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The Russians light cigarettes and come out from their porches. Up and down the block, plastic patio chairs are left empty next to ashtrays in bloom. The streetlamps flicker on, the sun goes down, and the sidewalks start to release the day’s heat into the cool evening air. It’s time for the Russians to begin their watch over the neighbourhood. They patrol in groups of three or four men, arguing, rubbing at their gray moustaches, armed with baseball bats and a toughness taught by a harder, former life. Lying in bed, we can hear them out there, shouting, grumbling, making small talk with the police through rolled-down cruiser windows. Sometimes we even drift off a little as they pass, but we’re wide awake again once silence comes crawling back in through the window.
She’s out on the balcony with a cup of coffee and the day’s first cigarette. Long black hair hanging over the back of the chair. ‘You sleep?’
I pinch nothing between two fingers to say, A little. I’m lying.
‘You gotta show me how you do that,’ she says, and turns back to watching the street.
‘Anything happen last night?’
‘He got some place at Forsyth and 191st.’
Shit that’s close. ‘Maybe he’s done with the neighbourhood then.’
‘Nah.’ She inhales, blows the smoke almost straight upwards, two sharp motions aimed out at the neighbourhood. Her neck is long and pale and I want to press my face and sweat against it. ‘Night before was only four blocks away. He’s just getting started. Working his way up the boulevard.’
The city drags through its day. It hasn’t slept in three weeks. Yesterday my bus driver fell asleep at a red light. The girl scanning groceries at the corner store charged me three times for the same bag of chips, stabbing numbly at the register even though she grew up behind that counter. I know, we used to talk. Conversation’s fallen off across the city. All that people manage is a mumble and a greasy-eyed nod thrown out at a familiar voice. On TV, the weatherman’s well of cheer is tapped; he yawns and rubs his dark sockets and flings his arms around the blue screen like he’s just had them fitted. The cops are saying that crime’s down in every precinct. People are too tired to break the law. Find the one guy who’s well-rested, Officer, and you’ve got your man.
‘You know, it’s not necessarily a guy,’ she says. She’s looking back at me over her shoulder.
‘It could be a woman,’ she says. ‘Most arson is committed by women.’
‘Sure. Crime of passion.’
Sleeplessness has an effect on things like passion. I try sometimes, when I’ve got a little rest in me, kissing that neck and sliding a few fingers higher and higher up her leg, but when she reaches for my hand, it’s to clutch it to her chest and pull my arm snug around her, pulling me down to the sofa and its pillows.
At night we pack our laptops and wallets and a change of clothes and leave the bags by the door. There’s nothing else here we really need. We did a complete accounting when the fires didn’t stop and figured we can replace everything else if we have to, reinstall it in some other collection of rented rooms, call it ‘home,’ and start over.
I go to work. Almost everyone in my department lives in the city, but my boss is a commuter, bright-eyed and bushy-bearded in the mornings. He wanders the cubicles with stacks of paperwork, looking for someone awake enough to assign work to. He cuts us some slack on the whole napping thing on account of the fires. He’s a good guy. Whenever I hear his door open I close my eyes and lean forward slightly over my keyboard.
Rachel’s out when I get home. I have no idea where she is, so I text her. I get nervous now when she’s gone. I’m not a jealous person. I’m just concerned. Rachel is mine, I’d hate for anything to happen to her. Maybe I should call her. Maybe I should go down to the coffee shop where she works and dig around in the dumpster for napkins with her handwriting and little drawn hearts. Maybe I just need to stick my head in the freezer for few minutes and cool off.
I watch TV.
‘Drinks with Clarissa, sorry.’ The call comes a few hours later. In the background I hear traffic rumble and honk, and I wring out each noise for something familiar. ‘It’s important for my career that we see each other, y’know? She still does casting work sometimes, and fuck me if I don’t get a role sometime soon. I didn’t want to look at my phone.’
‘Sure,’ I say.
‘Sorry I didn’t text you back.’
‘It’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You eat yet?’
I grab tacos on my own. The orange grease gets all over my hands while I eat and walk back. It gets on my shirt, the doorknob, the kitchen faucet. She’s still wearing her work clothes when she walks through the door. A good sign. She hates wearing them out, they stink of coffee by the end of the day. She says hey and crashes on the sofa next to me and is asleep within five minutes. I don’t move. I don’t even turn off the TV. It’d wake her if I did.
