Blank. The page in the typewriter was blank. The grey sky outside the window was blank. Her mind was blanker than blank. Uberblank? Illy couldn’t even come up with a better word than blank. All she wanted in the world was to lie on her bed with her laptop and look at celebrity gossip sites. Or even clean the bathroom. Anything but stare at the blank page and feel like a creative failure. She knew that this was a test. These were the moments that separated the real writers from the poser writers, but she really wasn’t in the mood for being tested. She was in the mood for dark chocolate and photos of movie stars caught without makeup. She glanced at her watch. It was only 9:30 in the morning. She had promised herself she would write for at least five hours today. Lying in bed the night before, this had sounded like a heavenly proposition. As she’d faded in and out of sleep she’d come up with all sorts of ideas for quirky and profound pieces she would write. At the moment, though, she couldn’t remember any of them except a dialogue between two cashiers, hidden in the names of food they said aloud as they scanned groceries, which had seemed innovative and hilarious at midnight but now was embarrassing at best. She checked her watch. 9:34.
Illy tried to negotiate with herself. If she could fill one page—it didn’t even matter with what—she could go get a piece of a chocolate bar. After three pages, she could take a thirty minute internet break. She started typing. For a while she recorded the dialogue she could overhear from the intercom at the front door, thinking maybe she could compile it into an artsy poem with lots of spaces like e.e. cummings. After a few lines of “Yo” and “Yep,” she abandoned that idea. Cummings may have been able to do something profound with that and a few innovatively placed question marks, but she was pretty sure she couldn’t. Then she tried some stream of consciousness writing, not letting herself stop for five minutes. She even closed her eyes for good measure, but when the five minutes were up and she read what she’d written it wasn’t even close to coherent, let alone artistic. Illy groaned and stood up. She hadn’t written a full page yet, but she figured the chocolate bar might help stimulate some original thought, so quickly renegotiated her self-contract. On the way back to her desk, half a chocolate bar in hand she studied Fern. Fern was looking remarkably chipper in the grey light. Her leaves were a bright tropical green and reaching outward in a strangely perky manner.
“Really? You’re feeling perky on a day like this?” Illy was resentful. “I thought plants needed sunlight and cheery greetings to thrive.” She was considering plucking a few of Fern’s leaves just to bring her down a notch, when something outside the window caught her eye. Some sort of strange creature was coming down the road. Illy’s first thought was of a pterodactyl. She watched as it neared her apartment, then laughed. It was Lesbian Kayaker from upstairs, carrying her kayak over her head. Illy figured she must have just been kayaking in the river that ran through downtown and was walking home, though that seemed like an awfully long way to walk with a kayak on your head. The kayak wobbled a little and when the woman set it down on the grass in front of the apartment building, Illy saw that she was dripping wet. Her hair and clothes were plastered to her skin and rivulets of water ran down her face. It was was though she had just emerged form the river moments earlier and hadn’t even bothered to wipe the water out of her eyes or wring out her hair. Illy watched, fascinated, as the woman sat down on her kayak, then swung her legs up over the front and lay back, her hands behind her head. She closed her eyes and smiled as though she were lounging on a Caribbean beach instead of perching on a wobbly kayak under a cloudy city sky.
Illy’s first instinct was to be embarrassed for the woman. She looked so weird and vulnerable lying out there in the middle of the lawn on that out of place boat. Not to mention her limp and waterlogged hair. But then Illy looked at Fern and back at the woman and realized everyone else was busy being content and enjoying life while she lurked around trying to project insecurities on them. It was a terrible habit. She looked back at the Kayak Woman and silently asked for forgiveness, vowing to eliminate embarrassment as one of her default settings.
Illy watched her there for a while, thinking of mermaids and not being embarrassed and that Lady of Shalott poem she had tried to memorize in high school. She was pretty sure there was a modern legend waiting to be written about a mermaid emerging from a river in the middle of a city, then winding her way through the streets on some sort of quest, but Illy was also pretty sure she’d never be able to do it justice.
She sat down at her typewriter anyway and started typing. Urban Mermaid. Wet and free and mythic. Teach me.
Illy had written two pages of the mermaid monologue when there was a knock at her door. Her first thought was that Kayak Woman had somehow sensed Illy’s spying and was coming to demand she destroy what she’d written. But a glance out the window confirmed that the woman was still balancing on her beloved kayak. She looked like she may have fallen asleep. Illy walked to the door, preoccupied with admiration for a woman who could allow herself to fall asleep on the front lawn of an apartment building. She opened the door to find Dave, leaning against the door frame looking weepy and crumpled.
He didn’t respond. He was staring at the ceiling and biting his upper lip. Illy realized he was trying not to cry.
“Dave, what’s going on? Do you want to come in?”
“No thanks. I—” He bit his lip again. Illy noticed dark circles under his eyes and wondered if they had always been there or if he hadn’t slept in a very long time. She had never really studied his face before, always distracted by Nancy and the relational drama of the moment. Now as she watched little pools of moisture gather at the outer corners of his eyes, she realized that after living across the hall from him for years, she really knew almost nothing about Dave at all.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m moving out.”
“Moving? Why? Where?” Illy had come to accept Dave’s presence as a permanent fixture in her apartment life. True, she loved to complain about his stomping up and down the stairs, but it had never occurred to her that he might leave.
“I lost my job a couple months ago and have been having a tough time with the rent. Just got my notice today.” He looked down at his hand, clenched around a flimsy grey paper.
“Whoa, Dave. I’m so sorry. I…I don’t know what to say.” What Illy wanted to ask was where in the world Dave would go if he couldn’t afford the rent. There weren’t many apartment blocks with lower rent than Harrison. But she was too scared to hear the answer so she didn’t ask.
“No problem, I just wanted to let you know.” Dave was looking up again. He jammed the eviction notice into his pocket. “Thanks for all the help finding Nancy. She’s always liked you the most of all the tenants.”
Illy smiled. She liked Nancy too. “I’ll miss her. And you. Good luck.” Illy wasn’t sure what else to say so just stood there a while watching Dave chew on his lip. Then suddenly he looked her in the eye, gave a feeble attempt at a smile, and turned away. Illy watched him disappear into his apartment, forgetting all about mermaid legends.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty-Nine