Holiday in Sodom

Boys will be boys and they were still boys, at the end of the day, or in the

early morning, when they both awoke to the chill, skin pale in the

winter morning sunshine filtering through dreary wilted

curtains.Like boys, or very young men, which they were, they did not wash their bedlinens quite often enough, so that they rose in the early morning to slightly dampish, slightly grayish bedsheets tangled around their ankles.

This is what she thought, anyway, when she saw the state of that bed.

Gracia was displeased with the way the boys kept the flat.The kitchen was dirty; the WC down the hall, which they shared with their equally negligent neighbor, was in a state of sin.

It was the bedlinens that had given them away when she went in to look around.There were two bedrooms in the flat, but one was invariably neater than the other.This onehad underclothes and stockings hurled hither and yon, tossed into corners, wedged between piles of books.The entire flat was crowded with books, papers, and even some sort of schematic designs—blueprints, she supposed, of things she didn't recognize.Dried-up, open ink bottles, broken pens and pencils everywhere.Crumb-laden plates and dirty cutlery lurked in the farthest corners.It was generally foul.

She hated creeping about the rooms she let out; she always felt illicit and sneaky, even though she owned them. When she went in to collect the laundry, the rooms didn't feel like hers when other people were living in them.

The boys in Flat 3 didn't always make their rent, but she let them stay.She knew they meant well, that they would—and did—pay her when they could.From the moment she had met them they had stirred a maternal protectiveness in her.They were young to be without their families.Edward had a father who rarely came by, while Alfons received an occasional package from his mother, but hardly anyone ever came to call on them. They seemed very alone.

She even felt a little sorry for them.They seemed ill-equipped to play at grown-ups, always rushing out as if they couldn't tell time, going about looking rumpled and like they didn't get enough sleep, coming in at all hours from work or play, they banged around in their flat like a couple of bear cubs.

Once in a while when they came by to deposit a few marks toward their rent, together or separately, she couldn't resist but give them coffee and bread and cheese and whatever else she had. She couldn't beat the rent out of them, if they couldn't afford a decent meal. They looked hungry, and not just for food, either.

They were like so many other people these days.Nobody, it seemed, was particularly well-fed, or well-dressed, or even that clean.One needed to be in a robust mood to heat a cold-water bath with pots and pots of hot water.It took a great deal of effort to look sharp, and so she wore her hair in the simplest way possible, not being able to afford an attractive hat.She was plain, and the world around her was dull.

But some mornings two shocks of gold would come her way, Edward with his eccentrically long hair—she thought perhaps he might fancy himself a poet, it was such an art-student affectation—and Alfons with his bright yellow crop, and his bright smile to match.She liked Edward well enough, he seemed sweet but something about him was unsettling.But Alfons: she could never resist a handsome boy with an easy smile.

They never walked that closely together on the street but she could see an attachment between them, as if an invisible thread connected them.

It was a cold morning, the first time it occurred to her, and everyone was hunching their shoulders and holding their faces away from the sharp breeze.Winter, again, to make everyone miserable.From her perch on a stool in the flower shop, absently scratching her thighs through her skirt at the place where flesh met itchy wool stockings, she watched her tenants pass by the shop window.They spoke to eachother and seemed to look in different directions, reluctant to part ways on different errands.As if forgetting themselves they were standing very close together and she could see their hands nearly touch, then consciously pull back.

Sodomites, she thought, using the word she had heard her father use.I knew it!

She was indelicately scratching at her thighs again when she realized someone was waving at her through the glass.Officer Hughes.She felt herself blush—had he seen her scratching?Ugh—she raised her hand to wave back.He took off his helmet and scratched his head, pawing the ground with his foot as if staking out territory.He smiled that irritating self-abasing smile.

She wasn't going to ask him in.She wasn't in the mood for him.Her new secret burned in her gut, strangely exciting.If he were in here and they spoke, she might find herself saying something she might regret, before she knew for sure.

Hughes put his hat back on and made a disappointed face.Gracia shrugged and turned up her palms. Busy, she mouthed.

He went away.

It was her right to be in here, and they knew she came in.All landladies did.They had even reported that their stove was not working, and with the start of winter, that would not do.At noon she left the shop for lunch but went into Flat 3 to investigate the stove of the Sodomites and perhaps to confirm her suspicions in other more conclusive ways.

If they were lovers, what did it matter?It didn't bother her, she told herself: she just wanted to know.In fact, it made her feel more adult—although she was almost thirty, she was still a maiden, which both delighted and frustrated her—she was quite cosmopolitan, thank you.If they were lovers...her father, had he still been alive, would have insisted they be evicted, of course.Her mother would have prayed for their sinning souls.

