Rodrigo took Rosa’s clothes out of his closet and laid them on the bed beside her toothbrush, face cream, and paperbacks. He called to say she could come for her things while he was at work. It was almost nine. He was shaved, scented, and ready to leave.
“Trust me,” he said, “there’s nothing I want to keep.”
He wasn’t lying, though she had a pair of black panties he loved. He’d never put them over his face or taken them to the office in his pocket or anything. He’d just liked seeing them on her or on the floor. But he had folded the black panties and arranged them on the sheet beside her t-shirts and her old pair of yoga pants. In the end, there wasn’t much. He thought she could fit everything into a medium-sized cardboard box.
In his ear she was saying, “This is great, just great.”
Rodrigo told her she could leave the key in the planter outside the front door when she’d finished.
She said, “You don’t have to be such a dick,” and that was it.
This job he had, he went weeks without thinking about the city or other people. He got to the office at nine-thirty and stayed until midnight. He had meetings, client dinners, flights to catch. He worked weekends. Then, after he completed one of his major projects, the pace would slow for a time. He could take an afternoon to get a haircut or buy a new shirt. On his nights off, he went to bars. He walked in, trim, clean, looking to throw some money around. Often he left with someone new. Once a month he got together with his old friends: men who were, more or less, men like him. They ate bloody steaks, and drank blood-colored wine, and maybe put a little powder up their noses. After dinner they went to a club where they watched women dance topless on a stage. Some nights—on some of the nights he spent alone and on some of the nights he spent with others—he thought of Rosa, but he never called her.
One August, he decided to move. He had been living in the same two-room apartment since he’d arrived in the city, five years earlier, but he’d been promoted twice and could now afford something better. He took a place on the top floor of an Edwardian row house, in a neighborhood of row houses and coffee shops. It had a dining room, a study, and gleaming appliances. Although the new neighborhood was not far from the business district, it was on the other side of a line of hills, and its streets felt quiet and contained.
Rodrigo hired a moving company one of his colleagues had vouched for. The men employed by this company—really, it was more a foundation than a business—were all recovering addicts or ex-convicts. Rodrigo’s colleague said the men were loud and coarse, even frightening, but he also said they worked hard, and that it felt good to help people who’d undertaken to better themselves.
The movers were to pack his books and clothes but Rodrigo decided to sort through his important papers on his own. From a drawer in his nightstand he gathered his passport, birth certificate, and old tax returns. He found some love letters he’d kept for years, letters girls had sent him in high school and college, back when people still took the time to write love letters, and also a story about romantic obsession he’d written for a college class and had never thrown away. From another drawer he bagged hundreds of loose coins, and tore up old statements for his savings and retirement accounts. He found a spare set of keys to his apartment and a key to a bicycle lock that had vanished long before. At the back of the drawer, beneath the coins and papers, Rodrigo found two other keys on a pink plastic ring. They were unlabeled but he recognized them at once as the keys to Rosa’s apartment. She had never asked him to return them. Three years had now passed since their breakup. Rodrigo put Rosa’s keys in his pocket. He continued with his organizing and packing.
When the day arrived, the movers worked as diligently as Rodrigo’s colleague had promised. They urged one another on as they stacked Rodrigo’s books on the floor, arranged them in boxes, and carried the boxes down to the moving van. After each trip to the curb the men sprinted back up the stairs. Soon their clothes were soaked. Even the boxes were marked with the sweat of their hands and chests. The foreman, who had a shaved scalp and an incomplete set of teeth, asked Rodrigo if he had read all these books. The movers had packed forty boxes in all. Rodrigo only smiled.
He felt like a different man in his new apartment. At night, when he walked over the pine floors and through the wainscoted dining room, when he inspected his shiny kitchen and the study with its bookshelves that reached almost to the ceiling, he no longer wanted to be elsewhere. He still worked into the evenings but now he tried to come home in time to broil a chop and drink a glass of wine before he went to bed. If he did go out, it was usually to walk the streets of his new neighborhood. The night air in the valley was clean. There was always a hint of salt. Rodrigo kept his eyes down. He came to recognize the neighborhood’s dogs but not their owners. He slept well in his bedroom, which faced away from the street. Sometimes he woke early and went outside, or read a novel for an hour before he showered and dressed, just as he’d done when he’d been a student. He didn’t visit bars as often. Entire months passed in which he didn’t sleep with a woman. And though his old friends still got together at their steakhouse, Rodrigo began to make excuses, and didn’t always join them.
