I think it’s funny the way I can pick out a sound, even when there’s a lot of noise and it’s not a big sound, just because I’m waiting to hear it. I bet the others haven’t heard it. They don’t recognize the sound, the quiet creak of a floorboard in the apartment upstairs. They carry on talking, as though nothing has happened. They chat and laugh and drink my wine and eat the food I cooked for them, without anyone saying thank you or this is delicious. Presumably they think they’re doing me a favor by visiting.
Statistically, most women meet their eventual partners at work. But our work revolves around five- and six-year-old children. And with their parents—either couples or single mothers. Karin and Pim hooked up when they were scouts. Janneke and Stefan met on holiday in Australia. They must have told the story a hundred times. Two Dutch people meeting in Australia—it had to happen. They can’t get over it. And now they’re talking about their New Year’s resolutions. Lift the seat, says Karin to Pim. Do you not do that? asks Janneke, making a face. She says she trained Stefan to pee sitting down. Karin says men have different notions of hygiene. What about women who chuck their used tampons in the wastepaper basket? asks Pim. That’s the way they always talk. Not a pleasant or sensible word all evening.

Is there coffee? Stefan asks, as if I were the waitress. No, I say. At first, they don’t even hear. I have to say it again, loud and clear. I’m tired. I’d like you to go now, please. They just laugh and say, well we’ll just have to have our coffee somewhere else. As they file out, Janneke asks me if I’m all right. She makes a sympathetic face, as if I were one of the kids that has fallen down and scraped a knee. You would think she was on the verge of tears herself, but she’s not even listening when I reply, yes I’m fine, I just want to be alone. I don’t think they will stop off anywhere on the way home. I don’t think they’ll talk about me. There’s nothing to say, and that suits me.

I go back quietly into the living room and listen. There’s a long silence, and then I hear the creak again. It sounds like someone creeping around on tiptoe, trying not to make a noise. I follow the footsteps from the door to the window and then back to the middle of the room. A chair or some piece of furniture is pushed, and then there’s another sound I can’t identify. It sounds as though something had fallen down, something heavy but soft.

I’ve never met Mrs. de Groot; I only know her name from the doorbell. Even so, I have a feeling I know her better than anyone else in the world. I’ve heard her radio and her vacuum and the dinnerware, so loud it’s as though someone was washing up in my kitchen. I’ve heard her get up at night and shuffle around, heard her run a bath, flush the toilet, open a window. Sometimes water dripped onto my balcony when she watered her flowers, but when I leaned out and looked up, I couldn’t see anyone there. I don’t think she’s ever left her apartment. I liked the sounds. They gave me the sense of living with a sort of ghost, a benign presence watching over me. Then a couple of weeks ago, everything went quiet. I’ve heard nothing since. And now the creaking again.

My first thought is: it’s a break-in. While I’m undressing and going to the bathroom, I wonder whether I should call the police or the super. I’m in my nightgown when I decide to go up there myself. I’m surprisingly fearless. But then I’m not really afraid of anything ever. You’ve got to learn that, as a single woman. I pull on my robe and slip into some shoes. It’s 11:00 p.m.

I have to ring twice, and then I can see the light come on through the peephole and a young man, much younger than me, opens the door and says in a very friendly voice: Good evening. I’m thinking it was a mistake to go upstairs, and why do I always have to get involved in other people’s affairs, instead of looking after my own? But then you keep reading about people dying, and their bodies left to rot in their apartments for weeks without anyone noticing. The boy is wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with “Iron Maiden” on it, which I think is the name of a rock band. He isn’t wearing any shoes, and his socks are holey.

I imagine him grabbing me and throwing me down on the floor. Then he sits on my belly and holds my arms in a painful grip while he jams something in my mouth to keep me from screaming.