She just didn't know what she would do.

After fiddling with the stove—yes it needed repair—she plunged into the bedrooms with rather more gusto than she had ever done so before.The disgusting bedlinens were as always...they had come away from the mattress and exposed the bare blue-and-white ticking, also stained, and she fretted that when the two of them did leave, she would have to replace it.The second bedroom—the one with the cleaner sheets—seemed stale, still and quiet, again confirming her suspicions.

Other suspicions of a less sinful order were confirmed on this trip, things she had picked up on but was too polite to pry into.Two bottles of medicines from the chemists sat on a shelf in the kitchen, both prescribed to Alfons—that explained that coughing, she had heard him, through the walls, in fits long enough to rattle her.If there was a consumptive on her property....when he vacated, one way or another, she would have to disinfect everything.She made a mental note to wash her hands with lye soap after she left.She itched to boil those bedsheets.

The wardrobe whispered, open me, open me!Its door was already slightly ajar, all she needed to do was nudge it.She closed her eyes and held her breath, but it was as she had expected.A pile of rank, dirty laundry spilled out.Wrinkling her nose, she delicately pawed through it.Again, she found what she had anticipated:two different sets of underclothes, shirts of two different sizes.She pushed the soiled clothing back into the bottom of the cupboard and closed the doors.

Resisting the urge to leave windows open and air the flat out, resisting the urge to pick up discarded clothes and other assorted debris, and most off all the urge to wash all the dishes piled in the sink, Gracia finally left the flat and stepped into the hallway.

Holding her breath, she opened the door to the WC.It had looked worse.It would wait until tomorrow to be scrubbed.The communal bathtub was in a similar state, a grey ring in its inner perimeter, but otherwise, not hideous.It would be nice if Flat 3 could clean the bathrooms; it would be nice if Flat 2 would do it too—but a widowed alcoholic postman was not likely to be held accountable for such things either.

She would clean tomorrow.

Ah, but her curiosity was piqued.Suddenly her mind was jumping with a thousand prurient questions.She was surprised to find herself so curious about something so lurid, but she couldn't redirect her thoughts.She was supposed to be a good girl, a clear-eyed maiden, almost but not quite, an old maid.Why she bothered being so good, she couldn't say; she rarely let herself be pursued by men, and almost never accepted dates.She wasn't blind: she knew that Hughes was interested.What stopped her?An inward prudishness, perhaps, but more likely, fear of breaking her habits.She was an orphan since she was twenty—when she should have been looking for a husband she was mourning her parents and taking over their flower shop and apartment house.She had left her job at a department store where she had had lots of friends and met lots of nice young men, for this solitary life.She knew everyone on this street, but that was her world.She was lonely, and yet proud to be self-sufficient. She had turned thirty a few months ago and now when she looked at herself, she saw that yes, the blush was off the rose.She should be grateful for anyone that showed any interest.

You should be worrying about yourself, she chided. Never mind them. It's none of your business.You should be thinking about the last time someone kissed you, not what those tenants are up to.

She resolved to turn her mind to more salutary thoughts; when Hughes passed by later, she promised herself, she would ask him inside.

It was almost as if she had a crush on them, was how she felt when she saw them next, returning to the building.Her stomach flipped, like it had when she was a teenager and saw a boy she liked approaching.Act like you don't see them!She bent over her worktable, but had to peek up.They were coming straight at her.

Their mood was bright, both smiling.Ah, they had money.She could tell by how happy and proud they seemed.How they had earned it, she couldn't imagine.They greeted her and approached the counter.She watched them more closely than she ever had before.

Edward wasn't smiling, but then he rarely did.Alfons was smiling, of course, that slightly crooked smile that she had always found so charming.Edward spoke first. “We have some money,” he said, pushing his hand into his pocket. He then pulled out a thick roll of bills.He placed the money on the counter.

“I know we still owe you for a couple of weeks, from last month,” said Alfons, after clearing his throat.“But we'll get it soon.”

“All right, thank you,” said Gracia.She looked at their faces, so young and soft, probably still not even needing a shave.“I know you must be working hard to get even this.I understand.”

“Not everyone is so understanding,” said Alfons.“It's very kind of you.”

They both looked at her, a little embarrassed, blushing with gratitude.She felt herself blushing, too, as if she should say something.

“Thank you,” she repeated.

“Thank you,” said Alfons.

The boys had brought into the shop a faint smell of burning, gasoline, perhaps, or rubber? She knew they were scientists, or engineers, or chemistry students, or something like that. They did not dress as laborers, but Alfons' hands, and Edward's graying gloves, were grimy, the skin on their faces had a sheen of grey ash or filth.Chemicals, maybe.Edward rocked on his heels, looking around the shop.

