Today, I’m going to share another short story. I wrote this one last year (2019) for the NYC MIDNIGHT SHORT STORY CONTEST. My heat in round one had 3 stipulations. The genre had to be DRAMA, it had to involve PET-SITTING in some form and one of the characters had to be a FIANCEE.
I decided to write a pastiche to Rear Window.
It WON 1st Place in my Round One heat!
Here’s the feedback I received from one of the judges for THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS:
“The writing is top-notch, perfect for the setting. The POV character’s world of the dog and the window reminds me a bit of REAR WINDOW, and the dog is like the cast, keeping her from going out. The drama she watches and the drama she lives come together at the end.”
THEY GOT THE HOMAGE! Yay!!!
Without further ado, here is the story…
THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS
“Madame. Pas de cheins,” the waiter says as I sit down. He tsks and points to a sign in the window. It’s of a dog being crossed out by an angry red line. “Go, go. No dogs. S’il vous plait, laissez. Go.”
I thought I would be okay if I sat at the farthest table from the restaurant’s entrance and tied Chewy up to the outside of the fence separating the patio from the sidewalk. I quietly get up, untie Chewy’s leash and make my way along the sidewalk towards Notre-Dame.
I underestimated the strain house-sitting for Stacey would put on me. It sounded like a lovely idea at the time. How could a third-floor walk-up on Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île in Paris not be a dream come true? The apartment is mere steps from Notre-Dame Cathedral and walking distance to most other major sights. Even with her little Yorkie included in the deal, it seemed doable. The dog-sitting was incidental, really. Paris was mine.
Robert was supposed to join me on day three so we could spend the rest of the three weeks together. We needed the little vacation prior to the chaos of our impending wedding. Two and a half weeks in Paris together sounded like perfection, a way to get back on track after our disastrous year. I wanted to show Robert the city, have some fun, and put the past behind us.
Alas, he’d have to actually show up for that to happen.
I take Chewy to the little parkette behind the cathedral and sit down at one of its many benches. It’s a perfect place to feel sorry for myself, complete with gargoyles glaring down disapprovingly from above. With no breakfast in my belly and no Robert at my side, my misery is complete.
I pick Chewy up and smother him in kisses. He rubs his face against my cheek and I’m reminded I’ve gone another day without makeup. I never go anywhere without it. I blame Robert. It’s my eighth day in Paris and I’m still alone. It’s my favorite city in the world and because of him, I’m miserable. Every day brings another excuse, another delay in his arrival.
After festering in the shadows of the cathedral for a few minutes, I place Chewy on the ground and we head back to the apartment.
Once inside, I return to Stacey’s kitchen window. The only habit I’ve picked up since my arrival has nothing to do with the city sights. I’ve become fascinated with the woman downstairs, a strange once pretty woman who wears nothing but a graying white camisole that barely conceals her morbidly obese body. Thank God she never looks up. When I originally told Robert about Downstairs Lady, I gave her the name Fanny-Mae. I can be so cruel sometimes. Robert and I did that thing where we create fantasy worlds for the unsuspecting quirky characters we stumble upon. We give them names, spouses, children, problems and dreams. Backstory.
I played our little game over texts this time around. I couldn’t bring myself to send Robert a discreetly stolen snapshot like I usually do, though. Downstairs Lady is different. Taking her picture would somehow steal her soul, her inescapable beauty. I couldn’t insult her honor that way. When I tried to explain this to Robert, he asked if I was okay. “Are you taking your pills?” “You need to stop obsessing over this lady.”
I promised I was taking the pills I never once opened and he promised he’d soon join me in Paris. Our lies canceled each other out.
Stacey’s window looks into Downstairs Lady’s dining room window, where she’s trapped in an over-sized hospital bed in a room not designed for beds. Through her casement windows, which are left open day and night, I can make out the bottom of an ornate chandelier that hangs above her bed. Being in a circular courtyard, our windows are extremely close to each other. I can even catch whispers of conversation.
She eats relentlessly while watching black and white movies on a small TV. She leans up on one elbow and fills her face with the endless supply of food her gorgeous dark-skinned French lover brings to her bed. He’s always cooing sweet nothings in a sexy voice filled with longing. Mon petit ange, mon amour, mon tendre. I decided to call him Henri. I melt each time Henri enters the little vignette the window allows me, or opens his mouth to coo. What must it be like to have his kind of love? I adore how she owns it and how she unapologetically lounges about, erotically certain of her powers. She could lead a revolution. This is why I changed her name to Belle days ago.