I tell him I live downstairs, and that I heard footsteps. And because Mrs. de Groot has clearly moved out, I thought it might be a break-in. The boy laughs and says it’s brave of me to come up and look all by myself. If it were him, he’d have called the police. What made me think a woman lived there? He has a point. All it says on the bell is “P. de Groot.” For some reason I was convinced that it had to be a woman, an elderly woman living by herself. I tell him I’ve never seen anyone, just heard the noises. He asks if women sound any different than men. At first, I think he’s making fun of me, but then he seems to mean it as a serious question. I don’t know, I say. He looks at me with this rather boyish look, a mixture of timid and curious. I apologize, and say I’ve just gotten out of bed. I have no idea why I’m lying. He has this way of making me say things I don’t want to say from the very first moment. We look at each other in silence, and I think I ought to be going. Then he asks if I’d like a coffee with him. I say yes right away, even though I never drink coffee at night, and I’m in my robe. I follow him inside. When he locks the door, it occurs to me in a flash that he might be a burglar after all, and has asked me in to silence me. He is quite pale and slim, but he’s about a head taller than me, and has muscly arms. I imagine him grabbing me and throwing me down on the floor. Then he sits on my belly and holds my arms in a painful grip while he jams something in my mouth to keep me from screaming. But instead, he goes to the kitchen, fills a pan with water, and turns on the stove. Then he flings open, it seems, every one of the kitchen cupboards. Coffee pot, coffee, filters, he mutters to himself as if it was a spell he’d learned by heart—sugar, sweetener, milk. When he can’t find the coffee, I suggest getting some from my place. No, he says, so firmly that it makes me jump. He thinks for a moment.

— We could always have tea instead.

The apartment looks exactly the way I imagined it would as an old woman’s apartment. A TV magazine on the coffee table, knitting on the sofa, crocheted rugs and coasters, various knickknacks and passe-partouts with pictures of ugly looking people in old-fashioned clothes. We sit down, me on the sofa and him on a great big armchair. On the armrest is a little box with a couple of buttons. He presses one of them, and a footrest slowly comes up from the bottom of the chair. With a switch, he tilts back and then forward again. For a while he’s busy pressing the buttons, like a kid showing off a new toy. We haven’t introduced ourselves, he suddenly says, and he jumps up and thrusts out his hand. I’m Daphne, I say, and he laughs again, and says, I see. Oh. Patrick. Funny we’ve never met before. The whole time he’s holding my hand in his. He asks me if I live alone. He asks about my life, my job, my family. He asks me so many questions, I don’t get a chance to ask him anything back. I’m not used to people being interested in me. I expect I tell him way too much. I talk about my childhood and my little brother who died four years ago in a motorcycle accident, and my parents and my job in the kindergarten. It’s not exactly thrilling, but he listens carefully. He has shining eyes, like the children when I tell them a story.

We finish the tea, and Patrick gets up and opens a sideboard. He finds a dusty bottle of Grand Marnier that’s almost full. He sets a couple of small glasses on the table, fills them, and raises one.

— Here’s to unexpected visitors.

I empty my glass, even though I don’t really like liqueur. He makes a face when he drinks as well, as though he’s not used to it. I had company earlier, I say, a couple of colleagues from work and their husbands. We always get together on the first Friday of the month. I don’t know why I’m telling him this. There’s nothing more to say about it. He says January is his favorite month. His birthday is in January, in a couple of weeks’ time. He likes the cold.

— Which is your favorite month?

— I’ve never thought about it. I know I hate November.

He has a favorite month, a favorite season, a favorite flower, a favorite animal, a favorite novel, and so on. That’s all he has to say for himself. I think he has nothing else. He’s just like my kids at kindergarten. When I ask them what they did on their vacation, they say: played. He really is like a child, cheerful and helpless and sometimes a bit shy. He seems to be perpetually surprised. And he laughs a lot. He asks me if I like children. Sure, I reply, it’s my job.

— That doesn’t have to mean anything. You can be a butcher and still love animals.

— But I do like them. That’s why I work in a kindergarten.

He looks alarmed and apologizes, as though he’s said something terrible. He pours us another. None for me, I say, but then I drink it anyway.

— I guess I shouldn’t be so nosy.

— No, I guess you shouldn’t.

I’m quite drunk at this point. I’m thinking he could do anything to me, and then straightaway I’m ashamed of the thought. He’s so young I could be his mother. I’d like to run my hand through his hair, press myself against him, and protect him in some way.

I must sound just like an old kindergarten biddy, but the fact is I’m already hooked on his curiosity, his questioning look that gives significance to the most banal things. Sometimes he doesn’t say anything for a long time, and just looks at me and smiles. When he asks me if I have a boyfriend, I get cross. I’ve heard the question too many times. Anyway, it’s none of his business. Just because I don’t live with a man doesn’t mean… He looks at me with big, staring eyes. I don’t know what to say, and my uncertainty makes me even angrier.

