Open Doors

By Sarena Ulibarri


From the window of his second story apartment, Andrew watched a tall woman lock her door and cross the courtyard. He watched his neighbors every day, constructing their stories by the glimpses he caught of their lives, but there was something different about this new woman. The connection he felt had nothing to do with her conservative business suit or the curls of her hair. His eyes held her as she passed beneath the willow tree and disappeared into the parking lot. When the phone rang, he realized he was holding his breath.

"Oh, you are there!" his brother Josh said, "I thought you might be out and about on this beautiful day."

Andrew chose not to take the bait. "It is a beautiful day. I've been at the window."

"See anything interesting?"

Andrew smiled. "Always."

He settled into in his blue lounge chair, listening to a scene-by-scene description of his niece's dance recital.

"She did ask about you, after," Josh said.

Andrew's smile waned. "I was there in spirit."

Josh chuckled, but the sound faded into a pause.

"Hey Josh? I need a few groceries, and some glue."

His brother sighed. "You know the store's only two blocks away, you could walk—"

"Josh, please," Andrew said, the muscles of his face tightening.

"Yeah, sure. Probably tomorrow, alright?"

Andrew's hand was shaking when he hung up the phone. He hated asking his brother for help, but even the thought of opening his front door made his heart race. He closed his eyes and let the anxiety pass before he went back to the window. Three buildings faced a courtyard, two stories each, and a gated parking lot closed the square. This was Andrew's world. He hadn't left the complex in more than two years.

Andrew had never met most of his neighbors, but he knew a few facts about each of them. The man in C202 brought home a watermelon almost every Sunday, and had once rear-ended a car parked in his reserved spot. The woman in B101 worked at the hospital and her son smoked on the roof with his friends. The woman in the apartment below Andrew, A104, was a widow who hung her laundry outside on a homemade clothesline and had the loudest laugh he had ever heard.

The willow tree in the courtyard swung its leafless tendrils in front of the new neighbor's windows. December had been a dark month, and he hadn't seen her move in.

The doorbell rang but Andrew didn't move. He heard the muffled word, "Maintenance!" and then the jingle of keys. The door opened, and Andrew waited for it to close before turning from the window. The maintenance man, Larry, set a toolbox down beside the hot water closet.

"Andrew! Kids aren't throwing eggs at your window again? I told those little—"

"No, no more eggs."

"Good," Larry said and opened the closet. "Had some complaints about the hot water, you had any problems?"

"Been cold for a couple days."

Larry opened his toolbox and set to work.

"Anytime you got a problem, just come knock on my door, don't matter what time, yeah?"

"Hey, I noticed there was a new tenant in C102," Andrew deflected.

Larry was not known for his confidentiality, and many of the facts Andrew knew about his neighbors came from Larry's loose tongue.

"Who, Janis? Nice lady," Larry answered from inside the closet, "Recently divorced. Wanted to know if she could get a cat, but I said, 'no way lady, I ain't having no stinking animal messing things up.' Those carpets in there are brand new, you know."

"I remember. Where does she work?"

"Dunno. Some nine-to-five. You see a cat sniffing around, you tell me, okay?"

"Okay."

Larry clunked a wrench back into his toolbox and gestured toward the kitchen.

"Turn on the water, will ya."

Andrew spun the knob and let the cool water run across his fingertips until it grew warmer.

"Feels better," he said.

After Larry left, Andrew turned on his computer to go to work. His mind wandered all day. As the clock hands crept around, he hummed an improvised tune, anticipating Janis' five o'clock return with an almost adolescent fervor.

***

Twilight had faded to dark by the time Janis tossed her keys and briefcase on the kitchen table in her new apartment. A spider crawled across the ceiling, stringing a web to the top of the cabinet, but Janis didn't see it. She never looked up. Even when a helicopter passed low overhead she never raised her face toward the sky. She had always been far more fascinated by the swirls in the concrete than by the patterns of clouds or stars. It was as if she had taken the description of herself as "down to earth" too seriously and decided to ignore that there was a world above five feet, eight inches.

