My building was old – the kind of old that wasn’t quite charming enough to be deemed unique or even quaint, but old enough that random things would stop working or fall apart. I’d come in the lobby and find a single strip of wallpaper, a gold foil with a raised velvet pattern from the early 1970s, detached from the wall, and curled in on itself on the floor. Sometimes the buttons refused to light up in the elevator, or the door would open and close three or four times before finally shutting; I’d gotten into the habit of using the stairs, even when my arms were full of groceries.
So it wasn’t unusual to go get my mail, or retrieve a load of clean clothes from the shared basement laundry room, and find Isaac working away at something or other. As near as I could figure, Isaac was the landlord’s cousin – or second cousin by marriage, or maybe just the adult son of a long time family friend. At any rate, he knew the landlord, and the landlord must have more or less had him on the payroll permanently, to deal with the drooping wallpaper and the leaking sinks.
He never spoke to me. He never spoke to anyone, actually, and at times I even wondered if he talked at all – either by choice or some genuine incapacity. I’d pass him in the hallway or the storage room and if he happened to look up at all, I’d just nod or smile and carry on. He was as much a part of the building as the decades-old fake flowers in the lobby and the water fountain out front that I’d never seen filled with water, unless it was melting snow.
When small things went haywire in my own apartment, I tried to fix it myself, partly because I had concluded that being self-sufficient didn’t mean just paying my bills but also figuring out why the tap was leaking without intervention.
But when the main ceiling light stopped working, I had to recognize that my handy-woman skills did not include electrical. I’d have to call the landlord, who would call Isaac, who would come fix it. I’d done that a week ago and had no idea when Isaac might get through his other to-dos and get to mine.
When he knocked on my door, I was laying on my floor staring at the ceiling, feeling somewhere between grateful it was Friday and I had a two day break from the neon lights and the ringing phones and the endless row of cubicles in my office, and filled with dread at another long weekend of open-ended nothingness. I’d never managed to figure out how to transition from the ease of meeting new people in university to the challenge of doing the same in a new city far from where I’d grown up. I’d been in Vancouver for two years and I still spent most of my weekends reading books over bowls of pho at the restaurant up the street, both pleased at my solitude and yet needing people enough that I’d seek out their company in the form of fellow diners.
The knock jolted me into a sitting position, heart racing, the old fear of the dark and bogeymen still enough to send a tingle of adrenaline through my limbs. One part of my brain knew it must be Isaac but still it took me so long to get up off the floor and move to the door that the knock came again just as I started to undo the deadbolt.
I edged the door open and peeked around. Definitely Isaac. This was the closest I’d ever been to him, and I was surprised at how handsome he actually was – dark hair, a slight 5 o’clock shadow over his jaw and cheekbones, and grey-brown-blue eyes, something like a tortoiseshell of speckling and light in his irises.
He stared back and for a second I thought he was appraising me, too, and I wondered if he liked what he saw.
“Lights?” he said, gruff and low, his head nodding beyond me.
“Oh yeah, yes. The lights. They’re not working. Um, are you – do you need to come in,” I asked, flailing in my conversational attempts, and caught off guard.
“Of course, yeah, ha, of course you can’t fix ‘em out in the hallway right,” I said, tittering. “Come in, just um, yeah, ok so it’s the light switch right inside the door and it turns on the light in the living room.”
As he crossed the threshold, I closed the door behind him, and swept my arm out ahead of us at the words “living room” as though I was introducing him to the grandeur of my sprawling estate, and there would soon be a tour of the library, the conservatory and the gardens.
In fact, “living room” really meant “the entire place.” It was a bachelor apartment – a small raised area held my bed, bedside tables, and a single bookshelf; the main area held only a single large old-fashioned arm chair, a TV, more book shelves, and a corner nook where I’d created a small eating area – not a table, exactly but a raised surface surrounded by pillows on the floor, where I could sit and eat. The kitchen was really just a small square off the main area, with enough space for a stove and a small fridge. The only separate private “room” was the bathroom and the sliding door had long since stopped working, so even that wasn’t exactly private.
Isaac looked at the light switch, cocked his head slightly.
“Can I help you with anything or um, maybe are you hungry, it’s like dinner time, I could make something?” I asked, words still tumbling out.
He shook his head no.
No to the help or to the food? Who knew.
“Ok, sure. I’ll just go… read… or I’ll be right here if you need… help.”