I fill Robert in on Belle’s daily food consumption, while I myself forget to eat. I only break my vigil at the window long enough to drag Chewy throughout the streets of this little island. And I speak only when Chewy’s neighborhood fans stop us in the street to worship his undeniable cuteness.
Robert assesses me with each text I send, evaluates my mental state with each of our infrequent calls. I know I’m slipping, but can’t stop it. I struggle between over-exaggerating my fall and disguising its depths. Which side of the scale will bring him to me quicker and which will push him away?
The constant silence reminds me I’m shutting down. Robert calls this Phase One. “I know it’s bad when you stop talking.” I’ve been startled by the sound of my own voice lately, after going hours at a time without hearing it at all. He suggests bike rides and jogging as possible remedies, but this would be a moot point if he would simply join me in Paris. That would solve everything. I think.
“Hello?” I say into my cell as I struggle to gain my bearings. My screen reads five-thirty a.m.? He’s done it again. My twelfth day in Paris and he still can’t get the time zones right. “Robert? It’s not that difficult. You’re six hours behind.”
“Emma, I’m sorry,” he says. He sounds overly animated, like he’s been drinking. “I forgot.”
“Why are you awake? It’s…” I do the math. “It’s almost midnight there. You’re never up this late when you’re working.” There’s a din of muffled voices and laughter about him, accompanied by the pounding bass of dance music. “Where are you?”
“Sorry, baby,” he slurs. “I miss you.”
“Robert, hang up. That’s so rude,” says an unfamiliar woman’s voice in the background. There’s a rustle as his phone is jostled.
“Robert,” I say, now fully awake and sitting up. Chewy eyes me with suspicion from the foot of the bed. “Who’s there? Where are you?”
“Just out for drinks with a few guys from the office, Em. Crazy day. We needed a reprieve.”
“Robbie, come back to the party. I’ll smash that phone if you don’t hang—”
The ambient noise cuts off, along with my connection to Robert. I place my cell back on its charger and try not to think about what just happened, try not to think about his cheating or how it led me to my last breakdown.
My head drops onto my pillow and I turn away from the glaring moonlight streaming in through the un-curtained windows. I need more sleep but within minutes Chewy is in my face, licking and whining. He’s been awakened too early and won’t be appeased until he does his business.
Once dressed, I carry Chewy down the spiral staircase to the ground floor. I forego the inner courtyard for an opportunity to explore the awakening city. We make our way through the alleyway that leads to the narrow street and I wrestle with the large creaky door that separates the two worlds.
Finally, something I can love the way Henri obviously loves Belle. Paris. In my gloom, I’ve forgotten how enchanting Rue Saint-Louis can be, and how it comes slowly to life in the mornings. The street cleaners make their way up the sidewalks, spraying down everything in their wake to wash away yesterday’s layers of grime. Tiny delivery trucks crawl up the roadway, dropping off goods to the local stores before the impossibly narrow street becomes too congested for them. Shop doors open and entryways are swept clean.
Chewy offers a few reticent yelps to the street’s interlopers while I attempt to push Robert’s phone call from my mind. His past cheating fills my head and my heart begins to race with the panic of a new certainty. He’s doing it again.
We walk towards the cathedral and make a left at the next footbridge in order to head down for a walk along the Seine. The sky plums above us and I decide we should see the sunrise, now that we’re out in its beginnings. My beautiful Paris.
As I descend the stairs to the path along the river, my cell goes off again. I look at the display. Round Two.
“I’m sorry,” Robert says. “I know how that probably sounded. I’m home now and ready for bed. I don’t want you to think—”
“What am I supposed to think, Robert?” I try to sound level, but it’s impossible. “That history doesn’t have a way of repeating itself?”
“It’s not what you think,” he says, panic slipping into his voice. Panic, with a side of irritation. “You have to trust me. This isn’t fair.”
“Come, goddammit,” I say. “If you want to prove something to me, put me first. Put everything else aside and join me in Paris like we planned.”
