The Man Next Door
by David Mohan
I kept this photo we took one time of both of us in his bath: our skin is blue-white in the unkindness of the flash, my face flushed, his streaked with sweat.
He used to go out all the time. And I used to think he must be invited to every sort of party because he was always dressed up so fancy. But any time I saw him in the corridor, and I tended to see him quite often, he’d always be coming home dressed up in his jeans, his leather jackets, his buttoned-up shirts. And he always, always had a bottle or two of something tucked under his arm.
Occasionally, he invited me to join him in his apartment, but I mostly said no. The first time I said yes, he put on some music and asked me to dance. Then he told me I looked like his first boyfriend. Then he made a pass at me. I said no on account of the fact that I don’t like complications who know where I live.
He still asked me over for a drink from time to time. I’d watch him dance on him own and sip my whisky until one of us would become too awkward to continue.
“Look at me,” he’d say every time we met in the corridor, “always over or under-dressed. There’s no in-between.”
The times I didn’t join him, I’d hear him on the phone next door talking up a storm. He might have been talking to one person, his mother or lover or whoever. But he always seemed to be talking in a Babel of voices—distraught, over-excited, flirtatious—to a whole host of folk. Perhaps they were all strangers, chosen at random for company’s sake.
I’d listen on the other side of the paper walls, engrossed in his latest narrative of impossible rents and unreliable men. He’d talk all night sometimes, and when he did, I’d wake to hear him weeping into the phone, exhausted. It seemed some nights that he might be working his way through the White Pages.
One time, never repeated, I got so drunk I slid into the bath beside him, and we took our photograph. He cuffed me with suds then wore them as a beard under his floppy-brimmed fedora. Afterwards, we nuzzled together in the cooling water, our drunk mouths as stupid as fish. It was all unpremeditated, and when I woke up the next morning, I regretted the fact I would see him in the corridor.
But the very last time I saw him, I was visiting a café with some friends. It was an expensive place that had a little style to its features: palms, decking, a glass ceiling. And there was this man from next door looking as prepared to meet the night as ever, his red leather jacket hung over his lounge chair like a recently sloughed skin.
He was sitting at a little corner table looking anxiously from side to side. His table was set for two people and there was the barest suggestion of a possible dining companion in how the opposite chair was thrown out a little from the table. But all the time we sat there, nobody appeared to take that opposite seat, and every time I glanced in his direction, the man from next door looked around himself, half-desperate, as though searching for a face in the crowd.
When he noticed me, he flashed his black eyes. “You realize the red leather is ironic,” he said. “But everyone else thinks I’m some sort of savage.”
I nodded, suppressing a smile. I was in a passing-through sort of mood that evening and had no time for the man from next door. He seemed too try-hard with his watchful air, his table piled up with bottles for one. It made me feel self-conscious and guilty by association. I nodded, brusque, parting my lips to allow a sliver of recognition. But that was all I allowed. All in all, our encounter took the time we sometimes took to light our cigarettes off the other’s flaming tip. Before he could mobilize a satiric squint, I had passed out of the room and onto the street.
I didn’t think about him again all that night. I was swept away by the mill of sidewalk-shuffling bodies, the scent and promise of the Brazilian guy I was bringing home with me that month.
Soon after, he was found drowned in his bathtub. Apparently, his blood results showed a mix of liquor and narcotics. Looking back now, it seems inevitable, but at the time, I was upset and thought about all kinds of other possibilities.
When I told my mother, she laughed and said, “That one had run the bath years before you arrived on the scene. Take my word for it.” At that time, she was living on her own with just a cat for company and so seemed to be the authority on loneliness.
A young Italian family with two toddlers moved into the man’s apartment soon afterwards. The atmosphere of the corridor shifted, becoming a fraction less disreputable. I adapted the best I could, although I felt the sting of being our floor’s token single.
For the time being, the city still called to me, and I answered, slipping out each night like an alley cat. But I couldn’t help pausing outside that man’s door from time to time.
I’d stop for a minute and gaze at his room number as though it were the inscription on a grave stone, until the corridor seemed too cold or somebody pushed past me and it seemed too strange to stare.
I wanted to write a story about the isolation of city life and, most particularly, of apartment living. The story was originally entitled Maudlin because the tragedy at the center of it struck me as the sort of incident that ends up, as often as not, being dismissed as self-indulgent. Of course, the flipside of this disregard is the fear that inspires the thread of anxious empathy that runs through the story. Can this happen to me? Are we more similar than I'd like to admit?
David Mohan has been published in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, SmokeLong Quarterly, Contrary, and The Chattahoochee Review. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize.