Sounds of Separation

Leslie thought about lighting a candle as the sun set, tinting her bedroom with a dimming tangerine glow, but she was down to her last box of matches and didn’t want to ask Alan for more. After twelve days of general quarantine, the electricity had gone out when too few workers could make it to the power plants. That was a week ago. Alan said there were talks of rerouting the power grids from west of the Rockies, but no one knew when that might happen. Occasionally, generators filled in the blank spaces where there had been the hum of refrigerators, the buzz of TVs and stereos, and the whizzing of any number of electronics plugged into walls, but the air was now free from those agitated noises.

At first, it was worse than after September 11th, when the absence of jet engines in the skies made stranger those unnerving days. That absence was there again, but, coupled with no power, the silence was deafening until everyone’s ears readjusted to birdcalls, dog barks, and the sound of people in their homes.

From the open window of her second-story flat, the neighbors’ lives had become soap operas that occupied Leslie’s time now that she wasn’t commuting to her cubicle downtown. She listened to the other households as the days wore on thanks to the crowded suburban neighborhoods of the city, where one could reach out the window and practically touch the brick wall of the next building. The Morrisons lived in the house across the alley. Amazingly, none of the five perpetually sniffy and phlegmy children had been infected, but that meant Antonia Morrison was nearly hoarse from yelling at them to stop antagonizing one another. As evening came on, things were reaching fever-pitch over there for the fifth time that day, but then everything went quiet. Worried that one or more of them had finally been pushed over the edge, Leslie peeked through her window to see them in their kitchen hugging each other.

Perhaps it had occurred to them as it had occurred to Leslie that there would be a need to bolster the population once the quarantine was over and the bodies were counted.

Relieved, Leslie lay back on her bed and folded her arms over her stomach and waited for a breeze to blow in. While she waited, her neighbors downstairs, Jim and Emily, decided to use the time to propagate the species. Perhaps it had occurred to them as it had occurred to Leslie that there would be a need to bolster the population once the quarantine was over and the bodies were counted. The breeze arrived, sending a shiver across her arms. Thankfully Leslie was spared a play-by-play of their repopulation plan after the Espinozas got into a screaming match about cleaning the house.

“Anything would be better than living with a pig like you!” Mrs. Espinoza slammed a door.

“It’s not like you have anything better to do!” her husband responded, slamming his own door.

It wasn’t the name-calling and the door-slamming that put a damper on the mood around the block, but rather the enthusiastic make-up sex. The Espinozas were passionate people. Judging by the near silence of the neighborhood after these cycles, everyone got a little self-conscious knowing how much could really be heard by their neighbors without the distractions of modern life, but then when Leslie heard muffled noises, she was left to guess what was being muffled.

The only silent apartment was Leslie and Alan’s. If one of their neighbors strained to hear what they were doing, the only clues would be quiet voices in brief conversation and the occasional door closing as Alan came and went from the second bedroom or Leslie took a breather from hers. But this had been the arrangement for two-and-a-half months before the quarantine began. Long gone were the days when they would pull their mattress into the living room to watch movies or take turns reading to each other from the paper. The night he told her about Marissa, the old college friend who had become more than that, and that the affair was over, and Leslie said he couldn’t sleep in their bed anymore, the things they used to do together were suddenly things they might never do again.

When Leslie heard him coming up the stoop to the front door, she sat up from the bed and padded over to the bedroom door, blinking against the sun’s last brilliant rays. The deadbolt unlocked, the door swung open and shut, his keys landed in the bowl on the little table, then Alan came up the creaking stairs from the porch to their flat, each step echoing into the corners of the entryway. The sticky door at the top was forced open, and once it was closed again, he stopped to lean against the cool plaster wall.

That morning, Leslie had crept to the living room window to watch him leave. As a police officer, he had been deemed essential personnel and was authorized to leave the house only to perform his duties, but she suspected he abused the freedom of his badge to get out of the apartment into the open air. Where he went, always in his uniform that was becoming less and less crisp, whether it was to deal with those who had been infected or to see her, she didn’t want to consider. Now as he leaned three walls away, she could hear him breathing, each exhalation slower than the last. After a moment, he walked through the living room, dining room, and hallway to stand outside their room.

