Nice To Have a Man Around the House

He showed up last Sunday morning, so I let him in. It wasn’t much past foggy dark when I looked out the kitchen window to my apartment’s tiny shelf of a balcony where I keep a few Wandering Jews, Rhododendrons, and Jade plants and saw a tall, dark shadow standing perfectly still. Sure, I was pretty surprised. I’m a couple stories up, so my first thought was, “How’d he get up here?” I had to hand it to him. I’d often wondered how I’d ever get out in case of fire, even though Mother bought me a chain-link ladder in a box that had two big hooks at the top for latching on to the lip of the balcony. I can barely lift it.

Mother had said, “The idea, Sheila, is: smell danger, take ladder out of box, throw it over the side of the balcony, climb down to safety.”

I keep it under the white wrought-iron violet stand. I think.

My apartment is smack in the middle of a long hallway of one-bedroom apartments in the fog bank of Daly City, about five miles south of San Francisco. You don’t usually move to Daly City unless you have kids or can’t afford the rents in San Francisco or, like me, are just tired of the Irish bars on Geary, ’70s retro clubs south of Market, and gay meat market/Motown discos. Sure, I’d like to meet a nice straight guy some time, think about dating, think about getting serious, but I’m thirty-two and it’s just not happening. I figure, why should I pay extra rent for the insult. I could live in the ‘burbs, drive in for nights out, and save some money. Mother was astonished at my good sense.

Mother said, “There’s no shame in living alone, but a man is certainly nice to have around the house.”

So naturally when I see this guy out on my balcony I figure, hey, he’s gone to a lot of trouble, why keep the door locked. So I let him in.

At first he didn’t want to come in. He just sort of stood out there, the fog billowing up around him, wisps catching in his hair, on his shoulders. I don’t usually keep the balcony door open too long in the morning. It just gets too cold. It’s great for my plants, though. I’ve never been able to make a spider plant have babies, but after six months in Daly City, I had little baby spiders everywhere. I’d transplant them, and the transplants would sprout babies. Every available space in my living room was covered with something green or flowering. I liked it that way – seemed easier to breathe with them around. In the city, for some reason, all my plants died.

But I left the balcony door open anyway, sat down in my white wicker chair with a cup of coffee, and read the Sunday paper. I thought maybe he was shy around women, so I just pretended like whatever he wanted to do was OK with me.

Well, I’d just about gotten through the book review section, and I looked up at him. He hadn’t moved a muscle. I put down my coffee and walked over to him. He did look a little familiar: strong jaw line, dark eyes, hair a little shaggy but nice in a not-blow-dried sort of way. I put my hand on his shoulder and helped him inside. Even if it was a little weird, sooner or later somebody would see him out there and make a fuss. He came in willingly enough.

I sat down in my favorite chair, the one with the direct angle to the TV, and waited to see if he would join me. He didn’t seem to want to speak much, so I let him take his own time about it.

I decided this would be a lesson for me. Whenever I’d meet a man, I usually would talk too much, push too hard, question him constantly, especially about his past girlfriends – you have to do that nowadays, you know. And they never like to talk much up front. Usually you’re finishing your third or fourth drink somewhere after work and suddenly there’s this guy beside you, his arm around you, no talking at all. Next thing you know, you’re in his back seat out in the parking lot and there’s a lot more no talking.

I finished my coffee and decided to take a shower. I realized I was still in my PJs – the ones Mother gave me with blue sheep and white clouds. Well, I thought, he doesn’t mind that I’m not dressed to kill, that’s sort of nice. I wondered if he liked me a little, like maybe he’d seen me somewhere before and followed me home, or if it had been a random type of thing.

I told him to make himself at home, that I’d just be in the next room. He seemed agreeable to that. I walked back over to the balcony and shut the door. No reason to go back out that way. If he wanted to leave, he’d just have to use the front door like everybody else.