— Now you’re angry with me.

— No I’m not.

And so it goes on. We drink and talk about everything under the sun and about me, only not about him. I find him provocative, but I don’t think he means to be. He’s staring at my legs until I see that my robe has fallen open, and he can see my thighs. I must get my legs waxed again. But who really cares. I pull the robe together, and Patrick stares at me as if I’d caught him doing something forbidden. I’m quite drunk at this point. I’m thinking he could do anything to me, and then straightaway I’m ashamed of the thought. He’s so young I could be his mother. I’d like to run my hand through his hair, press myself against him, and protect him in some way. I want him to hug me the way the kids do, I want him to lay his head in my lap and go to sleep in my arms. He yawns, and I look at my watch. It’s 3:00 a.m.

— I really better go.

— It’s Saturday tomorrow.

— Even so.

Then he sits beside me on the sofa. He asks if he can give me a goodnight kiss, and before I can say anything, he’s taken my hand and kissed it. I’m so astonished, I pull it away. He jumps up and crosses to the window, as if he were afraid I was going to punish him.

— I’m sorry.

— You don’t have to be.

Then he says something peculiar. I respect you, he says. After that neither of us says anything for a long time. Finally he says, look, it’s raining. Now the snow’s going to melt. I say I don’t like snow, and all at once I’m not sure if I mean that or not. I don’t like snow because the kids come bundled up in lots of clothes, so it takes you half an hour to get them changed, and they dirty the place with their shoes. But when I was a kid, I used to love snow. There were lots of things I used to love then. It feels to me like I’ve spent the whole evening moaning and griping. He talked about things he liked; I talked about things I didn’t like. He must think I’m a negative person, an embittered old maid. Maybe that is what I am. At least in the city, I say. I don’t like it because they go and grit the streets, and then everything… I picture us going for a sleigh ride. Patrick’s sitting behind me, and his inner thighs are pressing against me, making me warm. He’s snuggled his face into my hair, and I can feel his breath on my neck. He whispers in my ear. Completely out of the blue, he says what a wonderful woman I am, and he’s so happy he’s met me. Well, I certainly didn’t see that coming.

— Can I see you tomorrow?

— I always visit my parents on Saturday.

I say he can come to supper on Sunday if he’d like that. It doesn’t matter to me whether I cook for one or two. I like cooking, I manage to add. There’s something at least that I like to do. When we say goodnight, he kisses my hand again.

I can’t sleep. I listen to him walking around upstairs and washing up and going to the bathroom. He is kind and attentive and terribly polite, but he’s a little bit scary too when he smiles. It’s too bad we always distrust people when they’re nice.

In the morning I wake up with a splitting headache and a bitter taste in my mouth. Over breakfast I’ve already started looking through my cookbooks for ideas. I said I would make something really simple, but now I feel like impressing him. There’s not much in the way of interesting vegetables in the stores this time of year. Most of them have come a long way and don’t taste of much. Green beans from Kenya, I mean come on. I’d rather buy frozen. That night I get in a stupid argument with my father.

On Sunday, I spend the whole afternoon in the kitchen, preparing dinner. I can’t hear anything upstairs. Maybe Patrick’s gone out. But punctually at 6:00 p.m. the bell rings. He’s bought me an enormous bunch of flowers, and he kisses my hand again. I hope that’s not his thing he does with everyone. I don’t own a vase big enough, and I have to put the flowers in a plastic bucket in the bathtub to start off with. I don’t get flowers often—never, really—and I don’t buy them myself either. Lots of them are supplied from the Third World, and the men who pick them get sterile because of the spray they put on them. Now I’m being negative again, instead of thanking him for the lovely flowers.

Over dinner, he keeps on telling me how delicious everything is, until I can’t stand to hear him say it anymore. Although, it has to be said, dinner is good. Cooking is one thing I can do. You can cook, too, he says. I must be perfect. I almost laugh in his face. I can’t bring myself to take his compliments seriously. It always sounds as though he’s parroting something he heard some grown-ups say. I really do seem to impress him; I can’t imagine why. Each time I open my mouth to speak, he stops eating and stares at me with big round eyes. And it seems he remembers everything I say to him. Already he knows so much about me, and I don’t know the first thing about him.

