JONAH KRUVANT - THE RATS
A writer, teacher, and student of the world, Jonah Kruvant began writing as an undergraduate student at Skidmore College. Originally from New Jersey, Jonah lived in Japan, China, and Costa Rica for three years, where he wrote, taught, and traveled, gaining experiences that changed his perspective and informed his writing.
Upon his return, he began his MFA program at Goddard College, where he began writing his first manuscript, which would become his first novel. The Last Book Ever Written, published by PanAm Books, is a dystopian satire set in a futuristic America.
Jonah has returned to the Garden State, where he is a middle school writing teacher, and eats a lot of pizza, though refuses to fold a slice. You can also read Jonah's work at Bewildering Stories, Fiction on the Web, Digital Americana, On the Verge, and LIMN Literary and Arts Journal. Follow his blog and get updates on his writing at www.jonahkruvant.com.
Three rats found a home behind the cabinets of Robert Benton’s apartment. They moved from the West 4th Street subway station, replete with orange peels, potato chips, and leftover Snickers bars, on a journey that brought them through the sewers, where a fourth member met its untimely death by drowning, down the street, where they darted around the tire of a moving bus, and finally, through a hole that led into the walls of Robert’s apartment, attracted by the scent of a slice of pizza. In a sleepy state the night before, Robert had shoved the pizza box with its remaining slice into a cabinet he used for garbage, and now the rats lived behind it, determined to gnaw their way through the wall and satisfy their insatiable craving for mozzarella cheese.
Ashley heard them first, scurrying about, and Robert dismissed his girlfriend’s concern. “This is New York, after all,” he remarked. Weeks went by and as the rats became hungrier, they became angrier, and when the maintenance man closed up the hole in which they entered, the rats became desperate, and attacked one another. For days, the rats fought ferociously, biting each other’s tails and skin, but in the end, the two that mated teamed up, defeated the third, and ate its flesh.
Yet the remaining two rats’ desire for gratification was still unfulfilled. They sunk their teeth into the wall and slammed their bodies against it, trying to get out. The lovers may have attempted to eat each other, for their yearning for hunger was overpowering their lustful nature, if the miraculous hadn’t happened. The rats had, in fact, chewed through the wall, creating a hole wide enough for them to squeeze their fat bodies through, and moved into their new residence, Robert’s flimsy, rubber garbage bin. When Ashley, making her morning cup of coffee, went to toss the used grinds into the trash and saw the rats, she screamed, dropping her coffee mug to the floor, which shattered to pieces, crawling like insects away from her in different directions. She sprinted back into bed, where she held onto Robert like a life preserver. Robert told her he would call the exterminator and got ready to begin his day. He was running late for work.
Robert stood on Fashion Avenue and watched. The traffic light was red and commuters waited for an opening to cross to the other side of the street as taxis swarmed like bees. A girl with oversized headphones and pink shoelaces stared ahead. A man in a navy blue suit and brown loafers checked the time on his phone. A fat woman spat. The man checked the time again. The rays of the sun beamed between buildings and reflected off the pavement in a spectacular display that no one noticed. Then the light turned! And so they went, toward the entrance of Penn Station. Some trotted like ponies and others darted like runners in the 100-meter dash. Men and women raced through the crowd like horses in the Kentucky Derby, except unlike racehorses, they rushed toward a finish line they could not define.
Robert used to love the excitement of the city when he moved there from Jersey, its aliveness, its activity and ceaseless energy, but more often than not these days, the frenzy of the city he once felt compelled to would envelop him; it was as if the entire city was inside his body, its pulse his throbbing heart. He kept seeing visions of the cross behind his teacher’s desk at Catholic school, recalling her speaking of integrity and humility, and felt a deep longing to give up his job in real estate and pursue a life of service, far from the bright lights and city streets. But as quickly and unexpectedly as these memories appeared, they’d vanish. He had already established a respectable career and had promotions to earn. He couldn’t disappoint his parents. Yet at unforeseen moments like this, a strange feeling would creep up inside him, as if an integral part of him was being lost.
Robert rushed across the street. Walking beside him was a short girl in her mid-twenties with straight blond hair that bounced off her ruby red sweater. She was as swift as a stallion and as determined as a lion on the hunt. After maneuvering his way between two newspaper salesmen, Robert collided with her, and his briefcase fell out of his hand and onto her right foot.
“OWWWGRRRAAAH!” the girl shouted.
“I’m sorry,” Robert said, picking up his briefcase. “Are you OK?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said through clenched teeth, holding her foot with her hand.
Robert checked his watch. “I’m going to miss my train. I really must be going.”
“GO then!” she shouted back, glaring at him with intense emerald green eyes.
