"You are the opposite of a stalker."
It was the first really nice day of spring. You know the kind of day, the one where you want to unzip your jacket for the first time and feel the cold air upon your chest. The sort when you think maybe you won’t need the stocking cap and the gloves and the scarf and the thermal socks again, even though you know you probably will. Anyway, just because you relish the possibility, you go back into the closet and find your Fall-and-Spring coat, your transition coat, your interstitial coat.
You put it on and zip it up about three-quarters of the way and then step outside and it’s colder than you thought it was going to be, so you jam your hands into the shallow pockets of the coat.
And that’s where you find it. It’s a photo of the two of you — you and her — laughing at a party, holding beers. Her brown hair is shiny and thick. You’re touching — the two of you — not a lot but a little at the elbow and upper arm and you can feel it now. Still.
Seeing it also makes you want to throw up. Makes it hard to breathe. You want to drop the photo, but you can’t.
There’s a pumpkin in the background and that makes sense because the photo was in the pocket of your Fall-and-Spring coat. Inside its frame, she’s wearing the leather coat she didn’t take off at parties. It also had to be about that time of year because you had already gone through the pockets of your winter coat and removed every reminder of her.
And now, this. Now, this.
You haven’t been doing much since it had all happened. You work at night, so your days have been spent watching television — old reruns like Dragnet and Zorro —and eating tuna fish and Kraft dinners.
Even though you won’t admit it, you try to avoid seeing her. You know where she works, where she goes for lunch and where she shops. You know the roads she uses and where she might be driving or — worse — walking and you avoid those arteries, taking the long ways and the short cuts to avoid being on a thoroughfare of heartbreak.
You are the opposite of a stalker.
And that’s what you are supposed to do, right? Mind your own business. Respect her wishes. Let her be.
You are doing that.
You haven’t dated much. Some friends tried to fix you up at first, tried to invite you to parties when their cousins from Shaker Heights were visiting or when that new waitress at the restaurant across the street was available after she broke up with a guy who was a jerk and said you’d be a nice change of pace.
You go, you meet them, you say hello, you’re polite, but you find that it’s pretty easy to softly sabotage this kind of thing by just not trying very hard. A little, but not very hard. It wasn’t difficult to make sure nothing happened.
Holding the picture is making you feel different.
You start to walk. You are still avoiding the critical arteries, but you walk along the eastern edge of the neighborhood, which is all wind and flatness. You honestly don’t know where you are going. You are just enjoying being outdoors.
You turn and walk along the northern edge, right past the town cemetery, and then you find yourself out past the Applebee’s (which used to be a Roy Rogers).
You can see her apartment. It’s on the second story of a building with maybe a dozen different units. You walk in that direction — you were headed that way anyway — and pretty soon you are about a hundred feet away, walking in a small warren of similar-sized buildings.
People are out and about, but you are unknown to anyone aside from her and her roommates.
Hiding in plain sight, you walk down the sidewalk on the far side of the parking lot by the building. You can see the curtains — lacy with little red flowers, purchased at a garage sale by her Mom back where they lived, which wasn’t here. You remember what they look like from the other side.
You walk by and then you realize it isn’t right. What would you say if you were seen? It would be embarrassing. You have no reason to be over there — though you are just walking on a public sidewalk — and she’d wonder why. Or know why, even if it was jumping to a conclusion.
An idea pops into your head.
You could tell her you have a new girlfriend and she lives in the area and you were just visiting her and are now heading back to town. At this hour, she might even think you spent the night. You could show her: you had moved on. Let her see that.
You realize it would be the kind of move people might make as some kind of desperate Hail Mary about two-thirds of the way through a rom-com.
The idea of this does not make you feel good for some reason.
So, you walk away — the long way — around the back of the Catholic Church. You get into a river of humans — women wearing ear muffs to keep their hair right and men without hats at all and everyone with a backpack or a messenger’s satchel and no one talking. — and you feel better inside all the bodies jostling their way along the road.
You don’t really remember how but you end up at work and you work the night shift: sous chef at a tapas place. Lots of slicing. And you have to make the quince jelly, which is something they had to teach you to do.
