Love Thy Neighbor

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*

Stephanie Wells relaxed on her favorite bench in Washington Square Park, enjoying the unexpected warm weather that a late Indian Summer had brought to the third week of October. In the eleven months since she had moved to New York City to attend the Manhattan Culinary Institute, the small concrete and green oasis had become one of the twenty-two-year old’s favorite places in the city. Situated halfway between her apartment and the school, she often stopped off on her way home to relax and review the day’s class notes.

The notes she’d carefully inscribed in the old-style writing tablet rarely needed correction, but the practice gave the five-foot two brunette an excuse to enjoy both the weather and her surroundings. Greenwich Village was a far cry from the small Connecticut town she’d grown up in, and she still marveled how much her life had changed in only a year. Changes that had been both the result of hard work and an unexpected stroke of fortune. The first had led to her acceptance into the graduate course at the celebrated school, and the latter gave her an amazing place to live just a short walk away from it.

Actually, while luck had indeed been involved, much of the credit for her apartment had to go to her grandmother, Shirley. When Stephanie’s letter of acceptance had come last Fall, one of the first questions her parents raised was, where was she going to live in New York? The information packet that had accompanied the letter made it clear that, if needed, student housing was available, but having gone that route already during her undergraduate years, Stephanie was less than eager to repeat the experience.

When she went online to explore her options, however, it became apparent that Manhattan and affordable rent seemed to be mutually exclusive terms — at least in her price range. After a bit more research, though, she found that non-resident students who wanted to avoid the shoebox sized studios that passed as academic housing, did so by seeking rooms in the outer boroughs. Saving money, but at the cost of twice daily commute and more often than not, having roommates as well, a prospect that also made the idea also less than appealing.

That was when her grandmother had intervened, contacting an old college roommate, Margaret Johnson, who had moved down to New York after graduation to attend medical school. Recently retired from her practice, the never married Dr. Johnson now spent more time traveling than she did in residence in her Lower West Side apartment.

Timing as they say is everything, and when Shirley called, Margaret had just been putting the finishing touches on what was going to be her most ambitious foray yet — a nine-month excursion, starting in England and then working itself across the continent, visiting friends and family along the way. In almost no time at all, they’d worked it out that Stephanie could stay in Margaret’s guestroom for the length of her schooling, in exchange for her tending to the day to day minutiae that tended to pile up during the globetrotter’s absences.

-=-=-=-

The distant chime of a clock tower brought Stephanie back to the present, reminding her that she still needed to stop at the market before heading home. She slid her notebook back into her carry bag, then rose to her feet, taking a moment to adjust her off the shoulder, olive hued blouse and straighten out the denim skirt below it. Comfortable and functional, it was one of her favorite outfits, more so because since she had such a small frame, only weighing ninety pounds. She was able to buy it in the girls’ department for considerably less than what they charged for the same outfit in an adult size.

It was already ten past six when, with carry bag over one shoulder and a grocery bag in her hand, Stephanie stepped through the double doors into Ashmore Court’s large lobby. From the beginning, she had liked the fact that most people knew the building by its name rather than its address; it gave the old pre-war structure a character you really didn’t find in more modern edifices.

Moving down the long central hall, she continued past the stairs to the recessed alcove where the mailboxes were situated and removed a half dozen envelopes from the one marked 2B. Then she retraced her steps and started up the stairs, forgoing the six-story building’s elevator. She never saw the need for it unless she was going higher than the second or third floor or had packages to carry.

Entering the apartment, she dropped her carry bag onto the dining room table, then proceeded to put away the groceries. The mail could wait until she’d had a snack, having skipped lunch in expectation of dinner with Jason Brown, a fellow student at the Institute. A dinner unfortunately canceled at the last minute.

Jason, a native New Yorker, lived with his family poker oyna out in the Bayside section of Queens and had become a sort of quasi-boyfriend. They explored the city together during their free hours, helped each other with their studies during their not so free ones, and occasionally shared a bed — even if their romps only occasionally brought more than simple release.

