March 21st 2013: Tainted love
Neighbor
, by Samantha Stier

I lie with my head on his shoulder, my leg stretched over his thighs, my breasts pressed against his side. We’re both fully clothed and I can feel him breathing, even though it’s quiet and he doesn’t snore or anything. I can’t fall asleep because I’m worried that he’ll wake up. If he does wake up, he’ll leave. I keep my eyes closed and just feel him, warm beside me on the red cotton sheets my aunt bought for me after I gave my blue ones to the Hospice people so my grandmother could die on them.

This has been going on for months now. My neighbor—whose name I never say because I always call him “Neighbor”—sleeps in my bed and cuddles me and sometimes kisses my hair. His real name is Alexander, which doesn’t really suit him at all. He’s Neighbor. He doesn’t mind when I call him that.

I moved into the apartment five months ago. Me and my good friend now roommate Tigger fell in love with the tiny place, which is right on the corner of 7th and Rose, two names we thought sounded beautiful together. It’s on the second floor, so when we look outside we see Bougainvillea and sometimes on clear days, Venice Beach, a glittering strip just a half a mile down the road.

Neighbor lives with two other guys in the apartment right across the hall. The space between our doors is only a couple feet.

We met Haverty the Actor first. His little brother Matty sleeps in the living room on a fold-out couch. Tigger and I were moving in and Haverty swung open the door and offered us a drink. We were tired and sweaty from moving boxes and Trader Joe’s bags full of my useless college textbooks, but we went inside.

Their apartment was a mirror of ours, but seemed smaller because it was cluttered with furniture. A threadbare dark blue couch, swiveling office chair, two wooden trunks, a boxy television set, a shelf of video games and empty liquor bottles. In the corner a table was covered with cables, an iPod, weed paraphernalia, a dented black laptop, speakers, and a pair of boxers. There was a carpet on top of the carpeted floor. Nothing matched. No space was maximized.

Haverty poured us whiskey without asking. We crammed into the living room, which was also Matty’s bedroom. Haverty did all the talking. He’s a big guy with a bigger voice, long dark hair that he shakes when he laughs and smoothes with his hands. He downed glass after glass of whiskey like it was apple juice, his plump, acne-scarred cheeks getting pink and his voice getting louder, his grin aimed mostly at Tigger. Guys always like Tigger. She has long hair the color of white bread, a purple beanie she knit herself, and a half-smirk permanently on her face. She wears skinny jeans and calls everyone “fascist.”

Matty sat beside Haverty on the couch, a sullen teenager who turned out to be almost twenty-two years old. He was skinny and lost-looking, with eyes that had a lot of pain in them, you know what I mean—sad and guarded—and a huge lopsided tattoo across his chest that said “Love Life.” He was quiet, but then lit up like the bud in his pipe when he asked us if we wanted to smoke with him.

Neighbor came out of his room after a while and Haverty introduced him. He stood sort of halfway in the kitchen, apart from us, silent. I tried not to stare at him. He had this Texas-cowboy look, which I’m not usually into. Ripped jeans with a leather belt, some kind of pattern on the buckle, a black t-shirt. Not very tall, tan, rugged and unshaven, longish hair, a receding hairline. He looked young, but I’ve always been terrible at guessing ages, so I didn’t try.

I was starting to feel pretty buzzed from the whiskey and Matty’s weed, but I could tell Tigger wanted to leave. Haverty wasn’t exactly being subtle with her. She barely had a sip of her whiskey and just eyed Matty blankly when he offered her the pipe.

We said goodnight to them and Neighbor just nodded at us coolly.

 

I don’t think about Neighbor a whole lot for a few weeks after that. My grandmother’s sick, so I’m driving my grandfather to the hospital, picking up my mom from the airport, driving her to the hospital, holding my grandmother’s hand, which was always so elegant, but now is limp and dry and blue with veins, and smelling the acrid breath from her wheezing chest that fills the room.

A few days later they bring her home to die. My grandfather doesn’t want to see her because in his mind she is already dead. He stays in his bedroom with the door shut and nobody goes in there or even knocks to see if he wants food.

My mom stays on an air mattress in the living room next to her gurney and the loud oxygen machine. I don’t think she sleeps at all.

My grandmother drifts in limbo for two days, not alive, not dead. Barely breathing. I rub her shoulder and play gin rummy with my mom on the air mattress, making polite conversation with the interchangeable Hospice nurses. I go home at night to sleep.

She dies early Sunday morning. My mom calls. Her voice is cloudy but there’s some relief there, too, because it’s over.

There’s no funeral or anything, just a little memorial on the beach for the immediate family. We each bring something from her garden and say a few words. I bring a sprig of rosemary, a lemon, and a smooth white shell. At the beach I talk about how she used to take me swimming in the ocean and how scary it was, but she made me tough, and now her ashes are in the ocean, and so basically she is the ocean. It makes sense to me, but I’ve had a lot of wine. We throw shells into the waves. My mom is the only one who cries. My uncle scoffs at the whole thing. “This is ridiculous,” he says.