When we’re sitting on the sofa later, he clumsily knocks over his glass. I almost give him a smack, the way I do with the little ones when they do something naughty.

When we’re sitting on the sofa later, he clumsily knocks over his glass. I almost give him a smack, the way I do with the little ones when they do something naughty. Luckily, I manage to restrain myself at the last moment. I go to the kitchen for salt and mineral water. I picture laying Patrick over my knee, pulling his pants down, and smacking his naughty bottom.

Of course I can’t remove the stain. I’ll never get rid of it. What a stupid idea anyway, buying a white sofa. But I liked it, I like my white sofa. I bought it after my brother died, and somehow it has something to do with him. Patrick is standing next to me vaguely, watching me scrub away at the stain. He apologizes profusely and says he’ll buy me a new sofa cover. But I’m still annoyed and shortly after I say I need to go to bed, tomorrow is Monday. He gets up. In the doorway he shoots me a tragic glance, and apologizes one more time. Never mind, I say, what’s done is done. We don’t arrange to meet. He doesn’t say anything, and I’m still a bit pissed at him.

I wonder if he can hear me as clearly as I can hear him. When I’m taking a shower, I suddenly feel naked. When I go to the toilet, I lock the door and sometimes don’t flush, so that he doesn’t hear. I need to drink plenty of water for my kidneys; I seem to spend half my life peeing. In fact I’m only just starting to realize how much noise I make. That I keep my street shoes on in the apartment, turn up the radio when vacuuming, and sometimes scold or sing to myself. I’d better stop all that right away. I buy a pair of soft-soled slippers. When I drop a glass and it shatters, I listen for minutes for some sound from upstairs. But nothing—silence.

I can’t stand it that he’s so near, doing god knows what, and listening to me. I start to go out a lot. Then I sit in a cafe or go for a walk, even though it’s gotten cold again and I need to be careful not to catch something. Last year I had a bladder infection that simply refused to go away. I had to take antibiotics, and was off work for days. Afterward, Janneke and Karin made snide remarks. A bladder infection. To them, that could mean only one thing.

Three days later, Patrick rings the bell, right after I’ve gotten home from work. He must have been waiting for me. He’s got a new sofa cover, and a gift-wrapped box. He helps me cover the sofa. Our hands touch. Inside the box is a fish kettle. Just because that time I made dinner, I said I wished I owned a fish kettle. Now he goes and buys me one. They’re not cheap.

— You’re crazy. You didn’t have to do that.

— Because of the trouble I put you to.

He smiles. We kiss for the first time. It just happens, I couldn’t say who started it. There’s something greedy about his kisses, he drapes his lips over mine, and shuts them and opens them and shuts them as though to gobble me up. The whole time he holds me firmly in his arms, and I feel how strong he is. I can hardly move. When I tell him he’s crushing me, he lets go right away and apologizes. He does like an apology. He seems embarrassed about having kissed me. I imagine him undressing me and sleeping with me on the newly slip-covered sofa. Sperm stains are tricky, by the way. Why do I keep thinking of all this nonsense? He’s just looking at me.

Now he’s upstairs again. I keep having to think of him though. I don’t know anything about him, not if the things in the apartment are his, not if he lives there, or is only staying for a while. I don’t know his middle initial, or his age, or what his job is. He seems not to be short of money for generous presents. I imagine what Janneke and Karin would say if they saw us together: Oh, she’s lost it now. Or: She’s beyond good and evil anyway. Or: She must be paying him, he’s exploiting her. And all the time I feel: I’m exploiting him.

From now on we see each other every two or three days. Sometimes he comes down, sometimes I go up to him. We always know when the other is home. Sometimes we talk on the phone for hours. Then after a while I’m not sure if I’m hearing his voice through the phone or through the ceiling.

He needs time, I think. But I don’t have the time. Of course I don’t say so. I’ve gotten to be careful about what I say and don’t say. I keep an eye on him. I listen.

