I first saw the new neighbour as I was going down the flight of stairs which led to the ground floor. I was on my way to the vestibule and was anticipating a package in the mail—probably something for my boyfriend, I can’t remember anymore—but I do remember feeling very rushed and harried.
The new neighbour was standing at the bottom of the steps, leaning against the railing with a straw tucked into the corner of her mouth. She was sipping slowly at a cold, beading, white drink which had ice cubes floating around in it. The drink looked like milk and I thought to myself: strange. We were in the middle of a heatwave during a sweltering July, the hottest July of the past decade (although these days each year brings record-breaking temperatures; we all somehow just agreed to being cooked slowly, like lobsters). The last thing I’d want is milk, coating the roof of my mouth.
But the milk wasn’t really the weird thing at all—the weird thing was that it looked like she was waiting for me. A feeling then came over me that I should have been expecting her, like she was an old friend who had just come to visit.
“Hello,” she said and smiled mildly up at me. The milk traveled up the straw.
“Hi,” I said, quickly, and hurried down the stairs. I brushed past her and for a moment our shoulders touched. She smelled like a freshly painted fence, new shoes.
I opened the door to the vestibule and kept my eyes on the mail lockers. I got my package and turned back to look at her: she was still waiting there at the bottom of the stairs, her back turned towards me. The cup of milk she’d held in her hand was now a cup of ice: drained and empty.
The new neighbour moved into the building next to ours. I discovered this while I was slicing onions by the kitchen window, which looks out onto the steps of the adjacent building. I saw her directing a pair of movers who were carrying a very gorgeous, very large couch through the doors. I nearly sliced my hand in half craning my neck to get a good view of the couch, which was covered in a vivid dark green vinyl. I remember thinking that it didn’t seem right to own such a large piece of furniture in the city.
I thought about the dimensions of our living room, which were exactly the same as the unit below us and the unit below theirs. Our apartment, for that matter, was the same as every eleven-unit building on the block. A huge couch like that would take up a whole side of the room, and would be quite difficult to move.
The girl seemed unbothered and continued to direct the movers through the building—“Higher!” she cried out. One of the movers grimaced and lifted the right end of the couch onto his glistening shoulder. Even I could see his chest shining, all the way from my kitchen window. It was very erotic.
Down below, the new neighbour pushed a piece of hair out of her eyes. She wore a white two-piece—shorts and a tie-top—round sunglasses, and yellow flats. In all likelihood, when the mover finished his job, the girl would kick off her shoes, throw him onto the couch, and make love to him, clinging to his broad chest as one does a raft on a large body of water.
As I watched her, her head bent slightly in my direction. A ray of bright, harsh sunlight winked across the lens of her glasses, nearly blinding me.
I am often all alone in our apartment. Seven months ago my boyfriend asked me to quit my job because we thought we were having a baby. I was happy to do it. I hated my job. I thought our baby’s name was going to be Tommy Lee-Jacobs and I would paint clouds on the walls of our living room. Turns out the pregnancy was a false positive; I think I peed on the stick wrong.
The day we found out we weren’t actually going to have a baby we walked down from the doctor’s office over to the corner store and my boyfriend bought us some ice cream—I had peach, he had chocolate. We sat there on the curb, like I used to do with my friends in high school, licking our melting cones. He reassured me that we would try again and I agreed. At this point I had already left my job and figured I had nothing better to do.
But the next time we had sex we used a condom. Since neither of us ever brought up the subject again, the idea of the baby lay abandoned, in the corner, as if it were a hobby project I’d only gotten halfway through. It was like back in September, when I wanted to sew new tortoiseshell buttons on my coat. I kept putting it off, putting it off. Suddenly it was April and too warm for a fall coat.
Once, during one of these empty pursuits, my boyfriend tried to lob the condom into the trash can and missed. I don’t think he noticed because he rolled over me and went right to sleep.
I did not go to sleep. Instead, I turned my head to the side and gazed at the white balloon, lying flaccid and translucent on the floor, leaking out what could have been our baby.
