One Floor Up by Gemma Simoes Decarvalho

You’ve just been through the war. That’s what you like to call it. I hear you beaten every Wednesday afternoon, beaten down and down and what have I ever done to stop it? That’s what you ask me but you know it’s not my fault. No one has ever done anything good for you so why should I? I still want to fuck you. It’s only fair and even, it’s only what comes after calling someone beautiful, though I’m not sure where the word goes once it gets said. I feel it somewhere, in my penis or under my eyelids when I try to fall asleep but you follow me, leaning over the handrail.

You say, “You’re only fourteen. Our shoulders don’t match up.”

Your voice is a screeching tire, a car running away from an investment banker. Your talk is unpleasant. You’re the oldest woman I’ve ever wanted. You’re like my mom except you’re beautiful, and you have fuller breasts.

“I have ways of making myself taller. I can fuck you on my toes. I’ll buy a step stool.”

You laugh but sometimes it comes out as spit, from up above and far away. Your apartment is one floor up. We’re stacked on top of each other, like layers of American cheese. I can hear everything, all your noises. That’s why I wanted you, when it started. The way everything sounds hollow in the dark. Voices are different when you look up, the sound of footsteps or God’s stomach growling. I didn’t know what was happening at first. In the beginning, I thought there were couple noises, banging and slamming like an out of tune band practice, or a masochistic silverware drawer. The yelling started when I was twelve. My mom got me ear plugs but they hurt too much to wear. The silence made a skewer in my ear, forcing my quiet into a cylinder or a plastic straw. My mom knew what the noises meant, even then. She only wished they started earlier, so they’d end by ten pm.

My mom isn’t pretty. I’m not sure if I can say that, if I can love someone without thinking nice things around the word. She’s let herself go, having nowhere to go to or from, besides kitchen to couch, past to present. She eats breakfast off a TV tray. She has a lot of weight and it’s the unflattering kind, found on matronly chickens and dying ducks. She looks like a real estate agent trapped inside a billboard. Last year she cut her hair into a bob, having reached the age where pleasure puts on a jacket with spikes, and everything good meant you could trip and fall and die and contract high cholesterol, never able to eat pound cake again. My mom never liked you, the woman from above. You got hurt a lot, and you still looked pretty, even after.

My mom was never pretty, even then. Youth gave her a laminated finish, making the ugly shine like it was proud of what it was. That’s why my dad left. At least that’s what she tells me, what she says when I get tired and finally ask.

“He left because I’m ugly, always have been.”

It’s not as depressing as dialogue makes it out to be. People say sad things all the time but they don’t mean them, they don’t picture their sad inside quotation marks. No one wants ugly trapped in a Tupperware container. I like that my mom is honest, that nothing changes, that she sits quiet and wet on the shower floor. And she has a nice voice too, like a wind chime or a doorbell. Something trying to make itself known.

I understand why my dad left someone ugly, but I can’t figure out how he forgot me too. I’m not as ugly as she is, that’s what my mom promises, though I don’t like asking for reassurance.

“When you look in the mirror, it doesn’t push back.”

What she wants to say is, “You look just like your father,” but she stops herself from using words that make her like every other woman, from above and below. He was handsome, so I might be handsome too. Genetics is like a KitchenAid mixer, making ugly into whipped cream. But now everything is getting worse. I’m turning ugly and my mom doesn’t know what to do. She’s getting scared, worried about my pubescent body, my sweat that smells like gas-station beef jerky. I have a bubble-wrapped face. That’s what she calls it, trying to make acne sound pretty, the acne that gets inside my ears and makes it hurt to wear headphones.

“A face so good it must need packaging.”

I can’t stay inside too long. It’s hot in there and my mom looks like she’s suffocating. She won’t leave except for work. I don’t know how she stands it. Our apartment has morning breath, the hot air smells like an egg salad sandwich, a throat caught inside a yawn. I go outside and wait. I sit on the steps and wait for you to come out. When you finally do I stare long and hard, but I’ll call it ogling. You like the sound of vowels inside words. It happens every night, and on Wednesday afternoons like today. Your husband repeats everything. He is a parrot having a psychotic breakdown, plucking its own feathers, placing them in color-coded piles. The same words, and the same hit, on the left side of your face. He would never touch the right. I think he knows the pattern makes you look worse, leaving one side just pretty enough to feel bad about. He screams too much. I would kill him if I could, if you wanted, if you asked or we had sex. But you only complain in euphemisms, so I don’t know what there is to help.