Janis changed into a sweat suit and made dinner for one. She stretched out on the couch and watched TV, dribbling crumbs onto the carpet. She had a number of bad habits, and because her ex-husband had found them so objectionable she now indulged herself in them, taking pleasure in her dirty dishes and stubby fingernails, perfectly content to let the water drip or the milk expire.

Most nights Janis spent at least an hour on the phone with her sister. She lived out of state, but was also recently divorced and they leaned on each other from a distance. Janis never answered her phone if her mother called. She hadn't healed enough to have her scabs picked yet.

After all her favorite sitcoms were over, Janis propped herself up on the couch with a book. When she was yawning at every other sentence, she finally dragged herself toward the bedroom. The double bed with silk pillows still looked showroom -new, and to Janis nothing about it was inviting.

In the last months of her marriage she had cringed every time she felt the mattress move, had shrunk away and cowered on the edges when she felt the warmth of the other body. But in this factory-new bed she felt small and alone. She dreaded the soft pillows, found the darkness cold and empty. Sleep, when it did come, was always full of grotesque images and angry memories. So instead of going to bed, she brushed her teeth, washed her face, plucked her eyebrows, straightened the bottles in the medicine cabinet. She tied her hair into a meticulous tight braid. Then she brushed her teeth again, and when she realized the repetition she stared at the brush in amusement, shrugged, and brushed for another minute. Anything she could do to avoid bed for a little longer.

But once she was in bed, waiting for loneliness to creep over her sheets, something else came through the darkness instead. A faint hum, like the beginning of music. Something between the tuning of a symphony and the buzz of an amplifier. It filled the empty space in her bed and Janis felt comforted by the primal vibration. The sound calmed her like a lullaby and she drifted to sleep. For the first time in two years she slept without nightmares.

***

Andrew sat at his table. His scrapbook lay before him, and lamplight poured across the hardened glue on the tabletop. He sorted through piles of glossy and faded photos, reconstructing his past. The red-nosed face grinning from the top of a snowy mountain peak and the laughing man who knelt beside his father's chair seemed more like characters from his favorite books than past selves. Nonetheless, he pasted these next to pictures of his brother and cousins, next to train tickets and concert passes, composing a requiem to his life outside the apartment.

Anxiety had always been a part of Andrew's life, but it worsened during his father's illness. The first public panic attack happened a week after the funeral. Standing in line at the grocery store, Andrew had been seized by the sensation that everyone was staring at him. His palms sweat and his heart raced, and after one leering eye too many, he dropped his basket and pushed past everyone to hurry out the door. He'd been too confused and embarrassed to go back.

Next, at a bus stop, he'd screamed at people to stop touching him before he realized no one was near. Then at a bookstore, a restaurant, and finally at work. He stayed home more often, sure he would have another attack as soon as he opened the door. At work he raced out of one too many board meetings, hiding in the restroom for half an hour and coming out sweaty and disheveled. After the last one, his boss politely told him he was no longer an integral part of their business. Andrew found a new job where he could telecommute, and he hadn't left home since.

Andrew thought of Janis and wondered what he might see in the scrapbook of her life. He had learned her routines quickly: she left for work at seven forty-five, came home between five-thirty and six, and only checked her mail on Saturdays around noon. She bought groceries just a few bags at a time and smiled at her neighbors, but rarely spoke to them. When she left her curtains open he could see through the willow branches into her living room. She ate while watching TV and hardly ever used napkins. She had beautiful paintings on the wall, and he had once seen her set up an easel in the living room, stare for an hour at the blank canvas and then put it away.

He dreamed about her, always silent and in the distance, wearing big pink mittens and building a snowman, running barefoot through the snow toward a wooden door. He saw her every night in that ethereal space, standing in a doorway, playfully swinging a brass key around her finger, her face split, like a mirror trick, so she looked in two directions at once.

Two weeks had passed since he had first seen her, and she had consumed his thoughts that whole time. He had tried not to watch for her. He purposely left the window before five-thirty, averted his eyes when he saw her door open in the morning. He told himself his feelings were nothing; he ridiculed himself for thinking he was in love. But despite what he said or did, the feeling was there, persistent as a tune stuck in his head.

