Post Road Magazine #10

The Other Woman

by David Roth

Sirens sounded on the block a breath before the manic lights, and Andrew listened as the cold night air distorted them into an almost- human shriek. It had been a long while since he had awakened to this sound, going back to the worst of times when the sirens owned the city and no one slept fully. He had learned to roll over in the face of the city’s tendency to scream in its sleep, and in time, his subconscious learned to write the sounds of the city at work into his dreams.

The sirens were gone, but he lay there with them in his head, thinking of things he didn’t enjoy thinking about. Half-thoughts: burning buildings, crumpled cars, bleeding teens and whispering-whooping onlookers at the Burger King on McGuinness, and other, even worse things that had plowed uninvited through his dreams before. The air in the room was close, night-still and cold. Floorboards groaned briefly, but then there was just his breath and the faint hum of the digital clock on the bedside table.

The warm shape next to him groaned and mumbled but was not awake, and he was glad. He was glad he could lie there on his back in relative peace while he blinked and heard his heart work loudly up his chest. His tongue felt huge, and he pressed it dryly against the brainy wrinkles on the roof of his mouth. No moisture came. Andrew lay there in the newly quiet dark, choking on that dryness.

An empty glass sat on the alarm clock. The rising orange of the digital numbers illuminated a thin drop of water clinging to its inside and some smudgy His ’n Hers fingerprints on the outside. The bed was warm, and he knew the room was achingly cold. He felt his pulse in his temples, in his jaw, rapping at the inside of his forehead: he was still drunk.

He had seen this bedroom only briefly: in the excited moment when they entered together, then, amid reeling comfort and fatigue as he lay on the bed waiting for her to finish brushing her teeth. His memories bobbed woozily away from him on a tide of whiskey and Coca-Cola; whatever knowledge he’d had of the room’s avenues of egress or shadowed obstacles had drowned beneath those sour waves. Andrew wanted only a safe, quiet path to the door and the small bathroom down the hall—another quick, surreal moment in there, when he caught himself looking rosy and confused in the mirror, slipped into and quickly out of his memory—but as he blinked into the black, it all seemed intensely unknowable. In his current state, the room was dangerous.

And it was cold, too, very cold, but he was thirsty and everything ached and he needed water. He revised back on the “still drunk”: actually, he had awakened in time to witness the sloppy change of the guard between drunk and hungover, and he wished he hadn’t. A fat surge of nausea pulsed through him, then passed. Finally, Andrew sat up onto one elbow and snatched the glass. Then, impossibly, he was looking at a woman sitting on the end of the bed.

She was pretty. Strands of hair twisted from waves that fell down her neck, and they half-glowed maroon in a sliver of streetlight. She was reading a paperback, an old edition of something, and wore dark jeans and a T- shirt. The room was dark, and the light angling between the shade and the frozen glass of the window didn’t seem enough to read by, but he heard the page turn, and the girl seemed to be reading. Idly, his brain asked his eyes to check out the title, before a larger sense of discontinuity —this other woman was not supposed to be here, and, since the bedroom door was closed and locked, could not be—kicked adrenaline into his mouth. He pushed back, and the pillows pressed behind him before finally going flat and vertical against the wall. The girl folded over a page and closed the book (Dostoevsky?), ran her palm over the cover. Her skin—he could see a sliver of her face, a long-fingered hand, a neck downed with translucent hairs—was pale in the sharp wedge of light. She looked him in the face, and he looked back at her, because he couldn’t look anywhere else.

Jessica—this was the name of the girl from the party who had become the warm, gently heaving shape beside him in bed—turned again and threw a pale arm over the comforter. Dirty light slashed across her face, and he could see leftover eye makeup crossing as faint, inky veins across her sleeping eyelid. Her face was smooth and cold and actually rather lovely as she slept. A faint smile sent wrinkles bouncing along her cheek. The other woman looked at him, then at the girl in bed beside him, then back at Andrew. He opened his mouth to speak, but his dry tongue flattened silently. The other woman flipped the book in her hand so the spine was pressed into her palm, then got up and walked from the room. Andrew watched her as she left, but she didn’t look back.