At dawn one day, Rodrigo left his apartment and saw mist drifting along the roofs of the darkened houses. The street was empty but he heard gulls calling from somewhere out of sight. He began to walk in the direction of the cries. The street rose from the valley to a ridge. From it he could look back over his house to the hills that marked the neighborhood’s opposite border and, beyond them, to the towers downtown. Rodrigo paused at the summit, taking the sharp air deep into his chest. He was panting from the climb. The street ahead dropped into the mist. Though the gulls were still hidden from him, they were crying more distinctly now. Rodrigo decided to keep walking. That morning he was thinking of the sea.
It was two miles to the water. The street fell and rose and fell again, its blocks soon becoming unfamiliar. The row houses gave way to newer homes, small apartment buildings, bars, clothing boutiques, furniture stores. Even this early, the traffic had thickened. The day was brightening, with patches of sky showing through the mist. He could see the birds now as they circled in light and cloud. Rodrigo climbed one final, brief rise, and then he was standing over the shore. A few men and women were running near the surf on the otherwise empty beach. Rodrigo looked left and right and realized he had stood on that headland before. Rosa’s old building, a three-story contemporary, was a block to the south. This city, he thought, was full of surprises. Rodrigo walked closer. The curtains to Rosa’s old apartment, on the building’s first floor, were lime-green: a different, much brighter shade than he remembered. They were drawn shut. Rodrigo didn’t linger. He turned and began to walk home.
He was late to the office that morning. Sitting at his desk, he could not concentrate on his work. The hours dragged. At a lunch meeting with a client, Rodrigo let a junior colleague do the talking. Early in the afternoon, he told his secretary he wasn’t feeling well. He hailed a taxi outside his office but when they got to his apartment, he asked the driver to wait while he ran upstairs. From the bottom drawer of his nightstand Rodrigo took out the pink plastic ring with its two keys. Then he went back to the cab and gave the driver the address.
The curtains to Rosa’s old apartment had now been pulled open and fastened beside the window sashes. Rodrigo paid his fare and stepped out of the cab. From the street, the front room was brilliant in the afternoon sunlight. There were white shelves along one wall, rows of books, a new sofa upholstered in orange cloth. After a few minutes at the curb, during which he saw no movement inside, Rodrigo walked up the three steps to the building’s front door. The key he had still fit the lock. He turned it and went into the foyer. Rosa’s apartment was the closest to the building’s entrance. Its door had been freshly whitewashed. Rodrigo knocked. When no one answered, he tried the second key. It turned as well.
The moment Rodrigo stepped into the apartment he was certain that Rosa still lived there. The same print, Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, was on the wall opposite the front door. The same shoe rack was on the floor, filled with shoes he didn’t recognize along with a pair of black stilettos he did. The hall was longer than he remembered. A few steps past the Newman print, Rodrigo found the vintage Che Guevara poster he had bought for Rosa years earlier. It had Che’s head superimposed over a red star, with the slogan “HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE!” beneath. In the living room—which, like the hallway, seemed to have expanded since he had last seen it—Rodrigo saw photographs he knew (Rosa as a child on her mother’s lap; Rosa’s parents in middle age), and others he didn’t (Rosa in a bikini on the sand; Rosa and her girlfriends in short black dresses outside a restaurant or club). She had straightened her hair, which Rodrigo appreciated. There were also pictures of a man Rodrigo hadn’t seen before. He looked to be about Rodrigo’s height, and had the same wavy black hair, but his nose was smaller, and his chin more prominent. It was almost as if Rodrigo were looking at a younger, more handsome version of himself. Before he left the apartment, Rodrigo went to Rosa’s bedroom. In the lowest of a set of drawers in her walk-in closet, amidst the bras, briefs, thongs, tights, and socks, he found her black panties. The hem was frayed at the waist, and the fabric worn almost translucent at the seat, but he knew it was the pair he had once loved. Rodrigo held the panties for a moment. Then he folded them and put them back where they belonged.
The next day, Rodrigo arrived at the office at ten. He arrived the following day at ten-thirty, and on the days after, at eleven. He rarely stayed past six. At least once a week, he left at lunch to visit Rosa’s apartment. There, he gazed at the pictures in her hallway and living room. Often he sat for a few minutes on the couch, whose cushions were scented with the perfume she had always worn. He looked at the spines of her books. There were fewer of them, on fewer shelves than in his own apartment. Most were novels by Latin American writers. Their titles were improbable and often obscure: Woes of the True Policeman; Autonauts of the Cosmoroute; Diary of the War of the Pig. He did not know the authors, yet their names lingered with him after he left.
At night, Rodrigo lay in bed, sipped a glass of wine, and thought of Rosa: how her hair used to spread across the pillows while she slept, lightly snoring; how, in the mornings, she would turn away from the light to bring her face close to his; how she would often wake him in the darkness to make love. He thought it strange that he’d once decided to let her go.
