Short Story: Interior Scenes
Interior Scenes: During the Plague
by Jennifer de Guzman
On Thursday of the sixth week indoors, when the meals of ramen and canned corn, the drone of the radio news reports, the recycled air and the light filtered through the murky plastic over the windows had become nearly much too much, Sascha had taken her kitchen scissors--eight inches long, brushed stainless steel--and shorn off her hair. Reckless and bored, she had cut without any plan, grabbing strands in handfuls and closing the blades around them, leaving piles of hair like dead leaves and long black ropes curled like seaweed at her feet.
The results weren't nearly so bad as they could have been, though the uneven edges and short fringe of bangs, matched with the sallowness and hollow expression of six weeks without sunlight, without food that didn't come from a box or can or jar, without any faces but those of her neighbors as they paced the building's hallways, gave Sascha the look of a refugee child--frightened and haunted, when in fact she was neither of these things. Frustrated and restless more than anything else, she reached another breaking point when she took the sweepings from her haircut--along with the rest of her trash that would not be picked up any time foreseeable--to the garbage chute, and the widow woman across the hall observed her short hair.
"Goodness!" the woman cried, placing a hand on her chest to dramatize her surprise. "Why did you do that?"
"I just wanted a change." Sascha tried not to look at the woman.
"You should have had someone help you." The widow woman followed Sascha down the hall. "I would have been glad to help. Or you could have asked Lynn in 3B. She used to cut hair for a living, you know."
"Well, it's done now. I think I managed well enough."
The widow woman looked at her sidelong. "Well, I don't know about that, dear." She cast a glance at the contents of Sascha's wastebasket. "You know, you should have braided your hair before you cut it. I'm sure you could have donated it to some charity after... after all this is over."
"Yes, it's too bad I didn't think of that," Sascha said.
"It's a pity to waste things, don't you think?" the woman continued. "But even in a time like this, people are so wasteful." She eyed Sascha's trash again. "Did you realize that you're throwing away that can of beans?"
"Yes," Sascha said, dumping the contents of her pail down the chute, can of beans included. "The can got punctured somehow. It's no good."
"Oh, what a pity. That must have been a can from the emergency delivery." The woman followed Sascha back down the hall. "I already had my pantry all stocked, so I didn't need to take much from them. People thought I was crazy when I bought all that food before -- whaddayacallit -- Y2K, but now it's come in handy."
"You have cans of food that are that many years--" Sascha started to say, but then stopped herself when she reached her door. "Well, it was good talking to you, Mrs. Mitchell!" She forced herself to smile as she closed the door on the widow woman.
She then strode to the bathroom, grabbed the scissors, and sliced through the plastic membrane that covered the window in her bedroom, the window that faced the building across the alleyway. Sunlight poured through the gash in the plastic. Too bright and clean for reality, it was the sunlight that Sascha had started dreaming of two weeks into the confinement.
On the first two days, Sascha merely stretched out in front of her window, sleeping with sunlight on her face, her gray-striped cat sprawled beside her. At night, she peered through the glass at the sky as best she could, catching the wash of twinklings that were visible now that the streetlights had gone dark, and bathing in blue light when the moon was far overhead. On the third day, she ventured to look toward the ground. A dead dog lay in the alleyway, one of the yellow mongrels that had roamed the neighborhood. She wondered how long it had been there. Not the whole six weeks, surely. Sascha closed the plastic as best as she could and did not look out the window for the next two days.
When she opened the plastic again, she brought the mirror from an old compact with her. Angling it toward the sun, she sent flashes of light toward the window opposite hers. No code, no message, only the meaning: I'm here. I'm here.
She flashed the light across the alley for three minutes, listening to the steadiness of her breathing and the whir of the air recycler, watching the window for signs of life. She did this the next day and the next at the same time. On the third day, when there was still no movement at the window opposite hers, she screamed until there was no air left in her lungs, simply to have a new sound to hear.
The neighbors pounded on their walls and ceilings and floors, and only Mrs. Mitchell knocked at her door to see if she was all right. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Mitchell," Sascha said. "I was taking a nap and I had a horrible dream, I suppose."
