My pace slows as I approach the front of my apartment building. Its cool grey facade blends into the bland and dirty concrete sidewalk, making the building feel unassuming and ordinary, similar to all the other buildings in this upper Westside neighborhood. The late summer sky is cloudless, with the bright setting sun reflecting yellow and orange off of the windows. The building looks like an alien, with a hundred glaring eyes, searching for signs of life. I remind myself to wear sunglasses tomorrow.
As I enter the lobby, my sun-pecked eyes adjust to the dim pre-war décor, the walls and floor mosaicked with black and white tile, the stairs constructed from marble slabs. I wonder what it would have been like to live here before its storied elegance was replaced by neglect and perpetual shabbiness. I wonder if I would have fit in, with my pitifully outdated bob haircut and thrift store pant suit. I look more like my mother with each passing day.
I shift the two A&P groceries bags I’m carrying from one hand to the other and stop in front of my mailbox. I try to guess. An electric bill from ConEd? A letter from Fannie Mae reminding me of my overdue school loan payment? A Citibank credit card offer too good to pass up? Instead, I head toward the elevator. I recognize the sheet of paper taped to the door two weeks ago, already starting to yellow and come loose from the rank heat of the lobby. I don’t bother to get close enough to read it because I know what it says. Sorry for the inconvenence. The elevator will be fixed tomorow. Sined, Mr. Peña. I feel like I’ve read it a hundred times. One hundred and one won’t change the message. Besides, every time I read it, I want to correct the misspelled words, but I don’t. I head to the stairs to the left of the elevator, readjust the bags that are already hurting my fingers, and begin my climb to the sixth floor.
Halfway to the second floor, my heavy breathing reminds me of the half pack of Salems I smoked today. I should quit. I started a few months ago because I read somewhere that nicotine curbs the appetite and I was hoping to save money on food, maybe lose some weight in the process. Whenever my mom visits, she never fails to remind me how heavy I’ve become since dropping out of college. I think about the groceries I’m carrying and how she’d disapprove. I can hear her say “Vienna sausages and ice cream? Really?” in that judgy voice of hers. I can see her pursed lips and squinted eyes, silently expressing her disappointment. I shake my head to get her out.
Approaching the second floor, I notice the garbage bags accumulated by the apartment closest to the stairs, piled along the wall like a makeshift bunker. The smell of rotten meat and sour milk makes me gag. I walk by hugging the opposite wall so I don’t disturb the flies hovering over their evening meal. Since the elevator stopped working, some people aren’t bothering to take their trash to the basement. People are so lazy. I can’t help but think I deserve better than this. I want more than living in a dilapidated building with little curbside appeal and filthy neighbors. I don’t want a run-down apartment with one working air conditioner hanging precariously from the window in the summer. I don’t want to hear clanging pipes heating a radiator hot enough to melt steel in the winter. And I want an elevator that works.
I round the landing and readjust the bags. They’re getting heavier, more burdensome, almost unbearable. Tonight will be the night I start looking for another job. Seriously looking, not just scrolling through the Indeed want ads during The Tonight Show commercials. I know I can’t substitute teach at P.S. 192 forever. I don’t even like sixth graders that much and I need a steady paycheck. My arms are starting to hurt.
Mrs. Lopez approaches me on the third floor, her gait sure-footed and determined, like she has some place to be but I know she doesn’t. I only know her name because she trolls the lobby waiting to ambush Mr. Peña.
“Mr. Peña. I need to talk to you about those kids hanging out in the lobby all hours of the night.” I feel sorry for Mr. Peña sometimes, limping around on one leg shorter than the other, mopping up dog urine, and fixing broken toilets. He can’t be happy living alone in that basement apartment, cooking for one. I bet he wished he had another job.
“Yes, Mrs. Lopez. I’ll take care of it.”
“And another thing, Mr. Peña.” Mrs. Lopez always had another thing to say. “The laundry room is filthy. I don’t even want to wash my clothes in there.”
“Yes, Mrs. Lopez. I’ll take care of it.”
As she stomps by me, I notice she’s wearing her uniform of choice again. I would rather see her naked than in those yellow elastic waist pants and oversized Mets t-shirt she wears almost every day. I mumble hello without making eye contact and keep walking.
By the time I reach the fourth floor, I wish I hadn’t bought those stupid groceries. I’m too tired to cook anyway. When I get that job that pays a lot more, I’ll eat out every night, like normal people, like people with money. Like the O’Rourkes in apartment 4D. They were dressed up and smelling good that evening last month in the elevator, he in a tie and tweed jacket, she in bedazzled shoes and hair in an updo. I looked down at my wrinkled jeans and sensible shoes, trying to remember the last time I took a shower. I’m convinced they’re going someplace I can’t afford.
“You guys look so nice, Sadie. Going out to eat?” I said trying to mask my jealousy.
“Yeah. There’s a new seafood place on 23rd Street we want to try tonight. It’s kind of pricey but you only live once. Right?”
Someday, I’ll eat lobster and clam soup and order only the finest beer, just like I imagine the O’Rourkes did, down on 23rd.
Looking around, I notice how this floor seems different from the others. The walls seem a brighter shade of dinge, the tile floors a little less worn. As if everything is freshly scrubbed and more cared for than the others. The strong scent of Pine-Sol hangs in the air. Even the light bulbs seem to burn brighter. I can hear the faint sounds of trumpet and piano and bass. Ahh, Louis Armstrong. Someone on this floor has good taste. I force myself to continue climbing, even though my heart is pounding so hard its beats easily drown out the music.
The fifth floor has me seriously considering the abandonment of my groceries. I’ve convinced myself that they’re an unnecessary evil at this point. I’m having such a hard time breathing, I don’t think I’ll ever want to eat again. Then, the aroma hits me in my sweaty face. It smells like something my mom used to make, something spicy and greasy and soul-warming. I’m so tired, I think I can see the smell as it travels from somewhere at the end of the hall and into my nostrils. I stop to savor the smell, to enjoy the memory. I linger, yearning for a plate of that fried chicken and those buttery biscuits, the smell of which could pull me from a neighborhood game of tag to my mother’s kitchen table all those years ago. I catch my breath before going on. Almost there. I can’t feel my hands anymore.
That last flight seems to take an eternity, with every step becoming harder than the one before. I doubt that my shaky legs will even hold my weight anymore. I picture myself tumbling backwards, breaking every bone in my body, and lying helpless until Mrs. Lopez finds me. I am overcome with elation as I take that last step, imagining this must be what climbers feel when they summit Mount Everest.
As I glance over the landing staggering a little, I can see where I started. I don’t want this life anymore and I sure as hell don’t want these groceries. I raise my aching arm over the railing and lean over, enough to watch them drop all the way to the first floor if I wanted. I pull my arm back, reminding myself that I would only be making more work for Mr. Peña. Instead, I steady myself and walk to my apartment at the end of the hall, vowing to make something spectacular with those Vienna sausages.