“Sorry,” Robert muttered and went on his way. What else could he do? He would have made more of an effort to help her if he didn’t have a train to catch! He could feel his heart murmur beating extraordinarily fast—a condition that he developed in the years following college—the entire train ride to his office in Secaucus, New Jersey, and even as he sat at his desk, precisely at 9:00. Robert worked for a top residential real estate broker and had three deals he was working on. He spent the morning making phone calls, posting listings online, and periodically updating his fantasy football team when his boss wasn’t looking. He also found his mind wandering to images of his girlfriend. With striking blue eyes, short brown hair, and a muscular build, Robert Benton could woo almost any girl, and Ashley was his prize. He didn’t need anyone but her with her flowing chestnut brown curls, and long tan thin legs. Robert didn’t even look at girls with meat on their bones, he realized, as an advertisement for Maxim appeared on Facebook with a thin blond on its cover. It was then that his thoughts were interrupted by a call on his cell from an unknown number.
“Hello. My name is Kate Leffenbery. My friend gave me your number. She went to school with Ashley. I’m looking for an apartment in downtown Manhattan.” There was something in this girl’s voice—the professional tone with an underlying innocence—that made Robert’s heart flutter.
“I can help you with that. If you’d like, we can meet for coffee and discuss
your options some time this week—”
“How about this evening? My lease is up next Thursday and I want out. How
about six at Starbuck’s across from the Whole Foods at Union Square?”
“Wow, you mean business. I have to say…you sound kind of familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?” It was a line Robert often used with women. Except this time, it was true.
“You sound familiar too. What college did you go to?”
“Villanova. Class of 2009.”
“NYU, 2011. I guess not. 6:00 then?”
“Sounds good. You know,” Robert went on, with a brief hesitation, “you sound cute, Katie.”
“Thanks,” she replied, with a slight chuckle. “But it’s Kate.”
Robert sprinted to make the 5:10 train from Secaucus station so he could arrive at Starbuck’s early to secure a table for his meeting with Kate. She texted him, saying she was wearing a red sweater so he could recognize. When he got off the train at Penn Station, Robert faced commuter traffic, rushing toward him like a stampede. A military veteran asked for spare change, but Robert didn’t have time; he had to make it to Herald Square to make the next subway, which the app on his phone said was in nine minutes. He needed to make that subway, you see, because if he did, this extra client would impress his bosses, and if he could secure the deal, he could earn a promotion to associate broker, which would make his parents happy, plus he’d get a raise, and then he could move into one of those nice apartments on Park Avenue and even get a second home in California eventually; ah, the weather there—wouldn’t that be the life?
Robert couldn’t help his head from spinning with thoughts like these while he rode the subway. He put on his headphones to listen to music that could put his mind at ease. He chose Led Zeppelin, and as it blared in his ears, he attempted to beat Zombieville 4 on his iPhone. He looked at the woman sitting next to him, who was reading a novel, and realized he couldn’t remember the last time he held a book in his hands that wasn’t work related. The last time he tried he ended up reading the same page over again five times.
He arrived at Starbuck’s fifteen minutes before six and sat at a table near the entrance. He took out his MacBook Pro and set it next to his coffee, his third cup of the day. He usually drank two, but with a new client, it was good to be on his game, and this girl intrigued him though he couldn’t explain why.
Robert would not actually cheat on Ashley, he assured himself. He would never do anything with any of his clients (not to say he hadn’t before). Still, a little innocent flirting didn’t harm anyone. Besides, he hadn’t even seen this girl. It was absurd to think of her in this way—his heart began to flutter—when he didn’t know what she looked like--
Kate stood over him, peering down with those intense green eyes.
“It’s you. Un—fucking—believable.”
“Oh…hi. You—. Wow. I knew I recognized you! Ha ha…” Robert forced a laugh but Kate just continued to stare down at him. “I’ll be right back,” she said, shaking her head with a superficial smile, before limping to the drink line. Robert put his head in his hands, muttering aloud, “Oh, man.”
When Kate returned to the table with her cappuccino, she sat across from
him and quipped, “My foot’s fine, thanks for asking.”
“I’m really sorry about that. I was running late for work and…I’m just really sorry.”
“Water under the bridge. Get me the apartment of my dreams and you can make it up to me.”
Robert smiled. “You’ve got a deal. I have the listings right here. You said downtown? Take a look.” He shifted his laptop so she could see the screen.
“Mind if I?” she asked, placing her hand on the keys of the computer, hastily brushing her pinky against the side of his thumb.
He studied the features of her face while she scrolled through the listings and then began his memorized rant, “We have to move fast with these. The best apartments go first. Let’s start discussing exactly what it is you want. One bedroom or studio? What is your price range? Whatever it is you are looking for, I will find it for you. Who’s your guarantor? Your parents?”
Kate went stiff. “I don’t need my parents.”
“I feel you on that,” Robert replied with a smirk.
“I want this one.”
“That’s a very nice apartment. And Prince is a great street.”
“Can we see it tomorrow at nine AM?”
“Nine on a Saturday?”
“Is that too early for you?”
