It was a room Sarah had slept in before: a small room with butter-yellow walls sticky from generations of fingerprints and a warped closet door that wouldn’t stay closed. It smelled of wet wood, stale cigarettes, and old coffee. Even though the room had been vacant all summer, the damp, anxious-student smell hadn’t left and probably never would.
It’s not like I’m going to be here forever, Sarah thought, as she pulled on her new nightshirt, a giant blue tee with the Penthouse logo printed on the breast pocket. Emerson gave it to her when she’d realized that throwing out what the dealers had ruined left her nothing to sleep in. Even wrapped in its original plastic, the shirt had assumed the musty funk. It reminded her of college, when this charmingly shabby neighborhood, this house, this room, and Emerson had been her refuge from a variety of awful roommates, from bad phone calls home, from men who failed to live up to her expectations.
In the narrow bedframe sagged a thin mattress, and the sheet—Emerson’s spare—was worn transparent in the center. The springs complained as she sat and fluffed up the sad little pillow a former tenant had left behind. She tried not to think about the backache she’d have in the morning.
Sarah tossed for a while, trying to find a comfortable position, a spot that didn’t sag too badly. She gave sleep a chance but the stubborn bitch eluded her. It was the mattress, the smell, or maybe the T-shirt, too new from the package and itchy. Maybe it was the humid night. Or just knowing Emerson inhabited the room across the hall.
His typewriter hummed, and the clack of the keys, fast then slow then fast, became a kind of dance step. With a ping and the return of the carriage, it started again.
I’d never write about you.
Finally, she gave up. She cracked open her door and knocked softly on his.
“It’s me. Can I come in?”
“Um...sure, I—just a minute.” She heard a rustle of paper, the scrape of chair against floor, a thump and then an expletive.
“Em? Are you all right?”
He whipped open the door. “Stubbed my toe.”
The typewriter still hummed.
There was nothing in the carriage.
Emerson, wearing a faded robe over faded pajama bottoms and a T-shirt, reclaimed his desk chair. The only other seating in the room was an overstuffed Salvation Army chair heaped with clothing, so she curled up on his bed and wrapped an afghan around her shoulders, not as much for warmth as for protection.
He waved an open bakery box at her. She shook her head. He shrugged and plucked out a fat, glazed chocolate donut. Breaking it into two pieces, he placed half on an empty plate next to his typewriter and chomped at the half in his hand. Flakes of glaze clung to his lips. He licked them off and washed the mouthful down with gulps of milk straight from the carton.
Suddenly Sarah wanted a donut more than anything. She poked out a hand and there was the box—like old times when they used to study together late at night. She chose one with pink frosting and broke off tiny pieces to make it last longer, but it was still gone too quickly. They passed the milk back and forth and for a long time, said nothing.
His room hadn’t changed much since she was there last. It was a little seedier, and a little dingier, like an undershirt washed too many times. A row of dusty science-fiction novels spanned the shelf over his desk, which was heaped with a disorder of manila files and magazines. A tatty blacklight poster adorned his closet door. Snapshots were tacked to the wall behind his typewriter: one of her, one a school photograph of a sad-faced, fresh-scrubbed little boy.
She couldn’t bear to think about Thomas.
The picture of her was one she’d sent him last year, taken at Boston’s Black and White Ball, a charity event for creative types. She focused on it and realized the picture had been cleanly sliced down the middle and all that remained of the artist boyfriend she’d been so proud of at the time was a disembodied hand on her right shoulder.
“You couldn’t sleep?” Emerson said. “Is it the bed? I’ll switch with you. I’ll take my stuff and work in the other room. Or is that what’s keeping you awake? The typewriter? Is it too loud?”
I’d never write about you.
“No, it’s...just restless, I guess. First night. New bed.” Her gaze landed on a sheaf of typewriter paper underneath the dictionary on his desk. “What were you working on that I interrupted?”
He gave a near-imperceptible start. “Nothing really.”
She grinned, and it felt forced. “More spray cheese?”
“Not this time.”
“Your short story?”
“Something like that.”
Whatever it was, he seemed uncomfortable discussing it. Or not discussing it.
She reached for another donut. So did he. It was so quiet she could hear herself chew.
“I feel like we should be studying,” she said.
Finally he got it. “Oh. Right.”
His hesitation made her acutely aware that they were alone in his room in the middle of the night. That she was on his bed in a Penthouse T-shirt with nothing underneath, one bare calf sticking out of his afghan. She tucked her leg beneath her and gathered the throw tightly around her body.
His typewriter still hummed. The pitch of it vibrated through her. Suddenly the air felt close and seedy. Like Dirk Blade would have walked in any second and taken her like he took his other women. The walls exhaled hot breath. The narration hung in the air, the words that had been pounded in testosterone-induced heat against the rubber carriage of his typewriter. Who knew what he’d hidden from her underneath the dictionary, what turgid phrases had tangoed into print while she lay in the dark across the hall, unable to sleep?
Insomnia isn’t so bad, she decided. When pursued alone. Across the hall. With the door locked.
“Well, I...think I’ve bothered you enough for one night,” she said, taking his afghan with her, still wrapped around her shoulders. “Thanks for the donuts.”
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