Mrs. Mitchell started to tell her about the soothing properties of lavender, but Sascha merely smiled pleasantly and shut the door in the woman's face.
On the fourth day, Sascha thought she saw the plastic over the window opposite ripple; on the fifth, she was certain it had. She changed the pattern of the light flashes, quickening them, drawing tiny circles across the glass, as if to say, not only I'm here, but also Show me that you're there, too.
She waited after she had finished shining the light, watching the window, listening to the sounds of air, air moving in and out of her lungs, air being pulled through the filter and pushed back out, air pumping through the apartment building--air that everyone hoped was safe to breathe. The news reports were coy in giving details; how long the generators could power the air recyclers, how long until the next emergency deliveries, how long everyone would remain shut in like this was not information anyone seemed to know.
An empty hour, of thoughts passing through her mind and disappearing, her eyes on the glass across the alleyway. Sascha watched the window until the sun had passed from overhead. Then she peered to the ground once more. The dead dog's body still lay in the alley, flesh sunken away. She touched her fingers to the glass momentarily, looked fleetingly at the window opposite once more, and then turned away.
For the next three days, she lay on her bed, watching the shadows on her ceiling. Her cat lay near her head and purred. At night she slinked through the dark halls of the apartment building. Faint murmurs drifted through the walls and doors. Though muffled, the voices were still recognizably strained. Sharp spikes in sound indicated arguments; low churnings were the sound of weeping. Shut back in her own apartment, the dim staleness of the hallway still clinging to her, Sascha would allow herself to sit on her kitchen floor and cry quietly, the hard linoleum cold against her skin, knees drawn to her chest. She wasn't sure what emotion overtook her on such nights; longing, despair, loneliness, or just plain, pointless melancholy--they blended and blurred and washed through her, manifesting in hot tears that she let spill down her cheeks and fall onto her knees.
When the flash crossed her vision, Sascha was lying on her bed, studying the fringes of the carpet, The Rite of Spring flowing from her earbuds, discordant sounds resonating into her fingertips as she absently traced the pattern of stylized vines and flowers. At first, she thought it was merely a reflection off the chromed surface of her MP3 player. But two more flashes came quickly after it; a pause, then three more flashes in succession. Sascha turned off her player--the battery was more than half-depleted and she had no way of recharging it--and then rolled from her bed, her limbs loose and lazy. She crept, cautious but not knowing why, to the window. Hands on the sill, she paused a moment before she peered out.
A face in the window opposite looked across the alleyway. It was a man's face, wan and hungry like hers, but hardly more than a collection of reflection and shadow. Sascha smiled waveringly and raised a hand. The man across the alley did the same. They watched each other for a moment, and their smiles turned into awkward grins, both saying, What now? Sascha shrugged her shoulders, still smiling, and then dropped to her knees, crouching under the perimeter of the window. She crawled back to her bed, settled the earbuds back in her ears and pondered the face in the window.
At three o' clock the next afternoon, the light came flashing across her bedroom once more. The young man waved when she came to the window and then bent down, invisible for a moment. When he stood again he held something in his arms. An orange tabby cat. Sascha smiled, held up one finger in an indication for the man to wait, and picked up her cat from the bed. She held the gray tabby up to the window, and she and the man smirked stupidly at each other before their cats squirmed free of their embraces. The smiles slackened from their faces. Sascha knew her face had become too small for her eyes, and she worried that the man in the window opposite would read hunger in them, as she read in his. She dropped her gaze.
She hurried away from the window to her desk, where she wrote her name in thick Sharpie marker letters on a comic book backing board. But when she returned to the window, the glass across the alley was empty. She tore off a stray length of tape that had once adhered the plastic membrane to the glass, arranged the board at the center of her window, and then returned to her bed.
The next day, a bright spot of light danced across her wall, circling in spirals, rising and falling in thin stripes, disappearing when the board blocked its way through the glass. Sascha stretched out her arm, letting the light ripple over her fingers. Her mirror lay on the bedside table. She turned onto her belly, took it in her hand, and then caught the light in the glass. Fainter now, the translucent streak of white became another one of the shapes that floated across Sascha's vision, shapes that she imagined represented her hunger, her loneliness, all the empty, in between places inside of her freed from her body, less than insubstantial.