“It's nice in here,” he remarked, breaking the silence following the superfluous round of gratitude.“It's like spring in here.”

“Yes, everyone says that. It is nice, especially in winter,” Gracia agreed.

They continued to stand at the counter, seemingly embarrassed.

“Take some flowers up to your flat, boys,” she said.She grabbed a nearby bouquet that was end-of-the-day wilting and not likely to last much longer.“Brighten things up.”

“Oh, we couldn't,” said Alfons, but his hand was already wrapping around the proffered bunch of stems.“Let us give you something—“

“No, I insist,” she said, holding her palm up to stop him.“I was up there today, inspecting your stove.It is broken as you said.I'll have Robert come up and fix it as soon as I can.In the mean time, you must have something to brighten up that dreary place.Besides, they'll just go to waste if you don't take them.”

“All right, then.Thanks!”Alfons beamed as he took full possession of the bouquet.He held it up to Edward.“Nice, right?”

“Sure,” Edward said, seemingly unconvinced.

“They go in water!” she said to their retreating backs.

She had to prove her suspicions were correct.They were on her mind all that evening, and when she went up to her own flat, she found herself looking out of her bedroom window before she even realized she had drawn the curtain.Their flat was on the floor below hers and occupied the three rooms that were located in the building's el, which jutted perpendicular from hers into the courtyard, so that it twisted into her field of vision.She rarely looked out her bedroom window, preferring the one that fronted her sitting room, which faced the street; this view was of the courtyard, it was dim and only caught the sunshine for about half an hour a day.The other houses that shared the courtyard were of no interest to her; she'd grown up in this building and seen them for decades.Nothing of interest ever happened down there; housewives hung their laundry in the morning, children played there in the afternoon, men cleaned the soles of their boots on their back doorsteps in the evening.She had thick cotton white curtains with a thin ribbon of blue trim over her windows.She had worried, a couple of years earlier, that a man across the way had been looking at her while she dressed; in her paranoia, she had taken to never opening those curtains.

Tonight she did.

She waited for them to come home, her heart beating a bit harder than it had for a long time.She had dug out her father's old fieldglasses, finally having found a use for them.I shouldn't be doing this.She felt stimulated in some odd, undefinable way. Curious.A little bit dirty.

She'd always been such a good girl. Sometimes it felt like she was guarding a valuable prize, but now that she was nearly thirty, she began to see it as possible that the prize would never be won.And what was the point of a prize like that?

Her parents had been devout Catholics.They had sent her to Catholic school, where she learned to fear sin and even to police her own thoughts.Sin could take the form of an unformed whim, a wicked wish, a brief thought about a boy she liked.It was more exciting to think about sexual things when she had been afraid of God, and when she had known she would have to go to confession and tell the priest about her lustful fancies.Now that she was an adult, and a lazy, lapsed Catholic, sexual thoughts no longer held that type of power, in and of themselves; this made fantasizing more challenging.It was even more difficult because she hadn't so much as kissed a man in more than five years.She had forgotten what it felt like.

When she was a teenager, she, along with several of her girlfriends, had passed through a phase that involved fantasies of becoming a nun.Being a bride of Christ was a deeply romantic concept—who wanted some stupid boy when you could consummate your perfect love with God Himself?

But by the time she had turned sixteen that fancy had passed when boys had become real.She remembered that feeling at the end of her first, brief romance.It hadn't hurt very much at all, but she had moped about her broken heart for weeks, milking it with her friends, garnering the sympathy of her peers.Her heart hadn't been broken at all, but it was bad form, it made one seem cheap, to seem not to care. Now she was a full-fledged grown-up, and she had still never been with someone she wanted to feel broken for.

She wondered if it was really too late for her.She didn't want to be alone for the next fifty years, but she was shy and consistently failed to flirt properly.And there was Hughes, who seemed all right, if she could force herself to get to know him ...but she was afraid to show her hand.She was so out of practice, she wasn't sure she had it in her to respond to him.

But this was all right, wasn't it? She told herself she wasn't being bad.Her resolve quailed when the lamp went on in the inner room in Flat 3, sending an orange glow into the window of the bedroom that faced the courtyard.Her heart banged when she saw a shadow move across the doorway.She turned her head and almost got up from her seat at the window.She couldn't, she couldn't spy.She couldn't.She pressed the fieldglasses to her eyes.

