by Samantha O’Hara
I’ve decided that I’m not leaving Quentin’s stoop until he takes me back. I’ve been an impractical girlfriend, wouldn’t you know it, but the point is he has to take me back because we’ve got so much living left to do together. I am capable of that living. I walked all the way here, the long way, even. I put my high-top sneakers on and bought a carton of orange juice with the change at the bottom of my bag. The sky is a heavy, humid yellow, and my shoulders are itchy with burn by the time I’m ringing the bell to Quentin’s apartment.
The buzzer hasn’t worked in months, so he has to look through the curtains before coming out. When I was allowed inside, he would go to the window and bribe me with hazelnuts to answer the door for him. He is always hiding behind my pluckiness, having me kill the cockroaches for him.
Soon I see him stalking the glass, tall and craning his neck to look past me like maybe I’m here but he expected something else, too. The door opens with a wild creak that I don’t remember from before.
Quentin’s forehead is oily but he doesn’t have any wrinkles yet. A patchy light comes in through the maples and makes him look very romantic. He is waving to a lean blonde woman with a stroller on the sidewalk below. It’s not like him to have a crush on a mother. I try to say hello but it sounds more like a growl.
“Are you here to pick up your painting,” he says.
“No. Not really. Quentin, look—I know I can be sour but you’re keeping me up at night.”
“Joan, you said the same thing that time you got too drunk and broke every mailbox in Suffolk county.”
“My arms were tired after, you know that.” We blink at each other for a moment like neither of us quite understands the reality of the other. I want him to know that I am learning my lessons. “So, how about I come inside and we talk about this over an artichoke. Hmm?”
His arms do a sharp, slashing motion. Absolutely not.
“Now Quentin,” and I put my hands on my hips here because I really mean business. “I’m not leaving this stoop until we finish talking about you taking me back.”
“This is not what I meant when I said we could still be friends.”
“You’ll hardly notice me at all,” I say, sitting down on the top step.
“You can sit there as long as you like, but I think you’re being just as stubborn as before.” He seems firm for once and closes the door behind him. The stairs are warm from sunlight, they feel like melt on the backs of my thighs. I sit down for a very long time.
About that painting. It was worth nothing at a thrift store I was killing time in. Plus, it’s not even a painting. It’s a pencil sketch of a woman in a sort of Victorian dress, buttons down the back, hair in a bow up top. Her back is facing the watcher and she’s standing with her legs wide apart, her hands strict on her hips. The drawing itself is no bigger than a few inches, but the frame is massive. It’s gilded and finely engraved and just begging for eyes. I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world and I hung it with nails as soon as I got back to Quentin’s that day.
At first, he enjoys me and all our time outside. He draws comics on index cards and leaves them in the mailbox for me. In one I am an old man, yelling at children to keep off of my lawn. In another, he is reading me the lengthy Faulkner novel with all those restless Quentins and it makes my dreams start twisting.
Some mornings, early enough that the flowers are still tightly hugged shut, we put our bodies together and dance. We dip and arch and step and lift.
The summer passes gloriously and we never have to go very far. Our hair lightens, our mouths water. But the answer is still no whenever I ask the question.
Another woman has taken to meditating on her stoop for hours at a time. There is some confusion around the neighborhood as to our relation. “Is she waiting for nothing, too?” they say.
I’ve spread out on the stairs. I have a space for reading, another for gathering. I save the welcome mat for sleeping. The bottom stairs are where I stretch my legs and keep count of the men that walk by holding flowers. So far today: five.
I shout to Leon, the veteran with the oxygen tank backpack. He goes up and down the block for exercise. A few weeks ago, he told me I was smart to get all of this air while I’m young. I have a pretty good idea of what war it was that he fought in, but I can’t say for sure.
“Hey, what do you know about doing good for other people?” I want to know certain things are possible, still.
“Nothing,” he says darkly. “War is a scam.”
“Don’t I know it.”
He shakes his head and laughs in his hacking way. “Your generation and your causes.”
He ambles on, drawing long breaths every time he steps down on his left. By the time he’s at the corner I come to wonder whether he and I were having two different conversations.
