A Voyeur Story Gone Right – Part 1
"Excuse me?" A young man's voice penetrated the sound of his hand-held sander. "I'm sorry, I got a call about a rental here...?"
Max sighed and paused the machine for a bit. A man had no chance of getting the appartment anyway.
"It's not ready yet," he didn't even bother taking off his dust mask.
But then, he heard a female voice from behind the man.
"Look, the ceilings are even higher than we need...And god, look at the view..."
The woman came forward, so beautiful, maybe a little too young, in her early twenties it seemed, but so beautiful. Dark hair and blue eyes behind glasses, perfection in her face and everywhere, as if she just stepped out of a classy movie, but better because she was real and that made all the difference in the world. He never even dreamed about having someone this beautiful this close.
She was an arm's length away from him, looking out the window. He could see every detail of her delicate face: dark arched eyebrows, a cute nose, a rather small but plump mouth with a beauty mark just above her upper lip...
"Best view in the building if you ask me," Max hurried to tell her. No, don't push, be calm, act normal.
"I'm sure you're right. You have no idea how much I need a view like this in my life."
"Why is that?"
"I spend most of my days inside, working and studying over the internet."
Oh Lord yes, Max thought. Inside all day long! She had to have this apartment.
Now don't mess up.
"Are you the super?" she asked. When she looked at him, he got goosebumps. There were grey specks in her blue eyes; so much to discover... He studied her surgically applied eyeliner and peach-colored lip balm, assuming that she must be a perfectionist, a woman of good taste who knew what she wanted.
She blinked to sever their eye contact and wake him up. Did she know he just got lost in her eyes? Did it happen to her often?
He gave her a shy apologetic smile: "Owner, actually. Max Higgins," he wiped whatever sweat gathered on his nervous palms and offered her a handshake. Not too long, not too tight, don't mess up!
They introduced themselves as Danica and Blake.
"My family bought the house in the 40's. I'm just renovating the floor myself because I take care of the building," Max explained.
While Blake did a test walk over the floorboards, looking for creaking, Danica eyed everything around her including Max, making her own assessment before asking about the rent. For a moment, he panicked – what if these two young people couldn't afford it?
"Thirty-eight hundred," he blurted a number.
"You serious?" they both exclaimed and exchanged a suspicious look. Only then did Max start worrying whether they were a couple.
The boy asked: "What's the catch? Some train tracks we don't know of? A night club in the building?"
The girl followed: "Infestation? One bathroom per floor?"
A small smile crossed his lips.
"No, the place is clean and the utilities are separate. You're right about the train, the F line gets a bit noisy. It also takes a lot to heat a place like this in winter and the AC is pretty weak in summertime." He watched the two communicate in nods and winks. They were definitely planning to live together, but they didn't seem to be dating – there was something fishy about this Blake character, he couldn't quite put his finger on it. "Yeah, and the cell phone reception is bad and the TV signal drops out from time to time."
"That's ok, we have the internet for everything nowadays," Blake said with a flamboyant hand wave. Max decided that this man was most probably gay. The last time he met a homosexual in person was during his military service so it took him a while to get to that conclusion. His grandfather would be furious that Max even let him inside the building.
They started looking around the place.
"Blake, look at the balcony! The railing detail, Margie is gonna love it!"
While analyzing the color of Danica's voice, Max slowly realized what she just implied.
"How many of you would live here?" he frowned.
"Well, technically five: Me, Danny here, Venus, Hope, and Margie," Blake did the countdown.
"Is that a problem?" Danica asked.
"No, no, it's not that," he gave her another shy smile and she seemed to like it. "It's just that there're only two rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom."
"We've got that covered," Blake took over the conversation again so Max had to look away from Danica, otherwise he would've appeared like a creep. Do what the normal people do, Max. "The other three girls wouldn't be here all the time and for them, we have this special three bunk bed that Hope's parents built for us, a custom-made structure with stairs and everything – that's why we need high ceilings."
"I prefer no pets," Max remembered.
"Blake's our pet," Danica joked and Blake giggled.
Yes, most definitely gay.
"The heaters bang loudly in the morning," he offered Danica a key to the apartment. "You can start moving in whenever you want, I'll go through the paperwork as soon as I get it."
