"We were almost happy there, weren't we?"
The couple that was going to take over the lease were due to arrive shortly, so Tim found himself nervously straightening up, plumping pillows on the couch, straightening picture books on the coffee table, in the hope that a slightly neater apartment would persuade them to take the place where others had so far declined.
The lease wasn’t up until September 1st, which was five and a half months away, and the rent that he used to share with Marci before she moved out was a burden. Their break-up had been relatively painless after the argument that had precipitated it, or been a pretext for it, depending on your point of view—hers in the first case, his in the latter.
It had come at the end of a long winter of similar disputes, pointless in retrospect although each had been inspired by a genuine grudge or a long-standing source of irritation. She wanted to eat out at a nice restaurant at least once a week, he would tell her that they couldn’t afford it since she had insisted on living on Beacon Hill, where rents were much higher than they’d been in the comfortable and light-filled third-floor apartment they’d had further out, in Brookline, before he graduated and got a good job.
The sun had been more important than they—or rather she—had realized before she persuaded him to move. They could only afford a small apartment facing Beacon Street at first; the bedroom was in the basement, and the parlor upstairs faced the Boston Common at street level, so they kept the shutters closed for privacy. She found that she missed the sunlight most of all, even more than the extra room they’d enjoyed before; she had an introspective temperament to begin with, and she began to brood as autumn turned to winter.
When the lease on that place was coming to an end the landlord told them about a slightly bigger place in his building next door, all on the first floor. It was nicer than what they had by far. The floors were wide plank pine, there was a Franklin stove just outside the kitchen, a spacious living room and even a study of sorts where he could put the desk he’d had to position at the bottom of the steps between floors at their old place. And it had windows--windows in the bedroom and along the hall that led to the living room.
The rent was a stretch for them, but they’d both received small raises and she predicted with assurance that their incomes would continue to increase, so she begged him please, just this once, not to make it about money—make her happy.
So he agreed, but after the autumn equinox had passed they realized that all the light that had made her happy when they’d looked at the place in the spring and moved in at the end of the summer was gone. The windows looked to the north from the bedroom; in the hall the view was to the west, but because of the apartment buildings between their place and the river the sun went down for them earlier than they’d expected. By mid-October they were back in the same funk they thought they had escaped.
Soon she had spiraled down to a place he couldn’t pull her back from, and so rather than get dragged deeper himself, he started an argument one night with the plan to end things. She grumbled about eating take-out on a Saturday night, and he rose to the lure like a trout going after a fly, he thought. The dispute became more heated, expanded as they returned to old ground they was already well-scorched a half-decade of living together, and soon enough he was in a position to bring it to a climax. “I want to break up,” he’d said with more urgency than he actually felt.
They’d both said it before, so she looked him over before she responded. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Then she, to his surprise, took him up on it.
“All right. I’ve been thinking I didn’t want to spend another winter like last one with you anyway.”
A calm filled the room as they both exhaled. He had thought the logistical arrangements through in advance. “Since you make less money than me, I can stay here until I find a subletter and you can get a cheaper place.”
“Such a gentleman.”
“It just makes financial sense.”
“Or I could stay here, and you could keep paying half the rent until I found a roommate.”
“There’s only one bedroom.”
“Somebody could put a bed in here,” she said as she looked around the long and wide living room with regret, as if she’d be leaving tonight and not in a fortnight.
“Whatever you decide.”
She began to cry, and he sat down beside her. He put his arm around her shoulder, but she didn’t embrace him, just cried. “I’ll move out,” she had said in a voice whose pitch was lower than usual from the effects of her sobbing. “I’ll move over by where Jackie lives, on the back side of the hill.”
“There’s even less sun over there.”
“I know, but I’ll be closer to my friend,” she said as she stood up.
“Shall we draw straws for the couch?”
“I’ll take it,” he said. He stopped himself from saying “Since I’m the one who’s breaking up with you.” While true, there was no need to stake out a position on higher ground, not now. She would resent it, and they might start in again, just as the heat of their dispute was dying out.
She found a place sooner than he expected, a studio, she told him. He was left with the task of informing their landlord that they wanted to move out, which caused the old man to harden audibly over the phone. “You know you are liable for rent through August, right?”
“Even if your ‘wife’ moves out?” he added, laying emphasis on the spousal noun to indicate the triumph of his skepticism at the couple’s claim to marriage when they first inquired began to rent from him.
“All right,” the landlord said with a tone of disgust. “You will pay the expenses.”
“You can take it out of the deposit when I leave,” he’d said, assuming that it wouldn’t take long to find new tenants.
But it did. The rent was high, and the place was smaller than most people who could afford it wanted. Several couples had come in and acted interested, but all had found other places that were better for a short-term rental.
The buzzer sounded and he went to the hall door, which was double-locked and further secured by a bar that slid into a metal notch in the floor. He had forgotten to put the security bar away, and regretted it; it would serve as a telltale that revealed the risk of living in a ground floor unit in a neighborhood where burglars could slip off easily into the Common, or the alley behind the building.
“Hello,” Tim said. “You’re the Luthers?”
“That’s right,” a beefy man with a red face and sandy hair said. “I’m Bill and this is my wife Lisa.”
“I’m Tim--c’mon in,” he said, and held the door back as the two entered.
“Have a look around,” he said as he closed the door and slipped the security bar into a closet.
“What a nice place!” the woman gushed, and the man did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm, as some husbands had who wanted to leave themselves room to negotiate.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’d like to stay but unfortunately I have to move out.”
“Out of town?” the man asked.
“No, I . . . uh . . . my roommate moved out and I’m looking for something smaller.”
