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Living Together


Harry Buschman

Stephen was sure he found the perfect apartment. "Lincoln House" was two  blocks from his office in Lincoln Square and regardless of the weather or the day of the week, he would be able to sleep late, if Barbara let him, that is.

Best of all they would be living together. "Living together!" It sounded great to an out-of-towner like Stephen. He was sick and tired of rolling out of Barbara's apartment at three in the morning, saying goodnight to her nosy doorman and finding his way home. Living together was what New York was all about, all the advantages of married life with none of the commitments and chains of matrimony. Wedded bliss might be all right for some people, but not for Barbara and him. Not right now -- some other time. Bliss was all they needed. Bliss was all they wanted.

It was a little pricey, but looking ahead and counting on a raise or two ... and a little financial help from Barbara ... he was sure he could swing it. His duplex in Murray Hill was nice enough in the beginning but the cross-town commute was murder. Manhattan is a north south town, and if you have to get from east to west it's bad news.

The apartment overlooked the north plaza of Lincoln Center and by stretching his neck a little at the living room window he could see a corner of Central Park. Living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath -- almost more room than they needed. He'd have to get a chair for the living room and a kitchen table ... but not right away, Barbara had a few pieces too, she would probably want to bring them. All in good time, "Don't sweat the details," he reminded himself. Most impressive of all, he would have a doorman now. Only four people on his floor, all of them singles -- paired off and living together but single. La Dolce Vita! The only downside to the new apartment was the previous tenant committed suicide there.

At least the rental agent was up front about it from the first ... right from the beginning Javits said, "You'll find out for yourself sooner or later so I better tell you now ...." but instead of continuing, Javits held the lease and the pen in his hand and looked at Stephen for a sign of encouragement.

"What's the problem?" Stephen asked.

"Well .... no problem really. The previous tenant .... man by the name of Lennie Baker committed suicide in here, that's all." Javits dismissed the information with a wave of his hand. "That doesn't trouble you, Mr. Whitman -- does it?" He asked the question somewhat plaintively.

The apartment was still too attractive a deal to pass up...

"We've repainted," Javits went on.

"The whole place?"

"Well no, not exactly. Just the room -- you know? The room he did it in."

He just about decided he was going to take the place in spite of Lennie Baker and his suicide, and for his own peace of mind he didn't want to know any more details. Javits, mistaking a reluctant decision for indecision, handed the lease and the pen to Stephen and rubbed his hands together. Then, almost as though he were confiding a secret, said he would sweeten the deal. He offered to cut the rent twenty dollars -- not a big deal, Stephen thought, when you're paying $1500 a month, but it was a gentle and effective nudge. He went for it.

"You'll like the place, Mr. Whitman. Nice people on this floor -- singles you know?" He gave Stephen half a wink as he pulled two brass keys out of his side pocket and told him to stay as long as he liked.

"You probably have to make plans, you know -- where to put the furniture and all that. Let me know soon's y'can when you think you'll be moving in, okay? We'll give the place a final dusting down." They walked to the door and Javits touched two fingers to his forehead in an informal salute, then smiled and was gone.

Stephen closed the door softly behind him and looked across the small foyer and into the living room. There's something tragic about an empty apartment, he thought. It's cold and it's hollow. It isn't only because of the emptiness -- the emptiness is no surprise. Indeed, it would be strange to find someone living in an empty apartment. But it's dispiriting and tragic all the same. Someone once lived here and there's a hollow echoing where that someone was.

He walked into the living room and noticed an oval of lighter wallpaper at eye level where Lennie Baker's sofa might have been. A picture? Of what -- of whom? In the kitchenette a calendar still hung crookedly on the wall by the phone. Two months old. April, with the days 'exed' out up to the 27th. Was that the day? What brought things to a head on April 27th? What made life such an insurmountable burden on just that one particular day?

Was this the room in which he killed himself? Probably not -- "People don't kill themselves in kitchens," Stephen said to himself. He found himself wishing he'd asked Javits more about it.

With a start he looked at his watch. Nearly six. Barbara would be home by now. He absent-mindedly picked up the phone to dial her number. It was disconnected -- of course it would be, he reminded himself. "What's the matter with me?" he asked himself. He normally didn't make mistakes like that. The smart thing to do would be to get over to Barbara's apartment and give her the good news, call the phone company from there, take her to dinner and come back here. She couldn't help falling in love with the place and the idea of living together.

He tried the keys in the door before leaving. Then he turned and looked into the empty room again with an unsettled feeling, as though he was leaving something or someone behind. There was a strong presence of mortality in the room, and he almost felt compelled to say goodbye. "I'm sure," he thought, "it won't be like this after we furnish it. It's because of the emptiness." Now he wished he asked Javits where Lennie did it and how -- maybe there was a question of why, too. But maybe it was best not to know why.


