The Super’s Wife
Dawn D'AriesEssays / Number 98
A few days after the new year, my husband Mark tells me he’s worried about Harry. Mark has described Harry as fiftyish, judging by the worry grooves in his forehead and the gray growing on the sides of his long wavy hair. He’s the only one—out of three-hundred apartments—who has never once voiced a complaint. Mid-morning every day, on his way out the lobby to grab a take-out coffee and a bagel, he says hello to Mark and Andy (the concierge) and asks them how they are.
“No, really,” Harry says, winking one of his crystal blue eyes at them both. “How are you?” He was married for ten years before his wife died of cancer. They never had children. And now he lives alone in a one-bedroom.
“Real nice guy,” Mark says. Harry sometimes spends up to an hour talking to Mark and Andy, about everything—the Yankees, the Mets, the weather, the best way to get stains out of shirts. “But he seems kind of lonely.”
Now Mark says he hasn’t seen Harry in two days.
I shrug. “Maybe he’s on vacation,” I say. “Or sick.”
“No,” Mark says. He’s troubled. His face pleads with me to give him an answer. “He has no one. He’s in the building. I checked the camera footage. He hasn’t left. And there haven’t been any deliveries to his apartment.”
It doesn’t seem to me like anything to worry about. But Mark fixates on Harry’s whereabouts.
“Do you have a phone number for him?” I ask.
“Called it. No answer.” Mark goes on to say he has an emergency key for Harry—to get into his apartment—but there is no emergency phone number to get permission. He asked the condo association board president for permission to enter Harry’s apartment with the emergency key, but was told no.
I rub Mark’s shoulders. He carries the weight of the building on them. It’s not a good time to continue our conversation about separating.
“That’s a big ring,” strangers said. Cashiers. Manicurists. Anyone that encountered my left ring finger.
“Stockbroker?” the manicurist asked.
“Building super,” I answered. Proud to say it. Most people in our building didn’t know his name. Didn’t know what he looked like. Didn’t know he was the one who ensured they were comfortable. Who made sure there was heat and cool air and hot water and safe elevators and clean hallways. He was the one who stopped one of the employees from selling a copy of the elevator footage of the married professional baseball player lip-locked with one of the young, unmarried tenants. He was the one who stopped an arrogant young man from consistently stealing his elderly neighbor’s Sunday New York Times, delivered right outside her door.
The two-carat diamond engagement ring’s eye-catching brilliance offered a sparkling display of our love. But within weeks of it finding its way on my finger via Mark’s proposal, as I stared at the diamond at work one day, I discovered tiny black-lined cracks deep inside the cut.
On the way home from work, I took a detour to the Diamond District, convinced I had done something to cause the cracks. I hoped to get it fixed.
The jeweler looked at the ring for only a few seconds, then handed it back to me with a frown and a shake of his head.
“There are inclusions,” he said. “Imperfections inside the diamond. The merchants fill in the fractures for sale, so you think you have good clarity. But it’s an optical illusion. The cracks never disappear, and eventually they reveal themselves.”
“If I show my fiancé,” I said, “do you think he’d be able to get a refund from the jeweler he bought it from?”
“Not a chance. The jeweler could claim the inclusions were visible when they were purchased.”
I never told Mark about the inclusions, because I didn’t want to make him feel bad. The inclusions did not bother me at the time.
When we met, Mark lived in a stately West Side building. Big blocks of limestone. Grand steps. A circular, cream-colored-marble lobby, well-lit by a magnificent teardrop crystal chandelier.
We walked up to the oversize glass front doors. Mark pushed a doorbell. An elfish man appeared, dressed in a white uniform shirt, black pants and shiny brogues. His hair hovered wildly above his head like cotton candy. He waved at us and picked up his pace.
“Hello, Mark,” Mark said to the man as he opened the door for us. “This is Dawn.”
The other Mark’s eyes lit up and he opened his mouth in a smile, revealing contrasts—the lower-mandible teeth missing or mangled, the top row teeth dazzling like diamonds. Without words, he exuded familiarity, charm. He cupped my proffered hand in both of his. It seemed we were long-lost friends.
Later, my Mark would tell me the other Mark, the only other employee in the building—working primarily as a porter—had escaped to the United States from another country where the government had tortured him in a way which rendered him mute.
We stepped in the marble rotunda. The center of the floor featured a compass tile pattern, and 1920s-style sconces graced the wall. I contemplated the two white doors with polished brass kickplates—one on the left and one on the right—wondering which Mark would open. In the center of the left door, just above eye level, a two-inch-high brass plate had “1A” etched in black. The door on the right had a similar plate, “1B.”
I turned to ask about the doors and found the two Marks had stepped into an elevator tucked just inside the rotunda. I stepped in with them, and the Mark in uniform shut the grate and operated the elevator, which lurched as it moved slowly down. I steadied myself by leaning against the wall.
“How have things been this weekend?” my Mark asked the other Mark. “Quiet?”
The other Mark nodded.
“Everyone’s away for the weekend,” my Mark said. The other Mark nodded again. “Has anyone been looking for me?” The other Mark shook his head no.