Her legs wavered when she stood and she held onto the back of her desk chair before going to the window. The room swayed and pulsed momentarily, then settled into its usual lines. Arranging herself in a posture that she imagined disguised the ragdoll limpness in her limbs, she pulled the board from the window and looked out. A sign in the opposite window, lettering in red paint: James. The sign lowered, behind it the young man's face, smiling, but tilted to one side, an expression Sascha read as saying, "I was worried." She pressed her fingers to her temples, closed her eyes--"I wasn't feeling well." James set down his sign, pressed his hand against his chest, just over his heart--the same motion Mrs. Mitchell had made upon seeing Sascha's hair, but infused with sincerity that Sascha felt through her body, tingling in her fingertips.
The next day, she pointed out the dead dog in the alley to James, and they looked at it together, seeing the shape of the bones through the parchment skin and fur patches. When she lifted her gaze again, he returned it searchingly. "Why did you show this to me?" But she could only shake her head and remove herself from the window. She had seen the pain in his face. Perhaps someone he loved had died, she thought. Perhaps he had wanted to forget that death was lurking outside the buildings. Perhaps he had turned his radio off and turned all of himself inward, as she had done. It was impossible for her to return entirely inside of herself now, though, impossible put the man across the alley away.
Sascha wondered about the red paint he had written his name with. Was he an artist? Or maybe a kindergarten teacher, using the dredges of finger paint to share some part of himself with her? Revived to life now that she had something to think about, she began eating once more, wanting to keep her mind awake so that she could continue to think and to regret. No flashes of light had darted through her room for the past three days, and Sascha turned the regret over and over, reading her memory of James's face, the glare off the glass obscuring his eyes.
She ventured out into the building's hallways again, walked blank-faced next to Mrs. Mitchell as the widow woman offered strings of advice, repeated endlessly how glad she was for the building's gas stoves and tried to arrange a meeting between Sascha and her youngest, unmarried son once "all of this" was over. Sascha soon realized that no one else talked to Mrs. Mitchell; fewer people left their apartments than had at the beginning, and when Sascha crept through the halls at night, the voices came through the walls less frequently.
The window in her bedroom remained uncovered. Sascha sat beneath it, slouched below the sill, her bare feet warm in the sunlight, her shoulders shaking as she cried. At the same time, she laughed bitterly at herself for missing a man she knew only through the filter of glass and an alleyway's width of diseased air. Finally, recognizing her pride as useless, she retrieved her mirror from her desk drawer and sent three flashes to the window opposite. Breath held, she waited.
James appeared, his expression shy, his motions hesitant. Sascha smiled, pressed her palms together, touched her fingertips to her mouth--"I'm sorry." He returned the smile and shook his head.
"Why?" she wanted to ask. "Why did you come back when I called you?"
But she could think of no way of gesturing this to him. Instead, she put up a hand in a motion to tell him to wait and took from her nightstand the book she had read three times since the shutting in--Death in Venice.
James shook his head when she held it up to the glass--he couldn't read the cover. He disappeared for a moment, reappeared with a small pair of binoculars in his hand. He pointed to them, then to her, asking approval. Sascha hesitated, pushing the jagged edges of her hair away from her face, feeling her bones closer than ever to her skin, the ridge of her cheekbones announcing the orbits of her eyes. But she nodded, the thought of new eyes on her features curling the corners of her mouth upward. James raised the binoculars to his eyes, lingered for a moment, and then lowered them. He motioned to her to wait and while he was away from the window, Sascha shuffled through her closet and found the opera glasses she had bought on a lark before she had gone to La Boheme two years before.