When I got into the shower, I left the bathroom door ajar. I didn’t know why, but I felt I could trust him, and I wanted to hear if he walked out. Somewhere in the middle of shampooing my hair I thought how ironic it was, having spent so many nights in bars and dance clubs, looking at every face that walked in to see if they looked back with that sudden recognition of are you somebody I could be with? that this guy just shows up on my balcony, and on a Sunday no less. He had good timing, whoever he was. I hadn’t been looking, really, not for a couple weeks or so at least. I thought I could like him. He seemed nice. I thought I might even be serious about this one.

I didn’t leave the apartment that whole first day. He refused to tell me his name or where he was from, and I didn’t want to wreck things, so I just took care of business around the apartment, did the dishes, watered the plants, vacuumed the carpet. If I disappeared into the bedroom for a minute or two, putting my shoes away or something, I was always glad to see him again when I got back. He was so consistent, and I liked that. I liked that a lot.

Usually on Sundays, I do my laundry, but to do that I would have had to go down into the basement, and after a few hours I was still not sure if he’d be there when I got back, so I put it off. I brought the basket into the living room and made a big fuss about piling in clothes and bath towels and kitchen towels. Eventually, I’d piled in every stitch of clothes I owned, so, rather than look like a total fool, I announced I was going down to do the laundry. I left the TV on for him — on ESPN so he could watch sports. I didn’t know which sports he liked best. He was hard to read that way. But he didn’t complain, so I left it there, hoping the sports would keep him around.

The whole time I was in the basement I thought for sure he’d be gone by the time I got back. I thought, how stupid can a girl be? He’s going to go through your jewelry, your wallet, maybe steal your VCR, your grandmother’s silver service. He’ll be long gone by the time you get back, and your apartment will only be full of his absence and minus a few of your favorite things. Just like the time that drummer stole your father’s garnet ring. What was his band’s name, oh yeah, The Lifers. It wasn’t like you had much from your father in the first place, and the garnet ring was probably the one thing you had that was really worth more than the sentimental value. No matter he’d been a drummer with incredible arms. There’d been plenty of others. But it was always the ones who took something from you that you remember. Damn that drummer.

Sometimes donating material items to a passing stranger seems a small price to pay for what you get back. Charlie Winger had been so amazing. Who cares I only saw him those three times when he was without his girlfriend for the night. I mean, I didn’t really need that old pocketknife, the tool chest or the Samsonite overnight case. Charlie taking those things just lightened my load a bit. When I’m an old woman, I’ll be sitting in a rocking chair thinking about Charlie Winger, I have no doubt.

So I made my way slowly back up the stairs and down the long hallway to my apartment, not at all sure what I’d find when I got there. The hallway was dark, as usual. Miss Osteal had her door open and yelled over at me, as usual.

Miss Osteal said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness, Sheila,” and waved her rubber-gloved hands at me, a huge yellow sponge in one and an almost empty bottle of Mr. Clean in the other.

Her apartment smelled like moldy curtains, and all her furniture was white provincial. She had never married and had lived in her apartment for thirty years. She always had her door open, and from what I could tell, very few people ever walked in. I’d usually yell hello or good morning, lift my laundry basket so she could see how busy I was and walk a little faster past her door. She always had her curtains closed against the sun, and the TV, which faced the door, was always turned to The Price is Right but with the sound off. I wondered what she did in there all day. I wondered if she ever went out. I wondered how she got her groceries and if she’d die in there one day. I figured she probably would, and a chill went up my back. I just hoped the door wasn’t open when she keeled over.

I leaned the laundry basket with all my clean, folded clothes and towels against my front door and tentatively put my hand on the door handle. I turned it slowly, not knowing what to expect or what I wanted to see when I opened the door. The door opened in front of me, and I grabbed the basket with both hands to stop it from falling, and I saw him, still sitting there watching TV. Then I realized I’d wanted him to still be there. I lowered my head to hide my smiling face from him, told him I’d be right back, just going to put these away. His eyes never left the TV. It was like we had this silent understanding. It was amazing. I’d never experienced anything like this before: a man who had come after me but who wasn’t pushy, who kept me company but wasn’t demanding. There had been too many disappointments before, but I admit I started to get a little excited. I thought maybe this really was the start of something big.