The elevator stopped and my Mark stepped out. I followed.
“Thanks, Mark,” my Mark said. “Have a good weekend. Let me know if you need me, OK?”
The other Mark nodded, smiled, got back in the elevator and went up.
We were in darkness. To the right was some sort of large machine. Square, with sizable pipes coming out of it. Above us were massive pipes. To the left, down a dark hall, was a closed black door. A red-lit EXIT sign flickered on the wall above it.
Mark quickly took a couple of steps forward and then made a left into an opening I hadn’t seen when we stepped off the elevator. In front of us was another door, with square stickers—black letters on gold background—which spelled out SUPER.
Mark fumbled with his keys. They dropped to the floor. I bent down to pick them up and handed them to him. He avoided making eye contact with me. He seemed to be in a hurry to open the door. Behind us was a scratching noise. I glanced around the dark space we were in, and saw movement on the floor against the wall. My skin crawled as I realized what I was looking at—two live rats.
My feet danced but I suppressed a shriek as Mark opened the door and I followed him in and understood—without either of us saying a word about it—why he immediately shut it behind us and flipped on the light switch. I followed close behind Mark, narrowly avoiding stepping on his shoe heels, as my eyes adjusted to the light.
I stopped a moment to take in the space we’d entered, while he walked ahead. The floor was concrete, with a couple of dirty white shag rugs strewn between a sagging white leather couch and a television on a wooden stand. Even with the lights on, the room was dark, gloomy. There were no windows. I pulled my sweater closer around my body as protection against the cave-like chill.
Mark had disappeared. I moved slowly forward, half expecting a rodent to cross my path. On my right was a doorway into a small kitchen. Straight ahead, through an open door, was a toilet.
I found Mark just past the living room, in a bedroom painted a dark shade of pink. The same size as the living room, the bedroom had a queen size mattress on a frame, and a bureau with a mirror. Later, when Mark made the big move from the West Side basement to the East Side nineteenth floor, and I asked him how he was going to move the furniture, he waved his hand dismissively and said all the furniture came from former tenants who’d abandoned them in apartments. They would stay while he moved on.
A high iron bar, stretched from one side of the room to the other, served as an open closet, holding Mark’s shirts and pants on hangars. On one wall side, placed high, towards the ceiling, were two small, rectangular windows blurred by city dust and grime, half obscured by piles of brittle brown leaves mixed with pieces of plastic, cigarette butts, crumbled-up tissues. Basement windows. Too narrow for either of us to squeeze our bodies through. A grayish sort of light peeked in.
Mark’s face showed no expression.
“Well,” he said. “This is where I live.”
I nodded. Resisted the urge to fold my arms protectively across my heart.
“The pink,” I said, nodding at the walls. “Your choice?”
He chuckled. Rolled his eyes. “I hate it. The ex-wife talked me into it. Look.”
He led me to the bathroom, where the same shade of pink dominated the walls. Here, with the black and white retro tile on the floor and lining the shower, the pink looked like a fine choice.
“I agreed to the bathroom. It looks alright,” Mark said. “But she had extra paint and went ahead and painted the bedroom before I could stop her.”
He walked into the living room and pointed at a dark stain on one of the rugs.
“I adopted a rescue puppy, after the ex left. A golden retriever. Like one I had once. When I was a kid.” He turned away from me, addressing his next remarks to the TV. “But I’d get called on an emergency upstairs – then I’d be away for a couple of hours and couldn’t walk the puppy, and then when I came back there were messes all over the place.” He turned his eyes back to me again. “I couldn’t take care of it. I had to return it to the shelter.”
He put his hand over his heart. “It killed me.”
His words rushed out, the scent of alcohol still on his breath from the meal we’d shared at an overpriced restaurant near Lincoln Center.
He beckoned me to follow as he walked into the cramped kitchen. Metal cabinets. Laminate countertop.
“Look,” he said, as he opened all the cabinet doors. Empty. No plates or glasses. Not even salt and pepper. Finally, when he opened the last cabinet, he reached to the top shelf and pulled down a small white porcelain sugar bowl. He examined it for several seconds, before taking the top off and showing me the inside. Empty.
“She dumped the sugar out and took it,” he said. “She took the sugar but left the sugar bowl.” His tone expressed wonder. He searched my eyes for an answer. “I can’t get over that. Why would you take the sugar and not the bowl?”
He led me back toward the door we had entered through, the one which opened to the dark underbelly of the luxury building above; to the massive machine and the shadows which really were rats. But he stopped at a narrow door I had assumed was a closet.
He flung open the door and flipped a switch on the wall. The room flooded with light from a solitary bulb in the center of the ceiling. Painted white, the room was void of furniture. Here, there was only the concrete floor—no rugs. Foot-high sports appliques dotted the center of the wall—footballs, baseballs.
“This was where my son slept.” The air in the room was stifling, suffocating.
His eyes met mine.
“Son?” I asked. He had never mentioned a son.
