Prose: Jennifer Hurley
The Girl Next Door
We were both women in our mid-twenties, living alone except for a cat. In the evenings our windows glowed blue with television. Sometimes I heard her tea kettle whistling just as I was reaching to put mine on. The building had four units, and we had the upstairs ones, directly opposite each other, separated by an outdoor landing with a buzzing florescent light. If we happened to be leaving or arriving at the same time, we said hello and then pretended to be occupied with our keys or groceries. I didn’t even know her name until her mail was accidentally delivered to my box.
I did not want to know her. She reminded me of a more lackluster version of myself. An outside observer might have lumped us together in the same demographic, but I was the prettier, thinner one—the less frumpily dressed one, the one with a less humiliating car. Even my cat was better. Her cat was gray and big-boned, with eyes that always seemed to catch the light of the streetlamps. I liked cats as a general rule, but I could not stand to see her cat staring vacantly out the window at night. My cat liked to curl up on the couch and take long, elegant naps.
The girl next door did not date, although I saw her from time to time walking to her car with a male in sweatpants that I suspected was her brother. I dated all the time, a new man appearing roughly every time I threw out my cat’s litterbox and bought a fresh one. In fact, on the night that the smoke alarm went off, there was a man in my apartment. I had not wanted him there. I had hidden in my bed while he knocked on my door for several minutes, his polite, persistent knocks making me feel I would do anything not to answer. Finally he tried the knob and came inside, calling my name. When he found me, I had to pretend I was groggy and unwell. I let him into my bed, but I kept my clothes on. I kept my eyes open, too. I was still awake at 2:35am when the alarm sounded.
It was too loud to ignore. The man in my bed woke up and looked around wildly. I had already smelled the smoke and was searching for my cat. It was the only thing I cared about—that the cat was safe. I carried her out to the landing and downstairs. I couldn’t tell where the fire was coming from, but I could feel it in my throat. I stood outside, holding my cat like a baby, ignoring the man who had just been in my bed and who now stood next to me in a misbuttoned shirt. There were some people from nearby apartments milling around outside. I spotted the girl from next door. She too was holding her cat.
“You have your cat,” I said to her.
“So do you,” she said and smiled.
Eventually the firemen came and made us stand on the other side of the street. They unrolled huge hoses and began to spray. All the bystanders who had been offering opinions on how the fire started suddenly stopped talking and watched. It was too late, though. The fire was licking up the sides of our building, and before long, I saw flames in the upstairs windows which usually glowed with our television sets. The girl from the apartment next door was in her pajamas. I could see her face better than I ever had before due to the light cast from the fire; she was prettier than I’d thought, with a smooth, creamy complexion. Everything was burning away: our photographs, our clothes, our televisions and computers, our journals full of lonely ruminations, all of the pitiable furniture that we’d scavenged from thrift stores and garage sales. I was dry-eyed and numb. The girl next door was not crying, either. I could not read anything from her face.
When the fire was finally put out, the crowd started to disperse. The building was wet and blackened and smelled like stale cigarettes. There was no point in trying to even go inside, and the firemen wouldn’t have let us, anyway. That’s when I remembered the man from my bed. He would take me and my cat to his home. He would lend me money. He would do anything for me. The reasons I had stopped liking him were now turning out in my favor.
As I was getting into his car, I searched the scene for the girl from next door. She was sitting on the curb, her cat in her lap, a cell phone pressed to her ear. It occurred to me that she wouldn’t be living next door to me anymore. I had a brief, tantalizing thought that I’d ask her to be my roommate. But the notion of two single girls living together with their cats—it was too risky. We might have enjoyed picking out new furniture together, deciding on the decorating, eating too much ice cream after a bad date. Things could go on like that and before we knew it we would be old. No one would care then that I had been the prettier one. It was best just to say goodbye. I started to call out to her but realized I’d forgotten her name.