Robert gulped. “Not at all. I’ll see you then.”
“See you,” she said, standing. Robert scanned her body as she headed toward the door. He couldn’t remember the last time a girl took so little interest in him, and was so decisive about things…and he liked it. She was thin and a blonde too; he had to say something before she walked out that door- “Hey, Kate.”
“Mm hm?” she replied, turning back toward him, the long strains of her hair covering half her face.
“You look cute too.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Robert felt accomplished when he got back to his apartment. He had arranged four showings for the weekend. And the sight of Ashley relaxing on his couch in her yellow sorority T-shirt (Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi) and mesh shorts made him stir. They gorged on pizza and beer while watching the Knicks game; after a hard day’s work, Robert deserved it. Yet even while just sitting on the couch, he could feel his heart going a mile a minute. When they finished eating, Ashley rested her head on Robert’s chest and noticed it too.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yep. I could use another beer though. That always helps.”
“I know—” she hesitated. “I know you don’t like when I bring this up, but
maybe you should get it checked out again.”
“So the doctor can tell me I have high cholesterol and to stop eating cheese? I
will never EVER stop eating cheese.”
“Talking about cheese, you forgot to call the exterminator.”
“Oh, shit. I had to meet a new client after work…”
“Is that what’s causing this?”
“The new client? Ha ha, no.”
“Oh. No, I’m telling you, I had a great day. I arranged four showings.”
“You say that, but having to deal with unthankful clients and the not knowing if you’re going to get a commission…all I’m saying is not to stress about it too much, baby. It does you no good.”
“I’ve heard this speech before,” Robert replied, before continuing in a Jamaican accent. “Be laaaid back like the Rastafa. Yah, man. Just cheeell on the beach and go surfing. That’s the life, man.”
“I’m from San Diego. We don’t speak like that. And I’m not staying I didn’t stress out there, but I did find that the ocean and slow pace relaxed me. I just don’t like seeing you this way. What happened to the man who was so excited about his new job he came home after his first day of work, uncorked a bottle of champagne, and danced with me to Benny Goodman ‘til the break of dawn?”
“’Cause I’m pretty much thirty now, and I’ve realized that it’s a job. Everything seems better when you first start it.”
“So what if it’s a job? I love being a social worker. I just want you to like what you do.”
Robert gave a long sigh. He looked at his girlfriend, two strands of hair outlining her pretty face and eyes that examined his with such genuine concern, and he couldn’t help but melt a little inside and admit to himself that maybe there was something to what she was saying.
As he was prone to do, however, he brushed his uncomfortable feelings aside, and immersed himself in something else—this time, the Knicks game. It was during an important play in the fourth quarter that his mother called and left a message. He’d call her back later. The Knicks won and with the win and the success at work, it was a fulfilling day. To top it off, he had methodical sex—but still sex—with his girlfriend, and the rapidity of his heart slowed, and he fell right asleep.
In the middle of the night, Robert made his way to the bathroom, and on the way back, he heard something in the kitchen. He approached the cabinets, where Ashley had stashed the two remaining half-eaten slices of pizza, and though the next day he would think of it as a dream, he thought he heard squeaking from the flimsy, rubber garbage bin, and then a sniff.
Kate was furious at the dude who smashed her toes. She limped all the way through Penn Station and barely made it on time to her nine AM conference call. When the call ended at 9:45, and she finally had a chance to excuse herself to the bathroom to attend to her injury, her throbbing toes had turned purple. She hadn’t been working at this PR firm very long and didn’t want to show any form of weakness in front of her boss, so she walked on them as if nothing happened, despite the pain, vowing to herself that she’d ice them as soon as she got home from work.
She could have called Erin, of course. Kate’s sister was a doctor and she could’ve told her what to do. Their parents were visiting Erin that weekend. They visited her more often than Kate, and she lived all the way in Chicago. It was no surprise, really—they always favored their older daughter with her straight A’s and Princeton degree. But Kate would make something of herself soon enough. They would see.
Her toes were killing her, and it was all caused by the man she was entrusting to get her an apartment. When she saw Robert through the glass pane at Starbuck’s, she was about to leave him there when she realized something. Even though this guy not offering to help her was an unsympathetic and uncaring display, it did show, in a strange way, that he had his priorities straight.
Besides, when she sat with him, she couldn’t help but become attracted to him—those sky blue eyes, and the confidence he conveyed over the phone. She brushed her hand against his finger on the keyboard, but he didn’t seem to notice. He kept hitting on her though, and she could use this—as well as the toe incident—to pay him a lower commission.
It was her freshman year college roommate’s birthday party that night, and she had to attend. When she got back to her Murray Hill apartment, she didn’t have time to prepare the chicken she bought the day before, so she ordered a salad. With what happened to her toes, she had an excuse to order in and escape into an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. She was looking online to see what she should do for her foot when the doorbell rang. She snatched up her wallet, flipped through the bills to find enough change for the tip, and by the time she was back on the couch, she had, without realizing it, put ice on her toes, and had forgotten about the Internet search. Even as she picked at the lettuce and tomatoes, she couldn’t stop her mind from buzzing.