That night I went to sleep in the bedroom; he stayed out in the living room – a perfect gentleman. I wondered how long I’d be able to wait before I called Mother to tell her I’d met this fabulous guy. But of course then she’d ask how I met him, and I’d have to come up with something.

Like the time I met that guy because he called my number at three in the morning and started talking dirty to me and I didn’t hang up, just kept listening. Turns out my number was one digit off from his girlfriend’s number. We talked for about an hour. He sounded really nice, so we made a plan to talk again the next night. He called off and on, usually really early in the morning, and finally we made a plan to meet. He’d told me he was a male model, and I tried not to laugh too loud, but of course I didn’t believe him at all. What would a male model be doing making prank phone calls in the middle of the night, right? But when I answered the door and there he was, I couldn’t believe it. He was gorgeous and in really good shape. He must have been 6’ 5” or so. We sat on my white wicker couch, and he talked about his five-year-old daughter and how he had arranged to see her every weekend even though the girl’s mother doesn’t speak to him any more. He was really quite nice. Of course we ended up fooling around on the living room carpet for a while, and he said it had been fun, and for the next couple days I wondered if we were starting something. I thought of calling Mother about it, but she’d of course ask how we met, and I couldn’t say, well, I was a wrong number, blah blah blah, so I waited, and sure enough I never heard from him again.

That’s why I was being very cautious this time too. Just because a man shows up on your balcony doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, no matter how agreeable he is. Still, it was awfully nice to wake up Monday morning and have him waiting for me in the living room. I went about my business again as usual, and he was consistently agreeable. I got ready for work, had my breakfast, told him when I was going to be home, and it all sounded OK to him.

I didn’t tell anybody at work about him. There’s a rule I have: never tell anybody about the guy you’re seeing until it’s been at least a week. Otherwise it’s too easy for them to come back the next day and say, “So, have you heard from this-one or that-one yet?” And that happened too many times, so I just stopped talking to people at work about anything personal. People who work in cubes have very little to do during the day anyway, so making sport of your love life is something they look forward to. I’ve found it’s better to stick to myself, write in my journal and only bring up men when they’re either living with you or you’ve seen them for more than a week. Since neither of those things had happened in a long time, I didn’t have much to talk about with my co-workers. They tended to talk about the children they were trying to have, the vacation to some new exotic place they were planning in the off season or the kitchen remodel they were working out with their architect. I figured I’d keep my business to myself, and besides, after you hear about one trip to Aruba, they pretty much all sound the same.

Every day I’d get back from work, there he’d be, watching TV in my living room. He was neat as a pin too. Not only was nothing ever missing, nothing was ever out of place.

I’d usually change out of my work clothes and make dinner, setting the table for two, and he’d always wait until I was done eating. It was comforting to have company in the house while I ate. I didn’t mind at all that he watched so much TV.

I got into the habit of picking up a new bottle of wine each night he was with me, thinking this might lead to him finally coming into the bedroom. I appreciated his standoffishness at first, but after a few days I found myself looking forward to one day being in his arms.

I started the week out with a white wine the grocer recommended. I poured two glasses that night but ended up finishing the bottle by myself.

The next night, I tried a burgundy, something more full bodied, and I fixed a nice pot roast. Again, his glass remained untouched, and I fell asleep soundly, the empty bottle on my nightstand.

The third night, I bought a Margarita mix, some chips and salsa, considered even buying a new outfit, maybe a new red nightie, but I ended up pouring the remains of the Margarita mix down the sink the next day. Still, I was determined to get to him.

On the fourth night, I went to a real liquor store after work and picked up everything to make martinis, even the little green olives and toothpicks. I bought a new CD of lounge music and a quarter ounce of Poison, the Halston perfume. No go. He didn’t look too happy when I turned the volume of the TV down and put on the CD. He wouldn’t even look at his martini. I ended up eating the whole jar of olives.