I considered walking over to the condom, sliding my fingers inside, all sticky, and then up my vagina. Ta-da! Baby. Then I realized that it wasn’t what my boyfriend wanted. I wasn’t sure it would ever be what he wanted. It was obvious that I was supposed to feel the same way, too.
I watched our neighbour move into the apartment located on the left side of the fourth floor of the building next door, into the unit which faced the street. I was home the whole time, I saw the whole thing. I have to say, I was quite pleased when I found out which apartment she moved into: our unit is on the fifth floor, facing the street, on the right side of our building. This meant that I could see straight down into her windows. If I were to go and sit out on the fire escape overlooking the narrow alley between our apartments, I could dangle my legs down and pretend I was falling directly into her living room.
For a month I watched her move things in, arrange and rearrange the furniture in her apartment. She didn’t have many things: only a small round table, two stools, and that great green couch wedged between the walls framing the entire north side of the living room. It was clear she was very strong, to move that furniture all by herself. Every day I found new ways to admire her.
A few large boxes, some open, some still taped shut, were stacked against eastern side of the living room. I could not see into her bedroom which was located on the opposite wall of that couch, but I suspected she had not yet brought in her bed because she fell asleep every night (and often during the day) sprawled across the couch with a book tented on her chest. I had no idea what she did for work. She spent all day in the apartment.
Despite the fact that she did not seem to sleep in her bedroom, she would often disappear to that back room and emerge many hours later, covered in paint. I assumed she was some sort of artist, but she did not have any pictures hung up on the wall, save for a single painting, on the south side of the apartment. It was a three-foot high portrait of a girl in a straw hat, standing in the middle of a large field.
She lived all by herself. She spent most hours of the day walking across rooms from end to end, sometimes reading, on the stool, on the couch; sometimes eating, on the stool, on the couch. She listened to records in the evening, the sort of music we all wished we had the taste to discover on our own, but nonetheless, were glad to hear. Her movements seemed so appealing and so natural that whatever she did I found myself copying.
Whatever she made for meals—you could hardly define lunch or dinner during those dog days—I made too. For a while she was eating plates of tomatoes, yellow squash, and cucumbers with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. So I went down to the store and bought a bag filled with cold produce. I got home and cut them on the bias, like she did. When I finally had my meal I thought it was the most glorious plate I’d ever eaten. Then I felt a bit sad because I thought that while my meal was good I knew it would never taste quite as wonderful as hers. Still, I was comforted by the fact that we were eating the same things. I always wanted to sync my body to another woman’s, as women’s bodies do when they spend any large proximity of time together: a truly organic relationship.
The day our neighbour put up her curtains I thought I was going to die.
As usual, my boyfriend was out. His job requires him to do a lot of socializing, so it’s not just weekdays, it’s nights and weekends. I used to accompany him, socializing, but I kept losing all the business cards.
I woke up at five A.M. and thought I was having a hernia. There was a sharp pain in my side and my whole stomach was hard and swollen. I thought that maybe it was appendicitis, but that only happens on the left side of the body and my pain was all over. I stumbled out of the bedroom and hovered over the toilet, unsure of which end of my body would bring relief. I finally began to vomit.
I spent the morning with my head hung over the toilet bowl. Soon the warm, damp summer air began to drift into our apartment, which only made the smell in the bathroom more pungent. By two o’ clock I had emptied my stomach and was only dry-heaving. I checked my temperature; I did not have a fever. I reached into my shirt and felt my breasts: soft, full, and heavy.
I considered calling my boyfriend but I told myself to wait until he got home. If it really was a baby I’d better be one-hundred percent sure.
I left the bathroom, opened the refrigerator door, and sat on the white kitchen linoleum with my back pressed against the cold shelves. It was so hot outside that you could see little white wisps of air escaping the open refrigerator. I rested my cheek against the condiments and glass jars which had begun to develop films of condensation. I could hear the sound of a car outside, parked on the street with its bass turned up loud. The neighbours were playing cumbia and above the city rose the voices of all children on the block who had gathered to dance.