At first, she found herself fantasizing about the apartment. From the pictures she viewed on Robert’s computer, she imagined a kitchen with new sleek metal cabinets that shone and had handles that were so cool to the touch they made your body quiver the first time you held them. And the bedroom was the largest she had ever had with a window that looked out onto Prince Street in the heart of Soho, where she could observe the shoppers with their heavy bags and tourists with their long gazes during the day and ponder the empty streets at night. Where she could feel the pulse of the city.
Kate finished her salad, threw on her red sweater, and left to the party. It was at Blind Tiger, a small space, but one of the best beer bars in the city. When Samantha saw Kate limping toward the bar for a drink, she widened her large brown eyes and exclaimed, “Kaaatie!!” They hugged. As Kate took off her jacket and slung it over a chair, she felt the stares of men from across the bar, something she learned to tune out years ago.
“So this is Kate?” one of Samantha’s friends asked. “You two look so alike.”
So they said. Kate recalled how other students at NYU—and even professors—thought she and Samantha were sisters. They’d remark what a coincidence it was that they were selected as roommates, both short with a childlike enthusiasm and long blond hair. The only discernable difference between the two was that Samantha’s hair was untamed and curly, while Kate kept her hair straight.
Kate laughed when Samantha’s friend said that. She always found comparisons between the roommates absurd, because the two were, in fact, nothing alike. Kate grew up in an affluent Connecticut suburb with a father who was the boss of a title insurance company and a mother who was a successful fashion designer; Samantha was raised at a bed and breakfast her mother managed in a small town in Vermont. Kate would drink but refused to experiment with drugs and had one boyfriend throughout college; Samantha would try anything and everything and claimed she preferred being single. Yet they connected. Samantha introduced Kate to Phish and craft beer; on the last day of summer and Samantha’s first day in New York, Kate borrowed her father’s Audi convertible and drove the wide-eyed Vermonter around the city, showing her the skyscrapers of Manhattan for the first time.
“What happened??” Samantha asked, looking down at Kate’s foot. “Tell me everything.”
Kate ordered a drink and described it in detail to Samantha, finding herself
speaking easily to her friend, even though she hadn’t seen her in months.
“What a d-bag,” Samantha remarked when Kate had finished. “That boy should have walked you to your train and made sure you were all right. What happened to doing the right thing for a stranger?”
“Oh, Samantha, this is New York, but I love your small town notions. Never
change. So now the guy keeps texting me. I can’t get rid of him!”
“Oh no! When I want to get rid of a guy for good, sometimes I’ll turn off my phone for the night. This way I’m not even tempted to respond.”
“That’s a good idea.”
‘Sweet Child of Mine’ began playing and Samantha sang along with its chorus.
“How is the internship at the literary agency?” Kate asked.
Samantha frowned. “I work at a graphic design firm now.”
“And the book?”
Samantha put her finger to her lips. “Sh…it’s getting there but don’t tell anyone else about it. I don’t want to jinx the thing, you know. I haven’t actually signed anything…but they’re planning on printing 5,000 copies!”
The two of them jumped up and down and shrieked excitedly. Yet as Samantha’s high-pitched laughter faded away, the guitar riff from ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ seemed oddly out of place as Samantha sipped her IPA. Kate tried to gage the expression on Samantha’s face, but her friend was looking down at the hoppy beer as she swallowed and didn’t stop drinking until Kate turned away.
“Are you writing at all?” Samantha asked.
“I don’t have the time or energy, unfortunately. In PR, your work is you life.”
Two friends of Samantha came up to her and Kate went to join a conversation with some other people from college she hadn’t seen in a while. One of them, Steven, with his boyish smiling face, squeezed her tightly when he hugged her. They had been friendly in college but not that friendly. He bought her a drink and asked her questions about her job.
“And what do you do?” she asked.
“I’m on Wall Street and it’s crushing my soul.”
Kate laughed. “Well, it’s very lucrative.”
Her phone buzzed. It was a text message from her sister with a picture of her and their parents having dinner. Her sister with that smug smile, the way their dad held her close…She deleted the photo. Her parents looked so damn proud.
And what if they saw Kate right then? She had to sober up. How had she gotten so drunk? Always with Samantha. She interrupted Steven, saying, “I really have to go,” took one final gulp of beer, and approached Samantha.
“I have an appointment tomorrow morning so I really better be going.”
“Why is it that every time I see you I get so drunk?” she blurted out.
Samantha’s friends looked at Kate.
“We can meet for brunch next time…”
“Yes, let’s. Have a good birthday, Samantha. Thanks for inviting me.” Kate zipped up her jacket and headed to the door.
