Mary studied the man in front of her. She had never seen him before.
“I’m Mary, I live here.” Mary stood holding her broom in her hands. She rubbed her thumb up and down the worn wood.
“Well that’s a nice name. So you’re an angel then?”
“Oh, no,” he answered.
“So you’re a devil then?”
Mary laughed, the crack of it echoed around the lobby. “Do you like our building here?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
Mary watched Gabriel as he looked around the lobby. It was her mission this summer to clean it up. She had been waiting since last summer for Tom, the landlord, to do it. She asked him about it whenever she saw him but he never got around to clearing out all the old junk that previous tenants had left. She had finally decided that she’d had enough waiting. She’d do it herself.
“Well it will be nice, once I clear out all the junk. I might put some plants in too. What do you think? Do you like plants?”
“Oh, yeah, they’re nice,” he answered.
“But do you think they would make this lobby nicer?”
“Are you moving in?”
“I’m just visiting a friend.”
“Who?” Mary asked.
Gabriel stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked up. Mary knew from a show on TV that this meant he was lying.
“Someone I used to know.”
“Well, you know, we all know each other —in this building, I mean.”
“That’s great,” Gabriel said.
“So you like the idea of plants then?” Mary asked, again.
“Yeah,” Gabriel said.
“That was Michael.”
“On the elevator, his name is Michael. He lives in 2D with his wife. They’re a nice couple.”
“That’s great,” Gabriel said, as he looked out the large glass window in the lobby.
Mary gestured to the mailbox. “So which one of these is your friend?”
Gabriel looked back at Mary and then over to the wall lined with little gold boxes. He took a step forward and pointed at a name written in black cursive.
“Oh, she’s on C, come on I’ll take you there,” Mary said as she grabbed Gabriel by the elbow. She guided him to the elevator and pushed the up button. They waited in silence as they both looked up watching the lighted numbers. Swoosh, the door opened and they stepped in. Mary leaned over and pushed C.
Gerry stood at his door. His eye was mashed against the peephole as he surveyed the hallway. He hadn’t heard the swishing of Mary’s broom for quite some time and thought it was finally safe to go out and grab a six-pack from the shop on the corner. He opened his door a crack and poked his head out into the hall. It was empty. He stepped out and shut it as gently as he could manage. He slipped his key in and turned it until it clicked. He spun around and headed to the elevator. As he furiously pushed the button over and over, he turned his head to look behind him, but Mary’s door stayed shut.
The door slid open and the girl from before was leaning into the corner. He felt his face go red as he stepped in. He pushed the L button and stood facing the door. The elevator started to go in the opposite direction but Gerry didn’t care. He was watching her face as she twisted the ends of her hair. She didn’t pester him with hellos and questions and he felt his admiration grow.
The door opened on C and Gerry moved to the side as she walked past him. He breathed her in. She stopped short. “Gabriel?”
Gerry held his hand out to stop the doors from closing. He wanted to see her for as long as he could. He was focused on her hair as it glided from her shoulder to her back and he didn’t see the waving person standing beside the tall man.
“Gerry!” Mary yelled.
Gerry looked past the girl and saw Mary. He groaned and tried to hide in the corner of the elevator.
“It was nice meeting you, Gabriel,” Mary said as she took off towards the elevator.
Mary hurried down the hall towards Gerry and he was obliged to hold his hand out again to stop the doors from closing. He looked past Mary and he watched the girl. She was walking towards the tall man in a black wool coat who was standing outside her door. He looked nervous and Gerry felt his face burn. Mary stepped into the elevator and started to natter at him.
“I’m so glad I ran into you. There are so many things I have to tell you, I had a dream last night,” Mary said, her voice trembling with excitement.
The doors closed and Gerry slumped against the back wall. The elevator headed up still and he looked at the floor. Unlike the rest of the building the floor in here was brown. “Are those new tenants?” Gerry asked, interrupting Mary.
“That was Gabriel, he’s a friend of Sarah —”
“Sarah.” Gerry felt her name in his mouth.