I go home afterward and watch a marathon of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A woman in a hospital is having a recurring nightmare in which she leaves her hospital bed and goes down to the morgue. Everyone in the old days drinks scotch and they look so glamorous. In the kitchen, I find a bottle of whiskey that one of Tigger’s friends left last weekend. I pour some over ice. I pretend I’m in the fifties and take a sip. I haven’t drunk whiskey since that night we were at the neighbors’ place. It’s strong. It makes me feel warm and spicy. In the episode I’m watching, the gentleman mixes a drink for the lady and puts soda water in it. That’s what I need, I think, but we don’t have any.

I’m feeling brave because of my grandmother and the waves, so I go next door and knock. Neighbor answers. Behind him I see Matty asleep on the fold-out.

“Do you have seltzer?” I ask him.

He doesn’t even look surprised. I think he’s the kind of person who’s hard to surprise.

“I might,” he says. He dips back into the apartment and leaves the door open but doesn’t invite me in. I go in anyway.

He’s in the kitchen, looking in the fridge.

“Nope. Sorry.” He shuts it.

I shrug.

“That whiskey?” he asks, nodding at my glass.

“Yeah.”

“‘Better straight.” He takes the glass from me and has a generous swallow. “Good stuff.”

“Maker’s Mark,” I say, sounding like I know my whiskey.

We go back to my place and I pour him a glass. I notice my hands and think of my grandmother’s hands, the gold ring on her finger. My mom says I have her hands. And her feet. Dainty. But now she doesn’t have hands, or feet.

He nods thanks and drinks. I press play and he sits beside me.

After a while, he says, “This is awesome.”

We end up staying up all night on the couch. We finish the whiskey and several more episodes. Then we talk.

He’s twenty-nine, seven years old than me, from Florida. He plays drums and he has two brothers who play guitar. I tell him my parents were in a rock band in the eighties. We talk about music. He’s impressed that I know the good stuff, me being so young and all. We throw on some Led Zeppelin. I get a blanket and cover us with it. We aren’t even touching but I can feel him, the heat on his skin. I’m drunk, more drunk than I’ve been in a long time.

When I wake up he’s gone and it’s already light out.

That was the first time he left.

 

I feel him stir, his chest lifting under my head. He’s going to wake up. He’s awake. I can tell. I keep my eyes shut. Maybe if he thinks I’m asleep, he’ll stay so he doesn’t wake me.

He pulls me close, his hands drawing together around my shoulders and I breathe him in. He kisses my forehead. His face is prickly with stubble.

“Hey,” he whispers, “I’m going next door.”

I keep my leg over him, trying to anchor him to my bed. I rub his chest with my hand, under the shirt, my fingers threading through his hair. I think how weird it is that we can do this and we haven’t even kissed.

“J,” he says, almost apologetic. He unlocks his fingers and props himself up. “See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” I say.

Then he’s sitting, then standing, then the door is opening and he’s going.

The next morning he comes over and we make smoothies. I forget to plug the blender in and Neighbor makes fun of me in a fake Irish accent. I laugh so hard I spill frozen blueberries all over the kitchen floor. I can’t remember if I ever laughed, really laughed, before I met Neighbor.

People keep asking if we’re dating. I don’t know what to tell them.

Tigger is incredulous when I tell her we still haven’t kissed. “What’s his deal?” she asks.

“It’s a little weird,” I agree. It’s not me who’s stopping us from kissing. It’s just not happening.

 

One night Neighbor and I sleep outside on the patio on a spare mattress. It’s cold and I hug him close to me. I put my lips right against his, graze his cheek, and he doesn’t kiss me. But he doesn’t move away. We fall asleep like that, our lips touching.

I’m burning to ask him why. But I don’t want to ruin this—whatever it is. I almost don’t want to know. I wake up every morning happy just because I get to see him. We eat breakfast together most mornings, then I go to work and he goes back across the hall to his apartment, where he works freelance editing videos and photos. Then he comes over as soon as I get home and we’ll walk to the beach or watch a movie. Mostly we drink though. He doesn’t have money so I usually buy it. Whiskey, sometimes rum. I prefer wine, but it’s taking a lot more to get me buzzed these days. We’ll go through a bottle of whiskey in a night, sometimes more than that. He’s Irish and Italian, and man can he hold his liquor.

He has this thing with skin cells. He hates it when people touch his food. Stuff like eating whipped cream or chocolate off a person, he can’t stand that. Makes him gag. So the other night we were eating hummus and chips and I put a big glob on my arm and told him to lick it off. He refused. I thrust my arm right under his mouth.

“Come on, get over it. Stop being a weirdo and lick my arm.”

He laughed. “I’m not gonna lick your arm, J.”

“Just do it.”

In the end he did do it, then made a face.

“J,” he said. “Why do we get along so well?”

I smiled into my whiskey.

