White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Adam Reger
Adam Reger's work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New Orleans Review, Juked, Pear Noir!, and Red Mountain Review. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh's MFA program in fiction, he currently lives in Pittsburgh.

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Bedroom Tapes

Adam Reger

 

The place across the alley from our apartment had been a recording studio. But it must have been gradually failing all the time I had lived there, because one day the place was suddenly empty and stayed that way for several weeks. In the mornings I would eat my breakfast in our dining area, just off the small kitchen, and through the uncurtained window across the alley see the sun slanting in on a dirty gray carpet.

Javier, my roommate, was home one night in July when I came in late after finishing work and eating dinner alone at a cheap Chinese place. He was several years older than me, dark-complected, petite and I would say pretty, though not in an unmasculine way. He had lived in the apartment longer than I had.

“There are people over there,” I said, stooping over the table to look through the day’s mail. Blinds had been hung in the window across the alley. They were half-raised, and I could look through and see

the foot of a bed. The carpet had been cleaned and a small table sat in the center of the room. An unlit candle stood on the windowsill. “Did you see this?”

“Huh,” Javier said, when he’d come from his computer to stand in the nook with me, beside our window.

I shrugged and said, “I guess it’s not that remarkable,” sorting through the mail. There was nothing for me; Javier was indifferent to his mail and often left it lying on the table for days such that the size of the pile sometimes deceived me. “It’s surprising to see signs of life, I guess.”

“Maybe we’ll see them naked,” Javier said and returned to his computer, just beside the door leading out to the hall and stairs. I went back to my bedroom at the end of the long, dim hallway.

Several weeks before, when the apartment across the alley was still vacant, I’d come home late one Sunday night after a weekend stay at my parents’ house in the suburbs. I’d come into the apartment and looked at Javier’s desk, where I expected him to be sitting. I had heard music as I turned my key in the lock, the soft strum of a guitar,


horns drifting in and out, and the sad, high voice of a man singing Spanish words that I could not decipher. But Javier was not there. On his computer screen I saw a large, slightly pixelized photograph of a dick. Its details were vivid: blue-green veins, the glare from a camera flash, tufts of coarse dark hair around the base. I looked away. I went back to my room with my bag.

I passed the bathroom, which was lit, the door half open. I looked in and saw the back of Javier’s head, small, perfectly shaped, his dark thin hair artfully combed. In the mirror, I could see him flossing with concentration. His face was just the same as the back of his head, the features petite and well-formed; around his mouth, only a bluish shadow of ungrown stubble was visible. “Hey, how’s it going,” he said after first starting at my sudden appearance in the darkened hallway. I waved and said hello and continued down the hall to my bedroom.

I put the bag on my bed and closed the bedroom door. I unpacked, stuffing dirty clothes into a laundry bag in my closet. The city’s ambient but unfriendly noise, which entered my room from the

street, always surprised me when I’d been away for more than a day or so. I imagined Javier finishing with his toothbrush, going along the hall to his computer and noticing what had been left on the screen. He would wonder if I’d seen it, or assume that I must have; perhaps he’d wonder if he ought to mention it, or simply let it pass.

After stowing the overnight bag in my closet, I pulled down the shades on the windows, blocking out the light of a neon sign across South Street, its immense column of letters spelling out “DELICATESSEN.” Perhaps, I thought, there was an explanation I hadn’t considered. We were roommates because Javier had posted an ad on Craigslist and I had replied. I knew enough of the culture of that website to know that men who responded to ads posted by women sometimes sent photographs like the one that I had seen; perhaps the cock was Javier’s, taken to impress an anonymous but real woman living somewhere in Philadelphia.

But why should that explanation be any more understandable or welcome than Javier’s simply looking at cocks on the internet? It occurred to me,


changing into my makeshift pajamas, that I had given Javier few clues, if any, to my own orientation; he would be hard-pressed to know which explanation of the cock photograph to offer in order to appease me, if he wished to. The only thing to do, it seemed, was to shrug and depend upon our cordial relations, our status as roommates being something other than friendship.

I set my alarm for the morning, put in the earplugs I had begun wearing, then turned out the light and got into bed.

