During our lifetimes, we each encounter countless numbers of people. Most are soon forgotten. But then, there are those like Lindsay.
Three years running, my relationship with Jules was beyond the excitement stage. We’d grown “comfortable” with each other. So, quitting my job with the local newspaper in Michigan seemed logical when she received a job offer from an accounting firm in New York City.
The Monday after our arrival, she attended her new employee orientation while I went food shopping. I was juggling the grocery bags on the stoop of our new apartment building when I heard someone say, “You look like you could use some help.”
That’s when I met Lindsay. She was a few inches shorter than me, with stunning hazel eyes, and her honey-blonde hair was in a French Braid. In the sleeveless V-neck top and pleated white skort she was wearing, she looked like that female tennis player, Anna something or other. Jules was attractive in a collegiate way, with studious-looking glasses, long brown hair, shapely, yet slightly wider at the hips, but this girl was way out of my league. She was stunning.
“You’re the new neighbor,” she said, stepping forward and unlocking the building’s outer door. “I saw you and your wife move in yesterday.”
“Jim,” I said, edging past her.
“Lindsay, top floor.” She smiled, her eyes brightening.
“Girlfriend. Jules and I aren’t married,” I blurted out, never knowing what reaction our interracial relationship would receive.
“Cool,” she said. Parting her lips, she titled her head, “Jules and Jim, just like the film.” Then she grabbed two of my bags and bounced up the stairs.
On the third-floor landing, I dug out my key and unlocked our apartment door. She headed toward our kitchen. Passing our bedroom, a mattress on the scratched wood floor and clothes overflowing open suitcases, she said, “You guys could use a decorator.”
“We’re striving for a chic La Boheme look,” I said, imagining her reaction to our front room’s wobbly floor lamp, TV tray tables, and two tarnished metal folding chairs.
After setting the grocery bags on the kitchen counter, Lindsay said she was having a party that evening, and extended an invitation.
“On a Monday night?”
“You’ve got to seize the day, mister,” she said, departing with a wave.
When Jules arrived home that evening, she went straight to our bedroom. “God, I hate that ice breaker shit… introduce yourself… tell us one interesting fact about you,” she said in a high-pitched, mocking tone.
“How about a nice relaxing bath?”
As the tub filled, I lit some scented candles I’d bought and placed them on the shelf at its foot. When Jules saw the candles, she smiled and kissed me.
“Ever think about cutting your hair and dyeing it blonde?” I asked, slipping into the tub behind her and wrapping her in my arms.
“Ugh. My mother used to give me pixie cuts when I was little. I hated them. I think she did it to torture me.”
Over dinner, I told Jules I’d met our upstairs neighbor, and that she’d invited us to her party that evening. Jules pleaded exhaustion but suggested I go. Wanting her to meet Lindsay, I rattled off several reasons we both should go. Finally, she agreed to make a brief appearance. As we left our apartment, a throbbing bass guitar line and heavy pot smoke greeted us. The stairwell was packed with an incredibly diverse mix of people – nationalities, colors, and genders. Business suits to t-shirts with ripped jeans appeared to be in vogue. Some partiers were swaying to the music, others, clutching drinks, attempted to mingle. As we made our way up the stairs, I caught snippets of conversations about films, on and off-Broadway theater productions, books, poetry, etc…
On the 4th-floor landing, I searched the faces for Lindsay and found her on the far side of the floor. She had purple streaks in her hair, a flower tucked behind her right ear, and was wearing a sleeveless dress covered with blue and white mountains. Overlaying the mountains was a silhouette of palm trees against an orange sunset. She looked like a goddess in a South Sea Islands movie.
Spotting us, she waved and began gliding over. The crowd parted before her like subjects, making way for a queen. When she reached us, she took my face between her hands and kissed me on the mouth. The kiss and the overwhelming smell of alcohol momentarily staggered me.
“You must be Jules,” said Lindsay, shifting side-to-side as she released me and extended a hand toward Jules.
