Rupert's Story Shop

Stories to enchant.

Billboard Man

by Deborah Parker

I arrive home late from work. Although it's late in the spring, already dusk is turning into night, and my apartment is dark and quiet, save for the muffled voices coming from the people above me. I toss my keys down on the table by the door entirely by instinct, since the room is still black as pitch.

Without needing to look, I reach around the corner and flip the switch, bathing the landing in a pool of sickly orange light; but it's enough for me to find my way into the living room without killing myself on my impressive shoe collection that lays strewn about the landing, in my haphazard organizational system: boots tossed aside to the right, shoes to the left, sandals straight ahead.

Picking my way over the myriad footwear, I creep my way into the living room, skipping the loose floorboard out of habit. The lady downstairs would complain bitterly when I didn't, but she's dead and gone now, and the students who came in after her don't even get home until three in the morning, and surely, they don't much care about the quiet.

The conversation upstairs continues, the two voices, male and female, combining into a steady drone as they're affected and warped by the floor and ceiling between us. The man's voice sharpens for a moment, and I look up to follow the sound of heavy footfalls crossing the room. There's a pause in which the whole building seems to draw in a deep breath and steel itself, then the cracking sound of a door being slammed shut. And the rest is silence, so they say.

My vicarious part in the little drama is over now, and I continue on my way. Through the living room, still guided only by the pale light of the landing, and then into the kitchen. It's dark back here again, but another flip of the switch and fluorescent lights ping and pop to life, filling the silence with their low-key buzzing. One of the tubes flickers for a moment, fighting for life while washing the room in a strobe effect. It catches and stays, finally, while I make a note to request a replacement tomorrow, before they go out. For they never burn out one at a time. Once the first one goes, the other dies of a broken heart within the hour.

I pull open the door of the fridge, and dig out the half-empty can of cat food. Generic brand, mostly ash no doubt, but the cat doesn't seem to mind. As I pull back the tinfoil lid, he comes dashing out of his hiding place, wherever it may be. I can never figure out even which direction he comes from. With a whirring noise, he leaps up on the counter and angles for me to scratch him behind his ears. I, of course, comply; I'm well-trained, after all.

Two heaping tablespoons are glopped heavily into the dish, their moist squishy sound, coupled with the sickly sweet smell of fake meat causing me to wrinkle my nose. The cat doesn't even wait for me to return the dish to the floor; he's on it as soon as I've finished doling it out. I run my hand along his back and tail, but get ignored for my efforts. The Food Giver is superfluous once the food has been given. I brush off the slight with the practiced ease of a cat owner and return the can to the fridge, pulling out a carton of leftover Chinese for myself. I eye the cat food spoon, but decide that even I am not so gross as to reuse it. Instead, I get out a fork while the carton spins around in the microwave, absorbing the energy in the form of heat. Soon the smell of fried rice fills the small apartment, and the microwave beeps importantly to inform me that it's done its job all well and good and is angling for a raise.

I take both food and fork back into the living room, where I fall upon the couch. And because it never fails, I sit on the remote. Very well. I dig it out from under me and turn on the TV, flipping idly past reality shows that don't resemble my reality in even the most superficial ways. A courtroom drama, a cop show, some self-important drama trying to peddle angst and whining as meaningful dialogue. I'm just too picky.

I leave the TV on the cop show. I can't tell them apart anymore. The blues and greys all blend together. The tubes inside the TV glow, throwing moving and coloured lights about the darkened room. Doing my best to both watch and tune out the show, I slowly eat my rice, getting in a few forkfuls before the inquisitive cat (whom curiosity has not yet killed, despite my threats to the contrary, alas) finishes his dinner and decides he wants some of mind. I oblige again, showing how well he's trained me. A hunk of chicken-like meat is dug out and offered to him daintily. He sniffs it importantly for a moment, before deciding to accept the offering. The gods have been appeased - for the moment.

My thoughts leave the world of the 53rd Precinct and drift for a moment. Sliding down the couch a little, I rest my elbow on the arm of the sofa, chin on my loosely curled fist. The takeout container is held loosely in my other hand. My eyes shift to the window as a car goes by. I'm too high up to see it, but the headlights reflect off of the stop sign at the end of the street and flash in the window momentarily, before with a gentle acceleration, it continues along.

I don't have long to watch the lights before my gaze is drawn, almost inexplicably, to the billboard across the street. For the past two months, its ad for Rice-A-Roni has given me an endless craving for rice. But the box is gone, and in its place is the picture of the most perfect man.

He's charming and good-looking, in a very non-threatening manner. Brown eyes stare out keenly from his two-dimensional home, directly into my three-dimensional one. If I angle my head just right, why, yes, he's looking right into mine! His blue jeans are rugged but clean, tight without being too tight. And he wears no shirt, clearly proud of his pecs and washboard abs. I don't even have time to note what he's trying to sell me, I'm so caught up in his gaze. And he mine.

