I Used to Live Upstairs from You
glenn mcdonald

I'm driving up the Saw Mill Parkway at about forty with yellow Jettas passing me, their stupid headlights blinking, and the only thing that keeps me from pushing in and scaring the shit out of them is that if I speed up I will be admitting that the fog on the unlit road doesn't really scare me, which is what I'm pretending to myself so that I don't have to go fast and get to Bobby and Sarah's house sooner, because I don't want to have to admit that I wish I could turn around and go back home and never have to go to Bobby and Sarah's house again. U-turns on the Saw Mill are illegal, but in this car I could do it.

It's Sunday. Every Sunday I have dinner with Bobby and Sarah. Tonight I'm already ten minutes late, and I won't get there for another ten at least, but I know Bobby and Sarah will wait for me until quarter of seven, when they go ahead and start. I'm rarely that late.

Maybe the worst thing is, I was the one who convinced him. She did it on her own, but with Bobby it was my idea. I convinced him.

I met him when I was twenty-three and he was twenty-seven. Two nights in a row at Kessel's Eye we'd both been left alone, so the third night it was either introduce ourselves or go somewhere else. I saw right away why Bobby had had no luck. It was so simple. He was ugly. It was a while before I could come out and say it to him, but he knew.

I worked into it slowly, but about a year later I convinced Bobby to have his face done. He didn't like the idea much. On his own, he would never have done it. But I convinced him.

He got it done in April, but in the middle of May I went out to Washington for a year, and I didn't get to see him all done, yet. From the letters I got, though, I figured it had worked pretty well. In the first three weeks I heard about Cheryl, Dana, and Elizabeth. Then, about a month later I heard about Sarah and Adrianne, and then the next month it was just Sarah. It sounded serious. It looked like it wouldn't be long.

And then the next month I got a picture of the two of them. At least, I figured out it was the two of them. I hadn't seen Bobby yet. He looked very good. She looked excellent. They looked incredible. They should have been on a beach in the picture. They should have been on an island.

When I got back, the first thing I had to be was introduced to Sarah. I went over to Bobby's apartment. I still remember how she looked at me strangely when I came in, and how after about ten seconds of the strange look she smiled such a frighteningly beautiful smile. Later, after we had eaten, Bobby left the room and I asked her what her last name was because Bobby always called her just Sarah. She smiled again, and said "Mercovil, I used to live upstairs from you."

She was right. Sarah Mercovil was a woman who had lived upstairs from me for about six months, from when she moved in to when I moved out. She looked different then, mainly the nose. I asked her right out if she'd had it done, and she nodded and said "But don't," and then Bobby walked back in and she just held her finger up to her nose and looked at me hard. So I didn't say anything. I didn't tell Bobby that Sarah didn't used to look so good. She lived upstairs from me for six months and I never even spoke to her. I didn't know what she was going to look like. But Bobby didn't know she ever hadn't.

And then I realized. Neither of them knew. She didn't know about Bobby either. When I asked him, he said he had a chance here to make things work out from the start, and he wasn't going to screw things up. "This isn't a mask, you know," he said to me. "It doesn't come off. This is my face. This is how I look. Nothing is going to change that." How could I argue with him? What could I say to him? He had the end of any argument sitting in his living room pretending not to know where things were in his apartment, but pretending poorly so I'd be sure to know.

I could have told them then, if I ever could have. I came so close. They basked in warm ignorant glows of secrecy that burned straight through me, and I wanted to tear them apart, but I didn't, because it was my first day back and I'd have had nothing to call it but jealousy.

They got married five months later, and a year after that they both got commuter-quality jobs and moved up the Saw Mill Parkway. The Sunday dinner thing by that time was firm, and if I had stopped right then I could have had a reason I could say, because the drive was half-an-hour even fast, but I gotten too used to them. They were my best friends. I couldn't afford to lose friends. After Bobby and Sarah and my car, it's a long way to fourth.

It's been nine years now. I still can't say anything. How many times I've wanted to hand them pictures of each other before, and scream at them that they're living with paintings of people, with sculptures, that they never came out from under the gas. They're floating in a gas dream of beauty. It isn't real.

But I can't say anything because the next moment would kill me. I couldn't stand seeing them crumble. I might as well kill them, because the dream is all they have. I couldn't do that to my best friends. You have to understand that I don't see many people. Bobby and Sarah are all I have. I couldn't stand to watch them fall after I broke their dream. Crack the ice and they drown. Trip the gates and watch the flood pour in. I've seen it in my dreams. How many times I've watched them drown in my dreams among the shards of their broken shell. In the bad dreams I see it in great detail.

And in the worst dreams of all I see it all crack and I watch the water come and it parts around them and it runs past them and it hits me as I stare.

The Saw Mill Parkway goes straight to Bobby and Sarah's house. The first couple years I had an ancient Ford that I bought used. It wasn't much good. It went slow whether I liked it or not. Then I bought this car, and not too long afterwards I moved to a building with a garage. I've nearly been killed on the Saw Mill twice. The first time I got away with a mild concussion, and the car came away with grass stains all down the right side. The second time I had ten stitches in my forehead, and a broken arm, and the car took three mechanics to put it back together.

I'm about five minutes from Bobby and Sarah's. Five minutes from another dinner with two people who have never seen each other's face. Five minutes from a girl I might have had if I'd known, then, that she wouldn't always look the way I saw her, the way that I didn't even talk to her. I didn't even say hello, and now she's my best friend because I know who she was. I'm five minutes from two people who have nothing, who have everything I've ever wanted.

I'm five minutes from the only good thing I ever found in Kessel's Eye, and the only person who ever took my advice. And I'm five minutes from the two worst hours in my week, the two hardest, but maybe the only time I won't spend alone.

Worst of all, I'm five minutes from the cruelest reason that I hate going to Bobby and Sarah's, and why I can't tell them, and why I can't stop going, and why every time I go will be worse. Because I'm five minutes from Erica and Joey opening their front door. Erica and Joey.

See, Erica is seven, and Joey is nine. Their mother and father love them. Bobby and Sarah love their kids.

I jam the accelerator down just as an Isuzu is passing me on the right, and leave the driver with a denial he'll take home with him to Katonah, or North Salem, or wherever. The needle swings past seventy before I think to look up from it. The road is way off center, and before I can get back to the middle of it the car jumps and I see sparks fly on the left side, and I know I grazed the divider. I hit the brakes and slide back into 40, but then I remember the car I just passed, and I slip back up towards sixty, my hands tight on the wheel. I'm only three exits from Bobby and Sarah's.

Three more exits and I'll walk into their foyer, and into their den, and I'll toss my coat down on the divan, or down on the lounge, and I'll say hello, and Bobby and Sarah will smile at me, both so beautiful, and then I'll hold out my arms, and Erica and Joey will run to say hello, and to call me Uncle, and I'll hug them once and then they'll back up so I can look at them, and I'll look at them, and their parents will say, "Aren't they adorable?" I look at their eyes and their noses and their smiles. How can they live with it? How can they live with two living lies that neither of them can admit to? How can they smile? How can they be happy? Why don't they scream? Why is it that I am screaming and they aren't? Theirs is the lie. Can't they see? Their children are their dream and their children are the fact of their dream.

"Aren't they adorable?"

"They're beautiful," I'll say, because they look just like their parents. They look just like their parents--their eyes, their noses, their smiles.

"They're beautiful," I'll say, and then I'll say to their parents "They look just like you" loud enough to smash their world, but their parents won't even blink as my car hits the rail.

7 March 1988

Copyright 1988, glenn mcdonald

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