The touch of her hand made him weak in the knees and her smile made him grin like an idiot. He was already falling in love. So quick, Max, always so quick. You have to be careful.
Max got to see the complete Jackson five of his new tenants during the moving. Heavy lifting was done by Blake who was actually pretty fit, Margie who was rather butch, Venus's boyfriend who probably lived in the gym and Max because he offered his help. Danica and Hope carried boxes while Venus held the door and played with her i-Something, which again told Max something about their characters.
Max's grandfather August introduced himself and expressed his wishes that the young people won't be too loud, after which he creeped away.
The highlight of the day was when Max and Danica moved a mattress together.
"So, I checked out the recommendation from your previous landlady," was the conversation opener Max had been preparing since last night.
"Mrs. Dennehy? I always wondered what she'd write in the end. She was nice enough but she never said one honest thing, always just pleasantries."
"The feedback was positive – I liked that part about you guys never missing a payment. She seemed concerned with Blake's promiscuous ways, though," Max chuckled.
"I knew it!" Danica gasped dramatically. "But yeah, this five-way system I put together works out great. Blake and Margie work full-time – Blake even has two jobs; Hope and I have a job alongside our studies; and Venus is sponsored by her parents. Thirty-eight hundred is actually a bit less than what we paid before, so it won't be a problem."
"It was you who brought you guys together?"
"Yep. I know the girls from high school, we graduated the same year. Blake and I met about five years ago, just as he had run away from home and arrived to New York. We had a lot in common, including our struggling with the rent, so I came up with this co-living system and the rest is history."
"You girls are twenty-five and he's twenty-three, am I right?"
"Oooh, someone's been reading our social security information very attentively," she teased him.
Shit, keep it together, man. Give her an innocent smile and shrug it off, there, did that look alright?
Once all the paperwork was done, Max was out of excuses for turning up at Danica's doorstep. He wondered how long he could go without seeing her. He didn't last a day. He opened the secret door in his bedroom's closet and sneaked through the tight space between their apartments to watch.
She did indeed spend most of her days inside, with her laptop on. Whenever he saw her with earbuds connected to her computer while doing her nails or something like that, he knew she was attending an online lecture. She did her school assignments at her writing desk and her cyber censor job (whatever that is) on her bed.
She also spent a lot of time doing yoga, dancing around the room, moisturizing her skin, flossing, doing her hair and makeup and other high maintenance rituals. And yet, she wasn't doing it for a boyfriend, she seemed to be doing it for herself. Every day, she took pictures of herself – a sweet one and a seductive one – and posted it somewhere online.
"You self-obsessed bitch," Blake teased her from time to time and she only gave him a smile or a wink. Max didn't know what to think about it.
It took him a couple of weeks to figure out their roommate dynamic. Blake worked two jobs, getting home late in the afternoon on weekdays and sleeping in on weekends but disappearing practically every Saturday and Sunday night. Venus stayed Monday through Wednesday for her acting classes, Hope studied somewhere else and came just for her weekend jobs, and Margie arrived irregularly, whenever a job appointment brought her. That left Max with only two nights a week when he had Danica more or less for himself: Thursday and Friday. He loved those nights because sometimes, Danica would watch an erotic film and then masturbate on top of her sheets.
He didn't look at first, of course. It wouldn't be polite, she was a lady and he didn't know her that well yet. He just listened. He looked away when she dressed and bathed, too, for now. But in about a week or so, he would be ready to see her topless. Pacing it was a good method, he found, because it slowed that wonderful process of falling in love that always burnt too quick and too hot in him.
When Max found out that all her friends call her Danny, he was upset. Such a game changer, and he already dreamed about her as Danica! If only this was the only surprise, though. Two weeks in, he realized that the doctoral program she was undertaking was forensic psychology. And during the third week, he overheard a conversation in which she admitted that her special membership website where she posted her pictures existed for a sole reason and that was gathering information about stalkers.
"I'm starting to think that the whole thing is pointless," she complained to her 'gay best friend'. "I mean, they're paying me some solid money to be able to see those pictures and read my journal blabber, but none of them answered the questionnaire like a real stalker would."
"A real stalker?" Blake asked for specification.
