The black pinstripe suit has been carefully placed across the foot of his bed. The dry cleaning tag pinned to the inside collar bears a date from the previous decade?the same date, Eugene remembers, that he had returned to the jeweller’s with Helen’s wedding band and the accompanying receipt of sale.
The shirt and jacket still fit well, but the pants are a problem. Eugene holds his breath, tugs hard at the zipper, and fastens the top button with some difficulty. He slouches in order to see himself in the full-length mirror and wonders absently if pleats are still in fashion.
Finally, he smoothes back a few thin strands of hair and adjusts the glasses on the bridge of his nose. The lenses are smudged, but he does not bother to wipe them clean. Nor does he bother to put on his shoes.
It doesn’t matter now. He is ready.
The razor blades are in a drawer under the bathroom sink. He rips the package open and takes one of the blades between his thumb and forefinger. He drops the remaining blades to the floor, showering the ceramic tiles with a thousand tiny metallic pings.
He eases into the tub. The water is warm, and the loose fabric of his pant legs wavers like ghosts against his thighs. He holds the blade to his wrist, marvelling at how the flawless steel edge reflects the light. He expects the pain to be swift and clean, something akin to a paper cut. But despite his calm, his heart begins to beat heavily in his chest?a relentless, aching rhythm that resonates in his throat and at the base of his skull.
He is ready to draw the blade down when, suddenly, he notices a sound that he had not heard during the evening’s preparations. Faint, just beneath the drip drip drip of the faucet: music.
Through the walls, from the apartment next door, he can hear the strains of jangling guitars. The Beach Boys, perhaps, or some unbearably cheerful group singing about surfing, or girls, or surfing girls. As much as he tries, he cannot block out the music, and his focus begins to drift. He can no longer concentrate on the task at hand.
?Oh, for Pete’s sake,? Eugene cries. He pulls himself from the bath, his drenched suit clinging to his body. He slips and slides across the tiles, narrowly avoiding the mess of razor blades scattered over the floor.
He tears open his apartment door, storms into the hallway, and hammers his fist on the door of apartment 2B. He waits for a moment, listening for footsteps. A radio announcer taunts him from the other side of the door. He hammers at the door once again, louder this time. Then, dripping onto the hall carpet, he stands and waits. Under his feet a damp, dark circle is now spreading.
But still there is no answer.
Soon, though, the song changes and he hears the muted reverberation of ?Crimson and Clover? drift from the blaring radio. The song washes over him, pulls him under, and he decides to finish what he has started.
He moves toward his apartment door, his socks squelching with every step. Not until he grabs the handle does it occur to him that the door is locked and that he has left his keys in the apartment, on his bedside table. He can almost see them sitting in the little china dish, the only wedding gift he had decided to keep.
A rumbling escapes his throat, and he raps his forehead against the door. He stands there for a while, eyes cast down on the worn threshold, thinking.
Then it comes to him.
Of course, he has considered it before. It has always been a ?plan B,? of sorts.
From behind the door of 2B, Eugene can still hear ?Crimson and Clover? looping toward its conclusion: ?Crimson and clover, over and over. Crimson and clover, over and over . . .? It will be the mantra for his remaining moments on earth.
He moves for the door at the end of the hallway. The stairwell will lead to the rooftop, but will it be open? He has passed by the door on many occasions, each time wondering if it might be locked. But this time he tries the door, and the handle turns for him.
?Crimson and clover, over and over . . .? He shoves the door open and makes his ascent.
When he reaches the rooftop exit, he finds the door wedged open with a small block of wood. He steps out onto the roof, tripping on the block of wood and knocking it out of place. The door slams shut behind him, leaving him stranded in the night.
So much the better. There can be no going back.
Then a voice startles him from the darkness. ?I put that block there for a reason,? it says coldly.
Eugene spins on his heels to see the vague outline of a woman standing next to him.
?The door locks from the inside, otherwise,? she continues. Her annoyance is not subtle.
?Sorry,? Eugene says lamely.
There is a long silence, followed by a cool breeze. Eugene shivers in his wet clothes. ?On occasion,? he says, stumbling over his words, ?I can be somewhat . . .ah . . . accident-prone.?
?Apparently so,? she says.
Eugene’s eyes begin adjusting to the dark, and he can see that the woman is wearing a bathrobe and slippers. She is slim and pretty, with mussed, shoulder-length hair as fair as her complexion. Her left arm hangs at her side, seemingly useless, and in the available light he can see that there is a long, vertical scar just below her left eye.
Eugene marvels that even with the anger and anxiety clouding her features, she is still beautiful. If she lives in the building, he has never noticed her before.
?And what do you suggest we do now?? she asks.
Eugene has no answer for her. He begins to hammer on the stairwell door, desperately trying to communicate with the world of the apartment. His fists grow numb. No one comes.
Eugene offers her a weak smile, and then shoves his fists into his pockets.
They pass the time looking up at the night sky; they listen to the faint strains of traffic that emanate from the streets below. Eugene finds himself grasping for something to say to her, but the night has been too strange.
She shatters the silence. ?I like to come up here and look at the stars,? she says.
Eugene watches her, admiring her profile as he listens.
?My son was a stargazer,? she continues. ?He talked about being a scientist: an astronaut, maybe. And he could have done it, too. He was very bright.? She puts her good hand delicately to the scar under her eye. ?But he died on New Year’s Day.?
?I’m sorry,? Eugene mumbles.
?My husband moved to Vancouver soon after,? she says. ?I suppose he needed the distance and the mountains to separate himself from it all.?
Eugene opens his mouth to speak, but he can think of nothing else to say other than, once again, ?Sorry.? And so he says nothing at all.
?I look at the stars and hope to see my son there,? she says. ?But I haven’t seen him yet.?
They are silent for a time until finally she turns and looks Eugene up and down. ?You’re all wet,? she remarks.
?Yes,? Eugene says.
She stares, waiting for an explanation.
?I . . . ah . . . slipped in the tub,? he says finally.
At first she can manage only stunned silence. Then she laughs?a high, staccato trill she attempts to stifle with her good hand. The sound is sweetness to Eugene, and he laughs with her.
And suddenly the tension shatters, and they both begin pounding on the stairwell door in mock terror.
?Help!? the woman cries. ?Somebody help us! Anybody! Please!?
?Save our souls!? Eugene chimes in.
They pause, breathless, laughter playing around their faces. The woman smiles at Eugene and then extends her hand.
?Sophie,? she says. ?I’m in 2B.?
Eugene is at a loss for a moment. Then he smiles and takes her hand firmly in his own.