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Excerpt II


My cab pulls up to the corner of Elizabeth and Spring in NoLita, brakes screeching to a halt in front of a bland beige building with a rust-colored door. This is a nice neighborhood, expensive with new overpriced boutiques and trendy bars popping up everyday to replace the old ones that are forced to close their doors, victims of the ever-increasing rents. I’m undaunted by the appearance of the building, aware that hidden treasures often lurk behind unsightly facades. I buzz and climb a dingy, poorly-lit staircase with two-toned walls that are peeling and crumbling. The top half was once off-white, but has been weathered into a rough shade of grime and the forest-green bottom half looks as if a feral cat comes out every night after the inhabitants’ bedtime to claw at it rabidly. I’ve learned not to judge an apartment by its stairway, any more than the edifice’s exterior: At least downtown, nine out of ten hallways feature scuff marks, stairs beaten by decades of overuse and cheesy, misguided paintjobs by management too tight-fisted to do it right.

Standing on the landing of the third floor is a tall, hot teacher’s pet type with short, dirty blond hair wearing faded jeans, an untucked, light blue Oxford shirt, thick, tortoise-shell glasses and a big smile. He’s unfairly good-looking.
           
“Hey, thanks for rushing over,” he says.

“I’m excited to see the place,” I respond, taking his outstretched hand firmly in mine. In spite of strike one (Clarence), I realize that Alicia was right: this idea is ingenious. A man’s apartment is a reflection of him—his passions, his temperament, his compulsions, his soul—and I am about to invade Peter’s.

I wag my hips as I enter an apartment that is as cozy as he described it. Honey-colored wood floors, exposed brick, exotic rugs, eclectic furniture, a fireplace, funky, multi-cultural knickknacks cluttering every surface, and a tiny, old-fashioned corner kitchen, someplace Annie Hall might live. Bookcases packed with books: quality novels, biographies, political nonfiction, art monographs—not a testosterone-fuelled action adventure or Atkins manifesto in sight. As I scan the shelves, I can’t believe my luck. It’s only my second apartment, and I’ve stumbled upon a smart, attractive straight guy with great taste. God, what if this is it? What if I meet the man of my dreams on my first day on assignment? That would make a perfect ending to my story.

My heartbeat quickens and I apply Rule #4: If I find him attractive and his apartment acceptable, skip banalities and get personal fast.

“What makes a guy hold onto a porcelain bunny with a missing ear that’s probably been around since 1978?” I ask him, as he stands fidgeting in the kitchen, which is separated from the living room by a sturdy bar topped with wood the color of caramel.
           
“My grandmother gave me that when I was six. Haven’t been able to let it go, I guess. It reminds me of her,” he says, as I finger the spine of a weathered copy of Anna Karenina. I’ve held onto everything my grandmother ever gave me, too. We spent a lot of time together when I was growing up and were incredibly close; I became ill for a week when she died three years ago. I’m not ready to tell Peter about my grandmother, though, as cute as he is.

“I read a lot,” Peter says. “Can’t bring myself to throw books out either. A bit of a head-case, right? Hey, do you want something to drink? A beer? Tea?”

What I want is to throw this cute, sensitive head-case onto the couch and get to work making a blond, brainy kid with a thing for literature and clutter, but instead I accept a Corona and ask to see the room. First we visit his: chunky, wood-framed, fluffy white comforter-covered bed that almost fills the room. No other furniture except an elaborately carved Asian armoire and a small chest of drawers. I run my finger suggestively along its edge. One wall is completely covered with framed black-and-white photographs.

“You take these?”

“Most of them,” he says. “I dabble.”

I study the photos taken in places as diverse as Bangkok, Bombay and Botswana, Paris, Puerto Rico, and the Poconos. He likes shooting children and old people, the two human subgroups I’ve always found most appealing. He notices details. His compositions are unexpected. He’s talented, understated, a packrat like me.

“What’s your sign?” I ask.

“Aries.”

I move to the window and look out onto Elizabeth Street, momentarily dismayed, but hopeful that some other aspect of his chart will make him a suitable candidate for my heart. Once we start dating, I’ll get his time and place of birth and pass them on to Courtney to sort it all out. Peter stands next to me. His left hip touches my right, making me tingle.

“See that window?” He indicates a dimly-lit rectangle in the building across the street. “There’s this couple that lives there. I can see them sometimes in that chair, you know.” He lets out an embarrassed laugh. My cheeks flush. This is an extremely good first date.

“Let’s look at your room,” he says, a clear attempt to flee the room before suffocating under the sexual tension.

The second bedroom is the size of my closet. You could barely fit a full-size bed if you didn’t have any other furniture, but it has a hefty closet. He tells me that the girl who lived there previously was clever with space and put up shelves to the ceiling right over the bed, but she unfortunately took them with her. He indicates where her creation used to be stretching his arm up high, his shirt rising to expose a tanned six-pack. I gasp quietly, and he turns toward me.

“So, someone else is interested in the room?”  I squeak.

He says the other potential roommate is supposed to let him know by tomorrow. He’ll call and leave me a message before he takes off. I start to feel bad about lying to him, recognizing what a terrible way this is to start a relationship. I say I’m not sure if I’m moving yet, that my situation is up in the air, I’ll let him know as soon as my plans solidify. We exchange email addresses.

We make our way back into the living room, and I sit on the couch. He plops down next to me and absentmindedly turns on the TV and we stare at scantily clad women taking turns scaling a building. When the doorbell rings, he buzzes without asking who’s there.

A couple minutes later, a girl saunters into the room and kisses him on the mouth. His sister? She’s Asian. And skinny. And striking, with poofy, red lips and skin like vanilla Haagen Dazs. Could she be one of those girls who kisses male friends ambiguously on the lips whether or not she’s sleeping with them? I hold my breath.

“Jacquie, this is my girlfriend, Stacy. Jacquie’s looking at the room.”

I smile weakly up at her from the couch that suddenly feels very low to the floor. “Nice to meet you,” I croak, feeling like a dwarf all alone on a planet populated by tall, pretty people.

We make polite conversation for ten minutes and watch TV, while I groan inwardly and display an expression that says, “Chipper! Relaxed! Enthusiastic would-be roommate!” After all, this enchanting, good-looking guy—and his equally enchanting, good-looking girlfriend—think I want to move into this apartment. I gnaw my left thumbnail and snap my rubber band. Ouch.

“Guess you’ll miss Peter when he’s in Turkey,” I say lamely.

“I’m going with him,” Stacy says perkily. “I’m psyched!”

“Yeah, cool, lucky.”

That clinches it. I stand up, drop my empty beer bottle down on the coffee table with a clink and announce that I have to leave. What’s the point? I’m completely depressed and feel an urgent need to get out of the joint and call Jeremy to meet me for a stiff drink in the East Village, my turf, where I feel confident and protected.

“Well, Peter, I don’t think I’m interested in the room after all,” I announce.

He looks up at me perfectly baffled, while Stacy continues to smile beatifically. Of course Peter is perplexed. If there’s anything I have learned in my 32 years on the planet, it’s that people generally believe what you tell them. If they own a liquor store and you tell them you’re organizing a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society next week—like my best friend in high school once did—and you’re going to be ordering 14 cases of wine and 16 of beer and would like to check prices, they believe you. And when you add, incidentally, “I think I’ll take a bottle of that cheap white wine-in-a-box on the shelf behind you right now,” they hand it over, even if you’re 17 and wearing a private girls’ school uniform.

And if you tell a guy you want to rent a room in his apartment and actually come over to look at it, it never occurs to him that you might have ulterior motives. Why would it?

» Excerpt III

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