After Madeline left the bedroom, he used a muted green towel to wipe sweat off his stomach. He stepped towards her doorway and flipped the switch for the ceiling fan. The switch didn’t work or the fan didn’t work. Nothing ever worked in her room. There were brown smudges on the yellow walls. Bug guts. He looked at the open window with brown drapes and a broken screen. A small moth flickered past the curtain either coming in or trying to leave. He watched it dart around wondering how many bugs she’d killed in the past week. She was probably terrified they were cockroaches. He could imagine her searching for images on Google, crying, and wanting to call someone.
The air in the bedroom was moist and a sweaty odor wafted up from the duvet. Did she notice the smell anymore? Many of the books on her desk had similar brown smudges to the walls. Did she use books she liked less to kill insects, or did she pick books she could hold easily in her pale hands?
He’d met her online a few months ago. They’d gone to a busy café that played music he used to feel a lot for in high school where they had to sit close together on a bench filled with people doing work on laptops. The idea was that they would meet for a cup of tea because she wasn’t drinking.
The toilet flushed down the hall.
He knew it would take her about ten seconds to walk from the bathroom to her bed because she would be rushing, wearing nothing but her sad black nighty with her sweaty hair pulled into a knot on top of her head.
“Put your ass in the air,” he said when she came in, still wiping makeup from her face in a way she thought he wouldn’t notice. He pointed to the bed and she walked over to it.
Four or five days later, he received a random, unsolicited text from Madeline: I hate not remembering things. It makes me feel stupid.
He wrote: I think we should talk less.
Fine. Take care.
This was a relatively tame response from her. There had been times when Madeline had told him she was the hottest girl he’d ever fuck in his life. Other times she sent him messages claiming she was a joke. She’d ask him to come kiss her. It was difficult to see Madeline’s mouth as something to kiss when he could easily kiss his girlfriend Charlotte’s instead.
They sometimes found themselves at the same party. He ignored her. He’d tell Madeline he was doing it to make the sex better, more secretive, but really he didn’t want Charlotte or his friends to see him talking to her.
When Madeline started drinking again, she began to wear more makeup as if she knew her skin didn’t glow anymore. She lost weight in a way that made her stomach look concave. She would disappear for weeks. When he did hear from her, she’d let him come over while she was still sweating it out. She really needed to take care of it.
In the fall, Charlotte broke up with him through a brief cryptic email that he read while pretending to work on a laptop in a café.
The email read: Your kindness is hollow. This must end.
It didn’t make sense. It read like something weird that Madeline would write, not his girlfriend. Had Charlotte’s email been hacked? Could he try to get into it? Was she leaving him for someone else? He loved Charlotte, or loved having her around, or loved visiting her dad’s house in California in the winter.
He sorted through his bag for his headset and made sure that no one was close enough to hear him while he called her. He could fix this.
“Hi, Adam,” Charlotte answered, curtly.
“I hate it when you call me that.”
“Ocelots are majestic creatures.”
“I don’t care.”
“My ocelot! Is it someone else?”
“You keep liking this goth girl’s photos.”
She meant Madeline.
“I don’t think she’s goth. I think she thinks she’s goth, but she’s not.”
“You like all her posts.”
“My finger must have slipped.”
“Are you being funny? She seems weird.”
“She’s been through a lot.” Adam paused after he said this. His defence of Madeline came as a surprise to him. He had no idea about her life and never asked.
“I don’t know. She’s just sort of sad.”
Charlotte paused. He could hear her shutting the door to her condo balcony then the flick of her lighter.
“Come on,” he said. “I don’t even know her.” He thought about what he could do. He could pull up one of Madeline’s pictures and get Charlotte to do the same. Cut Madeline down. Make some comment about her appearance because he knew that would please Charlotte. Call Madeline stupid. Tell Charlotte she’s smart, his equal. These options seemed cruel.
“We can get through this. We’ll start a hashtag together,” he suggested.
“Save it for the sorority girls.” She hung up before Adam could ask what she meant by that. He felt a fleeting sense of loss similar to the irritation and embarrassment of lighting a cigarette backwards by mistake.
He tried to visualize Madeline filling a small suitcase with her ennui and her self-indulgent black clothing, on her way to rush for a college sorority like the ones in movies. If he were a person who expressed enthusiasm or joy, he would have laughed. He smirked and took a sip from his Americano which had cooled.
Later that evening, after Madeline had assured him that she was sober, he arrived in her front garden pausing to look at the new decorations. Madeline lived in an apartment on the top floor of a house with two people she’d met on the Internet. They were never home. Someone had lined the path that led to the front door with mason jars filled with mini electric lights. He knew Madeline didn’t do it. Decorating a garden was an act of self-care she didn’t seem capable of.
It couldn’t have been the woman doing the puzzles who lived in a separate apartment on the main floor. He could always see her sitting at the table by her window. The puzzles would sometimes take up the whole desk which led Adam to assume they consisted of thousands of pieces. The puzzle box was always propped up near one of those green library lamps for reference. The woman was smoking. Even from where he was standing in the garden he noticed her plump lips contrasting with the frailty of her body. She looked as if she would sink into the large armchair next to the desk. She was maybe in her fifties. The only puzzles he’d seen her do were replicas of Monet paintings.
He sent Madeline a text that read: here.
“Does she ever leave the house?” he asked when Madeline opened the door.
Madeline didn’t understand why Adam was speaking. He usually remained silent as they climbed her stairs. She was wearing a black pleated skirt and tights and hoped he was watching her the way he used to when they first started.
“I don’t know who you mean,” Madeline whispered, knowing he meant the puzzle woman, her neighbour.
Madeline sometimes drank with the woman while she did her puzzles. It had taken her three sessions to remember her neighbour’s name, Dot. She respected Dot because she smoked in her apartment, not caring if it began to smell.
She’d watch Dot scrutinize the pieces, as if the next one would glow in order to present itself if only she looked long and hard enough. She could sense that Dot didn’t want her help by the way she protected the little piles of puzzle pieces. Piles sorted into similar colors and shapes. Madeline was fine with drinking and watching someone else’s passion.
Dot was faded and fundamentally broken but you could tell her grey eyes were once alert and hopeful. Could I be as depressed as this old woman? Madeline wondered as she listened to stories about the terrible men Dot had been with. Dot would explain that she was addicted to longing. Even though the events that led to her lovers not wanting her had passed long ago, she was confident her brain had become accustomed to the chemical makeup of a deep hurt. She’d never let anyone close enough now. When it came time for Madeline to climb the stairs to her own apartment, with the heightened awareness of someone who can’t afford to appear drunk, she’d often feel emotionally drained without the payoff of wisdom.
Inside her room, Madeline watched Adam put his coat and leather messenger bag on the chair next to her door. He unbuttoned his shirt while staring at her in an intense way that made him look like he was concentrating really hard on income taxes. He was the prettier one and they both knew that.
After they were done, Madeline propped herself on the bed and crossed her legs.
“Big plans?” she asked.
Adam was texting frantically. She wondered what he wanted out of life. From her. She tried to think of how many women he must be sleeping with. She almost asked what priority she took on that list but she knew what he would say.
Madeline wished he would ask her to go for a beer with him.
“I’ll talk to you later,” he said. Then he left.
She lay down and scrolled through her phone for a couple of minutes in case Adam would miraculously text her something sweet, right away. Without thinking, she took a Kleenex from the table by her bed and started rubbing at some of the brown stains on the wall. Madeline wondered why she hadn’t noticed them before and why she’d accepted them as a part of her life.
Sophie is a writer living in Toronto. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.