“Of course…” Samantha uttered as Kate left the bar. It was cold outside on
Bleecker Street; it felt to Kate as if the bitter November air was rising from the pavement and seeping into her bones. Her bare cheeks felt frozen and she shivered as she lifted her hand in the air to hail down a taxi.
When she got back to her apartment, she bundled up in a sweatshirt and sweatpants. She sighed in relief as she rested her head on her pillow, looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
She didn’t get it. The honking horns of Second Avenue blared outside her window. And then her mind started racing. How had she gotten that drunk so quickly?
She had been talking to Steven for awhile without even realizing it, ugh she wished she had given him her number….God, her mind was always buzzing, it wasn’t this bad before she moved to the city…Why did Samantha have to bring up her writing? She should’ve known Kate didn’t write anymore. It was true though; she missed it and never came up with any short story ideas. Shit, Kate. She didn’t even like her job. She needed a steady paycheck though and a job was a job and man was payday sweet. She wanted a nicer apartment in a better neighborhood and to pay Manhattan rent…Kate entered that state that is partly awake but half-asleep, and she began to dream. One day she would move back to the suburbs in Connecticut to one of those big houses with manicured lawns with a husband with a respectable career and a boy and a girl and a labradoodle. Her parents would drop by often for dinner. On summer nights, she’d go into the backyard in her bare feet, the grass sliding between her toes, and she’d marvel at the sky. She couldn’t even remember the last time she looked up and saw the stars.
Samantha’s alarm went off at 6:45. She sat up slowly, reached her arms up, and tilted her head back so her gaze met a crack in the ceiling and streeeetched! She rolled over, shifting her weight onto her hip, and then—plop!—she fell off the bed and onto her yoga mat. She did a few cat-cows before up she went into down dog, where she remained, splaying out her fingers and feeling the extension in her lower back as she stared down at her royal purple mat and took three loooong deep breaths. She dragged her hair along the mat and let her body hang for a few moments before gradually coming up to stand, one vertebrae at a time, and as the blood rushed back to her head, she clasped her hands together and let her eyelids rest as she looked out the window at the morning light.
Samantha liked to write in the transitional state between sleep and awareness. She found that ideas came more freely then, the imagination less inhibited, her thoughts flowing like water, inspiration more likely to percolate to the surface of her conscious mind. The moment she sat at her desk, she became Peter. Peter had large brown eyes, a short beard, and was a poet, insecure and judgmental, but wounded, and desperately seeking his place in the world. Though Peter strove
to be a respected writer, he also sought inner peace, loving nothing more than to
meditate and become one with his art and the universe.
Carolyn Matkinson wanted Peter to cheat on his wife. The publisher from Simon & Schuster who was working with Samantha on her book at first suggested, then nudged, and finally insisted that Samantha amp up the conflict in her novel; books with illicit affairs were selling more than ever these days. Samantha wrote Confessions of a Dreamer to seek hidden truths, and to her, conveying Peter as a poet who was authentic to his craft was the greatest gift she could give to her readers. There was no need to inflate and sensationalize her narrative if Peter’s inner turmoil came across honestly on the page. It was the vividness of Samantha’s language that captured Carolyn’s attention in the first place, and Samantha knew that Carolyn felt she was a hidden talent. Yet Carolyn had not sent Samantha a contract, and Samantha feared that if she didn’t make the changes Carolyn suggested, Carolyn would renege on their verbal agreement, and Samantha would be right back where she was before, an aspiring, unpublished author, sending unsolicited manuscripts to be evaluated by hung over twenty-year-old interns.
Peter began fantasizing about another woman, a French waitress who flirted with him at a local café in Brooklyn, and decided to write a poem about her. He left the café to Prospect Park, where he found a secluded bench, took out his green ballpoint pen and brown leather notebook and began to write. Thirty minutes passed and Peter rose from the bench, the wind whipping the pages of his notebook. He started to walk down the gravel path to his apartment, pushing against the wind with every step. Then he stopped walking, turned around, and considered moving with the wind, back to the café to see the waitress.
Samantha closed her computer. She put on The White Album as she got dressed for work, glancing in the mirror at the small azure blue and parking cone orange butterfly tattoo below her belly button ring. By the time “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” had come to an end, she was sipping her coffee, slurping her Kashi cereal, and on the phone with her mother.
“Happy Birthday! I just returned from my walk with Jack and am sipping my hot cocoa.”
“Aww,” Samantha said, plunging the spoon into her cereal and coming up with raisins and granola. “How is my little puppy?”
“He’s the best. You know how much I enjoy walking with him in the woods.”
“Oh, man. I miss the Vermont air. There’s something not…natural about living in
a place like this.”
“All you can do is make the best of it. How’s the editing going?”
“That’s why I called you. The thing is, Mom, I can’t bring myself to take one of the publisher’s suggestions. You know I’ve always wanted to be published and this isn’t the sort of opportunity to pass up but I don’t want to write something into my book just so it sells better. I’m meeting her this afternoon after work—she had to reschedule to meet me—to discuss the edits and hopefully the paperwork. What do
you think I should do?”