“Leslie?” he said through the door. Traveling through the century-old wood his voice softened so that she could pretend everything he said was said tenderly. “Are you okay?”

Before the quarantine, he would just say to no one in particular, “I’m home,” when he came into the apartment. And Leslie would disappear into what had become her room without a word. But for nineteen days it had been, “Are you okay?” She always answered yes. Now scenarios tumbled through her head—what would happen if she said no?  What could he do? Risk the contamination (his if she was sick, hers if she wasn’t) of coming into her room only to discover that she was perfectly fine, not even a sniffle. His eyes would narrow to glinting slivers, a glare she didn’t miss. “Yes,” she said at last. “I’m okay.”

His weight shifted on the creaking floor back towards the other room—he was turning to go. “How are you?” she blurted.

She peered at the knotty panel of the door, convinced that one of those afternoons through the power of x-ray she would be able to see Alan’s expressions and body language. For now, she told herself that she heard his shoulders relax. That was one power she had developed: the ability to discern the nuances of cloth on skin or breath pushing through air.

“Are you okay?” she asked once more, hearing him caught in the space between their rooms.

His weight shifted away again. “Yeah.”

“Is it terrible out there?” She was forgetting what his hands looked like—her memory was smoothing them out. Was it his index or middle finger that had the scar from fixing his bike’s derailleur on their second date? This lapse made her throat clench, despite the weeks she considered what a relief it would be to never see him again.

“No.” The windowsill groaned as he sat on its edge. “It’s weird with everything so deserted, but not too bad.”

“Are you safe?”

“Most of the looting is up north.”

She was relieved and sad. There was always trouble to the north, but never much help. It had always been a point of contention about his job—this disconnect from the community. “Let me guess, the chief’s not doing much to stop it.”

“Leslie, can we not do this right now?” The soft friction of his hands rubbing his face was less tinged with agitation than exhaustion, judging by the slowness of the sound. But it still stung. This critique of the chief used to be something they discussed with heated enthusiasm. It was something he needed to share with her that was difficult to share with anyone else.

She bit her lip to keep from saying sorry. Reminding herself she was the one who had stopped talking, she kicked her toe against the floor and tried not to blame him for resisting now.

She bit her lip to keep from saying sorry. Reminding herself she was the one who had stopped talking, she kicked her toe against the floor and tried not to blame him for resisting now. “How much longer?”

“They won’t say.” He stood up and stepped quietly to her door, probably so Jim and Emily wouldn’t hear his reply through the floor. “But I think it’ll be two weeks.”

“Will we make it?”

“We will,” he said, almost too quickly.

“You’d tell me the truth?” Her mouth was dry.

“We made it this long.”

She turned that over in her mind while hoping he had not learned how to hear drooping shoulders. Her eyes fell on the candle. “Can you get me some matches?”

She tensed, waiting for the reply. This was the first thing she had asked him to do for her since he started sleeping in the other room. He had stocked their kitchen with canned food, bottled water, baby wipes, and other things—she was never hungry or without the supplies that made this bearable.

“I’ll leave them for you outside your door when I get home tomorrow,” he said, but she couldn’t imagine the expression. Was she forgetting his face? It had been months since she had been able to look at him. Now she only saw flashes of his profile or the top of his head as he left the apartment. She wanted to see his face, to forget the isolation, to be them again.

Across the way, the Espinozas started up again. Something about the last bag of Cheetos. Something normal, trivial. Leslie smiled, but it faded. It’s not trivial anymore.

Then, something brushed against the door. She put her ear up to it, hoping not only to hear but feel his fingers on the wood. Her breath collected in brief puffs on the dull sheen of the door until he moved away. She waited in the quickening dark for him to retreat to the front of the apartment, listening for the shift of his weight away from her door, her room, her… Her fingers curled over the doorknob, and it was cool under her grip. But not cool enough.

 

Sarah Kuntz Jones

Sarah Kuntz Jones lives among the red brick wonders of St. Louis with her daughter and two black cats. When not taking care of her tiny human, she is at work on a novel. And, when she’s not doing that, she is painting, cooking, baking, or thinking about riding her bike. Her fiction has appeared in The Summerset ReviewThe MacGuffin, and Iron Horse Literary Review, among other places.

Photo by O. Jones