The Couple by Ashly Curtis
It took me longer than it should have to settle on a place. I know when something is right. I looked at upwards of twenty five apartments and houses until I found it. One room in a historic building that could have been great once, but now only looked like it could have been great once. Inside it was beautiful; lush, cream carpets and windows with views of the ocean, walls painted a dreamy periwinkle with white trim all around. In my head, I carefully filled the room with my furniture. My grandfather’s handcrafted wooden desk in front of the larger window, my four-poster bed against the side wall. My television would sit nicely here, in front of the covered up fire place. There may even be room for a litter box in the hall near the door. I wonder if I can even have a – “Well, what do you think? This is one of the largest one-rooms I’ve got. If you want it, you’ll have to let me know.” “I’ll take it.” I signed the necessary papers and moved within the week. My things were carried across the country in my own van. I didn’t have much. I’d wanted to make this move since I was a little girl. Wild dreams of waves crashing on the shore disturbed my sleep, and I knew I belonged on the coast. I’d never even visited the place. I spent the better part of thirty seven years keeping my lifestyle as simple as possible. Not because I wanted to, but because I knew it would be easier this way. I had no family to leave behind, no friends to worry about devastating. I’d been cutting hair for over a decade, trying hard not to establish myself in any one place, for fear of making a connection that would force me to question the decision I’d made in my youth. The old ladies who enjoyed my head massages and shampoo gossip, I knew, wouldn’t miss me much. Being a hairdresser is the easiest thing to leave behind, as easy as the limp scraps of hair that get swept up every night at the salon. Walking up the heavy, stone steps into my building gave me a sense of ease. Every now and then, I’d glance up before letting myself inside. There was one balcony in the building, and I could imagine it belonging to the most sought-after room. I didn’t know the couple who lived there; I wasn’t even sure if they were a man and a woman. I never saw them coming or going. I could tell, though, by the flowered wreath they hung on their door, that they were happy. When I’d saved enough money to make the move, it was early March. Snow was beginning to melt, the air was crisp. I never dallied on the porch for long, fearing for the safety of my exposed extremities. This is perhaps why it took me so long to notice the balcony. In the beginning, I was so in love with my room that the other details of the building escaped me. How the front door was never completely closed, or how the railing for the inside staircase didn’t quite reach to the top. These things came to me slowly. When the sun was a little higher in the sky, I noticed the wreath on their door. It looked homemade, twisted twigs with sprigs of white mayflowers stuck between. Green vines woven intricately throughout gave the hall a feel of lazy simplicity. I could imagine wearing that wreath and dancing through a field of daisies, arms outstretched, being warmed by the sun. I imagined this was where they got it, now on display for the whole hall to see. I spoke to a few of my neighbours, mostly just the people from my floor. One was a crotchety old woman who always held a crooked walking stick in her arthritic hands. She was hunched a little. From years of housework, she said. Her nose was slender and straight, though when I think of it now, I see it as large and cocked to the side. She talked to me like I was her long-lost daughter. One day, I tried to bring the couple up casually in conversation. “That’s a beautiful wreath they’ve got on their door.” I tilted my head. “Yes. I had one just like it years ago.” “Do you know where they got it?” “I got mine at some gift shop on a trip south.” She would prove to know nothing of anyone’s business but her own. I didn’t try this again. Instead, I took the extra time to glance in the direction of the door or the balcony, hoping to get even a glimpse of them. That summer, my first summer in the building, they took down the springtime wreath and put a table out on their balcony. It was so white it could have been brand new, but the way it sat gave away its years of service to the couple. There were two white chairs opposite each other and, some days, a white cloth laid elegantly over top the round table. Sometimes in the early mornings, I could see one half-burned red candle left in the middle of the table that they’d forgotten to take in the night before. The breeze would blow the cotton ends of the tablecloth in the most delicate way, and I’d tromp up to my room and sit down on my bed with a flop. If only I knew who they were, I’d think. As it were, I fell into the habit of getting to know them through the results of their unseen actions. Sometimes I’d unplug everything in my room to see if I could hear a raised voice or television set through the shared wall. They were very quiet. For months, I tried to find a way to make my presence known to them. I’d drop something in the hall between our doors, closer to mine, hoping one of them would come out and knock, lost item in hand. I even thought about putting on an apron and asking if they had a cup of sugar I could borrow. That would have been crass; I know. Their table remained up all summer. Every day, I’d see the two white chairs, perpetually unoccupied. Closer to fall, when the leaves started changing, I saw a pumpkin on the railing. Then another. A few days later they were jack-o-lanterns, intricate designs that seemed impossible for a human hand to have carved. I imagined the couple sitting at their table in the chill of the evening, with their red candle lit, popping roasted pumpkin seeds into their mouths and smiling with delight at the impressed passersby. Maybe I would be one tonight.
“Do you think you could do my hair?” The cane knocked on my open door and she let herself in. “I suppose. What time do you want me over?” “I thought we could do it here for a change.” She’d become needy. Or maybe she’d always been and I’d just never noticed. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to say, “I stopped doing hair for a reason.” I let her stay for a little while before feigning illness and suggesting we postpone the perm date. She agreed, after some worrying about my health, telling me to go to sleep and drink lots of water. After she left, I locked the door. My mood grew lower, following the sun’s journey through the sky. I was never much of a walker, but I laced up my walking shoes, threw on my jacket and headed for cooler air. Where had this mood come from? I started on the trail that led to the ocean. Maybe watching the waves would soothe my worried mind. It was one of those days where the sky and the ocean were the same shade of blue, almost too beautiful to believe. A stray cat hovered near the edge of the path, where pavement met sand. I tried to take a picture of her, but the moment the shutter snapped, she darted off, leaving nothing but a white blur. I turned onto the beach, and as I stepped across the rocky sand, I could just barely make out two figures in the water. It was dark, and they were a ways out. Wasn’t it a little cold for a swim? I watched them frolic for a few minutes before deciding to give them their privacy and seek solace elsewhere. As I started to turn, I heard splashing. They’d been playing before, but these splashes seemed to smack the water with a hint of more violence. Unease guided me to the path, where curiosity got the best of me and I glanced back to see one figure swimming toward the shore, the other away from it. I walked home more slowly than I’d come, pensive. It was getting cold, but I didn’t notice. My breath was forming fog clouds in front of my face, skewing my vision ever so slightly. I rounded the corner of my street and stepped up to my building. Out of habit, I looked up toward the balcony. Maybe it was the walk, maybe it was the release of wild thoughts resulting in a mild tranquility, but as my eyes made their way to the balcony, I wasn’t surprised to find just one white chair sitting at the table.