When we eat dinner together, we drink a lot, but he doesn’t seem to get drunk. We chat like old friends. We only kiss goodbye. It’s almost become a habit. I started the French kissing. I started stroking him. Then he does too, but only with his fingertips, my hips and the small of my back where I feel pain sometimes. When I put his hand on my breast, he leaves it there for a moment inertly and then takes it off again. He needs time, I think. But I don’t have the time. Of course I don’t say so. I’ve gotten to be careful about what I say and don’t say. I keep an eye on him. I listen.

Some nights he doesn’t come home. I don’t sleep on those nights, and stay up and listen and in the morning I’m dog-tired. I hate myself for it, but I can’t help it. The next time we see each other, he tells me straight out where he was, with his parents or some friends or other that he hasn’t mentioned to me before. He must sense my distrust.

At work, Janneke asks me how I’m doing, and whether I’m sick again. She says I’m looking tired. I’m not sleeping properly, that’s all I say. I’ve lost weight. What can I do if I don’t have any appetite? Janneke says she wants to leave Stefan; that was one of her New Year’s resolutions she hadn’t yet told him about. We talk about her problems. Everyone comes to cry on my shoulder, but when I give them good advice, they don’t take it, they just say things aren’t that simple. Karin is in a bad mood, she doesn’t know why. She’s unbearable sometimes, even with the kids. Until one of them starts to cry. Then she cries too.

Patrick says he really likes me, and I’m much too good for him. Then he kisses me again, but he keeps me at a distance. I’ve already asked myself whether perhaps physically there isn’t something wrong with him. He looks fit enough, but that can be deceptive. There are more men all the time who can’t get it up, or who can’t be bothered with sex. The quality of sperm is falling off a cliff. That’s to do with female hormones that leach into the groundwater.

I’ve set myself a deadline. If he hasn’t decided by the end of the month, then I’m putting an end to it. But now what do I mean by decided? I’m not exactly sure what I’m expecting from him. That he rips my clothes off and jumps me on the sofa? Certainly not. But that he opens himself to me. Entrusts himself. It’s a matter of a few words.

When I get home the next day, I can hear “Hello” by Lionel Ritchie booming down from the top floor, much louder than the music he usually plays. It was a CD I played for Patrick once. He must have bought himself a copy. He’s been waiting for me to come home, and this is his way of welcoming me. I’m expecting him to call, or come downstairs. I hear him leave his apartment. But he keeps going, and shortly after, the street door falls shut. It’s after midnight when he gets back. I hear his footfall, the slow steps, the creaking of the floorboards. For a second, I think he’s not alone, but that can’t be. Then silence. Silence is the worst. I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept for days. I have the most ridiculous imaginings, horrible things that I feel ashamed to entertain.

On his birthday, he makes me dinner. He’s gone to unbelievable trouble—he’s even decorated the table with chocolate ladybirds. I manage to get a stain on my blouse, and take it off to wash it out properly. Patrick has followed me into the kitchen, we’re talking, he’s looking at me. But he acts as though there’s nothing the matter. I could strip naked in front of him, he wouldn’t even notice. That can’t be normal. I wonder what his game is. I go downstairs and put on a clean blouse. While I’m downstairs, I hear him go to the toilet, and flush twice. Ideally, I wouldn’t go back upstairs. We’re in closer touch when we’re apart, when we only hear each other.

We drank a lot of wine with dinner, a whole bottle. When we kissed goodbye, he suddenly started whispering it’s not fair, and he stopped. Now I’m lying in my bed, and I can’t sleep. He’s directly above me, just a few yards away. I spread my legs and imagine him on top of me, doing it to me. He’s pinning my arms, the way he does when he kisses me. He’s grabbing my hair, pulling it, slapping my face. I throw my legs around him. He’s kissing me hungrily. We’re sweating. There’s silence, all I can hear is him breathing, his breath in my loosened hair. I stretch out my arms to him. Come, I whisper to him, come! Come! He’s so close, I can almost feel him.

Peter Stamm

Peter Stamm was born in 1963, in Weinfelden, Switzerland. He is the author of the novel Agnes, and numerous short stories and radio plays. His novels Unformed Landscape, On A Day Like This, and Seven Years, and the collections In Strange Gardens and Other Stories and We’re Flying, are available from Other Press. His prize-winning books have been translated into over thirty languages. He lives outside of Zurich.

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