That they had fallen into a sexual relationship, however casual, was something that Stephanie thought ironic because, when she’d first met the twenty-four-year-old redhead, she’d been almost certain he was gay. An assumption she hadn’t been alone in making, as two male students had asked him out in the first month of class. It was possible that he was gay but in denial about it, she’d considered, but if that was the case, it wasn’t her place to press him about it. Besides, her more selfish half was always quick to remind her, the man had a cock that put most porn stars to shame and, even if she had to do most of the work, she might as well enjoy it as long as she could.

Her appetite satisfied, Stephanie turned her attention back to the mail, pulling out the bills that she knew would be automatically paid from Margaret’s household account. As she had been instructed, she opened each and made sure that the bank had dutifully paid the previous month’s charges, so that she wouldn’t find some essential utility unexpectedly shut off.

That left a few personal letters for Margaret, which Stephanie put aside unopened, and two letters addressed to her, one from her mother and one from the school. Or so she thought until, opening the letter from the school, she found that there was another envelope stuck to the bottom of it. An envelope addressed to one Olivia Norton who also lived at Ashmore Court, but in apartment 6D.

During the two weeks before Margaret had left for Europe, the older woman had introduced Stephanie to a number of her new neighbors, and also mentioned a few others who it might be better to avoid for one reason or another. The name Olivia Norton hadn’t been mentioned in either category.

From what she could see through the cellophane address window, it looked to Stephanie like the envelope contained a check. Something she found surprising in this age of direct deposits and electronic transfers, but she guessed there were still instances where people did get checks in the mail. If that was what it was, she really shouldn’t stick it on the edge of the mailbox marked 6D, which is what she’d seen people do when they’d gotten a misdirected letter. No, the best thing to do, she thought, was to bring it up to 6D and hand deliver it.

-=-=-=-

This time Stephanie did take the elevator, exiting onto the sixth floor in the center of the long hallway. Without having to look, she knew that 6D would be to her right, as every floor had identical layouts. Ringing the small bell situated just under the peephole that allowed tenants to screen callers, Stephanie waited for a response. A minute passed, then almost a second, by which time it seemed that, despite the hour, no one was home.

‘I guess I could just slip it under the door,’ Stephanie thought, adding that perhaps she should also leave a note with it.

She was just reaching into her purse for something to write with when there was a sound from behind the door. A sound that she quickly identified as footsteps on a hard wood floor, growing in volume as their creator came closer. They faded abruptly, only to be replaced by the soft click of the peephole as it opened for a few seconds, then slammed shut. Finally, the sound of locks being undone filled the air, followed by the movement of the heavy wooden door as it slowly swung open.

“My, aren’t you a pretty thing,” the woman standing at the threshold said as she took a better look at her caller than the small viewer had afforded. “What is it that I can do for you?” she added.

At least a head taller than Stephanie, the woman stood five nine and weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds, nearly all of it muscle. She wore black slacks and a long sleeved white button-down blouse, the top few buttons of which were open and exposed a prodigious bust that had to be at least four inches and a full cup size larger than Stephanie’s. Shoulder length blonde hair framed a deceptively youthful face, one that didn’t quite match the thirty-nine years reflected on her driver’s license.

“Can I help you?” the woman repeated when Stephanie failed to reply to her initial inquiry.

“Are you Olivia Norton?” Stephanie asked, finally finding her voice.

“I guess that depends on who’s asking,” she replied with a smile.

“I’m Stephanie Wells, from 2B, down on the second floor, and …” she said, then paused in midsentence as she realized how stupid that sounded. Of course, 2B was on the second floor.

“And how may I help you, Stephanie Wells from 2B, down on the second floor?” Olivia asked, clearly enjoying the younger woman’s momentary discomfort. canlı poker oyna

“I … I have some of your mail,” Stephanie stuttered, not quite sure why the woman in front of her was having a disconcerting effect on her. “I mean, I have a letter that belongs to you, it was in my mailbox.”

“Why don’t you come in?” Olivia suggested, stepping aside to create a space that would allow Stephanie to do so. “The hallway is no place to have a discussion. You never know who might be listening.”