 

On Friday night, several days after the apartment across the alley was occupied, I saw that the blinds were fully raised in the window. I could see half the apartment, and noticed what seemed to be goth accoutrements. A Bauhaus poster hung on the wall, and black candles rested on an end table. The bed frame that I had seen before was visible in greater detail and revealed itself to be made of intricately crafted iron, its pattern sharp and delicate, like barbed wire artfully twisted. I had been looking into the apartment for only a few

seconds when a girl walked past the window. She wore heavy black eyeliner, and the paleness of her skin was exacerbated by makeup and by the deep, dyed black of her long hair. She wore a vinyl corset that caught the light in the room. The pale tops of her breasts rose like bread dough from the corset, which emphasized her chubbiness both there and around her waist, where her abdomen pushed against the vinyl. I watched for only a minute or so and then went out of the apartment, down to the street and a few blocks toward the river, to a sandwich shop. The sun was beginning to set and it cast long, gauzy columns of light over South Street with its overflow of pedestrians. When I came back I sat at the table, keeping an eye on the window while eating a late dinner. I kept the light above the table turned off and was able to look as nakedly into the apartment as if I were in an opera box. As I ate, the girl set out salsa in a dish and opened bags of tortilla and potato chips. She lit two candles with a cheap plastic lighter. One of the candles was set on the windowsill, and I watched her face, dark and then fitfully illuminated in a moment of concentration. I felt certain that her down-turned


eyes would rise suddenly, finding me across the darkened alley, but the girl did not look up. She strode across the apartment, pausing and looking around the room with her hands on her hips, so that despite what she was wearing she seemed ordinary, like anyone else preparing their home for guests.

Her friends began to show up shortly after that. The sun had just finished setting but already the city was dark.

A girl and a boy entered together, each with dyed-black hair. There was a petite blond girl engulfed in baggy pants and black t-shirt, her pale, freckled arms emerging like narrow pipes from the sleeves. Last of all came a tremendously fat boy, his arms and neck softly fleshy. Shyly, he handed the girl in the vinyl corset a small box, wrapped and with a red bow tied around it.

I remember the fat boy best. He leaned against the foot of the bed like a haystack, his eyes blurred by thick glasses, his brown hair long and stringy, its tips residually blue. He sat bow-legged from the ripples of fat disfiguring his legs. Even his feet were enlarged, the laces of his white sneakers loosened.

While the girl and her other friends sat on the floor, drinking beers, eating, smoking, and murmuring indistinctly, the fat boy sat detached from the rest. Having myself been lonely in a crowd, I recognized him as heartsick or shy. I could see from the way he drew carefully from his cigarette and then leaned his head back to release the smoke, slowly, as if oblivious to all else, that what he wanted was for one of the girls to come and talk only to him.

Our window was closed, the air conditioning turned on, but I could hear music—synthesizers, a plaintive male voice, and the fluttering, mirthless beat of a drum—drifting across the alley. The girl in the vinyl corset ceremoniously unwrapped the present the fat boy had brought her. There was a pause, several long seconds during which she and the others tried to ascertain what the gift was. The blond girl looked baffled by the contents of the box. The fat boy grew still, his face caught in an unguarded look of apprehension. At last the girl shrieked and raised the item from the box: after a moment I could see it was a small videotape, still wrapped in plastic. The girl’s darkly made-up face lightened into a grin and she said something I


couldn’t hear. She rose to her knees and hugged the fat boy, whose face now suggested detached bemusement.

I had been watching for quite some time and now felt immensely lazy. I left the dark dining nook and went back to my bedroom.

I took out my guitar, my recorder and my concertina from the closet. For much of my time in Philadelphia I pieced together songs on a four-track recorder, committing them to several dozen tapes, which I have saved. My percussion section was the microphone, which I tapped on. My older brother had passed along a guitar, and I used the two lowest strings to play simple bass notes. My main instrument was the concertina, a small red accordion that raised a thin whine. I’d learned to play chords, and with different fingerings I could play the concertina like a guitar, pumping its bellows almost as one would strum guitar strings.

I constructed my songs, always planning to write and record the vocal sections later. As I fiddled with those three tracks until they were balanced, I began to hear the sound but not the

sense of the lyrics that would accompany the music. It was as if I were hearing the shadows of the words, blurred and opaque. Sometimes, when I had been working on a particular song for a week or more, fine-tuning the way the pieces fit together, I might fish out certain words, end rhymes or the matching beginnings of paired lines, out of the ghost sounds I was hearing.

That was as close, though, as I ever came to setting down lyrics. I would invent another melody, discover an interesting fingering on the concertina, and set to work on the next song. Now that I’m older, part of me would like to hear what my voice sounded like. Another part of me, though, and it is the larger part, hears the empty space on those tapes where my voice ought to be and remembers the young man I was, incapable of finding the exact right words to set to music.

It was a mild evening, and I had a window open despite the air conditioning being on. The breeze blew the window shade inwards and then left it to sink softly back, bumping against the frame. The bank of windows in my room overlooked South


Street, a strip of shops and bars that would remain noisy and active late into the night. The street sounds made the earplugs that I wore to bed necessary, because it was always possible that in the late hours of the night a fight would break out, or a shopkeeper and a cop would have words just under my window, or a car alarm would go off and not stop for half an hour. Through the open window I could smell cigarette smoke and the frying grease and meat from a cheesesteak place just up the street. Looking down on the people in the street and across at the vivid DELICATESSEN sign, I shut the window and sat in the center of the carpet.

