One day, during the coldest February on record for Washington, D.C., Nora came home early to prepare for a blizzard. She lived on the corner of 7th and K Street, just south of Florida Avenue. Maurice, her new next-door neighbor, was dressing his car with a tarp when she pulled to the curb and parked behind him. He was handsome — brown eyes, dark, wavy hair that seemed at odds with his patchy beard.
He offered to help bring her bags inside.
“No, but thank you,” she said.
Nora had been trying to keep her distance from Maurice. When they first met, just two months earlier, the first words out of his mouth were a lie. Maurice had barely introduced himself before bragging about how he purchased his side of the duplex for less than $200,000. Nora hated being lied to — but more than that, she hated that she was incapable of calling people on their bullshit. She had only congratulated Maurice and wished him luck as a new homeowner, never letting on that she herself had put in an offer for $250,000, only to be outbid by someone else, presumably Maurice.
Maurice went back to tending to his car. “Suit yourself,” he said.
Exhausted from shopping, she hauled her bags inside and turned them upside down. The rock salt, trail mix, maxi-pads, red and white wines, batteries and magazines all fell across her dining table. Then, with nothing better to do, she plopped down on the sofa and clicked to the local news. A plain-faced anchor with helmet hair was predicting up to 30 inches. Before long, she curled up and dozed off.
She woke up to find that the snow had started falling. Half asleep, she stepped outside and sprinkled rock salt on the walkway of her side of the duplex. Then she made sure to get the asphalt that surrounded her car, from curb to curb. When she finished, a 15-foot stretch of 7th Street was encrusted with a dazzle of little pink dots. Once back inside, she watched television while thumbing through magazines, trying to think about anything other than the prospect of being stuck inside for the next few days. Her life was lonely enough without having the luxury of excessive downtime. There was a time when she would’ve relished this opportunity to be alone for days to consider her next projects or plans, but when she paused to consider what these may be, she drew a blank.
Hours passed and snow covered the city. Nora felt a gurgle in her belly. She pushed herself off the sofa and went to the bathroom. Just as she was about to sit down and get comfortable, she realized that she had forgotten to buy toilet paper. Her first thought was to repurpose the paper towels in the kitchen, but she found that the roll was bare. Panic filled her. She rifled through her purse looking for a pack of facial tissues but came up with nothing. Finally, after wasting close to 20 minutes digging through her place, her eyes open for anything that she would have felt comfortable flushing, she pulled on her snow boots and bubble coat, and went to knock on Maurice’s door.
When no one answered, she knocked again. Maurice answered the door wearing a hooded sweatshirt, baggy basketball shorts, and mismatched socks.
He motioned for her to come in, but she hesitated.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t mind waiting out here.”
He gave her a puzzled look. “What’s up?”
“Can I borrow some toilet paper?
“Yeah, of course. You don’t wanna come in?”
“It’s 15 degrees outside.”
Maurice shook his head as he turned for his bathroom. “I’ll be right back.”
Alone now, leaning against the door jamb, she stared over the disturbing number of half-unpacked moving boxes that decorated Maurice’s living room. She thought back to the renovations she had wanted to do: widening doorways, knocking down walls, gradually combining the two properties. She imagined an open foyer with a large coat closet and powder room. Maurice didn’t deserve this, she thought.
When Nora was really honest with herself, she had to admit that besides ruining her HGTV fantasies, Maurice wasn’t so bad of a neighbor. Some nights the music would get a little loud, but much to her surprise, she took a liking to the sounds that came through the thin walls now and then — she likened it to having company without the burden of hospitality. For this reason, she had even welcomed the drumming of Maurice’s headboard, which was the closest she had come to sex since New Year’s Eve before last. Nora found that she could tolerate any noise, no matter how disgusting or bizarre, so long as the source of said noise was on Maurice’s side of the duplex.
She had seen how the other women in the neighborhood teased and flirted with Maurice. Sometimes, on quiet nights when the weather was mild enough to go without the purr of her central air unit, she would recognize their voices through the plaster that separated her and Maurice’s bedrooms.