She stayed by the window, heart beating hard.More shadows moved.She waited.Finally, someone entered the darkened room.Without turning on the light, the figure approached the bed and then sat down on its edge.Small, lost in clothing; it must be Edward.When he turned his head, she saw long hair swing outwards.It was him.He stayed on the edge of the bed; she could only see his silhouette.As she watched, her heartbeat began to calm.Nothing was going to happen; she was being silly.She felt her face heat, blushing to herself, she was ashamed.It suddenly occurred to her that she had been making something out of nothing.

Edward pulled off his coat and swung his legs onto the bed, then leaned back onto a pillow.He had his right arm across his stomach and seemed to be looking at the ceiling.Then he raised his left and pulled that ratty gray glove off with his teeth.

She leaned forward, squinting, to get a better view in the shadowy light.She could barely make out the details of the room, let alone Edward's face, but as she squinted through the fieldglasses it became clear what he was doing.

He was picking his nose.

She wrinkled her own, then snorted.

My goodness, Gracia, you're such an idiot! she chided herself.What had she been expecting?Now it seemed so silly, she couldn't imagine what she had thought she might see.Naked men, romping on a filthy bed?Ridiculous.She giggled, relieved.Thank goodness I was wrong! she said aloud, not acknowledging the slight disappointment that stirred in the pit of her stomach.Oh well.Life is usually less interesting than we'd like it to be!

She turned from the window and began to move off her own bed, when she threw one last glance over her shoulder.She froze.Another figure had entered the room.She had to see, just to make sure, of course, she knew nothing interesting was going to happen.She would just prove it to herself.So.

Alfons moved toward the bed.He was in his shirtsleeves, the cuffs undone and flapping about his wrists.She noticed this when he reached toward the table beside the bed to turn on the gaslamp.Edward remained on the bed, still looking at the ceiling, but his lips were moving.Then Alfons spoke, still standing by the bed, and as he did he pulled his suspenders off his shoulders.The conversation went on for about a minute, and Gracia tried to imagine its mundane tone: Why don't you turn on the light?How was your day?What do you want for supper? Will you make love to me?

Before she could blink again, however, Alfons had thrown himself onto the bed and lain down next to Edward.Her heart stopped, her mouth fell open.She sat frozen.An inner voice told her to draw her curtains and move away from the window, but she didn't.

It didn't matter; in a second, one of the boys had reached over and pulled their own curtain closed.

She sat, her face burning again.Her skin tingled, an unfamiliar sensation.She was so embarrassed, but for herself, or for them, she couldn't say.

She avoided them the next day, pointedly not watching who passed by her window from her perch in the flower shop.They wouldn't notice, of course—what did they care about her?She didn't see them come or go, and by the afternoon she began to relax, that awful burning embarrassed feeling—shame?—had finally begun to subside.She couldn't put a name or a shape to what she felt.She had discovered something that was absolutely none of her business, and she couldn't imagine why it interested her so much.

By four o'clock it was beginning to get dark.The evening was dry and cold and she had had to bring in her outside displays earlier than usual.There was that autumnal burning smell in the air when she opened the shop door.

Officer Hughes hadn't come by today; she surprised herself by feeling a pang of anxiety.Had something happened to him?Or had he gone off her?Had she done something to offend him?She couldn't imagine.

She felt lonely.This weather depressed her.Why couldn't it be the end of winter, rather than the beginning?She could stand anything in spring—everything seemed easier to take when the weather was fine.

At six o'clock she stepped out of the shop and was locking the door when she felt someone drawing close to her.

“Uh, excuse me?”

She paused and shut her eyes.It was Edward's voice.She straightened up, slowly, hoping the returning blush wasn't evident on her cheeks.

“Good evening, Edward,” she said, trying to smile at him.The smile wasn't successful because he looked so obviously put out.Her demeanor changed immediately; she felt herself in the landlady role—she could detect when a tenant was about to complain from a mile away.

“So, what is it?” she asked impatiently.

“Uh...”He hesitated, looked down, took his hand out of his pocket and rubbed the back of his head.

What was so difficult to say?

“Please hurry up, Edward.It's cold out here.”

“Oh! Well, I can walk up with you...”

“I was going to go to the market first.”

“Oh.Okay.”The hand went back into his pocket.“Well, you mentioned yesterday that you'd have someone come and fix the stove, but no one came today, and it's still not working, obviously...”

“Yes, yes, all right,” she said sharply, feeling very annoyed at how indirect he was being.“I'll send Robert over later, if he's not already out getting drunk for the night.”

“I wouldn't bother you about it but we really need it.”

“I've already said I'd see to it.Is that all?”

She felt miserable, being so sharp with him.He looked at her as if he didn't quite know her.And, she thought to herself, he didn't.

“If you don't mind my asking, is everything all right?” he asked.He had on an earnest, concerned face.

