He lives on my floor, at the end of the second of the four hallways that branch out from the elevator somewhat like the legs of a spider. He strides down the hallway with his hands in his pockets, bouncing with each step as if his legs are too long to move his body efficiently. He is always dressed in the same black leather jacket, which exudes the musty, cigarette-tinged odor that comes from spending years in the same closet. He is the sort of tall, lean person who tends to mold himself into a doorframe whenever there is one available. He is temporary, never really belonging wherever he is; a question mark, an eraser smudge.
I try not to look at him as we stand side by side, waiting for the elevator, for I know that if I do, I will be forced to tilt my head up, up, craning my neck to get a look at his serious, dark-featured face. And he would notice that—notice me staring.
I would not shrink from observing another stranger, but I cringe when I see him. His presence isn’t particularly frightening, it just freezes the air. I know that the words I send across that expanse of ice-air to him will die of cold along the way. Whenever I see him, I’m suddenly extra aware of my body, shrinking my hands into my pockets, crossing one leg over the other until I stand rather like a twisted-up stork. I want to vanish into myself and not have to face that somber mystery.
My dad almost met him once. Our doorman, Peter, tried to introduce them in the lobby of our building.
“Hiya, Constantine,” Pete said cheerfully. “Y’know, there’s another Greek guy that lives on your floor. Want me to introduce you?”
“Oh, that’s nice,” my dad said as he brushed by, in an irritable mood, not bothering to notice the tall, slender figure waiting expectantly behind Pete. As he approached the elevator, though, he did notice, and thought of going back to apologize for ignoring our fellow Greek, but the damage was already done. The man hasn’t spoken to us since.
Perhaps it is this unending silence that gives me the impression of time slowing whenever I see him. Of the temporary death of everything in sight. When I was younger, I just assumed he was a big, mean man. He didn’t show the delighted interest in me, or the automatic softening at the corners of the mouth that I inspired in all the adults I found worthwhile. I didn’t think that there might have been a reason that I never saw him smile.
Then, one day as I was coming home from school, I found my route to the elevator blocked. I looked up from the book I was reading.
On the way to the elevator in my lobby, there is a single stair, with a short iron railing. This stair has caused many problems, once almost leading to a lawsuit, setting off a series of discussions and plans for reconfiguring the entrance to the building to make it more accessible to handicapped and elderly people. My strange neighbor stood just below the stair, holding the elbow of a very old woman with a walker who was struggling to get down the stair. They had clearly been there for a while. She was more of a ghost than a woman; she leaned all of her weight on him, unable to hold herself up, but there was so little of her that he bore it easily. She moved almost imperceptibly. Her bones creaked their way into position as she slowly, slowly shuffled her feet closer to the edge of the stair. I once saw a movie in which there was a man whose bones were as fragile as glass. He lived alone in an apartment, swathed in numerous sweaters, his furniture and walls all padded to prevent some accidental collision from breaking him.
As I watched my neighbor shift his mother toward the edge of the stair, I wished that there were some sort of padding on the marble floor of the lobby, for if this woman were to fall, she would certainly shatter. I watched them until I realized I was watching, then hastily stepped back, trying to pretend I had only just entered the lobby. I looked down into my book again and skirted around them to the elevator, escaping into its bland impersonality. I could not have been more embarrassed had they both been naked. I felt as though I had witnessed something painfully intimate, not meant for the eyes of anyone but the two of them. It wasn’t just a man helping a woman down the stairs, it was a son living his mother’s death. There was a raw, almost instinctual emotion about that image that I had no right to see.
I hadn’t known his mother was dying. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for him, to come home every day to less and less of her, to find himself supporting the figure who had supported him throughout his growth. There was a part of him that was seeping away with her, and the air around him was being sucked into the hole created by her approaching death.
Now I understood his unsmiling face. But this understanding didn’t lessen his mystery. Instead, it made him seem all the more distant from me. The mere thought of someone I deeply loved dying was almost unimaginable. His endurance of her death elevated him to some higher level of experience that I could not reach.
Today, as the elevator doors open with a ding that always reminds me of the beeping noise that ends each episode of 24, our eyes meet. We both tighten our lips, stretching our mouths backward into those flat little smiles that pass between near strangers who accidentally acknowledge each other, as if we are apologizing for this temporary awkwardness. We stand in opposite corners, and I can feel the air between us growing brittle with the silence. I focus my
eyes firmly on the tips of my boots. I wonder if I can allow myself to look up to check what floor we are on; this ride is taking far too long, we must have gotten stuck. I let my gaze flick upwards. The elevator is moving down as it should, just passing the fifth floor. I look back down to my feet.
At last the door swishes open and we are released. As we step out of the elevator, heading in opposite directions, I hear him speaking over my shoulder.
“Have a good day.”
His voice is low, bottomless, like the sound of boulders scraping against each other.
“You too,” I say automatically, then stop and turn in surprise. He is already leaving the lobby. I can’t tell if he heard me.