As Olivia had spoken the last line, the volume of her voice had risen slightly, and Stephanie had been sure that the older woman had shifted her gaze to over her head toward the apartment across the hall. Glancing slightly back, the brunette saw that it was 6C and recalled that being one of the tenants that Margaret had mentioned that it would be best to avoid.

“The old bitty across the hall lives for gossip,” Olivia said by way of explanation as Stephanie stepped inside, “real or imagined. If she heard you come down the hall, you can bet that she was probably standing at her door trying to hear what we were saying.”

Not realizing that she was doing it, Stephanie nodded her head in agreement. Olivia’s comment paralleled what Margaret had said.

“Now, you said something about having a letter for me?” Olivia asked as she locked the door.

“It looked like a check, so I thought it best not to just simply leave it down by the mailboxes,” Stephanie said as she handed her the envelope.

“Hmm, no such luck, I’m afraid,” Olivia said after examining it for a moment, “not to say I don’t appreciate you going to the trouble of bringing it up to me.”

As she spoke, Olivia tore open the envelope and held out the ‘check’ for Stephanie to see. Now that the whole of it was visible, she could see that it was just an advertisement cleverly designed to look like a check, a marketing ploy to ensure that the recipient actually opened and looked at it rather than simply tossing it into the trash.

“You said you lived down in 2B,” Olivia said as she tossed the ripped envelope and its contents onto a small table against the wall. “I wasn’t aware that anyone had moved out recently.”

“Actually, I’m just apartment sitting for Margaret Johnson while she’s away on vacation,” Stephanie explained. “She and my grandmother are old friends.”

“Oh yes, now I remember Mindy telling me that her next-door neighbor was off again on one of her jaunts,” Olivia replied. “Have you met Mindy Collins?”

Stephanie nodded that she had, picturing the pudgy blonde who had been in the chorus of several off-Broadway shows and lived across the hall in 3B.

“Lovely girl,” Olivia noted as her gaze wandered for a second before coming back to Stephanie. “Then you’ve only been here a few months at most.”

“Three actually,” Stephanie replied, adding in the few weeks she had shared the apartment with Margaret.

“Strange that I haven’t run into you before then,” Olivia commented. “It’s not that big of a building and I certainly would’ve remembered you if we’d passed in the halls or shared an elevator.”

That was the second time, Stephanie observed, that Olivia had complimented her on her appearance. Not that it bothered her, but she reminded herself that she knew nothing about this woman.

“Well, I guess I should be going,” Stephanie said, her mission, wasted as it was, now over.

“In a hurry to rush off?” Olivia asked.

“No, I just figured I’ve wasted enough of your time and …”

“Well, it’s my time and I hardly think it’s being wasted,” Olivia said. “In fact, just before you rang my bell, I was about to pour myself a glass of wine. Would you care to join me?”

Stephanie hesitated before answering, surprised by the invitation.

“You are old enough to drink, right?” Olivia further asked. “Not that I would tell anyone if you weren’t.”

“I’m old enough,” Stephanie said, answering the second question but not the first.

“So, what do you say?” Olivia again asked, not having missed the omission, then adding after a pause. “It would give us a chance to get to know each other a little. You should always know a bit about your neighbors, don’t you think?”

Stephanie knew there were at least a half dozen reasons why she should’ve declined the invitation, but without even a moment to consider any of them, she said that she would love to.

“Excellent,” Olivia beamed.

-=-=-=-

As Stephanie had guessed from what she could see from the foyer, the layout of apartment 6D was identical to that of 2D, in which the Konzynskis resided and where she had been invited to dinner a few times, usually on nights when their twenty-five-year-old grandson just happened to have stopped by for a visit. Paul Konzynski was a nice enough guy, but just not her type. He’d made no secret of the fact that he was looking for a wife, and Stephanie really had no desire to even have a real boyfriend.

One difference internet casino Stephanie quickly noted was that the furniture in 6D was a lot more modern, and all of the walls were painted instead of the wallpaper that dominated the Konzynski home. The feature that most directly caught Stephanie’s attention was the large collection of photographs that covered those walls. A collection of young and some not so young women that varied in both shape and color. Almost all were garbed in fashionable dress, although some wore considerably less than others.