She felt even worse.Inwardly, she collapsed.“I'm sorry.Yes, everything's fine.I'll find Robert for you.”

Her expression must have changed, because his did too.He made that face—smiling mouth, sad eyes—that he must have imagined passed for happy, and gave her a wave as he pushed off.

“Thanks!” he said, and she tried the smile again.She watched him go back to the building with his slightly uneven steps, that stiff right arm held awkwardly away from his body.He always walked like someone who knew that he would fall if he wasn't careful.

Today, she thought she knew how he felt.

She hadn't been able to find Robert.Her handyman was an habitual drunk; he was probably already lying under a table somewhere.She wouldn't be able to get him until tomorrow.Now she felt guilty.It was a cold night, they had no heat and nothing to cook with.In the market she bought a bag full of vegetables and resolved to make her tenants a soup.

A peek out her bedroom window revealed that they were still in; the curtains were drawn but a light glowed behind them.She worked quickly to make the soup, but even a quick soup took two hours to simmer properly.It was well past nine by the time it was ready.She poured it into a large tureen and covered it.It sat on her kitchen table for a minute while she stared at it.Why was she being so hesitant?She had gone to their flat before, even brought them food before—she always gave them if she had a lot of leftovers.

Nervous, she took up the pot and made her way down one flight.She took a deep breath before knocking on their door.

She could hear some movement, then a shout of “Coming!”More movement.She waited, the pot growing heavy in her hands.The door cracked open and she saw one of those big, amber eyes looking at her questioningly.

“I couldn't find Robert tonight-” she said, her heart fluttering.She knew she sounded breathless.“-so I brought you some hot soup, for supper, I figured, since you can't cook...”

She felt awfully shy, and felt herself blushing.Worse yet, she could see Edward's face color too.He stepped aside and pulled the door open, then reached to take the pot from her.She followed him to the only table in the room, still covered with dishes, papers, crumbs and dirty glasses.She had to clear a space for him to put the pot down.

“Soup,” she repeated.She removed the lid.

Edward seemed to inhale the soup's aroma and then he smiled.

“Thanks,” he said, peering into the pot.“This is great.”

“I feel terrible about the stove,” she said.“I thought the least I could is give you something hot to eat on this cold night.”

“That's really nice of you.Thanks,” he said again.

Awkward silence followed.Edward looked at the soup again.The two of them stood, both blushing.As always, it seemed Edward was avoiding meeting her eye.It was such a curse, thought Gracia, to be shy among shy people.Where was Alfons when they needed him?

“I hope Alfons will get back in time to eat it while it's hot,” she said.

“He will.He's here, he's been in bed all day.This'll hit the spot,” Edward said.

“Oh! I hope he's not ill.”

“Not really.It's just cold in here,” Edward said.“That's why we wanted the stove fixed.”

Now she felt far worse.“Damn that Robert, I'll make sure he's here first thing tomorrow morning,” she said.

There was another moment of silence, while Edward made a show of looking into the pot yet again.

“What's this?”To Gracia's great relief, Alfons entered the kitchen.He was wearing a rather holey wool sweater and his mouth looked oddly red, but otherwise he looked as usual, sporting that sweet smile.She felt herself smiling back.

“She brought us some hot soup,” Edward explained.

“Great!” Alfons enthused, charmingly.He rubbed his hands together.Gracia felt at ease, forgetting all her awkwardness with Edward.“Thank you, that's so thoughtful.”

“Well, I thought since your stove is broken...”

Alfons and Edward were now standing together over the pot of soup, looking at it appreciatively.Their bodies were practically touching.As Edward leaned over the pot once again, she saw Alfons put his hand on his back.

Like brothers, she thought.That's all.They're like brothers.

She smiled benevolently, thrilled to have done something so simple and yet so satisfying, they seemed so pleased with the soup.

“Edward says you've been ill today, Alfons,” she said.“I hope it's not a chill from the weather.Is the heat from the steampipe coming up here?”

“I haven't noticed,” said Alfons.

“Which bedroom do you use?” she asked him.“Because the one that faces the courtyard definitely gets warmer.I've always noticed that.”

She watched as Alfons thought, just a tiny beat, but there it was.

“The room in the front is mine.”

“We should switch,” Edward added quickly.“At least for tonight.”

“Let me check the steampipe,” she said.

“No, you don't have to...”

“I insist,” she said.“If it's not coming up I'll have Robert see to the boiler as well.”

She didn't think about how rude she was being as she started toward the front bedroom.The boys followed her as she pushed the door open.The room was dark, cool, undisturbed.The bed was as she had last seen it a few days ago, it was more than obvious that it hadn't been slept in in a while, and that certainly no one had spent all day in it today.There wasn't even a blanket on it.