“Hm. That’s a tough decision. I wonder if there’s some sort of middle ground. But this is up to you. You’re twenty-seven now. It’s time you made you own decisions.”
“Of course I make my own decisions! This is important and I don’t know what to do…” Samantha trailed off. What would Peter do if it were his book? Peter was too
authentic; he’d never write a cliché. He wasn’t a cliché as her publisher snidely remarked…
“Have you decided on a new apartment yet?”
“My top choice is one on Prince Street in Soho. I have to go into the office this morning, so I asked my broker to secure it for me.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to be there for that?”
“I have work, and if I don’t get this place, it’s not like there aren’t thousands of other nice apartments in this city. Besides, this broker is a real ball-buster. She’ll get it done.”
“OK sweetie. Let me know how the meeting goes.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Samantha hung up the phone. She gazed into her empty bowl for a moment, pondering if Peter would move with the wind or against it. Then she poured the rest of her coffee in her to-go mug and checked her posture as she slid her backpack onto her shoulders. She softly hummed “Dear Prudence” as she left her apartment and entered the dirty but familiar hallway with its scent of rice and beans, which reminded Samantha of Lajambra, Colombia, where she studied Spanish for two years. The smell was coming from her super’s apartment, and she licked her lips as she passed the old wooden door with the silver number 3. She always gave herself fifteen extra minutes in the morning, so she had plenty of time to catch the subway from the Morgan Avenue stop in Bushwick.
By the time Samantha got to her track, the subway was leaving and instead of hurrying to squeeze between the two doors before they closed, she just waited for the next one. She never understood why New Yorkers rushed so much. She’d rather enjoy each moment life had to offer. She believed that this was a universal truth and she had to express it to the world through her writing. As her yoga teacher said, “The past is dead, the future imagined, so there was no reason to worry about either, because all we can do is enjoy the here and now.” Not everyone had to be a relaxed yogi Vermonter like her, she knew, but so many of her friends seemed to let the city envelop them, without doing right for themselves, let alone other people. They were so wrapped up in work and their future that they had lost touch with their values, and everything was a crisis. Except for life and death situations, Samantha believed, nothing is as important as it seems.
If only she could find a guy who felt the same way. In time, Samantha thought. In time.
She put on her headphones and jammed out to The White Album: Disc One for the rest of the ride.
It was during one of the dull moments of the late morning, which Samantha hated, where her boss retreated to his office and her coworkers with nothing to do went on Youtube, that Samantha found herself on Facebook. She clicked through photos of her party and when she came across a photo of her and Kate, she remembered how drunk Kate got, texted her, and clicked on her profile. It was there that she saw that Robert Benton was one of their mutual friends. She went to his profile and sighed. Not good enough for him either.
“Isn’t that the guy you made out with at Ali’s party?” It was Molly, whose wart on her chin was so close to Samantha’s ear, it nearly grazed it.
“And I wanted to.”
Molly crumpled up her nose, causing the wart to fold under a piece of skin. Samantha knew she was a prude. She could have fun with this.
“He was looking hot and I let him approach me and eventually he made the move, and then…” Samantha stopped.
“Well, you know the rest.”
Molly grunted and walked away, disappointed she wasn’t getting any juicy details. Samantha grinned but then a thought hit her and her smile faded. Typical readers
like to read about sex, and if she added a few sexy details to her book, she’d attract more readers and sign that contract…No. Peter wouldn’t have an affair. She never envisioned that. Peter was an authentic artist and wouldn’t be influenced by the masses, and she wouldn’t either.
But then again, an opportunity to be published with Simon and Schuster doesn’t come every day.
At around 1:00, Samantha left work to her apartment. She wanted to get at least an hour of writing in before her meeting with the publisher. When her fingers started typing, Peter would tell her which way to turn.
As she walked up the stairs of her apartment building with her headphones on, the voice of Paul McCarthy singing, “you know you’ll have a good time!” became obscured by a high-pitched scream. And then she smelled it. It was unlike anything she had ever smelled before: a sickening scent tinged with sweetness, like rotting meat sprinkled with a few drops of cheap perfume. It was coming from her super’s apartment.
The super’s wife was shouting hysterically in Spanish. From what Samantha
could understand, the woman was reporting un cuerpo to 9-1-1. Then the wooden
door swung open, the silver number 3 swinging back and forth like a pendulum as Isabella, her eyes bulging, rushed into the hallway. Samantha looked past her, peering into the apartment where the stench was coming from, and there, on the floor, was her super.
He can’t be dead, Samantha thought.
“You speak Espanish! Ayudame!” The woman held out her phone toward
For an instant, Samantha couldn’t help feeling the urge to bolt down the stairs and escape the situation. Her body even shifted, her feet turning toward the top step. Plus she had to get to that meeting. But instead, she took a deep breath and said:
“Is this 9-1-1?”