Barbara, a Pennsylvania girl, had lived in New York a year. Life on the East Side was exciting in the beginning, but her relationship with Stephen changed all that. The idea of living together in Lincoln Square was irresistible and she fell in love with the view; she even liked the doorman. She never liked the doorman in her apartment on the West Side. She could feel his eyes following her as she walked through the lobby. While her enthusiasm was at its peak, Stephen mentioned Lennie Baker.

It was as though someone had turned a switch. "You mean he killed himself? Right here? Really Stephen -- you don't expect me ..."

"It's nothing, really Barbara. It doesn't make any difference." He put his arm around her and walked her to the window again so she could look at the corner of Central Park. "Every apartment has a secret or two, it's nothing ... really."

"I don't know, Stephen ... it's kinky, you know?"

"They repainted," he reminded her.

"They probably had to. Oh, Stephen, please don't tell me any more."

But in the end, the view, the apartment and even the prospect of living with  Stephen won out. Both of them made plans, much the way newlyweds do. They  enjoyed that. My sofa. Your lounge chair. My silverware. Both our dishes.


Stephen held the bottle up to the light. "Look how clear it is. It's almost like water isn't it?"

"Maybe it is."

"Oh no it isn't," he bristled, then he turned the bottle over and read the back label. "From the vineyards of Maurice Plaisir, Montrechat." He opened the door of the refrigerator and laid the bottle down reverently. "$28.50 Barbara. It should make the chicken go down very easily."

Barbara riffled through the mail on the small end table. "What chicken?" she asked. Then before he could answer she said, "Damn! The minute you move in you're on everyone's list. There's even fourth class mail for Lennie Baker." She shivered a bit and dropped the mail into a wastebasket under the table. "It looks like we're eating in tonight -- I mean, with the wine and all."

"I thought it might be nice. We hardly ever eat here -- don't you get tired of eating out?"

They stood close together under the low arch that separated the foyer from the living room. Barbara shivered as Stephen's arm slipped around her waist. They looked into each other's eyes for a brief second, then broke apart -- Barbara turned her back, and said in a small voice, "It isn't as good as we thought it would be, is it Steve?"

"It's very good. I'm sure it's as good as it gets -- it's just that there's something ..."

"What did you get besides the wine, Stephen?"

Stephen roused himself and walked quickly into the tiny kitchen ... "Oh, I got a roasted chicken, some asparagus and a container of homemade sorbet." He rattled around in the packages. "Glad you reminded me. I forgot to put the sorbet in the freezer."

Barbara followed him to the kitchen and stood in the doorway. "Just the two of us, right?"

"Yes. Just the two of us. Why?"

"Why did we have to rent this place, Stephen? Of all the apartments in the City of New York -- why this one?"

Stephen slid the freezer door shut and sighed. "Come on Barbara, you know why." He stepped on the flip-open garbage can harder than he should and it fell over.

"He'll be eating with us, won't he ... I swear Stephen sometimes I feel he's sleeping with us too. I want him out of here Stephen -- can't you get him out of here?" She began to sob convulsively.

Stephen hurried over to her and rocked her like a child. They looked at each other helplessly, and the uncertainty that only needled them in the beginning was at last full blown. The ghost of Lennie Baker was a physical presence, stronger than both of them. The doorbell rang ...

"I'll get it Barbara -- be right back."

It was an overweight man of middle age. He was coatless, wore suspenders and strangest of all, wore pink bunny slippers. "Hi," he said apologetically, "I'm Shawn from down the hall, do you know anything about canaries?"

Stephen stared at him blankly and Shawn smiled understandingly. He turned and pointed down the hall. "The end apartment." He said. He extended a long delicate finger. "Shawn Taylor ... Desmond and I have this canary ... " He ran his fingers through his hair as though to straighten it. "I must look a mess, musn't I? But you see I'm at my wits end. Desmond will be home any minute and if he sees I've done nothing about the canary he'll be furious."

Barbara came to his rescue ... "Oh, Mr. Taylor." She stepped between them and turned to Stephen. "Stephen, you haven't met Mr. Taylor yet, have you?" Without waiting for him to answer she swung the door wide and Shawn Taylor walked in.

Taylor made a pirouette in the middle of the living room. "Oh, I love what you've done with this place -- did you have a decorator dear?"

Barbara, flushed with pleasure, said, "You like it then? No, I did it myself ..." she turned reluctantly to Stephen. "With a little help from Stephen," she added.

"Oh, I should explain I guess. I'm thinking of how it looked just after Lennie ..." He stopped and looked nervously at Barbara and Stephen. "You DO know about dear Lennie, don't you?"

