Saturday, October 01, 2005
Friday night. The sharp, sweet smell of beer in elevators. Charlie Parker playing Love for Sale. All across this city tonight, people are either doing laundry or getting immaculately drunk. When their paths cross, in passageways or on staircases, they stare at each other like the sentries of two warring armies. The hour is a checkpost. The hour demands that they acknowledge each other's presence, but they do so suspiciously, almost with contempt. Standing a little away from each other.
The girl at the elevator has been out dancing. You can smell it on her, a scent of perfume and cigarette smoke. She has come home early, and alone, and is already regretting it. The autumn cold is a violation. She clutches the shawl over her too thin dress, over her exposed and delicate shoulders. Her legs tremble. She has left the dance but the dance has not left her. She is restless. She has had a few more than she should. Her movements have the clumsy inevitability of slow motion replays. She glances at me, takes in my two day stubble, the laundry bag slung over my shoulder - I look like a cut-rate Santa Claus. She looks away.
She is beautiful.
When the lift comes, I hold the door for her, she presses the button for her floor, asks me for mine. I look at the panel and realise we're going to the same floor. It takes a minute to explain this to her. I feel foolish and a little annoyed. What am I doing at one in the morning trying to explain to a woman that she's already pressed the floor I want - yes, I know it's her floor, but it's mine too - when I could be lying happily on my bed listening to the Bird? Who is this woman anyway? I've never seen her before. I notice the redness around the edges of her eyes. Alcohol or tears? How can one tell?
Later, as I walk down the long corridor that leads to my room, I can hear her behind me, fumbling with her keys, cursing. She is trying to unlock her door but her fingers will not obey her, will not stay steady. She is too drunk. I wonder if I should go back and help her. Better not. She might take it the wrong way. Think I'm trying to force my way in or something. She could scream, make a fuss. What concern of mine is it anyway? Her own bloody fault for getting so smashed.
As I get to my door and take out my key she is starting to cry with frustration. She is slumped against the door now, as if by leaning against it she might convince it of her sincerity. Her hands are still groping at the lock, but she knows it is no use. If she were to look up now, if she were to call to me and ask me to help, I could let her in in an instant. Unlocking my own door, I watch her out of the corner of my eye - keeping her in sight until the very last minute when the door closes behind me and she and the sound of her whimpering are shut out forever.
Or are they? As I put my clothes away, I imagine her sitting out there in the cold, slumped in her own doorway, an easy prey for any sadness that happens to pass by. I imagine myself going out again, walking over to her, taking her arm to help her up. Then tomorrow, or the next day perhaps, we could meet for coffee. Who knows where it could lead.
But what am I thinking of? I don't even know the woman. For all I know she doesn't even live here - maybe that's why her key won't work. What is she to me or I to her except that the lateness of the hour has made us accomplices against our better judgement? Yet somehow the thought of her out there focusses me, in a way that only hatred could do. Or sympathy. (And are they not the same thing, after all? Every time you point at someone in pity, three fingers point back at you.) Her distress bothers me. I want to put an end to it - whether I do it by helping her or destroying her is irrelevant.
I fold my thoughts up neatly, put them away in a drawer. Charlie Parker is playing Night and Day. The weather forecast says it will be down to the 40s tomorrow. Someone could fall seriously ill in that kind of cold. Someone who wasn't prepared for it. Like that girl out there, for example.
Fifteen minutes later I can't take it any longer. I step out into the corridor, but she is gone. Either she managed to get the door open at last, or someone else came and helped her. Maybe both. I should have come out earlier. As I turn to go back to my room, I realise I have let the door slam shut behind me and I don't have my key. I, too, am locked out.