His smile changes a little then, as if he's finally noticed me here, in the dark apartment with the colours of a police station dancing across the Venetians. It's no longer the cold, impersonal smirk that he offers to ordinary passers by. No, this is his smile for me. Warm and caring and just a little bit shy. In spite of myself, I find I'm offering him one in return. Demurely, I duck my head a little, breaking eye contact for a brief moment as I just can't take the intensity of the gaze any longer. My heart breaks when I look back up, and he's gone back to staring into the middle distance, smiling impassively. Well, two can play at that game. I put my food in the kitchen and go to bed. But I leave my TV on, in case he wants to watch it. Must be awfully lonely up there.

When I get home from work the next night, it's even later. Dusk has already given way to full out night. I drop my keys in their place, and fight to keep my usual routine and its usual pace. The cat gets more food than he should; I'm distracted and offer four spoonfuls instead of two, but he doesn't complain. I forgot to put the rest of the rice in the fridge last night, so it's gone dry and hard. I sniff at the carton then drop it in the garbage with a satisfying thud. I'll have ice cream for dinner, and curse anyone who tries to stop me.

The TV is still on as I return to the living room, and I hope he appreciates the increase in my hydro bill on his behalf. But I can't be petty, now can I? It isn't his fault that he's stuck on a sign. I change it over to a mindless sitcom, forcing myself to watch for a few moments before offering a sidelong glance out the window.

My breath catches in my throat. He's waited for me. I don't know why I'm surprised, but I am. My heart hammers lightly in my chest, as I flash him a quick grin, before looking back at the TV. Have to play a little hard to get. I run my hand back through my hair, using the chance to settle myself a little closer to the window. I count down from ten, then decide it's been long enough. I glance over more fully this time, taking a moment to watch him.

But he's still being cool about it. His gaze isn't focussed on me, though I know he's watching out of his peripheral vision. And surely enough, here comes the smile change. It's so subtle, but I know him well enough by now to catch it without mistake or hesitation. In turn, my smile grows, and I bat my eyelashes at him flirtatiously. This makes me realize with some amazement that he never even blinks. What a man.

He doesn't look fully at me tonight, but I know he's interested. I clear my throat, and shift in my seat, trying to catch his gaze, but he's too good at this game. Finally, I can't take it anymore and I shift my head again. He appreciates the effort, and looks into my eyes at last.

"So," I begin conversationally. "You're new to the neighbourhood?" I give him a moment to answer, staring at him with rapt interest. But he's the strong silent type, I realize. I know now what a mistake it is trying to get him to open up right away. I'll talk about myself first, to show I'm not a threat.

I tell him how I've lived here for two years now, and complain a little about my neighbours above and below. He doesn't comment, but I can tell he understands. He must, what with the Michelin Man just off to his left, and the Hamburger Helper glove to his right. You know those can't be easy men to live with.

By the time I wrap up my adventures in my apartment to date, I realize it's almost three in the morning. I bid him a fond farewell, and promise to be back as soon as I'm done work tomorrow. Despite my reassurances, I can still see the hurt in his eyes. He's vulnerable. He's been abandoned before.

I get home before dark for once, though only by an hour or so. I alter my routine a little, stopping by to say hello to him before I go to get myself something to eat. A frozen hot dog is warmed in the microwave, slapped into a bun with the mold picked off, and then buried in ketchup. I'm out of cat food, so the cat just gets half of my hot dog. He doesn't seem to mind.

I take my half back to the couch, eating as I go. I check to make sure there's no ketchup on my mouth, before I show myself to him. He's playing cool again. Dammit, he's too good at it. Why do I have to be the nervous wreck?

I catch his eye again, and ease more readily into the conversation. Tonight we discuss my job and my career goals and how never the twain shall meet. He feels for me. I suspect that this was not his chosen profession, but options are limited when you're flat but good looking. I can tell he appreciates how quickly and readily I understand him. There's a pleased glint in his eye.

By the time we finish, it's almost four. Again, I bid him adieu, and again, I can tell he hates it when I leave. I give him another twenty minutes, then finally slip off to bed.

I arrive home late again, but this time it's my own fault. I was an hour and a half late for work this morning. But it was worth it. The girls seemed to notice I was in a good mood, and offered to take me out for a drink after work to hear all about my new guy, but I skipped out on it. I hate to keep him waiting.

And surely, there he is waiting. I flop down on the couch, intending only to stop a moment and say hello, but he gets me started talking, and it's only the persistent whining of the cat that reminds me that neither of us have eaten. It's much later than I thought.

I slip away, grabbing a slice of iffy pizza from the fridge. I pick off the pepperoni and give it to the cat for his dinner. He doesn't seem entirely satisfied, and it takes some time to convince him that there's nothing else, that I'm not holding out on him. Finally, he lets me go back to the window, and I apologize for taking so long. But he doesn't seem to mind. He's just always so happy when I come back.