“My ex stole him away from me. She didn’t tell me she was leaving. She didn’t give me a chance to say goodbye to him. She waited until I was out one day for a few hours, and when I came back, they were gone.” His eyes welled with tears.
I latched on to him, wrapping my arms around his torso as we stood looking at the empty room. He needed support. I intended to provide it.
“You miss them,” I said. I imagined a child of mine growing up in such gloomy circumstances. I couldn’t imagine a mother who would want that. I couldn’t imagine Mark did either.
Eventually, months later, I asked why they’d gotten a divorce. I wanted to know what precipitated it. I had tried to find out, broaching the topic outright—“why did you divorce?” But Mark always had the same response—“people drift apart, there was no one thing.”
I suggested he see his son more often than two holidays a year.
“It’s a two-hour drive upstate and a two-hour drive back,” he said, in a tone which indicated I was suggesting something unreasonable.
Eventually I stopped demanding more details. It was the past. It wasn’t important, he said, to our future. The past pained him. He couldn’t move on if he had to continue living in the past.
He threw out bones occasionally, after we married, but then retreated, unwilling to bare his pain, to be vulnerable. It wasn’t only about a divorce, a son taken away. There was a daughter, too, from a previous relationship, who he paid child support for but never saw. There was a father who had served prison time for manslaughter. There was an alcoholic mother who’d abandoned him and then insisted on returning to his life when he was a working adult who could give her money. There were mysterious evenings out when he didn’t thoroughly explain where he was going or why and returned around midnight.
There was a lot.
Tell me, I said.
“Stop,” he said, when I pressed for details. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
For a long time, I convinced myself sexual chemistry and interesting conversation was all one needed in a loving relationship, and I didn’t care about the hidden inclusions in our marriage. But then a man came into my life, who I met through friends. Although this man lived two hours away, I connected with his openness. He didn’t have secrets and didn’t want secrets.
I did not keep this secret from Mark. I told him I wanted a separation.
One day, after Mark moved to the East Side and was living a different life with windows and a view, an aging, wealthy condo owner came to his basement office to say goodbye. She was going to live with her daughter in a mansion north of the city.
Her parting words to him were, “Why are you here?”
Puzzled, Mark started talking about his gratitude for the job. The apartment which was included as part of his pay package. The parking space.
“No,” the woman interrupted, leaning forward and gently touching his forearm. “Why, Mark, are you here? You don’t belong here. You’re not a super. You should be running a company somewhere. You should be in management.”
“That’s such a lovely compliment,” I said when Mark told me about this.
“Is it?” he said, sounding doubtful.
I come home from work and Mark’s eyes are rimmed red, the skin swollen underneath them.
I rush to him. “What’s wrong? Have you been crying?”
He bursts into tears. I have never seen him cry. I wrap my arms around him, feeling guilt-ridden at the pain I’ve caused him.
“Oh, honey, it’s going to be OK,” I say. “I am so sorry. It’s just a separation. We’re still going to be friends. I still love you.”
He shakes his head. Pulls away from me. “It’s not that,” he says through sobs. He composes himself. Pulls a tissue from a box on the coffee table. “It’s Harry.” Tears stream down his face. He is unable to speak. My chest tightens with dread.
“Did you get into his apartment?”
“And he was there?”
Mark nods again. He’s overcome with emotion. Bit by agonizing bit, he tosses out words until I can piece together that, against the board president’s wishes, Mark tried to open Harry’s door with the key. But it didn’t work. Unable to shake the feeling something was wrong, Mark and the handyman broke the lock and entered the apartment.
Harry was on the floor of his bedroom, laying in the stink of his own excrement, unable to talk, barely conscious. An ambulance took him to the hospital, but he died within the hour. The hospital staff said it probably had been a stroke.
I encircle Mark in my arms again, tears streaming down my face too, grieving for a man I’d never spoken to. “I’m so sorry,” I say, over and over, until Mark’s own tears stop.
He doesn’t want to talk about it any more after that.
We sit in the darkened apartment, my head tucked against his shoulder, and look out at the city lights twinkling against a black canvas. A different kind of back porch. This is our constellation of stars.
The next morning, Mark tells me he needs to check on a repetitive bell-like clanging noise which seems to be coming from the roof. Board members have complained and want the noise to stop. People always complain about something. Mark’s job is to absorb those complaints in a pleasant manner. This means he sports a good-natured smile while he plunges a clogged toiled in a studio apartment lived in by four twenty-something young women who opt to flush their used tampons because they’re too embarrassed to throw them in the garbage. It also means when the porters haven’t yet arrived to work due to weather-stricken busses and delayed trains, he must say a breathless, cheery “good morning” to every condo owner who quips, “you missed a spot” as they pass him on the sidewalk shoveling snow.
He asks if I will go to the roof with him. For about a week, temperatures have consistently hovered around frigid, mostly due to a ferocious wind. Only a few days earlier, a construction worker fell to his death due to an icy roof combined with the unusually windy conditions. Will I come to the roof with him?
I need to get to work. I had awakened to his gray-green eyes locked on mine, and the natural morning light in our bedroom brighter than usual. I looked over his shoulder at the alarm clock, saw the time and wondered why it hadn’t gone off a half hour earlier, when it should have.