“These are amazing,” Stephanie said to Olivia when the older woman noticed her interest in them.

“Thank you,” Olivia replied. “They’re some of my best work and I’m very proud of them.”

“You took these?” Stephanie asked.

“Yes, I did,” she replied, pride in her tone. “That’s what I do, I’m a commercial photographer. Normally, I specialize in fashion shoots for various magazines, but occasionally I also do portfolio work for people I find interesting.”

As they entered into the kitchen, exactly where Stephanie expected it to be, she saw an open bottle of wine sitting on the extended counter with a single glass resting beside it. Olivia had indeed been about to have a glass when she’d been interrupted.

“Have a seat,” Olivia said, motioning to the chair on the opposite side of the counter as she reached up to the overhead rack and removed a second glass.

Stephanie did so and as Olivia raised the bottle to half fill both glasses, she wondered how the older woman defined interesting.

“So, what shall we drink to?” Olivia asked as she took the seat opposite Stephanie and raised her glass.

“Well, at most of the parties I’ve attended, they usually make the first toast to new friends,” Stephanie suggested.

“Then new friends it is,” Olivia agreed as she tapped the rim of her glass against the one in her guest’s hand.

“This is really good,” Stephanie commented after she’d sampled her drink, having become quite appreciative of good wine during her short cohabitation with Margaret.

“I’m glad you enjoy it, it’s one of my favorites, even if it is frightfully expensive,” Olivia said after having a hearty sip of her own. “The fashion editor at Modern Affair sent me a case last month after one of the layouts I did for him won an Ishihara Award.”

“Wow, that’s impressive,” Stephanie said as she lowered her glass.

“Really?” Olivia grinned. “Do you even know what an Ishihara Award is?”

“No,” Stephanie admitted, “but I’m guessing it’s pretty prestigious if someone sent you a case of this delicious wine for winning one.”

“Not bad reasoning,” Olivia replied, her grin again blossoming into a full smile.

She took a few minutes to fully explain what an Ishihara was and what you had to do to win one. An explanation which left Stephanie even more impressed, especially after Olivia pointed out a photo on the nearby living room wall that had helped earn her the accolade.

They discussed the picture for a bit, with Olivia pointing out things about it that Stephanie didn’t fully notice until she did so. Tiny plays of light and shade that had been the result of the photographer’s skill and experience.

“I’m in awe,” Stephanie said, never having realized that so much could go into composing a great photograph. “All I know about taking pictures is to point the lens in the right direction, press the shutter and hope it comes out okay.”

“We seem to have emptied our glasses,” Olivia pointed out, even though Stephanie’s had at least a mouthful left. “Would you like some more?”

The reluctant expression on Stephanie’s face told Olivia what she was thinking, but not saying, that she felt at a little guilty about having more of what she now knew was a very expensive vintage.

“Please, a wine like this always tastes better shared,” Olivia said. “Besides, it’s not like I had to pay for it.”

“Alright then,” Stephanie relented. “After all, it’s not like I have to drive home.”

They both laughed at the small joke.

“So, tell me,” Olivia said as they crossed the few steps back into the kitchen where she proceeded to refill both glasses, this time to the brim as she emptied the bottle. “what is it that you do when you’re not delivering mail?”

Now it was Olivia’s turn to listen intently as Stephanie told the story of how she had come to New York after winning a place in the Culinary Institute’s graduate course and also how she had wound up here at Ashmore Place. That she was sharing so much information with someone she’d only met an hour ago surprised her, but there was something about the photographer that almost compelled her to tell her anything she wanted to know. She really couldn’t define what it was, but it was certainly there.

“Now it’s my turn to be suitably impressed,” Olivia said once Stephanie had finished her tale. “I’d be lost without a take-out menu and my microwave.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’re not that bad,” Stephanie offered.

“Trust me, I could probably burn water,” Olivia insisted.

“Then maybe I could cook for you sometime,” Stephanie replied, not even realizing she’d made the offer until after she’d done so.

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