I guess because I’m a guy, I didn’t notice it at first. The hair wall, I mean.
That’s what Amanda always says to me: “You’re such a guy!” Like if I don’t scrub every last crumb off the dishes, or if I don’t notice a stain of spaghetti sauce on my blue jeans. I’m just not that observant about that kind of thing. Which is kind of funny, since I’m a writer, so technically it’s my job to jot down the little details that no one else would notice. Not funny “ha ha,” but funny like an interesting trait to add to a character in a short story. But I don’t want to talk about fiction, I want to talk about the hair wall.
It’s the back wall of my bedroom, the one the sunlight doesn’t hit that well. The strands of hair, if they are hair, are very thin and light gray. You wouldn’t believe how soft they feel.
Amanda almost moved in with me, back when I had my old apartment. Top floor of a brownstone with big windows and a ladder to the roof where we would lay at night and watch the city darken into a thousand blinking lights. We’d hold hands, backs against the brick wall, and make plans for the future. A home together, vacations by the ocean, children. A life.
But my asshole landlords sold it to move to California and open a wine vineyard. Cleared a cool three million. I walk by the building every now and then, and from the street it doesn’t seem like anyone has moved in. Probably bought by some rich European asshole for tax write-off or something.
In any event, I had to move, and things between Amanda and me were rocky again—I can’t even remember what the fights were about, but they ended in hours of painful phone calls and hundreds of texted accusations—so we scrapped the whole moving-in-together plan. Put the future on hold.
And since I’d quit my job to finally try to finish my novel, I moved into the cheapest place I could find.
When I say I don’t notice a lot of stuff, you have to understand that the hair wall is hardly the only thing wrong with my new apartment. When Amanda comes over, she gasps. “There is black mold all over the hallway!” She is holding this blueberry pie she likes to bake. She calls it her “apology pie” and gives it to friends she’s stood up or to me after a particularly ugly fight.
“All over is a stretch,” I say. “It’s only that one corner.”
But Amanda says it’s toxic and “anywhere is too damn much.”
She walks past my stacks of boxes, pointing out other problems. The tiles in the kitchen are cracked, and there’s no window in the bathroom for air flow. She can’t believe I moved here, even when I tell her the price.
“Are you trying to make me never move in with you?” she says, scowling. “Because it’s working.”
She hands me the apology pie.
When we get to the bedroom, her eyes are so wide I think they might dry out from the dust. She points a shaking hand at the wall.
“What?” I say. “So it’s stained. I’ll repaint it.”
“Stained?” She won’t look at me, just keeps repeating the word. “Stained? Stained?”
“Charlie, a stain is that splotch of red wine you spilled on my couch. This is an infestation!” She takes a step toward the wall, sniffs, and recoils with her hand over her mouth. “It’s more of that black mold.”
“It looks gray to me,” I say, thinking I have the upper hand. “Not even dark gray. Almost silver.”
“You’re going to die in here!” Amanda yells. “You’re going to die in here because you are gross and stubborn and I am not even going to come to the funeral because your black-mold corpse would infect me with your stupidity from beyond the grave.”
Amanda and I don’t break up or anything. We don’t talk for a couple days, then we meet up, make out. It’s this cycle we are in. “Maybe you’re just one of those couples who always fights,” my friend Tony says when I call him for advice. “You should embrace the identity.”
“I don’t like fighting.”
“You can’t fight who you are. And you two are fighters.”
All I know is it makes me tired. I’ve been living in the city for a decade, trying to make it as a writer. I get published here and there, but nothing really breaks. I worry that I’m simply doing the same thing over and over. Every time I think I’m getting over the hump, I tumble back down. It feels like life is a wheel on a bicycle and I’m a piece of gum stuck to the tire.
Take this novel. I’ve been working on it for years. So long that it’s gone from a conversation starter to a conversation ender. I used to be able to casually mention it at a party and a friend would say, “You can do it, Charlie! Let me buy you a drink!” Now? They look at the ground, pat me on the back. “You’ll finish eventually, Charlie. Let me buy you a drink.”
But I’ve decided to make a real go of it. I can’t even tell you about the thing. I’m superstitious like that. Just remember my name for when you’re browsing shelves in a couple years.
Here’s the crazy thing. Once I unpack everything and settle in, my novel writing takes off. Like I write more in a month than I have in years. I’m not saying it’s the hair wall or anything. That’s crazy, obviously. But there’s just something about the apartment. The way the red light flows across my desk at dawn. The smoothness of the hardwood floors as I pace around reworking sentences. I feel comfortable in the apartment, like as soon as I walk inside I’m breathing a different air.
Amanda says she won’t come over again until I call a professional.
“Woah, nelly,” the man says when he walks inside. He steps back into the hallway and drops his bucket on the floor. He pulls out a pair of green rubber gloves and a large plastic mask.
“Do I need one of those?”
“Couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” he says.