The telephone rang in Rodrigo’s office late one December morning. He had just gotten in. By then, he had been visiting Rosa’s apartment for three months. The company’s director was on the line. He said he had been trying to reach Rodrigo every day that week, but that Rodrigo never answered. The director said there was a significant problem. He’d once considered Rodrigo to be a promising young man. Indeed, Rodrigo had been one of the most promising young men ever to have worked at the firm. But all that promise was evaporating. Rodrigo had done almost no work since the summer. He had missed meetings and dinners. Clients had complained. Rodrigo’s managers wondered whether he was nursing some secret addiction. The director said the company was not going to award Rodrigo a holiday bonus. Moreover, if Rodrigo did not return to form, and very soon, the company was going to fire him.
“You have days to save your job, Rodrigo, not months, not even weeks. Do you understand? You are teetering on the edge of an abyss.”
“I understand,” said Rodrigo.
The director hung up.
Rodrigo stood, put on his coat, took the elevator down, and began to walk.
He reached Rosa’s apartment late in the afternoon. The winters were mild in his city but that day a cold wind was blowing in from the sea, and Rodrigo’s ears and fingers had gone numb. He was glad to let himself inside. He wiped off his shoes, made a cup of herbal tea in the kitchen, rinsed and dried the kettle, and went to the walk-in closet. It seemed larger than ever. Rodrigo put the cup on the hardwood and spread his arms. He could not touch both walls at the same time. On the far side of the closet, opposite the drawers, and behind the blouses, dresses, and coats that hung from a rod, the ceiling angled sharply downward until it met a brick wall. Rodrigo went to his hands and knees. He crawled beneath the clothes on their hangers. When he lay with his legs curled to his chest, he could fit in the gap between the rod and the wall, with the dresses and coats forming a kind of curtain. He thought Rosa would be unlikely to see him there, even if she were hanging something on the rod. Rodrigo crawled back out from the space onto the closet floor and picked up his cup. He sipped tea while he waited. After he finished he began to feel drowsy. He lay down and was soon asleep.
He awoke when the front door opened. There were two sets of footsteps in the hallway. He heard Rosa laugh. Then a man spoke but Rodrigo could not make out the words. He crawled with the empty teacup back under the clothing rod, and had just curled into the space behind the dresses and coats when the light went on in the bedroom. Rosa and the man walked in, their voices now clear. They were talking about the movie they had just watched. Rosa thought it had been hilarious. The man did not. The two of them went into the adjoining bathroom. Rodrigo heard them turn on the taps, flush the toilet, once, twice, and return to the bedroom. One of them switched off the light. They talked for a few minutes longer, Rosa giggled, and the springs of the bed began to creak. Soon Rosa was moaning. Then she was saying the man’s name: “Rey, Rey.” All this seemed to go on for a long time, although in the dark Rodrigo couldn’t check his watch. Finally, Rey grunted—“Yeah” or “Uhh”—and the creaking stopped. Rosa got up to use the bathroom. Rodrigo heard water running in the pipes. Rey was snoring before Rosa came out. Rodrigo waited until he heard Rosa’s breathing slow, and then he let himself drift back into sleep.
Rosa came into the closet in the morning. Rodrigo huddled on the floor in his secret space while she selected a dress. Down in the shadows, with her clothes pressing against his face, and the sunlight on the ceiling above, he felt like a small animal hiding in meadow grass. He stayed there until Rosa and Rey had left the apartment. Then he came out, showered, dried himself with Rosa’s damp towel, and went to the kitchen. He ate a little granola and yogurt, and drank what remained of the coffee. He washed the dishes he had used and replaced them in the cupboards. In the living room, he took Rosa’s yoga mat from behind the couch, unrolled it on the floor, and performed three sets of thirty sit-ups. After he put the mat away, he examined Rosa’s bookshelves. He chose a volume by Horacio Castellanos Moya because he liked the writer’s name. He read until late in the afternoon, returned to the kitchen, ate a slice of cheese, and drank water from the tap. He felt entirely satisfied. He shut himself in the walk-in closet.
That night, Rosa and Rey made love twice. The second time, on waking to the creaking of Rosa’s bed, Rodrigo crawled out from beneath her clothes to put his eye to the gap between the closet doors. His vision had adjusted to the darkness. Rey was lying on his back with Rosa astride him but facing his feet, her hands on his thighs or knees. It was, thought Rodrigo, an adventurous position. Rosa was rocking back and forth and moaning. Rey was breathing hard. Rodrigo realized that not only was Rosa looking at the closet doors, but that her eyes seemed to be fixed on his own. Rodrigo’s right hand drifted to his lap. Rosa was moaning more loudly, “Rey, Rey, Rey!” Then she shouted Rey’s name. Rey shouted at the same time. Rodrigo discovered that he had climaxed too.