"Stalkers as we defined them in class. So either the whole definition doesn't apply anymore, or it's as I always thought: the information age is turning us all into stalkers. Which means that this whole project was pointless. I can't use any of it for my dissertation, any of it!"
"You could research this new generation of stalkers thing...?" Blake wondered out loud.
"If I studied general psychology, maybe. But this is forensic psychology, we're supposed to write about real mental deviations that can get you to jail, not just porn addicts and trolls..." Danica sighed.
These discoveries made Max nervous to the point of throwing up. Danica was perfectly equipped to figure out what he was. He was scared, he was anxious, and for some reason, he was excited. This must be fate. She built a safe fictional character on the internet in order to be followed and then complained that it wasn't real enough. At the same time, she rented his special apartment. Despite the trepidation inside him about being discovered, Max found himself circling around Danica like a moth around a flame.
It was Friday night and to Max's disappointment, all five tenants were in Danica's apartment, dressing up and talking about some gallery. And she was coming, too! Something came over him when he saw her donning that beautiful 50's dress; he just had to go after her, even though he hated the streets and hated the crowds and hated gallery viewings...
He sneaked out and followed them. He merged into the faceless mass of gallery visitors. Then he came closer. And a little closer. Carefully, like a bird of prey, he approached the five friends that were surrounding one painting.
"I think it looks great," Danica shrugged. They exchanged opinions passionately. Max decided to 'accidentally' bump into one of them, not Danica, that would be just one more thing to be suspicious about.
"Oh, so sorry, did I – Blake? I didn't recognize you!"
The group ooohed and aaahed at the coincidence.
"Help us here, Max. What do you think? I really like it," Danica graciously included him in their conversation.
"Umm, the picture? It's...nice, I guess...Original...?"
"The picture – oh that's a god awful piece of crap for sure. We're talking about the frame Margie made for it. She does ornamental metalwork."
"The frame! I like the frame," Max gave her a sweet smile and she smiled in return.
Luckilly for him, he didn't have to stick around awkwardly for too long. Blake brought their attention to a young man entering the gallery and the five gasped.
"Who invited him?" Venus asked with venom in her voice.
"He's gonna make a scene again, isn't he," Margie groaned.
"Not if I sneak out," Danica said. "My duty is done here, right? I've seen them and I love them," she rubbed Margie's shoulder. "I wasn't looking forward to being the only sober girl at the wrap party anyway."
"It's alright, I release you. But you're not going home alone," Margie decided. All her roommates made a face at the idea of walking her and tried to persuade each other to go until their eyes landed on Max.
"I was gonna leave soon myself," he offered innocently.
"Then it's decided!" Hope clapped her hands gleefully. She mouthed something at Danica who just rolled her eyes.
"Let me guess, your ex?" he asked about the dreaded man once they left the gallery.
"Yeah, we met in class. The break up was really nasty and since he knew a lot of people at the university, he decided to use his influence to get back at me."
"That sounds vicious."
"To his credit, I did break his heart. But then, his public shaming campaign got so big that the teachers found out and expelled him, which is just one more thing to be bitter about."
"Is that why you study from home?"
"Yep, they offered me a special deal so that I could avoid the campus drama. Apparently, I've been crowned the Queen Bitch. I told the board that I would love to study the situation and then write about the effects of defamation, or you know, about mob mentality and the masculine revenge, but for some reason, they didn't like the idea."
"Wow," Max chuckled awkwardly. Such a fighter. "So, did he leave you alone?"
"Not really. But what he did next give me another idea for my dissertation."
"And that was...?"
Max's palms began to sweat again.
"He's stalking you?"
"Not right now. I don't go to school and he doesn't know my new address yet."
"Did you guys move because of him?"
"Umm-hm. Blake and Venus couldn't take the nightly visits and creepy gifts anymore."
"You kidding? I struck gold. My friends basically banned me from finishing my research when we moved."
"So...What's your dissertation going to be now?" Max felt like walking on burning coals.
"Cyber stalking, I hope. I have this whole website set up just for the purpose of collecting data, with a discussion forum and questionnaires and all...It's hard to tell after only three weeks, but...I hope it's gonna give me something."
"You're really high tech," Max tried to change the topic when he noticed a pearl of sweat gathering at his brow.