“Look what time it is,” I said, jumping up to hurry into the shower. But Mark sleeps on the side closest to the bedroom door, and within two steps he entered the bathroom first. He closed the door and I heard the shower turn on. It wasn’t a good time to make a fuss. I suspected he had turned the alarm off—his passive-aggressive way of expressing his anger.
When I tell him I do not want to go to the roof with him, he scowls.
“I knew you wouldn’t come,” he says. “Will you wait for me until I come down?” He means, I assume, I should wait in the apartment, and then we will ride the service elevator down to the lobby, as is our usual weekday routine, whereby we will nod to each other, I will exit the building to walk downtown to my job as a trade publication editor, and he will walk over to stand with the concierge behind the desk, available for any questions or complaints from the condo owners.
Whatever game Mark is playing by trying to make me late for work—to sabotage my career—I resolve not to react. I feel empathy for him, for his anger toward me. He has every right to feel it. I am trying to be as kind as possible. “Sure, I’ll wait for you,” I say.
He opens his arms. “Will you at least give me a hug?” he asks. Our hug lingers. A warm, loving lock. We still fit. My head against his broad chest, the tip of it reaching just below his chin. Snug comfort. Bits of him woven into my fabric. At work events, I have started to mimic the way I’ve seen him wade through crowded rooms to initiate conversation with the awkward-looking solo person leaning against a wall. In certain situations, I have adapted the soft tone he uses when trying to maintain composure when condo owners yell at him, their arms chopping the air about some displeasure. I have learned how to toy with his tongue in the same slow, sweet way his tongue toys with mine in a passionate kiss.
But something devastating happens as we embrace in front of our reflections in our mirrored closet door. Mark’s muscles relax, yet his arms remain around me. He has gone limp while standing. I pull back to look up at his eyes, and his arms fall to his sides. There is a vacancy in his eyes. The light is gone; the essence of him has fled his body.
“What’s wrong?” I say, concerned. “Are you sick? Your eyes . . .”
He glances at himself in the mirror, then turns to look at me. This time his eyes blaze with fire. Frightened, I step back, nearly tripping over my own feet.
“Look what you’ve done to me,” he says.
“What I’ve done to you . . .” I echo.
He pushes past me, forcing me to fall onto the bed.
I don’t hear the apartment door close. Usually I do. Usually there is a click of the door opening, and then a hollow, two-beat drum-like sound as it closes. I half-listen for it, but there is nothing.
Shaken, I head out the bedroom to the foyer closet to fetch my winter coat. As I reach in to pull it out, I pause. Mark’s winter coat is still on a hangar.
Our one-bedroom apartment has parquet floors, high ceilings, white walls, spare furnishings. To get to the foyer closet, I had walked out of the bedroom and through a narrow hall past the bathroom and kitchen on opposite sides from each other. I face the living room, confused. Mark is not in the apartment. I cannot compute that on such a wintry day he has not worn his winter coat to check the roof. He walked out of our nineteenth-floor apartment—one floor below the penthouse—to take four flights of stairs to the roof, wearing only his blue-and-white striped, button-down cotton shirt and jeans.
I don’t want my husband to be uncomfortably cold, or get sick from exposure. I am annoyed with him in that moment—annoyed I have more care about his comfort than he does for himself. Annoyed he can’t take care of himself. I hesitate, wondering if I should run his coat up to him, wondering if me chasing him would be for naught anyway because he will ignore my pleas to put on his coat.
But he said he would only take a few minutes.
The city beckons through our broad bank of living room windows. I am going to miss this view. Below, a depressing montage of brown and gray lays in repose. Buildings, snow-covered roofs, water towers, pavement, concrete. Snow dances in front of the windows, trying to find a place to settle. In the distance, north, the silver Chrysler building with its Art Deco design—silver arrows pointing to the heavens—stands tall, grand.
To the west, through the side window, the Empire State building on the hill is still visible. But this view will soon disappear. Construction of a $47 million Opus Dei conference facility already has started on the long-vacant lot next door. The red-brick structure, rumored to include three marble-accented chapels, will be seventeen stories high—four less stories than our building—but its position above us on the hill means that once construction concludes, Opus Dei will blot our view. We got such a joy seeing the Empire State Building lit up in color each evening, trying to determine what the colors represented, and why we should care. Pink for breast cancer awareness. Red for Valentine’s Day. I wonder if the unmarried and celibate Opus Dei numeraries will appreciate the light show as much as my husband and I have.
The car windows are open because the air-conditioner doesn’t work, and I have Medusa hair from the wind. The radio isn’t on because all it gets is the AM stations and we have no interest in anything on there. I’m lost in thoughts that aren’t connected in any way—wondering what the weather is going to be like the next day, thinking I might try to get a pedicure on the way home from work sometime during the week, trying to remember how much laundry needs to be done. Ahead, there are green traffic lights signaling GO all the way down Columbus Avenue and the weather is comfortable warm for this early June Saturday.
