Alive in a Glass House by Gillian Walker

Alive in a Glass House

Dad visits for dinner on Tuesdays. I open the door and push aside the leaves of the potted fern he’s carrying. The leaves are deep green and spread out like an alien hand, casting shadows. My kiss leaves a merlot print on his cheek and I smudge my lipstick into his skin, leaving a blush.

Mostly, he talks about the old times, before the houses were made of glass. I listen and pour him water. He says people wore less makeup then and I run my nail along the arc of my cat’s eye eyeliner. It’s funny how he is so rooted in the past. Glass houses aren’t a legal requirement anymore; it’s social convention. You can’t trust anyone who lives behind brick walls, anything could happen inside.

But, for Dad, it’s easy to remember. He lives in the country, in an isolated valley, surrounded by trees. In my third-floor apartment, he sits at the kitchen table and glances anxiously at the threadbare carpet.

Dad shudders when Donald Peterson from No. 53 walks along the corridor, running his tongue across his curled lip, not even trying to disguise staring my way. Everyone who lives around him has complained, even Enid Franks in 63. Cataracts have taken her sight, but she says she can feel him watching. But the Tenants’ Association ruled Donald Peterson sleeps with one eye open. How do they know for sure? Everyone knows Donald Peterson is well connected on higher floors.

There are too many potted ferns for my apartment — Dad brings one every week — so I give them to my neighbours; the ones that live around Donald Peterson. Marie Simpson, the young mum in 52, says you have to be careful with ferns; something about their gaseous exchange, they’re not safe for babies. So she bought a bookcase instead and filled it with photographs.

Dad scrapes his fork across the plate, forcing channels in the left-over gravy that flood as soon as he sets down his fork.

“You should come and live with me.”

He’s been saying this since Ally left, and there’s comfort in the idea. I didn’t live with Dad growing up because Mum loved someone else. In my dreams, being with him is perfect. Dad doesn’t understand that I’m pleased Ally’s gone, even if I get more attention from Donald Peterson.

Ally knew how to smile while shouting and I learned to throw cups while making it appear I accidentally dropped them. That is how we live here, but it’s not how I live now. Ally’s two buildings over, ten glass walls away and there’s a French dresser, a Rothko print and a bathroom cabinet between us.

“Ally couldn’t stop people seeing me,” I say, “any more than you can. This place is no different from anywhere else.”

I think of Dad’s country house, ramshackle and hidden by trees. It’s enough that it’s my home if I want it. He gets up from the table and kisses my cheek, my makeup preventing his lips from touching my skin. “As long as you’re happy,” he says.

Our eyes meet and it goes unsaid that no one is happy; the best we can do is surround ourselves with enough objects to create privacy without being conspicuous. There are always gaps, nothing fits together.

I see Dad into the corridor. He waves as the lift descends. I close my door and draw the chain. In the bathroom, I take a cotton pad from the packet and wipe my eyes. The cat’s eye slips away. Black smears pattern the cotton and I take another pad. I wear fresh, lighter makeup at bedtime.

There’s a twitch to my side, the glint of light in an eye, a wizened, bloodshot green eye. Between my Chagall poster and towel rack, Donald Peterson is watching.

I turn my head hoping he’ll go, but I see the flash of light again. He’s close, spying from the corridor.

I want the loo. He’s watched me before, from the self-same spot.

What other choice do I have?

I imagine living with my dad. My room surrounded by ferns and bookcases that nobody can see, anyway. Dad would cook eggs and I’d let the runny yolk drip down my chin as I ate.

I pick up my packet of cotton pads and stalk out of the room, yank the chain from the clasp and open the door.

“Here,” I say, striding towards Donald Peterson. I take a cotton pad to my cheek where Dad’s lips had been and I smear the foundation revealing fresh skin below. “Is this what you want to see?”

Donald Peterson’s eyes widen. I take another pad and wipe the other cheek. My skin splutters under the direct exposure of the harsh communal lighting, glowing.

“You want more?”

I swipe across my lips, the thick red paste making the cotton pad look bloody. My lips are pale underneath, a weak echo of the merlot bow. I throw the makeup pad to the floor. The cotton drifts as it falls, and lands on Donald Peterson’s shoe. He shakes his leg, but the lipstick is sticky.

He looks at his shoe, and back to my face, streaked with bronzer, foundation and merlot lipstick, my skin pulsing beneath. Frantic, he shakes his leg to remove the stray cotton pad. His eyes are wide, darting, not seeing me at all.

He turns and runs.

At his apartment door, he fumbles with the keys. The door slams shut behind him and the corridor shakes. Marie Simpson from 52 can feel the vibrations and she looks up from nursing her baby on the sofa. Around me, the neighbours turn and stare.

Donald Peterson bends and peels the cotton pad from his shoe, crying for everyone to see.


Alive in a glass house


Gillian Walker is a fiction writer based in the UK. She was a finalist in the F(r)iction spring flash fiction competition 2017 and nominated for Vestal Review’s Best 17 stories. She is an associate editor for Vestal Review.


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Image: Lorie Shaull (Tom Fruin house)