He walks to the wall and rubs it. Taps at different spots with an extended knuckle. “It doesn’t feel damp, but it must be,” he says. “The apartment above you have a leaking toilet?”
“This is the top floor,” I say.
“Shoddy roofing then. Landlords these days cut every damn corner.” He yanks a couple strands off the wall, drops them in a plastic bag. Something creaks beneath my feet. “I gotta get something stronger from the van.”
He comes back with a silver canister on his back and a metal stepladder in his arms. He climbs up and starts spraying the wall from left to right, top to bottom, coating every inch. “This is the good shit. It’ll do the trick. It would kill a horse if a horse came in and licked the wall.”
“Is it safe?”
“Sure,” he says, spraying the yellow mist across the façade. “Just don’t lick the wall or anything.” He laughs. Then he looks back at me, eyes hidden behind the mask. “Seriously.”
The hair on the wall withers. Dries up, falls off. I sweep up the sad clumps, throw them in the black garbage bin by the mailboxes.
“Aren’t you glad you listened to me?” Amanda say, kissing me and beginning to finger the button of my jeans. She even sleeps over, and in the morning I make us eggs and toast with plenty of butter scrapped across the bread.
Amanda and I go a full two weeks without fighting. I put my novel aside and just focus on us. On our plans, our future. We walk to the park and buy apples from the farmer’s market, go to a museum in the city and look at the weird art on the walls. “See, couldn’t it be like this every day?” Amanda says, leaning against me, her hair tickling my face. “We could just keep doing this every single day, year after year.”
Of course it doesn’t last. We get into another fight as the subway stalls out on the bridge between boroughs. The sun is shining so angrily off the waters that I have to squint.
When we walk back inside my apartment, Amanda grabs her hair and shrieks. “Again!”
“I know,” I say, too tired to keep up the argument. “We just keep falling into this cycle.”
“No, you idiot,” Amanda says. “The wall! The mold is back on your horrible apartment’s gross death wall!”
Sometimes I feel like I can’t understand other people. Not Amanda, not anyone. They say the eyes are a window to the soul, but I can’t see anything in her eyes, not even when we make love. They are just murky brown pools. Anything could be swimming in the depths.
It’s like when I walk down the street, passing an unending stream of buildings. Their walls are brick or brownstone or painted wood, but each one is filled with an unknown number of people, each with their own secrets, lives, and loves. The windows are blocked with curtains or air conditioner units. You can’t see anything inside.
Days pass, stretch into weeks. Mature into a month. The wall grows thicker, darker. I can’t hear anything from the outside world. The hair wall muffles the foreign sounds. I just write. Pour whatever is inside me out on the page while I’m hunched over at my desk. Somehow, it’s working. The paragraphs become pages, pile up into chapters. It’s like my fingers are faucets and I’ve finally turned them on.
“Charlie!” Amanda shouts into the Skype camera. “You’re looking really sickly. Are you sick? You look sick!”
Amanda says, “I’m sorry we can’t just be normal and happy.”
Amanda says, “Damnit, babe, you need a haircut. You need a shower. You need to take care of yourself.”
Amanda says, “You look like you’re disappearing.”
Amanda says, “You need to get out of that apartment! Please! The mold is infecting you. Don’t you see that?” She’s beginning to cry. Pixelated tears stuttering down her cheeks. “You’re withering away.”
“I have to get back to work,” I say, shrinking the Skype box on my computer, then clicking the x. Amanda disappears.
If you rub the hair wall for long enough, I swear you can hear a sound. Not just the whisper of your skin gliding across the thick pelt, but something else. A sound from the wall itself, from inside the boards. A soothing growl behind the plaster, a rumble that says everything is okay.
Do you remember what it was like in the womb? I know science says it was wet, that we were floating in this warm gel, our eyes and mouths closed. But I think the womb felt differently to us, because back then we hadn’t felt air. Do you know what I mean? Like how fish have no idea what wetness is. To them, the air is a surprise and liquid is safety. Like being wrapped up in warm blankets, maybe. Or a fur coat. Tufts of soft hair touching every inch of your body, all at once.
They’re hammering on the door. “Open the door, Charlie.” My eyes are closed. I can feel hair in my face, tickling my lips. I roll out of bed, dizzy and confused. My novel is scattered across the floor, and I slip on the pages, landing hard on my back. I groan from the floorboards.
“I love you, Charlie,” Amanda says in a quiet voice. Then she gets louder again. “Open the door! Seriously. The fire department is here. You’re infected with something. I love you, goddamn it. Open it!”
I can’t think straight. My head feels clogged up. My whole body. Like I’ve been emptied out and stuffed with fur. The door is pounding, splintering. I push myself backwards on the floor, prop myself against the wall. I spread out my arms, and something behind me, something that feels like one hundred million arms, embraces me, holds me firmly, tells me that I am finally home.
Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts (Cof