They fuck until the neighbor comes home. Bruce presses his hand over Cara’s mouth. Their bedroom opens into the connecting hallway; they hear the key in the building’s front lock, the jangle of other keys on the ring. The door swings on unoiled hinges and the neighbor enters the hall. Rustle of plastic bags. Snow stamped from boots.
Cara’s eyes widen until, it seems, she realizes why Bruce’s hand covers her mouth. Her skin is sweat-slick against his. Her thighs press around him, pull him close. They freeze. They listen.
The forced-air heat protests against the cold, and the door slams with a sound like wind being sucked through a tunnel. Flick of a light switch. Footsteps up the hall. Between them—between their unclothed bodies and the neighbor’s winter coat, her scarf, her bags of groceries—stand a few inches of plaster. If there were no wall, Bruce could reach out to the neighbor, take her hand, welcome her home. Help her carry the groceries.
The door at the other end of the hall opens, and the neighbor stomps up the wooden stairs. Bruce wonders why she steps so heavily. He’s seen her only once, when he and Cara moved in a week before, but knows she is a small, young woman with too-thick legs.
Bruce and Cara finish each other, gasping into pillows.
Maybe the old house spoiled them. They’d lived, even then, beyond their means. The house had been built in the mid-1800s. It sat back from the road, with a low fence and a small yard. Bruce painted the clapboard siding pale blue. Cara grew tomatoes and bell peppers in the garden. Inside, the original wooden floorboards reflected sunlight from the big windows. The second floor held two bedrooms, and Bruce used one as a studio for his graphic design work. The roof sagged a bit over the warped, rotting porch—nothing Bruce couldn’t repair, in time. He didn’t mind putting some work into the house. It was the life they’d imagined.
“You’ll find something,” Cara says from the futon in the new apartment. Bruce sits at the kitchen table with his sketchpad. An unexpected perk: he has time to focus on his comics now.
He works on a new character—an alcoholic, chain-smoking ex-principal who performs as a mime for kids’ birthday parties. The kitchen table rests against a wall in the living room because there is no real kitchen. There’s a patch of tile in the corner with a sink and a stove and a refrigerator. Barely enough counter space for the microwave and coffee maker. The George Foreman sits on a table just outside the bathroom.
“Thing is, I don’t want to sell my soul,” Bruce says. He pens the mime’s eye makeup, sharp and black and sad. “I’ve been through that whole mess before. The corporate thing. Never again.”
“I know,” Cara says. She seals the electric bill into an envelope, sets it on the coffee table beside the others. Her long legs stretch across the futon. She’s just returned from the gym, still wears her shorts and leggings and Asics. “Baby, we’ll be fine.”
A few days later, Cara returns from work, and for a moment Bruce feels guilty about his unshaved jaw, his sweatpants, his thin t-shirt. But Cara wears that gray work skirt that drapes her hips just so. She’s gained some weight—the gym doesn’t seem to be working. But he can’t help himself. He lowers her to the futon, cups his mouth over hers. Breathes her in. She takes his hand to lead him to the bedroom. He grabs her wrist and pulls her back down.
“Maybe in here this time,” he says. “It’s just, that hallway. The sound carries. She’ll hear us.”
“So?” Cara says. She pinches his earlobe, pulls his face toward hers. “Nothing we can do. Neighbors hear these sorts of things.”
“I’d just feel better about it,” Bruce says. He scratches the stubble beneath his chin.
So they stay in the living room. It’s good that way. It’s like when they first met six years before, when they couldn’t even make it to the bedroom—when they collapsed into each other on kitchen floors, on stairs, in the car. Bruce feels young again, there on the futon.
Cara cries out. He stops.
“No,” she says. “Keep going.”
“Listen,” Bruce says. He steadies himself over her, his elbows locked. Sweat drips from his nose to her chest. They hold their breath. There it is, muffled, through the ceiling—a familiar bass line, like a cartoon spring.
“Shit,” Bruce says. “She’s watching Seinfeld.”
“Forget it,” Cara says. She laces her fingers behind his neck, brushes her lips against his collarbone.
“Okay,” Bruce says. “Quietly, though.”
They finish without a sound. Bruce hears Kramer spill hot coffee on himself.
Even while Cara is at work, Bruce can’t focus on the classifieds. He folds the newspaper and listens. The neighbor runs water over dishes, shuts the refrigerator door, coughs. Bruce takes his shoes off, tiptoes around in his socks. He checks the mailbox: the neighbor’s name is Hope Richards. It terrifies him to think of someone named Hope knowing the sounds he makes during sex.
Hope Richards vacuums twice a day. That would be a good time to make love: while she vacuums. Their shouts, their moans, the creak of the bed frame, all drowned beneath the mechanical roar. They’d just have to be quick about it.
Bruce hears everything. In the street, two men haul a water heater from the back of a van. The suspension groans under its weight. The men curse, grunt, drop the tank to the curb. Cars pass, the slosh of tires in wet snow. Along the block children shout to each other, throw snowballs at windows, scrape shovels along sidewalks. It’s a narrow street. Everything is gray, close, grinding against something else.
“Chin up,” Cara says when she comes home. She sits in Bruce’s lap at the table, drapes her arms over his shoulders. It’s casual Friday—she wears a jean skirt and a red blouse, unbuttoned further than Bruce considers appropriate for the workplace. She smells of copier ink and fading perfume, like potpourri that’s been out for a year. “I’ve solved everything,” she says.
Bruce’s mime has just thrown up in a moon bounce. Kids scream and run to their parents. It’s the alcohol, yes, but the poor guy just doesn’t do so well in crowds. The noise, the attention, the demands. That’s what made being a principal such a bad choice. That’s what makes being a mime such a bad choice.
“Does he look hungover enough?” Bruce says. He leans around Cara and darkens the circles beneath the character’s eyes. His pencil scratches.
“Our art director quit,” Cara says. She blows into Bruce’s ear.
“Oh,” he says. He angles his head away, her breath a fly, a feather.
“I told Gary you’re on the market,” Cara says.
“My managing editor. He wants to meet you.”
“I don’t think you’ve mentioned him before.”
“I have,” Cara says. She leans back, her face blank. “Plenty of times.”
“I don’t know,” Bruce says. “It’s really not my sort of magazine. All About Executives?”
“It’s perfectly fine. I like it there.”
“I know you do. It’s fine for someone like you. I just don’t think I’d be able to stand it.”
Cara sits there for a moment longer. She seems to be trying to look in Bruce’s face, but he leans over his comic, shades the tears of a horrified second grader. Cara stands. Her heels click against the small patch of kitchen tile. She shuts the bathroom door.
That night they undress without a word. Bruce turns on the lamp beside the bed. The bulb hums, its glow a notice to those across the street. Here we are. He imagines their silhouettes through the blinds. Turns off the lamp. Winces at the sound of Cara’s belt buckle. They fold their clothes and lay them on the thin carpet. He eases himself onto the mattress, mindful of creaky bedsprings. For a time they lie side by side beneath the down comforter. Cara’s hand slides across the sheet. A terrible whisper—palm against cotton. She places her little finger on Bruce’s thumb. She clears her throat.
“Shh,” he says.
Ian Riggins is currently pursuing an MFA at Chatham University. His work has appeared in Collision and #GOODLitSwerveAutumn: An Anthology of Independent Literature About Kanye West.