“Julia,” said Jules, casting a disapproving look my way before shaking Lindsay’s hand. “Jules and Jimmie. Just like the movie,” said Lindsay, grinning and still in constant motion.
“No,” said Jules, her eyes narrowing. “In the film, the two main male characters are best friends and in love with the same woman.”
I looked from Jules to Lindsay. Was I the only person who’d never heard of this film?
“You’re right,” said Lindsay, curtsying. Then, straightening up, she yelled, “Hey everybody! These are my new best friends, Jules and Jimmie!”
Every eye turned toward us. I gave an embarrassed wave. Jules stared straight ahead, her lips tight. Saying I needed a drink, Lindsay grabbed my hand and plunged into the crowd. Stopping suddenly, she turned toward Jules and gestured, “Well, come on.”
Crossing her apartment’s threshold, we passed a tall, thin, Asian-looking girl with curly brown hair.
“Mai, Jimmie. Jimmie, Mai,” called out Lindsay, dragging me along without slowing. Down the hallway, we went past some closed doors to the kitchen. Entering it, she spread her arms like a game show hostess before an astonishing assortment of beer, wine, and liquor. “What’ll you have?” she asked, scooping up a plastic cup from a counter and downing its contents in a single gulp. I was about to answer when she whipped her head to the left and began stomping her feet.
In the hallway, a guy with shoulder-length reddish-brown hair and a beard turned. Lindsay waved come here, and he began sauntering over. Drawing abreast of us, she whispered in his ear. He reached into his shirt pocket, palmed something to her, then strolled away. Opening her hand, Lindsay revealed a joint. She lit it, took a couple of hits, then held it toward Jules like a peace offering.
The next morning, with Jules again at work, I began updating my resume. Despite the apartment windows being open, by early afternoon, the mid-summer heat and humidity indoors felt unbearable. Deciding to take a break, I went out onto our fire escape.
Almost immediately, I heard “plink.” “plunk,” “plonk.” Shielding my eyes, I looked up. There was Lindsay, dressed in a tank top t-shirt and running shorts. She laughed, tossed a few more ice cubes, and invited me up.
As I joined her, she opened a mini cooler and removed a chilled, uncapped bottle of beer. She took a sip, then pressed its cool, smooth body to each side of her face. Condensation flowed like rivers down the bottle’s neck, across its shoulders, and dripped onto her t-shirt.
Staring into my eyes with a serious expression on her face, she handed me the bottle. As I raised it to my lips, she said, “Is what they say about you black guys true?”
Beer almost shot from my nose as I choked and my eyes watered. What was I to say to that? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?
I looked at her, and she was laughing.
Trying to catch her breath, she wiped at the tears streaming down her face, and asked,
“Working on it. What do you do?”
“Oh, I’m a model, actress… in the film industry,” she said as she moved over to the fire escape’s handrail. “They call me when they need me.”
That sounded like an ideal job to me. No day-in and day-out drudgery. “Anything I may have seen?”
She shook her head. “You guys enjoy the party?”
“Yeah,” I said, folding my arms across my chest. After we left, Jules had said very little other than asking if I’d noticed the photographs in Lindsay’s apartment.
Taking hold of the handrail, Lindsay leaned out and stared into the distance. “If you could be anything you wanted, what would you choose?”
“A novelist,” I said, setting down the beer bottle on the mini cooler. Feigning casualness, I crossed over, took her by the shoulders, and moved both of us away from the unforgiving asphalt below. “What about you?”
“I think I’d be willing to settle for being free of other people’s expectations.” “Unfortunately, that’s not easy.” I knew my family back in Michigan was disappointed in my career choices to date.
Suddenly, Lindsay kissed me on the cheek. “C’mon,” she said, “Let’s go have some fun.”
She led me to a neighborhood playground. We walked past the Monkey Bars and Slides, and went straight to the swings. She commanded me to sit and as I did; she grabbed the chains and hoisted herself up into a standing position. With a foot outside of each of my thighs, she leaned back and pulled on the chains as she thrust her legs forward.
