At work, Olive started seeing stars. It was that way whenever she got a migraine; flashes of light appeared in front of her eyes and she called them stars because she said she'd rather see something identifiable than something completely foreign. So she told her boss and headed home before lunch, around one.
I'm leaving work, she wrote to Sam, her boyfriend of six months, before she left. I have a migraine and feel like shit, concluded the e-mail.
Too bad, Sam wrote back. I'll be over tonight.
Olive had already left. It didn't matter, though, as Olive expected that Sam would stop by that night, just like he did every night.
Olive stopped at the drug store on the way home and bought a big bottle of Tylenol. When she got home, went straight to bed. She covered her head with the red duvet and wished for the millionth time that she'd finished the curtains she was making for her windows.
An hour later she woke up, not because she was ready to wake up, but because her upstairs neighbor (who Olive had dubbed Sally for no real reason) made her. Evidently, Sally wanted to use her Stairmaster at 2:23 that afternoon and also wanted to watch what sounded like a talk show. The problem was, Olive wanted to sleep. Her head was pounding and she felt like she was going to vomit and she couldn't see straight. And her ceiling was actually moving with every step that Sally took on her wretched machine.
Fuck, Olive whispered. Fuck that fucking Sally. Then she took six Tylenol.
She wanted Sally to stop more than anything. Only Olive didn't have the energy to go upstairs and pound on Sally's door and ask her to please stop exercising until after the Tylenol kicked in. Instead, Olive covered her head with her duvet and even threw a couple of pillows on top of that and whimpered, hoping that Sam would come home early and save her.
When Sam finally arrived at Olive's apartment, opening the door with the copied key she'd given him a month before, Olive was still seething under the covers, her head pounding and her loathing of Sally building.
How's the invalid? Sam whispered, setting a bag of groceries on the countertop.
Awful, Olive whimpered. She did the fucking Stairmaster this afternoon and I have a fucking migraine and my head's still pounding, she said. I could kill the skinny bastard.
Have you met her before? Sam asked, sitting on the site of the bed and gently rubbing Olive's temples.
Then how do you know she's skinny?
She does the fucking Stairmaster for an hour. Wouldn't you be skinny?
But you don't even know her real name, right? Sam said.
Sally Stairmaster, Sam said quietly. Skinny Sally Stairmaster from upStairs.
Cute, Olive said.
She lay on top of the duvet and Sam massaged her right temple with his left hand. I don't know what to tell you, Sam said. Olive nodded. Sally was a problem. So they sat on the bed until Olive eventually fell asleep, the drugs finally kicking in.
R. Her name is R. R. Stanley, he explained. Olive was groggy from her Tylenol overdose and was drinking 32 ounces of water from a Mickey Mouse water bottle because she'd heard Tylenol was bad for your liver.
What do you mean? Olive asked. She rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand and took another long sip.
I found out—while you were asleep. I found Sally's name on her mailbox downstairs while you were sleeping so that if she ever steps on the Stairmaster again, you can call your landlord and complain.
Olive was confused. Couldn't I just have called the landlord and told him to tell whoever was in 528 to be quiet?
Olive took another sip of her water. Sam looked dejected. Sometimes she wondered if he wasn't just a little slow. He didn't always act as if he were operating on all cylinders. He was smart, though; he was a computer programmer. Maybe he was just smart in some things and not in the basic social skills. Olive looked at Sam's pitiful oval face with its tiny round nose in the center and realized that if Sam was short on social skills, then that didn't say much about her, his girlfriend.
So you were snooping around the mailroom while I was asleep? Did you see anyone down there? You know, Olive said, old Mrs. Drumber from 202 doesn't have any qualms about calling the cops on people she doesn't know. She once called the landlord when she saw my sister unloading my stuff from the washer one day.
I didn't see her, Sam said. I was very careful. It was kind of fun, he confessed. I felt like a spy. Spy Sam.
Yep. Secret Agent Sam, Olive said. She poked his arm with the straw of her water bottle.
But there wasn't anything around except her name on the box. No packages or oversized letters or anything good like that—just her name. It almost made me want to go charging up to her door and knock and ask, Ms. R. Stanley? But I didn't.
Good, Olive said. That would be, well, kind of strange.
Sam looked at his feet. He sat on Olive's bed and started playing with the frayed cuffs of his jeans. He ripped the little strings off and spun them into balls and threw them as far from his body as possible.
Shall we watch some TV? Olive suggested, patting the spot next to her on the bed. I'll let you control the clicker, she said, waving the remote control in the air with her other hand.
Okay, Sam said. Olive's TV was on a lazy Susan on the trunk at the end of Olive's bed. I love that lazy Susan, Sam said, which was something he said almost every time he watched TV at Olive's place. At first it was funny, then it got annoying, and now it was slightly charming again.
Cute, Olive said and Sam laughed, insisting that he really, really did love the lazy Susan. Really and truly, Sam said. It's just plain cool.
Take off your shoes before you get on this bed, Olive said. And he climbed into bed beside her, seizing the clicker eagerly. But halfway through a rerun of MASH, something started upstairs.
Oh my God, Olive said. I can't believe it.
And then Sam said, with certainty: Sally has a boyfriend.
They waited for a while, listening and hoping that Sally and her boyfriend would stop doing whatever they were doing. Even though Olive wasn't entirely sure what they were doing, she had a pretty good idea.
I wonder what her boyfriend looks like, Sam said.
Sam, Olive said, we don't even know what Sally looks like.
Yeah, Sam said. But still. Isn't it kind of fun to speculate? Like, I bet that Sally has blonde hair, don't you? 'Sally' just sounds like she'd be blonde.
Isn't Sally pretty much the flakiest name ever? Olive said. I bet that's why it popped into my head.
Sam stared at Olive. I never thought it particularly stupid-sounding, but I don't know. Sometimes people are really dumb and have smart names like Theodore or sometimes people are really smart and are named Coco or Barbie.
There was a loud thud from Sally's apartment.
Ouch, Olive giggled. That must've hurt.
You know, Sam said, I can call the landlord. I have her name. R. Stanley, remember?
Olive looked at Sam like he was an eight-year-old. Oh Sam, she said. I could've complained about Sally ages ago. But I can't complain about what she does in her own apartment. It wouldn't do any good.
I thought it would help though, having her name.
It does, Olive said. It helps. Olive patted Sam's shoulder and turned back to the TV. Sometimes she wondered where Sam had come from and sometimes she actually had to sit and think for a while before she remembered meeting him at that first dance class. He just didn't seem to really fit into her orbit and it was strange to think that she'd actually brought him home. He was sweet, though, and seemed to enjoy Olive more than any other after-work activity.
Olive took Sam's hand in hers and turned it over, kissing the palm as she watched a vacuum cleaner commercial, and thought about Sally, even though she really didn't want to. She couldn't seem to avoid thinking about her mysterious upstairs neighbor and Olive could tell by the way that Sam's eyebrows were scrunched in the center of his forehead that he was having the same problem.
(Alison Weatherby is a graduate of the University of Washington and is in her second year at Sarah Lawrence College.)