At his insistence, Marisa’s father accompanied her to the prospective apartment off Northern Boulevard. It was September, and on the way there, they got caught on a side street behind a school bus. They didn’t know the cause of the hold-up until they saw a veiled figure run down the sidewalk and up to the bus. Into her arms she swept the miniscule person that descended the steps, and finally, the bus drove away.
“These people,” Marisa’s father muttered.
The apartment was not a true apartment, and Marisa’s bedroom was not a true bedroom. She only knew because her father informed her. From the way the stairs led directly to the front door, you could tell it was converted from a three-family home, and her bedroom was once part of the dining room because of the shape of the molding. He also thought to check things that she would’ve never thought to, including the things in disrepair: the rear burners that didn’t light, and the bathroom faucet that leaked. He pointed to a kitchen cabinet lined in roachkiller gel. Do you know what that is, he asked her, and because she didn’t, she said what. Once they were finally shown her room, he stood at the window and pointed at the people below picking through the garbage cans behind the fences in neighboring front yards. The host, Marisa’s potential new roommate, hovered close by, but she didn’t say anything. Marisa made eyes with her and smiled slightly. Surely, this woman had a father too, and she would know not to hold it against her.
“What are you cooking?” Marisa’s father asked, as they were lacing their shoes before leaving. Marisa’s prospective roommate asked if they could please take them off when they first walked in.
“Oh,” she said, and then her cheeks flushed. Marisa had always heard about Asians going red quickly, but the process was instantaneous. “Pig’s feet,” she said, and then as soon as she did, she turned to Marisa. “When do you think you’ll make your decision?”
“Very soon,” Marisa said, flashing a wide smile as she hastily pulled the woman’s door closed.
In the car, he had laughed and whooped the whole way home, as if his team had just won the World Cup. Estas chinas, he said, slapping his knee. Estas chinas cochinas.
When Marisa’s father learned she was moving out of his house the next day, he yelled at her in the kitchen.
“Do you think Papito came from Caracas so his granddaughter could live in a tenement? With strangers? Paying the rent month to month like an illegal?” He took the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “How could you consider living like that?”
But Marisa knew her father didn’t know anything about the life she ought to be living, especially since the more time she spent at Max’s apartment, the crazier her father became about trying to keep her at home. Now that she had moved, she would never have to deal with his yelling again. So one week later, after she spent a couple of days cleaning and arranging her things, she asked Max if he would come over.
But Queens was so far from Manhattan, Max said, so he promised he’d come by on Wednesday instead. Marisa was upset after the call, but she also thought maybe she was reading too much into it. She rose from her bed to use the bathroom in the hall. Just outside the door, her new roommate was blocking her path. Their actual rooms weren’t small, but the communal space between the kitchen and the bathroom was cramped with many useless things. Her roommate sat among them, staring at an antiquated television set that only played basic cable. An equally antiquated push-button phone sat on the bedside table propped against the TV. Under the bedside table were large purple plastic containers that Marisa couldn’t see through. She had no idea what were in those containers. She had almost peeked into them earlier that day as she swept the dining area, readying it for Max. But she’d had to move the table first, and when she picked up the phone to do that, she saw that its curly tail wasn’t even plugged into the wall. She rolled her eyes and abandoned the task.
Maneuvering past her roommate’s chair now, Marisa looked at the woman. Marisa was only twenty-two but this woman was older, in her thirties. She was wearing loose-fitting pajamas, but Marisa could see where her nipples hardened under her cotton tank top. Marisa suddenly realized how badly she needed to pee.
Inside the bathroom, she felt for the light, then remembered it was on the outside. She stepped back into the living room, her mouth clenched into a grimace.
“Wait,” the woman said, looking up. “I forgot to tell you. Don’t flush the paper.”
Marisa had no time to waste, so she closed the door. When she pulled her pants down, she saw she had already dampened her underwear.
Suddenly, her eyes flickered open. She looked into the waste basket—it was filled with balls of toilet paper. She looked into the bowl. The wad was massy and wet, like a clump of ripped hair. There was no way she would fish it out.