Her body’s indentation rose slowly from the comforter, and the street- light spread again over the bed’s flat, bruise-purple surface. A small, quick sleep-kick from Jessica raised quilty dunes where the other woman had been. There were more sirens outside, and the red lights bloodied the walls briefly. After another long moment Andrew got up and shuffled cautiously to the bathroom, where he filled the alarm-clock glass with opaque, half-cold tap water and stared at himself in the dark mirror.

His hair was flattened on one side and parted crazily on the other, standing in stubborn spikes along a line the pillow had chosen. His eyes hurt, and tomorrow morning’s headache massaged clumsily along his temples. He opened the medicine cabinet and rattled bottles until he found ibuprofen and swallowed two candy-coated pills with the cloudy water. He was nervous and nauseated, but he thought—in contrast to what he had just seen and as rough as he looked in the 5 AM gloom—that he didn’t look crazy.

*

People waited on the subway platform in the mornings and on the way home, two or three deep sometimes in their winter clothes, wintry looks fixed on their faces. They stood in front of Andrew and dared him not to look at them: women dandling babies and robust tourists; swarthy thirty-somethings speaking backwater dialects of languages Andrew had never even heard in movies; davening Hasids and angry-faced, sweat- smelling Brooklyn lifers. He had come to recognize some because they resembled people from high school or television or an old job, or because they’d once shared an unacknowledged jostle at the supermarket. Some just had characteristics that jumped out: woman with big eyes, guy with two-toned beard, Glasses Man or Professor Goatee or Cat Hair on Her Jacket or Dreadlock. Amid all these faces, it took Andrew some time— almost a week after he had first seen her reading in the dark at Jessica’s apartment—to realize that the other woman was following him. She emerged, as she had that night, from someplace he’d been but couldn’t remember: a bit character from his commute, now angling for a bigger role.

As the other woman came to stand out more dramatically against the background of Andrew’s life, it became more and more difficult to ignore her persistent, illogical there-ness. He’d catch her in the corner of a crowded train or waiting in line during his hyper-speed lunch hours, but then humming computers, arid fluorescence, and chortling phones would sweep the other woman and everything else from his mind. There were days when he didn’t see her, sometimes two in a row, but not many. She seemed to brush past him whenever he thought she wouldn’t.

Some nights he woke up and expected to see her studying him from the end of his bed. He didn’t see Jessica again, and in their brief exchange of friendly emails (“I just can’t get going today”; “I’ve never looked so incredibly forward to waiting on line at Subway”) he never mentioned the other woman. Neither did he mention her to his friends, who knew better than to ask about Jessica or the others like her, or at least knew enough to parenthesize their comments about that night with quick, no-need-to- talk-about-it laughs.

He’d see the other woman, always by herself, before he met those friends, but he would leave her outside. He would ignore her in the hope that, frustrated, she’d either come close enough for conversation or simply take her baleful constancy to some other Brooklyn bedroom and find some other clueless-lucky chump to haunt. Being haunted, he felt, was somehow un-cool and not an experience others would wish to share with him. He kept it to himself.

Sunlight stretched past five, but the city was still squeezed in on itself by the cold. The clearest, most beautiful days were the coldest, and Andrew’s breath sent up tight cones of vapor as solid as cigarette smoke.

His glasses fogged when he walked indoors, and his frozen skin shone when he saw himself in store windows. Sound cracked across his neigh- borhood’s empty spaces, and nothing in the frosted-hard empty lots or generations-old, forlornly wind-ruffled construction sites absorbed it. One night he heard gunshots, but the air outside was so clear and frozen, so conducive to carrying noise, that the shots could’ve come from Queens, a borough border and several miles away.

The lonesome sounds waited for Andrew like muggers as he rounded corners late at night. In the early dark, as he returned home, the neighborhood was less desolate. Ghostly might-be neighbors slipped around him, eyes down, surrounded by wobbling ellipses of yipping children and pushing flimsy carts piled with plastic bags that whipped in the wind like untended sails. The bags came from the slouching Latin supermarket nearby, and were anchored by giant specimens of odd fruit and distended gourd, fine-haired honeycomb tripe, vegetables freckled with cook-it- soon blight, experimental eggplants and previously unclassified species of zucchini.