***

Janis no longer feared the bed. The music stayed with her now. What had started as a soothing hum had progressed, night by night, into beautiful music. First a chord, then two, a simple melody blossomed out from the central vibration. The tune emanated from her and enveloped her. During the day it was dulled by the sounds of the world. But, omnipresent, it would creep like smoke around the sound of copy machines and car horns, sneak up to her ears, and make her smile.

Janis was the type of person who avoided talking about God, who disliked science fiction and swore she would never tell fairy tales to her (hypothetical) children. Yet, she didn't question the music she heard. The music made her feel like she was falling in love, and that was the one mystical experience she wanted to believe in. She listened in the darkness and imagined she was being serenaded by a talented lover. One night she went to the window and was disappointed to see only the willow tree waving to her.

***

One Saturday, when the January snow shrank into corners and the sun lit the sky in vibrant blue, Andrew discovered Janis sitting outside on the courtyard bench with a book. He picked up his binoculars and let out a small laugh when he recognized the title. He'd sat in his blue lounge chair and read the same book just a month ago; he had finished the novel in one sitting and blinked back into the real world to discover it was the next day.

The mail truck pulled into the parking lot and he saw Janis glance at it. If he could force himself outside, he could ensure they crossed paths. Maybe they could chat about the weather or he could comment on the book. It would just be to the mailbox and back. That's all. He could handle that. Just to the mailbox and back, with a few friendly words to hear her voice and tell her his name.

***

Janis was distracted. She enjoyed the book, but it had turned out differently than she expected and her attention was diverted by her own version of the story. The sun reflected off the crisp library pages, and the music began to swell around her, with such force that her self-consciousness stunted its beauty. She glanced around, wondering if her neighbors could hear. An older woman came into the courtyard to hang her laundry on a clothesline, and Janis hid her face behind the book. The willow branches swung in the breeze and she thought they looked like long index fingers, shaking their disapproval.

She tried to read again, but the music grew louder and evolved into a complex symphony. A sudden shift in the melody took her by surprise. The music swelled. Her apprehension faded as she closed her eyes and lost herself in the sound. She looked back at her page and watched the words melt into leaping allegro notes and snakelike chords.

***

Andrew watched the mail truck drive away. Janis marked her book and stood. With a couple of slow, deep breaths, he opened his front door. He tried not to count the steps to the mailbox.

The willow branches danced sinuously in the light wind. Brittle leaves scuttled across the sidewalks. He looked up at the sky and felt the touch of the wind on his face. He remembered how he used to consider himself a "winter person," and had once hiked to the top of a mountain in subzero weather. He stopped on the staircase and took a deep breath, tried to summon the peace he had felt at the summit, that silence and purity. It wasn't peace, exactly, that he felt, but he gathered enough control to make the journey to the mailbox.

A few steps from the mailbox, though, his throat tightened and his heart lurched into staccato. It felt as though tiny hands tugged at his skin. He took the last steps and placed his hands against the silver boxes to steady himself. His fingers prickled, his pulse throbbed. He tried to take another controlled breath, but his mind yelled, "Go home! Go home!" With shaking hands he opened his box and heaved out the pile of mail. It had been weeks since his brother had been there.

He turned his head and there stood Janis, her key hovering outside her box. His heart beat faster and the words he had rehearsed raced through his head. She turned the key with agonizing slowness. She looked surreal and untouchable, like a bird frozen in the sky. She stood right next to him, yet he still felt he was watching her from the window. Slowly, her box clicked shut. She turned away and wandered back to her apartment, flipping casually through her letters, the book tucked under her arm.

Andrew clutched the stack of mail to his chest and ran home, stumbling a little on the steps. Before he shut his door he heard the widow's loud laugh shatter the winter silence.