“A man is…” She looked at her super. His head rested against a wall and his eyes were open, staring vacantly up at the ceiling. “Dead. Or close to it. Come immediately!”
“What is your name and phone number?”
“My what?” Could she get the blame for this? “Samantha Nelson. 917-969-2112. I won’t be here though. It will be Isabella Fuentes in apartment 3. Are you coming??”
“Yes, we’ve tracked your address. We’re on our way.”
“It will be OK,” Samantha said, handing the phone back to Isabella. “Ellos vienen.”
Samantha felt as if she was suffocating. She darted down the stairs until she was out of the building and sitting on her front steps. Only then could she breathe.
The cool air helped her digest what had happened. It wasn’t the first dead body she had seen (her father passed when she was four, and she still remembered his body in the open casket at the funeral) but she was seriously freaked out. She breathed deeply, like she did during yoga, and it helped to calm her. She managed to stand and then slowly began to walk. The bum on her block, the basketball courts with their broken nets, the empty lot with grass covering the pavement—everything looked otherworldly to her; nothing seemed right.
As Samantha made her way back to her apartment, she heard the blaring of a police siren, and when she turned the corner onto her block, she could make out the blinking red and blue lights reflecting off the ash gray walls of her apartment building. She put her hands to her ears to muffle the noise, walked up the staircase, and stopped at the old wooden door with the silver number 3.
The police questioned Samantha, and by the time they let her go, when they confirmed that her super had died of natural causes, Carolyn Matkinson had consumed two chai lattés. She informed Samantha of this over the telephone. But she also understood when Samantha explained to her what had happened, and they rescheduled for the next day.
Just as Samantha was about to collapse from exhaustion, she heard a knock at the door. It was Isabella.
“I’m so sorry for all this,” she said.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Gracias. It was shocking. But I am OK.”
“It’s amazing how well you’re taking it.”
“Si, because he died peacefully. My husband loved to work with wood and he didn’t worry. He was a simple man but he knew what made him happy. I’ll have to show you some of his furniture some time.”
“I’d like that. I really would.”
“I saved every dollar yo tengo to have his body shipped back to the Dominican Republic to be buried with his familia. Now I don’t have much money but this is what he would have wanted. How do you say compromiso en English?”
Samantha paused. “Compromise,” she said.
“Si, eso. I made a compromise.”
Samantha said good night, closed the door, and went into her room. She put her fingers on the keyboard and typed.
Kate loved the apartment. Although the old-fashioned oak cabinets didn’t exactly shine, and the view from the bedroom looked out onto a garbage dump in the back of the building, the bedroom was even larger than she imagined, and she would kill for that location. The landlord told her that there was another person interested who hadn’t committed yet and what she needed from Kate was a deposit; when she heard that, she bolted down the stairs, ran to the closest Chase Bank, and got on an unusually long line to get the money order.
As she waited, she received a text from Samantha, “How ya feelin?”
She immediately replied, her pupils darting back and forth at super speed as her fingers typed, “Got too drunk last night. Can’t do that anymore.”
In the meantime, Robert went to the nearest bagel shop and prepared the
paperwork. As he watched people on the street going from store to store, he couldn’t stop thinking about what his girlfriend had said the night before. All the stress he felt having to chase down clients, arranging showings, and then the not knowing if they’d use him instead of some other broker, or even craigslist—this was his job, he knew, but was it worth it? His heart wouldn’t stop pounding against his chest! He was sick of it all. Of giving into every temptation. Of leading the life that people told him was good. An ad hung on the window of a fashion model—blonde and skinny, the type he’d been told was hot. Sometimes he didn’t feel like he was really living anymore. It was as if he was acting out the motions, his only joy a slice of pizza or an orgasm. He had to quit his job and get out of this city, its honking horns like alarms that never stop going off. He took one last bite of his bacon, egg, and cheese, automatically looked through his phone in an attempt to distract himself from his thoughts, and was reminded about the voicemail from his mother. He figured he might as well listen.
“This is your mother. Your father and I can’t believe you let that deal slip through your fingers. We’re very disappointed in you, Robert. Laziness is a curse. You’re nearly thirty and not even an associate broker! You’re a Benton. Your father
owned his own house and business by age thirty. Make us proud.”
Robert erased all previous thoughts from his mind. Kate was coming inside and he had to get her that apartment.
As Kate sat down to fill out the paperwork, she got another text message from Samantha, saying, “Oh no. Hungover lol?” She put her phone away and concentrated on the lease.
Robert went to buy Kate a cappuccino, and by the time he was back at their table, Kate was ready to roll. With a swig of her coffee, she exclaimed, “let’s go!” and grabbed Robert by the wrist, pulling him out the door. Robert looked down at her hand and grinned. Maybe he was in the right business after all.