A car about the size of the one we are in—four-door, medium-sized sedan—turns perpendicular to us and Mark doesn’t slow down. I say his name in a crescendo—starting with a slow, low Mmmm and ending with a high, nearly-shouting Kkkk, but he doesn’t register it until too late. He grunts and shifts his leg and there is a loud squeal from somewhere as our car slides hard into the gray-colored one in front of us and all I see are the eyes of a child on someone’s lap in the backseat. The eyes are dark, wide, his black hair in a bowl cut. He is sucking his thumb.
Our car comes to rest on the right-hand side of the road, against a curb, and I see Mark’s head bang into the windshield. The glass splinters and he falls back against the seat.
I am the only one between the two of us who has my seat belt on. My chest hurts where the belt restrained me.
“Are you OK?” I ask him. Mark answers by slamming his fist on the dashboard, twice, hard. I turn my attention straight ahead at the steam escaping from the car’s hood.
He gets out of the car, hands on hips, and surveys the damage. A man comes up to my window. He has a full moustache and his round face is wet with perspiration, his eyes serious with concern.
“Are you hurt?” the man asks. I stare at his white sleeveless shirt.
“How are the others?” I respond. There seemed to be more than one child in the car. It seemed stuffed with people.
Mark comes over on my side as I open my door and the Good Samaritan with the moustache offers his hand to grasp as I stand unsteadily. Mark looks at the buckled-in front wheel on my side of the car and pounds his fist on the damaged hood.
“Hey man, I’d be more worried about her,” the Samaritan says to Mark, who ignores him. Then, to me, the Samaritan says. “Can you walk, honey?”
I’m fine, except for the embarrassment. A crowd has gathered on the sidewalk. A tall, slender police officer comes up, notepad in hand. “Everyone alright here?” he asks. He smiles and I instantly feel comforted. His countenance and height remind me of a friendly, popular basketball player I knew in high school—a guy who was always kind.
“How did you get here so fast?” I manage to mumble.
“We’re right down the street,” the officer says. “Came running the moment we heard it.”
“You’d better check her,” the Samaritan says. I can’t help but knit my brows and glance at this man sideways. I don’t understand his concern. The officer seems to catch on and asks the Good Samaritan, “You involved in the crash?” The Samaritan starts to back away and says, “No—”
“Step back then, please,” the officer says, maintaining a friendly tone.
“I’m really OK,” I whisper to the officer.
He studies my eyes and says, “You sure you don’t want to get checked out? We got an ambulance here already. Hospital’s only a block down the street.”
I shake my head. The officer turns his attention to Mark, “What about you?”
“I’m fine,” Mark says, waving his hand dismissively.
“What about the other car? There were children in there,” I say.
“They’re all going to be alright, hon,” the officer says, just as a child who appears to be about five years old is brought over to sit on the edge of the ambulance. The officer sees the alarm on my face.
“He’s going to be alright,” he says again. He directs us to rest on the rear of the vehicle while he leaves to speak to his police partner, who’s with the occupants who’d been in the other vehicle. But Mark continues to walk around the car, inspecting all the damage.
“It’s totaled,” he says, shaking his head.
“We just have to fill out some paperwork, folks.” The officer has returned, and places some forms on the trunk.
“The guy turned directly in front of me, I couldn’t stop. Ask anyone,” Mark says. The Good Samaritan overhears and steps forward.
“I saw it,” he says. “That other guy drove right in front of them.”
“Thanks,” the police officer says. “We have a couple witnesses who have said the same thing already and the driver admitted as much. They’re here illegally. Shouldn’t have been driving in the first place; had about ten people in the car.”
Mark seems to breathe a sigh of relief.
“I’ll need to see your driver’s license,” the officer says.
Mark lowers his voice and flicks his thumb toward me. “Let’s put her down as the driver.”
I step back. Fold my arms across my chest. Why? My thoughts are swirling but nothing comes out of my mouth.
The officer doesn’t seem to be as shocked.
“Why’s that?” he asks, without even looking up from writing his badge number and name on the form.
“I have a problem with my license,” Mark says.
“Too many parking tickets.”
“Yeah?” the officer says, then looks at me. His eyes are light brown, long-lashed. Whenever he looks at me, his eyes catch me off guard with their searching—here is someone experienced with getting the truth from people, simply by looking in the eyes. “You got your license with you, hon?”
I walk to the passenger side and pull my leather shoulder bag from under the seat, rummaging through it until I find my driver’s license. When I return and hand it to the officer, the Good Samaritan walks up and gently presses his fingertips on my shoulder.
“You sure you’re alright?” he asks. I nod and mumble, “Yes.”
“OK,” he says. “I couldn’t leave until I was sure.” He looks at Mark. “You take care of her, OK?” He points at me. “She needs to be taken care of, alright?” Mark scowls but nods. “OK,” the man says, smacking Mark on the side of the arm before walking away.
Mark watches him go, then mumbles to me: “That guy was really worried about you. It was weird.”
“Yeah. Weird,” I say.