When she returned to the window, James was holding a book. She held up her opera glasses, tilted her head as she pointed to them. He nodded in reply. Captured in the rounds of glass, his smiling face had dark smudges around the eyes and a week's stubble on the chin. Sascha studied him, the falling sensation in her stomach reminding her that he had studied her in the same way only a moment before. He had grown thinner than he should have been, as she had; his fingernails were painted black--Sascha wondered if he had done it to fend off boredom and frustration, as she had cut her hair; his dark hair hung over his forehead in dreadlocks. The aqua-covered book he held was Love in the Time of Cholera.
A blush rose in her cheeks. Sascha set her opera glasses on the sill and hid her smile behind her hand. Across the alley, James returned the smile slyly, placed his palm against the window. Sascha took her hand from her face and mimicked him, expression and gesture, feeling cold, smooth glass on her palm and wishing she felt flesh.
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There was nothing more they could do than look at each other across the alleyway. Sometimes Sascha would sit in her window sill and try to write in her battered notebook as James, in the window opposite, painted at an easel--he was, as Sascha had suspected, an artist. When the light dipped behind the building and dimmed, he would hold the canvas to the window and show her his progress. The painting was a menagerie of chimerical animals, awash in yellow light that was not the glory of sunlight, but the bilious sheen of sickness.
Sascha associated the color with summer, the season when the slow wasting of disease transformed into devouring plague--the season that was approaching, its fingers stretching across her window sill. The sunlight grew too hot to lounge in, even for her cat, a humid heat that left the plastic membranes ringed with steamy condensation and Sascha's imagination bloated with the image of corpses rotting in the river. Anxiousness turned to unease, heavy in her chest and throat, and she looked across the alleyway with a kind of desperation that she could not quite define but nevertheless hated; it was another weakness, as much as the frailty of her body and the cloudiness of her thoughts.
Still more: her food was running low. Sascha was down to cans of kidney beans and evaporated milk. Mrs. Mitchell's pantry, jammed full of canned vegetables and chili, became a stock character in her dreams, where she ran her eyes over the bright labels and handed cans to a young man with black-painted fingernails.
Too ashamed of the tremble in her limbs and the want that grasped beneath the surface of her skin, constantly tangible no matter what her expression, she stopped posing and gesturing to James. In late evening she would smile as she paused briefly at her window, searching the face that looked back at her for that same want and finding it there, every time.
The despair of words that she had no way of speaking to him, of emotions that had no basis in anything solid and real, pushed her into a retreat. She lay curled on her bed for three days, watching in silence as James's flashes of light played on her walls. No use feeding unfulfillable longing, Sascha told herself. No use creating obsession. But the flashes of light soon turned into sound, into the cold tap of something hitting her window like hailstones. Sascha finally rose from her bed, steadying herself by fixing her vision on the opera glasses on her window sill, and looked out the window.
James was there, closer than he had ever been to her. He was leaning from his open window. His lips formed the shape of her name. "Sascha!" the shape of his mouth said. "Open your window!" He gestured as if lifting a sash.
She stepped back from the window, startled and shaking her head. But James continued to form words. "Look!" He pointed down toward the alley. When Sascha peered over the edge of the building, squinting through the glare on the glass, she saw only the empty street. The dead dog was gone. She looked back up at James, who smiled, wearily, as she would smile now if she tried. But she did not try. Hand against her glass, she felt the heat that would disappear as night came, turn cold as it went on. She could not open the window.
"I'm sorry," she said, but she couldn't tell if James could understand. He had said her name, strange thing to hear. Was there longing in it, as there would be in her voice if she said his name? She tried to hear it again in her mind, willed James to call her again, but the sound had already gone fuzzy in her fatigue, and James was silent. Sascha pushed the tears off her face. She was too tired to cry, and they had fallen emptily, without a sob, and kept on falling. She turned away from the window, sunk to the ground. Behind her, just outside the glass was a possibility of something, Sascha understood -- a moment, an episode, even a life when it had seemed that all that was ending, when there would be no more moments to string together into stories, nothing more to write about or paint.
Nothing to say. Sascha closed her eyes and whispered. "Glass, light, love, cholera, death, Venice. Glass, light..." She could not say it again but waited, silently, hoping for or dreading, she could not tell which, a tap on her door, a voice in the hallway.