Kara Janeczko

Kept awake by a mouse rearranging its furniture within her walls, Lorraine called Simon in the middle of the night. “It’s reckless,” she told him, “how you throw around love.” She told him everything she’d been thinking and feeling; that his love felt shallow, light, easily shucked, that she was disappointed in him, that it was about working things out, pushing through hard times, making it last. She lay in bed and let the cat rub its chin against the phone.

“You’re degrading my feelings,” Simon told her. He told her he didn't know what to do or what to say. He told her he wished he could make her feel better. He asked her what she expected. He said he needed to focus on his art. There was a long pause. “It hurts to talk,” he said. She kept quiet, and the mouse in the wall, as if eavesdropping, stopped still. Simon continued, earnestly telling her that while cooking, he had plucked a potato out of a pot of boiling water, blown on it a few times and chucked it into his mouth. He swallowed. Simon burned his esophagus and now it hurt to eat.

“Brilliant,” she said, wondering how he had managed not to choke to death long enough to have a relationship.

“I’m more conscious about chewing my food now,” he told her, “but I feel like, God, is this really how long people chew?”

In the beginning, stalled in Manhattan traffic, Lorraine turned to Simon and told him she didn't have any expectations. This was a lie. He looked out the car window at the blinking yellow traffic light. She doubted him even as he said he loved her but she wanted, just as anyone wants anything, for it to be true, for it to be something she could be hopeful about, like a seed catalog or a tax return.

Lorraine made a list of reasons to let Simon go and thought about taping it to the telephone or the cat's collar, the life-saving message of a St. Bernard. It didn't matter how good the sex was, how lovely it was to see his head of wild curls descend hungrily toward her nether regions, how he always knew about art openings, and how he'd learned to cook Moroccan dishes. She had to counteract the positives and admit it, all that couscous gave her indigestion. He couldn't spell and always referred to her favorite book as American Pastorial. When driving he would accidentally change lanes when he looked at his watch. He made inane, unforgivable conversation about pop culture.

She resolved to remember that she was the one who taught him how to really have sex, and that at first his erections would wilt like an iris flower in the microwave. Never mind that she eventually described these erections to her friends as absolutely sculptural. She knew she needed to remind herself that aside from basic creature comforts (an extra hand to haul out garbage, a shoulder to carry the luggage) she would miss the penis and not its man.

The walls of 91 S. Hamilton were cheap, and everyone heard every trifling thing. One recent day, Lorraine was certain that she heard the fireman, her neighbor one floor below, having sex. That is, she heard the woman presumably with her neighbor grunting lustily. He was silent. Perhaps, Lorraine deduced, he was giving her head. Not long after, when Lorraine took a bath, she heard the television blasting.

Later when she went outside for a smoke, she heard a shrieking from the garbage. It was, she guessed, the sound of a puppy being ripped apart by a raven. She stood in the street looking across the alley, wondering how she could intercede in such evil. Eventually two large amorous rats loped over the sidewalk, nearly over her feet. The female (she presumed) still yelping as Lorraine stamped out her cigarette.

When Lorraine and Simon had sex she always wondered if the neighbors could hear. This thought made her feel as if her neighbors were in the room, their couches and blue-lit televisions lifting and melting through transparent ceilings, floors and walls, as if the entire building were within her apartment. In this momentary fantasy, it was clear that the neighbors were not holding scorecards or sweating over judging the gyrations. Just as she and Simon weren’t performing for anyone's gaze.

The Rules of Urban Living as Lorraine understood them: Inhabitants of the building lived together with the understanding they must ignore one another; all must concentrate more heavily on the TV, the boiling pot of potatoes, or the sweating person in front of them, exerting an important effort in the ignoring. Also, an equation of real estate and human nature necessarily involves loneliness and privacy, the coefficients of floor space and insulation.

In the first few weeks of their relationship, Lorraine took Simon to her cabin upstate. Being there made her feel “wanton,” so much so that she began using words such as “wanton,” until Simon asked her to please stop. The living room of the cabin participated in a mirage of the outdoors with picture windows that painted the walls with green light. The cushions of the frameless couch littered the floor, making a bed that slid apart as Lorraine and Simon moved closer together.

Awakened one morning by a robin that flew into the living room window, they began to have sleepy sex. Lorraine enjoyed herself, watching the glittering leaves. At one point while looking over Simon’s shoulder, she saw a man drive up, get out of his truck, look in, and deposit something on the doorstep. She froze. Simon was annoyed.

Lorraine convinced herself that it was someone she knew, the bug-eyed son of the dairy owner dropping off her order of skim milk and goat cheese, and that she and Simon had inadvertently blinded him with their display. She could not bring herself to continue until Simon tiptoed outside with a decorative brocade pillow covering his sculpture. He returned looking agitated, holding the newest and most up-to-date copy of the Yellow Pages.

The fireman who lived below Lorraine had a square red face and blonde hair that blended into his skin tone so acutely that his head looked like the tip of a match. When the walls were quiet and the silence of a rainy evening passed between them, he would tap tentatively on Lorraine’s door to ask if the fire radio in his apartment was too loud. “No,” she would say, clutching the door while the cat swirled at her ankles. She told him she had always lived in the city and was accustomed to night noises. She did hear it, of course, and it startled her awake regularly. She knew what she meant was that she was also accustomed to lying.

