By Greg Baxter
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One snowy December morning in an old European city, an American man leaves his shabby hotel to meet a local woman who has agreed to help him search for an apartment to rent. The Apartment follows the couple across a blurry, illogical, and frozen city into a past the man is hoping to forget, and leaves them at the doorstep of an uncertain future-their cityscape punctuated by the man’s lingering memories of time spent in Iraq and the life he abandoned in the United States. Contained within the details of this day is a complex meditation on America’s relationship with the rest of the world, an unflinching glimpse at the permanence of guilt and despair, and an exploration into our desire to cure violence with violence.
A novel about how our relationships to others-and most importantly to ourselves-alters how we see the world, The Apartment perfectly captures the peculiarity and excitement of being a stranger in a strange city. Written in an affecting and intimate tone that gradually expands in scope, intensity, poetry, and drama, Greg Baxter’s clear-eyed first novel tells the intriguing story of these two people on this single day. Both beguiling and raw in its observations and language, The Apartment is a crisp novel with enormous range that offers profound and unexpected wisdom.
IT'S THE MIDDLE OF DECEMBER, and everything is frozen over. I arrived six weeks ago with an old, worn-out pair of brown leather shoes. One night I walked around the city with a girl I'd met, and the next day I bought myself some lined, warm, waterproof boots. I threw the brown shoes away. I would have kept them for the spring, but I ruined them by heating them on the radiator at night.
I'm from the desert—a town with a small population. When I was seventeen, I left the town in the desert for a city in the desert. There were three million people in that city. There were a lot of straight, wide roads, and there weren't many sidewalks. Though I lived and worked elsewhere more than I lived and worked in that city, I always returned—each time for a different reason. When I left six weeks ago, I didn't tell anybody I was leaving. I just went to the airport one morning and got on a flight. I didn't even really pack. I had a few books and half a dozen shirts and toiletries and some other things. I wanted to live in a cold city. I couldn't say precisely why I picked this one.
I bought an ugly winter coat and found a cheap room at a place called Hotel Rus: This is where I'm living now. In the corridor there is a toilet that our floor shares, and a bathroom with a tiny but very deep tub I'm not sure how to use—am I supposed to stand or squat or sit in it? My room has green carpeting and white walls. It has a little sink and a mirror, a wardrobe, a little chest of drawers, and a small single bed. My feet dangle off the edge, and the duvet is too small. There's no TV, and that's fine with me. Sometimes I catch a bit of TV in a bar, and it looks pretty depressing. And I haven't come all this way to watch TV. The man and woman who run the place are nice, Mr. and Mrs. Pyz. One night they asked why I'd come and I said I didn't know. How long was I staying? I didn't have any plans to leave, I told them. But I was American, they said; I had to leave. I had a second passport, I told them. That's an old story.
A guy I knew from college had come here—he went to Europe and I went to the Navy. I had a number and an address, twenty years old. I'm sure he left nineteen years ago and went back home, and I don't remember liking him anyway. But on my first morning I bought a map and I walked many hours in the rain and fog to get to where my friend used to live. I needed an excuse to go somewhere specific. I could have got a bus or a streetcar or the subway, but I wanted to walk, and I suppose I was a bit frightened I'd get on the wrong train, the wrong bus, not have the right change, not know how to use the machines, be asked for directions, and I didn't want to look like a tourist. So I walked. It took a long time and my feet were sore. I thought about getting some new shoes the next day, but it wasn't until the day after the night I met Saskia and we stood around on cobblestones listening to musicians in the city center—it was a street festival—that I set out looking for a shoe store. I passed an outdoor adventure place and saw a lot of boots in the windows. I looked around and realized just about everybody on the slushy street was wearing boots. So I went inside and bought the most expensive pair they had: tall, black aqua combats—that's what they were called, aqua combats. I'm glad I waited. Had I bought them after that first walk, I might have got cheap ones. I wouldn't have considered the possibility that good shoes were essential: In the city I came from, shoes are never essential. Every week you buy a new pair of flip-flops at a drugstore for a dollar ninety-nine. I can step in a puddle with the boots I bought here. I can stand in a puddle for as long as I like. Every time I lace them up in the mornings, I'm glad I spent the extra money.