A tow truck arrives for the car. We take a cab home, seated far apart from each other, both of us looking out our respective windows. I don’t look at him as I ask, “Why is your license suspended?”
“I told you,” he says. “Parking tickets.”
I don’t say aloud what we both know: He never told me about the suspended license. He never told me about the parking tickets.
We don’t have to say any of this out loud. Mark knows he never told me about it, and he knows I don’t believe his license was suspended for parking tickets.
And I know he will never tell me the truth.
My body reflexively jumps at the sound of an explosion. The building trembles. A flock of startled black birds swiftly swoops toward the sky.
My mind goes to Mark as it simultaneously tries to decipher the source of the explosion. In his quest to rid the building of the persistent, annoying clanging sound, perhaps he dropped something off the roof. Or maybe the explosive sound was something heavy dropping on the penthouse terrace directly above our apartment.
A fire flicks an excruciating path through my veins, crawls from my neck through to my fingers, making them tremble. This flame builds into bonfire proportions in my chest. Searing. My mind feels like a series of wires has been burnt through.
Something is wrong.
I’m in some sort of space of heightened senses, bereft of logical thought processes. There is the sound of a door closing in the hallway.
He’s returned from the roof.
Robotically, I open the closet door, grab Mark’s coat, open our apartment door, expecting to see him in the hallway. But the hall is empty. Holding the coat protectively against my chest, I walk down the hall, then open another door to step into the stairwell, where I listen for his footsteps, the sound of him descending from the roof.
Physically, mentally, emotionally, I am caught in a whirlpool of dichotomy: An overall feeling of numbness in which I have involuntarily relinquished control to instinct. Something unseen and untouchable pulls, pushes, prods me forward.
With a steady rhythm, I climb the stairs. One flight and then a second flight, and a landing with a beige door, the number 20 painted in black block letters.
Another flight, and another, and now there is a gray door, the word ROOF in red.
I push. The door resists.
I push harder, and the door flings wide open, slamming with a metallic bang against the outer wall. The wind violently slaps my face, tosses my hair in a swirl around my head. It takes a minute to steady myself against the assault. I clutch my husband’s coat tighter. Resist the urge to scream back at the wind.
There are footsteps in the snow. Cautious, I follow their curve left toward the north side of the building. The wall here reaches as high as my waist. I do not get too close. I turn my back to the wall, call his name.
There are no blue skies, no sun, no clouds. Instead, the sky presses in, suffocating. Presses down on me, on us. All fogs white: the building’s brick, the air, the snow blanketing the roof and swirling at the mercy of the wind, which makes its presence known in a low, bitter howl. Something wicked and haunting permeates the space. A time-space hole. Purgatory.
In this city of more than eight million people, I am alone, frozen, terrified.
Something is wrong.
Where are you?
He has gone down in the elevator without me;
There is another stairwell I am not aware of;
He is trying to make me lose my job.
My feet freeze in place. I struggle to lift them, to walk. Slow, steady, I make my way back toward the door. The wind objects. Pushes back. I fight against the wind, the ice, the snow, the oppression and finally find the door.
My foot slips and I struggle to maintain my balance. I stare at the ice, now inadvertently exposed after my slipping foot pushed away snow. Maybe Mark slipped too. I scan the roof one last time. I hope for a shadow of a man’s shape.
I call his name again. Wait for a reply.
The sound of wailing sirens answers.
It snaps me alert. I am not alone. We hear sirens every day in the city. When I’d first arrived, I’d asked Mark “how can you bear the sounds of those sirens every day?”
“What sirens?” he’d answered.
Eventually, I’d learned to ignore them, too. But now I hear them, and they are a comfort; a sign it is just another day in the city.
There is a logical explanation for everything. I am certain Mark is downstairs in the lobby. Our paths somehow missed each other. Typical. As out of sync as our individual lives had become.
Back at the apartment, my soul starts to settle back into my body. Although my fingers continue to tremble, and some remnants of fire linger in my chest, my veins have cooled off.
I hang Mark’s coat back on its hangar. Run my fingers down the sleeve before closing the closet door. Grab my messenger bag.
As I make my way down the hall, I focus on which office duties need to be tackled first at work.
I open the door to enter the service elevator vestibule and push the button. It does not light up as it should. I push again. Nothing. As a building superintendent’s wife, I know a service elevator button which won’t light up means the elevator has been purposely stopped. The super or the concierge has inserted an elevator key which blocks summons from other floors.
They’ve already started collecting garbage from each floor.
I have lost track of the time, but I know the garbage collection does not start until well after ten o’clock on weekdays.
I am really late.
I exit the service elevator area to step back into the hall and push the button for one of the three regular elevators, which I’ve rarely ever taken. As the super’s wife, I know my place. One quickly arrives and I enjoy a solo ride all the way down to the first floor—another indication I am late. I have missed the morning horde of people hurrying out of the building and on to work.
The elevator doors open. I step out, intending to ask the concierge if he has seen Mark.
I open my mouth to say, “Andy, have you seen—,” but never get that far.
Outside the floor-to-ceiling lobby windows, parked, are two ambulances and two police cars, their red lights flashing. Someone on my right—a man in an Emergency Medical Technician uniform—yells something to Andy.