Lorraine saw the fireman in the street once, holding up an eggplant at a vegetable stall in Chinatown. They looked at each other for a long time, unsure of their connection. She thought at first that he was either someone from her office or someone she had slept with, and was embarrassed when his face turned out to be that of her neighbor. He rode a bike and wore a yellow slicker. She was shopping for mousetraps, and only upon seeing him realized that she was mumbling an imaginary argument with Simon wherein she was telling him, furiously, that he was a schmuck.

Lorraine did not own a television. Sometimes this fact made her feel lofty, as when people at work asked her if she had seen the latest episode of such and such, and she told them that she did not even own the device that would bring such and such into her apartment.

As a child she’d lived on a farm, with acres of sweet-smelling alfalfa to wander through and dewy horses to ride. However, if there were a statistician that took an accounting of her life, registering every mass-market French fry that passed between her lips, it would reveal that her childhood hours added up into days, even weeks, spent watching television. Such time, she knew, was irretrievable even by technology yet to be invented, and far exceeded the time she spent outdoors getting freckles or scraping her kneecaps.

Lorraine listened to the sound of the television coming from the fireman's apartment and stopped feeling so superior. In truth, Lorraine and the fireman were doing the same thing; that is, nothing. At least the fireman had the flashing light of the TV in front of him. Most evenings, she lay curled in bed digesting her frozen dinner, batting her cat out of her face and waiting for an appropriate hour to go to sleep. The fireman watched the news, although barely loud enough for her to benefit from by eavesdropping.

The fire radio felt more real than the news. One night Lorraine was awakened by an intruding bark of static followed by a metal-alloyed voice which announced that a 57-year-old woman was having difficulty breathing on the second floor of 23 Morgan Avenue. That was nearer to Lorraine than what she would see on television. More real. And yet, she rolled over and went back to sleep, the visceral details of chest pains and shortness of breath comfortably out of reach.

Voyeurism, that is, watching someone have sex or someone watching her have sex, was only interesting to Lorraine when she was not having sex, that is, only interesting when sitting across from someone else's boyfriend and hearing the topic discussed over dinner, or while on a ski lift, or during shopping in the produce section.

While having sex, the idea of someone watching seemed gaudy. While having sex there were noises that occurred that were curious; only acceptable under the pretense that the person she was having sex with was in love with her, and therefore did not notice or did not care about these sounds. It was even possible that the person enjoyed them.

Sex in Simon's apartment was annoying because his walls were not actually walls but plastic room dividers, on the other side of which was his roommate, Rachel, a dancer who smoked pot and sold expensive pants on Fifth Avenue. She never had sex, and the thought of bringing sex noises into the delicate morning light of the apartment seemed, to Lorraine, rude.

Sometimes the noises she heard in her own apartment all blended together and it was hard to tell who in the building was having sex and who was having dinner. Sometimes she thought she heard a woman downstairs with the fireman moaning, accidentally, as if the sound had slipped through the woman’s mouth, like gas. She could sometimes hear the fireman talking and laughing. Lorraine imagined his chapped lips slurping up spaghetti, sauce splashing on his cheek.

Perhaps the woman was not with the fireman at all. The miracle of pre-war pipes could have brought this woman's passion to Lorraine from another, more remote, apartment. This woman might have been alone or even with another woman. The fireman could have been by himself, looking at amateur naked photographs on his computer while listening nervously to the fire radio, waiting for the heat in his pants to become an emergency.

The last time Lorraine and Simon had sex the bed rocked and hit the heating pipes. She wondered if the pipes might burst and scald them both and if this news could somehow instantaneously broadcast itself on the fire radio. Simon had opened his mouth and she could see his scorched epiglottis at the back of his throat, reverberating silently. She imagined the mice in the walls cowering from the banging of the pipes and the fireman downstairs cupping a mug of tea to his chest, looking upwards with concern at his ceiling.

Lorraine screamed. The sound began as something sexual and absurd, like the noise a woman makes when arching her back awkwardly in DVD sex, but quickly turned into something else. Lorraine screamed as if the building was burning down and it was time to start saving the women and children first. The scream turned into a yell and she yelled at Simon for looking at her the way that he was, confused and alarmed, as if he wasn’t sure if he had hurt her or he would just like to shut her up.

The sound sustained itself, descending into a wail. Her eyes clamped shut and the noise coming from her own throat, like a nuclear blast, had blown from her consciousness the walls, Simon, her neighbor, the mice, and even her dissatisfaction.

When it was over—both the sex and the relationship—Lorraine walked Simon to the train for the last time. She returned to an empty apartment. She went to bed and did not move, her hands like anvils at her sides, the cat in a circle at her feet. She thought about Simon's burned tongue and his dumb jaws chewing. She thought about the fireman. She knew his bed was placed in the same spot in his apartment as hers, that he rode his bike to get groceries in the rain, that he sat listening to the fire radio for hours at a time without stirring.

Still, it was possible that he was not even a fireman at all, that she had made this leap from hearing the fire radio in his apartment and from observing the flushed color of his face. Sometimes when he came to her door he wore a navy shirt with a golden FDNY emblazoned upon it, but it might have been the kind bought from a vendor in the street. He was always in his apartment, never rushing around or stomping in and out in big boots or staying overnight at the station. He looked soft around the eyes, more like a man who collected model fire trucks than one who rode real ones. It occurred to her that perhaps he was just a man who liked to listen, as she did, to night noises.

Kara Janeczko has taught media literacy and video production in Poughkeepsie, NY and New Mexico. She received an MFA in creative writing from City College, where she now teaches. She lives in Harlem and is mastering making—and drinking—perfect cups of coffee. "The Rules of Urban Living" by Kara Janeczko is a storySouth Million Writers Award Finalist Story.

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