The gurgle returned to her belly. She shifted her weight from one side of the door jamb to the other. She couldn’t hold it for much longer. Snow was starting to stick to her shoulders and back and butt. Just then it dawned on Nora that the maxi-pads would have made for a passable substitute. She thought to just up and leave, but decided it would be rude.
She stood in the threshold and scowled over the messy living room until Maurice returned with two rolls of toilet paper, one in each hand. He lobbed them across the room and she caught the first, bobbled the second, which she retrieved from the snow. As she turned to leave, the power in Maurice’s place suddenly flickered and went out.
Maurice started cursing, first under his breath and then much louder. Nora looked around for signs of a blackout and was relieved to find lights emanating from almost every home on the block, including her own. Then, on the verge of involuntary discharge, she ran full speed next door to her own bathroom and took a seat.
When she emerged she found Maurice pacing in her living room, fully dressed, his cell pinned between his ear and shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Sorry,” he said, shrugging, clearly frustrated. “I forgot to pay my light bill. Completely slipped my mind last month, and the month before that. Kept telling myself that I was gonna do it.”
Nora was embarrassed to have already forgotten. “Oh yeah, right.”
“Trying to get a handle on it now,” he said, pointing to his cell. “You mind if I stay here for a bit?”
Nora took a moment to consider what was being asked of her. Toilet paper for room and board was hardly an even exchange. But still, they were neighbors, and there was a blizzard raging up the East Coast.
“Okay fine,” she finally conceded. “Not a problem.”
Later that night, the temperature plunged to single digits. Nora and Maurice sat on opposite ends of her sofa, watching the local news and noshing on trail mix. For Nora, the silence between them felt appropriate. They were just two people without much need to speak to each other. But she could sense the restlessness in Maurice.
Since learning that the power company was unable to process his payment until after the storm, he had been fidgeting like a toddler, incapable of sitting still yet bound by implicit instructions from Nora to never touch her belongings before asking, nor to ask questions, in general, about anything whatsoever. Nora may not have had a stomach for confrontation, but she certainly knew how to freeze people out. Already, within the first two hours of Maurice’s stay, Nora had managed to curb his chatty instincts by simply responding to his multipart questions with one-word answers.
When he asked about her baby pictures on the wall and the mouse traps on the floor, about the DVDs stacked on the bookshelf and the acoustic guitar propped in the corner, Nora had countered with only nods and shrugs, yeahs and nahs and uh-huhs. And now, after two hours of stonewalling Maurice’s painful attempts at small talk, she was starting to feel guilty for the sour expression on his face. She recognized this expression — it was the face of a man whose morale had been crushed by the weight of her indifference. Nora didn’t like taking things from men; she didn’t like feeling as though she owed them something. And she’d intended to use her silence as a shield, not a sword.
She smiled, her first of the night. Try, she thought to herself. “It was supposed to be a gift to myself,” she said. “The guitar, I mean. Haven’t touched it since the day I brought it home.”
“Aren’t you curious to know if you’re any good?”
“No, not really. It’s just furniture at this point.”
Maurice stood up, went to the corner, and picked up the guitar.
She perked up. “Do you play?” she asked.
Maurice strummed at the guitar for a minute or two, the melody of an old song that Nora knew but couldn’t place. He wasn’t half bad. He took a bow before returning to the sofa.
Nora brought her hand to her breast. “Impressive,” she said. “Where’d you learn that?” She asked it like Maurice had just performed a magic trick.
“Church,” he said, sounding almost disappointed that he didn’t have a better story to tell. “I played the bass for a while when I was a kid. But it’s been years.”
They continued to chat until well after midnight about a variety of topics ranging from hobbies to heritage, politics and pop culture. There was a certain warmth in Maurice’s voice that drew Nora’s attention and softened her resolve to keep him at a distance. She had known him to have a charming personality, but now, for the first time, she caught herself buying into it. The wine didn’t hurt, either, she thought to herself at the end of the night as she stood to kill the lights and television. Then she returned to her respective side of the sofa, noticing Maurice had fallen asleep, and she faded into sleep herself ten minutes later.
