The Men in the Living Room
When I lived in Lubbock, Texas in my twenties, I used to wake to knocks on my bedroom door in the middle of the night. The knocks angry, insistent, three, sometimes four. Knock knock knock knock. I’d jerk awake, stare at the thin door made visible by the streetlight outside my window, my breath quick. I’d settle back into the sheets, pull the quilt over my shoulders, and listen to the creak from the gate in the alley—a long whine. Sleep.
A lanky, moustached man in OP shorts is sitting on my love seat, his hands trembling a cup of coffee. I must have been cleaning the house, yellow plastic gloves to my elbows, the door to the balcony open for air. I know I want him to leave, but I let him finish one cup of coffee, then another. When I shut the door after him and listen to his dejected steps, I look down at the floor, notice that the beige carpet looks like whorls of cake batter as it’s being mixed. Delicate ground. The slightest noise will cause it to collapse.
If I were awake, I could explain this is the man who convinced me to come back to Texas, the man who once imitated how I crossed and un-crossed my legs in his office (He told me it made him hard.), the man who would be indicted for vandalizing the car of a neighbor, the videotape of his act on the nightly news. If I were awake, I probably wouldn’t explain anything, rather pretend I never knew him, that he didn’t follow me home more than once, lean down beside my bed and put his tongue inside me with the force of all his pending implosions.
A sun-aged man knocks on the front door of my building. He has been calling all afternoon, the rings forcing the click of the answering machine. Ring, ring, ring, click. Ring, ring, ring, click. As if I’ll open a door when I won’t answer a phone. I huddle in the corner behind the door, hoping he won’t see my shadow through the sheer curtain. He backs up, tosses a CD case toward the steps of the porch then roars away in an oversized red pickup. I remember being inside this truck, a night or two before, falling over to kiss him only because I was drunk and he said my name (It used to take so little.) I turn my head to read the CD cover, but it’s nonsense, jibberish. Now he’s in the living room standing on a golf-green rug, holding something out to me I can’t see, his arms hidden, the rug a sand he tracks on the hardwood floors as he walks out, humming.
If I were awake, I would recognize this building as the last place I lived in Texas. I was twenty-seven, then twenty-eight. I had a cat named Mr. McBeavy, a Mac Classic II, a Uniden phone, a favorite barstool at Crickets on 19th, and an antique kitchen table where I worked through library books, teaching myself French.
But I’m not awake, I’m outside. Standing across from my apartment on the second floor of a four-unit building. The building is red-brick, and the stairs, the shutters, the balcony, all white. The payphone on the sidewalk next to me rings three times. Stops.
Now I’m in the living room. Hardwood floors, dull-paint walls, a porch balcony facing the street (I liked to sit in a lawn chair and smoke out there in the dark, naked, fearless in my body.), two bedrooms. Out the back, a dull wooden fence along the alley, its gate half-open, a broken latch. Now it’s night, the bathtub full of smoke. (Or is it dry ice from that one party?) A broom and dustpan lean against the door frame. I stumble to the front window, hike the sharp tilt of the floor, trace the outline of the payphone on the window with my silver-ringed finger.
Now I’m driving home, past a long-haired, faux-collar-coated woman smoking back and forth on the sidewalk. When I turn into my drive, I catch her in my rearview, picking up the black receiver of the payphone. The lot behind my building unpaved, gravel, a four car garage. Mine the first on the left, its three paned windows dusty and somber. I park my black Jeep in the lot and climb out, toss up a hand to the woman who lives on the first floor, a sentinel at her screen door peering out at the slightest noise. Her silhouette squinting, a coffee cup in her hands. Does she know (Of course she does.) his red Dodge hides in my garage? I count the wooden stairs to the door that opens to my kitchen. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Inside, his coat sighs over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. I round the corner to find him seated on the beige love seat, neat in his pleated khakis, that blue sweater, the silver gray of his hair cut close. He smiles tightly, says, Vous êtes méchant.
If I were awake, I would remember standing for a long moment at the front window one New Year’s Eve, the television muted in the corner, the black and white images of a classic shimmering in the dark. The thump and whine of fireworks in the distance, blocked by the trees. Thud. Wait. Whistle. Thud. Two minutes after midnight. The phone muffled, far away, so I upend love seat cushions, pillows, the blue throw on the papasan. The ring a tremor until I find it and press the button. Hello? I missed him.
I type in black and white to the computer’s humming. An icon of a tiny bomb exploding on the screen, and I’m at the front window again, watching the woman press the black receiver to her ear. Her head tosses back, her high heels wobble against the grit of west Texas wind. Through the slats of the blinds, I see a car pull up to the curb. She leans into the open window, presses her long hair to her neck with one hand. I remember this scene like an overplayed clip on the news: the dark-windowed cars, her short skirts and surrenders to passenger seats, then thirty minutes, the sound of a car door, before she starts over: smoking, pacing, that payphone like a tether.