This is impractical, yes. I get sunburns that flake for whole Augusts. But the bee stings are nothing compared to winter and its lack of remorse. It’s as cold as you would think. I become stiff as the iron rails, the icy, flattened concrete. I become that spine of a staircase, Quentin my only destination.
I collect hail and pollen and other things that come to me from the sky. I build igloos for my bad moods and scatter petals on the long days. His neighbors step briskly over me to walk their prim dogs. They’re very nice about it, though.
Once I got us kicked out of a nice restaurant for all my impatience. His hand wrapped limply around my wrist, leading me out. I pointed my finger at him more than I had the right to.
“I’m sorry,” Quentin said to the hostess. “I’m sorry.”
Quentin is disagreeing with some mushrooms in the rain. Rough and spongy, the knife is going soft against them. He’s under the stone awning, balancing a cutting board in his lap. I try to be helpful so I peel the skin from garlic cloves. Stamp them down on the damp pavement, mince.
“The trees are really tilting today,” I say.
“You’re going to go on about it, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be mean Quentin, you’re not good at it.”
“You’ve got to leave sometime.” He’s barefoot and the bottoms of his toes are already pale and pruning. I miss the feeling of them curling into the soft behind my knee. He’s wearing the moth bitten sweater I like, the blue one.
“Why can’t it be me? I’m here, aren’t I?”
“It just can’t anymore. Not like that.”
I don’t want to need more than this. I don’t want to and yet the wrought iron walls of the cradle have never been so cruel.
The thing about the stoop is the black sculpted railing; the way the paint is old enough to chip in large, hard flakes that get tangled in the mess of my hair. The steps, saddled between those serpentine arms, have always reminded me of tongues lapping one of top of the next. In certain light, when the cement is sparkling, it looks exactly like saliva. By which I mean, I find it all very beautiful, right here.
It is also the wrong place for stillness. Things are always coming in or out. But I can appreciate the way this rigid staircase doesn’t try to argue or be anything other than what it is.
What else is there to see in this city but Edna in her garden and the boy practicing his trumpet scales on the hood of his mother’s Toyota?
Where else is there to be?
Quentin fell in love with my things before he fell for me. There was a party, at my place, and I bought nice gin and dried lavender for the countertop. I’m not sure who invited him, but I found him sitting quiet on the floor of my bedroom, unfazed by the headache of indoor cigarettes and slurred conversations, looking at my stuff. He touched book covers, carefully replaced them right where he found them. He studied the wallpaper, tested the sturdiness of some chair legs. Gentle as ever. I walked towards him so that he could look up at me with those bloodhound eyes.
“This is my room,” I told him.
“It’s a nice room. I like your candles.”
I told him about myself there, in my bedroom where it was too loud and no good for talking. I told him about being a kid and stealing my mother’s wallet to buy candy at the grocer. I told him about poems I wished I’d written and the time I got my first period and my favorite conspiracy theory documentaries.
“You take a long time to tell a story.” He said it sweetly, like a marvel.
“That’s because you’re actually listening.”
“I’m going to have trouble getting rid of you, aren’t I?”
The first time Mona comes over, we shake hands.
“This is Joan. She’s a gargoyle and also my ex-girlfriend,” he says to us.
“He’s going to take me back someday,” I warn her.
“No, I’m not.”
I cross my arms all bitter and he pulls at his eyebrows like he is fixing some uncomfortable thoughts together. Quentin’s got a thing for plucking the hair out of his face when he’s nervous. Small and stiff like matchsticks, I used to pick them up from the nightstand with wet tissues and flush them away.
“Stop touching your face,” I tell him.
“Stop mothering me, Joan.”
Mona just stands there, smiling passively. I try being polite about the whole thing but then I make some bad jokes about Catholic priests and they go inside and forget about me, probably.
We fucked once before Mona. That is to say, after the rest. I led him down the stairs, next to the garbage cans. It was damp and I didn’t ask to come inside after. We laid there a short time instead catching our breath, taking in the acrid smell of rot.
