At exactly one o'clock on that Wednesday of Paula's departure, a cola-skinned woman came to my door with a lunch tray. I had been warned by my sister to expect her; Paula knew better than to surprise me twice in one week. Still, though I'd already unlatched the door for her, I felt unprepared for her arrival, needing to back away and sit again in my leather chair. I was holding my breath, waiting for her to go away.
Standing in the doorway, before she entered the apartment, she took a slow look around. I found out later that she was taking photographs in her mind of where everything belonged, even me in my chair, even the way the cords of the televisions snaked across the floor. She was taking care of Paula's apartment for the month, and she was bringing me a sandwich for lunch. Paula had shown her just how much mustard to spread, just how to place the pieces of cut bread on the plate, how to fold the napkin. Without the design on the plate I couldn't eat, I couldn't even take a bite.
He could drown in a glass of water, the woman thought.
It was what she told me much later, that this was her first thought when she saw me. But what she said out loud was, "My name is Sola."
I guessed her to be close to Paula's age, maybe thirty, but I wasn't about to study her face, even from safely across the room. Instead, I imagined myself as she must have seen me: pale and elongated, my brown hair unevenly trimmed, my disheveled clothing, my sleeves too short, exposing my bony wrists. On Paula, the related features were so photogenic: liquid blue eyes and a full-smiling mouth, a heart-shaped face, brown hair that fell in a sweet disorder of waves. In mirrors I had discovered that my own version was blurrier, less coherent, stretched too far. Behind my glasses, I felt Sola watch me.
She offered the tray to me exactly the way Paula must have shown her. She didn't even try to look me in the eye when she introduced herself, and I was grateful. I thought Paula must have told her that too.
Did I need to say that my name was Julian? I decided it wasn't necessary, so I said nothing and began to eat my sandwich. Avocado and Swiss. Sola walked toward the kitchen to collect Paula's dishes from the week before. As always, I'd washed and dried and stacked them beside the sink, with the silverware wrapped in a paper towel on top of the pile. I heard Sola's footsteps pause, begin again, and then stop.
"Excuse me," she said, forcing me to turn around in my seat. I saw her eyebrows lifting on her forehead, her mouth stretched into an almost-smile. She was holding the pile of dishes out in front of her, her brown hands dark against the white ceramic. "You do not have to wash these," she said. "I can come back later and do them downstairs with my own washing up."
This was her first mistake, although I knew she meant well. I shook my head, my mouth full of sandwich. She had an accent I couldn't quite place. I chewed and swallowed, completing what I had begun, and turned back to take a gulp of water. Still turned away from her, I thought about how many words it would take to explain things.
"I like to," I told her.
I think she said "Oh," and then she did a surprising thing: She laughed. It was very quiet, but I heard the flutter in her throat. I thought a long time afterwards about that laugh. There was a song buried inside it, or a story. Maybe both.
At first I am at Paula's apartment once a week to clean, which is easy because even though she seems not to care about how she scatters her clothing and leaves piles of papers around the rooms, in fact there is a kind of order in her mess. Once I learn her system, once I memorize each room, I am able to clean around her things without disturbing them. When I am finished, it is like nothing is changed but looks like everything belongs exactly where it is.
Excerpted from The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth Rosner. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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