He nodded this time, so I wandered away, wondering if it was better to sit on the bed – which seemed somehow vaguely suggestive – or to plop down in the armchair and read, which seemed lazy of me, while he worked.
Instead, I let myself drop down to the pillows in the nook, and pulled over a stack of paper that had been already sitting on my little “table” and pretended to leaf through them while watching Isaac instead.
He bent over to dig into a small tool bag I hadn’t even realized he was carrying, and caught myself watching the way his shirt stretched over his shoulders and back and could feel the heat rising in my face as I craned a little to get a better look – like some kind of cliché scene out of a Golden Girls episode in which Blanche admires a plumber, or some similar thing.
Cliché or not, it was hard to stop. And with his back turned to me, I could look as much as I wanted without any hesitation. He started to unscrew the plate on the switch and I watched his biceps bunch slightly under his sleeves and when he ducked a little to look inside the now-open switch, I noticed how his hair curled a little at the back of his neck, like he was a week or two overdue for a haircut.
I heard the groan and its paired scream-giggle at the same moment Isaac did: we both looked upwards at the exact same moment as the sounds of whoever lived in the apartment above me made their way through the thin walls, snaking in strange echoes through vents and drywall and the floorboards, so that it sounded like each groan was two or three coming from deep in a cave and each scream-giggle was chasing down long tunnels.
I had long since gotten used to the amorous pair upstairs. Every once in a while they’d fall out of bed with a thump, or the groaning/scream-giggle combination would go on a little longer than normal but for the most part, they were speedy, efficient and it was hard to hold a grudge against them when they seemed to be enjoying themselves so much.
In fact, I’d mostly learned to tune them out. But what had seemed cute and easy to ignore with a pair of headphones when I was on my own in here was suddenly impossible to avoid with Isaac listening at the same time.
“6B,” I said. “Above me.”
I pointed up, as though he couldn’t already tell where the noise was coming from.
The thump-thump-thump of a headboard against a wall had begun, mingled with groans, screams, giggles and now some muffled words and laughter. It had always seemed quite pedestrian, a simple and vanilla affair, but now with Isaac here it sounded intense, erotic, almost lewd, like a porno soundtrack from the 70s.
“They’re loud,” I said, after a particularly jarring groan came through the ceiling above us.
Isaac nodded. I thought he shrugged too but his movements were so sparse and careful that it was hard to tell. It was so dark in my apartment, the only light coming from the bathroom and the bedside lamp – both of which I’d been leaving on all night the last week to help keep the room from being pitch dark.
Outside, the January gloom didn’t help, and suddenly the noises above me and the darkness and the vague chill sitting here close to the old single-pane window left me feeling more alone than I had in a long time. What is it about suddenly having someone in your space to remind you how empty your space normally is?
“Can you tell what the problem is?” I asked, raising my voice slightly over the noises.
I waited, hoping for more.
“Oh. Is it easy or…” I let the question drift off.
“What?” I could feel my face pulling into a grimace as I asked. “A dead MOUSE?”
Again, one word answer.
“Ok, so can we deal with that? Is that possible?”
From above, a shout, and then a long extended groan. I knew from experience this indicated one of two things: they were done for the night, or they were done round 1. I prayed it was the first.
I pretended to go through my papers again, as though I didn’t care about the noise, or the mouse, or Isaac and his big hands that were now digging through his tool bag again. He came up empty handed, and turned to look at me. He stared for a full three seconds, before finally speaking.
“I have to go get something,” he said.
He left the bag on the floor, and stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind him.
“Wait, do you mean…” but he was already gone.
Was he going to the nearest Home Depot or was he going to the basement for some mystery stash of tools that must be stowed away somewhere. Or did he need cigarettes at the corner store, or a donair from the place on the corner? Who knew.
I wandered over to the bed and lay down, picking up the book I’d been half-heartedly reading the night before. A romance novel about a woman who is ditched by her boyfriend and moves back to her small town after she inherits the local bakery from her ailing grandmother – cue good looking local carpenter and a bakery that needs new shelves. Talk about clichés. I shrugged. Some clichés were fun – and they distracted you from things like other people’s sex noises and empty weekends of isolation.
I’d read about three pages when there was a knock and then the handle turned and Isaac let himself back in. He behaved as though I wasn’t there, or as if he’d never left: no hello or information about what he was doing, just settling himself to the task.
