BY MELISSA TOLENTINO
Honorable Mention for the 2012 Adroit Prize for Prose
Prudence Jane is a small-breasted version of her mother. She is part Beatles, part Austen—her mother’s favorite things—and yet Prudence inherited none of that love. Eleanor Rigby is the only song she can stomach (on a good day). As for Pride & Prejudice, she accidentally-on-purpose knocked her copy into the shredder and watched as Elizabeth and Darcy went up in a fit of scissor-smoke.
She was thirteen then. Ten years later, not much has changed: Emma and Sense and Sensibility have joined their sister in the trash, John Lennon hasn’t gotten any more exciting and Prudence still has the same bra size.
But the tits don’t matter. Prudence doesn’t even like looking at herself naked anyway. What she likes is sitting at home in a tracksuit, eating boxes of chocolate cigarettes (she’s afraid of lung cancer) and reading beat poetry so that she has something else to think about when she can hear her neighbors arguing through the wall.
One Saturday Prudence is watching the man across the way shave his face at five in the morning. He is a peculiarly attractive man with a lopsided six-pack and eyelashes that belong on moonfaced dolls made in poor European countries by cold, starving kids who wonder if being plastic is as hellish as their own living conditions. He has a nine-to-five—Prudence sees him leave every day at eight to catch the bus to downtown, and she sees him come back at six, sweaty and with his tie half-undone—and he likes football. Sometimes she hears him yelling between their alley-separated windows at referees and players, yelling things that Prudence couldn’t care less about.
Sometimes she wants him to yell at her, but not because she failed to make a touchdown. Not in that tone of voice.
She wants something else.
Prudence watches him shave off the grizzly look. After this, in a couple of minutes, he will be smooth like an eggshell and she will want to reach out of her window into his and run the edges of her fingertips across his cheek, feeling where he has missed a spot of stubble near his jawbone. She will say, look here, you’ve missed a spot. And he will turn on her so fast the air will retreat back into space, and he will grab Prudence’s hand and squeeze it and say, what do you mean, I’ve missed a spot? He will back her into the wall. He will grab the zipper on her track jacket and yank it off, toss it aside to be forgotten. He will graze the bottom of her chin with his canines and then—
“Hello,” he says.
She drops her collection of Ginsberg and her third box of chocolate cigarettes. They fall from her lap and roll into the cracks in her floor, where they will stick until the heat melts them into puddles.
“I’m sorry,” she says, rushing to the window like she’s forgotten how to walk. On the way she upsets a tall stack of books and a pile of laundry.
He has put down his razor. There are smudges of shaving cream still on his face.
“Sorry that you caught me—.”
“Staring?” the man asks. “You’re sorry that I caught you staring at me.”
“Well, yes,” she says, dragging out the syllables. “That’s awkward, isn’t it?”
Prudence uses the word ‘awkward’ to fill in the blank spaces in her sentences. When the authorities knocked on her door to ask her if she knew anything about the woman next door and her abusive boyfriend, she said that no, it is just awkward to hear the screams of police, police, police. When the police asked why she hadn’t called the station to report anything, she shuffled her feet and said it would be awkward to interfere. When the officials said miss, it is crucial that all domestic violence cases be reported to the authorities, she looked at them in the eye and asked straight out if they didn’t think it was awkward for people to have their ears pressed against the walls of their apartment homes, checking for signs of violence in conjoined rooms.
“It’s perfectly normal.” The man is now leaning his arm against the window frame. Somehow he reminds Prudence of a music note with an accidental on it. “Don’t you agree? This is how strangers fall in love. This is how people meet.”
She stares out her window. She has begun to count the bricks that surround the man’s window, starting from the top left corner and going around in a large rectangle. Something in her is surging, something electrical, and she feels the lightning in the tips of her toes.
“You aren’t that much of a stranger to me,” she finally says.
They go on a date that night, after he has washed his face completely clean and after Prudence has rummaged behind her collection of tracksuits to find the bra she never uses and a dress that she keeps in her closet for emergencies, like if she ever needed a heavy cloth to smother a fire with.
She almost wishes that they could have their date like she has imagined dates with him before: in their separate, non-conjoined apartments with the windows open, eating the same food and looking at each other and talking but not actually together. But he comes over properly and rings her doorbell, and they sit in a cab together and chat idly about his job as a telemarketer and how much Prudence hates Austen.
He asks her if she is a feminist, and she says no, not at all. She asks him if he ever watches her through their windows, and he asks if anyone has called her awkward before. She says no.
“You are,” he says.
“I think you are too,” Prudence replies. “Very awkward.”
“Well then,” he says, and loops his hand into Prudence’s. Both of their palms are sweaty; secretive. “We’ll make a great couple.”
Later on, back at her place, she almost apologizes for her mess of a life and a studio apartment but loses her words in the scrape of the man’s teeth against her own when he kisses her like a collision of planets. Prudence doesn’t even have time to switch the lights on or register that he tastes a lot like garlic (the spaghetti from dinner! is all she can think before her mind skyrockets away trembling insanity) before her dress has a tear from his frantic fingernails and he has pinned her to the wall the way some pin butterflies to satin cushions and steal away their ability to fly.
“Wait, wait,” she gasps, “can you, I mean, just hold on a second please?”
“What are you going to do?” he asks in her ear. His voice reminds her of the way sidewalks sizzle in the summer when rain pours for a few minutes, then passes on. “Don’t ask me to be gentle. I’ll kick myself out.”
“Go to hell,” she says, and this seems to satisfy him because they kiss again and again, violent kisses that taste like iron. “I mean it though, can you please hold on, I just need to—.”
She breaks his hold and runs to the opposite wall of the room. Her window is still open. Outside it has begun to rain, just droplets, nothing fancy, but Prudence sticks her head out anyway and looks at the homeless people smoking cigarette stubs in the alleyway below her. She turns her eyes to the brick wall on the other side and sees the slouched shadow of a woman on her left moving from side to side.
It is the abused woman. She is alone tonight, a matchstick body with no one for the fire.
Prudence fills her lungs with air and yells. She yells in tongues that come from somewhere deep in her gut and in her head; she rolls her tongue around in circles and goes on and on and on until the long note becomes guttural and lost. She yells so that she does not have to press her ear against the wall and hear her neighbor crying, sobbing why, why did he leave me, was there something I could have done to save us.
Eventually it begins to rain harder. Prudence pulls her soaked body back into the room.
“The woman next door, do you know her?” she asks when she comes back into his arms. “Did you know her?”
“It was an awkward relationship,” he says, and pinches the nape of her neck until she feels a bruise blossom there. “We didn’t want the same things.”
“What do you want?” Prudence asks, and a crazy laugh bubbles in her stomach, in her throat.
She lets herself be thrown to the floor, the hard, hard floor, to join laundry and melted chocolate and forgotten books. Under her elbows she feels blood vessels break.
“The safe word,” he mumbles into her neck, “is ‘police.’”
Melissa Tolentino is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, double majoring in Journalism and Japanese. She was born in New Jersey, and was shanghaied by her parents to Japan at the age of eight, where she did most of those fun and awkward growing-up rituals. She finished the rituals off in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina. A selection of her favorite things: her bed, Japanese pop idols, Le Petit Prince, and classical music.