“How ridiculous!” she said, angrily, and then, she had to hold back from saying anything else. Marisa was her father’s daughter, she reminded herself, but Marisa wasn’t like him. She kicked the heel of her foot to the handle and flushed.
At the Queens Center Mall, where Marisa worked, Laryseli always offered to straighten Marisa’s hair, and she even let Marisa wear her gold nameplate sometimes, each letter bestudded in diamonds. Marisa didn’t tell her co-worker Nando that the reason she liked to wear Laryseli’s nameplate had something to do with how, when she was in sixth grade, she announced over dinner that she wanted her confirmation name to be Cindalys or Yaneli, and her father turned to her mother and said: I told you. At the end of the year, Maria had been transferred to an Irish parochial school, and Marisa told Nando a lot of things, but she didn’t tell Nando about how sometimes when she saw Laryseli at her booth with her flatirons and tattoos, she thought of a person she once imagined being.
Before moving out, on a night in mid-July, she and Nando had been playing a game. Each time a customer ordered the Meat Loaf Gravy Slammer, Nando and Marisa would each take a shot. She took the first and second in stride, but after the third, Marisa stopped recommending the sandwich altogether, because she didn’t want to risk dropping plates or forgetting to add items to the bill, including her tip for parties of 8 and up. She didn’t tell Nando about how she cut herself off, so he teased her, always thinking she was worse at the game than she actually was. But that night, something was different, and Marisa let herself drink until she didn’t know how many Slammers she’d served anymore. When Nando had asked where she was going after work, Marisa told him she was meeting a boy. Nando told her to be safe.
She swayed in the bathroom doorway, staring at him and his silly faux chef jacket, the one with the gold emblazoned logo that spelled out Cheesecake Factory. He kept it cleaner than everyone else’s so Marisa knew he must take it home to his wife to wash. He cared so much, more than any of the other chefs did. It was embarrassing.
“You’re just like my dad,” Marisa said.
She slammed the bathroom door on him, and wiped down her face. Usually, she asked Laryseli to straighten her hair before dates, but this time, she was running late. She walked right by Laryseli’s booth, and didn’t look up from her phone as she read the directions to Max’s apartment in midtown. When he let her inside, Marisa detected marijuana beyond the scent of the vanilla candle in the living room. They faced each other on the couch, and when Max opened a tin full of molly, Marisa dipped her finger and licked.
“I like your hair,” Max said. He put a stubby finger right into the thick of it and when he tried to pull downwards and his hand wouldn’t come out, he panicked, and pulled even harder. It would have been more painful had Marisa not started feeling high by then. She pushed his hand out horizontally, like she was ejecting a video cassette.
“I was actually scared,” Marisa said, between giggles. “I thought you wouldn’t like it.”
When they got to the concert, there was only a half hour left of the set. All of Max’s friends were strangers to her. They were white like him, and one of them looked like he just left the office, in a button-up shirt. They patted him on the back and swung their arms around his neck, so she couldn’t hear what they said. Max turned away from his friends and looked Marisa in the face for a long time without speaking. His eyes began to look funny, as if they were pixelated, like grains of cerulean sand. “You’re beautiful,” he said. In that moment, it was as if the noise had suddenly stopped, and the lights weren’t coming from the stage anymore, but from the glow just behind Max’s gaze.
As promised, Max came on Wednesday. He offered to take her to dinner too. “I hear there’s great ethnic food around here,” he told her, but she thought of her father instead. So you can smell like curry? Fo! She let him pick up the bill at the diner on Sixty-first street instead.
As they climbed the staircase, dodging piles of dirty shoes in the hallway, stepping over the mesh rolling carts the neighbors used for their laundry, Marisa grew nervous. What had she been thinking, bringing Max to her shoddy apartment where everything creaked like plastic, and where it smelled like it was only rotting things that were ever cooked? When she met Max outside of the Chrysler Building where he worked, the doormen in uniforms standing in rows, she was always intimidated. Now, she rushed inside, pulling Max by the hand as they circumvented the roommate watching TV in the living room. “Hi,” Max said, but Marisa pulled him inside the bedroom and closed the door.