"And you're rather low tech, I presume?"
"Yeah. This whole internet thing has never really grown on me. People showing everybody everything about them, it sounds so desperate for attention and yet impersonal. I don't think relationships should work like that."
"You seem to be more on the antisocial end of that spectrum..."
"You could say that," he admitted with a shy smile. She always gave him positive signals when he smiled.
"Then what brought you to the gallery tonight?"
"I just...Felt like getting out," he lied and hoped that she couldn't tell. "August has been very sick lately and I've been taking care of him, and tonight...I just needed some fresh air."
"So you put on a droolingly flattering open neck white shirt and went to a gallery full of hideous paintings?"
Max's blush covered up for the fact that he had no answer.
"Venus thinks that you followed her. She always likes to think that she has a new admirer."
Max laughed out loud: "No offense, but that girl's a little..."
"Nuts? Well let's ask someone who studies the nuts," she stabbed her finger in the air. "And yes, she's overly confident, bordering on delusional, but that's not the point here."
She was waiting for the rest of the explanation.
"My parents used to go to that gallery before they died," Max lied again. If only his family knew. "It used to be tradition. And thirty, fourty years ago, the paintings there weren't all that bad."
"So...Why forensic psychology?"
She gave a dry chuckle.
"All psych majors have one thing in common. Either they're slightly messed up themselves, or there's someone really messed up in their family. Or both." The tone betrayed that she considered herself the latter case.
"I take it there were no parent-of-the-year awards on your mantelpiece at home?" he probed. He had noticed that she never contacted her parents.
"Something like that," she seemed to have no problem discussing it. "Mom and dad, they were both psychos in their own way. Dad for doing what he did...and mom for taking it. They used to tell me it was my fault; so I watched other kids at the playground, at school, everywhere, comparing them to me and calculating what was normal."
She used to watch other kids? She used to do watching. Maybe even became a psychologist because of it.
"Of course it wasn't your fault."
"I know. Everybody is responsible for their own happiness. It was actually good for me to learn that lesson so early on."
"You have no unfinished business with your parents?" Max wondered out loud.
She was telling him things he'd never know just by watching her and he was sucking it all in, eager for more. He needed to know who exactly Danica was – and every little secret threw him in a different direction but one thing was constant and that was her reaction to the blows life gave her. Without becoming a fatalist, she got over her grudges with ease, either by using the attacks for her own benefit or by...
"No, I'm fine with never seing them again. Especially after what I did when I finished high school. I stirred things up real bad before I left town."
Revenge. Oh, Danica. He'd never fallen for a woman this tough and this self-aware before. Max admired the control she had over her life and her feelings. He could never be this cold about his thoughts. He could never be this clinical about his heart.
They arrived to her door.
"Nice talk, though I took up most of it towards the end. Sorry, I tend to analyze everybody, including myself."
"It's alright, it was really interesting, Danica."
"Call me Danny."
Max nodded. She had no idea how much she was asking of him, after he had memorized everything about her under the name of Danica...
When he realized that she was saying goodbye by kissing his cheek, it was too late and Max wasn't expecting it and he was just so nervous he sort of...shied away.
Danica raised an eyebrow to indicate her surprise.
"Okay then, good night," she disappeared behind her door before he could come up with any words.
Damn it. Shit. Shit. Why did you DO THAT? She was just going to - - and you moved away like she had cooties or something! You blew it! What's she thinking now, you God damn looser, huh?!
He went to his room to bang his head against a wall.
He tried to knock on her door about a dozen times after that but the anxiety in his stomach was so bad he could never do it. He punished himself with really really hot baths, just like his grandfather used to punish him until Max joined the army.
He watched her every night, even when the others were there.
"Maybe we could invite Max," said Hope one day as she, Blake and Danica were getting ready to go to the movies.
"I'm not sure he'd appreciate our pick," Danica made a face.
It wasn't much, but it still stung that she'd shoot down the idea this quickly.
"I saw the way he looked at you, Danny, he wouldn't care what movie he'd be watching, trust me."
"What, could you read it from his chi?" Danica teased her. Hope studied theology and was very into New Age, which as far as Max understood made her something between a pagan and a hippie.
"Come on, Danny, he likes you..."