Feeling myself sweeping backward, I bent my legs, pumping, then kicked them out in front of me, reversing the swing’s direction.
She rode toward me, drawing up her knees, her t-shirt billowing, revealing her bare breasts. Then, with a thrust of her hips and legs, she forced the swing to change direction once again. Moving in sync with a steady rhythm, each pump and thrust took us higher and higher. Finally, when we reached the peak, Lindsay tossed back her head and screamed.
When Jules arrived home that evening, she asked how my job hunt had gone. I told her good and chose not to mention how I’d spent my afternoon. The next morning, after Jules left for work, I was determined to make some significant progress in my job search. Unfortunately, every posting looked like a loss leader or required almost ten years of experience.
The next day, like its predecessor, continued with no Lindsay sightings. I struggled with my job search, my mind constantly wandering to her. Unlike Jules, nothing involving Lindsay was predictable or routine.
Around dinner time, Jules called and said she’d be late. When I asked if everything was OK, she replied, why wouldn’t it be? When she arrived home, Jules announced she was going to take a bath to relax. I started toward the kitchen to warm up her dinner and she screamed my name.
Bursting into the bathroom, I saw her standing at the head of the tub, water streaming down her body. She had one arm wrapped protectively around her torso and was pointing at the foot of the tub with the other.
“Kill it, Jim! Kill it!”
On the wall tile was the most humongous cockroach I’d ever seen, head swinging side to side, and antenna wiggling. Assessing my options, loofahs, towels, and a wicker trash basket, I saw nothing to smash a gargantuan insect with. Then, spying the scented candles at the foot of the tub, I grabbed one and slammed it against the wall, producing a loud crunch.
Slowly peeling the candle from the wall, what lie beneath it was unidentifiable.
“Gross,” said Jules.
I wiped away the splatter with TP, tossed it into the toilet, and flushed. Jules, still standing, whispered thank you and asked me to also dispose of the candle.
Telling her I’d be right back, I dashed up to the fourth floor and knocked on Lindsay’s door. When it opened, there stood Mai, the girl from the party.
“Is Lindsay, here?”
“She’s in California for work. Come in,” she added, shooting out a foot to block a large orange cat from escaping.
“We’ve got roaches. Do you?” I asked as she bent down and picked up the cat.
“Mrs. Boots,” she responded, scratching the cat behind its ears.
This being my first opportunity to truly see the inside of Lindsay’s apartment, l looked around me. It appeared to be twice the size of ours, taking up the entire fourth floor. Whereas our front room had a smokey-smelling fireplace and peeling wallpaper, her exposed brick walls were painted pure white and contrasted beautifully with the mahogany beams traversing the ceiling. The ceiling itself contained recessed lights aligned to spotlight the room’s ultra-modern chrome, glass, and white leather furniture as if they were showroom pieces.
As a final touch, there was a poster-sized headshot of Lindsay on each wall. In one, she resembled Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, with coal-rimmed eyes, straight black bangs, and bluntly cut hair that barely reached her shoulders. There was a three-quarter pose shot in which she had long, flowing blonde locks and a sparkling smile that made her look like a young Farrah Fawcett. And then there was a profile shot. And in a profile shot, her hair was short, red, and slicked back, reminiscent of Tilda Swinton. She was like a chameleon, and each photo exuded a mysterious and seductive air.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” said Mai, following the movement of my eyes from headshot to headshot.
I nodded. It was surprising how comfortable women were saying another woman was beautiful.
“It’s hard to put into words, isn’t it?”
“Feeling connected to her, even in photos.” Mai smiled, then headed down the hallway, toward the kitchen, me following.
Photos of Lindsay with her hair in varying lengths, styles, and colors ran the length of the hallway.
“Why only pictures of Lindsay?” I asked, pausing at a bedroom containing a Persian Rug, a king-sized cherry pedestal bed covered with an afghan, a hanging chair with pillows, and a sleek, rectangular modern-style dresser. The next room had only a tan gooseneck reading lamp and a floor mattress covered by a red batik bedspread.