The next day the apartment was full of light. Rodrigo opened the windows once he was alone and took the salt air deep into his lungs. The sky was clear and silent. He felt only the faintest stirrings of hunger. Someone had left a crust of bread on a plate in the kitchen sink. Rodrigo ate it and was full. Then he washed his underwear, hung it to dry, and performed his exercises on the yoga mat. He spent the rest of the day on the couch with Carpentier’s Explosion in a Cathedral. In the middle of the afternoon, he read the sentence, “The house smelled of illness,” and had to put the book down while a wave of sadness washed through him. By then he understood that he was not going to leave.
And so it went. Sometimes Rosa came home with Rey, sometimes she was alone, and occasionally she didn’t return at all. On those nights, Rodrigo presumed she was at Rey’s apartment, but even then he slept in his space between Rosa’s clothes, the flaked ceiling slats, and the brick wall. During the day, Rodrigo hardly needed to eat. Often he took only a slice of papaya or drank a little milk from the jug in the refrigerator. He exercised regularly on Rosa’s yoga mat. He read the novels on her shelves. When Rosa and Rey made love, Rodrigo watched with his hand in his lap. Sometimes they left the bedroom lights on. Rodrigo saw that Rey had a thicker chest, and hairier and more muscular arms than he did. While their penises seemed to be of about the same length, Rey’s clearly had more girth. Rey was blessed with a mule’s endurance. He would keep his face between Rosa’s thighs, while she moaned and clawed at his back, for as long as she wished him to. Rodrigo’s own jaw ached just to watch. Rey, he recognized, was a better lover than he had ever been. Meanwhile, Rosa was growing more beautiful by the day. Rodrigo had entered a new land. His erotic life had never been richer.
Six months after Rodrigo moved into Rosa’s apartment, Rosa slept alone for two nights. On the third night, she came home with a small cardboard box. She unpacked it in her room, looked at the clothes and books spread over the bed, and began to cry. Rodrigo, peering out from the closet, realized he would never see Rey again. He felt an overwhelming desire to comfort Rosa. He too began silently to cry. But he only buried his face in one of her dresses and waited for his tears to pass.
The following day, Rodrigo carried a sheet of paper from Rosa’s wastebasket and a pencil from her desk into the closet. He had something: not an idea, not yet, but the beginnings of one. He wrote a few lines by the light that entered through the gap in the doors. Then he read over what he had written. The sentiments seemed false, the language awkward. He left the closet and returned the paper to the wastebasket. He spent the afternoon on the couch with a fantastical novel by Carlos Rojas, which he found unconvincing.
The next morning, Rodrigo took more scraps of paper out of the wastebasket. He wrote on them for an hour before he put them back. He did the same the following morning, and the morning after that. On the fourth day, he took a page he had written, folded it twice, and tucked it into a tiny gap between two bricks at the far corner of the closet.
For a week, the two of them were alone in the evenings. Rosa drank tea and read novels on her bed. Rodrigo lay in his space in the closet and thought about writing. Then one night Rosa brought a man home. Their encounter was brief. The man didn’t stay. There were other men on the nights that followed. Some of them did stay and some, it seemed, made Rosa happy. One man visited more often than the others. He had short black hair and a middleweight’s frame. From the closet on those nights, Rodrigo saw Rosa’s eyes shining out of the darkness. He saw her teeth when she panted or moaned. Rodrigo watched with some interest but he was also, at times, impatient for these sessions to end. He needed to rest for the work he was doing during the day.
Rodrigo began to take blank paper from a ream on Rosa’s desk. His stamina steadily improved. Soon he was writing in the closet for hours on end. Often, he didn’t emerge at all. Rosa replaced the sheets of paper on her desk as fast as he went through them. Rodrigo discovered that he was writing the story of a man who walked at night from one end of his city to another, through gardens, parks, and deserted industrial zones. This man had become bored of his work. He had withdrawn from his colleagues and friends. He was alone, he had no lover, but he was nonetheless happy. Each night, as he strode great distances under the cover of darkness, he felt himself growing stronger. Indeed, he had never been so free. He knew he was on the verge of discovering his life’s purpose. At the close of each day, Rodrigo used his growing manuscript as a pillow. Two months after he began, he had one hundred pages. In another month, he had three hundred. He could not see the ending, but he was certain that when it arrived, it would be a triumph.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Rav Grewal-Kök’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the New England Review, Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, The Literary Review, Little Star, Third Coast, Five Points, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. He is an associate fiction editor at Fence.