“What do you think,” Marisa said, flatly.
She watched as he pushed the mattress in with one hand, then ran a finger along the desk, and then finally peered at Marisa’s windowsill aloe. When he turned around, he took her hand, and guided her to the bed. The roar of a studio audience laughter knocked against the door.
“Is she always there?” he said.
Marisa ignored him. She reached behind her back to take her bra off. She brought both her legs into a straddle onto his lap, but Max pushed her off. He needed to use the bathroom.
When he came back, his face was red. “There was a roach,” he said.
Marisa sat up. She felt herself become Max’s mirror, her cheeks ballooning with warmth. “Did you kill it?”
That night, Marisa lay awake. She stared at Max’s back beside her, a wonder of rice-sized freckles. She imagined the roach, alive in the bathroom, and bit nervously at her thumbnail. But Max was the son of an attorney, and she couldn’t expect him to know how to kill a roach. Just then, she heard a smash of tin cans and plastic bottles falling to the cement outside the window. Max stirred, and she braced herself. A raccoon, she’d lie, if he needed to know. It was embarrassing enough to have to remind him not to throw the paper down the toilet each time he got up. But to her relief, Max only snored.
Marisa carried a plate that had been turned into a pool by a tantrumming child. She tried keeping it steady but the soda skirted around the rim and leapt out at her shirt just as she reached the kitchen. That morning, Max left early for work, and Marisa felt bad about letting him walk to the train by himself, so she got up even though her shift at noon would last all the way till the restaurant’s closing.
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
“Hey!” Nando said. “Don’t curse.”
She grabbed a paper towel from the counter and ran it under the tap. She looked up and saw Nando looking at her. He brought his shoulder up to his chin to swipe at a bead of sweat.
“How come you don’t ask Laryseli to straighten your hair anymore?
Marisa needed Nando to shut up. She hadn’t started hating him, she’d only started hating work overall. Now that she was paying her own rent, her income had seemingly halved. When she was eighteen, she had been accepted into SUNY Buffalo, but there was a five digit number next to the words “due now’ that made Buffalo look a lot more snowy and gloomy. Good, her father said. You don’t need to go away. Marisa hadn’t always hated work, but when she looked at her bank account these days, she suddenly felt undervalued in a way that was new to her.
“When you gonna bring your man for dinner?”
“Like I’d ever bring him to this shithole,” Marisa said.
Nando’s face turned sour. “This is the same dude who says he likes his girls spicy. Don’t you think he’d like to come see the hood?”
“He was joking!” Marisa said too loudly, because as soon as she did, the manager came by, her ponytail pulled back so tightly against her head, she looked like a turnip. Marisa moved the towel away from her chest. Under the fabric, the skin was raw and the firetruck red of her bra shone through.
“They threw soda at her,” Nando said.
When Marisa’s shift ended, she went straight home to browse listings on Monster. It wasn’t the first time she’d looked, but each time was equally not useful. It was so much easier to scroll through Tinder because there she knew just what she wanted. But after Max, she didn’t want anymore. She closed her laptop and brushed her teeth, and when she came out of the bathroom, she froze. There was a stranger in the kitchen. Immediately, Marisa knew it was a girl.
The girl closed the fridge, and the only light in the room went out. In the darkness, Marisa felt her back arch like a cat’s.
“Sorry,” the girl said, opening the fridge again. “Didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not usually here very often.”
From the roots growing out, Marisa could see the girl’s hair was dyed blonde, and unlike the other roommate, who was almost middle aged, she looked Marisa’s age, even younger. Marisa looked at the empty wicker-backed chair.
“Sorry,” the young girl repeated. “Do you like it here?”
The light from the fridge illuminated her face. She was definitely younger. Marisa felt her spine straighten.
“I hate that she never leaves.”
The young girl laughed. “Always sitting there, watching TV.”
“And the throwing the toilet paper in the trash thing?”
“Oh. That you should do.”
The timer read twenty-eight seconds when the girl opened the microwave door. The bowl steamed but Marisa smelled nothing.