“It’s her apartment,” said Mai, setting down the cat.
“Aren’t you roommates?” I asked as Mrs. Boots came over and rubbed up against my leg.
“Lindsay’s sister, Mandy, is my best friend. We all went to school together in Wisconsin. Lindsay was two years ahead of us.”
“Wisconsin?” I bent down and began petting Mrs. Boots.
“Yeah, Wisconsin. We only break out our cheese heads and milkmaid outfits on special occasions.” She laughed. “I know, looking at Lindsay, who’d think, Wisconsin. Back home she was the girl we all wanted to be – head cheerleader, homecoming queen, prom queen. Everyone loved her and knew that if anyone was going to make it big, it was her. Anyway, when I got accepted to grad school here in New York, Mandy put us in touch.”
Looking at me and the cat, Mai smiled. “She likes you.”
Late that same night, I dreamed an army of roaches had me surrounded. With a can of Raid in one hand and Black Flag in the other, I blasted them with spray. It had no effect. They might as well have been Gene Kelly in “Singing In the Rain.” I then discovered the most effective way to use the products. I began smacking the roaches with their metal spray cans, producing one solid whack after another.
Emerging from my dream, I realized someone was actually knocking on our front door. So, I slipped out of bed, tiptoed to the door, and opened it a crack. Lindsay was there in a French Maid outfit with a large canvas bag over her shoulder. Her eyes were as big and round as saucers.
“Throw on some clothes. The show starts in 20 minutes.”
“What show? What time is it?”
“After midnight. Hurry up. Get Jules,” she said, her voice growing louder. “We’re gonna miss the train.”
Placing a finger to my lips, I shushed her, then staggered back to the bedroom. Jules was dead asleep.
“What took so long?” Lindsay whispered when I returned in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. “I left Jules a note in case she wakes up and finds me gone. Where are we going?” “Rocky Horror,” she said, grabbing my hand and taking off running.
While most white people I’d known had gone to the show at one time or another, failing to understand its appeal, I’d never been.
The audience screamed the dialogue, cursed and yelled insults at the on-screen characters, and used props they’d brought to the show – toast, newspapers, water pistols, etc… at various points. The highlight of each show was when audience members, dressed like the film’s characters, rushed the screen to sing and dance alongside their on-screen counterparts.
Inside the packed theater, Bernie and some of Lindsay’s other friends had saved us seats. The air was so saturated with pot smoke, everyone was guaranteed at least a contact high. As the lights dimmed and a pair of ruby-colored lips appeared on the movie screen, Lindsay reached in her canvas bag and began distributing props.
When the movie ended, we said goodbye to Lindsay and Bernie’s friends and headed for the subway. On the corner across from the subway station, we stopped to await the crossing green.
Suddenly, Lindsay and Bernie dashed into the middle of the avenue and began singing and dancing.
“What are you doing?” I yelled at the French Maid and guy in a corset, with stockings, heels, and a feather boa, making a public display of themselves.
“The Time Warp!”
From further down the multi-lane avenue, cars raced toward them. Sprinting into the roadway, I pulled Lindsay aside as the cars zoomed past, horns blaring. My heart pounding and body shaking, I looked for Bernie. He was bent over at the waist on the sidewalk, gasping for air. “Who knew Speed Racer would be out tonight,” he eked out.
Lindsay, her face buried in my chest, was crying uncontrollably in my arms. I kept telling her and myself that she was safe.
When I returned to the apartment, I saw that the note I’d left appeared undisturbed. Still shaken, but relieved, I slipped back into bed.
Lindsay then disappeared for a couple of days. I continued my job search as well as researched how to get rid of roaches. I purchased some “extermination products” and nearly collided with a woman with short, red hair as I returned home.
“Miss me?” asked the woman, the voice unmistakably Lindsay’s.
“What did you do to your hair?”
“Up for some fun this afternoon?” she asked, turning in a full circle, modeling her new do.
“Boooring,” she said, shaking her head.
