I feel bad about the girl who died in my apartment. She was beautiful, a
model, in fact, engaged to a television actor. She wasn’t from here, of
course. Nobody is. Before she died it must have seemed to her that she
had everything, and then, one night, she mixed alcohol with a
prescription drug and slept forever.
Her fiancé gave up the lease and then Roger and I got the apartment. I
never did figure out which room she died in. It seemed wrong to ask the
other tenants for the sad details.
It was easy to forget about her. When you’re walking in a fog, it’s hard
to remember how many others are lost. Sometimes you feel someone
brushing against your fingertips, but when you reach out, they’re gone.
There are some things that can be seen and some things that are
Roger was paranoid, always, about me. It didn’t matter what he saw or
what I did. Roger had his ideas, and because he made so much money off
these ideas, everything he conjured had an outsized authority, even
those things that were untrue.
It took me a while to realize I should fear Roger, but I came from the
kind of family where the diamond engagement ring has the elegant, brutal
force of a secret weapon. That ring shredded an acceptance letter from
the graduate school of Columbia University. That ring rendered null and
void the modest life I had cobbled together. You know why? Because, when
all is said and done, even if I had been successful, I would have had to
drop everything to raise Roger’s super baby.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Roger’s wealth made him a member of another species. Yes, rich people
walk among us. Don’t be fooled by the glamour. Be afraid. They are here
and they are nothing like the rest of us.
My parents worshipped him.
How could I ever have said no?
I believe the word is sociopath, or maybe it’s psychopath. I can never
remember the difference. Does the lexicon matter when you’re in danger?
You see, Roger was building me a house of dreams. I agreed to this plan
even as my fears grew. Every time I mentioned my misgivings to my
mother, she would say, But your big house!, like it was a magic spell or
a quaint expression.
Roger never stopped suspecting me of cheating on him. I’m no
psychologist, but I know the guy was paranoid. I would swear to it. He
would fiddle with my phone, or peer over my shoulder into my uneventful
computer screen. He didn’t want me to leave the apartment. Since I
worked at home, it was easy to humor him, but it didn’t stop there.
After a point he wouldn’t even let me go shopping alone.
Or go to the bathroom by myself.
This isn’t going to work, I said. I have to leave from time to time. I’m
INFJ but this is ridiculous.
He didn’t see the problem, or he pretended not to. Don’t worry, he said,
I can work from home, too. We never have to be apart.
Really? You can do everything on your phone?
Yes. That’s the beauty of it.
Nevertheless, Roger left, from time to time, usually when I was
unconscious. I would get up at dawn and he would be gone, or sometimes,
when I woke in the middle of the night, I would find no trace of him. It
was easy to search our apartment because Roger kept it immaculate, like
a place you would walk into at a Sunday Open House. If I put an empty
teacup down on any surface, or tried to hang a picture, he would
intercede. He was always there, lurking, until he wasn’t.
The apartment was the nicest place I had ever lived. Open concept, which
is a fancy way of saying there aren’t very many doors once you step
inside. There were two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and I was very
interested in what was going on in that second bedroom, which Roger used
as a den.
On one of those nights when I woke up alone in our cold Hästens bed, I
found Roger in his den. The door was locked. I knew better than to
knock, so I stood outside and listened. Roger was talking to someone.
I couldn’t make out the words, not exactly, but I knew his voice had
never sounded so tender. Stunned, I lingered for a while, and then I
heard that familiar gasping and grunting, an announcement of pleasure.
I wasn’t jealous. I wasn’t angry. I was relieved. At least he has
someone, I thought, as I imagined myself packing my three little bags
(because, despite my mother’s mantra about the riches waiting for me, I
owned almost nothing). He has someone else and in the morning I will be
free, I said.
She could have been a make-believe woman from a porn site, but my
instincts told me he had replaced me with another potential fiancée. He
was in the process of building something new before breaking our
contract. It was the way Roger did business.
I slept deeply for the first time in a long time, and I felt so good
when I woke up that I actually thought we would stay friends. Maybe I’ll
become her friend too, I told myself. I’ll get my studio back and return
But when I went out to the kitchen, Roger was standing there, on the
formidable slate floor, making espresso. He turned to me with a genuine
smile and announced that he had chosen the font for our wedding
invitations. We were lucky, he assured me. Everything was falling into
place. The baker had managed to fit us in that very morning, and we were
going to choose our cake just as soon as they opened for business.
I wanted to delay the wedding but I didn’t know how.
We were turned out, in the end. The landlord told us we had to leave.