"I know. The first time we met he did that 'you're so pretty that I can't focus on what you're saying' thing, so I know."
"Then what's the problem?"
"There is no problem. A woman without a man is not always a woman with a problem, Hope."
"So you want to be alone?"
"I'm comfortable being alone. I've done the math – every relationship I've had so far ended because I'm a self-absorbed, cold-hearted bitch and they weren't impressive enough to keep my interest. The guys complained that I didn't love them enough and I complained that they were too clingy. I'm focused on my studies and when I don't do that, I'm focused on myself. I don't have time for boyfriends."
"But Max is not a boy. He's a man. He's probably used to his lifestyle as well and I'm sure he'd give you your space. It wouldn't have to be fixed-schedule dating anyway since you live and work in the same building. And you won't want to be alone forever, one day, your biological clock will scream for a family..."
"You know my opinion on kids, Hope," Danica groaned.
"Who says you're gonna hate kids forever? Maybe you'll grow a maternal instinct with time."
"My decision to never have kids is purely intellectual. I don't have patience with them. I would never devote all of my schedule to something that's disgusting, then dumb, and then defiant and ungrateful. And look at me, I'd rather get an abortion that give some poor kid a mother like me."
Danica finished her hair with a touch of spray and looked at herself in the mirror in contemplation, not knowing that she was looking Max right in the eyes as he was sitting behind it in his secret corridor.
"But come to think of it, I've never been with a guy outside of my peer group," she noted.
"So you do admit that there's an attraction!"
"Uh, have you seen him in that white shirt?" Danica snarked and the girls giggled.
That night, they made another step forward.
Not that Danica invited him, because she didn't – she said she wouldn't want to pressure Max into anything social that was this last-minute. But once they left for their midnight premiere, Max decided to visit her room.
He did all the usual: going through her stuff, writing down the contents of her library, caressing her clothes, lying in her bed, sniffing her pillow... He found no box with memories, no photoalbum and no journal – if she had any, she probably kept them on her laptop. My god, he was going to have to learn how to use computers if he was to keep up with her! When the time came for their very first indirect kiss, it didn't feel as climactic as it usually did. While using her toothbrush, he couldn't stop thinking about the kiss on the cheek that he botched last week. This visit was by far not as euphoric as he'd hoped. He sprayed a touch of her prefume on himself and left.
Danica, Blake and Hope returned from the movies; they went straight to bed and fell asleep as soon as the heads hit the pillows. Max realized that maybe this was supposed to be the climax of the night – him and her spending the night in the same room. Proud that nothing in the apartment gave a single creak, he sneaked out and got under her bed. At one point, her hand flung over the edge of the bed and he could actually touch it. There it was. Euphoria.
It took him three night dates with the bottom of her bed while she was sleeping to gather up the courage to see (not just watch) her again. He picked the best wine he had and put an innocent dose of August's sleeping medicine in it – so little that he was pretty sure cheaper wines had exactly this effect on one's body. Well, maybe cheap wine and shots.
He wasn't being too eager, was he? He just wanted to know the feeling of lying in bed next to her, he promised himself he wouldn't do anything more. And he wouldn't do it again for months. Or maybe he should wait, because if she accepted his apology, he may actually get to touch her the normal way some day.
But that would be so much waiting...
"Hi, Danny," he forced himself to use the nickname once her door opened.
"Max!" Her eyes went wide and then, she smiled. But the door chain was still there.
His smile fell.
"Oh, sorry," instead of letting him in, she joined him in the doorway. "Sorry, it's a little messy inside. Blake just got dumped," she mouthed the last words as an explanation.
"Oh. I just wanted to...apologize for being so weird last time I walked you home. You know, antisocial and all – I make even the simplest things awkward sometimes...Know what I mean?"
"Sure, and I wasn't weirded out at all. My friends are pretty tactile people and it obviously rubbed off on me, sorry about that."
"No, it wasn't - - I didn't hate it or anything, I was just surprised." Max shifted nervously. "I got you something."
"Well thank you! Should I drink it with Blake tonight or would you like to be there when I taste it?"
"I was, I was thinking we could have dinner at my place and have it with the meal, perhaps?" It took all his will power to get that sentence out there.
