Edward is careful. He is an artist with dark, set-in eyes, freckles, and a tall frame. He appears to be a solid, decisive man upon first impression, the kind who could make you feel less complete. He patiently crosses streets, rarely if ever wears stained, wrinkled, or remarkable clothing; he is well, if plainly dressed, and put off by the notion of pets or houseplants. He is knowledgeable and does not pretend to concern himself with things beyond his grasp (though he can certainly talk with some eloquence about the Middle East or Homer). Edward asks few questions and resides deep down inside himself, somewhere small and dark, airtight. He keeps to his apartment and his impressive library, far from the outer kaleidoscope of objects and trivialities. His art is quite small, too, and said to be extraordinary.
Patricia has lived in her apartment for four weeks and lives one floor above Edward. Her apartment faces east, and the bright sun that filters in during the cold Massachusetts mornings is greeted by her sharp almond eyes each sunrise, as she sleeps little during the darker hours. Patricia builds boxes. She buys wood, new and old, online, at flea markets, from antique stores, and from home improvement and construction stores. She stains the different woods, paints the boxes, decorates them with jewels and locks and aged metals, and occasionally glasses and pearls. With nimble fingers and steady eyes she affixes latches to cigar boxes, buckles to tiny wooden cases, and she tears miniscule frames from age-old lockets which once held the faces of lovers or deceased relatives and glues them to the insides of her boxes. Various tools, scraps of sandpaper, and nineteenth century slabs of restored walnut and mahogany are heaped in piles in her bedroom. The cohabitants of the room: a single bed, some clothes folded away, two pairs of shoes, and a laptop computer, on which Patricia upkeeps her Ebay store and sells her wooden boxes, which are both renowned and expensive. She likes to work on her boxes at night, occasionally by candle, because they are meant to be seen in partial dark.
Patricia sits in her living room, which is over-cluttered and over-lived in. Fragments of found photos litter her violet carpet, cutouts of old National Geographics, shredded sheets of aged encyclopedias lie over her couch and under her coffee table; they are glued to one another, or to themselves, or to the gathered dust, or they are cut into near oblivion. They form an abstract mass of images that Patricia prefers to the ones she purposefully arranges. Patricia's Ebay store selling her collages has yet to take off. She has not lost all hope, but her enthusiasm is ebbing. She returns to her bedroom to work on the construction of a large trunk. The smell of aged oak and varnish lulls her into a trancelike state (lack of sleep a notable contributor) and she tinkers with metal latches for countless minutes and dreams of who will buy this trunk, what she will put inside, whether she will have an accent or whether he will be an old hoarder looking to hide things he no longer wants to see and if he will wonder who she, Patricia, is, how she made the trunk, what she wants from life. She decides to take a break and flip through a self-help book that her mother mailed her as a housewarming gift a few weeks ago, titled, On the Fast Track to Becoming YOU. On the first page she reads, Your first task on the fast track to becoming YOU is to blind yourself to what lies dimly at a distance and clutch what appears plainly to your inner You.
Edward climbs the stairs to put a stop to the noises that he's been hearing which seem to come from the apartment above him. Without imagining who lives there or what they could be doing, he knocks loudly on the door, enough times to make it clear that his is not a friendly visit. He taps his neatly laced shoes on the ground and thinks about going to the bank while he waits for an answer. After a minute, Patricia decides to respond to the knocks at the door and instead of standing up normally decides to leap like a cat, as high off of the ground as she can. It makes her feel alive to do strange things unbeknownst to others. In the still cold of her living room she decides to do her best to seize her inner You.
Face to face in the doorway, Edward tells Patricia that he lives below her. He explains that he has taken to outfitting himself in earplugs when he sleeps but when the knocking and pounding and banging extends to the day it disturbs his painting. Can she be quieter? Welcome to the building. He appreciates it. He belatedly introduces himself, too, making minimal eye contact.
Patricia says she will indeed be quieter and explains while looking at the freckles on the bridge of his nose, that she makes boxes and that must be the knocking sound that he speaks of. Edward politely asks about the box she is working on.
"Well, I can only tenuously say that it's going to be a chest, it's still in a very early phase." Patricia looks at his face questioningly, to evaluate his interest. "But the way I imagine it, it'll be decorated with some antique metal rivets. The pine I'm using is over a century old, and I'm working on some oak outer slat boards. The top will flip open but there will also be a drawer that pulls out from the bottom."
Patricia considers inviting him in but does not. Edward has been wondering all the while why Patricia used the word tenuously and when he realizes that she must have intended to say tentatively he pauses for a moment and then decides that correcting her usage would be rude.
Edward nods back to her as if to say, goodbye, and thank you, now I can finish my painting, and Patricia stands alone for some time in the doorway, not watching him leave but feeling the absence of his presence, until the moment passes and it is just her alone in the doorway without the feeling. She shuts the door, shuts herself into the apartment. She opens and shuts the refrigerator door. When her phone rings she answers her mother's call.
Mom, hi. Patricia's mother is exactly sixty, exactly twice her age. Her primary interests include taxidermy, dream boards, and daytime television. She has recently taken to technology. Her plump body is complimented by an unrelenting smile and by long gray strands of hair that wrap her scalp in a disorderly mass. She calls Patricia once a week and reminds her that she is the light of her too-often-dark life.
Hi dear, comes the voice of her mother, muffled by poor cell phone service and years of chain-smoking. The cell phone conversations provide Patricia with a regularity that her life otherwise lacks. Patricia thinks about how, with billions of people constantly doing everything better and quicker than you, with a whole universe out there made up of large objects and drastic temperatures and limitless space, the best anyone can really do is feel needed by someone else. Though Patricia knows that she is not a solution to her mother's neurotic isolation, she can pretend enough to keep herself in high spirits.
Edward has been solving the riddle of being alone in the world. He looks out of the window every so often and sees people walking by, going about their busy routines, and this reminds him that he has no reason to feel sorry for himself. He believes in routine and solitude and little else. The only future that he acknowledges is his eventual death, which he thinks about frankly, sometimes when he is looking at things or talking to people or making art, and it keeps away the static.
His routine attendance at the Roman-Catholic Church grounds Edward's solitude (though the idea of God, fatherly and punishing, has always felt foreign to him). Each Sunday he wears the same navy suit to church (alternating between one of seven ties) and he marvels at the architecture of his place of worship. The extremely thick walls and the external brick arranged in a complex zigzag pattern cause Edward to imagine vast Byzantine structures that evoke, for him, a sense of prehistoric awe. In the church, among people who find themselves less important than God, a feeling of unity washes over him. What Edward takes from this is that he means nothing.