When Nora woke up, her sight was obscured by a darkness that made her question whether or not her lids were still functioning. She waited a few seconds to allow her eyes to adjust but that didn’t help. Desperate for light, she jammed her hand between the sofa cushions and dug through the maze of lint and trail mix until she found her cell. Using its screen as a torch lamp, she inched toward the light switch near the front door, taking care not to step on the wine bottles and mouse traps. She flipped on the light and when she looked out of the large, curtainless bay window in her living room, she saw nothing but snow.
For a moment Nora froze in fear. She wondered if she was still asleep, stuck in a wine-induced dream — there was no way seven feet of snow had fallen from the sky. She opened the front door to find that they were walled in. Then, afraid that the snow might avalanche into her living room, she slammed the door closed, whirled around, and pressed her back against it. The room suddenly seemed much smaller than it had just hours earlier.
Maurice turned over on the sofa and looked behind him, where Nora was leaning against the door. His hair was matted from the throw pillow, his face still puffy from sleep.
“Turn the light off,” he groaned, rolling over.
Nora went to the kitchen and opened the side door that normally overlooked K Street, only to find another wall of snow.
“We’re snowed in,” she said to Maurice, shaking his shoulder. The words came out more calmly than she’d intended, so she repeated herself with more urgency.
Hearing the panic in Nora’s voice, Maurice scrambled from the sofa and rushed to the front door. He opened it and stepped back, examining the choke point. Nora found comfort in the way he pored over it like a television detective.
Maurice plucked out a piece and held it up, pinched between his thumb and forefinger. “Now why would somebody waste perfectly good rock salt in this weather?”
“It barely works when the temperature drops below 20 degrees, let alone with several feet of snow piled on top of it,” he said. Nora felt stupid and insulted at the same time, but before she could speak, Maurice raised his forefinger to cut off the conversation. The set of his shoulders and tilt of his head told Nora that he was trying to hear an especially faint sound. There was a low, steady rumble outside of the duplex. Nora strained to hear, turning her ear toward the front wall. It sounded like the growl of a large vacuum cleaner.
Nora ran to the upstairs bedroom and Maurice followed. Narrow slivers of natural light had found their way through the only window between the upturned slats. She tugged at the cord and raised the blinds. The grey light of dawn flooded the bedroom. They stood side by side, hunched over the window, looking down at a vehicle that seemed to be a cross between street sweeper, snowblower, and lawnmower. A half-dozen large, limp hoses protruded from its hood, arcing down toward the street, partially submerged in snow. Painted across its hull was the city’s logo, three red stars over two red horizontal bars. Because it needed a name, Nora decided it was a snowmower. The snowmower chugged northbound, devouring a knee-high lane of snow and launching it through a side chute. The side chute was angled in such a way that the single-family homes opposite Maurice and Nora’s duplex were being showered by a steady stream of wintry pulp. The southbound lane had already been cleared, and the snow that once covered the asphalt was now piled seven feet high against the first floor walls and doors and windows.
They watched in silence as the snowmower drew closer. Nora wanted to speak, but her throat tightened around the words; the darkness of the living room had left a lasting impression. Maurice must have noticed something desperate in Nora’s face, because he took a break from peering out of the window to place his hand on her shoulder blade. He asked if she was okay and she nodded yes — she was a bit relieved to see that help was apparently on the way.
By now the snowmower was in shouting distance. Maurice unlatched the window and raised it up as far as he could. Nora reached for the small tabs at the bottom of the screen and lifted it. Jostling for position, they leaned out of the window and started flailing their arms, yelling for help.
When the driver failed to respond, Nora stepped away from the window and scanned the bedroom, looking for something to throw. She settled on the avocado-sized perfume bottle on the dresser. Brushing Maurice aside, she hurled the bottle at the snowmower. She regretted this the second it left her hand, as she knew precisely where it would land. She tried convincing herself that if she only scrunched her face hard enough, that if she only shifted her weight to one foot and dipped low enough, then perhaps she could recast its trajectory.
When the bottle smashed into the snowmower’s side mirror, shattering it, the snowmower came to a halt. Its driver powered down whatever motor it was that fed snow through the side chute. Wearing a big blue jacket emblazoned with the city’s logo across it’s back and breast, she climbed down from the cabin of the vehicle. Her eyes were bright with anger.
Maurice leaned his head a little further out of the window, squinting at the woman. Then his eyes lit up with recognition. “Robin?”