In the late hours, though, the neighborhood was clean of life. Empty buildings gaped at empty streets, and there were roads on which he’d never seen a car. What humanity Andrew saw consisted of the truly desperate, mumbling homeless who pushed brimming shopping carts— junk, scrap metal, candy-like shards of electronic guts—around the neighborhood. They guided their rusting, heavily ballasted vehicles over the double lines in the middle of the road, unchallenged. There were no food smells at dinnertime, no neighbors to speak of. Men showed up and shouted at each other in Russian from behind a hurricane fence in a lot full of old cars, but some days they didn’t. The playground across the street was either empty or filled by sudden gaggles of Hasidic Jewish boys, who chased each other across the cracked pavement with their light, curled payes waving around their ears. At night, the fragile chain-links hanging from the basketball hoops sang to themselves in the wind.

A homeless man camped in front of the lonely bodega on Throop, traveling light at first and then, after a few days, appearing again with several bulging, paper-in-plastic-in-plastic bags and settling in. The man’s gray mane of beard was rusted orange around his mouth, and his skin puffed in the freezing weather, pinching at his eyes and blowing up his hands like fat leather gloves. One morning, as Andrew watched him sip a small cup of bodega coffee, the man lifted a pantleg to scratch an itch and revealed his scaled calf, dusted gray-and-white in the cold and swollen until it looked like tree bark. Andrew searched the man’s small, dark eyes and found no intention to answer his gaze. The man never asked for spare change. He just moved onto the block, sat, and watched. He haunted the corner in silence, and seemed, in whatever unimaginable way he decided things, to have chosen this emptiness as his home.

The other woman had nowhere to hide, here, and Andrew felt secure as he looked out the window over his frozen beachhead of a neighborhood. He also felt as if he’d been forced into a retreat to the city’s last, loneliest citadel. Some late nights the buzzer sounded and Andrew would- n’t answer. The buzz was sharp and ugly, the cheapest finger-in-the-ribs electric tone the landlord could find, and it jolted rudely through the apartment. He’d ignore it, and that worked, in a way. She had never buzzed more than twice.

One morning, Andrew woke up in a blizzard. Flakes fell as he climbed into bed, and by morning, snow blanketed the neighborhood. The snow ate all the sounds that usually clattered through the neighborhood and left only white silence where those spare noises had been. Andrew could hear the snow cold-sizzling on itself as it drifted against his window, but that was all. The street and sidewalk blended into one undulant cushion of white. He wondered about the homeless man; whether he had found someplace to go. Maybe there was a dry spot under one of the corrugated steel roofs-over-nothing: someplace warm between the gapped teeth of some decomposing factory.

He called work to tell them he wasn’t coming in, but no one answered. Then he watched the snow and wondered how he’d get out of his apartment. A truck with a plow mounted on its bumper pushed past on Throop, sealing his street from the avenue with a frozen wave of gray-crested snow. Andrew wished for the simple, affirming sight of children playing on it, tumbling down its gentler away-from-the-avenue edge into what had to be almost a foot of cold softness on the pavement. But there were no children in the neighborhood, and so the wave sagged silently. The snow had drifted against the front door. Andrew called the landlord.

“Villanueva.” The landlord referred to himself in the third person. It was how he answered the phone.

“Mr. Villanueva, it’s Andrew, from the building on Caledonia.” “How you doing, Andrew.” “Fine, I guess, but it’s snowing, you know, and there’s this, like . . .” “Is snowing in Queens, too.” Villanueva coughed wetly. “I don’t doubt it. I’m snowed in, though, is why I’m calling. I didn’t know whether, uh, there was any way you could maybe just tell me how, so I could get out to the store or . . .”

