Ronnie nearly dropped her canvas grocery bag as she struggled to turn her key in the main door deadbolt, narrowly avoiding the sight of a half dozen pink grapefruit rolling across the dusty green faux-marble tiles of her apartment building’s atrium. Keith, the building manager, had welcomed her to call him if her key continued to be stubborn, offering to gladly get her a replacement. But nonetheless, nearly six months since moving into the three storey building at 344 North Avenue, Ronnie quietly persevered against the inconvenience. She didn’t want to bother the man, especially since he had seemed so preoccupied the other day when Ronnie had passed him in the corridor. She also didn’t want to give Keith the wrong impression. Mitchell had warned her on countless occasions to never trust handymen and contractors. Technically she was
a married woman, after all.
The glass door had barely closed behind her when she heard the commotion down the hall. Ronnie turned the corner to the hallway just in time to see Jill Hudson, clad in her leather motorcycle wear -- Jill called it armor, Ronnie recalled -- pounding mercilessly on the door to her apartment. The tumult echoed through the empty corridor as Jill kicked the door twice with her heavy boots then bashed it once with her knee before yelling, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck!” Then Jill spun around, leaned her back against the door and slid downward until she finally sat on the stained carpet, crumpled and breathless, her helmet and knapsack dropped on the floor beside her, two clenched fists covering her face.
Ronnie hadn’t moved even an inch before Jill sensed her presence and snapped her head up, quickly wiping away the moisture from her eyes. Jill stared at Ronnie. "What?" The acid in her tone made the word sound like a growl.
Ronnie instinctively clutched her shopping bag to her chest, as if she suddenly wished she could hide behind it. “I-I was just…are you okay?”
“I’m just fucking peachy,” Jill said. “I’m even better now that I’ve locked myself out of my goddamn apartment.” Jill closed her eyes and slammed her head back into the door, sending another sharp thump resonating through the hallway.
Ronnie took a few tentative steps forward. “Um…perhaps you could ask Keith to let you in?"
“Yeah, THAT’S gonna go over real fuckin’ well.” Jill said with a chuckle. “He’s not in his office anyway. I already checked.”
Ronnie said nothing more. She stood silent for a moment, then tightened her fingers on the straps of her bag and strode forward past the heap of angry black leather that was her downstairs neighbour. She had gone only a few feet before Jill called out.
“Veronica, wait. I’m sorry.”
Ronnie turned around. Jill still sat on the floor, staring at an imaginary point on the carpet in front of her. “I didn’t mean to sound like such a bitch.”
“Please,” Ronnie replied. “Don’t worry about it. It sounds like you’re having a pretty bad day.”
Jill made a muffled acknowledgement before falling quiet again, still staring at the floor.
Ronnie felt compelled to break the awkward silence. “If you want, maybe you could come upstairs and wait in my apartment until Keith gets back.”
Jill looked up. “You sure?”Hardly
, Ronnie thought. She mustered only a small nod and a vague shrug of her shoulders in reply.
“That’d be great,” said Jill. “Thanks.” Her heavy leather creaked as Jill rose and swung her knapsack over her shoulder. She slipped her silver helmet under her arm. With her lumbering motorcycle boots, Jill stood nearly a foot taller than her neighbour.
Ronnie offered a wan smile before turning to lead Jill up the corridor. Neither woman spoke until Ronnie had flipped the lock to her small apartment and opened the door. “Make yourself at home,” Ronnie said. “I’m just going to put these groceries away.”
Jill removed her boots and walked into the small bachelor suite, which displayed more than it concealed about its solitary occupant. The apartment was cramped, but tidy and well-lit; natural light spilled easily into each corner of the room, despite the dullness of the overcast sky hovering outside the glass sliding patio door and the large window next to it. Aside from the worn grey carpet, the suite was decorated tastefully; soft linens of medium browns, taupes and terracottas complemented the sharper burgundies of the matching sofa and loveseat, which barely fit along the inside walls. All of the furnishings appeared thoughtfully coordinated, save for only a behemoth leather armchair which engulfed an entire corner of the room.
Aside from a compact stereo unit in a rectangular, chrome-bordered shelving unit, the living and dining areas were crammed with walnut bookshelves, each lined with double rows of both hard- and soft-cover titles that ranged in genre from historical romance to how-to manuals on subjects like cooking, Yoga and scrapbooking. Atop each bookshelf, tiny ceramic elephants and other assorted figurines competed for space against ornate pewter picture frames, most of which contained images of a heavy-set, dark-skinned man with a mustache. In none of the photographs was the man smiling.
