My apartment is the size of a medium elephant. Clothes are stacked on a rack that’s too small. Books are scattered on the floor, flipped open and discarded like condom wrappers.
My neighbor’s window is a meter from mine. I haven’t met her but I know she is a heroin addict because she screams at night.
“What is it?” I whisper outside my window. “Why are you in such pain?”
“Ahhhhh!” she screams, softer this time.
She dips her arms out the window slowly and they are like a skeleton’s, bleach white and hairless and skinny. There are big bruises around the joints and a large, open sore that erupts like a volcano. I gulp and shiver and back away to the wall. She giggles and beckons me slowly.
“Come here,” she says, motioning with three fingers like she’s casting a spell. “I want to tell you something.”
I inch towards the window, taking a wooden spoon from the small, angular kitchen that I wield like a knife.
“I’m listening,” I whisper quickly to the arms.
“You’re a nice boy,” she rasps.
She’s buttering me up, trying to get me to stick my parts out the window. But I won’t. I slowly begin to fold the window shut.
“Stop,” she whispers, “come back.” Her arms are shaking like poisoned things.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur between the crack before the window shuts. “I can’t help you.”
“No,” she gasps.
The window is closed and I draw the curtains. I hear her scream then, but I put my thumbs in my ears and hum myself to sleep.
As in many Parisian apartments, we share a toilet. Her puke is discordant colors – evil things that we’re unaware of from some deep recesses of our guts. She never cleans it up, so I have to mop it with a sponge that I throw away after. The trip from my apartment to the toilet is never an easy one. I’m so afraid to meet her there, where she may be hidden in some dark corner with her heroin needles. I bring things in the hallway to protect me, wooden spoons or flashlights. I tiptoe and make little noise.
As I get older, I have to piss more and more often. I spend half of the day upright, holding my dick. It’s a sudden urge that hits punctually in the morning hours, between four and five a.m. This particular morning, a Thursday, is pretty awful; I run out the door, grabbing the keys off the bookcase, and rush to the toilet, dick clutched firmly in right fist. I take my keys whenever I leave the apartment, even just to the bathroom, because my fear is so great that, one of these mornings, I’ll be locked out on the landing in my pajamas, becoming, in one quick, casual error, a derelict sleeping on the metro vents like a steamy corpse.
I apologize when I open the shared bathroom door and find my neighbor’s body, strung up to the water basin, swinging to and fro. Her tippy toes are treading the toilet’s edge. I stay in the jamb and gaze at her gaunt face, her flower-print skirt, which is running up her thighs, displaying her bright pink panties. I fold the skirt down and walk back to my apartment, pissing in the sink while I call the police.
I sit cross-legged, facing her, waiting for the police to show. I roll a cigarette and begin to sketch her face in the back pages of a book of poetry, thinking it will help my testimony and help the police in their investigation. At some point I’m unable to see her profile so I twist her head, so she’s looking directly at me through her closed eyes. I apologize to her when I touch her. Her skin is soft and unblemished.
I finish my sketch when I hear the booted steps rising up the narrow staircase. The officer is dark-skinned and thin and walks directly to the toilet as if I’m not even there, holding some pretty important evidence that could help him in his case. He lifts my neighbor’s head up by her hair, stretching her eyelids open, and then letting it drop, ringing against the toilet pipes.
“Did you touch the body?” he asks.
“Of course not,” I say, handing him the book of poetry.
He takes a look inside the book and begins citing verse:
“Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view / Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause / Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State, / Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off.”
He folds the book shut and looks at me with pity.
“It doesn’t rhyme,” he says.
“I sketched the victim,” I tell him, flipping the book open to the back pages.
“Yes,” he says, studying the picture. “Yes,” he says again, slipping the book of poetry in his interior coat pocket.
He offers me a cigarette, but I say it’s okay, that I have my own. So we smoke together in the hallway, in front of my neighbor, the heroin addict, like two old chums from school.
Jovan Popov-Albertson is a writer and translator. He is doing his MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa.His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Yellow Chair Review, Barrelhouse and Paris Lit Up. He lives in an attic in Iowa City and probably always will.
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