“His bad comes out like a drum roll.”

I’ve never heard your anger out loud. His anger is like a kazoo, but you’re quiet, floor boards stretching underneath your weight. A body thrown side to side. I know it’s bad when you get out the front door and stop, planting your feet on the welcome mat. You take off your shoes and socks, scrunching your toes into the mat’s coarse fabric over and over. If you look down, you’ll see me watching. Sometimes you smile back.

“Everyone’s got their own war.”

You say that a lot but it’s a lie, a stupid lie that makes you sound pathetic. I don’t have a war, not everyone does. I want to say, “Most people won’t feel that bad, not even one slice of it,” but that would make you angry. So I don’t respond. You like to think about bad things, things outside our complex, things worse than the mildew growing in your toilet bowl. You always leave through the front door. I wonder why he never locks it, why he never thinks to follow you outside. It happens the same way every time, a melody of yelling and hitting and then you’re gone, looking for someone to talk to.

You face gets hurt but it’s never angry. It’s never even scared. I’ll try to describe it, how it looks when you get stuck between my eyelashes. I only ever see you when you’re red. When you’re running or crying or sweating, because these apartments don’t have air conditioning, no matter how much we complain. I see his verbs all over your face. You’re beautiful. You have curly hair, and you have blue eyes. You even have wrinkles, a lot of what my mom calls crow’s feet, the things she tries to scrub away but bar soap isn’t good enough. She needs an axe or a chainsaw, something to cut appendages, sever toes. I asked my mom why you have so many. She says they mean different things. They show how a person smiled or squinted too much, back when their actions made stories on their face, bookmarking them for a later and more depressing date. For you it must have been squinting. You always try and make your expressions smaller, looking down or through other people, even me.

I remember the first time your words left residue, coating my throat like mucus. It was late enough for my mom to be asleep or pretending when I found you outside, leaning on the handrail. We sat on the steps while you cried. You kept saying something about being left, like the process had already started, like the being was already there. He was going to find you, outside and crying. Your husband was staying up later then, around for more, his voice making paper cuts in your skin. We sat while I listened. The cold made the talk come out slower, every shiver making the words seem more important. I didn’t really do anything. I just sat and stared at your profile. Even your nose is a good size, the type of slope I wouldn’t mind walking up. The side of you didn’t look any worse or different. I couldn’t think clearly so I didn’t make eye contact. Eye contact made me feel younger than I was.

When it was all over and done you said, “It’s nice crying with someone who won’t go and hug you, who will sit in the cold and let the sad get outside your head.”

I didn’t know what to do. I knew something important was happening and I got worried. I got scared as I felt time make a memory inside my skull. All I could think to say was, “Your eyelashes look longer when you cry.”

My mom is religious, Catholic or one of the spin-offs, but she says I shouldn’t believe anything I don’t feel. If you want, picture God in the nude. That’s what she calls him: God with no rule book or dogma, sitting butt-naked on a sheepskin rug. I’ve only ever prayed to that God once, and I pictured him in boxers, napping in front of a fire-place. I asked my almost-naked God to make your husband stop doing what he keeps doing. Nothing happened or changed. Partial nudity didn’t make God any more receptive.

God marries a lot of people, but he seems to do it poorly. I don’t understand how everyone gets into bad ones. Love must be like putting blinders on a horse, narrowing your perspective until all you can see is the straight ahead. I see policeman on sad horses all the time, when I’m allowed to walk downtown and alone. It’s the type of thing that makes most people sad, but we do it anyway. I don’t understand how my mom got married, being so young and ugly.

I wonder what my mom prays for. I wonder if she asks God to make her pretty. Can you ask God for something stupid like that? She tweezes her eyebrows and it takes too much time. I can never get into the bathroom when I need to leave. I wonder if God could fix them, with a snap of his fingers, or a trace over his own hairline.