“Nice place,” said Jill, casually scanning the titles of one of the rows of self-help books.
“Thanks,” said Ronnie, as she emerged from the small kitchen. “I hope to get a bigger place soon. I’ve got quite a bit of stuff.”
“I know what you mean. My place is overflowing with crap. I never seem to get rid of anything.”
Ronnie gestured toward a black cordless phone beside the sofa. “I’d better call Keith. I"ll leave a message to let him know you’re here and have him call when he gets in.”
Ronnie scanned through her meticulously scribed address book and made the phone call to the building manager. Focusing on the task allowed her to momentarily calm her racing pulse. Why does this woman make me so nervous?
Jill unzipped her leather jacket, revealing a plain white t-shirt underneath. “Thanks. This is really nice of you, letting me in.”
“Can I get you anything?” Ronnie asked.
As Jill dropped her jacket onto the floor, Ronnie noticed her younger neighbour was far more slender than her armor made her appear. Lithe and athletic, Jill was different from the heavier, slightly rounder Ronnie who, though only overweight by perhaps a dozen pounds, constantly felt as if she would never win in the ongoing battle with her 32-year-old metabolism.
Jill considered the question thoughtfully as she dropped heavily into the cushions of the sofa. “Got anything that would make me really, really drunk?”
Ronnie stammered. “Um, no. I don’t really…I mean…I don’t usually have alcohol in the house.”
“I was just kidding.” Jill grinned. “Relax, will ya? You’re not about to be murdered or anything. I don’t need nothing. If it weren’t for you I’d still be sitting on my ass in the hallway, remember?”
Ronnie smiled and sat upright in the adjoining loveseat, fidgeting with the wrinkles in her floral summer dress. “So what happened to your keys?”
“Beats me. Had ’em this morning. Got back, fucking things weren’t in my pocket. That Wes guy from the first floor let me into the building, but I can’t get in my apartment unless I kick the door down, which I really felt like doing. Until you came along, that is. I think your timing saved Keith a shitload of work and me a great big carpentry bill.”
Ronnie smiled and looked downward. Her eyes fell on Jill’s jacket resting on the floor.
“Nice, eh?” said Jill.
Ronnie nodded. “I didn’t realize it was so thick.”
“It’s supposed to keep me from turning into a road pizza if I hit the pavement when I’m riding. Some people don’t wear ’em, but I’m not stupid. You ever seen what a guy looks like after sliding along the street for half a block? Trust me, it ain’t pretty.”
Ronnie said nothing.
“Want to try it on?” said Jill.
“Oh no, I couldn’t.”
“Hell, yeah. Try it on.”
“No, Jill. Thank you, but…”
Jill stood up and held the jacket open as if she were a valet. “Stand up.”
“Veronica, I said, ‘Stand. Up
Ronnie rose slowly and turned around, allowing Jill to gingerly slide the coat up over her back and arms. Ronnie was surprised to see her reflection across the room in the glass door of the stereo cabinet. She stood still while Jill adjusted the jacket’s fit, manipulating the various zippers and laces. Finally, Jill stepped back and surveyed the result.
“It’s definitely you,” she said.
The jacket felt like nothing Ronnie had ever worn before. She marveled at its weight, running her hands over each of the sleeves and absorbing the scent of the smooth black tanned cowhide. She could feel the thick padding hug her shoulders, elbows and kidneys. The jacket’s soft, inside mesh caressed her bare arms and the stiff racing collar tickled the underside of her chin. This was not just a jacket, Ronnie thought. This was strength; this was power. And she liked it.
Jill slowly reached forward, casually brushing some imaginary dust off the shoulder of the jacket. Jill then allowed her finger to slowly trace the path of the silver zipper down the front. “You know,” she began quietly, “maybe if you’re not busy this weekend, the two of us could…”
A sharp knock at the door interrupted Jill’s sentence. Ronnie blinked her eyes as if snapping from a trance and quickly slid off the jacket, thrusting the garment toward Jill as Ronnie backed away.
An instant later, she had opened the door to see Keith’s burly frame standing in the hallway. “I got your message,” he said flatly, then turned and headed down the corridor. Ronnie stood silently, holding the door open.
Clutching her jacket, Jill slipped on her boots and stepped into the hallway before turning to face Ronnie.
“Thanks, Veronica. I appreciate the help.”
“No problem,” said Ronnie quietly. “And you can call me Ronnie if you like.”
Jill studied the face of the woman in the doorway. “Nah. I like Veronica,” she said, and then strode off down the corridor toward the stairs.
She found Keith waiting outside her apartment, leaning against the wall beside the door.
“Now,” he said. “About your rent.”
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