As they went down Prince Street to the apartment, Robert and Kate saw a woman about their age walking toward them. She was wearing an indigo turtleneck and gray dress pants with her hair tied back. As they came closer, they found themselves looking at each other with suspicious eyes, Kate peering into the woman’s dark beady pupils. And then her gaze fell to the woman’s clipboard. She held a check, and Kate recognized that signature: Samantha Nelson.
In that moment, they all realized what was happening, and Kate, who couldn’t walk fast because of her toes, made a noise at Robert that sounded like a growl from a lion, “GOOOOO!!” With that, Robert started to run, and so did the woman, and they both reached the apartment’s entrance at the same time and--
Robert wanted to hesitate. To conduct this as civilly as humanly possible. But every bone in his body told him no, to get up those stairs first—to beat her. So he shoved her aside, just slightly so she wouldn’t fall but enough so he could get by, and then he raced up the stairs through the entrance door. He made it, or so he thought, for the woman had leaped over the stairs behind him and before he knew it, her hands were on his back, pushing him to the ground.
He bounded back to his feet like a cat but the woman was in front of him now and she was faster than him. They scrambled up the stairs. He was directly behind her and the heels of her shoes were in reaching distance. He grabbed her right foot and pulled her back down to the ground. He jumped over her to the top step.
There was the landlord, waiting by the apartment door. He started to walk toward her when he heard a grunting behind him. He turned to see the other broker. Her turtleneck was stretched and there was blood oozing into her pants above her right knee.
“Shit,” Robert said. He snatched the paperwork from the broker’s hand and handed it to the landlord. As he walked past the broker on his way out, he could see her trying to hide a smile.
“There was nothing I could do,” he said to Kate when he got outside.
Kate just stood there in a state of disbelief, and then her fury emerged, and all she wanted to do was slap him.
“You’re fired!” she shouted, turning away from him and marching down the street as fast as she could. She turned back around to say, “And I’ll send you the doctor’s bill for my toes!” She stomped a bit further and then turned again, proclaiming, “And you suck!” Robert waited for her to turn around again but she didn’t. The tears were starting to form in her eyes.
Kate got another text from Samantha just then, which read, “You ok, girl?” She pressed down on the power button and turned off her phone.
Robert walked down Prince Street in a daze. He couldn’t believe he had stooped so low. A vision reemerged of his Catholic school teacher, speaking of loving others; he felt the longing that stirred inside him then. That’s it, he thought, I’m quitting.
“This isn’t who I want to be.”
His pace slowed then. In fact, though he couldn’t explain it, his heartbeat had slowed down too. He meandered onto MacDougal and then crossed Houston into Greenwich Village. He thought about stopping for a coffee at Café Reggio, where some dude with a brown leather notebook was chatting up a waitress. But he decided he wanted a falafel—well, more like three—from Mamoun’s. The line was too long there so he went to the Olive Tree Café instead.
Robert didn’t even hear the hostess greet him when he came inside. The dim
lights and black and white movie playing gave him a strange feeling that he was in an earlier era. Robert had been to the Olive Tree before, but it looked different this time. He hadn’t noticed that the restaurant had a distinct smell, an unusual fusion of paprika, garlic, and zatar. At one of the tables sat two children, who drew pictures of animals with colored chalk; he had never even realized that there were pieces of chalk in small glass jars on the tables. After ordering his food, he observed the playful expressions on the children’s faces and studied the paintings on the wall. He didn’t feel the need to go anywhere, or do anything, and it gave him an enormous sense of relief.
As he ate the Mediterranean platter, he watched the movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” He was mesmerized by it. In Norman Bates, he saw a man clearly messed up in the head, yet also a boy who never grew up, who was stuck in the motel and couldn’t get out, trapped inside that place and inside himself. He was trapped by his mother. In the scene where Norman’s mother shouted at him, Robert stopped eating. The baba ganoush on his tongue tasted chunky and the low ceilings and garlicky scent began to suffocate him. Norman’s mother’s shrill voice rang out in Robert’s ears and he couldn’t hear anything else. He dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the table and left the restaurant.
With images from “Psycho” in his head, Robert made his way back to his
apartment. His parents gave him everything he wanted, he realized, but they wanted something in return. They expected him to be successful in the way that society dictated—in the way they wanted. He felt like a rat in an experiment, his parents the
scientists engineering him according to how they saw the world. But he wasn’t a rat. He could question. He could change.
When he got back to his apartment building, he propped open the entrance door. His apartment was the closest one to the entrance. He propped open the door to his apartment too. The scent of pizza was lingering in the kitchen. He took the pizza box and brought it outside, where he laid it on the ground and opened it, exposing the remaining half-eaten slices to the cool breeze, the top of the box swaying back and forth in the wind.
He came back into his apartment and approached the cabinet that held the rats. He placed his fingers around its handle. In one swift motion, he opened the cabinet door.