I began to feel a dull throbbing in the back of my neck. When I closed my eyes all I saw were clouds of orange, and the beat of the cumbia, pulsing. I opened my eyes and poured myself a glass of water, drank the whole thing immediately. I then poured a second glass of water and stood up with the intention of dumping it over my head.
That’s when I saw her at the corner of her window, pulling across her windows a panel of white curtains. Behind her I could just make out the dark shadow of the green couch.
The glass of water slipped from my hands and shattered at my feet. Down below, I caught a glimpse of her eyes, flashing, and her sharp chin, turned up at me. Then I fell to the floor.
When I woke up it was hours later and dark. Early evening, if I were to guess. There was a cold compress draped over my forehead. A thin stream of water slid down my cheek and into the corner of my mouth. It tasted salty, a bit sour.
I sat up and realized that I was lying on the green couch, the same one I had been looking at through my kitchen window. In person, the fabric of the couch had a shiny finish which made it catch the light in strange ways, like the glassy surface of an opaque pool.
I was all alone. The white curtains billowed in the evening breeze. I lifted up my shirt and gingerly touched my stomach, which was now soft and pliable. I touched my neck, I touched my chest. The pain was gone, replaced by the calm feeling one has when one is swimming in cool water.
“You had quite a fall.” She entered the room, balancing a tray which held a glass of milk, bread, and sliced fruit. She set the tray down on the couch and began to eat. “I hope it’s alright I brought you back here. You could barely walk but your apartment was so hot I couldn’t breathe. Do you want some?”
I shook my head. The food looked appetizing and I was a bit hungry, but somehow it felt better to watch her eat—and oh, how she ate—than to have any myself.
She did not spare me so much as a glance as she began to shovel food into her mouth. She raised a plum to her open mouth and bit, hard; it burst and juice went dribbling down her chin. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and took a long gulp from the glass of milk. She put down the plum and began to tear at the bread.
“I don’t remember anything,” I said, as I watched her.
“I heard this crashing sound and saw you fall. When I finally got the super to let me into your apartment half the things in your fridge were on the floor. It was all broken glass and ketchup, pickles, everywhere. You were bleeding a little, too, from the head. I tried to call your boyfriend but no one answered the line.”
“I’m sorry.” I stared.
Her hair was pulled back against her skull, a style which on anyone else would look quite severe but which gave her an air of measured discipline.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” she said. She set her plate down on the floor and carefully licked her fingers. “Don’t be sorry,” she repeated, and placed a sticky hand on my shoulder. “Well, since you seem like you’re feeling all better, I have a question for you.”
“Go right ahead,” I said, automatically.
“You’re my first guest which is why I want your opinion.” She stood up and gestured, as a real estate agent does, all limbs. “How do you like the apartment?”
I looked around. “It’s lovely,” I said, and it was true. In front of me hung the tasteful portrait of the girl, standing knee-high in a field of grass. The brim of the girl’s straw hat was tipped down over her eyes so that the only part of her face which was visible was her small, red, acrylic mouth.
“Does it feel like home?”
I nodded. “Oh, absolutely.”
Her grin faltered. “What am I saying,” she shook her head. “You don’t even know what the bedroom looks like. Silly. How can you know if it feels like home if you haven’t even seen the bedroom? Let me show you.”
“Sure,” I said. I was thrilled, though I tried to keep a straight face. I thought about every day of the past month I’d spent watching her, emulating her every move. And now, it was so easy. If I’d known it would be this easy I’d have invited myself over a long time ago.
She led me through a doorway and into a dark room, pitch dark because its windows were shellacked with black paint, except for a strip at the very top which let a bit of light in from the streetlamps outside. The walls of the room were covered with strange balloons which cast odd, lumpy shadows on the ground. She switched on the light and as my eyes adjusted, I realized that the room was filled, top to bottom, with hundreds of pendulous breasts which hung on the walls.