I wake up, usually around seven, and go and get a few papers, even though I can't read them, and a pack of cigarettes. I go back to the hotel and sit at the bar, or sometimes I go to a little café down on the corner where a nice young Italian guy waits tables, and he speaks English with me. He asks what I'm reading. He doesn't have the language either, not well enough to read it, so we both take guesses. He's into mobile phones and sunglasses, but he's a nice guy. He got me a free phone that I top up whenever I want to make a call. I spend about an hour with the papers. Then I go to the bakery next door to the café and get some sandwiches on nice bread, pack them into a little backpack, and start walking around the city. I tell myself it's been six weeks; perhaps it's been a little longer. Time is losing shape. Sometimes I watch my cigarette smoke rise above me in my hotel room and disperse across the ceiling, and this is what is happening to time. I am trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints.
Saskia telephones from the front of the hotel. My phone rings on the little nightstand. I'm supposed to be ready. I've been up, thinking these things, about boots and the desert and ice, for hours, smoking and thinking. I had no idea it was so late, that I'd been lying here so long. I will take a shower quickly, I say to her. Come up to the room. She comes up and sits on my bed and stares at the wall. Saskia is twenty-five. She has dark black hair and brown eyes. She is small and a bit stocky. I come back from the shower and she sits patiently while I shave, brush my teeth, and dress. There is a moment when we both realize that I am getting dressed right in front of her, and I move a little toward one corner and she turns her head a little toward the opposite corner until I am finished. She has a newspaper with her, and has circled a dozen ads for apartments. Hotel Rus is a nice place, but it's still a hotel. I'd like a kitchen and a balcony, and my own bathroom. To get an apartment I'll need a bank statement, which I have—I opened up an account soon after I arrived, and wired myself money from the US—but I don't have any references, which means I'll get asked for a hefty deposit. So I put on a money belt that goes under my shirt, and stuff a lot of cash into it. Saskia is wearing a gray skirt over black tights and tall black boots, and a thick black sweater. She's always well dressed, but not always in the same way. Today she looks conservative. How many places are we going to see? I ask. We'll go to a café and make some phone calls, she says. You look tired, I say. She yawns. I am tired, she says. Saskia takes a lot of pills and goes to gigs and attends parties that last three days. She can't sleep. Her heart races and she wakes up in the middle of the night and goes for a run in the city. Is that dangerous? I asked once. I don't know, she said. I met her in a museum—in the National Gallery. She goes there for her lunch breaks. She works at an economics research institute; she expends a lot of energy every day on this and talks about it only if I ask her a direct question. She likes art and books and music, and that's what she wants to talk about. She has a small collection of paintings in her bedroom that she's told me about. Each one has an interesting history.
Propped up on the chest of drawers in my hotel room is a small painting that we bought together, and Saskia stares curiously at it. It's called Untitled 14. I bought it at an opening in the city center about a week after Saskia and I first met. Saskia goes to openings all the time. She drinks free wine, talks with the artists, and imagines an alternative life in which she is rich enough to become a collector. The artist we had seen that night was a woman on the verge of fame, said Saskia, which meant that her works were unaffordable, or affordable only to the wealthy. After we had walked around the gallery, silently, for about fifteen minutes, Saskia asked me what I thought. I thought the paintings were magnificent, I said, but I had a hard time explaining why. Which is your favorite? she asked. Which is yours? I asked. She pointed to the painting that is now in my hotel room. Mine too, I said. I asked her if she'd let me buy it for her. Absolutely not, she said. It's too expensive. It's not that expensive, I said. She suggested that I buy it for myself and my new apartment, when I found an apartment, and she would come over often to admire it. I agreed. Saskia handled the transaction, and we had a long conversation with the artist, which I did not understand at all, but I smiled and nodded when the artist looked at me. I put down a sizable cash deposit and agreed to come by the next day to settle up. That evening, after the opening, when Saskia and I went for a drink at a hotel bar that overlooked, from five stories up, a busy intersection, she asked what I did for a living. I said I did nothing. Is that the truth? she asked. I do nothing now, I said. She asked what I did before I did nothing and I told her I'd been in the Navy. She seemed to accept that I didn't want to say anything else, so she asked no more questions that night. A few days later I came back from a day's walking and found Mr. and Mrs. Pyz looking very happily at the painting, which had been delivered to the hotel, though it was still packed in brown paper.
