2 June 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 2

Man Down Below

You are minding your own business.

"Do you want to know what I think?" Eddie asks and you think, no dear god—not him again. You are standing at the paper stand, a block from your new apartment and you have to wonder if he saw you—if he saw you walk from your front door down to O'Connor's Papers and if he is going to be there tomorrow, holding out a cup of coffee, ready for you.

"What do you think, Eddie?" you ask, turning around.

No, there is no getting rid of him once he's spotted you.

"I think you've been avoiding me," he says.

"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way," you say. Not apologizing, but accepting a true and accurate fact.

"Have you been avoiding me?"

"I've been living."

"What the hell does that mean?" he says, without any anger or raising his voice. It's creepy.

"It means—I've been living my life and I've not given any thought to avoiding you. I just haven't seen you. And, well—here you are!"

In your old apartment Eddie lived below you. He knew when you were home, when you showered, what you cooked for dinner, what shows you watched and when you had a lover—that was when you had to move. That was only a month ago. You have been avoiding him. "You didn't tell me you were moving. You must have done it while I was at work, because I never saw a moving van. Not until the new tenant. Her name's Rebecca, too, by the way."

"Her name's, Rebecca, huh?" you ask, wondering if this is true or if Eddie has just totally flipped his lid and if he was as obsessed with you as you had thought he was in your very worst of nightmares. And yes, you moved while he was at work. He works a nightshift at some bizarre—you think sex-stockpiled—video store. It's open all night! You had to pay the movers extra and get special permission from the Supers in both buildings. You weren't surprised when they didn't ask why. They're just Supers. What the hell do they care until someone complains? Obviously no one did and

that's why you like the city. "That's convenient. No need for me anymore. I've been accurately replaced."

"Not really. She's a cross-dresser. Her real name—his name, is Paul. He just goes by Rebecca, but he's honest about it."

"Good for him," you say, folding your newspaper and clamping it between your elbow and side. Eddie is no dummy and he senses you readying yourself for an all out sprint up the hill, back to your new apartment, back to shelter. It is only seven A.M. and you are already exhausted. Eddie has exhausted you.

"Don't go," he says, pushing his hands, palms down, against the air—like he's telling a dog to stay.

I'm no fucking dog, man, you think. You can't urge me to stay, but your feet aren't moving. He has big hands. You hadn't noticed.

"Just tell me why you moved?" he pleads.

You start to wonder if honesty really is the best policy, or if a well-groomed tale might entertain him to a point of satisfaction. But you can't think fast enough and suddenly the truth is standing tall on your tongue, arm crooked in a proud pose of damn-it-I'm-right-here, use me!

"I left because of you."

He doesn't look hurt or anything. Rather he looks like he was expecting this and suddenly you realize he's getting off on it. Not a hard-on, but he's enjoying it—like you're performing some relationship break-up scene played out far too often on just this kind of street corner. And now you're supposed to say, no, no—it wasn't you. It's me. I have to figure some things out. I need time off. Your free hand goes to your face, concealing a little giggle that bubbles up, like an unexpected burp. "I'm sorry," you say. But now he looks hurt, really hurt—you've broken the moment, you forgot your line, and this scene is a wrap. He actually starts to cry.

"I didn't mean to offend you," he says, the words all broken up with head-snot and spittle. "I just liked you."

Damn it, you think. This is working. He's getting to you. Don't let him get to you.

"You didn't offend me, Eddie. I just need more privacy. For my work." You write weekly reviews in The Chef's Hat Magazine and two separate cooking columns for the free rags. You are at O'Connor's Papers to read your bit on high-fat diets. You're all for them. Your bit. It's what you get for a BA in English and a short stint in Culinary School. It's all you get and you don't need privacy, but just the opposite, you need lots of things. Things to keep you from a rattling panic always waiting to encroach with your next glance at the clock—realizing you have nowhere you have to be. You have to be nowhere. Nowhere is great. You can hang with nowhere. The truth is, and you shy from admitting it, repress even the thought, in the quiet afternoons when normal people are at their offices, that Eddie was the most perfect distraction from you. He made you feel perfect (you were SO interesting) and he—he was the perfect freak. But you don't live there, above Eddie, anymore, do you? He is not the man down below anymore, is he?

"Was I really so bad," he asks, wiping his nose on his wrist. His face is blotchy.

