It was a tiny apartment on the 6th floor. Rather, it was just a room with an attached bathroom; no kitchen. There wasn’t anyone to cook anyway. The rent was cheap and it suited Allen well. The place gave all the privacy a writer needed. Not many visited him and he visited no one.
On this particular night, he sat on his armchair whilst sucking heavily on cigarette after cigarette, thinking of nothing in particular. The cloud of smoke in the closed room grew denser by the minute. Thoughts flew past Allen’s head, each new one erasing all traces of the previous. These were tired thoughts which were never meant to create a lasting impact, but to touch the surface of his brain and then dissolve away into nothingness. Such was the state of dazed drowsiness which every unhappy man dreams of.
But it didn’t last. There was someone at the door; a steady, familiar tap. He decided to wait a minute or two, hoping that the tapping would cease. It didn’t. An observer inside the room would have witnessed him sigh and drag his stiff body out of the chair and to the door with utmost reluctance. And even as he undid the locks, he could smell the soft jasmine scent which seeped in through the narrow slit under the door.
“Hello.” A woman stood there with a look of slight exhaustion; her quiet eyes fixed on him. Her shoulder-length hair hung loosely, with a few stray strands sticking lightly to her sweaty forehead. Her face showed a slight flush. All from climbing up the stairs, Allen deduced. Her current attire made her fit for a party; a crimson designer dress exposing one of her pale shoulders and ending a bit too high on her slender thighs.
“You broke your promise.” Allen replied.
“Won’t you be a good host and invite me in first?”
Allen stood aside to let her in.
“Had a quarrel with your husband again, did you?” he asked after peeking down the corridor and shutting the door.
“Leave all that. Come sleep with me.” She had smoothly settled on the bed, one thigh over the other. Frankly, it was the only place in the room to settle on, the other option being the armchair filled with cigarette debris.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Emma. Are you drunk?”
The woman smiled, tiny dimples appearing on her cheeks. She got out of bed and scuttled about the room for a while; opening windows, picking up scattered pieces of clothing, and tidying up the heap of books lying on the desk. Probably it was her flashy dress or her somber beauty that made all this quite a spectacle.
“There. All a bit cheerful now.” She said so in a satisfied voice. Indeed, in few seconds the room had transformed from dim and smoky to somewhat presentable. As if putting an end to the show, she turned off the solitary lamp.
“You should get a woman,” she continued. “And quit smoking in closed rooms.”
Allen returned to his original spot on the armchair. He knew her too well to ask her to leave. Besides, he felt a little uncomfortable throwing a young woman out at such a time. Who knows what might happen. But then again, he knew she always arrived at this hour precisely for this reason. In the faint moonlight, he could see Emma’s outline settling down on the bed again as if it was her own.
His voice came out, tired and low. “Tell me about the quarrel.”
“I didn’t have a quarrel with anyone.”
“Is it your job, then? Did you get fired again? I have no money myself, you know.”
“Have I ever taken a penny of yours?”
“Then what is it that you want?”
She sighed and remained silent for a while. “Excuse me for just coming to see you. Oh well, you’re still alive. I was worried that the latest incident would bring you down and you’d jump into a river or something.”
“Of all people, you should know that I’m too lazy to do something as silly as that.”
“I guess so. You’re too lazy to even sleep with a lady.” She swayed herself teasingly. “You’d rather starve to death than do any jumping.”
For a moment Allen became all fired up and felt like giving her a bit of what she wanted. But with a burst of conscience he gulped it all down. He was a gentleman after all. To suit that image, he had kept a well maintained beard and moustache, and had learnt to put forth a show of calmness at all times. And he was not going to let himself ruin it now.
“Keeping all that aside, a married woman should not be in a bachelor’s apartment at 10’O clock at night,” he said rather gracefully with both hands under his chin.
“Oh please, Al. That line was suitable only for the first night. You’re getting too repetitive for my tastes. Now show me your last manuscript. I’d like to read it.”
Allen gestured at the writing desk. He could sense Emma’s disappointment as her gaze fell on the two stray papers lying there. She brought them over to the window and held them in the rather bright moonlight. Such a show off, Allen thought.
“It isn’t much, just a…” He was about to say something humble but was stopped by a dramatic voice. She had already started reading. Out loud.
“Winter had set in with unprecedented severity. In the brightness of the day, his tired eyes had noted the malfunctioning gate, and it was there that he was presently headed. Shuffling on through the snow-filled deserted street, he was mocked by…”
And through the soundless night her voice rang on, soft and clear, overemphasizing each and every word. She read at a slow pace dragging the meager two-page story forever making the entire thing sound terribly silly. Allen felt attracted. She was beautiful and the beams from the full moon had helped create a perfect mood amidst which the crimson dress stuck out; the only colored object in a total grey environment. By the time she finished Allen realized he hadn’t registered a word.
“Well, how did it sound?” she asked.
“You tell me. No point in being a critic to my own story.”
“There is, actually. And it sounded a bit lame to me. The characters are not properly developed and you’ve blatantly given out dialogues without describing any actions at all.”
“I know. No wonder it was rejected.”
“You haven’t been reading the Chekhov books I lent you?”
“I have read few of the stories.”
“Try to learn from them, will you? In the second part you’ll find At Home. That’s one of my favorites. I suppose you haven’t read that yet?”
Allen looked at the floor. Why was he being lectured? It was true that Emma’s literary abilities surpassed his own to some extent, but surely even hers’ wasn’t enough. He was sure he already knew whatever advice she was going to give. “No,” he grunted under his breath.
“Well let’s read it now then. Oh don’t look so disinterested now. Come, I’ll read it out to you.”
Allen indicated a drawer with a gesture of his hand. He watched on glumly as Emma opened it and dusted the thickly layered book. She looked serene as usual. He tried to make up some excuses like being tired but was met with an obstinate silence. Having made the book fit to be read, she came to Allen’s armchair and tugged at his arm. “Get up.”
Seeing her determination, he didn’t protest. She led him across the room to the bed, her soft hand holding his. Shouldn’t he be telling her how inappropriate that is? No, that too was suitable only for the first night. A feeling of comfortable drowsiness overcame him as he lay down beside her. If she wanted him to listen to the story, she surely wasn’t doing it right.
The voice rang again; clear but distant. He couldn’t concentrate past the tiny freckles on her pale neck, made paler still in the silver light. Strands of her loose hair fluttered with his every breath. He knew she felt it too, for her voice faltered; first a little and then completely as his lips made the first contact. The story was forgotten and the book tossed.
Allen woke up with the sun in his face. It was late. His half-opened eyes automatically turned towards the door. There was a note sticking to it as usual.
On it, few scratches of delicate ink declared – “Never again. I promise.”
Yeah sure. With some effort, he rolled over and went back to sleep.