
I nodded, and scooped out a bowl of soup for Rose, a small bowl for me. I turned my spoon over in the soup, smelling it. I took a spoonful and blew it. Rose was leaning against the refrigerator, doing the same. She tasted it, and nodded. She said, "You couldn't sleep?"
"Well," I said, "Shane had some kind of nightmare around midnight. He was a little spooked, I'd say, and woke me up. So I was already up. I mean, I've been up since then."
"I guess it was a bad one," I told her, then tried the soup for myself. It tasted decent, a little bland. But the liquid was warm in my mouth and throat, then my chest and stomach. I said, "I made sure he got back to sleep. Then I couldn't sleep . . . can't sleep . . ."
Rose took another spoonful. She said, "Well, you should've woke him back up. Tell him you wanna sleep, too." Her cheeks were puffier, fatter when she smiled.
"Oh, no," I said. I said, "He's had trouble enough sleeping. I'm just glad when he can, you know?"
Rose acted like she understood every word. She said, "Plus, his nightmares, you said." Then she said, "I can't imagine a big guy like that with nightmares."
I shrugged my shoulders, suddenly feeling like I'd somehow said too much. It felt like I'd given away some kind of secrets, even though, Rose has told me all sorts of terrible things. Even though, I'd said very little. Then I said, "Nightmares," just to hear myself say it.
I hurried to finish my soup, thinking of Shane downstairs. I grinned when I thought of him snoring.
Shane used to fall asleep just before me and wake up just after, nothing bad in between. All night, he would stay in the same spot. His breaths were relaxing, calm. Back then, if I had trouble getting to sleep, I'd pull as close to him as I could. I could be behind him and hold on to him, or I could be in front, and he'd wrap me up.
Then I would sleep as well as he did. We'd have to set the alarm, or risk sleeping until noon. But that was early on. Soon we had problems. Around the same time, Shane had some problems at work. Cut backs. He had to settle for fewer hours. That didn't help matters, either. Things escalated. I had to take longer shifts, and Shane couldn't find anything better. He drank more beer and got fatter. He started having trouble sleeping, getting to sleep. Or, he'd wake up at funny hours. This went for me, too. That's when I picked back up my cigarette habit.
One midnight, when we were both wide-awake, we fought in the middle of my kitchen floor, sitting at the base of the stove. Who knows how we got down there.
That night it came out that Shane didn't like one of the cooks at the place where I waited tables. He thought something was going on between me and the cook. He told me so. Of course, there wasn't. But defending myself, I told him I was suspicious, too. Shane shook his head, folded his arms, leaned back on the stove. We went back and forth.
I said, "I'm tired."
"Tired of what?"
I said, "You don't have to be tired of something, Shane." I said, "I'm just tired. I'm sleepy."
It was dark in the kitchen. I could hardly see him, see any details of his face. His eyes were lost on me, and his mouth could've been his nose. And out of nowhere, there was a bang against the oven door. Smash, and some dishes fell of the counter. A plate bounced once, then broke into three fairly even pieces. A glass rolled off, too.
Shane had punched the stove, then his head was in my lap. I didn't have to time to react. He was crying. He said, "What's wrong?" And I couldn't answer. I was probably crying, too. The nightmares had started just days before, or just minutes after.
Now I stood there in Rose's kitchen, hoping Shane wasn't dreaming of anything horrible. That's as much as he'd ever told me about any of his nightmares. He'd mumbled and said, "It's just horrible, awful." Then I'd held him.
Rose tilted her bowl, sipping the rest. She wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. "Look at that," she said, tossing the bowl in a trash basket. She pointed out the window over the sink.
I looked and saw the black sky going soft. I knew exactly where the sun would be coming up.
"It'll be morning anytime," Rose said.
"Probably an hour," I said.
I heard my smoke detector the second I stepped out of Rose's apartment. I realized it was my smoke detector by the time I'd opened my own door. The thing made a honking noise, over and over. There was hardly a pause in the sound. Just the honks, repeated. Somehow, I was sure that there wasn't a fire in my apartment, that it was a false alarm. But I hustled to my bedroom, stepped on my clothes hamper, and punched the detector with the bottom of my fist. It went silent, and I looked at the bed. Shane was still snoring. He'd bundled himself, but hadn't shifted too much.
I checked for any floating, drifting smoke, but there was nothing. I went back to front door, locked it, gave myself time to smile about Shane sleeping through all the noise. I thought about another cigarette, but went back to the bedroom. For a few minutes, I sat on the bed, lightly scratching Shane's back. I left my robe on, let my legs dangle off the bed.
Shane coughed in the middle of a snore. He twisted, and there was this expression on his face like a smile. There was dribble in the corner of his mouth.
I don't know. I let myself wonder what Rose had wondered. How could Shane be scared of anything? Of a silly dream? He was so big. Then, I thought of how I'd never been scared of Shane. Even though I was so small next to him. Even when he put a dent in the stove, I'd known I was safe.
And maybe that explained it. Explained how he could be scared of something in a dream. Something I can hardly put my finger on. Something Rose would never understand, because Lord knows what that woman's scared of.
Upstairs, she was back to her pacing.
After it was lighter outside than it was dark, and just before I went to fix my coffee and take my shower, that damn smoke detector sounded again. I'd started drifting, and the honking gave me a startle. But I got to it quick enough. Shane stayed under.
I couldn't decide between a hot shower, or just a warm shower. I gathered my work clothes and hung them on the bathroom door. I took my coffee, then decided on something closer to a warm shower. The bathroom light wasn't as bright as the lights in Rose's place, but I kept my eyes closed for as long as the water rushed against my skin, rolled down my shape. The faucet made an awful, muted screech when I turned it off. I kept my eyes closed as I toweled dry.
I brushed my teeth, used mouthwash. I shut the bathroom door when I used the hairdryer, then opened it to let out some of the steam still hanging around. I pulled on my khakis, a bra and undershirt. My mirror kept fogging as I put on my make-up.
At one point, I placed my make-up kit on the toilet, near the half-finished cigarette and plate I'd forgotten about. Then I took a washcloth and wiped down the mirror again. I turned and sucked in my stomach and looked at my side, my backside. My breasts. I gave the mirror a big, toothy grin, then sucked at my cheeks. Then I turned of the bathroom light.
It wasn't the same as earlier. There weren't as many shadows. There were hardly any.
I jumped when I saw Shane standing into the doorway. I said, "Jesus Christ!"
Shane was hunched over, rubbing his big sleepy eyes. He was quiet and still, but he seemed enormous. Long and heavy. Wide, too. Like he could block any doorway, any exit. I'd never seen him so massive.
But I recognized the look on his face. His bottom lip was pinched under his top row of teeth. His chin was quivering. He cheeks were pale and sticky. And there were his sleepy eyes. Big, sad eyes. Or, terrified. I wondered how he'd see these parts of himself if he stared at my bathroom mirror.
I said, "Honey." And I stepped closer, touching his thick middle. I said, "It's fine. You're awake now."
He shook his head. He looked at me, and the rest of the bathroom, like it was brand new. I'm sure he could see the daylight past the small window. I'm sure he could smell the soaps I'd just used. But his whole body shook. He took up the entire doorway, terrified.
He said, "What is this?" Then he told me, "It was awful. It's so bad."
Copyright©2003 Josh Capps