Today my neighbor will learn that she lives next to a criminal, an unrepentant, lifelong criminal – the worst fucking kind.
She never should’ve left her door unlocked. Or rather, she never should’ve let me know she left her door unlocked. She should’ve slid her key in the lock and twisted it half a turn clockwise. She should’ve made a show of it, holding the key at eye level as though to say, “Don’t even think about it.”
Instead she nodded at me from down the hall and said, “You might want to bring an umbrella.”
She’s a heavy-set, middle-aged woman, the oldest person in the building by probably 20 years. She’s always giving this type of advice to the rest of us. If it’s going to snow, she’ll tell us to bundle up; if it’s going to be hot, she’ll warn us that “it’s a real scorcher.” I don’t know whether she has any kids of her own.
“I don’t mind getting wet,” I said.
She shrugged and started down the stairs, but she left her door unlocked, the key still in it. I froze mid-stride, pulsing with adrenaline, my brain already sucking the nectar of something so private and forbidden.
My girlfriend - or rather, this girl I've been seeing - is supposed to come over later, and I promised her dinner to make up for drinking too much and sleeping with her friend, whatever it was I did, but in that moment I rearranged my plans.
I waited until I heard the front door slam shut. Then I walked casually down the hall, turned the knob and slid inside her place.
The layout of her apartment is the same as mine, but reversed, like a mirror image. It smells of stale cigarettes and burnt pot roast. A futon slightly bowed in the middle sits across from an older-model television, definitely not HD nor worth taking. I walk through and head straight for her bedroom.
The room is small and narrow so that the bed can only be placed in the farthest corner from the door; otherwise it will block the closet. Atop her dresser there’s a stainless-steel mirror lying face down beside a model train, the engine faded red, the three boxcars bluish gray. I pull open the top drawer, the underwear drawer.
Hers are shiny, beige parachutes held together by tired pieces of elastic. They smell like lavendar and dryer sheets, and I use a pair to wipe my forehead. Before I leave I'll turn up the air conditioner.
I'm about to unplug the iPod on her nightstand when the picture on the wall above her unmade bed captivates me the way roadkill might, and I unwittingly stop in front of it.
It’s an enlarged, color print of two pairs of bare feet stretched out on a beach, waves crashing in the background beneath a sky impossibly blue. One of the owners of the feet took the photo while lying beside the other in the sand, and they're shining under the tropical sun. There’s something about being close to the equator like that, something that makes everything glow as though lit from within. These were her lover’s feet.
I know this because in general feet are horrifying. They’re misshapen, calloused and dirty, bending and twisting in ways and places it doesn’t seem like they should. Like the pinkie toe, curling into the others like it’s shyly snuggling during a movie on a first date, or the second toe, often longer than the others and sore and blistered from being crammed into the tips of shoes all day.
But big toes are the worst. They’re like mutant thumbs with splotchy coloring that looks like they've been cut off and reattached, except with moon-shaped nails large enough to draw a face or write a phone number on. People should be ashamed of their feet. They should always keep them hidden.
But a lover’s feet are different. Even the woman who wears the world’s saddest underwear can find someone who doesn’t mind her flattened arches, or her toes that bloom like chubby sausages from a block of wood. He probably let her press those round, white toes to his face. He probably kissed the soft, hairless space between her toes and her ankles, the space with green veins visible beneath the thin skin like a mesh of algae. He massaged her ugly feet, and for the first time in her life, she felt cherished.
And the longer I stare at those feet, the harder it gets to breathe.