SLIP OF THE TONGUE
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The man who just stepped out of 6A doesn’t notice me staring. He shakes out his honeyed-brown hair like a boy after a bath and wipes his temple with his sleeve. He rolls his neck. Watching him, I feel like an intruder in my own apartment building.
It’s the jingle of Ginger’s dog tags that makes him look over. He tilts his head, studying me. “Hello again.”
I squint. The sixth floor has never been well lit. Warm light bathes the beige walls and a carpet the color of dead leaves. I let Ginger pull me down and across the hall. She wants to smell this new person, and I want a better look. When we make eye contact, my heartbeat snags as it might for a new lover. Because he isn’t familiar. I don’t know him. “Sorry, have we met?” I ask.
He doesn’t respond, as if he’s waiting for me to go on, but it’s a pretty straightforward question. I’m not sure where to look—his soulful green eyes, or a bottom lip that sticks out like his default expression is a pout. He licks it with an easy smile and once again, I’m staring. “I must’ve mistaken you for another neighbor,” he says. “Just moved in yesterday. You’re 6B?” He points to his chest. “6A.”
I stick my coffee thermos under my arm and shake his paw of a hand. He ruffles Ginger’s polished-penny red fur next, but watches me. And I forget that just moments ago, I was sad. Lonely. Confused. Now, I’m still a little confused, but not in the way that makes my brain and chest hurt.
“Welcome to the building.” Since I’m already behind schedule thanks to this unplanned dog walk, I tug the leash. “Let’s go, Ginger.”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” he says as I continue to the elevator, “can you point me in the direction of a good breakfast spot? Something hearty.”
I glance back. His back is arched, his large hand spread over his stomach. The corner of his mouth is quirked. He’s kind of a hunk, and I think he knows it. I contain my smile, even when I realize it’s my first genuine one in days. “There’s a diner on the corner.” I begin to sweat, my hands in my gloves, my neck under my scarf. I hadn’t planned to be indoors this long. His expression is eager, though, like he’s asking an old friend for help. “Don’t be scared off by the smell. It’s good.”
“Lexington.” Ginger whines. I shouldn’t even be standing here. I’m verging on late for work. Suddenly, though, that seems less important than welcoming a new neighbor. “We’re headed downstairs. I’ll show you.”
“That’d be great.” He heads past me down the hall to get to the elevator first, where he pushes the button. Ginger and I catch up as it arrives, and he holds the door open for us. The space feels small with him in it. He’s big, one of those guys who could jump and knock his head on the ceiling of the subway. One of those guys who can make the whole city feel small.
He glances up at the digital numbers, his hands stuck in the pockets of his hoodie.
“Won’t you be cold?” I ask, eyeing the thin material.
“Nah. My heater’s busted. It won’t turn off. It has to be over eighty degrees in my apartment.”
I had the opposite problem when I moved in. It shouldn’t make me smile to remember that, but trying to stay warm can be fun when it involves a ridiculous amount of cozy blankets and endless, stovetop hot chocolate.
“I can deal with the cold,” he continues, then groans, “the heat, though—Jesus. I could not sleep. I’ve been up for hours, moving boxes around the apartment. Finally, I had to come out for fresh air. You can only remove so much clothing, you know?”
Heat creeps up my chest. I scold myself. So what if he’s naked in his own apartment? I try to think of a witty response to cover the fact that I’m blushing, but I come up short. I sip my coffee instead. We exit the elevator with his last comment hanging between us.
“So, these are the mailboxes,” I say with flourish, breaking the silence, as we cross the small lobby. “Yours is next to mine.”
He smiles politely and gets the door. We’re blasted by cold air. I try to pull my collar up around my neck, but my hands are full.
“Need some help?” he offers.
I give him Ginger’s leash and my thermos so I can bundle deeper into my coat. “The diner’s to the right,” I tell him. “I’m going that way too.”
He gives me back the coffee but takes Ginger down the sidewalk as if she were his own.
Despite the cold, the sun is shining. I get a better look at him. He has a five o’clock, butter-blond shadow at seven o’clock in the morning. It’s a shade lighter than his coppery lips and shows off his high cheekbones. His is the kind of face you’d see in a movie. One I might’ve gone to as a teenager just because he was on the poster.
“Shit,” he states.
Because I’m paying attention to him and not where I’m going, it takes me a moment to understand. Literally—shit. I hop sideways just in time, narrowly avoiding a pile of dog poop. “Ugh.”
He grins. “Mondays.”
“Lazy assholes is more like it.”
“Spoken like a true city girl.” He smiles bigger. “Have you lived in the building long?”
“Four years yesterday.” We stop so Ginger can pee on her usual tree. “But I went to NYU. I’ve lived on the east side for over ten years.”
“So you hate it here.”
I laugh, and God, does it feel good. My dry cheeks crack like they’re made of concrete and I’ve hit them with a hammer. We continue walking, Ginger looking back at us every few seconds, as if we might disappear on her. My mood has lifted. Sometimes, in this city, talking to strangers is a burden. They want something—directions, money, time. I’m glad I stopped for my new neighbor, though. He’s chasing off the dark clouds that’ve been hanging around lately.
But then, he stops abruptly and groans. I get the sudden, intense feeling this walk is over. “I left my wallet in the apartment. Think they’ll let me open a tab?”
“Not a chance.” We’re a few feet from the crosswalk, and I nod across the street. “There’s the diner.”
“Okay.” He wipes his nose on his sleeve. Mine is also running a little despite the fact that the walk has warmed me up. I don’t believe he isn’t the slightest bit cold. “I better run back. I’m about to eat my hand.”
I don’t have to think twice. He’s helped me out just by making me feel better, and I want to return the favor. “I’ll spot you,” I say, digging in my pocket for cash. I keep forty bucks in my coat in case of dog-walking emergencies. Since I can hear his stomach grumbling from here, I give him both twenties. “Get the hash browns. Trust me.”
He takes the money. “You’re an angel. I’ll pay you back.”
“No problem.” I nod at Ginger, who pants, giving us her signature Golden-Retriever smile. “Consider it a thanks for your services.”
“For a ten-minute walk? Expensive pooch.” He hands me back the leash, then adds, “Unless you want to join me? My treat,” he teases.
I’m surprised by his invitation but even more so that I’m disappointed to turn it down. Hash browns and good company sound like a great way to spend the morning. “I should get to work,” I say with some reluctance. “Not everyone can make rent walking dogs.”
“Good point.” He grins. The walk signal begins to count down. Last chance to change my mind and play hooky from work. He holds up the money. “Thanks again.”
He jogs across the street toward the restaurant. I wonder what his name is. And why he isn’t also on his way to work on a Monday morning.
Except for him, the view from this corner is familiar. I’ve stood here more times than I can count. Ginger pulls on her leash. She knows this is where we turn back for the apartment. The sun is still out, but clouds edge the city. Alone again, any humor in my morning dissipates. My mood creeps back down to where it was earlier—where it’s been for months.