In my room I worked on recording the concertina part. It was the fastest and most difficult part, athletically demanding, requiring a shift by both hands at the same time, from the top to bottom rows of keys.

I got lost in recording that part. Two hours, perhaps more, passed without my registering it. I went through seven takes, and during the eighth there was a knock at the door.

That eighth take was no good. I was too slow

from the start, and my fingers felt hot and rubbery. My armpits were slick from pumping the bellows across my chest. I could use a break, but it was irritating to be interrupted.

I did not speak once I had pulled the door open and faced Javier, standing in the darkened hallway. I imagined the formality between us as a thin wall.

He was excited. “You’ve got to come see this,” he said. I might have asked for more details but he was already moving back towards the kitchen, his white undershirt ghostly in the dark. He had turned out all the lights in the apartment.

 

They were making a movie in the apartment across the alley and had neglected to lower the blinds. I followed the faint light from their window through the dark kitchen and stood beside Javier, close by our window.

In the apartment I could see a flickering candle flame in the center of the room. A mirror had been mounted to the far wall, and in it I saw the red light of a recording camera reflected at an angle. In the


center of the floor was the girl who lived in the apartment. She was dressed as before, but now her eyes had been circled with burnt cork and her hair had been plaited and pinned up in a way that looked painful. She lay on the floor, undulating, the heavy movement of her hips and chest calling to mind a slow-motion orgasm.

“Is it a porno?” I asked quietly, able to think of nothing else to say.

“I don’t think so,” Javier said, half-whispering. I’d taken position perhaps ten inches from him.

“How long have you been watching?”

“Maybe five minutes.”

We watched in silence. The girl’s movements caused her body to migrate slowly over the carpet. As my eyes accommodated the darkness, I detected in the mirror the shape of the person holding the camera. It was the fat boy, gazing through the camera at the girl coiling and unwinding on the floor. I wondered if her other friends were also in the room, pushed to the edges of the camera’s frame, or if the fat boy had gotten her alone.

Javier and I stood watching for ten minutes, perhaps longer, neither of us speaking. As the girl moved over the carpet, the dark shape of the fat boy shifted throughout the room, briefly eclipsing our view before moving past the window and out of sight.

Watching the girl, her languid and hypnotic movements, I became aware of Javier’s presence beside me. I heard his breathing, soft but insistent, with a minute whistle as it passed through his nose. He was almost a foot away from me but it seemed I could feel the warmth of his bare arm, and even the spidery touch of the dark hairs covering it. I could see his profile in my peripheral vision, and even as I looked ahead it became all that I was aware of.

The guttering flame, the movements of the girl, and the faint strain of music—not cold as the music before had been, but deep and percussive, moving at the speed of a heartbeat—had an effect on me that I recognized. With that recognition came a shadow, the awareness that there was no one in the world, just then, on whom I could turn the mute desire I was feeling in my stomach and chest. In another


story or in a movie these things might have hypnotized me, and I might have moved closer to Javier, turned, and bent my head down to kiss his lips.

But I did not do any of those things, and I knew I was not going to. Out on the street, a siren started and pushed its way past our building. I cleared my throat and shifted my weight from one leg to the other. The spell had broken, but I remained for another minute watching the girl undulate on the carpet.

“She’s got a lot of stamina,” I said finally. “Let me know if there’s any hardcore action over there. If it’s a gang bang, they might need volunteers.” I moved away from the window through the kitchen to the dark hallway.

“Will do,” Javier answered. “I’ll come get you if I see any broadswords.” I looked back through the kitchen, watching him turn back to the window, his small head a dark silhouette against the brightness of the alleyway, its light seeping in from South Street.

I went down the hall, back to my dimly lit room, and closed the door behind me. Against the noise from the street I could hear the thin whine of the four-track recorder, still moving at its languid pace. I bent down and turned it off.

The tape was nearly used up. I took it out of the recorder, labeled it with the date and a notation of where I was living, and put it in a box beneath my bed, alongside the rest of my tapes.

It would be foolish of me to believe that my cheap microphone could have captured anything beyond the noises that it did record: the honking of car horns, a loud obscenity, and the rustle of the air conditioning in my bedroom. Yet I have listened to that section of the tape many times now, beginning with my eighth take and Javier’s knock at the door, and each time I do I imagine I can hear something else, some obscure and meaningful sound rising up out of the dark.

 

 

Copyright© Adam Reger. White Whale Review, issue 2.1


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