“Ah,” she said.She walked mechanically to the far corner of the room and touched the steampipe.“Dead,” she said.“As I thought.”

Nobody spoke until they were all near the front door.

“Tomorrow the stove will be fixed,” she promised.

“Thank you for the soup, Miss Gracia,” said Alfons with the utmost politeness.He even bowed slightly.

Stiffly, Edward stepped toward the door and opened it.She thought she could hear his very bones creak.

“Well, good night you two,” she said.

The door clicked behind her.

They kept that damn curtain down for three nights in a row.She checked every evening, hoping that they would have pushed it aside.During the day, she watched them come and go.They left the soup pot, clean, in front of her door, robbing her of another reason to visit them.

They waved to her as they passed the shop a couple of times, but they didn't come in to say hello, as they usually did.

She felt lonely again.She envied them, living together.Some days—nights—she felt certain that she would trade anything just to not be alone anymore.

Robert had fixed the stove, or so he told her, and the boys had not complained about it again.But somehow she thought they wouldn't, not so soon after her visit to that obviously uninhabited bedroom.

Knowing they were both out, at lunchtime on Wednesday she decided she would go up to Flat 3 and check on the stove, just to make sure that it was working.

And while she was in there, she went into the bedroom that faced the courtyard, and pushed aside one edge of the curtain.Just to let some light in, and help the room to air out.

It was the least she could do.

This time when she sat by her window to wait for them to come home, she positioned herself in such a way that she thought would not be visible to them.Just in case they happened to look.Oh, and she had taken out her father's old fieldglasses, just in case.She burned with shame to think of it, so she just held them and wouldn't look at them, until she had to bring them to her eyes.

It was well past nine when Alfons entered the bedroom.He turned on the light, slid his suspenders off his shoulders and stood over the bed.A moment later, Edward came in.They conversed without looking at one another.Alfons began to undress.Edward took off his coat and put it over the back of the only chair in the room.Gracia's heart began to beat fast, she felt the pulse in her throat, her mouth went dry.

She watched as Alfons unbuttoned his shirt, slipped it off, let it fall to the floor.Edward sat down on the bed, his back to her, and she watched him, she assumed, work the buttons on his vest with his left hand, before taking it off and letting it fall to the floor.Alfons, still standing, let his trousers fall and stepped out of them.He stood, in his long underwear, before turning and sitting down next to Edward.She watched him reach over to Edward with both hands, she surmised to start unbuttoning his shirt for him, and saw Edward slap his hand away, but Alfons immediately came back, saying something, smiling, and worked his way through the buttons quickly.

This was exciting.Gracia leaned forward, her fieldglasses against the window now, not caring who saw her, immersed only in the sensation of watching the two men undress.She could hardly believe what she was seeing, and less that she was actually watching it.Wicked!Her heard pounded.Would they kiss?She couldn't imagine—she felt herself getting aroused and before she knew it, her hand was wedged between her thighs, pressed together, she resisted an impulse that she knew was far too wicked to indulge.

Edward's shirt slipped off his shoulders and he used his left hand to hold the right sleeve as he pulled his right arm out.It was then that she realized he wasn't wearing those stupid white gloves.She hadn't realized before but it was obvious when the arm was pulled free of the shirt: it was artificial.

That was a surprise.She hadn't been expecting that.What happened next, she realized, would logically follow but still her mouth fell open when he undid something in front and pulled the whole thing off.It was a whole contraption, and she felt rather shocked.She also felt rather vile, watching this now.She also couldn't stop if her life depended on it.

More happened.Alfons was suddenly peeling off his long underwear, and before she had even registered the sight of that—he was so tall and slender and white—Edward had kicked off his trousers and also, his left leg.

God in Heaven, I'm going to Hell, Gracia thought.She licked her lips, pressed the fieldglasses more tightly to her face, squeezed her hand harder between her thighs.Stop it now, Gracia, she told herself sternly.Stop watching this now, this is utterly indecent.

This wasn't going to be just sodomy she was going to see, it was going to be sodomy between two young men barely old enough to vote, two pretty young men with not a hair on their chests between them, and one of them missing two limbs.People paid a lot of money to see things like this, she imagined.This is the circus, back-room cabaret, high-concept peep show, freak show, something that decadent people would pay through the nose for, And here is little old me, getting it for free.

Stop looking, Gracia, she pleaded with herself.You will hate yourself later, you know you will.