If I were awake, I would recognize this as the living room where I watched President Clinton shake his finger, use the word “never,” claim it depended on what the meaning of is, is. The testimony, the press conferences, the hug in the crowd playing like a recurring dream I’ve had so many times I can follow along: the books on the mantel behind him, his grip on the podium, her blue dress, the beret, her sudden smile, how he called her “that woman.” His head finally dropping to admit it had been improper, not appropriate.
Late one night.
A plaid shirted man in baggy jeans, black frames, and Doc Martens waits in the doorframe between my kitchen and living room. I sit on the love seat, turned away. We have been at Crickets since four this afternoon, Bud Light for Bud Light. The click of his Zippo like a demand. Click. Hiss. Sizzle. Exhale. I want him to leave so I can rush to the front room and check e-mail, see if the driver of the red Dodge will be pulling in tomorrow, climbing my stairs before folding his khakis, his blue shirt, his socks, and his underwear over the back of the rocking chair in my bedroom.
I can either turn and look at the man who is here—standing with a Whataburger bag in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Or I can keep looking down at my hands, turning the silver ring on my left index finger. I am so in love with you I can’t stand it. It’s an angry, weary plea, and I don’t turn. Instead, I push against the weight rushing from across the room with my shoulders to hold it back.
The moment I did not turn always ringing. Ringing.
A thin man in black sweatpants leans on a stage in my living room, his back to the audience of my furniture, the vibrato of his harmonica chords muffled, almost inaudible. He begins to sing in a weak but clear voice about the vagabond who's rapping at my door. The kitchen table has been moved into the living room, an upright pen where a candle might be, red wine, a hardcover book at each place setting. He sits across from me, now in a plaid shirt and a pair of out-of-fashion jeans, apologizing for what he’s about to do: end things.
If I were awake, I’d tell you how we didn’t eat the stuffed shells I made that night, how we sat on the love seat, talking toward the books on the wall. I’d tell you it wasn’t so much losing him as it was the losing. (Everything, someone once told me, for me a contest.) The screen door slammed shut, and the streetlight sputtered as the dusk drew in the dark.
Turning left on Broadway, I drive the residential streets. A light blue Ford Explorer behind me, the outline of a woman in my rearview. To get home, I stay on this street for seven blocks, take a right on 14th, pass two houses, and turn into the gravel parking lot, but the Explorer hesitates at every stop sign, so I take a left on 18th, go north a few blocks, a right on Avenue R, the blue of the Ford a canvas in my rearview mirror. A right on 15th, a left on Avenue T. Still. We’re like game pieces moving around a board. I know who it is, knew when I made the first turn off Broadway because I know the car, have seen him get into it outside the English building.
It’s a sunken room framed by three steps. Even though it doesn’t look like it, I understand this is the Oval Office. A black piano in the middle of the floor, white carpet, a showiness more Sinatra than Clinton, but it’s Clinton here, asking me to help him stay in office. Or maybe it’s not Clinton, maybe he stands for the driver of the red Dodge, asking for another afternoon.
The next day, awake, I tell red Dodge the dream, and before I finish, he tells me, When you dream about cars, you’re really dreaming about your sex life. I don’t think he was listening. Maybe I was asleep the entire time.
It’s been more than fifteen years since I lived in that apartment (apart meant), and I’m more than fifteen years away from a woman I regret. How could I have known I would leave the state, come back, leave again, and even after all that, not be able to see what I had done to myself, what someone had done to me, how so much of it was like getting into a car with a stranger.
I can still see the brass headboard, the bed in the corner, its quilted comforter, the small table by the window, the one that held my Uniden phone base, the light blinking a number, all those the times I had to push the Intercom button on the base so the phone would sound long enough for me to track it down, usually tucked between the cushions of the loveseat, under one of the pillows on my bed. The Georgia O’Keefe print on the wall, the one with bold blues and oranges I never framed.
It’s the day I moved out, all the blinds pulled to the top of every window. I’m clinging to the doorframe of my bedroom, sobbing into the space, somewhere between a stand and a kneel. I think about the back screen door slamming, the Friday afternoons, the day I looked out my bedroom window to see a silver-haired woman in a purple coat, her hands cupped around her eyes as she peered into the dim windows of the garage.
I’ve never been back to that building, but I dream it: the dark stairway, the alley, the closed front door. For years I’ve been pacing the hardwoods in the dark, fumbling for my phone, peering out the window. (How did Didion put it? “Hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m.”)
Knock knock knock knock.
The woman who lived in that building never left.
I left her there.
But all those men, they gather on the other side of the door. Pace circles in the gravel. Linger in the living room, the chorus of their voices moving through every room, out every open window, and onto the street below.
I imagine that red-bricked building now, the streetlight bright, the payphone gone.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). Her essays have appeared in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Passages North, The Normal School, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas and serves as nonfiction editor for American Literary Review.