 

We go food shopping together, like an old married couple, like my grandmother and grandfather used to. Neighbor gets very little on account of having no money. I buy enough food for us both. When we go home we cook stir-fry. We have a solid routine. I chop, he stirs, I boil water for rice, he spices. We’ve started cooking most of our meals together.

He doesn’t pay his phone bill and they turn off his phone. I offer to loan him money. He accepts, reluctantly. That night we drink red wine and watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He makes popcorn and throws it at me. I stuff handfuls in his mouth. We giggle like kids at a sleepover.

He has his arm around me and I lean against him. I’m so comfortable I fall asleep. I wake up when the movie’s over. My head’s in his lap, on a pillow, and I look up at him, into his cobalt eyes. He strokes my hair away from my forehead.

“You missed the whole movie,” he says. He flicks my forehead.

“I know. Let’s watch it again.”

He laughs. “I gotta go get some sleep.”

I don’t want him to leave. He doesn’t make a move to get up.

He keeps looking at me. He could just reach his face down… a couple inches… and kiss me. Why doesn’t he? I become aware that I’m staring at his lips, which are soft and drawn in a half-smile. One of his front teeth is longer than the other.

“You’re beautiful, J,” he says softly.

Then he’s moving my head off his lap, standing, and leaving.

 

I’m five years old and my grandmother is holding me over the water. Every time a wave comes toward us, I think it’s going to wash over me, fill my mouth and my nose with saltwater. But right as it comes, she lifts me up, up and over the wave. The spray smashes against my purple one-piece. We move further out into the water, and I think we’re much too deep. She can’t possibly lift me over this wave. But she does, and then we go even further. More waves come and she lifts me again. I cry out, but she murmurs, “It’s all okay, it’s all okay,” over and over. And the waves keep coming, and she lifts me over them, and I feel brave and exhilarated… I can do anything.

 

“Hey,” I say. “What is this?”

He’s driving my car. We’re on our way back from a party. I drank three mojitos and two glasses of wine and I’m feeling brave. Three different guys asked me if Neighbor and I were dating. Each time it took me a moment to remember that no, we weren’t, but when I said that it felt like a lie. Then they asked for my number and I couldn’t think of a reason not to give it to them.

“What?” he asks.

“This. I mean, do you like me or what?”

I look right at him, holding my ground. My grandmother would be so proud. Then I think how ridiculous that is, how this isn’t really brave at all. It just is. A conversation.

“Oh. Wow, okay. So you wanna talk about this?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

“Okayyy,” he says. He parallel parks the car so easily, and I know he’s had at least twice as much to drink as me.

We get out and walk. Neither one of us says anything, but we pass the doors to our apartments and it’s understood that we’re walking to the beach. I feel dizzy and a little shaky.

“J,” he says. “I think you’re amazing. I love hanging out with you. There’s a reason I’m always at your place: I like being with you. We get along so well. You’re funny, and you’re smart, and you’re super beautiful.”

I hate that that makes me feel good. Hate it.

“I don’t want to over-think this. I like ya a lot, but I’m not into labels, you know?”

“Okay.” We pass a homeless lady lying on the sidewalk in a blanket. I wonder how she ended up there.

“I can’t be a in a relationship right now. I’m broke, I’m unstable. I’m freaked out about commitment and all that.” He looks at me, affectionate or sympathetic, I can’t tell.

I don’t say anything. We’re almost at the beach. The water is black and as we get closer, I can see bioluminescence reflecting off the waves as they roll forward. It’s mysterious and tantalizing, like some exotic cocktail.

“J,” he whispers and puts his arm around me. Pulls me close to him. Breath against my cheek. “I care about you a lot. I don’t wanna hurt you.”

I stare at the neon blue in the white foam. What causes it? How is that even possible in nature? It’s like a CGI effect. It can’t be real.

“J?”

“Hm. Yeah.”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m going to get hurt I guess.”

“Everything we have is so great,” he says.

“It’s just… it’s weird, telling people you’re my neighbor. Are we just neighbors?”

“We’re obviously more than neighbors,” he says, quietly, right into my ear.

He hugs me. We stand like that for a long time, his arms wrapped around me. I think about how right it feels, how comfortable I am with him, wonder if maybe I’m falling in love with him.

When he finally pulls back, I feel cold. My feet are wedged in icy sand. My mouth is dry. I look at the ocean again. The waves keep coming, electric blue. I imagine my grandmother lifting me over each one. I think about her ashes, somewhere in there.

We go back home and fall asleep in my bed. A few hours later I wake up and he’s gone.

*

Samantha grew up in a small farm town in Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Venice Beach, California, which she likes much better. She writes novels and short stories and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. She loves the Beatles and film noir.


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2 responses to “March 21st 2013: Tainted love
Neighbor
, by Samantha Stier”

  1. Anonymous says:

    🙂

  2. Absolutely perfect, aching, reaching story. The characters spring to life, rush in on a wave, and then pull back like the ocean the author describes.

    Fantastic writing. This is a story that stays with you, that you revisit like an old friend….or a charismatic neighbor.


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