I’ve always thought women asleep are twice as beautiful as women awake. Freed from the weight of the day, their faces relaxed and serene. That peace is infectious. It spreads over you from the shoulders until you’re carrying one of those soft half-lucid smiles you stole from your first middle-school slowdance. Women sleep like dancers move: the grace in a long curved neck, the slight peek at a collarbone, the tousled hair looking arranged just-so on the sofa cushions.
I get up for a beer. My movements wake her.
‘Oh shit,’ she sits up and paws drool away from her cheek, ‘Was I asleep? Fuck. How long was I out for?’ She hauls herself upright and looks around the apartment. ‘What’s going on, is everything all right?’
‘Well, let me sleep, then.’
Another house in the neighbourhood goes up that night. We lie there and listen to the sirens and the murmurs outside as neighbours trade boogeymen on the sidewalk. In our darkened little room, we smile at the sound of the Widow Andropov screeching in her mother tongue, banging her cane against the sidewalk, tapping out her secret telegraphs. She lives on the second floor. If you peek in her windows as you go down the stairs, you can see the walls covered with pictures of her late husband Andrei, and when you help carry her groceries up, she repays you with one or two stories where Andrei this and Andrei that. She always asks why Rachel and I aren’t married yet, you should, you should, before you get too old.
‘She’s really giving em hell, huh?’ Rachel says. She’s giggling in the dark. Right now someone’s home is going up in flames, but tonight, at least, it’s not us. Still smiling, she rolls over, burrows a cheek into my shoulder, and closes her eyes. I am returned to glory.
When I wake up, she’s not beside me. I wander around the apartment in a daze that’s one part worry and one part confusion, too recently asleep to be rational. I look for her in the kitchen, bathroom, porch, closets. I look for her like a lost wallet. The cobwebs fall away. I think to call her.
‘At Deena’s,’ she says, ‘Woke up with a strawberry-rhubarb pie craving that wouldn’t be ignored.’
I stop by the little diner on my way to work. It’s a place that’s survived, neon-and-all, through the decline and gentrification of the neighbourhood. Every plate comes hidden under cheese, the accents are all gruff and local. We used to go there after late nights out, hoping to salve our stomachs with diner-grease, grinning, telling what we remembered, trying to stitch the evening back together. I carry around this memory of her laughing in one of the booths. Head thrown back, eyes closed, slapping the fake leather seat, and me thrilling at making a girl like this laugh like that. I wish I still knew what I’d said.
The place is almost empty when I get there. She puts her book down when she sees me. I get a quick hello and a kiss goodbye, and then I’m gone. Late already.
It’s the first day I’ve been fully awake at work in weeks and I’m the only one. Usually this place has that dampened hum of an active business: clacking keystrokes, coworkers’ chatter drifting in over the cubicle wall, one muffled half of a telephone conversation floating in a corner somewhere. Today it’s dead quiet. Those who aren’t listing sideways as they doze in their swivel chairs stare open-mouthed at their screens, their fingers perched lightly over the keyboard, waiting on lost orders. I call up Accounting to verify some numbers and I hear the handset get picked up then clunked down. I almost call again but balk at the sound of the dial tone and lay the receiver back in its cradle.
I take my lunch break in the plaza at the base of our building. Around me other white-collar tribes situate themselves among the palms, and I get about ten minutes’ good eavesdropping in until Zeke comes out of the building. Zeke is a real twitchy guy, just hired straight out of college. For the past three weeks, he’s stayed up playing video games until dawn, showing up to work still quivering with adrenaline and crumpling exhausted over his keyboard a half hour later.
‘How you managing?’ he asks, sitting down next to me.
‘All right. Slept last night.’
‘It’s true. How’re the games working out?’
‘Pretty dece. My friends come over most nights since I have the best setup. Sometimes they come over just to sleep. I can’t, and they know it, but it’s good having someone else there, even if they aren’t awake. It’s social, sort of.’
On my way home, I get off a stop early and try to walk by the place that burned last night. It’s a four-story apartment building, or it was- now it’s two and a half brick walls so covered with soot the whole thing looks like a shadow standing there to spite the daylight. The remaining walls fence in a pile of wet, grey rubble. Yellow caution tape cordons off the sidewalk in front, and there’s still one bored cop on the scene kicking gravel and cigarette butts into the road.