“— from 3C, she just moved in. He thinks plants in the lobby would be a good idea. What do you think?”
The doors opened on floor D and Gerry saw Michael from 2D standing in the hallway. He looked like he was playing a game on his phone. He looked up and Mary waved before the doors closed again.
“I don’t know, I think maybe a fern, what do you think?” Mary asked.
Gerry watched a pebble roll around on the floor. Sarah. Blonde hair. No questions.
Michael was hyping himself up. He had been standing out in the hall playing Tetris on his phone willing himself to open the door and go inside. The door to the elevators shut behind Mary’s stretched smile and he shoved his phone back in his pocket. He pushed open the door; his apartment was strewn with clothing, garbage and other useless knickknacks. He gritted his teeth.
His wife’s voice came from the direction of their bedroom.
“What?” he asked.
“Where were you?”
“I said I’d do it.”
“But you didn’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“What do you think?”
“Fuck you,” she yelled, from the bedroom.
Michael breathed deep and walked into the living room. He kicked her crap out of the way as he did and headed for the couch. He flopped down and leaned over for the remote and clicked the TV on.
“DO YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW NEED LIFE INSURANCE?”
He turned the volume down. Michael hated everything about his wife. He hated her face, her voice, her disgusting mess and the way she kept the volume on the TV blaring. He just fucking hated her. He sat on the sofa clicking through the channels wondering who that tall guy in the dark wool coat in the lobby was.
Martha just breathe, she told herself
1, breath, 2, breath, 3, breath, 4, breath. Martha closed her eyes and concentrated on the feelings in her lungs. I will not panic. I will not panic.
Martha’s eye popped open as the fight carried over from her neighbour’s apartment. She hated them and she was sure that they loathed each other; actually she was sure that Michael was gay and that Vanessa, his wife was having an affair. She had complained to Tom, the landlord, about their constant fighting but he didn’t have the time to deal with it; he had to take care of his kids and fix all the other problems in the building.
Just breathe Martha, 1, 2, 3, 4, in and out.
It had been a dream this time. She had woken with a start, her skin clammy and her heart racing. She’d been dreaming about Mark. She thought she was over him but maybe not. He had left six months ago and now Martha had panic attacks. Panic attacks that kept her trapped in her small used apartment where the neighbours screamed and the linoleum was an awful shade of puke pink.
Just get up Martha. Just get up.
Martha put one foot down on the floor and took a breath. She put the other foot on the floor and felt her muscles tighten. Breath.
She stood up and took small steps until she made it to the window of her patio door. She peeked out and saw that the sky was grey. That was reassuring. If it had been a sunny day her heart would have broken. She felt her pulse steady and she heard some noise in the hall. She walked over to the door and peered out the spy hole. She saw a load of books, magazines and clothes go flying. She pulled her head back before looking again.
“You fucking asshole.”
“Cunt. That’s my shit.”
“Well you said you wanted the place clean right?”
Martha decided to open her door. Her hand was shaking as she twisted the knob. The door creaked open and she poked her head out. Michael was in the hallway. He was picking up his stuff. He looked up at her and she noticed how tired he was.
“Sorry Martha,” he said.
“Are you okay, Michael?” she asked.
“We’re fine,” he answered.
“Are you sure?”
Michael glared up at her. “Yes.”
Martha inhaled sharply and shut the door. She turned the lock and took a step back and another and another until she was back in her bed under her covers. She breathed in slow as she listened to the sounds of her neighbours fighting.
A little while later she heard new voices. This time they came from outside. Martha wrapped her comforter around her shoulders and stood up. She shuffled to the patio door and slid it open.
“What are you doing here, Gabriel?” asked a woman’s tired voice.
“I already told you,” a man’s low voice answered.
“That’s not a reason,” she said.
“Sarah, please,” he said.
Martha stepped into the grey afternoon and felt the spring air as it blew her hair around. She sat down and leaned against the glass of the door. She didn’t know anything about her new downstairs neighbour yet and figured they were better to listen to then Michael and Vanessa.