***

Janis walked briskly toward the mailbox, noticing how her shoes left footprints in the layer of dust on the sidewalk. A man leaned against the mailboxes, looking as though he had just finished a heavy run. She peered at his face. He looked strangely familiar. She thought he was handsome, though gaunt, and she wondered which apartment was his. The music hummed faintly beneath the wind, but it was sporadic, distracted. She grabbed her mail. Peripherally she saw the man turn toward her, but chose not to return his glance. She shut her box and walked home.

Curiosity and a sudden surge of loneliness made her look back. She was even willing to offer the man a smile or a wave if their eyes met, but by the time she turned he had already disappeared.

***

Andrew slunk back into his apartment and into the grave depression that always followed his attacks. For three days he wallowed in awkward self-loathing, refusing to turn on the lights or go to the window.

When the phone rang on the morning of the fourth day, he answered it with the relish of a drowning man breaking surface. At the sound of his brother's voice, Andrew forced himself to get dressed. He turned on every light in the apartment and cleaned the kitchen in anticipation of his brother, sister-in-law and niece's visit. But when he opened the door to let in his family, he knew that Josh did not fail to notice his trembling hand.

***

At the end of January, Janis dreamed her apartment was on fire. She stood paralyzed in the doorway, staring at the flames that lapped at her bare feet. The man from the mailboxes was there, but she wasn't sure whether he fought the fire or fueled it. She clawed her way out of the dream and woke in her empty bed.

Janis walked out her door a few minutes early. Snow had covered the courtyard in a thin white powder, and snowflakes swirled around her feet. By the time she came home from work, the flakes had buried the courtyard and she had to shake snow from her pant legs before going inside. She waited as long as she could before going to bed, and hardly even heard the music once she did.

Janis fell through layers of dream and landed in a soft whiteness. Thick flakes drifted down, gathering softly in snowdrifts. She stood and hugged her arms around her chest, rubbed her palms across her shoulders. Breath sprayed smoke-like from her mouth. Snowflakes sizzled on her skin and collected in her hair, clutching tight to the brown strands. The snow melted around her bare feet, and she stepped forward, leaving footprint-shaped puddles.

Andrew looked down from the top of a snowdrift, watching her walk away from him. He looked at the space between them and tentatively stepped down the snowdrift. Janis was distant, mirage-like through the curtain of snow. Empowered by the cold, Andrew ran after her, splashing through her melted footprints. His heart raced with primal strength. His anxiety was gone, buried under the gathering flakes. When he was a few feet behind her, he called her name.

She turned. A door slammed shut between them.

The snowy curtain became a solid white wall. Andrew clawed at the tall wooden door. Janis pulled at the knob. Andrew smashed his palm against the door in frustration and Janis backed away from the sudden violence.

In silence they stood on opposite sides of the door: Andrew leaning his arms and forehead on the wood, Janis standing back a few inches, her hands at her face. The music emerged from the silence, painfully beautiful, soft and melancholy like a lonely birdsong. Janis closed her eyes and listened.

Andrew pushed off the door and looked up at the sky. Snowflakes landed on his eyes and he heard the music, a variation of the tune he had hummed the day he first saw Janis. He hummed again, his voice following the gentle waves and curls of the music.

With her eyes still closed, Janis started to hum as well. She lifted her hands to her hair, melting the clinging snowflakes with her touch. Her hands traveled slowly along the small waves and curls she often forgot were there.

In the thick of hair at the back of her neck, her finger brushed something solid. She moved her hair and extracted a long brass key. Janis stepped toward the door, and gently slid the key into the lock. She turned the key and pulled open the door.

Andrew looked down, blinking snowflakes out of his eyes. They both stood silent, still, and the music softened back to a steady hum. Janis stepped forward, bare feet on the wooden threshold. She looked forward and back. Andrew was on both sides.

They awoke suddenly, in separate beds, and rose to open their doors on the cool night air. Andrew stepped out of his apartment and Janis looked up, and they saw each other again through the waving branches of the weeping willow.


Sarena Ulibarri is currently an MFA student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her fiction has recently appeared in Bartleby Snopes, decomP, Flashquake, Monkeybicycle and elsewhere.

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