Andy’s eyes catch my own. In his eyes I see alarm. He holds his hands, palms up—STOP—as he runs toward me from behind the concierge desk. My head swivels to see the EMT looking from Andy to me. I do not yet fully comprehend, yet some part of me grasps that, yes, something is terribly wrong.
“No, don’t . . .” Andy says.
A blur. A knowing. It all comes together. This can’t be real.
“What is it?” someone screams. “Where is he? Take me to him. He needs me.”
The other elevator doors open. People intent on getting somewhere. Going to work, their lives unchanged. They stare at me, the one who is screaming, demanding to see my husband.
The EMT lets me come with him. He says something, “Are you sure . . .”
“Yes. Yes. He needs me,” I say.
He needs me. He needs me, he needs me, he needs me. He can’t even remember to wear a coat up to the roof. I take care of him.
I was foolish to think he could survive me leaving him.
The night prior. He lay on his back. Stared at the ceiling. Scratched his head.
“Who is going to take care of me?” he said. I had been nearly asleep. I sat silent for a few seconds, waiting to see if he intended the question for me. Waiting to see if he was going to turn accusatory eyes toward me. He didn’t. I reached out and placed my hand on his shoulder.
He rolled over onto his side. His back toward me. I rolled over, too. My back toward him.
The EMT and I step into the service elevator. It had not been frozen for garbage pick-up. It had been commandeered for an emergency.
We go up one floor, and then walk out, down a hall, and another, to exit a side door. I run ahead, out into the rear courtyard, rimmed on four sides by cold, tall buildings. An open space where I have never set foot in the four years Mark and I have lived in this building.
One of the porters stands on top of a one-story utility building. He puts his hands up in warning the same way Andy had. Stop. Don’t. Stay away. You do not want to see this. “No, no, no, no, no,” he says.
A ladder has been erected against the one-story building and I climb it even as the porter begs me to stop, looking at the EMT to back him up. But the EMT shakes his head.
Before I reach the top of the ladder—as I climb the uppermost rungs—I see the body, laying on its side. The building superintendent. My husband.
For several minutes I sit stunned on the sofa, while a throng of police mill around the apartment. There are so many of them that they bump into one another, weaving in and out of the bedroom and kitchen and living room, murmuring things I don’t bother to strain to hear. I am mesmerized by a framed photo of a happy couple, across from me on the bookshelf. Sun-kissed skin. Smiles. They are standing on a beach. Holding hands.
A hush comes over the apartment as two men enter, dressed similarly in long black coats over dark suits. White shirts. Navy blue ties. Tall, broad-shouldered, both with hair graying in distinguished patterns up high near the temples, they cut a swath as they walk in. The policemen nod in respect at them, before scurrying out like frightened rabbits.
“Who are they?” I ask a policewoman who has quietly taken a seat beside me. She is the only woman I have seen among the uniformed police this morning, and she reminds me of a ballerina. Prominent cheekbones. Hair pulled taut into a snug bun at the nape of her neck.
“The detectives,” she says.
The detectives nod at her. “You can stay,” says the shorter one. He reaches his hand toward me and it takes me several seconds to register I am supposed to shake it. “I’m Detective M—, and this is Detective S—. We’re sorry for your loss.”
The words knock the breath out of me.
We’re sorry for your loss.
“We’d like to ask you a few questions, but can come back later if you’d like.”
“No. Now is fine,” I say. I want to know what happened. I want to know how Mark died.
The detectives sit on the sofa in front of the window, facing me. The winter sky glares so bright behind them that their faces are obscured in shadow, reminding me of the Roman Catholic confessionals of my youth. Shadowed priests behind screens. The biggest sins I had to confess then, during my teenage years, were petty jealousies and white lies.
“It’s our understanding your husband had been asked to check on some construction equipment on the roof,” Detective M— says.
And I remember. The possible cause of the clanging noise. A company recently had been hired to do some pointing work on the building—men rode scaffolding, similar to window washer elevators, on the side of the building and replaced broken bricks. It was a detail-oriented job which took months to complete. They were supposed to have completed the work prior to winter, but had discovered more damaged bricks than they’d originally thought they would. The extreme winds made it necessary for work to completely stop because the men could not safely do the pointing work; their scaffolding equipment was at risk of coming loose and sending them plunging to the ground.
It occurs to me the detectives think Mark may have died accidentally, but I’m haunted by the memory of the vacant look in his eyes in the last moments we spent together. A feeling washes over me. A sudden awareness of what it meant.
“I think it was suicide,” I say.
The detectives glance at each other. Then Detective S— says, “The concierge said someone in the building had threatened your husband with a gun a few months ago.”
I’m stunned Andy had brought up old Mr. Wood, who had indeed pointed an ancient-looking handgun at Mark in the lobby about a year prior. Mark had laughed it off, noting that he didn’t even know the reason for Mr. Wood’s threats.