The mothers are out today. Their children are swarming. The blonde one, the one he likes, has an abundance of children. Too many. They’re all looking at me with their wet eyes and pulling at the hem of her shorts. She seems kind of witchy and mean and I don’t know why her children trust her.
She stops and looks up at me on my perch, says she’s wondering about something.
“What’s so great about him?”
So I tell her about the way he puffs his cheeks when he feels lost, and the way he never minds me rippling his paperbacks in the rain out here. He’s good at card games, good at solitaire, even. He knows when things are going to go on sale and the right way to press a foot to dull a headache. I tell her all of this not because she asked, but because I hope he might overhear me saying nice things from the stoop.
“Oh, don’t worry so much.” I’m not sure what that means anymore or why everyone is saying it to my face all of the time. I don’t feel worried at all.
One of her smallest boys starts running ahead. “I said don’t worry,” she says, “He knows the way home, if that’s where he wants to go.”
All night I dream about the inside of Quentin’s apartment. I dream the outdoor cats grow feral and chase me in. Their claws are larger than normal, swollen with my fear. Quentin cheers me on as I rebuke them for shedding so much. “You don’t have to ruin everything!” I shout. Then I realize Quentin and the couch and the empty dishwasher and the ashtrays. I don’t feel pleased, more concerned than anything. Like I have misplaced something inside, or misplaced myself.
No one would ever say that I am someone who makes things easy, but am I suffering yet? No, the word is insufferable.
“Gregory Peck is kind of an asshole in Roman Holiday, actually,” Mona says, leaning into her elbows at the windowsill. “He’s using her the whole time and poor Audrey falls in love over it.”
By now, we’re a little drunk and out of lime juice. We’re squinting through the last light, being too loud about things that don’t matter. The sunset has been coming, each cloud slowly dissolving for hours, the air syrupy and purple.
“And we’re supposed to root for a love like that,” she says mournfully.
“Typical,” I offer.
“Why do men always think women are doing too much, or going too far?” We both know who she means and we hide our eyes from each other for a while.
“Are you going to marry him after all this?”
“He’s not taking you back, Joan.”
“That’s not much of the point anymore.” I mean it. I lay my head down on a middle step. Mona reaches down from her frame and laces her fingers through my hair all night.
“Oil of oregano,” he said once. “That’s the cure for everything.”
Towards the end, I asked if I was in trouble. I had told him to braid my hair like a loose crown, but his fingers were cold and he was getting it all wrong. My head was jerking about and everything felt unsteady.
“It’s not like you to be scared of getting in trouble,” he said.
“Trouble with you is different than trouble with everyone else.”
He snapped an elastic in place and looked down, his arms heavy and pointless at his sides. “Sometimes I wonder why you can’t just be alone with your mouth for a while.”
“It’s always yelling with us now.”
“Okay.” I thought about making it impossible for him to say the words we were waiting for, but there was never any way around it. Whenever Quentin had something to say, it was truer than anything I had ever howled.
In the morning, there is coffee. Mona eats tuna from the can while Quentin fixes a crossword. Things are good but I’m feeling melancholy lately. Mona tries to cheer me up by telling me what it’s like going to the park. She tells me how much movie tickets cost these days and about the strange omens she finds on the subway. She is always holding my hand now, too.
He was still mine when that blackout happened, the one that snuffed every borough out. The streets were dead. I walked because, what else, I was out of cigarettes and it was the kind of dark that reminded me I’m alone in the world. It was a weird hour by the time I deciphered the right staircase from all of the wrong ones. The bell, the look through the window.
The stoop. Back then, it was a place I could leave when I felt like it. We sat on the steps and I brought his head down to my lap because he was trying very hard to stay awake. We played his favorite game, the one where I sing him songs from Quentin Tarantino movies and he guesses which one it’s from.
A drunk man staggered up and unzipped his pants. I could barely see him in all that dark but I screamed at him anyway. I asked where his shame was. He looked like a pathetic ghost, running away into the pitch black with his pants around his knees.
“I thought we were having a nice time there,” Quentin mumbled through sleep.
“Are you dreaming of a better me?”