As far as I could tell, he was cutting out the drywall around the light switch now. He was moving slowly and methodically, being careful of the adjacent wires. Every 10 or 15 seconds he’d lift a small flashlight and check his own progress. I didn’t want to look too closely, afraid of what a dead mouse inside the wall might look like.
Suddenly from overhead, came a giggle-shriek-giggle from the woman and a muffled groan and a series of curse words (which sounded vaguely like shit-fuck-fuck-shit). Round 2.
As I drew my eyes away from the ceiling, I noticed Isaac had dropped the drywall knife on the floor and appeared to be cradling his hand.
“Oh my god, are you ok?”
“The noise – lost my concentration for a second,” he said, his head nodding upwards. He sounded pissed off. “Bleeding. Do you have a rag or something?”
It took me a second to absorb what he’d said – so many words all at once. Then I jumped up and grabbed a towel from the bathroom.
“Here, this,” I said, handing it to him.
“I don’t want to … ruin it,” he said.
I looked at the white towel in my hand.
“I don’t care. Seriously.”
At another groan and giggle, we both jumped a little.
The movement loosened his grip on his own hand, and blood poured out over his palm.
“Oh my god, it’s bad,” I said, jamming the towel over it myself now, not waiting for him to take it.
“It’s not, it looks worse than it is,” he said. “Blood thinners.”
I nodded, feeling pleased at myself for knowing what he meant – my dad had been on blood thinners after a surgery, to keep his arteries from clotting up. It also meant that he bruised more easily and if he cut himself, even shaving, it took forever to stop bleeding. My mom had been irritated by all the stained face cloths while checking escort ads.
It was hard to imagine what Isaac might be on blood thinners for – he was no older than me and looked healthy – but I wasn’t going to debate it with him.
“Here, come into the bathroom,” I said, dragging him a little behind me.
I thought of clichés again: the lion and the mouse, the wounded soldier and the helpful nurse, the –
A groan, fuccckkkkk, and the slow first thumps of the headboard upstairs broke into my thoughts. The sound of bed springs and the bed’s feet moving slightly against the floor made me imagine the pair rolling over in bed, changing positions, their bodies all tangled up.
I licked my lips. My heart was beating; my pulse was echoing a shadow heartbeat between my legs.
“Seriously?” I said aloud.
“What?” he asked.
“Oh, sorry, just talking to myself. Here at least wash it, and then I’ll find a bandage or something,” I said. “There might be like mice poo virus germ grossness in that wall, right?”
For some reason, this caught Isaac off guard and he snorted a small laugh.
“Mice poo virus germ grossness?”
I smiled and laughed a little in return.
“Yeah, that’s an official thing, you know.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“I’m a customer service call center rep. The kind you call and yell at when your bill is wrong.”
“I never yell.”
I looked at him then, actually looked – we were so close that it was easy to do, to pin my eyes to his, to let myself look again at his strange eyes, at his dark eyebrows, at the slightly skewed nose that looked like it had been maybe broken a time or two, years ago.
“No, I can’t imagine you do.”
The thumping rhythm above us was still slow, a constant steady beat now. Round 2 was apparently going to be more leisurely, a slow dance of sex rather than a galloping race.
I was overcome by the urge to take Isaac’s uninjured hand and press it to my chest, to pull the buttons open on my shirt and slide his hand inside, over my breast, to arch myself into his hand, to encourage him to squeeze and stroke. My breath hitched, and I bit my lip.
“Mia,” he said.
“You know my name?”
“Mia Foster. 5B. No pets.”
“I guess you know everyone.”
He pointed upwards.
“John Green, Sherry Jacob, 6B. No pets. Multiple noise complaints. But none from 5B.”
I laughed again.
“No, I never complain. They seem happy.”
“Happy is good,” he said simply, nodding.
I saw him drop his eyes to my lips, and then lower to the place where my shirt opens at the collar, the buttons undone to below my collarbone. He pressed his lips together.
“I think the bleeding has stopped so – “
And I leaned in and kissed him suddenly, like the peck you give a boy you like on the school bus the second before you jump up and get off – a brief bravery without a plan.
His hand came up in a rush to the back of my neck, pulling me in closer, and the peck turned into a kiss: if Isaac spent most of his time silent it certainly hadn’t left him at a disadvantage. His tongue slipped between my lips, whispering over my teeth, touching my tongue, and my brain went into a sort of slow-motion freeze: I noticed the brush of his stubble on my cheek, the press of his lips on mine, the way his mouth tasted – a mix of minty gum and orange, as though he’d drank a Fanta on the way up here. It shouldn’t have been so hot, but it was – this taste of him, the smell and flavor – and it made me whimper in my throat.