Do you still like it? I ask, meaning the painting. Yes, very much, says Saskia. She smiles and rubs her knees. It's strange, since we only met a little while ago, to be in a hotel room together, getting ready to search for apartments like we are old friends. We act as though we ought to have things to talk about, but we don't have those things. We have fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance. Sitting together on the bed now as I lace up my boots it occurs to me how easily this intimacy could evaporate. Our relationship probably could not bear any conflict at all. The force that stabilizes the intimacy is politeness. She is always polite, and I am always polite. Will we go now? she asks. Would you like to? She looks out the window. It's pretty nasty outside. The snow is wet and gray, and there's a strong breeze, so strong that when it blows, my window rattles. I like to walk around in the snow because I'm still not used to it, but she grew up with it, so to her it's a nuisance. Yes, she says, let's go.
I put on my coat. She puts on a gray coat and a gray hat. She grabs her bag and has the folded newspaper under her arm. It was supposed to be clear today, she says. I open the door for her, and before she exits she walks to the painting, lifts it, turns it upside down—which is to say right side up, I realize—and replaces it on the chest. Oh, I say. It's hard to tell, she says. We walk into the corridor and see a Japanese man—one of my neighbors—walking to the shower. He is in a white bathrobe and big blue plastic shower slippers, and holds his clothes in a folded stack with both hands, and on top of the stack is a thin brown belt as well as some toiletries. Saskia goes by him without lifting her head, and he does not look at her. I find that people here are always reassuring each other that they exist and life exists and the city itself exists by refusing to communicate. I have lived beside the Japanese man for a few weeks, and we have started to give each other restrained greetings.
Saskia and I get into the elevator. It's just about big enough for the two of us. It smells like potpourri, and after you leave you smell like potpourri for a while, and if you live here long enough, and take the elevator often enough, you begin to smell potpourri in your dreams. I go in first, because Saskia has opened the door for me. We are facing each other, and the metal door with a little window in it swings shut. She presses the button and we begin to descend. This is an old elevator, one that doesn't have an inner door, so you can see the rough cement walls inside the building between floors as you descend. Saskia finally turns so that we are not face-to-face so close together. I am a whole foot taller than her, maybe more. On the night that we walked around the city in the cold, she linked her arm in mine and pressed very close—it was bitterly cold—and I had to take small steps to match her stride. The elevator is creaking. It always creaks, but for some reason it is creaking louder than usual. I ought to say something, but before I can, she says, There are three places in good locations. We'll call them first. There are a dozen others farther out, but you want to start in the center. Thanks for helping out, I say; I'm sure I'd pick the first one I came across, then I'd see something later and regret it. She smiles. We stop with a crunch. The elevator bounces, and rises slowly up. The little green light illuminates, which means we're free to go, and Saskia opens the door.
The reception area is empty. It's just a booth with a buzzer. When you buzz it, you often have to wait five minutes before Mr. Pyz or Mrs. Pyz comes out smiling. Mr. Pyz is a bald man with a large belly and Mrs. Pyz is a tall woman with a large, elegant nose. Opposite the reception booth is the door to the restaurant and café, but the main entrance to that is on the street. The walls have wooden baseboards and old wallpaper. The burgundy carpet is covered in stains, not because the place is dirty, but because the carpet is—or seems to be—so old. There's never a crowd of Americans or Canadians or Australians or Irish twentysomethings wearing backpacks and looking at maps in the reception hall or vomiting in the elevator. And nobody complains about slow service or about noise. This is a hotel for people on their own. In the evenings, the restaurant is busy with locals who come here for traditional food. Mrs. Pyz wears a traditional outfit that pushes her breasts out. It gets really loud from about eight to eleven, and then all at once it goes quiet, except on Friday nights, when a blues band comes in. I went to see the band once, and it was hard to stay. I left after three or four songs. It's hard to watch European men sing the blues. They take it seriously, but the more seriously they take it, the more absurd they become. These guys knew a lot about the blues, they mentioned some good people, but their knowledge was dry. It wasn't ever going to be anything else. In their sound, there was an emptiness where inheritance ought to be. They manufactured black accents and spoke in broken English, and I felt a little embarrassed for them, so I left. I don't begrudge them. It was how they chilled out, and how they paid tribute to music they liked. The place was packed. All the tables were full, and some people stood. Mr. Pyz asked me what I thought about it the next morning. There was a time in my life when I would have wanted to say it was terrible, but that time has passed. I told him it was a lot of fun. Mr. Pyz is a nice man, and he's proud of his hotel. And Mrs. Pyz seems proud of Mr. Pyz.