The tenants had both climbed into the bed, Edward in the spot near the window, Alfons beside him.They had that rancid quilt across them, up to their waists, and Edward was lying across Alfons' chest as if listening to his heartbeat.Gracia's own threatened to deafen her.She squeezed her thighs together so hard that her hand had gone numb.She refused to allow herself the pleasure of letting her hand go where it wanted...but she didn't even need to, this was so illicit and exciting, it was like watching one of those pornographic films she had heard about, but knew she would never see, because nice girls didn't look at things like that...she was already wet.

Nice girls didn't spy on their neighbors, either, but here she was, and there she was to see Edward raise his head from Alfons' chest, tip his chin up, and that was it, they were kissing.Alfons' buried his hand in Edward's hair, and the tie came free.All that long, shiny hair came spilling down and across the pillows.Edward with his one arm scrambling to find a way, it seemed to her, to touch his lover many times at once, his hand squeezing Alfons' neck, then stroking his nipple, then plunging under the quilt for area below.

Lose the goddamn blanket! she thought desperately.Kick it off!For the love of—

The blanket was precipitously kicked to the end of the bed.They were naked.For the next hour or so, she watched them, watched them touch and kiss and lick each other, watched them pleasure one another in ways she had never even imagined people did.She was so innocent herself, she realized, that nearly everything surprised her.But what surprised her the most, was at the end of it all, when they were both wrung out and soggy and panting and spent, was that they just lay there and held eachother, like lovers should.The last thing she could make out before they turned out the light was that they were holding hands, and that Alfons brought Edward's to his mouth and kissed it.

For some reason, that made her, finally, look away.

After this, she laid awake for hours.So, all her nagging suspicions about the two of them had been true. She wasn't sure how she felt about it now.Vindicated, perhaps, about the suspiciousness, but also sad.Sad that she had been suspicious about them, sad for them that they had to hide what they did, sad about all they had taken such care to hide from the world, and contrition that she knew about it.She had stolen their secrets.

She tried to find a silver lining: obviously they found solace in each other, at least, she hoped they did.Now she knew for certain what she had only sensed:they were both outcasts, letting their blighted lives bleed together.Did they really love each other?Did they think they had a future, or were they living this way because they knew they didn't?No woman would want either of them: they were penniless scientists with no families, but a consumptive and a cripple could wed each other without social formality and have someone to come home to and hold them at night.They had more than she had herself.Was that really a crime?

Gracia knew, actually, that according to the laws of the Republic, it was.And she found that fact, that shadowy lawlessness, intriguing.She found it even more intriguing when she considered that knowing about it made her complicit.

The second time she watched, two nights later, she had just seen Alfons let himself fall on Edward when she pulled the fieldglasses away from her face.Her elbow was aching from holding them in that position for so long. Her quarry started moving again, though, quickly, so she brought the fieldglasses to her eyes again...suddenly Alfons was standing beside the bed, looking for something.Edward had turned over onto his front, resting his chin on his hand.The something was found by Alfons, a small thing that fit into his palm.He climbed back onto the bed and onto his knees, opened the thing—it was a small jar, she saw—and dug his fingers into it.

Oh my God oh my God oh my God.

They were, they were going to do it. She thought she would die just watching it, but, surprisingly, there were no thoughts of Hell while she watched. She viewed it as if it were a moving picture that had been created just for her, and her alone. There was even something of Heaven about it, and she allowed herself to be given over to curiosity, and pleasure, and joy. Even though it was theirs, and not hers, she did not for a moment question her right to borrow it.

Afterwards, they lay next to eachother, Alfons resting his head in Edward's armpit, their arms and legs tangled together, and the look on their faces through her fieldglasses...sweaty, sated, smiling.

She didn't even know how that felt, to have someone else's sweat mingle with her own, to have their scent on her skin, as she imagined they did.They looked so content, their eyes at half-mast, soon they would fall asleep.

But then, Edward shifted suddenly, and his face turned toward the window, toward her, toward that space at the edge of the curtain.He sat up, his mouth open, and his eyes narrowed, he stared right at her.

Alfons sat up with a jerk and reached to pull the blanket up from the end of the bed.He pulled it over both of them.He twisted to peer over Edward's shoulder and looked up at the window. They sat, frozen, for a moment, staring at her.

Frozen, too, every nerve suddenly taut, Gracia could feel her heart banging against her ribcage.She couldn't move, imagining, perhaps, that if she remained a statue that they might believe they had made a mistake; they hadn't seen her, it wasn't real.She didn't even blink until they moved again; it appeared that Alfons had begun to cough.He looked away, covering his mouth with his hands, while Edward continued to glare at the window, and his mouth opened, and by the expression on his face, and the shape his mouth made, she could tell he was swearing right at her, Fuck! Edward began to reach toward the window but was distracted by Alfons' hand grabbing at his shoulder.In a moment he had scrambled to the edge of the bed, reaching down for something.Then his left leg was back on and he was hobbling off naked and one-armed, out of the room, bare-assed, while Alfons began to look as if he were choking.