Each pair had nipples of all kinds—inverted, pierced, stuck out like pins—and areolas, some hairy, some smooth, mauve, rose, chocolate. The breasts were hung up in rows and columns. At the top of each wall, bordering the ceiling, was a shelf which wrapped around the entire room. Upon the shelf sat white busts with painted-on makeup, and wigs on their heads, of all colors and shapes.
In the back corner of the room there stood a wooden ladder and each step held pots of paintbrushes. Most of the floor was covered in white sheets streaked with paint, large industrial buckets, dismembered mannequins, and other silicone body parts: large, limp asses, slender hands, stocky feet, even a mask or two. A wire drying rack stood in the middle of the room and pinned to it were incomplete projects—mostly breasts, half-painted, a little deformed.
“I mean, I don’t really sleep here, as you can see. But I think a bedroom should function as a space for intimacy, and this is where I make my art. Very intimate. So, what do you think?” She took a pair of breasts off the wall and dangled them in front of her chest.
“I’m really impressed,” I said, and bent close to inspect a pair. They were painted and made in fine detail; I could see on the surface of each pair bumps, moles, and small discolorations.
“This is what I do.” She beamed, and set the breasts back on the wall. “They are my life’s work.”
“Do you sell them?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Sometimes. They’re very popular for cancer patients, for drag, for actresses. I’ve even had some government agencies buy in bulk, or private P.I.’s—god knows why, I don’t want to know, but that’s where the real money is. It’s actually quite lucrative because there’re only a few of us in the business, and even less who do the job well. If I can sell a pair or two each month I’m set. Of course, they’re a lot of work—hours and hours of work—but I love it. And I save the best ones for myself.”
I was awestruck. A hundred, two hundred at least, lined the walls. “Is it okay to touch?”
“Of course,” she said. “They’re made to be used, at the end of the day.”
I reached out and brushed my fingers against a medium-sized pair, probably a c-cup, with brown nipples the size and shape of pencil erasers. The texture was like the softest leather, so smooth they almost felt wet.
“Guess which are mine.” She grinned.
I looked around the room and shrugged, but somehow I knew, instinctually, the very pair. I knew the way you know the lyrics to a perfect song, even before you’ve heard the whole thing.
She lifted the pair off the wall and handed them to me. “Try them on.”
I laughed. “No way.”
She laughed too. “No, really. I’ll make you a deal. If they fit, you can keep them.”
“Well…sure,” I said, because really, there was nothing more I wanted in the world.
I took the pair of breasts from her, slipped off my shirt, and pressed the silicon into my skin. They felt lovely and light, and I thought to myself if only I had these instead of my own, I would have had a wholly different life.
“Don’t they feel wonderful?” she nodded approvingly. “Fit perfectly on you.”
“Not bad,” I said.
“Would you like to know something? You’ll think I’m weird.” She rolled her eyes.
“What is it?” I was admiring my chest. I thought briefly of running home so I could see what they looked like in our floor-length mirror. My boyfriend would love them—I knew he would. They were full and lovely, yet still quite dainty. He’d touch them all night long.
She clasped her hands together and winked, conspiratorially. “Actually, if you’d like to know, I’ve made an entire replica of my body. Can I show you?”
I nodded. “Yes, please.”
“You’re so amiable. I never imagined I’d like my neighbours. Well, alright, let me go and get it.” She walked across the room, over to a closed door on which was mounted eight pairs of boobs. She opened the door (the boobs jiggled enticingly), rummaged around its dark interior, and pulled out a full, naked suit held together by safety pins, with a cutout in the chest. She slung the suit over her shoulder and its empty, slack face flapped against the small of her back.
“Here it is. Want to hold it?” And before I could even respond she dropped the suit into my arms. It was surprisingly heavy, although most of the weight seemed to come from the wig which hung, lustrous, and curled about my calves.
“You know, it’s kind of crazy—I think we’re about the same height. We’re probably even the same measurements too. How big are your feet?”
“I wear size seven. Sometimes seven and a half.”