Termites. There were termites and the entire four-story building had to
be tented. The procedure was highly toxic. Not only would we have to
stay in a hotel for three nights, but we would have to clear out the
kitchen. No food could be left behind unless it was in a can or a sealed
bottle. Nothing we might ingest would be safe. No houseplants would
survive. One of our neighbors was even planning to put all her clothes
and cosmetics in storage.
A security guard was hired to make sure nobody entered the building.
I was able to fulfill my fantasy of packing my three suitcases.
We didn’t have much, both because Roger was so strict about our
possessions and because the apartment wasn’t our real home. We were
supposed to move on to the house of dreams, which we would fill with
objects (expensive, rare, high tech) and babies (privileged, beautiful,
genius). Roger and I were the first to leave the building while the
other tenants were still rushing to exit on time.
This place will be filled with poison in a few hours, Roger said as we
drove away in his Mercedes. Thorough, paranoid Roger had planned ahead
and installed security cameras. It’s not that I don’t trust the
exterminators, he told me. I simply want them to know I am watching them
while they walk around in their hazmat suits. I have my eye on them.
When people know they are being watched, they tend to behave.
Ah, the panopticon, I said.
Nothing. It doesn’t matter. It will all be over soon, right?
Nothing will be left. No termites. Not a single spider. Not one fly.
Good, I said, though I had a feeling of doom. Are you sure it will be
safe for us to return?
They’ll let us back in on Monday afternoon. Now for our little vacation.
We got on Wilshire and went into Beverly Hills. In the luxury suite at
our hotel, I felt more claustrophobic than ever. I worried that Roger,
inspired by the setting, would want to have sex all day, but he stayed
on his phone doing business. I tried to work but gave up and took a
bubble bath. By the time we went downstairs for dinner, I was starting
to relax a little.
Not much longer now, I told myself.
Roger wouldn’t stop looking at his phone. I touched his arm to get his
attention and he grinned at me. Check this out, he said, holding up the
phone, you can see everything.
The eerie emptiness of that first glance has stayed with me. It’s
strange to see your own space abandoned, in black and white. I leaned in
to get a better look but it was all wrong. There should have been
something in place of the horrible stillness. We should have been there.
I got drunk quickly, trying to unspool the tension that had been
building for so long. When I’m drunk I like to pretend, and whenever I
was sitting in public with Roger, this playacting became an obligation.
People always stared at us. I imagined my diamond ring was sending
signals as it caught the light.
That’s Ward Hatchet.
At the bar. He’s the C.I.O. of Space Next. I should go talk to him.
Do you want me to come too?
The question was a lie. I had no desire to meet Ward Hatchet and I knew
this was one of those times when Roger preferred to leave me behind.
Roger told me to relax; he would only be a minute. A moment of
indecision disturbed his professional mask, but then he put his phone
down on the table. Here, he said, keep an eye on the place.
I felt myself shrinking as he walked away. Soon I would go back to being
a nobody from a blue-collar family, safely invisible.
I gazed into the phone.
When I saw the woman walk out of Roger’s den, my heart contracted in my
chest, and a sharp pain shot through my whole body. She was tall,
wearing only underpants and a sheer camisole. She was mathematically
perfect, the definition of a model. I had never looked like her and I
She both was and wasn’t supposed to be there. Her long hair moved like
it was blown back by a breeze but that was impossible. I had shut and
locked all the windows myself, as we were instructed.
I didn’t want to stop looking in case she disappeared. At the same time
I wanted to run from table to table and share my discovery with the
whole restaurant. Look at this! Can you see? Are her feet touching the
floor? Is she crying? And the most important question of all: what is
she crying about? I tried to zoom in but the phone went black.
When I looked over at Roger, he was staring at me. Ward Hatchet had
disappeared. Roger’s face was like stone, immobile and unreadable. I
knew we would never fight about his mistress. It would have been better
if I had not seen her. I should have packed my bags back when I thought
he was merely facetiming some living beauty.
I would have to slip away somehow, sometime. I would sober up, drink
some coffee, and leave the hotel while Roger slept. Part of me wanted to
return to the apartment, where I would open every door and check all the
closets and cabinets. I knew I wouldn’t see her during normal daylight
hours, but there would be a ritual satisfaction in the searching.
I knew what I had seen.
For the time being Roger and I kept staring at each other across the
restaurant, and while I did not know who would break eye contact first,
it felt as though our standoff could last into eternity.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have recently appeared in Cape Cod Poetry Review, Wigleaf and Hobart. A Pushcart nominee, she is featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and The Best Small Fictions 2018. She lives in Southern California with her family. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb