M.W. Jones

Notes from the Split-Level

Why are we not better than we are?

All around me the dead leaves lie.

The day exhales one last breeze, subsides

to a stillness in which the germ of what is not yet

palpable pauses and gathers to begin one more time.

—Eric Trethewey, “Frost on the Fields.” Songs and Lamentations.

T

he first time I lived alone, I rented an apartment down the road from the house where my parents lived, in a quiet suburb of my hometown. I lived in the bottom of the building, my apartment halfway underground on the split-level. There was a window facing the front of the building. When I stood at this window, I was shoulder-level with the soil on the other side of the glass: yellowed blades of grass spiking into my line of vision. When it rained, I’d watch muddy water pool there, but the apartment never flooded. I couldn’t help but think that if I were outside and standing in a hole this deep, I would be stuck.

It was the largest space I have ever rented. Now I prefer small and uncluttered apartments: nothing extraneous, no need for many rooms. I was only twenty-two when I signed the lease, and I’d thought of nothing but becoming someone who did not live with their parents anymore, and in my small thinking I ended up only a few miles from my home. I didn’t think of meeting new friends, or meeting someone, or finding things to do, because I’d already met David, and we didn’t really need things to do because we didn’t typically do things, and then meeting new friends only meant having to explain David to them.

Above me lived Barb. She had a landline, which rang sometimes. There were two supermarkets in our neighborhood; I preferred one but she was a customer service manager at the other. Her apartment was so well-appointed that the apartment complex manager used it as a sort of model unit, chipping away at her monthly rent in exchange
   I viewed her apartment before signing my lease. At our first meeting she told me, “I’ve lived here for fifteen years. First I lived here with my husband until he died, and then my father lived here until he died. I hope to keep living here until I die.” She showed us the big closets, saying she had more storage space than she would ever need. “Oh good,” Barb said about a month later, standing five feet above me in our shared stairway, watching me move in my boxes and rubbermaid containers and suitcases.

The apartment had two large, yellow-beige closets in the bedroom. I filled the first with clothes and used the second for storage. I bought furniture from an actual furniture store, and my brother and father helped me move it in using the sliding glass door while my next-door neighbor watched us, smoking on his patio. Pat was the other “young person” in my building, but I only knew him from the parking lot and from through our shared wall. He frequently changed his facial hair to the extent that I sometimes didn’t recognize him, and he dated blonde girls who had expensive purses and graceful laughs that pierced through the noise of my television.
   I was quiet, pale, and plain. I tried for as long as I could in this building to remain an unknown.

David appeared at the apartment all the time, but never as often as I wanted. My mother told me she worried I spent too much time with him. Her concern was legitimate in that any time spent with him was really more than was good for me. However, no one realized how infrequently I actually saw him.
   Most of our interactions took place at work, where he managed a warehouse. I had an office in the next building over and ordered the inventory: leggings and dresses and embroidered blouses from India and China; comfort shoes and cheap costume jewelry from vendors in New York. We worked for a small clothing catalog company in the town where we both grew up. We met working in the warehouse together, where I’d stretch conversations with him about bills of lading and invoices and late shipments, curious about his tense shoulders and dark eyes.
   He was older than me by several years, and when he came over and sat on the yellow couch, I’d touch the grey patches in his beard, hoping he didn’t realize what I was doing. I’d look up at his face, his bruised-looking eyes, and smooth down wiry pieces of grey down into his hair, hair darker than my tube of mascara labeled “blackest black.” He kissed me with a certain brevity and conclusiveness, like an imperative, as if he were punctuating my sentences. I wanted something lingering and bottomless, something exclamatory, but I stayed, overly patient for something that would never truly emerge from him.
   We went to the same high school, but many years apart. In his early twenties, I would learn, he lived on the same street as the library I often spent time in as a teenager. He worked at a small deli, which has been closed for a long time now. I found myself thinking of all of the times I could have met him before we actually met: whether we’d crossed paths on the narrow, old-fashioned streets of our neighborhood. Whether my mother had bought chocolate from his mother when she worked in the old candy shop down the street from my house. I had never met his mother or father, nor his sister, his nieces and nephews, or his younger brother. I had never met his friends who he went camping with, or volunteered with at a nature conservancy a few counties over, or the ex-girlfriend he still occasionally met for dinner or coffee.

Sometimes I ran into my elderly neighbor, Mr. Nick, who lived three stories up from me. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran, an immigrant from Cyprus, and as far as we could tell, a lifelong bachelor. Feebled by emphysema, he was younger than he looked, which I only realized when encountering his obituary years later. He would, while tightly holding the railing, ease down the stairs in a painfully slow way. He always refused help. I could hear him on the stairs climbing up to his apartment every evening, heaving for air, knees straining. Still he made a rather bizarre offer to, in case of any emergency, come down the stairs with his gun to protect me.
   The apartment complex manager had given me a brief rundown of the fellow tenants in my building before I moved in, mentioning Barb and Pat and Nick. She had smiled demurely as she spoke of Nick, as if he had charmed her, had unforgettably seduced her, if such a feeble and slow-speaking man could. “He’s a very nice man,” she said, and she said it with such firmness.
   And he was very nice: always saying hello. Unlike my other neighbors who were happy to accommodate my desire to be ignored, Nick always acknowledged my presence. He invited me and David to join him for dinner sometime soon, and without thinking of how I’d convince David to do this, I immediately agreed. Nick confessed to me that he had also invited Barb out for dinner, for her 70th birthday, but she declined. “Sometimes women get the wrong idea,” he commented. He scratched one of his sagging shoulders, and I wondered how many years above eighty Nick might be.

Despite his obvious difficulty to get enough air, and undoubtedly the heart doctor’s disapproval, Nick smoked with delight, with relish, even. He’d sit in his car, the door shoved open for air, knees apart, one dress-shoed foot planted on the pavement, the other tapping the locked brake pedal. Sometimes he stayed there for an hour, smoking, looking around the block.
   I was frightened of him: frightened he would fall down the stairs or in the parking lot, frightened that he would die out there one day, frightened that in his kindness he would build up some sort of debt between us which we could never repay in time. I was also frightened that while he sat out there, outside, he could see too much through the half-sunken window, or hear too much echoing up the stairwell. Could sense something wrong when we ran into him and David tugged at my elbow and said, always a beat too soon, polite things like “well, we’d better get going, but it was nice running into you.”
   I kept my blinds closed because I felt paranoid about him staring at the inside of my apartment. His own blinds, three stories up from mine, were smoked yellow, visible from the street. We weren’t allowed to smoke in the apartments. “I don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling,” Barb said about it once from her own window one Friday afternoon, while we unbagged groceries on her dining room table.
   Sometimes when I left for work in the mornings I’d see, up in Nick’s windowsill on the fourth floor, only his hand reaching into the air, dangling his cigarettes.

One night I sat at the little green kitchen table next to the window and watched long, shiny bugs slipping into the apartment through the floor. “The bugs are just walking inside,” I told a building maintenance voicemail line, apoplectically, not knowing if anyone was listening.
   The next evening I returned from work to find a thick gluey seal applied along the entirety of the front wall, clumping in the carpet, and a fluorescent green door note like those do-not-disturb signs at hotels hanging on my inside doorknob, telling me that maintenance had been there.

One spring evening, Nick, David, and I did go out to eat together. I was surprised David had agreed to do this with me. Something about Nick had broken down David’s tenacious refusal to socialize with others. He wouldn’t have drinks with our coworkers or see my family, but he begrudgingly agreed to this.
   “No one’s ever done anything like this for us,” I said in the car on the way there, leaving out the fact that this was only because we’d never let them. I do not think I was intending it to be an admonishment.
   We met Nick at a nice Italian restaurant, too expensive for David and I to normally consider eating there. When we walked into the restaurant, he was sitting at the bar, suited. He moved across the room to greet us, with more speed than he normally managed, and we headed over to the table he’d reserved for us.
   It was clear Nick had everyone charmed. The waitress, who had impossibly tasteful highlighted hair, beamed at him when she came to take our order. I felt that same suspicion I always feel around bubbly servers, but noticed that every time she looked in the direction of our table, her smile was warm and involuntary.
   We quickly realized that he not only intended to pay for our meal, but that he wanted to partake in every course the restaurant offered. He ordered two bottles of wine immediately, and at a loss, we drank slowly, trying not to tempt him to order more. After Nick insisted that we would have wine, bread, appetizers, salads, and entrees that evening, David and I begged him to let us share the bill with him. He refused and said, with what I can only describe as a thrill, “I get four pensions. I have no one to spend it on but myself.”
   At dinner, Nick told us about how much he loved cruises, about how he loved the live shows, how he loved to sit in the armchairs of the ship’s lounges with a glass of brandy, how it gave him a sense of peace.
   David and I talked in the car on the way home, in a tone that was too pitying to be kind, about how lonely he must be, to say he has no one. But it had seemed odd to me even then, that despite his professed loneliness, Nick had seemed so content, so honestly pleased. I sat in the passenger’s seat with all the styrofoam boxes of leftovers in my lap: my leftover eggplant parmigiana, a big salad which Nick ordered for me, insisting I would like it, though I didn’t. David’s leftover mushroom pasta, too, and our desserts, which Nick had ordered for us to take home when we insisted we couldn’t possibly eat more. We marveled over the exorbitant bill, which Nick had refused to let us help with. “He was showing off,” David said about it. “It gives him the upper hand.”

Nick passed away—at home, the obituary said—a week after I moved out of that apartment complex. He was a decade younger than I’d estimated, and even more decorated by the military than he’d told us.
   (In the obituary: He left behind a son and a daughter, both married. He left behind eight grandchildren.)

I was supposed to eat dinner at my parents’ house on Monday nights, but often didn’t go. My mother thought I was with David, and David thought I was with my parents. Instead I was in the apartment, hiding. All the time I felt tired, more tired than I had reason to be, and I felt deeply unsettled. I kept my blinds down, so no one could see into the apartment.
   Most of the time, I was alone. I got a cat at the animal shelter, and felt less alone. I turned the television up louder, and felt less alone. I’d stopped meeting up with the friends who told me to break up with David. I watched shows about women who excelled in their careers, but were obviously with the wrong man, and everyone seemed to know it, including her. They’d break up during May sweeps, just in time for her to get together with the person the producers always intended her to be with, right around the season finale. I wondered in those moments if my life could ever be like bad television.

After the dinner we had with Nick, I did not know how to possibly reciprocate, but I promised to host dinner for the three of us in my apartment one night and we chose a date from the calendar. Shortly before our dinner, I woke up to find water dripping down from Barb’s bathroom into mine. This happened occasionally: when she took baths, the ceiling of my bathroom leaked a little. But that morning I wandered into the bathroom, nearly blind without the strong prescription of my eyeglasses, and found my ceiling sagging low, close to my head. I immediately ducked out of the bathroom, and the large swell in the ceiling burst without a sound as I stared up at it from the hallway, preparing to leave another voicemail message to maintenance. There was only a short silent outpouring of discolored water—not the tundra I’d feared. Maintenance came in and tore out the drywall that day, spray-painted a pipe, and left. I threw towels down on the floor and went to work.

It was taking them weeks to repair the ceiling. Though embarrassed about how torn apart my space was, I didn’t feel I could cancel on Nick after our extravagant dinner. So I cleaned the best I could, and in the kitchen I mashed up potatoes, roasted mushrooms and asparagus, tossed tortellini in olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes.
   David arrived a few minutes before Nick, saying he felt nervous after the strangeness of our last meal together. He took shots of something he’d bought at the liquor store on his way to my apartment, something he did sometimes when he was anxious before social occasions.
   Nick arrived with flowers and a bottle of his favorite brandy. He only picked at the food on his plate, and I worried I hadn’t prepared it to his liking. He sipped his Benedictine from one of my dollar store pint glasses, and talked about the group of veterans he led. He talked only in weighted abstractions about his time in Vietnam. “All of us,” he said of his group of men, the veteran’s organization he was heavily involved in, “are there because we shed blood.”
   David told me I didn’t talk enough when Nick was around, that he felt forced to carry the conversation. But I was so quiet then, and so silent.

In the moment of learning of his death, I thought of contacting Mr. Nick’s daughter—a woman perhaps my mother’s age. I did not; I’m not sure what I could ever offer her. After learning of Nick’s grandchildren who lived an hour away, who he never once mentioned to me or David, I wondered if they might have been estranged.

Nick told me that his back was seriously injured in an accident in this apartment building. That a young lady who used to live on the second floor was locked out. He attempted to hoist her up to her window, but she toppled them over and he took the weight of the fall.
   He remarked only that the woman had never apologized.

David came over some Friday nights, and we always stayed in. He’d enter my apartment through the sliding glass door in my living room, and I could see where he was parked from the couch.
   I had a bad habit then, of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, letting them pile up for weeks sometimes. It repulsed David. Some nights he stood in the kitchen and scrubbed my dishes until his hands glowed. It was as if he was making me acceptable to him again. But in the end, that didn’t even work.
   We didn’t cook in the kitchen, usually. We got pizza, put on a movie. We could go weeks at a time without conversation. Thirty minutes into the movie, he would get up to use the bathroom and return with a third full glass of wine. “More?” I’d ask him, knowing what it meant; that soon he would fall asleep in a heavy, solitary way on my couch, that another evening would pass when I might as well have been alone. I suspected he was intentionally getting himself in too much of a stupor to have to talk to me, or be aware of his surroundings at all. I would watch him drink until he fell asleep. And then I watched his jaw relax as he slept, my new cat nuzzling up to his shoulder until she became bored and followed me out of the room.
   Watching him sleep, I felt afraid that my parents, who were religious and raised me to be, would drive past my apartment complex and see David’s old brown station wagon parked outside early in the mornings. Sometimes I had him park in the lot behind my building, though his car was distinctive enough that anyone who’d seen it would know it was his.
   In the mornings he crawled into bed with me, passing a mug of coffee into my hands. We’d make plans to spend the day together, but then he would leave, always slightly earlier than promised, and after he shut the door and walked up the stairs to leave the building, I’d cry without understanding why.

