THE WRONG IDEA • by Mary Benson

Snow drips from the tattered scarf wrapped around his face as he stands silently eager, almost not breathing. I unlock the door and push, and it becomes real: I’m bringing the homeless man from the corner into my apartment.

I’ve seen this man hanging around my building for over a year now. When I pass by, I nod but keep moving, avoiding the jingle of his small cup or the occasional compliment comparing my face to a sunny sky. But tonight I am tipsy and alone after the office holiday party of dull co-workers I’ve grown to hate, and the sight of him standing lonely in the snow made my cheeks burn beneath my eyes. Alice and Kathleen would never invite a homeless man into their home for a warm meal, I thought, picturing them hovering around the punch bowl in their stupid festive dresses, flirting with Brett who inevitably took one of them home.

He enters cautiously, as if afraid of breaking something. He removes his snow-stuffed boots as I instruct him to do, hesitates, and then his over-sized jacket.

 “I bet it feels nice not to eat alone out there tonight,” I say, bringing a pot of water to a boil. I’ve been eating alone nearly every night for months, gorging myself on pasta and crackers and sour candy, followed by wine or beer until I fall asleep in front of the TV. “Yes,” he croaks, and blushes.

Normally when walking home at night, I bunch my keys in my fist like a set of small knives, sweating.  I knew this man hung around my building day and night, and I feared him popping out from a shadow and cornering me, or following me into my building, or touching my ass.  Back when I first moved in, there was a night I saw him sitting on my doorstep on my way back from the liquor store; panicked, I ran down a side street and called Kathleen at the office. I told her a homeless man was stalking me and I feared for my life. She laughed and wished me a good evening.

Now I sit across from him at the table and he coils back a bit, pulling his sweatshirt closer to his body and I feel guilty for having feared him in the past because here I am, close enough to smell the sour of his clothes. He is close enough to reach out and grab my chest, but instead his wolf-like eyes circle the floor and then the front door, too timid to look up.  “The pasta’s going to take a few minutes,” I tell him, my eyes narrowing on his ruddy cheeks blotched with salt and dirt. “Would you like to use my shower?”

“Oh! No, miss, a meal’s even too much to ask.” He laughs nervously, fiddling with a tattered piece of his sleeve.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” I tell him. “You could use a nice hot shower.”  I lead him towards the bathroom and show him the towels, closing the door behind him. I tell him to take his time.

In my bedroom I fix my makeup. I dig through my top drawer for the polka-dotted bra that is cute, but not too cute; I don’t want to give him a heart attack. I am thinking of what he looks like clean. I picture his modest muscles, his stomach thin but not fit, a body that is non-judgmental, simply trying to keep itself alive as I look at my reflection in the unforgiving closet mirror that I look at countless times a day, sobbing over my fleshy stomach, the pudge of my thighs, my toneless arms as I stuff myself into a bland cardigan and dress pants and go to work. The negative image blurs and I’m excited. My heart is a fist in my chest, heat radiates through my body.

I put on a bathrobe and lay on my bed. I picture him pressed against me, here, in this bed that hasn’t seen a man since I moved in.  I think of Kathleen or Alice sitting alongside a passed-out Brett, searching for an Uber in his neighborhood.  I picture one of them crying tomorrow, or calling out of work all together, as I listen for movement from the bathroom. There is nothing. Five minutes go by, and I’m quivering now, so eager I’m almost not breathing.

I slink into the hallway. “Are you good in there?” I ask.  No answer. I knock gently on the bathroom door. Harder now. Still no answer. The heat has taken over me and I’m sweating now, anticipating his reaction when he sees me. The water in the kitchen is boiling now, hissing, but I ignore it, jiggling the doorknob that he left unlocked.

The shower curtain is strewn open. Water jets onto the floor in a steady stream, wetting the entire room as a breeze hits my bare thighs like a snowball: the window is wide open, screen knocked out. I approach the window slowly, and poke my head out, afraid of what I’ll see at the bottom. There is no body: only the imprint of where he jumped into the snow, attached to a set of frantic footprints, running away.

Mary Benson lives, works, and writes in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Fried Chicken and Coffee, Flash Fiction Magazine and Contemporary American Writers.

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