“Oh,” the wife said. “Is it a two bedroom?”
“No, I mean, she was my girlfriend.”
“Oh, okay, gotcha,” the man said as he gave the Franklin Stove an inspection.
“Does this thing work?”
“It does, but we didn’t use it much.” The room had filled with smoke the one time they had tried it.
“Nice touch,” the man said. He had on a brown plaid jacket, a pink shirt, and a tie with a pattern of pheasants against a light blue background. Just the type who Marci would have liked me to be if a few years younger, he thought.
“Can I see the bedroom?” the wife asked.
“Sure,” he said, and he led her down the hall.
"It certainly is sunny!” she said. “What a pretty quilt!”
“Thanks. My mom gave it to me.”
“Where is the closet?” “Out here,” he said, and stepped out of the room to open the door to a small closet in the hall.
“That’s not very big.”
“We’ve got that big armoire,” her husband called out over Tim’s shoulder.
“There’s more closet space by the door where you came in,” he said. “There’s a coat closet and a big, like, broom closet. We just rotated our clothes with the season.”
“That’s your call,” the man said to the wife, as he winked at the current tenant. “I’m not the clothes horse in the family.”
“Well, it’s just temporary,” the woman said.
“I just got transferred up here from Connecticut,” the man said. “We’ll keep some of our stuff in storage and look for a house in the suburbs while we get used to the area.”
“We think it’ll be fun to be downtown for awhile!” the woman gushed.
“Is there much crime around here?” the man asked. “You couldn’t live in a better neighborhood for that,” he said. “The mayor lives right across the alley and he’s got a full-time security detail.”
“That’s handy!” the wife said. “If there’s ever anybody suspicious hanging around a cruiser shows up right away,” he said. He didn’t tell them that there had been two attempted break-ins in the six and a half months they’d lived there.
“Do you mind if we caucus by ourselves for a second?” the man asked.
“Sure, I’ll be just outside on the back steps, knock when you’re ready.”
He opened the door onto the small fenced-in area where the garbage cans and the few available parking spaces were located. He walked out beyond a fence and looked up and down the alley paved with cobblestones, which burnished what would have otherwise been a dispiriting scene to one of muted charm. After a few minutes he sauntered back towards the steps, from which he could see the couple talking. When the husband noticed him outside, he gestured for him to come in.
“We’re all set,” he said.
“I think we’d like to take it,” the woman said, her face beaming with the prospect of life surrounded by culture and an atmosphere of faded refinement.
“Great,” he said. “Do we do that with you?” the woman asked.
“No, you have to talk to the landlord. I’m sure he’ll be happy to rent to you.”
“I brought the checkbook, dear,” the husband said. “Let’s get a cab and go back to his office.”
“It’s such a nice day—why don’t we walk.”
“Sure. Oh, say, I forgot,” he said, turning to Tim. “How soon do you think you can move out?”
“I can get a room down on Newbury Street right away,” he said. “Just have to get a van, I can be out next Friday night.”
“Great. I mean, that’s good. So we could move in next Saturday, the uh, 14th?”
“Fine with me. Do you need any furniture?”
“I . . . don’t think so,” the woman said, with a tone of suppressed disdain for the remnants that he and Marci had accumulated in their time together.
He called Marci when they were gone and left a message on her machine, saying he’d found new tenants and would send her a check for her share of the money the landlord was holding back as soon as he got it. It took longer than he expected; when he called the rental office the secretary would put him off, and when he finally got through to the old man he said “Read the lease, it says you get your money thirty days after you move out—if there’s no damage.”
When he received the check in the mail he deposited it in his account and arranged to drop one off for half the amount at Marci’s place. He wanted to see where she ended up, and whether it looked safe. Her friend Jackie had turned around to find a man looking in the kitchen window of her first-floor apartment one night, and he’d gone running over to the back side of Beacon Hill when she’d called their place on Beacon Street, distraught. He mentally approved of himself for still caring about Marci even if he didn’t want to live with her; he didn’t admit to missing her.
She greeted him at the door and showed him upstairs, a cramped space but with lots of light nonetheless; two windows looked out over the little alley—Champney Place--down which he’d walked to get there, and three on the other side overlooked a hidden garden in a courtyard surrounded by older brick buildings like hers.
“It’s cozy,” she said, with mocking understatement.
“It’s nice,” he said, although he didn’t know how she could stand to live in a place so small. There was a counter with two stools in the kitchen that was the only place to sit down and eat. Her desk and chair stood next to a fireplace that she said didn’t work. The only other furniture was her bed and nightstand.
“Do you think you’ll stay here?” he said when she told him she’d taken over somebody’s lease.
“It’s not bad. I like it.”
“It’s further for you to go to work.”
“If it’s raining I just hop on the T.”
“Where--at Charles Street?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, here it comes now—listen.”
He was silent, and in a few seconds a distant hum he hadn’t been aware of turned into a rumble, like an avalanche was heading towards the apartment, as the train passed underneath her building.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s loud. How do you sleep?”
“I’m used to it already. Plus it stops at 2 a.m.”
He felt sorrier than he had been before, thinking of her living in a true garret, bombarded by the noise of the train, walking down a dark alley on her last steps home. “Well, here’s your check,” he said, putting those thoughts away by returning to their business.
“Was the landlord tough to deal with?” she said as she took it from him.
“He always is.”
“Thanks for taking care of it. You know I don’t like that sort of nastiness.”
“Don’t thank me. I was the cause of it all.” He spoke over a lump in his throat. She put her arms around him and they kissed, like lovers again, only saying good bye.
“We were almost happy there, weren’t we?” she said.