“Seven Conversations with Neil” by Kristen Kelly

Now, when I think about that first summer in the city, it’s not the work that I was doing (even though I suppose that I liked the job alright) or about the friends that I made (even though I guess I liked them too). It always cycles back to the building I was living in, or the cat that I had found, or Neil. It’s funny, because living in that building was chance more than anything else, and the cat was sort of an accident that I never meant to keep, and I suppose Neil was a little bit of both.

The apartment, for all its faults, had good rent, and it was close enough to the subway. The cat was bearable, especially when he would quietly sprawl across the rug in the sunlight, looking like someone had spilled tea across linoleum. That’s when I loved the cat best. Neil, as much as I complain about him sometimes, was pleasant to be around.

So, here is the record of my summer. I picked out seven conversations with Neil, which you can print off and put into a manila folder, and you can label it as “mistakes not to happen again” with a felt tipped marker. And we can keep it for posterity in a filing cabinet designated for “all of my great loves”, so that you can remind me that I ought to know better, or that I should have learned from the last time.

1.

The apartment number, 9, reflected with a bronze shine. I knocked on the door, one-two-three. It was late at night, and the sound carried down the hall.

“Hello?” He opened the door. “What’s going on?”

“Hi! I’m Number Thirteen – would you mind if I got onto your balcony? My cat’s gotten out.”

“Huh?” He blinked once or twice. “Oh. Right. Sure, come right in. This window is probably best for the fire escape.” He gestured at the one next to the air conditioner window box. “The air conditioner is broken, so it should already be open.” It was the same way with all of the air conditioners in the building that year – everything was perpetually broken. We had learned to accept it and to prop the windows open when it became too warm.

I slipped through the open window, had to duck down to keep my head from hitting the window frame. Whispered to the cat, “Come on, Jeel. Over here. I’ve got treats.” And when the cat started walking towards me, it became “Good kitty, good boy. There’s a good boy, very good, Jeel.”

“Jeel?” He reached his arms out, and took the cat as I slipped back into the room.

“Short for Darjeeling.” I took the cat back. “I’m Andy, short for Andrew.”

“Neil, not short for anything.” He extended a hand, and I took it.

2.

“I can’t play guitar very well.” I was self-conscious to be caught singing, but of course, the whole purpose of singing on the fire escape was to be caught.

“It sounded just fine before,” Neil said with a shrug. He took a drag from his cigarette.

“It’s out of tune.”

“The singing was fine.”

“I’m out of tune, too.”

“Could have fooled me.” He shrugged. “What was the song?”

“Moon River. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you know, the one with Audrey Hepburn?”

“So here you are, singing Moon River on the balcony, waiting to fall in love with the next cosmopolitan person who comes to call?” He might have scoffed a little bit, but he also smiled a little bit, and that’s what mattered to me most at the time.

“Something like that.” I lit a cigarette of my own. It was a habit that I had picked up that summer, from living where I was and spending my time the way that I did. If you ever wanted to meet neighbors, you had to be on your fire escape smoking. It was the sociable thing to do.

He took a final drag, than crushed the cigarette into the sand-filled flowerpot on the stairs next to him. He waved, and then he ducked back inside.

3.

“What?”

“You left your book on the fire escape.” It was early in the morning, and it was a peculiar thing to talk on the phone with Neil.

“Why didn’t you knock on my door?” “I’m already out of the building.” “And you saw the book?”

“I’m looking at my room from the street, and I saw you left your book outside. It’s gonna rain, make sure that you pick it up or it’ll get ruined.”

“Got it.” I replied. He hung up his phone. When I climbed out onto my balcony, sure enough, there was my book. And, on the sidewalk, there was Neil.

“Thank you.” I called down, and waved a little bit. “Don’t mention it.”

4.

“Andy,” Neil said on a Saturday afternoon. It was an overcast day, about to rain. “Andy, I don’t know what it is about you.”

We didn’t say anything else for a long time after that.

5.

Wouldn’t you like to dance, the girl said. It was all dim lighting and ambient music, and her lips were moving and her dress glossed like liquid paint around her figure as she swayed a little bit to the sound.

Maybe later, Neil replied. He took another sip of his drink.

I might not be around later, the girl said. There was a pout in her voice that Neil chose not to indulge. But you’ll know where to find me, she added in parting. She walked away, and the swaying of her body deflated a little bit as she tried to recover her bruised ego.

“She was pretty.” I said to him off-handedly. Because it was true, she had been quite pretty.

“She’s not my type.” His glass had sweat a little bit in his hand, and left a damp crescent moon on the bar. He smeared the watermark across the surface with the side of his hand.

What is your type, I thought about asking, but stopped myself for fear of being too blunt. But there was a moment there when he looked at me, and thought that it was an answer.

6.

“Why Darjeeling?” Neil asked from the couch. The cat was lying across his lap, and he scratched it behind the ears.

“He’s the color of tea.” I shrugged, and sat across from him. His legs were on the table in front of the couch, so I set the glasses down carefully where he wouldn’t knock them over.

“But doesn’t it just reek of colonialism?” I pushed him a little bit with my foot, and the cat rearranged itself. The ice in the glass cracked hollowly, and Neil laughed at his own joke. His foot stayed on mine.

7.

“I’m moving out in September.” Neil said. The heat had driven us onto the fire escape again. The sounds of traffic and the whirring hums of the air conditioners from other buildings filled the pregnant pauses.

“That’s soon.”

“I got the job last week.” It was the type of bourgeois profession that everyone in the neighborhood would be judgmental of, and that everyone in the neighborhood would eventually go on to pursue.

“Congratulations.” I said dryly, more vitriolic than I may have intended.

“It’s not so bad.”

“It’s still bad enough.” It wasn’t really the job that bothered me, because even then I had acknowledged how funny it was for all of us to be so resentful. But there wasn’t much of anything else that I could say.

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” Only I didn’t know what it was precisely that we were apologizing for.

Published in Penn Review Volume 46, Issue 1.

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