The Next(6)

By: Rafe Haze

In the brownstone directly in front of my window on the second story lived The Princess. She would have her hair up tight in a bun when she’d come home from work, and then let her hair down in a long, flowing perfect, Pre-Raphaelite mane. Her studio apartment was small and shimmering in white, with a four-poster bed draped in sheer white gauze, perfectly placed oversized white pillows, and glimmers of silver combs and frames and knickknacks on her silver mirrored dressing table. I’d watched her tentatively date and tentatively retreat into the safety of her shiny white palace at least four times since she moved in. She’d spend a sad two months reading alone on her white quilt, retrench, and paint that smile back on again for the next round.

Above her, occupying the top two floors of the brownstone, lived the Perfects. He was a dashing forty-something man with salt and pepper hair and the kind of body that requires working out three hours a day every day. She was a stunningly gorgeous brunette. He had a propensity for suits that would be quite at home in any Condé Nast magazine, and she wore chic dresses Johanna used to recognize from Parisian ready-to-wear runway shows. In fact, Johanna was quite familiar with Mrs. Perfect, recognizing her as the president of some competing luxury women’s design company. Mrs. Perfect had a name fashion folks all knew, but I never registered it. They had two rambunctious children under ten years old and an enormous apartment straight out of Architectural Digest. The household was rarely still during the week: chasing the son to sit him down for homework hour, calming the daughter’s anxious crying fits, excited family pizza nights. The family would disappear on Friday nights, so I assumed they’d weekend in Connecticut or Bucks County or the Hamptons. Frequently Mr. Perfect would stay home and work on the weekend alone. I supposed he was a CEO or a partner of a firm.

When Johanna would come over, she would often first check to see if the Perfects were home, then close our curtains if they were. I assumed the reason was that she didn’t want word spreading in her world that she was dating a slob like me. Correction: she did not want to curtail her future employment possibilities through any embarrassing associations.

In the building on the right at the top lived the Beached Whale, an enormous multi-chinned lady in her forties who ate popcorn every night on her side, propped on her forearm, watching television, until she’d fall asleep and spill the popcorn on the floor. I don’t think I ever saw her go out in the evening. Not once.

Below her lived the Broadway Dancer, milk-white and smooth with zero body fat and abdominal definition I could distinctly see across the courtyard. He had the energy of a whippet on Red Bull. When he was in a show, I only saw him in the afternoons. When he wasn’t, he would spend his evenings unselfconsciously in his underwear on the dark brown love seat sofa with his laptop in his lap and the television on for hours on end.

On the courtyard level below the Broadway Dancer lived the Little Old Man. Not an inch on him was unwrinkled or undarkened with liver spots. His body had shrunken as his bones retracted from muscular neglect, and his diminutive appearance was exaggerated by a growing hunched posture caused by his looking down at the ground all the time. I’d no idea how he survived alone, but I’d never seen a nurse enter or leave his apartment. I’d never seen a family member or friend enter or leave his apartment. Except…

Once a month, an old, bald, black man with a white mustache appeared at his doorway and handed the old man a bag full of cans of beef and chicken soup and a Ziploc bag of weed in exchange for a couple bills taken from a Chock Full O’Nuts coffee can kept below the sink next to a plunger. The handover was followed by a dispassionate handshake, and the black man would disappear until the next month.

Apart from a slow shuffling traverse to the bathroom to pee twice a day or to the stove in the tiny kitchenette to heat a can of soup over a gas flame, the Little Old man spent almost his entire existence under a maroon sheet in his bed, propped up by sagging yellowed pillows that held his head aloft to watch television and light up a joint. He never closed his curtains; he’d lived too many years to give a flying fuck if any neighbor saw his sagging skin wearily clinging to his frail frame, let alone his skeletal ass or stretched grey testicles.

Back when the curtains were opened, I’d placed a pillow on the right corner of the center window to block my view of the Little Old Man’s apartment. He did not disgust me, but I was irritated each and every time I spied him alone in that bed biding time on soup and pot until the end. I was irritated that he forced me to feel a stew of sadness, apprehension, anger, and compassion each and every time he came into view. He was one of New York’s survivors to be sure, but what a fucking solitary and protracted trophy he placed on his mantle.

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