“Goodnight,” the young girl said.
She closed the fridge, enveloping them in darkness, and Marisa heard her bare feet pad away. Yes, the woman had mentioned another roommate on the other side of the common space, behind a door that Marisa had never seen open. Now, Marisa remembered how the day after her father became hysterical over pig’s feet, she had visited the apartment to pay the deposit, and afterwards, she saw from the street a girl standing in her new bedroom. Marisa thought it was impossible, that she’d simply mixed up the floors. But now it struck Marisa that here the three of them were living together, and Marisa was the new one of the bunch, and the only one who hadn’t the faintest idea what it looked like on the other sides of their doors.
That weekend, Marisa was excited to spend multiple days at Max’s. Max’s midtown apartment was sun-filled and cozy, with enough open space to do a morning yoga routine, and she liked that the doorman had recognized her enough that he now wished her both good-morning and night. She had the odd Saturday off work and it was the first one she’d had in months. On Friday night, she had planned the shape of the pancakes—hearts—that she’d make him when he woke up. But that morning in bed, she felt his legs twitch underneath when her foot accidentally grazed his.
“Should I pay for the cab?” he asked.
“Aren’t you going home? You’ve been spending a lot of time here,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not ready for that.”
Images went through Maria’s head, images that she had carefully arranged. One of her stepping off the Acela train on a trip to meet his mother. Another one at a friend’s outdoor wedding. How could she have been so mistaken? She looked into Max’s eyes and considered how they were the same cloudy color as the litter of kittens she found, one winter in the city, when she was twelve years old. Her father screamed that it would give her fleas and ordered her to take it back outside. Her father was still controlling and as a twenty-two-year-old, she’d had enough. He couldn’t stop her from dating too. When Marisa first moved into her apartment, it wasn’t an apartment she saw, it was Max. It wasn’t a slum-house and it wasn’t a slum-room. It was a stop on a train that was going towards him.
From Max’s, she walked to the station. On the way home, it was still early enough that not many people witnessed her crying. At the apartment, Marisa took a roll of toilet paper and carried it from the bathroom to her bedroom. Soon, it was spent with snot. She scooped dozens of balled pieces of paper into both arms and opened the bathroom door. She ignored the wastebasket, half filled. Disgusting, she thought. Disgusting. In the toilet, she flushed them all down.
Hours later, Marisa woke up to the sound of fists banging on her bedroom door. Her eyes were the size of corn puffs. She swung one leg out from the mattress and hit water. She sat up and saw liquid everywhere—it went from one end of her room to the other, and even splashed up against the base molding, the one that her father said was all wrong. It was tinted now as if smudged in red clay, a penny-copper color.
The pounding at the door became frantic. Marisa opened it.
“You flooded the bathroom,” they said, the woman and the young girl in unison.
“We told you not to throw the paper in the bowl,” the young girl said, her cheeks puffing out in adorable anger. Together, they looked like sisters, or at least cousins.
Marisa wiggled her toes. On the floor, there seemed to be strips of paper everywhere, some wadded, others stretched long. The long ones were like the pink streamers that her parents hung up for her birthday. Every year, they cut her a cake. Marisa laughed.
“You’re kidding, right? Is this all?” She kicked her ankles, so water splashed and splattered her face. “This can’t be the worst of it? Is it?”
She giggled and collapsed back onto her bed, and she looked up to see her roommates shrink away. They almost looked like her father just then, their similar faces twisted in horror, but that only made Marisa laugh harder. She kept laughing even as they shut her bedroom door, and then she heard the click of the old phone in the living room being taken off the hook. Marisa delighted. So it works! She wanted to call out to them and share her surprise about the working landline, but realized she didn’t know their names. She listened as their fingernails pushed at the buttons, but she knew there was no use in making a call. There was no reason to be alarmed, and there was nothing to fear. Everything was fine, she wanted to tell them. She’d made her decision. She could live like this.
Stephanie Jimenez has published or has forthcoming work in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Acentos Review, The Guardian, Yes! Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. She lives in New York and is working on her first novel. Follow her @estefsays.