Gracia's posture collapsed.Her first instinct was to fall to the floor and hide, but she remained riveted to the window, not even bothering to hide now, she clung to the curtain and pressed the fieldglasses so hard to her face that it began to hurt.Alfons had pulled his hands away from his face, and was now staring down at them.She thought she might vomit, but he suddenly seemed more relaxed, and sat with his hands resting on his lap, palms upturned, spattered with flecks of blood.

A cup of steaming water entered the room, attached to Edward, who said nothing upon seeing his lover's hands but put the cup down on the bedside table, left the room again and returned with a flannel.Without a word he gently rubbed Alfons' palms, and took the blood away.

When he finally sat down on the edge of the bed, it was with his back to the window, and Alfons sat in profile, slowly drinking his hot water. She saw Alfons' lips move, but she could only see Edward's back. He now had a sheet wrapped around his middle and his left arm wrapped around him, the tips of his fingers visible over his right shoulder.

Alfons said something again, then closed his eyes tightly, opened them and looked down at the cup.

Afterwards Gracia didn't know why she had held Edward's glare with the fieldglasses; afterwards she considered why any sense of shame or propriety hadn't overruled her prurience.Why she had kept looking when her—lost?—natural sense of decency had abandoned her?She had finally ducked away from the window, only to come back after a heartbeat, to see how her subjects were reacting to her betrayal.She knew better than to think they were concerned about her, though.She felt much dirtier watching that little drama than she had while witnessing them making love.For the first time she felt like an interloper, and a sinner.

She observed Edward's spine curling forward, his head dropping down.She could see his every vertebra with the fucking binoculars.

Then he moved, curled onto his side and laid his head on the blanket over Alfons' lap.Alfons lifted his hand and gently burrowed his slender fingers into the tangles of long blond hair, and they stayed there like that, for a long, long time.

She hurled the fieldglasses across the room.

One of the lenses had shattered when they had hit the wall.She sat at her kitchen table at two in the morning, examining the damage to the Zeiss instrument, once beloved of her father.He had used them to birdwatch in the parks and on weekend trips to the countryside.What would he think, if he knew the purpose she had put them to?It was trash now; she wouldn't have it fixed.

The following morning she made a pot of porridge and tray of biscuits and a pot of coffee.She arranged the biscuits and dollops of porridge on red ceramic plates, imagining that they looked festive and apologetic all at once.

The usual wait at the door.She almost choked on her own name when replying to Edward's “Who is it?”He opened the door slowly, his face turned away, unable to look at her.

“Good morning,” she said as pleasantly as she could.She held up the tray with the plates.“I've brought you breakfast.”

The door opened wider for her.Edward, still silent, stepped aside and then followed her to the table.

“What's that for?” he asked, suspicious, looking at the tray as she set it down.

“I made too much for myself,” she said.She tried to meet his eyes, failing at first, but he came around and let her hold them.“How is Alfons this morning?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“He's fine.”

“Good,” she said.

She wanted to say more.She wanted to say that she wasn't going to spread their secret, that it was safe with her, that they were safe with her.She wished she could say she was sorry and that she wouldn't do it again.But she didn't know how people spoke about things unspeakable; she didn't know what words to use.

It was a repeat of the performance over the soup a week before; Edward pretended to moon over the plates of food but with slightly less enthusiasm, anything to deflect the awkwardness of the situation.She smiled patiently and wished for Alfons to come, but he didn't.

She moved and made a motion indicating the door and that she must go.Edward nodded and followed her.He reached to open the door for her, held it for her to leave.

“I-I'm sorry,” she managed to say. “Please forgive me.”She didn't get a chance to see his face before the door shut behind her.

She watched them leave the building together later that day.She saw them both glance toward her shop and quickly look away.She ducked her head down and then up, to see Alfons say something to Edward, and then they started off.

Later, when she returned to her flat, she found the tray and dishes, washed and neatly stacked, sitting in front of her door.

She still brought them meals now and then, but now they would politely decline her invitations for tea or coffee on a Sunday afternoon, and they no longer lingered to chat with her when they came into the shop to give her rent money.When she had one or both of them standing there in front of her, she wanted to say things that she couldn't say to anyone else, make herself naked so that things would seem fair.

She could have said something so honest that it frightened her.

I have a secret too.I liked watching you.

But she knew she never would.