“There was something strange about his eyes this morning,” I say, remembering. “I thought he was sick, but . . .” My words drift off as another revelation occurs to me: Perhaps Mark had, indeed, been ill—mentally.
The detectives look at each other again. Detective S— asks, “Did he threaten it?”
“Is there a note?” The detectives raise their eyebrows, skeptical.
“I don’t think so. I haven’t looked.”
The detectives look pointedly at the policewoman seated beside me. She shakes her head.
Detective M— sighs deeply and leans back into the sofa. “Why do you think he wanted to take his life?”
“Because I was leaving him. I had asked for a separation because I thought I was in love with someone else.” Thought I was in love with someone else. The past tense. Only hours prior, I had still been confused about the emotions I felt for someone else. Now all I can feel is a gnawing ache where my heart is supposed to be.
“There’s a computer in the bedroom,” the policewoman offers.
The detectives look at me. I look back.
“Did he leave a note on the computer?” Detective M— asks.
I hadn’t checked the computer. I hadn’t even thought to check for a note. I’m still processing that Mark is gone. A creeping emptiness is taking over the apartment space.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “He doesn’t use the computer.”
We all go look at the computer in the bedroom. While I log on, the detectives’ eyes scan the room. The wide mirror on top of the bureau, the mirrored closet doors. The side tables with matching lamps on top of them. The well-made bed with the ring-patterned quilt which had been a wedding gift. We didn’t have much to see.
I click on and open everything on the computer desktop, regardless of last date changed, curious to see if there is a note. Detective S— looks over my shoulder.
“Nothing,” he finally says.
We look under the pillows, under the covers, through all the drawers. We open the closet and search some pockets.
As we walk back to the living room, Detective M— scratches his head and says, “One more thing. Did he have any enemies?”
This question, too, startles me; makes me feel indignant on Mark’s behalf. “No. He had no enemies. Everyone loved him . . .” My voice trails off. Tears fill my eyes. Everyone loved him . . . But the truth was, there was no real way for me to know that. I knew only what he’d been willing to show me. I didn’t know he wanted to take his life.
The detective offers a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“It’s OK. You’re going to be OK.”
The detectives and the policewoman make their way to the door and I am filled with fear, realizing I am going to be alone in the apartment. Already, it feels unbearably vacant. Hollow.
Detective S— puts his notebook in his outer coat’s inner pocket and turns to me. His tone is gentle. “We can get rid of the media if you want.”
Detective M— understands the puzzled look on my face, and explains, “There are several press and media people gathered downstairs. They’ll keep coming around—”
“You want us to handle it for you?” Detective S— adds.
I nod. “Yes. Thank you.”
NEW YORK, City News Roundup
Super plunges from 20-story roof
NEW YORK – A building super jumped to his death yesterday from the roof of a 20-story midtown apartment building, police said. Mark C—, 35, landed on a second-floor landing at XXX and was pronounced dead at the scene. C— was apparently despondent about marital problems, police said.
Mark never would have committed suicide, his mother screams at me over the phone. You stupid, stupid girl. You have denied his children a huge payoff. They could have sued the building.
Later, I receive a letter from her, telling me in strong language again how I was wrong to tell the police Mark had taken his life, that there was no proof, that he would have wanted his children to have the money due them for his death. If the death is ruled a suicide, they will have no recourse to get financial compensation for their father’s forever absence.
Two of my co-workers, Alan and Andrea, accompany me to a memorial service for Mark in the city. I read about the service on a piece of paper taped on the wall between the building elevators about two weeks after Mark died, and seven days after I held a memorial service for him in upstate New York, where he grew up.
The paper taped on the wall said:
Come celebrate the life of Mark C—, our building superintendent. All are welcome.
It gave a time, a date, and the name of a church a few blocks away.
Alan and Andrea had not been able to make it to the upstate memorial service. I told them about the memorial service in the city, about how nobody had talked to me about it, but I wanted to go. I was moving out of the building soon. One of the handymen already had been promoted to superintendent.
The three of us get caught in traffic on our way to the church after work. Even though we decide it will be faster to cut our cab trip short, to get out and walk the rest of the way, we arrive about ten minutes late. The church is cavernous. Shadowy. The only source of light is on the altar. About fifty people sit in the pews. All I can see are people’s backs, so I don’t recognize anyone except the board president and a female board member who stand at the front.
“It’s important to take the time to acknowledge each other, to care for one another, to show kindness to our neighbor,” the board president says. “Mark spent all his time taking care of us. Yet how many of us asked him how he was?”
Everyone bows their heads for a moment of silence. And then it is over.
People get up. I look at each face as they walk past. I do not recognize anyone.
The board president and the board member glance at me, but keep walking.
Alan and Andrea are bewildered.
“Don’t they know who you are?”
I shrug. It doesn’t matter.
Dawn D’Aries was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. “The Super’s Wife” represents parts pulled together from a full-length work of creative nonfiction. As an editor and journalist, she has written on a variety of news and feature topics, and counts The Rumpus among her most recent creative nonfiction credits. She currently is an adjunct instructor of writing and literature for four colleges in northeast Pennsylvania.Image by Anthony Fomin