Maybe that’s why your husband hates you so much, why your marriage gets so bad. He only sees you from the inside, in the bathroom tweezing your eyebrows. You should hire someone to do that for you, or get it done somewhere else. And maybe I only like you because I see you at an upward angle, standing on staircases, leaning on railings, running outside.

I wonder why you haven’t told anyone else, why you haven’t called the Police to show them what he does. My mom called them a couple of times but you got mad. It was the only time I ever saw you come downstairs. You ran down yelling and screaming, carrying on about how neighbors meant nothing because love is for inside voices, or something stupid like that. I wonder why he never comes outside. He leaves early and comes home when I’m at school. I never see him, but I don’t think I want to. I can’t stand the thought of his face. I’m sure it’s not an ugly one.

I don’t know what he looks like, but I know the sound his feet make with no socks on, how he lets his soles slide before picking them up. It makes me want to yell, let him hear me through the floor boards. You are pretty and he can’t seem to understand that pretty doesn’t get left, it doesn’t get poked like everyone else. That’s the rule that someone made, the naked God, staring in the mirror and checking himself out.

I never ask you about him, or why you always stay. I wouldn’t think of saying anything to your face. It gets too red for questions, and I don’t want to take away any of your outside. But I still want you to fuck me, if you can remember that. I think you’re pretty, even after everything.

I talk to my mom in questions because it’s easier, it takes the pressure off having something to say. Sometimes I’ll ask my mom about you, or about my dad. I know she gets tired of all the asking, but I don’t know much about him, except that he lives outside, somewhere on a different coast, and that he’s still handsome. My mom says nice things about him. That’s what makes people so surprised, when they laugh or look in, pulling apart our blinds to send in glances of I hope you’re doing better. My mom is ugly, but she’s doing really well with everything. She bought curtains for all our rooms, even our kitchen, so the place is as cold as it can get, even in the summer. She says marriage is like smelling the back of someone else’s throat. She says his personality had a snack pack variety. Sometimes she’ll give me his advice, telling me things he said, so I can know what it was like.

My dad always said that hope has an order. You can’t just jump to the end of things. Tread water around what’s already there. Hope first that the dishwasher gets fixed, that it stops leaving scrum on elderly porcelain plates. Then hope for someone else, for your sister or your neighbor, for their lawn or their pet dog. Hope that your neighbor’s pet dog stops having such consistent diarrhea. Build up a credit score and ask for more. Don’t get greedy with the naked God. That’s what he always said, so I try to follow his advice, hoping that you’ll fuck me, that your husband will stay awake to hear it. That maybe he’ll decide to leave, or that your running will take you farther than the welcome mat.

You don’t like my chapped lips. That’s what you say when I smile. You laugh when I talk about fucking and you spit when it gets after dark, when I try to reach out, touching your hand, trying to tell you I can hear it.

“What’s my war then?”

You fall silent and get awkward, though awkward on your pretty face can’t do much. I ask it again, but you won’t answer me, you don’t know how to anyways. We’ve only ever talked about you, about me wanting you. You’ve only ever seen me at a downward angle. You know me as the boy who waits to fuck you, who waits to hear what you sound like when you’re being fucked. And you never ask questions.

And then nothing changes. Our unit gets A.C., and so does yours. But even with this new breeze, cold as toothpaste through the house, I wait outside to see you. I watch you every Wednesday afternoon while you run away. And your body still looks good when its running. And then nothing changes. I keep trying to fuck you, trying to talk the cold outside your head. I don’t know what there is to do but wait, watching until your story gets more pathetic. I’ll keep trying to fuck you, waiting for nothing to change, or for you to get ugly. Maybe then I won’t feel bad, I could look at you walking and turn away, brave enough to wear earplugs to bed.


Gemma Simoes Decarvalho is a student at John Hopkins University. Originally from Seattle, she enjoys walking in the rain for dramatic effect. She has learned, among other things, that waterproof mascara is never really waterproof. She also likes to write.

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