Excerpt from “The Space Between,” by Ralph Robert Moore and Ray Cluley, forthcoming in Shadows & Tall Trees.
It was easy to get lost behind the walls.
Each level had square openings in the crawlspace’s floor at one or two spots along their narrow lengths, presumably for maintenance, which he could use to squeeze up or down to the house’s next level. A bit like climbing up and down trees when he was a boy.
The narrow passages themselves were dimly lit by tiny holes sparkling along the inside wall. Abandoned nail holes from hung pictures and paintings that had since been moved. At first it was enough to just peer through these holes into the rooms he found. But over the long days of his explorations, it bothered him more and more that he was always on the outside. He wanted to know what it would be like to walk within those rooms.
An apartment on the bottom floor was almost always vacant during the day, both owners presumably at work, or looking for it. One morning, sitting in front of his computer with a cup of coffee, working down the list of companies he’d send his résumé to that day, he decided he’d go to the next step with that apartment. Standing half-up out of his chair to kiss Carolyn goodbye. Listening for the sound of their front door opening. Closing. As if, as soon as he was sure she’d be gone for the day, he was going to masturbate.
He waited a long half-hour, to be certain. Digits turning at a slow, slow, slow rate as he counted down.
At the half-hour, Don rose from his chair. Urinated, so he could stay inside the walls as long as possible.
Crawling the lengths of the spaces, going down through the square openings, he became a little disoriented, as he often did, but eventually he arrived at what he thought was the correct peep hole. Brought his right eye up to its ragged circle. Looked through.
This was it! The refrigerator with the snapshots pressed to its front by different cartoon magnets
Hunched over, he made his way to the small dwarf door of the apartment.
What if the door was locked?
But his and Carolyn’s door didn’t have a lock. Why would you have a lock for a crawlspace door? Reached his hand out, turned the latch.
The latch tilted.
The door swung open.
Beyond, another couple’s kitchen.
Stooped over, like some invading troll, he emerged from their crawl space. Stood up.
The oddest feeling, doing something he knew was wrong. It reminded him of one evening when he was quite young, walking home from a friend’s birthday party. He cut across some backyards, happened to glance up at a silent house, to make sure he hadn’t been spotted, saw a lit second story window and, in its black frame, a woman removing her clothes. She wasn’t young, and she wasn’t slim, but he stayed rooted to that spot on the back lawn, staring. Fascinated. In the years to come he would see a number of women’s naked bodies, all of them more beautiful than this body, but the one he always recalled the most was hers. It was like looking into the future, to where women without clothes would be in his life. It was like solving—or at least, starting to solve—one of the world’s great mysteries.
He advanced across the kitchen’s vinyl floor, intensely aware the front door might open at any moment. He was a burglar. Stealing into someone else’s life. The thought thrilled him. And made him realize how dull his adult life had become.
The refrigerator with the cartoon magnets. He looked at the photographs on its white door. For the first time he could actually see what they showed. About a dozen pictures in all. A young man and woman. Early twenties. Together. Big smiles, happy eyes. Her showing some leg. Him, shirt off, flexing. One of those photo booth strips of four square pictures taken seconds apart, their distorted faces too close to the lens. He felt a pang of jealousy. They reminded him of himself and Carolyn, when they were first starting out. Deliriously happy. Dirt poor.
On an impulse, he opened the refrigerator door, the interior light automatically coming on. A package of twin steaks, probably being saved for Friday night, one of the cheaper cuts. Some beers. A tall bottle of inexpensive white wine. Three different kinds of lettuce. Fresh grapes. He realized he was crying.
Reached inside. Plucked from the cluster a single cold, green grape. Put it between his lips. Bit down, feeling within his mouth the mild burst, the sudden release of juice, sweetness. It had been a long, long time since he had eaten a grape. Maybe it just felt that way.
Don slammed the fridge shut when he realized he’d helped himself to several more of them. Opened it again, broke away the telltale stems that pointed at what was missing. Pocketed them.
One of the photos had been knocked askew on the fridge door. He straightened it, kept his fingers on its edges a moment wondering why he was so struck by the image of husband and wife cutting wedding cake.
In other rooms, more evidence of their happiness. A full vase of flowers, tall and fresh and colourful. One of the caricature portraits tourists buy, her all smiles and cheekbones, him squeezing her fit-to-pop with arms more muscular than any workout could produce. Don looked at the books they’d read, crammed on shelves, books they were reading, left on bedside tables. He went to the bathroom, checked the medicine cabinet. Sprayed her perfume because he loved the clean floral smell of her brand and knew he couldn’t afford it for Carolyn anymore.
Don walked a floor plan that was the same as his, only reversed. Opened cupboards. Looked in drawers. The delicious thrill of trespass faded, replaced by a sense of familiarity that went beyond the layout; he’d had this, once. Not the rooms, the walls, the floors—those he had now – but everything contained within the space between had once been his and Carolyn’s.
He peed in their toilet, flushed, washed his hands… and realized how long he’d lingered. A whole bladderful of time had passed. He said to his reflection, “What are you doing?” and had no answer.
He went to the dwarf door and climbed back home. Shrinking, diminishing, crawling away.