“Are you ok?”
He pulled back a little, pausing, eyes scanning, a cautious considering. Later I would think about how movies always have male leads who take without asking, and how we think it’s brazen and romantic somehow but in fact, this soft careful consent, this moment, was so much more erotic than any hand-fisted-in-hair-desperate-hunger could ever be.
Not that I didn’t want his hand fisted in my hair – I did, badly, and I wanted him to take and to be brazen and to be desperate and hungry. But being certain I was ok – not just ok in general, but ok to continue, was powerful and erotic.
“More,” I asked.
He didn’t hesitate then. More kisses, more tongue slipping over mine, then lips moving over my face, to my neck, pulling my ear lobe into his mouth. More of his hands, one in my hair at the back of my head, one moving down to press the small of my back so that my body was pulled forward into his. More of his breathing, now deeper and faster, his own groans in his throat. More of the shape of him, the firmness of his body against mine – legs pressing into legs, chest pressing into breasts. And his erection, hard as anything, rigid and warm against my tummy.
“Bed,” I said.
Like a magic trick, the bed upstairs moved again, a sudden scrape against the floor as though again the couple in 6B were turning themselves over, going this way and that, finding the right spot to carry on. I backed out of the bathroom, not breaking the connection with Isaac, until I felt the back of my legs bump against the bed and I let myself half-sit-half-fall backwards.
He loomed over me, climbing on to the bed as I scooted backwards so that he straddled my hips, and I pushed up against him, needing the rub and friction against me. He slid back a little, so that he was over my thighs, pushed my skirt up to my hips and let his fingers trail over the front of my vulva. It had been so long since I’d been touched there – since I’d been touched anywhere – that it was electric, a shot through my core. His other hand pulled at my buttons until I reached up myself to undo them, pushing the shirt open. He leaned over and bit my nipples gently, one by one, through the bra, then yanked on the material on both cups, pulling them down just enough to bare me to his mouth.
As he sucked and licked, I felt his legs moving, one lifting then coming down again on the inside of my leg, pushing me open on one side, then the same with the other leg, so that eventually he was kneeling between my open thighs.
I felt his fingers tugging at the panties, pulling them aside, and then touching me there again too, and I knew I was swollen, vibrating, slick and wet.
The thump-thump-thump above us was picking up speed.
“Please,” I gasped, my hands tugging at his waistband and belt. “I just… need… now… please.”
He seemed to understand what I meant: the urgency, the not wanting to wait, needing. He pulled his belt open, hitched the hips down far enough then reached forward again to pull my panties further aside. He leaned over me, his mouth close to my ear, and whispered: “Next time, I’m taking these off, all of this, ok?” and something in the tone of the voice made it sound like a promise and an appeal and a prayer, a way to say: I need this right now, too, but I will need more again after.
I nodded, frantic, knowing he could feel my nodding against his face, my hair silky smooth between our cheeks.
“Isaac…” I said.
He shuddered, a great rushing gasp of breath, and I felt him push into me then, slowly, carefully, and my feet hooked onto his legs, urging him forward.
“Isaac,” I repeated.
He groaned, and slowly began to move. I gasped, whimpered, soft mewling noises, begging for more.
As he picked up his pace, I got louder, groans becoming moans becoming shouts, and the bed frame thumped against the wall, louder and faster and louder and faster, until I was shaking, an orgasm rushing through me, my legs pulling him in tighter, and he shouted, a sudden bark of need, before collapsing on me.
We lay in silence a moment, as I felt him still pulsing inside me, and the sudden oddness of what we had done – this stranger and I, in my bed, in my dark apartment – was about to overwhelm me when we heard a tap tap tap on the ceiling above.
A muffled “well done” and a round of applause from 6B.
I laughed. Isaac laughed, his body heavy on mine.
“I should fix the light,” he said.
The sudden change of direction was jarring, and I pulled slightly at my shirt to cover my breasts as he got up off of me.
“Oh yeah, for sure, ok.”
He looked back down at me.
“Because after they’re fixed, we’re going to do that again, with the lights on, slowly, so I can see you better.”
“Isaac,” I said.
“Mia in 5B, no pets.”
He smiled, a beautiful big smile, and I wondered how many other broken things I might be able to find in my apartment. I smiled back, pulled my shirt closed, and stood up.