He shook awake a bit and looked up at me, humble. His eyebrows caved in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever seen since. He gripped my knee tighter and I got dizzy.
“No. There’s no better you than this you.”
We breathed a while and he fell asleep and I swallowed the darkness of that night whole.
Mona and Quentin have a wedding on a cloudy day. When it’s over, he carries her over the threshold because she likes to be classic. I settle against the iron and watch some ants stumble blindly over crumbs. I listen to the panting of their mattress.
Quentin keeps a moustache now, dark and speckled with gray. He’s coming up with shopping bags full of starched white shirts. He puts them down and talks at me about “strategy” and “enough is enough, Joan.” The face of his watch catches the sun with a painful glare.
It’s true, the recycling is beginning to disgust me. The wine bottles, so many, and all that yogurt. Even the buildings have started to feel cagey, accusing me of something. Everything has been angles and certainty and not leaving the stairs and what am I left with?
“I hardly recognize you anymore,” he says. “Where did you go?”
“I was trying to be a statue. A memorial to failed love.”
“Joan, take some responsibility for yourself. Your hair is down to your knees.”
I get it. My stubbornness has made the stoop unlivable, that much is obvious. It’s been years since I did anything as simple as look in the mirror or pick up groceries or say goodbye, and it’s hard to remember why anymore.
In another lifetime, I caught Quentin as he was sneaking out of the front door. He had been avoiding me whenever we were in the same room, inviting me over only to run for the door once I did. I was angry at him for being meek, for saying we were over and being so sure of it. I was angry that he let me yell at him so much, but I yelled anyway. I couldn’t allow it to be like this, not with him in the doorway being so plain about it all.
“We can still be friends. I’ll always want you in my life, Joan.” He walked over and rubbed my shoulder like he was consoling a child. I hated him for making this easy, for making me into something average, like an ex-girlfriend. If it had to end, I refused to let it be ordinary.
The tap-dancing girl is shuffling on the sidewalk. It really is incredible how long she can do it for. A whole afternoon, clacking about.
“Hey!” I shout to her. I want to make sure she can hear what I have to say. “Hey hey hey hey!”
She looks up at me quickly without breaking her rhythm. “What do you want,” she says with a little sour.
“Are you going to dance away from here someday?”
“Hell yeah,” she goes faster now, does a Fred Astaire move. “Fuck this fucking block.”
“You’ve got a bad mouth for a little girl.”
“Look who’s talking.” A hawk is circling above us, wings splayed. For the first time in a long time, I want to go farther than stairs go. It must be her toes clacking that forceful metronome, it just makes you want to move.
So I do. I stand up. I unfurl my arthritic fists and then shut them, the bones clicking a tempo. My joints resettle into their old ways musically, just like her loud shoes. My body aches so widely that it feels like nothing at all. I step off of the stoop and firmly onto the sidewalk. I look back to it, pleased to find I haven’t been turned into a pillar of salt.
The girl stops tap-dancing, her mouth is big and wide and open. “Keep it together,” I tell her. “You’ll need that mouth when you leave this place.”
Years later, I am still wicked. But that day, I bent my knees and laced the high-tops and that was that. I walked like a nervous wreck for a long time, but once I remembered what it was like to stroll, things got better. I found a bulldog and named him Quentin and then it was really over between us. He doesn’t do much more than slobber. I like to whisper in his ears and tell him how good he can be. I only tell him the truth.
The children ride bicycles and slide down the railing with me. I hold them to make sure they are safe. They look like Mona; grey eyes and crooked teeth. I high-five them and they gallop and pedal with pride. Everything, done with so much pride. Look at me! Here I am, doing my best! We pass hours like that, under the careful hands of trees, mystified by how perfect they can be.
Mona holds my hand on the top step and tells me she misses me. We talk about mothering while the children pummel around with the Quentins. I never say so, but I am still a little glad that they don’t look like him.
Goodbye feels alright again. Quentin is slow on his leash but the stars are out and we walk all the way home together.
Samantha O’Hara is a Brooklyn-based writer and an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared in Trampset.
Image: Charles DeLoye/Unsplash