"Oh, tonight? I really have to be with Blake tonight. But how about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow's great," Max smiled with amazing relief and some giddiness.
"Alright, at six?"
"At six," he just repeated what she said, making sure it was real.
"I'm looking forward to more talking, I'd really like to get to know you better," she told him promisingly before she shut the door. He could hear the door chain coming on. When did she start using the door chain? A couple of days ago?
Suspicion pierced his cloud nine and he rushed to his secret corridor. He found them in Blake's bed, Blake hidden under the covers with tissues and Danica sitting on the edge, texting. It took him a minute to realize that they could be texting each other. And if they were, either it was some quirky 'BFF' habit he didn't know of or they knew they were being watched in their apartment – by him.
She went to town the next day. With the wine. She hid it well before she transferred it into her backpack, but he knew it was the wine because he hadn't moved from his observing spot behind the wall all night. After she left, he burst into her apartment, walked from room to room like a tiger, forced himself to calm down and then started investigating. What changed?
He found only one misplaced thing – a tazer tucked inside her nightstand. He knew she carried one in her purse, so what was it doing here when she was out? And then he took another look and realized the tazer was completely new.
Completely new. In her nightstand. She felt unsafe in her bedroom. She knew.
She knew she knew she knew.
Max started pacing again.
She knew she knew she fucking knew!
After a few minutes of hyperventilating, Max started asking himself the important questions. She was a smart woman. She studied guys like him. What would she do? Did the police already know? What have you done to me, Danica? To this messed up middle-aged perv who owns the house you live in and who can creep into your bedroom anytime he wants? Is my life as I know it over, Danica?
No police so far. Maybe tonight, during dinner? But why even have dinner? Unless she was...
He searched the whole room but found no cameras. Then he remembered how her laptop was stationed over the last few nights: open and aimed towards the bed. Max was pretty sure there was a webcamera in the top frame of her computer. But she took the computer with her.
His fate was in her hands.
She knocked on his door after six.
He looked through the peep hole (of course he did, hah, hah) and found her dressed up, hair, make-up, accessories matching with the frames of her glasses and everything. All for him? He'd never seen her in that bellow-the-knees 50's skirt before, was that her date skirt? Max was confused. Back and forth he paced in front of the door. His eyes landed on the door chain.
The door only opened as much as the door chain allowed it.
"Hey," he rasped.
"Hey Max, sorry I came a little late, I didn't know if I was supposed to come here or if you wanted to pick me up...What's wrong?"
"I uh...I must've caught some virus or something, been sick to my stomach all day. I don't want you to catch it."
"Oh, that's terrible. Rain check, then? Also, I could do the groceries shopping for you and August if you want."
"Listen, Danica...I won't see you anymore. I'm sorry for everything...I'm sorry..." He hoped she got the message. Please don't show anyone the evidence you have on me. Please forget that I ever existed. I'm so sorry. I promise I'll never watch you again.
"I don't understand, did I do something wrong?"
She seemed sad. Why? What did she want?
"I really want to talk to you, Max. I want to know all about you, I swear I have an open mind..."
Oh. Oh, that's what she wanted her evidence for. Not the police. Her school work. She wanted to study him. On Landlord Voyeurs, he imagined the title of her dissertation thesis.
"I don't think that's a good idea," he ground out.
"But why? I like you, Max..."
He shut the door before she could say more things she didn't mean. He hated it when his girls lied to him, it was the only thing about them that could make him upset. He could take the ugliest truth, but when they lied...
He just hated it.
"Max!" Danica was still behind the door, determined to finish her research this time.
Max felt tears in his eyes.
End of Part 1.
1. In my head, Danica is played by the lovely Mia Kirshner, the only actress I know of that causes ladyboners to even the straightest women. I'd love to see what you think about her character – I wonder if her nit being conventionally likable somehow affected your reading experience.
2. Some of the scenes of Max watching Danica are deliberately creepy. If you didn't feel the creepy vibe, you might wanna be extra careful in picking your boyfriends. While I made sure to make Max a non-violent person, his idea of developing a relationship with Danica without her awareness and of intruding upon her privacy at all times is really unhealthy. Also, there's one thing that makes him potentially dangerous – his reaction when he knows he's being lied to.
3. This should be a two-shot – scratch that – three-shot.