The time came to renew my lease for a second year. The copy of my lease had a long letter from the building manager, expressing hope that I would stay in the apartment “for many years.” Something in me plummeted low as I read it. I signed it, the lease I would soon break, and dropped it off in the building next door, in the little metal lockbox where I submitted my rent checks.

“This is why I lie, to prevent fights like this,” David used to say.

Nick did not cook. There were several Italian restaurants he liked to eat at in town, and he held strong opinions on all of them. He also went to the diner: one of a chain of Baltimore diners called the Double T Diner. Sometimes I saw him at the grocery store, dipping from the olive bar, or I might have been counting out the week’s yogurts or weighing a bag of grapes in my hands, when I looked up and saw him, waiting as if I’d stood him up for dinner.
   Once I ran into my mother at the grocery store, too. I was wandering through the bakery and considering the purchase of a plastic case containing four apple fritters. I saw her before she saw me, and called out to her. When she looked up, she was startled and her recognition was delayed. In a deeply odd moment, I felt what it was to be a stranger to my mother.

David and I ran into Nick in the parking lot one day, and he asked us what we were doing on Saturday night.
   I immediately felt nervous at the thought of having dinner with Nick again. “Having dinner with my parents,” I said, reflexively, glancing over at David. I was learning to lie, too.
   Nick explained that Saturday evening was his birthday. I fought off churning guilt as I wished him a happy birthday in advance, and left for my apartment with David.
   We had to leave the apartment on Saturday, I’d said to David, otherwise Nick would know we were lying. At a loss for what to do, we made plans to go have dinner and see a movie. David accused me of being passive-aggressive by conjuring an image of us having dinner with my parents, an activity which was unthinkable to him.
   We never made it to the movie because we drank too much at dinner. We wallowed in tipsiness for a bit at our table, then dozed in my car. After a while we drove to the gas station about two hundred feet away to get coffee.
   “I never want children and I never want to get married,” he’d said in the gas station parking lot that day. In that time, he’d present things like this as if baiting me to break up with him. His not leaving me was my reward for accepting his endless series of conditions for being together. And his conditions only grew: by the end he was asking to go to Peru with a former girlfriend, asking us to lead separate lives, asking to never see my family again, asking to love me while hating me too. But that day at the gas station is one of the days I’m ashamed of still: one of the days I begged him to stay.

After David went home for the night, I ran out to the supermarket across town where my mother didn’t shop, to buy a cake and a balloon for Nick’s birthday. The cake was one of those chocolate on chocolate bundt cakes that some people might say is too rich or too much, but I could never get enough of that stuff. The balloon came from one of the registers at the supermarket where Barb worked, and I poked at it to make sure it had sufficient air, thinking about the imaginary dinner David and I were eating with my parents, wondering if it would plausibly be over by now.
   I didn’t knock on the door when I left his gifts in the hallway, because I felt overwhelmingly afraid to talk to him or anyone that night.

“I’m moving,” I told Mr. Nick in the parking lot one afternoon, “to go to school.”
   He told me he was moving, too, not this month but soon. Our landlady had found him a first-floor apartment in another neighborhood where he didn’t have to climb any stairs. He’d been having an especially difficult time around that point, so I was glad to hear it.
   David had plans, too, to move southwest, which he had consistently threatened to do since we first started dating. He said he was moving there because he wanted to be alone, but that we could still be together.
   Oddly, David and I then began to do things that gestured toward a future just before the move. We started leaving the apartment more often. We agreed to go on a double date, with David’s ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. I did not necessarily enjoy their company. I looked at plane tickets to the West coast, which were expensive. I met David’s mother, meek and gentle, with a short rippling laugh that sounded almost involuntary. She set out coffee mugs for the three of us on her kitchen table, and told stories that never quite lined up with David’s.
   “We should do something for Mr. Nick, to say goodbye,” we’d say to each other before the move—but we never did.

At first after I moved, David and I had conversations on the phone. “You should visit him,” he said. “I feel bad that we didn’t really say goodbye.” I told him I agreed. It felt too hard to explain to David that I didn’t want to return to that place ever again, that when I thought of it I felt sick. I stretched out on my yellow couch, which I’d moved into this new apartment without David’s help, in this new city where I lived alone again, but where I sat two stories above ground and the light shone in warmer on my windowsills, where it grew easier to breathe every day.
   I’m horrified now that I didn’t even know Nick was gone, that I’d squandered my last chance at kindness, that I’d been afraid of exactly the wrong things.

We no longer speak, but I still sent David a link to Nick’s obituary online, unsure if he had already somehow seen it. I worried that passing this along to him would somehow be another way I’d hurt him. I do not know what it says, that this thought did not deter me.


M.W. JONES holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her essays have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Atticus Review, and Hot Metal Bridge. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and is a Nonfiction Editor at the Baltimore Review.