THE MAN ON THE STAIRS
It was a tiny sound but it woke me up because it was a human sound. I held my breath and it happened again, then again; it was footsteps on the stairs. I tried to whisper, There’s someone coming up the stairs, but my breath was cowering, I couldn’t shape it. I squeezed Kevin’s wrist in pulsing units, three pulses, then two pulses, then three pulses. I was trying to invent a physical language that could enter his sleep. But after a while I realized I wasn’t even squeezing his wrist, I was just pulsing the air.That’s how scared I was; I was squeezing air. And still the sound continued, the man coming up the stairs. He was walking up in the slowest possible way. He had all the time in the world for this, my god did he have time. I have never taken such care with anything. That is my problem with life, I just rush through it, like I’m being chased. Even things whose whole point is slowness, like drinking relaxing tea.When I drink relaxing tea I suck it down like I’m in a contest for who can drink relaxing tea the quickest. Or if I’m in a hot tub with some other people and we’re all looking up at the stars, I’ll be the first to say It’s so beautiful here. I only say it because I know it has to be said and I’m trying to hurry the experience along. The sooner you say It’s so beautiful here the quicker you can say Wow, I’m getting overheated.
The man on the stairs was the total opposite of me, his thing was How long can I make this last? He was taking so long that I would forget the danger for whole moments at a time, and almost slip back in to sleep, only to be woken up by him shifting his weight. I was going to die and it was taking so long. I stopped trying to wake Kevin up because I was worried that he would make some sound upon waking, like he might say What. Or What honey.The man on the stairs would hear this and know how vulnerable we were. He would know my boyfriend called me Honey. He might even hear my boyfriend’s slight annoyance, his exhaustion after our fight last night.We both fantasize about other people when we’re having sex, but he likes to tell me who the other people are, and I don’t.Why should I? It’s my own private business. It’s not my fault that he gets off on having me know. He likes to report it the second after he cums, like a cat presenting the gift of a dead bird. I never asked for it.
I didn’t want the man on the stairs knowing these things about us. But he would know.The second he threw on the lights and pulled out his gun, or his knife, or his rope, or his heavy rock, the second he held the gun at my head, or the knife at my heart or the rope around my neck or the heavy rock over my chest, he would know. He would see it in my boyfriend’s eyes: You can have her, just let me live. And in my eyes he would see the words: I never really knew true love. Would he empathize with us? Does he know what it’s like? Most people do. You always feel like you are the only one in the world, like everyone else is just crazy for each other, but it’s not true. Generally, people don’t like each other very much. And that goes for friends too. Sometimes I lay in bed trying to decide which of my friends I really care about and I always come to the same conclusion: None of them. I thought these were just my starter friends and the real ones would come along later. But no.These are my real friends. They are people with jobs in their field of interest. My oldest friend, Marilyn, loves to sing and she is head of enrollment at a prestigious music school. It’s a good job, but not as good as just opening your mouth and singing. La. I always thought I would be friends with a professional singer. A jazz singer. A best friend who is a jazz singer and a reckless but safe driver. That is more what I pictured for myself. I also imagined friends who adored me.These friends think I’m a drag. I fantasize about starting over and eliminating the thin film of dragginess that hangs over me. I think I have a handle on it now. There are three main things that make me a drag:
I never return phone calls.
I am falsely modest.
I have a disproportionate amount of guilt about these two
things and it is unpleasant to be around.
It wouldn’t be so hard to return calls and be more genuinely modest, but it’s too late for these friends. They wouldn’t be able to see that I’m not a drag any more. I need clean new people who associate me with fun.This is my number two problem: I am never satisfied with what I have. It goes hand in hand with my number one problem: rushing. Maybe they aren’t so much hand in hand, as two hands of the same beast. Maybe they are my hands; I am the beast.
I had a crush on Kevin for thirteen years before he finally started liking me back. He wasn’t interested at first because I was a child. I was twelve and he was twenty-five.Then after I turned eighteen it took him seven more years to think of me as a real adult, not his student anymore. On our first date I wore a dress that I had bought when I was seventeen especially for this occasion. It was out of style but I’m superstitious so I wore it. On the way to the restaurant we stopped at a gas station. I sat in the car and watched a teenage boy clean the windshield while Kevin pumped the gas. The boy used the squeegee with a kind precision that made you know that this wasn’t just his field of interest, this was exactly it, this was all he had ever wanted to do. La. As we pulled out of the gas station I stared through my perfect, clean window at the teenager and I thought: I should be with him.
The man on the stairs pauses for such incredibly long periods of time I almost wonder if he is having a problem. Like maybe he’s disabled, or very old. Or maybe just really tired. Maybe he’s already killed everyone else on the block and now he’s all worn out. In moments I can almost see him, leaning against the banister, his eyes swimming in the darkness. My eyes are open too. Kevin’s eyes are shut, he is so far away and he always will be. The silent pause stretches longer and longer and gradually I wonder if the man is there at all. The only sound is Kevin breathing. What if I spend the rest of my life in this bed, listening to Kevin breathe. But lo. A strong and certain creak issues from the stairwell and what I feel is thrilling relief. He is really there, he is on the stairs, and he is coming closer in his own breathtakingly slow way. If I lived to see daylight I would never forget this lesson in care. He was putting more care in to hunting me than I had ever put into anything in my life. And it was worth it, because he had earned my admiration. I don’t think anyone has ever admired me the way I admired him. What if I were to spend this much time listening to Marilyn, what would happen? Maybe she would adore me and then I would respect her and we would both become professional jazz singers or at least reckless but safe drivers. Maybe. Maybe the man on the stairs would come in our car with us and when he looked scared by our reckless driving I would hold his head close to my lips and whisper: It’s safer than walking.
I opened the covers and stepped out of bed. I was only wearing a tee shirt and I didn’t put on pants because who cares. Maybe he would be halfnaked too; maybe he would be headless and covered in blood. I stood in the doorway of the stairwell, on the top step. It was darker there than in the bedroom, and I could see nothing. I stood and waited to die or for my eyes to adjust, whichever came first. Before I could see anything, I could hear him breathing. He was right in front of me. I leaned forward into the darkness; I could feel his breath. Our faces were almost together. I could smell his sourness. It wasn’t good, he wasn’t good, he did not have good intentions. I stood there, and he stood there, and he breathed out the bitter air that makes women doubt everything, and I breathed it in.And I expelled my dust, the powder of everything I had destroyed with doubt, and he pulled it in to his lungs. My eyes were adjusting and I saw a man, an ordinary man, a stranger. We were staring into each other’s eyes and suddenly I felt angry. Go away, I whispered. Get out. Get out of my house.
After we pulled out of the gas station, we drove to a restaurant that Kevin thought I might like. But I was still thinking about the boy with the squeegee and I systematically did the opposite of everything that Kevin wanted. I didn’t order desert or wine, just a little salad, which I complained about. But he did not give up; he made jokes, ridiculous jokes in the car on the way back to my apartment. I steeled myself against laughter; I would rather die than laugh. I didn’t laugh, I did not laugh. But I died; I did die.