“There’s a shovel downstairs under the . . . you know the little closet?” “The little one under the stairs?” This tiny, mold-smelling nook was labeled “superintendent closet.” Villanueva, who lived in a co-op in Queens and periodically showed up to smoke cigarettes and tinker with showerheads, was ostensibly both super and landlord; he was lax at both. Andrew joked with friends that the miniature closet was actually the home of the onsite super, a grumbling, hirsute troll who only ate 12-piece dark-meat buckets from the nearby Royal Fried Chicken and periodically requested a toll before allowing people up the stairs. Villanueva cleared his throat.

“Yeah, yeah, the little closet under the stair. There’s a shovel in there. Everything else good?”

Andrew imagined the menacing snowdrift waiting for him when he opened the front door. He imagined the snow spilling onto the chipped and unmoored tiles in the foyer. Even after that snow had slouched through the door, a packed, white mound still challenged him from waist- height, like a cold, surly midget. Andrew shook his head: “Can’t complain, man. Water pressure’s back.”

“That’s good, I’m glad. Take care.” Villanueva hung up. Andrew shoveled in near silence. The powdery snow was like confectioner’s sugar, but it was still hard work moving so much of it, and his raspy breath clouded the cold around him. In his eagerness to bust himself out of the apartment, Andrew had rushed outdoors in his sneakers, which were now sodden and heavy. The shovelfuls he flung out toward the unbroken white of the sidewalk and the stoop of the adjacent building (un- shoveled, untended, un-minded) whispered home. He could see no real benefit in shoveling the whole stoop, so he tried to blast a narrow way through the drift.

When the goal was simplified, it became much easier to see progress. Soon he was standing in a cutaway of the snowdrift, working his way down the stairs. Thirty minutes later, he was a few feet down the sidewalk. Andrew stopped there and looked at the elevated subway tracks as an M train rattled over. Snow fell from the tracks onto the avenue below. It was time to stop. Andrew pitched the shovel up onto his shoulder and turned back down the block.

No one else was shoveling. No one else was on the street. The homeless had gone home, the neighbors turned to shadows and hid in the corners of their apartments. The snow had continued to fall, and Andrew’s path back had been softened by its thick, unrelenting tumble. He closed the door and hoped his path wouldn’t fill in during the night. It wasn’t until he rode home from work the next day, watching the now-lighter snow steam off the East River, that Andrew thought of the other woman again.

Andrew recalled stories, although he wasn’t sure from when or where he recalled them, about the dybbuk. He faintly remembered or misremembered the dybbuk as a female figure, supernatural, that sat on men’s chests at night, pressing the air from them and blasting misery into their unassuming dreams. He didn’t remember how one went about getting a dybbuk attached to oneself. He had never worked out how to avoid dybbuks. He remembered only that they were vengeful.

The word dybbuk sounded Eastern European, and Andrew wanted to remember a craggy, superstitious great-grandmother sitting him down in some onion-smelling kitchen to haunt him with the stories that had haunted her ancient youth, stories she’d heard when her life was fresh and unimaginable in some soon-smouldering shtetl somewhere. But that ghost, the one he tried to make up to guide the other woman’s presence into rationality, was counterfeit: he hadn’t known his great-grandparents, and his fanatically assimilated grandmothers had long ago bleached the hectoring Yiddish of their youths from their speech and memory. If the other woman was a dybbuk, she came from a place that no living person in his family understood or remembered.

As he thought about this, with the newspaper swimming in disconnected paragraphs in front of him, he was aware of the other woman at the far end of the train. She’d been there since Canal Street, reading her book in silence while, in front of her, a couple tried to berate their wailing infant into silence.

The man—mustachioed, Yankees hat atop gel-firmed hair—sat across the aisle from Andrew’s girl. The mother stood, pushing the stroller back and forth with a hopeful mania that made Andrew carsick just to watch. The baby girl flailed her arms and twisted in her stroller, kicking tiny plastic soles out in the direction of the other woman, who didn’t look down at her. The man leaned over and spoke into the child’s face, loudly and with authority, “Two more stops!” The kid wailed, and her eyes rolled with discomfort. There was no reaction at all from the other woman, who pushed a thin line of hair behind her ear. The mother jogged the stroller even more vigorously in place and yelled something at her husband about how he didn’t have to yell so fucking much. Other woman turned the page. The husband barked, “Fucking callate, the two a yas.” Nothing, again, from the other woman. So: Andrew had picked up a dybbuk. Someone, something, whatever: watching the other woman casually fold over a page as the kid nearly levitated from her stroller on the strength of a transcendent shriek, Andrew knew this other woman was no woman. So why not a dybbuk?