“Wow. Listen, I couldn’t possibly ask you to try it on, could I? I’ve always wanted to see what it looks like on someone. It would be a real assessment of my handiwork.”
I felt panicky all of a sudden. Never in my life had such a good thing come to me so easily. “Really? You want me?”
“Yes, please. You’d be perfect,” she said.
I nodded. I couldn’t even speak, I just took the suit and began to put it on, right in front of her. I unfastened all the little safety pins and started with the feet.
She laughed, watching as I wriggled my toes. “Here, you might need this.” She handed me a bottle of talcum powder and motioned patting it on her arms and legs.
After some struggling, I managed to get myself into the silicon. It felt very tight at first and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able manage more than a few minutes. I sucked in my chest and my stomach and imagined myself a great balloon, deflating to fill the contours of the suit. I thought I would gladly forgo air and food and water if only this body were mine. But still, the suit would not give and sat stuck, vice-like around my waist. All of a sudden I remembered the little seed in my stomach.
I knew what I had to do. I closed my eyes and willed it out. I willed and willed and willed with every fiber of my being, with all my energy directed a hot beam through my center. My whole body vibrated with the sheer effort of stamping it out, reducing the seed to a kernel, the kernel to a stubborn dot. Then, pop! Just like that, a little space opened up.
The suit loosened and began to stretch pleasantly, as if it were conforming itself to my body. At last, it was on. I was so happy my cheeks were trembling. “Okay, what do you think?”
She threw her hands up. “It’s yours!” she declared. “If only you could see yourself—or should I say, myself!” she laughed. “Sorry, bad joke.”
“Really? You think it fits?” I turned around and around.
“More than fits. It was meant to be. Take it home! Keep it, please. I feel like I’m done. What a relief,” she sighed happily.
“I can’t,” I said, but I was already thinking of all the places I’d wear it. At the grocery store, picking out apples. At the cafe. I thought of all the looks I’d get, walking down the block.
“Of course you can,” she said. “Will you take it with you?”
I smiled, adjusting the eye-holes. “I will.”
I lay in bed that night, very still.
Not hours earlier I had adjusted and glued on each part of the suit so the entire thing lay flush against my skin. I stood in the bathroom, in front of the floor-length mirror and turned round and round, staring at myself, herself, myself: lithe arms, tanned and muscled, long, limber legs. Stomach: soft, dimpled, a smattering of freckles along the course of this body. Lips: curled just-so in an insouciant grin. My whole body, all mine, a body which answered to nothing and no one. I was simply a being of pure magnetism and possibility.
I then crept into bed, next to my boyfriend who was already asleep, already snoring. Now that everything was in place all I had to do was wait. In my head I played a scene, over and over—the moment my boyfriend would wake up and see me, fresh as a daisy.
Hours passed and dawn eventually crept up onto our windowsill. At six my boyfriend yawned and stretched, and then bent over me to check the alarm clock. He blinked and did a double-take, just as I’d imagined. I kept waiting for him to say something. He said nothing—just stared and stared.
“Something the matter?” I bit my lip in an attempt to look coy. Between my teeth I tasted the bitter residue of glue.
He blinked again, several times, and then shrugged. “No, no. Nothing at all. I’m just surprised you’re up.” He kissed my forehead, where the seam of the wig met my scalp. “Go back to sleep. I’ll see you later.”
Maz Do (she/her) is an Indonesian Vietnamese American writer living and working in New York. Her fiction has appeared in Jellyfish Review and diaCRITICS. She is also a freelance writer with work in Huffpost, gal-dem magazine, Aurelia Magazine and Mel Magazine. She is an alumna of the 2021 Tin House Writers’ Workshop, a 2021 Summer SAFTA resident and this fall will be an MFA candidate in fiction at Cornell University. She’s also online. Of the story, she says, “This story is about what it means to slip into a body that is not your own.” @_mazdo
This story is in response to a prompt selected by our Creative editor Monika Radojevic, “You, but in the eyes of another”. To stay up to date and submit your response to next month’s prompts, follow us on Instagram where we make the announcement.