I go to snap a picture with my phone, but the cop’s been watching me the whole time. ‘What you think you’re doing?’ he shouts from across the street, waving his arm. ‘Taking a goddamn picture? This was somebody’s home, asshole. The hell is wrong with you.’ He rests a hand on his nightstick and steps into the road. He’s found a way to kill time, and maybe me with it. I slip the phone back into my pocket and hustle out of there, shaking heads and muttered Russian following me home.
I had been dragged out to a black-painted basement in a part of town I stayed away from, a friend of a friend from college’s thing. Folding chairs and found set pieces and everyone talking about how broke they were at the drinks after. I felt an imposter in khakis. She saw me looking at her and pushed the hair out of her eyes and walked over to say hello her name was Rachel. A world where a woman like her is left single. Unbelievable. Now we have a lease and synchronized schedules and half the time we’re only calling to say we’re out of coffee again, could you pick some up.
They won’t say how he does it for fear of copycats, but there’s rumours he manages to set the whole ground floor alight at once. It’s a testament to the power of panic that no one’s been killed so far. Every building he’s touched is left a smouldering eviscerated pile of brick. The authorities have been tight-lipped, only releasing fuzzy convenience-store camera shots of suspicious vehicles, the make and model varying with each image, and you find yourself scanning the line of cars parked along the street, wondering.
That night Rachel and I stay up waiting for the sirens. She’s stopped giving a damn about smoking in the apartment, she lights up over the kitchen counter regardless of our agreement, an open window her only concession. The smoke swirls up and around and sticks to everything. I don’t care, I’m past caring, whatever she has to do. It’s long past midnight, and out on the balcony I can see lights on in buildings up and down the block. The whole city’s a vigil.
‘Where are those fucking sirens?’ She’s out on the balcony, gripping onto the railing, staring out at the street.
‘Nothing on the TV?’
‘Nope.’ Hands cupped around her face. Fully focused on lighting another. ‘There’s never more than one a night. You’d think at this point they’d just tell us when it happens so we can sleep. Motherfuckers. They’re messing with the city as much as whoever’s out there running around with the lighter fluid. I don’t need that.’ Inhale, exhale, faster now. ‘I don’t fucking need that at all.’
She looks at me. There’s a brief, suspended window for me to respond, and my jaw uncouples to begin the long labour of delivering words, but she pushes past and slumps into the couch. ‘Fuck it,’ she says, and opens up her laptop. I follow her in, but she won’t look at me, she just raises a hand and waves me away. To bed.
I’m hooked on rest all over again. I call in sick to work for the sake of some catch-up shuteye. Rachel tells me she has to work in the afternoon, so I linger in half-sleep listening to the little living sounds she makes moving around the apartment (a cabinet door snapping shut; the scratchy flick of a lighter; a muffled TV). When I wake up, her drawers are open and empty. Her coat’s gone. I start yanking open doors. Two suitcases missing from the closet.
I call and text and get nothing back. I run out into the street. There are no taxis pulling away, there are no figures disappearing around corners. It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining. I am alone on the hot sidewalk. We’ll laugh at this, we will, in time. Rachel’s just sleep-deprived, it’s driving her nuts. She’s probably at her sister’s in the hills, somewhere she can collect herself, get a little peace until the fires stop, and no, I wasn’t entirely happy either, but.
I feel raindrops and look up, but it’s just the Widow Andropov on her balcony with a watering can, ignoring her plants and looking down at me with a hand up to block out the daylight. ‘Your fiancé,’ says the Widow, ‘She is taking a trip? What will you do?’ What do I tell her? Rachel’s not my fiancé, she’s not my wife, not my anything. She’s a sinkhole.
I look at the stairs and know the apartment still smells of cigarettes. I start walking. I’m moving fast, taking lefts, rights, diagonals, not thinking, chasing after my own momentum. I end up at the park and its fenced-off open spaces and I turn away, back out into the mass of the city, taking slow steps, concentrating on giving each foot a turn to be the one up front. The Widow will have more questions. The old men will have seen and will know, and I will be home alone watching the police give burly high-fives in the streets as their suspect is paraded on TV and bulldozers move in on the city’s charred holes. The smell of smoke will fade. The ruptures will turn to scabs and then to stone and I will carry them. For now, I keep walking. The skin on my arms and face tingles in the sun. I move ahead, I move ahead, I move ahead, and the Russians sit in their shade, toasting me an old-world welcome in curls of cigarette smoke.