It’s a long shift. The kitchen is always crazy, and it is good because you don’t have time to reflect on anything because you are busy slicing figs. But when the shift ends, and you head outside — it is much colder now, and you wish you had your heavy coat with you — it is like everything is just dumped back onto you, like all the demons come scrambling through the doorway back to you. Your demons like attention — that much has always been clear to you.
You walk back toward her place again. It isn’t like before, when you were a human Ouija just wandering and ended up at her building. Now, you are moving with some compulsion. You can do nothing but go there.
When you get there, all is quiet. It’s after one in the morning and the building is dark, every single unit. You walk along the sidewalk and you can see that her room is also dark and quiet. No TV glow, no reading lamp. It made sense. She was never the late-night type.
You walk up to the building. The hallways are lit. The outside doors are not locked, never were, and you walk up and put your hand on the big metal handle that is cold with the night and pull it open.
The first thing you notice is the smell. The first thing you know is the smell. It brings back so much to you: nights after dates when you climbed the stairs, your hands softly in the small of her back guiding her to make sure she didn’t run away or so she didn’t forget you were there and why you were heading home and because you could and it felt good on your hand and radiated up your arm.
The smell is impossible to pick apart. It’s warm and musty and smells like under-washed carpet and the purple aggregate of everyone’s dinner and late-night tea and cigarette smoke and maybe some lint from the dryer that was running before a tenant went to bed.
It smells like life.
You walk up the stairs. The handrail is thin and metal, and it is connected to their stairs by twisty spindles. You walk softly up the stairs. You know one of the steps squeaks, and you step over it. But, really, who would notice? People were going through all the time. Who could tell when someone might be coming home late or leaving early?
Her apartment was at the top of the stairs just to the left. Number 8. You look at the number on the door, which had always hung a little crooked. It still did. There’s a shamrock sticker on the door. You think that maybe they had a St. Patrick’s party. You listen. You listen hard. No sound comes from behind her door.
You remember the first time you came to pick her up. Gelatinous with nerves, you knocked on the door. She didn’t answer, her roommate did, but you remember walking through the door to wait while she finished getting ready. You remember her wearing a knee-high denim skirt and two-inch heels and a yellow sweater with her thick and shiny brown hair.
And, standing there, you remember every time you entered that door the way a mystic might remember all his previous lives in a glorious instant.
You don’t know why, but you pull the picture from your pocket. You look at it again. You and her — happy — with a pumpkin. And you get an idea.
You could just slide the picture under the door. Maybe you could write a note on the back. Hey, thought of you when I saw this picture. Thought maybe you’d want to keep it as . . . as what? A reminder? A keepsake? A memento? A souvenir?
Which brought up a question: had she kept anything from you? Had she stowed anything away, even deep in a drawer, next to that denim skirt, that might someday remind her of the time you spent together?
The question, even unanswered, makes you profoundly sad.
When you first found the photo, you thought that getting rid of it would give you a sense of freedom, liberation, empowerment even. It would be a symbolic completion of what you thought you’d already done, before you saw that wayward, leftover photo in the pocket of your interstitial coat.
The more you think about it, though, the more it makes your pocket feel empty. You could put other things into the pocket if physical emptiness was the issue — maybe a journal or a sketchpad — but you know they would feel foreign, like things that didn’t belong there, and you’d still feel the loss.
You put the picture into your pocket and walk back down the stairs and onto the street. It’s even colder now, and you really wish you had your warmer coat.
B. J. Fischer has been published in PIF Magazine, The View From Here, the Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Blue Lake Review. His essays have appeared in The Fiddleback, Ardor, The (Toledo) Blade, the Bygone Bureau, Punchnel’s, Thought Catalog, Impose Magazine, the Minneapolis Review of Baseball, midmajority.com, and Ontologica.
Michelle Brooks’ work has been published or is forthcoming in Threepenny Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge and elsewhere. Her poetry collection, Make Yourself Small, was published by Backwaters Press, and her novella, Dead Girl, Live Boy, was published by Storylandia Press.