Tonight our conversation becomes more heated. Having been over the banalities of my life, our topic shifts to politics. We're simpatico in most areas, I can tell, but he looks a little put off at my radical stance on gun control. Still, I think we can work past it.

The debate rages on until the rising of the sun alerts me to the time. With a start, I realize that we've been up the whole night together. I give a sheepish smile, and crack a joke about spending the night together. He appreciates my sense of humour, I know, even if he's not the type to laugh out loud.

I call into work and fake a head cold. I've never called in sick, so they don't give me any trouble about it. With a satisfied smile, I return to his side, curling up on the couch, with my head angled so that I can still see him. He doesn't look at me directly anymore, but I think he's just trying to give me my space. He's very conscientious like that. I fall asleep within half an hour.

When I wake up, it's mid-afternoon and my neck is stiff from the awkward angle. My cat is asleep on my arm and my hand is asleep. But it's all worth it to wake up and see him there. With a decisive start, I get up and shift the couch around. Who needs to face the television when you're in love? I say this aloud and blush at the realization. But he takes it in stride. I think he loves me too, even if he can't yet say it in return. I assure him there's no rush, and he relaxes subtly.

I settle back on the couch, much more comfortable now. The cat curls up on my lap, purring and nuzzling me for attention. I stroke him absently, while we spend a moment in silence, the three of us. I wonder if this is what it's like to feel a part of a family. Not that I'm looking to rush into anything.

I kick off the conversation, deciding to leave last night's debate alone. I bring up the last book I read. I don't think he's read it, though he doesn't want to admit it. So I give him a detailed summary of the plot before we begin discussing it. I can tell he thinks me bright for picking up on the symbolism of rain in it. I don't think he'd thought of that, but maybe it was just because I told it wrong.

Sometimes I begin to wonder what he sees in me at all. He's so cool and collected; clearly, he's seen and done far more than I ever have. And yet he listens to me yammer on with such patience. I tell him this, and he just holds his tongue. I guess it's one of those tricky questions, like asking if he thinks I'm fat. I apologize for asking, for putting him on the spot. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to mind too much, and we get past it.

Again, we stay up and watch the sunrise together, and I put in another call to work, still milking my sniffles. They tell me to get better and drink plenty of fluids. I thank them and hang up abruptly, anxious to get back before he thinks I'm gone. He's still there when I get back, waiting patiently. I lie down on the couch, glad I rearranged it so I could face him full on like this. I fall asleep staring into his warm eyes and dream of his caring embrace.

He wakes up first, as he always does. I open my eyes to find him fondly watching me sleep. I give a self-conscious grin, and run a hand through my hair, apologizing for the rat's nest, but he doesn't care. He's so gallant like that. He'd never bring up any of my flaws, I can tell.

We spend this day and the next locked in our familiar pattern. He's such a good listener that I find myself completely opening up to him, telling him things I've never told anyone before. When I call in sick to work on the fifth day, I can tell they're getting a bit short with me, but it's a Friday. They tell me to take it easy, use the weekend to recover, then pointedly add that they'll see me Monday. With doubt in my voice I tell them that I hope so, and then hang up. I return to the couch to grouse to him about the ingrates I work with. He, of course, listens understandingly.

On Saturday, Casablanca airs on TV, so we watch it together. He thinks Humphrey Bogart is overrated, I can tell, but he's into Ingrid Bergman. I get a little jealous, but hide it. By the time it's over and I put the couch back in place, he's only got eyes for me again. Grudgingly, I forgive him, and we discuss the war and what we'd do if we were stuck in a place like Casablanca. He doesn't know what he'd do, and he gives me no answer, but when I suggest he could run a bar like Rick's, I can tell he agrees. I ask him if we can visit Paris someday and he hedges. Doesn't say yes, doesn't say no. I let it go, but I'm feeling a little stung.

Sunday, on the other hand, we spend the whole day talking. I bring up my religious beliefs - namely that I don't have any. He doesn't tell me what his are. I think he disapproves that I don't believe in God, but I wish he'd just come out and say these things instead of making me guess all the time.

When Monday rolls around, I don't even bother calling into work. The phone rings a few times in the morning, but I let the machine catch it. Eventually, they give up, warning me to be in for Tuesday. I just roll my eyes. He stays quiet. I ask hesitantly if he wants me to go to work instead of staying here with him. He gives no answer. I'm beginning to think he's getting tired of me. Maybe I'm demanding too much of his time. But he never said anything to me before; how could he expect me to know?

