Specifically, I needed six quarters for the dryer, only at 2:00 a.m. there was never anyone around to ask and the weather outside was foul.
When the elevator stopped at the lobby level, my heart gave an unaccustomed lurch of hope, but then the doors parted to reveal 3C dude, my neighbor, the mystery man.
He got in and the doors closed. I snuck a glance at him while pretending to not-stare in agonizing silence.
Snow frosted the shoulders of his techno-parka — one of those high tech gear things, engineered to keep him warm on the ice ball formerly known as planet Pluto. When he tipped his head in greeting it fell off his Indiana Jones hat and melted instantly on the elevator’s already moldy carpet.
It hadn’t melted on his head. That’s how cool he is.
“Hello.” He eyed me in a way that said he’d probably climbed rock walls more interesting than me. Maybe that was my imagination.
I screwed my courage to the sticking place, because lit professors may not always advertise our cool from the outside, but we have a lot going on inside. Really. We do. “I need uh…six quarters. Do you — by any chance — have any?”
3C dude’s lips compressed into a thin line as he glanced down at his hands, which were full of luggage, apparently.
Oh…right. “You just came in from out of town?”
Again with the down-looking. Okay, yes. A pilot case, a camera bag, a backpack and–
“I guess you did, huh?” I winced. “Uh…Can I help you with any of that?”
“If you carry this–” He handed over his smallest case and I nearly had to let it fall to the floor, it was so fucking heavy. Now I had hold of it, the thing was clearly loop-it-over-your-shoulder-good-and-quick-or-it’s-going-to-crash-to-the-floor, heavy. “You can come with me. I have a change jar at my place.”
“Oh, thank you.” I staggered. “Lots of equipment, huh.”
“I guess.” His voice was like old-time elevator gears — slow grinding cogs and wheels pulling steel cables taut, hoisting sound from deep within his amazing body. “Maybe you should push the up button now — unless of course you want to stay on the ground floor all night…?”
Oh my god. I positively smacked the button for the third floor. Unlike the elevator in my imagination, it rose smoothly, with little more than a whoosh of sound.
“You’re 3A, right?” he asked.
He knows where I live? I nodded too enthusiastically. Wait–he knows I’m alive! “That’s me. Tripple A. I even have a card.” How corny…
“I know.” I’d known from the moment he moved in. He was 3C: cool, competent, and cosmopolitan. He was all the good c’s, except maybe the one I was most interested in: curious about me.
The doors slid open and I followed him to his place, bowing under the weight of his equipment, and not in a good way, goddamnit. He opened the door and motioned to a console table in the entry where I could put his bag. “Let me just drop these in the bedroom.”
He left me to look around, so I inched my way farther inside. The whole hallway was a gallery of framed photographs, and these were the real deal too. Photojournalism stuff. Human suffering in all it’s naked glory — faces, in close up against the backdrop of every imaginable human misery.
Most of the images were of places I’d never been and couldn’t name, but I recognized Kashmir in a couple of pictures. I recognized Bangladesh. His work was…amazing. Poverty and despair and war and death. Beautiful and brilliant and terrible, all at once.
“Would you like a drink, 3C?”
He’d returned wearing a Green Day T-shirt and sleep pants. How had he gotten close enough for me to feel his breath in my hair without me noticing?
I wrenched my gaze from one of his more spectacular images, a joyous, colorful scene of the Hindu festival, Holi and offered my hand. “I’m Rami.”
“Rami? Scott.” 3C held my hand a second too long before dropping it. “How about that drink?”
“I…uh.” I glanced back toward the hall. “Can I get my laundry sorted and then come back? The machine ate my money and then I had to move my clothes. I don’t want to just…”
“Ah, that’s right.” He left me standing there alone again for a second, but came back with a jar of quarters. He counted six of them into my damp palm. “You were looking for change.”
I nodded, breathless from just the touch of his fingers.
“Funny thing.” He let his gaze sweep over me. “Me too.”