You can't remember if you've ever made eye contact with him before now. You remember the time he came up, knocking just as you were getting out of the shower. He'd heard the water and he must have heard the grunts and chirps of sex before that. It was intentional—you felt it. He wanted Mario to come to the door. Mario, your half-Spanish lover, since gone into the oblivion of all old lovers. As though you'd returned them to the store they came from, as though they'd never walked the same streets or sat at the same bar stools that they had when you found them and brought them home for a midnight snack. He needed that detail, needed to see the face of the man who'd just been inside your body, just as before he'd needed the details of your cooking. He'd call to ask what spice that was in the spaghetti sauce, the curry, the salmon, even the macaroni and cheese for God's sake—the man has the snout of a hound.

Suddenly the weight in your mind—the images of Eddie in his pale apartment, everything a different shade of beige, the buzz of traffic, the idea that you moved to have lovers and now you wonder why you call them lovers when you never love them—the weight of it falls into your hands and you reach out to touch him. It is a moment you can see fully, like an old memory, a home movie. You see yourself doing it, but you are so removed you can't feel it. You are watching Rebecca—you Rebecca—hug Eddie, the slightly greasy guy from downstairs who you suddenly now realize smells of mushrooms. How is that possible? And now you are back, back in your shoes on the street corner, holding Eddie in his raincoat that smells of mushrooms.

You step back. One step, two. You are walking backwards up the hill.

"Was I really so bad?" he says, again. His arms are still parentheses of the embrace you've pulled out of.

"You were fine," you mouth, pushing breath up, but nothing sounds. "You did fine," you say, getting only the "You" out. He starts to come after you. Not in a hurry, but as though you had invited him for a walk. You turn around to pick up speed, to push from your heels. You feel him behind you. You drop the paper and start pulling at the air with your clenched hands. You are running up this hill. You don't look back.

You are totally out of shape.

In your new apartment, you lock and double-check the lock and pull the curtains closed. You lean your head against the molding and peek out with one eye. Eddie is not waiting outside. Eddie is not living beneath you. He is going home, to be beneath the new Rebecca.

You wonder what she dresses like. If the wig is brown, curly, red, straight. You have nearly jet-black hair. Shoulder length, without style. It is your most average feature.

You imagine walking over to the old building and standing outside, waiting to see the new Rebecca, see if she goes to a day job. If she wears pumps and a suit. You think you could write an article—Transvestites Go To Work. You chuckle at the idea of wanting to go and spy on the Rebecca that lives above Eddie. Oh, no, the irony is not lost on you. You wonder if Eddie calls her, or him. Which voice does Rebecca use to answer the phone? Does she clear her throat before she lifts her chin, tightening her throat into a squeak of a voice? Hello?

You check your machine where there is one message. It is the phone company offering you a new service, Caller ID.

You decide Eddie has gone and it is okay to open the blinds. Light—you get good southern light in the morning—warms the room, your overall feeling. You touch your toes, stretch out the run fatigue that is settling into your thighs. Stretching is good. Why not do it more often? You think of your cat and how she is always stretching, rolling over in the sun, letting it fall on her belly. You take off your shirt, undo your bra and lower yourself to the floor, loosening your jeans.

The sun does not feel as warm as Ethel the cat makes it look and the bare floor is rather cold. You wish you were covered in fur and that your nails were so long you could go around sinking their sharpened little ends into anything and everything. You roll over onto all fours and arch your back. You took an acting class once to meet men. The instructor said, Be an animal. Make like a wild beast. Howl, cackle, cuckoo till you are blue in the face. And you did, but couldn't bring yourself to go there again.

When you stand up, Eddie is outside the window. He is holding two cups of coffee. You have two exposed breasts. You animal. He looks away, blushing a deep blush. You hiss and lash out at the air, your fingers curled like claws ready to latch on.

About the author:

Kate Milliken lives in Los Angeles, California. She holds an MFA from Bennington College, works as a freelance writer, and is currently the Los Angeles Liaison for Post Road Magazine (when she's not volunteering for the superb folks at the 826LA.org after-school program). Kate's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Pearl, Folio, Flyway, the Southeast Review, the Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. She can be reached at .

For further reading:

See the complete list of work by Kate Milliken at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 4, No. 2, where "Man Down Below" ran on June 2, 2004. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story, second person.

42opus is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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