“I can’t, Emma,” he says. “It’s not that easy. It’s such a bad time here. We can’t seem to get ahead of—”
“Liar. It didn’t sound like you were having a bad time when you woke me up earlier. Were you at the Black Stallion again? Getting your fill?”
“Jesus, Em. Between your paranoia with my imaginary flings and this woman you’re obsessing over in the window, you have no room for anything else. You’re slipping again. Why would I want to go there just to hear more of this? We can trade insults over the phone.”
“Imaginary flings? Really?” I ask. I stop walking. Chewy glances up at me with what looks like concern. I take a seat at a nearby bench and Chewy settles in at my feet. “Cheryl was not a figment of my imagination, Robert. Why are you doing this? I’m your fiancée. We’re getting married in two months. Please put your ‘work’ aside for one hot minute and come? It’s Paris, for God’s sake. No one should need to be convinced to come to Paris.”
The inflection I place on the word work has the desired effect. He runs with it.
“Stop accusing me of cheating. It was one time. I’ve apologized. I can’t do anything else to prove my dedication to—”
I disconnect, put my phone on silent and slip it into my purse. The sun has somehow risen without me noticing. I get up and make my way back to the apartment with Chewy. It’s almost time for Belle to begin her day. I love the way Henri interacts with her. It reminds me that love and tenderness still exist in the world. Perhaps their intimacy had something to do with me renaming her Belle. She is loved and beautiful to him.
This woman won’t leave my head. I can’t believe Stacey never mentioned her. There’s heartache and happiness happening right outside her window and she’s never once mentioned it to me. Perhaps she hoards it as her own little secret proof that beauty exists.
Chewy stirs me from my sleep with a low grade constant growl, a sound I haven’t heard in all of our two weeks together. There’s a ruckus in the courtyard below my open window and it’s lit like a fairground down there, enough to fill my room with a soft glow.
I scoop Chewy up and move to the window. The courtyard is filled with firemen, police, and EMTs. They make frantic gestures and speak in super-fast French I wouldn’t even be able to comprehend if I had polished up on my high school French prior to coming to France. The scene is chaotic and their conversation is in a state of escalation. I think of Belle and bring my gaze back up to her window.
More EMTs and firemen. My heart sinks. This can’t be. She’s hidden behind the swarm squeezed about her inside the tiny room. Some work on her as others look around the room and out the window to the crowd of first responders gathered below. They all appear helpless, lost.
Henri storms into the room, desperate, hands flailing. I can hear snips and bits of his words. Enough to feel his love on fire. Through tears, he tells them she is beautiful, asks them to be gentle and tells them she is loved. This much French I can piece together from the little I know.
Chewy’s urgent barks cause all heads to turn in my direction and I’m finally discovered. I scurry away from the window, humiliated, and prepare to take Chewy outside. Making my way through the commotion of the courtyard, I have to walk past the first responders who only moments ago caught me ogling. The sting of my humiliation heats my cheeks. I’m relieved to escape to the street, even though I’m terrified for Belle and desperately want to know what’s happened.
I walk for hours, barely able to keep myself together. Chewy steals glances my way, silently pleading with me to end our walk and take him home. But I can’t go back. I don’t want to know.
My cell rings. Despite seeing Robert’s name on my screen, I answer it.
“I can’t do this, Robert.”
“I’m at the airport, Em. I came. I’m in Paris. I just landed.”
Now he comes?
“I think she might be dead,” I say, ignoring his statement.
He sighs and I know Henri would never be this exasperated with Belle. He’d have endless patience. “I’m on my way. Okay?”
“I can’t go back there. I can’t see that bed empty.” My words stop me in my tracks and niggle at my mind. They ignite something inside me, but I can’t quite grasp what it is. I bend to pick up Chewy and realize how spent he is. His panting fuels my guilt.
Frozen amid the busy sidewalk, I cuddle Chewy for dear life as the true meaning of my words sharpens into focus. Robert is the there I can’t go back to. Our empty bed is the one I can’t bear to see again. Our time apart has clarified what I knew all along.
“Tell me where you are. I’ll find you.”
“No,” I say. “I’m in Paris. You can’t have it. Paris is mine.” He groans in palpable frustration. But I finally realize it’s too late for us. “Goodbye, Robert.”
I shut down my phone to remove his ability to argue. With Chewy in my arms, I run all the way back to Rue Saint-Louis. I need to know.