The sight of Maurice seemed to extinguish the fire in Robin’s eyes. “Maurice! Boy, what the hell you doing up there throwing shit at my truck?”
“Just trying to get your attention,” he lied. “I was aiming for the door.”
Nora breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to learn that Maurice would be inheriting the blame.
“It’s cool,” Robin said, flashing a wide, toothy grin that told Nora that she’d fallen under the spell of Maurice’s charisma. “I’ll just tell the boss that some kids were screwing around. You live out this way now?”
“Yeah,” Maurice responded. “For the last few months.”
Robin sucked her teeth in an exaggerated grimace. “You ain’t gon’ introduce me to your little girlfriend?”
“Oh, no, we’re not together,” Nora said defensively, not wanting to be mistaken for one of Maurice’s playthings. “We’re just neighbors.” The words tumbled out in a rush and sounded a lot harsher than she expected.
Robin continued, disregarding Nora’s interruption. “So you can’t call nobody, Maurice?”
“I’ll call you,” Maurice said. He gestured toward the snowmower. “But can you swing that thing back around? It’s going to be real hard to keep in touch if I’m buried alive.”
“Wait,” Robin said with a confused look. “You don’t really think that I’m gon’ leave all these people trapped in their houses, do you?”
Nora shrugged. “Well?”
Rolling her eyes, Robin spoke as if she’d been asked this question a thousand times. “First we clear the street, then we double back and get the walkways. Don’t like it? Take it up with the mayor.” She snorted out a laugh. Not a laugh of mirth, but a smug, self-satisfying laugh. Then she said, “Those are the rules,” using her fingers to scratch quotation marks in the air as she uttered the word “rules.”
Maurice and Nora watched from the window as Robin climbed back into the cabin of the snowmower and finished clearing the northbound lane. Then, she steered the snowmower up and over the curbs, clearing the walkways as well. Once Robin had left the block, Maurice and Nora pulled on their coats and went outside for no other reason than they could.
Nora spoke first. “Old flame?”
“Something like that,” Maurice said, rubbing his hands together for warmth. His face tightened, and he seemed to be focused on something behind her.
She waited for an awkward moment for him to go on, but when he did not, she did it for him. “You wanna run in your place real quick? Grab your toothbrush? Maybe a change of clothes?”
“Yeah, good idea.” Then he wrapped his arm around Nora’s waist and tried to usher her back indoors. Nora pretended not to notice. “It’s freezing out here,” he said. “Why don’t you wait for me inside?”
Nora complied, but as she approached the threshold of her own unit, she noticed that light was coming through the narrow frame of decorative glass that lined the top of Maurice’s front door. She went inside and locked the door behind her, and in the time that it took Maurice to gather up his things, she paced about her living room, debating whether or not to unlock it once he returned.
More than anything she wanted to play dumb, to act as if she had no idea that Maurice’s lights had been restored by the power company, but to do so would be just that — playing. But still, standing there in her house felt empty without Maurice and looking around, she wondered how she could have ever wanted to make it bigger.
If he did come back without needing the power, she tried to imagine what her neighbors would think. She could see the accusing looks from Maurice’s fan club. She could hear their jealous whispers as clearly as she’d heard their moans through the walls. She saw Robin, the driver of the snowmower, and how willing she had been to risk her job to protect Maurice.
There were three knocks at the door. Nora jumped when she heard the sound — it echoed off the walls like a clock ticking down the seconds she had left to decide.
She went to the door and opened it. Maurice was standing there holding a grocery bag of clothes and toiletries, and when he tried to walk in she stepped up to block his path. She noticed two things right away. First, a look of confusion on his face as he backed away from the threshold; and second, the unfamiliar feeling of control that it gave her.
Nora looked him square in the eye and said, “I wanted to buy your side of the duplex and I kinda-sorta of hate you for it.”
Maurice only stared at her, dumbfounded.
“Uh, okay. None taken?”
“And I saw that your lights are back on.”
“Oh,” he said, looking flustered for the first time. He started to explain himself, but Nora, not knowing she’d do it until her body began to move, stepped back from the doorframe and invited Maurice back inside.