"Yes," Stephen said bluntly.

"So sad," Shawn sighed. "A slave to love I'd say. What some people will do for love." He lowered his voice an octave. "You know how he did it, don't you?"

Stephen shook his head and Barbara looked away. "You should know -- really you should. It helps to understand."

"Understand? Understand what?" Stephen asked.

Shawn glanced momentarily at his watch. "I should really be getting back --Desmond will be home any minute." As though making up his mind to stay a moment longer, he sat down. "Desmond's reading his poetry at B&N down in the village. I suppose he'll be late." He giggled and added, "He'll be so full of himself when he gets home. Riding on a crest of adulation, you know how poets are."

Stephen and Barbara sat on the sofa across from him. "What is it we should  understand, Mr. Taylor?"

"Please, please, for Heaven's sake -- call me Shawn. I haven't been called Taylor since law school. ...I'm waffling I guess, trying to find a way to tell you about dear Lennie."

"Would you like a drink, Shawn?" Barbara asked.

"Oh no. No, I never drink unless Desmond's with me. Lennie drowned himself ... in your bathtub by the way. I mean, isn't that the most bizarre way to go? How do you drown yourself? How do you hold your head underwater? ... I'd bob up like a cork." He looked at Stephen and Barbara with a half smile, then grew serious again. "It was a girl, a very special girl. To him anyway. She called herself Emerald, Emerald LaMarr. She had a part in the Broadway revival of 'The Pajama Game.'"

"Isn't that sad," Barbara said.

"A man eater. An eight cylinder b***h," he added.

Stephen couldn't resist a grin. He was beginning to like Shawn, he might have been off the wall but there was something that rang true with the man.

"First she made a slave of him, then she turned him into a fool. Some women like to do that you know." Shawn looked down at the floor and quietly said, "My mother was like that." He paused and looked at Barbara. "Where was I? Oh yes -- Emerald. She would have Johns up here in the afternoon, producers, publicity people. Then, at night, she and Lennie would party. I can only imagine what went on in poor Lennie's head ... he was whipped -- truly whipped. Then, finally, when the show folded, Emerald went off to Tinsel Town with the producer. You can't imagine how Lennie carried on ... it wouldn't surprise me if ..."

"If what?" Stephen asked.

"Well, what I mean is ... that kind of passion can go on and on. I mean even after death."

Stephen and Barbara moved a little closer on the sofa. "You don't believe ....?" Barbara asked.

"I'll tell you a little story," Shawn began. "Do you know who had our apartment before Desmond and I moved in?" They shook their heads. "His name was Roland Petit. He was head chef at Marquisette. Desmond and I used to eat there a lot -- finest French chef in New York. Well, don't go there now, he's dead. Died of food poisoning by the way -- poetic isn't it? Anyway we're living in Roland's old apartment, right here in Lincoln Square."

Sensing he hadn't explained the connection, Shawn stood up and pointed to the  door. "Right down the hall -- he died by his own hand too -- in a way. Died from his own cooking anyway. The minute we heard the news, Desmond and I got the rental agent out of bed and signed up."

Shawn stood up and looked at his watch. "The thing is ... we couldn't get rid of him. We were condemned to share the apartment with the dead chef of the Marquisette."

"We would come home late," Shawn said, "and catch the aroma of cooking. We  would find leftovers in the refrigerator we hadn't put there, or things would be put back in places we didn't leave them in." He looked at Stephen and Barbara and shook his head slowly. "The presence of Roland Petit was as constant and persistent as the presence of Lennie Baker must be to you."

"Passionate people." Shawn remarked ruefully, "take forever to die." He related the case of Lisa Shottenheimer, the piano tuner, who lived in the apartment facing the court. "For 15 years she tuned all 28 pianos in Lincoln Center -- a momentary lapse of attention," Shawn called it. "She stepped in front of the downtown bus on Amsterdam Avenue." He made a thumbs down signal. "For years you could hear a piano in that apartment even though it was removed before the new tenants moved in." He looked at his watch again. "I have to go. There's so much to do. Desmond must be wondering where I am -- then there's the damn canary. God knows what we'll do with it ... life gets more complicated every day. I just thought I'd tell you. We all have our problems you see. We live with our ghosts here." He smiled sympathetically and moved towards the door. Stephen stood up and opened it for him.

"Goodnight Mr. Whitman ... you're a lovely couple, by the way," he added wistfully. "You'll be fine here. Just leave a little room for Lennie, he won't stay forever." Just outside the door, he turned, shrugged his shoulders and said, ".... life is so short, isn't it? Love should be more important than it is."