We get into an argument that evening. I just can't take his pointed silences anymore. I tell him he's passive-aggressive and he just keeps quiet, watching me warily. I get to my feet, shouting now that I feel like I'm carrying this whole relationship myself. And can you believe he won't even meet my eyes anymore? Clearly, he knows I'm in the right, but is too stubborn to apologize. I throw up my hands in desperation and go to take a bath to calm down and cool off. Come to think of it, I can't remember the last time I changed my clothes.

By the time I get back, I'm feeling better. I sit down on the couch, and he seems ready to make up. He still won't say he's sorry, but his hurt puppy dog expression says it for him. I accept his apology, and we fall asleep together again.

We spend the next afternoon quietly together. I read a book while he watches TV over my shoulder. I ask him if he's enjoying it, but he doesn't answer. I suppose he doesn't like it when people talk during his shows. Wounded, I retreat back to my book, hunkering down on the couch a little. When I look up, he's clearly picked up on the signals and is looking at me with concern. I smile, reassure him everything's okay. How can I stay mad? How many guys are that sensitive to even notice?

When his show is over, I turn off the TV and we talk for awhile. I tell him about my favourite restaurants in the city. I used to go out for dinner all the time, I remark, but haven't been in awhile. I drop some heavy hints, but he never thinks to ask me out on a date. When I finally just bring it up and ask him, he avoids the question. I'm beginning to think he's ashamed of me.

I sulk for awhile, but finally just bring it up. He doesn't answer again. But if he wasn't embarrassed of me, he'd just tell me, wouldn't he? So obviously, he is ashamed of me. I cry a little, and we fall asleep still angry with each other.

The next morning, far too early, the cat wakes me up liking the salty remnants of my tears from my cheeks with his sandpaper tongue. Groggily I sit up. I'm still early enough to make it to work. I ask him if I should go, and he skirts around the question. Obviously he is getting sick of me being around all the time. We fight a little, and I point out that it's my apartment, so if he doesn't want to hang around with me all the time, he's the one who should go. I get a stony silence in return, and feeling a little petty, I go and get dressed for work. It's not his fault that he's stuck there.

While in the shower, the awful realization hits me. He was never interested in me in the first place. I was convenient at first, and then he felt bad for me. Now he knows he's stuck with me, but can't bring himself to just tell me how he feels. I burst into tears, hoping that he won't be able to hear me over the water.

By the time I'm dry and dressed, I've gotten control over my emotions. I come back to the living room, still with a few minutes to spare, if I really rush afterwards. I do my best to keep my voice level as I inform him that I think we should see other people. In my head, I scream and rail at the injustice, but he's such a sweet man, and I can't keep him trapped in this relationship if he doesn't want to be.

He takes the news well. Too well. I start to feel anger welling up in my chest as I get to my feet. I inform him haughtily that I've already got several prospects lined up, so if I'm not home until late - or tomorrow - he shouldn't worry. I can tell I've gone too far by the hurt look in his eye and how he won't look at me anymore. I can feel the sting of tears welling up, and I try to blink them back but they won't go. Chokingly I apologize and tell him I'll come right home after work so we can talk. I offer even to skip work again, but he's still not meeting my eye, and he doesn't rush in to agree, so I decide some time apart is best. I ask him if he'll be there when I get back and he doesn't answer.

I come home extremely late. A week's worth of missed work took me several extra hours to catch up on. I would have called him to explain, but I know he doesn't like to answer my phone. I've told him I don't mind, but I suppose he's just not ready for that level of commitment. Still, I hope he doesn't think I've made good on my threat to go out with someone else. I know, now, that it was a mistake. I could never feel this way about anyone else.

I throw my keys absently on the table but they fall to the floor. I leave them there. Calling out to him, I rush to the couch, offering all sorts of excuses and explanations. But I'm stopped short.

He's gone. He must have moved out during the day, while I was at work. He's left a sleek car in his place, perhaps a peace offering to me. It's a nice car, but it doesn't ease the heartache any. I sit down on the couch and I start to cry. Neither the Michelin Man nor the Hamburger Helper glove offer me any consolation. But then, what could they say?

The love affair is over. I just wish he could have told me what was wrong. I could have changed; I would have changed for him. I know I must have done something. Was it my threat? Did he think I'd taken off with somebody new and in a fit of jealousy and heartbreak moved out? Or maybe he really was feeling trapped. Maybe he finally found his escape. I'll never know where he's gone. He left no forwarding address, and he's never been someone to have a phone. I thought it added to his mystique, but now I just find it aggravating.

I did, after all, pour out my heart and soul to him. I understand that he's been hurt before, but why couldn't he trust me? I never would have left him. But no, he always made me the one responsible for the relationship. I alone kept us going. He just liked me because I was convenient. If he even liked me at all.

With a sigh, I straighten out the couch and then sit back down and turn on the TV. The cat comes stalking out of his hiding place and curls up beside me purring contentedly. At least I know he'll never leave me. Together, we watch old sitcoms and laugh into the night.

4661 words

Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:18

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