The other woman never sat on his chest, though. She wasn’t that type of spirit. He’d have bad dreams, or sleep fitfully and wake up sweating at terrible hours, but that seemed too mild for true haunting. Finally, he looked the word up: she wasn’t a dybbuk. A dybbuk was a wandering soul; a dybbuk possessed you. The other woman was more of a succubus, if that—the chest-sitting, the dream-haunting, that was all succubus, it turned out. So she was a borderline succubus, then. Or she was nothing at all.

But not nothing. Her presence cast a real chill on him, and her knowledge of him seemed right, real. He felt it in the way she closed her book, on her face as she looked at him from across the city’s crowds. There was a riddle in her half-smile, but there was also an answer there, a certainty and a sort of confirmation. Andrew might have been alone those times before he met her, at parties and bars or in the thronging trains and packed, sour- aired lunchtime delis, but she had somehow been there, too. She had watched him until she knew him. That moonlit face, he was now sure, had been present, serene, sadly unsurprised, and recording everything all through the unremembered shames of his past. It was in looking into that face, or rather feeling his eyes sheer off its frozen surface, that he truly felt haunted.

When he awoke that last time, there was no siren. He heard only the sound that awakened him: pages turning, somehow rustling into his sleep. His bedroom was silent now, except for that sound. The weather had warmed over the previous days, but the fat rivulets of melted snow that bled down his windowpane during the day were frozen now. His clock buzzed faintly, waiting to turn its permanent quiver up into a braying alarm. The bed was empty next to him, and Andrew could feel the cold of the empty sheets reaching toward the pocket of warmth in which he’d slept. The reading sound stirred him because, with it, he knew he was not alone in his room, although he also knew, and just as firmly, that he must have been alone. Whichever was true, Andrew awoke to a restless energy in his chest and blinked his dry, uncooperative eyes. The water glass was not empty this time: a fast sip of water was at the bottom, smooth as skin across its surface.

Andrew did not roll over as the other woman shifted on the end of the bed. He lay there for what seemed a very long time, feeling her gaze on his back and letting his sleep-clouded eyes melt the numbers on the alarm clock into a tense red smear. When he finally spoke, his voice was cracked and dry but surprisingly loud in the silence. “Do I know you?” he said, and immediately turned inward with embarrassment at the ridiculousness of the question. Ridiculous because he asked it, but ridiculous, too, because Andrew already had the answer. He didn’t know the other woman; she knew him. He hadn’t even met her yet.

She said nothing, but he heard her shift at the foot of the bed. She put something down, and he felt the covers react to the pressure of whatever it was. Her book.

“Who . . .” And he stopped, because he knew he was just talking to the morning, to nothing at the edge of his bed and the small bedroom grown cold between him and the window. He hissed his last sentence because he needed to hiss it; his voice was going, and he was embarrassed: “What do you want?”

She answered with more movement and the sound of clothes sliding along the bed. The tipping of the mattress let him know that she was moving atop the quilt. He shut his eyes again, tight, and something like a whimper came out of him. The inside of his eyelids abraded, and his body pulsed, but he could not, would not open his eyes entirely. He let the membrane of sleep that ruined the numbers on the clock filter the truth of what was happening. If he looked, it would no longer have been a dream.

The other woman laid her head on the pillows next to him. She was above the covers, but he could still feel how cold she was. She wrapped her body around him, matching her knees to his, pressing her icy breasts into his back. Her breath dimmed in his ear, and she nestled closer. Andrew couldn’t move, and so he simply waited for her to slip an arm around him. He waited to fall back asleep, and then to wake up in the sharp and frozen new morning to find her gone.

David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. This is his first published story.

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