"It's been nice meeting you," Stephen said. "We'll set a place for Lennie." He turned to Barbara -- she was by the window, staring out at the park. It was suddenly quiet in the apartment, just the hum of traffic in the street below. Barbara placed the palm of her hand on the window and felt the coolness outside. She shivered involuntarily and turned to Stephen.

"I'm not sure I can handle it, Stephen. Now that I know more about him."

"Lennie, you mean?"

She folded her arms across her chest and shuddered. "Every time I use that  bathroom I'll ..."

Stephen crossed the room hurriedly and tried to put his arms around her, but she shook him off and raised her eyes to the ceiling. "How did we ever get ourselves in this mess, Stephen?"

"Look Barbara, it hasn't stopped those two down the hall, and the couple that moved in after the piano player ..."


"She only plays when she's alone."

"Don't be funny."

"Come on, I'll warm up the chicken. You can do the asparagus -- I don't know how to handle asparagus -- then I'll open the wine and we'll make a toast ..."

"I'm not eating here." She walked to the hall closet and got her coat. She held it out to Stephen, and with a sigh of resignation he held it for her. "Damn!" She stamped her foot. "I have to go to the bathroom before we leave!"

"Want me to come with you?"

"No! I'll shut my eyes ... Stephen, how could he do such a thing?"

Stephen didn't have a ready answer. Lennie Baker's suicide was something he couldn't quite accept either. Shawn Taylor seemed to understand the power of obsession, maybe it was easier for a gay man to appreciate, but Stephen could  never imagine himself doing such a thing. Then, he thought a bit more about it ... "If Barbara walked out on me -- left me alone in this place, with nothing but the emptiness and the little light oval patch on the living room wall ..." Well, he wasn't quite so sure of himself after all.

"Why aren't you ready yet? Get your coat on, we're going out." She seemed  anxious to leave. Stephen was not, he would rather stay and talk this out.  Reluctantly he walked to the closet and got his coat. Then he remembered.

"I have to put the chicken away ... won't be a minute." He went to the kitchen, wrapped the chicken in foil and put it in the refrigerator. "Right with you, Barbara." He rinsed his hands and dried them. Barbara was standing at the open door staring into the hallway. They closed the door softly and both of them had the fidgety feeling they were leaving something or someone behind.

It was quiet after they left and the setting sun across the Hudson burned weakly through the low hanging smog. It extended narrow fingers of golden light diagonally across the living room. Even though Stephen and Barbara were no longer there, the presence of mortality was strong and anyone being in that room would swear they were not alone.

Although the presence was invisible it changed the appearance of the household items it obscured. If you were looking at a picture on the wall and it passed through your line of sight, the picture would appear slightly distorted as though seen through water. You might brush your eyes, thinking your sight had grown momentarily blurry, when things cleared up again you would think no more about it.

It was a voiceless and weightless ghost. It drifted through the apartment aimlessly, much like a soap bubble or a puff of smoke, seemingly without purpose or direction, and although it may well have been the spirit of Lennie Baker, there was no way of telling. The last thought on Lennie's mind when his breathing stopped and his lungs filled with water, was the heartless Emerald Lamarr. Had he been able to speak, he would have called her name. It was this unuttered cry that wandered about the empty apartment at Lincoln House.

But there were two strangers here now, and they brought a vital change with  them -- new voices and new vibrations. They could not hear the pitiful plea of Lennie Baker, all they could sense was an uneasiness in the air. His ghost could not intrude in the life of these two people. They would have ghosts of their own to haunt them while they lived and mourn them when they were gone.

It took a final turn around the apartment. The kitchen in which Lennie took so many meals alone, the living room where Emerald entertained her afternoon Johns before they made their slow and steady way to the bedroom. Yes the bedroom! ... the nightly fights ... the promises and sullen excuses. Echoes to reverberate forever -- or stilled by a living couple.

Suddenly the ghost was gone. It's lonely vigil at Lincoln House was over, and it evaporated as gently and as surely as the final knell of a tolling bell. The apartment was now as hollow as a void within a wall of silence. So silent that the jarring noise of Stephen's key in the lock was like the opening of a jail cell door.

They had entered this room many times before, and always there would be the  uneasy sensation that someone, or something, was waiting for them. Tonight they stopped in their tracks as they closed the door.

"My God!" Barbara whispered, "It's gone!" There was an absolute emptiness in the room, a coolness as though someone had opened a window to air it out.

"Let's make sure he doesn't come back," Stephen said.

They walked to the living room window and looked down at Lincoln Center. It was nearly dark now and the floodlights were playing on the fountains and people were gathering for the opera.

"Big crowd," Barbara said, "I think it's The Marriage of Figaro."

"That reminds me..." said Stephen.

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