Friday night, I decided to go for the brandy, new glasses and all. The liquor store had a special on a full quart. It came with half ounce glasses and a little Sterno contraption to heat up the glasses. I bought some special perfumed hair gel and fixed my hair in an upsweep. I think he was most tempted by the brandy. When I woke up Saturday morning, alone in my bed again, there seemed to be less brandy in his glass than the night before. I thought this was progress.

But then, exactly when it would have been the requisite seven days and I had planned to go into work the next day and formally announce I was in an official relationship, because we were both living together and it had been a week, he disappeared.

It was another Sunday morning. I’d gotten into the habit of coming and going as I pleased, not worried any more that he wouldn’t be there. I’d gone down to the store and picked up groceries. I still wasn’t sure what he really liked to eat, so I started shopping at the delicatessen instead of Safeway, hoping to bring back more exotic meats and cheeses, thinking maybe he’s just not a drinking man. He’d been a little sullen the night before. His whole body seemed droopy, and he just seemed out of sorts. I thought maybe he was getting sick.

I’d gone into the city, a big deal for me since I usually didn’t on weekends, because I worked there and knew the bad traffic, bad parking and dirty, dangerous streets. I spent about a week’s worth of grocery money just at one place on Lombard, where I never shop. Then, on the way back to the car, I picked up a bouquet of white lilies. They looked like snow and made me happy. I drove back along the Marina. The fog was moving out early. You could see the bridge clearly. Couples roller-bladed along the promenade, and the boats rocked gently against their moorings in the morning breeze. Alcatraz glittered in the middle of the bay with the early sun on its towers and crumbling ruins. The city I’d come to hate looked alive to me and inviting. I thought of taking him out for a drive for the first time, maybe up to Marin or Stinson’s Beach. We could walk along the shore and look for shells, dig our toes down into the sand and let the saltwater wash our feet.

When I got back, I balanced the two heavy bags of groceries in my arms, keys ready, climbed the stairs and headed down the dark hallway. Miss Osteal’s door was open, and this time I paused and looked inside. The TV was off, and the curtains were wide open. The place reeked of Comet and ammonia. The sun poured into the room and bleached her already white furniture to the color of bone.

“Miss Osteal?” I took a step inside her place. It smelled too clean. Her kitchen table, which I could see from the door, was wiped shiny. Her Mr. Coffee was unplugged and empty. It was too quiet. I figured she was just downstairs doing laundry and probably wouldn’t appreciate me intruding, so I headed back to my own place, not wanting any dark thoughts to intrude on my otherwise crystalline morning.

I leaned the bags up against the door and put the key in the lock, but the door fell open by itself. That’s when I knew he was gone. The door opened slowly in front of me. I knew immediately that the apartment was empty. I took a step inside, barely breathing. Maybe he was in taking a shower, or in the kitchen fixing some soup, maybe out on the balcony watering plants.

But in my heart I knew he was gone. Before I could even get to the kitchen table to set down the bags of now pointless groceries, I could see the empty space where he always stood in the living room. I knew then how much he must have cared about me – not a thing was out of place, and the whole apartment was clean and shiny, like a new penny. Wherever he was now, he carried a piece of me with him. I was sure of that.

I laid the lilies out on the table after putting the groceries away and carefully sliced off the bottom half-inch of every stalk. I scooped the little green thumbs into my palms and set them gently into the trashcan. I pulled up a kitchen chair next to the kitchen sink and stood on it, opened the top cabinet and pulled out my grandmother’s bone china vase, filled it with water and set it on the table. I placed each lily into the vase separately and gave each one a name. I like to think up names sometimes – names of children I might have, names of pets I might one day own. I usually don’t name flowers, though, because they die so soon and it’s too hard to let them go. But today was different.

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  • Jason

    Such a great story! Sad but also kind of uplifting, in its own quirky way. Really enjoyed it.

    • Cheryl

      Thanks for reading!

  • Elizabeth

    This character really came alive for me; felt like I’ve BEEN in that apartment!
    Loved this.

    • Cheryl

      Thanks so much!

  • Angela Small

    This is the kind of story you just can’t put down, the kind of story a la Joyce Carol Oates. Eerie and unexpected!

    • Cheryl

      Wow! Thanks so much, Angela!