Fiction - Winter 2023

Housewarming

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“He averted his eyes and remembered something a yoga teacher had often told him, that when you thought people were laughing at you, they were only laughing near you.”

By Dennis McFarland | December 1, 2022
Flickr/thomashawk
Flickr/thomashawk

When Kevin arrived at the top floor and stepped into a long dark hallway, he couldn’t recall the circumstances of his getting there. Likewise, he faltered on the subject of his purpose, though he felt it related to something material, like architecture or interior design. The ancient elevator man with the scary swooping eyebrows had brought him to the 15th floor—he knew that much at least—but he was pretty sure someone had dropped him off at the front of the building. A very pale woman with reddish hair (his sister Michelle?) had waved from the open back seat window of a car and wished him good luck. On the way up in the elevator, he kept hearing inside his head the metallic concussions of a car crash.

The hallway, startling in length, was lit by industrial fixtures that cast perfect discs of light on a glossy navy-blue floor. He thought, Slippery when wet, and looked down at his shoes, charcoal OluKai Nohea Mokus, recently purchased online at REI, mainly because of their “vegan friendly construction,” a concept he sometimes pondered when he had trouble falling asleep. He imagined that the shoes, like his too-tight chinos and too-busy checked shirt, were all wrong for today, whatever today might be. Because of the fundamentally abstruse nature of clothing (a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma), he struggled with choosing what to wear. Most often he found himself distracted by thoughts of his body inside the clothes, as now, this moment, he felt sad and a little bitter about his damp white feet trapped inside the beautiful Mokus.

A door swung open at the farther end of the hallway—he glimpsed stainless steel kitchen appliances inside—and a young man about Kevin’s own age, wearing a narrow black tie and a white bistro apron, emerged; he smiled guiltily, took a phone from his hip pocket, and put one finger to his lips, as if to say, Don’t tell anyone you saw me out here.

And all at once, everything came into focus: Sunday afternoon, Manhattan, somewhere along the East River, a housewarming for friends, Ralph and Debbie, and their magnificent new loft. As Kevin moved toward the nearer door, the tune in his brain was The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” which had claimed him via a SlimFast commercial three years earlier and which had still not let him go. He saw no button to push, no bell to ring. He inhaled deeply, lifting his shoulders, and exhaled a cleansing breath like a baseball player stepping to the plate. He turned the spherical brushed-nickel knob, the door opened easily, and he entered a foyer that was nearly as big as his whole apartment. He thought mudroom, and then sliced mudrooms, and then mudroom soup. He observed built-in pine cabinets and many closet doors, a powder room, and an unlit hallway off to the left that likely led to bedrooms. To the right was an enormous unfurnished room with a high ceiling, brick walls, and exposed ductwork and electrical conduits. From somewhere beyond, he heard the chatter of a cocktail party, which sounded to him like a flock of geese. Directly before him, on a dark cherry wall, hung a lithograph he remembered from Ralph and Debbie’s old place in the Village, an Alice Neel entitled Jar From Samarkand, noteworthy because Neel considered it a portrait of a friend despite the fact that the friend wasn’t in it. She’d meant to portray the friend’s absence, an abstraction that occasionally visited Kevin on the G train and at a Greenpoint coffee shop where he sometimes had breakfast.

As he walked through the big empty room, he heard the deep hum of an 18-wheeler idling outside in the external hallway—the mighty rig that seemed to follow him wherever he went and always parked close by. The room’s blond hardwood floor had the sort of grain that manifested faces of people and animals if you looked at it for very long. As he neared a pair of swinging doors with matching portholes set maddeningly off-center, he reminded himself to insert deliberate pauses into his thinking. Odd, he thought, to have to pass through the kitchen. He pushed open the doors: bright white tiles, an off-putting seafood and roasted meat aroma, four people resembling the guy in the hallway busy with food and drink. A girl at a soapstone sink caught his eye and, as if to help him, pointed in the direction he was already going.

Beyond a second set of doors, an unlit dining area abutted the palatial main room, the epicenter of the cocktail chatter, and right away he knew he would have to stay away from the wall of windows at the far end of it—a panorama, with undertow, of sky and water and the glass high-rises of Long Island City. He lingered briefly at the threshold, scanning the 25 or so guests for his friends. A darkly tanned middle-aged woman, perched on a burgundy Richmond ottoman about 15 feet away, looked directly at him and laughed, revealing tobacco stains on her teeth. He averted his eyes and remembered something a yoga teacher had often told him, that when you thought people were laughing at you, they were only laughing near you. “Oh, Kevin, Kevin,” called Debbie from across the room, and then every person was looking at him. He fancied himself made of wood, a decorative wooden mallet a giant might pick up and use for striking a gong.

Now it was extreme hugging, first from Debbie, looking elegant and fragile with her gray hair pulled back from her face, followed by the massive Ralph, who cried, “Buddy boy,” and wrapped him up so absurdly, it made Kevin think of the Milky Way. They each had a sharp and familiar scent he couldn’t name.

“Everyone,” said Debbie to the room, “this is our dear friend Kevin. He’s lovely and smart, and I hope you’ll make a point of meeting him.”

Despite his best intentions, Kevin squeezed his eyes shut—but exactly like a crazy person. In the darkness, he recalled that Alice Neel had painted a portrait of Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, memorable mostly for having once said to an interviewer, “I can explain it to you, but I cannot comprehend it for you.”

Kevin thought it kind of Debbie to introduce him to the room like that—she was only being polite—but he wished he’d been more prepared for it. When he opened his eyes, the guests were no longer looking at him, and Debbie took his arm and said softly, “I’m sorry, darling, forgive me. I shouldn’t have embarrassed you like that. Now where on earth is Michelle?”

“Do you mean pale Michelle?” Kevin asked.

“Well, yes, I suppose that’s who I mean,” said Debbie.

“Michelle is rather pale,” said Ralph, cocking his head to one side in an ironic way. “I’ve noticed that myself. Excuse me, I’m going to check on the kitchen.”

Once Ralph had gone, Kevin said, “I’m not sure where she is. She might have been in a car crash.” Then, because of the alarm on Debbie’s face, he added, “But don’t worry—I’m sure she’s okay.”

Debbie smiled the way people smile at puppies at a shelter. “Well,” she said, “I think I should give her a call. I expected to see her. I mean, I assumed she would … Are you sure she’s not with you?”

“I’m sure,” said Kevin. “You look wonderful by the way.”

“Thank you, sweetheart, why don’t you find a place to sit, and I’ll—”

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