How often had I heard that? That I was repressed, too serious, too cautious. In my entire life, Jules was the only person who had always accepted me as I was, unconditionally.
“I’ve got a pair of express tickets for the Empire State Building.”
I’d always been the epitome of practicality, but being in New York, I had an opportunity to reinvent myself. “OK,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
When Lindsay picked me up, her canvas bag was slung over her shoulder and she was wearing a white peasant blouse with blue trim, an ankle-length blue skirt, and sandals. At 34th and Herald, we exited the subway station and walked to the Empire State Building.
As we stood on the 86th floor’s observation deck, she wrapped her arms around mine. “Isn’t it amazing?” she said. “Wouldn’t you love to just fly away from here?”
Still clutching my arm, she pulled me away from the crowd and to the other side of the open-air deck. She then reached into her canvas bag, took out two paper airplanes, and handed one to me. With a plane between her fingertips and thumb, she cocked her arm, then snapped it forward. Her plane glided away, and I launched mine.
The planes drifted downward, their wings gently rippling. They appeared to stall, but then their noses turned upward, and they climbed. Soaring above the rooftops, they swept, swooped, and sliced through the air. Darting and dipping around each other, they moved like dancers in a pas de deux. At times, they appeared on the verge of touching, but then they’d separate and continue on their individual journeys. We watched until they were out of sight. Following that afternoon at the Empire State Building, I didn’t see or hear from Lindsay for days. On Friday, Jules invited me to go bar hopping with her and her co-workers after work. Our last stop ended up being a karaoke bar. There, we performed a slightly off-key duet of “I Got You, Babe.”
Saturday morning, I went out to get some bagels, coffee, and a newspaper while Jules slept in. When I returned, there was no doubt in my mind that the woman I saw climbing the stairs in our building was Lindsay.
“Hey stranger,” I called out, bounding up after her.
She turned, and the vacant look in her eyes drew me up short. Then I noticed the thick white bandages covering her forearms from wrist to elbow.
“My mother’s coming.”
She ran up the remaining stairs. Then I heard a door slam.
Unsure what to do, I waited a couple of days before going upstairs and knocking on her door. When it opened, Mai was there, holding Mrs. Boots.
“Is Lindsay here?”
Mai shook her head.
“When will she be back?”
“Mrs. Winters took her back to Wisconsin,” she said, eyes on the floor, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Who’s Mrs. Winters?” I asked, following as she led the way toward the kitchen. “Is that her mother?”
Mai nodded, put down Mrs. Boots, and took a seat at their kitchen table. “Lindsay tried to kill herself,” she said, tears filling her eyes.
“What? No,” I said, taking a seat and leaning forward to scratch Mrs. Boots behind her ears. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Mandy called and told me their mother was planning a surprise visit.” Tears began flowing down Mai’s face. “I told Lindsay. I never imagined she’d try to kill herself.”
I was stunned.
“Her acting career, the modeling, was all a lie. Back home, things always went perfect for Lindsay. But New York is full of beautiful girls and aspiring actors. She met some people who said they could get her a job in the movies in L.A. And they did, as a fluffer.”
I stared at Mai, totally speechless.
A few days later, there was a soft tap at my door. I opened it and saw Mai and Mrs. Boots.
“I can’t afford the 4th-floor apartment on my own, so I’m moving in with some kids from school. No pets allowed, except tropical fish.” She handed me Mrs. Boots. “She’ll definitely solve your roach problem.”
It’s been years since I lived in the city. Jules and I are married and live in a suburb in Connecticut. She’s still in accounting and I started my own marketing firm. Our lives aren’t perfect, but then, whose is?
Like anyone, I’ve had to make countless choices in the course of my life. Some have turned out well, others not so well. But there are times when I still think about Lindsay. The image of her heavily bandaged arms and last words, “my mother’s coming,” continue to haunt me to this very day.
J L Higgs’ short stories explore the interplay between human emotions and actions from a black perspective. Since July 2016 he has had over 60 publications and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston, Mass. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JL-Higgs-ArtistWriter-1433711619998262