Saskia is ahead of me, and gets to the door first. She turns around and makes a face. The face says, This is going to be painful. She pulls her shoulders together. Saskia can move quickly from being very cool to being very funny. It makes me think she's not trying to be one or the other. I wish we could preserve our relationship as it is now for a long time. I wish we could remain strangers. She opens the door. The street is white and the sky is a dark gray. We are met by an iciness that is even more intense than I expect, even though it is probably no different from yesterday's. Saskia digs in her bag for gloves, and I put a winter hat on and pull it down over my ears, as far down as I can get it. I zip my coat and turn the collar up, and stick my hands in my pockets. The subway station, where I buy my newspapers and cigarettes, is to the left. The bus is closer—it's to the right—but stops often on the way into the center. Which way, I say, the subway or the bus? It doesn't matter, she says. Cars go by with lights on, and the lights make the snow shine, and the way the light crawls up the street makes the snow appear to rise rather than fall. Saskia says, Maybe the bus is better. Her teeth are chattering. The shelter is closer, she says. We hurry down the sidewalk, through two trenches of stomped-down slush, created by foot traffic, in a thick layer of snow. Because it's a bit slippery and I'm trying to keep up with Saskia, I have to take my hands out of my pockets. My fingers start to go numb. My eyes have started to water and the water has started to freeze. I think in my entire life I've experienced this kind of cold once before, in Chicago, when I was visiting an old friend. I hated the cold there but I don't mind it here. It feels like I am walking through my own imagination now, or a dream.
The bus stop is beside the little café where the Italian kid works, but he's not there today, because it's Saturday. I'm hungry, but I don't want to delay us. I don't want to walk inside and order a piece of bread, and watch the bus go by. The bus arrives every fifteen minutes on a Saturday, and that's a lot of time in weather like this. A sick feeling rolls through my stomach, which is hunger, so I decide to smoke a cigarette. I pull the pack from my coat pocket and show it to Saskia. She says, Okay, but you light it; I'm not taking my gloves off. So I light hers, then my own. I have often wondered when, if at all, I might consider quitting, but now that I am here I have decided there's no point. It would be different if I had a family, or if I played a sport. But all I do now is walk, and I don't want to live an especially long time.
From the top of the street, coming slowly, is a blue bus—our bus. The traffic is slow because of the weather. The roads are fine, but the visibility is poor. Saskia smokes the cigarette I have lit for her without hands, just holding it between her lips, breathing in and breathing out. She crosses her arms and looks down the street, at the bus, which is stuck in the traffic it towers over, wipers moving slowly across its windshield, and the whole scene is white and gray and lit up and smoking. I don't know how long we wait. It is probably a minute, but it feels like ten. Saskia is thinking that we should have taken the subway, and I can see that she wants to say something about this, but also that she doesn't want to complain. I say, I wonder if the place I get will have a balcony. Do you want a balcony? she asks. I'd like one. That would make our list smaller, she says. It's not a necessity, I say.
Finally the bus stops in front of us. I take a seat by the window and wipe a streak in the fogged glass so we can see outside, and Saskia sits beside me. And the bus departs, and we watch the street through this small aperture, and we don't speak. I worry that she may find me too quiet, or boring. I could fill the silence by talking about the past, but I try not to think about the past. For much of my life, I existed in a condition of regret, a regret that was contemporaneous with experience, and which sometimes preceded experience. Whenever I think of my past now I see a great black wave that has risen a thousand stories high and is suspended above me, as though I am a city by the sea, and I hold the wave in suspension through a perspective that is as constrained as a streak of clear glass in a fogged-up window.
Saskia takes her gloves and hat off. I pull the collar of my coat down and pull my winter hat off. She looks at me and says, I don't think I'm ever getting off this bus. Saskia has a dark complexion. Her eyes look very tired, and the circles under them are blue sometimes, in certain light. I used to have trouble sleeping. It wasn't anything in particular, just a fear that I ought to be doing something, that something needed being done, or that something was wrong. I had bad dreams. The dreams were often about showing up to places unprepared, or being asked to do something that I didn't know how to do. And other times I just lay there, twisting and rearranging pillows, or got up for a glass of water and then stood by the window for a while. But I sleep now. I've never slept like I sleep here. I never believed this kind of sleep was possible. I am forty-one years old. I don't drink as much as I used to. I hardly drink at all here. I like to be awake in the mornings, and thinking clearly. My alarm goes off at seven and I lie in bed for a while. I feel rested. I feel like I've been asleep for ten years. I smoke cigarettes and listen to the street. I read a book. The book I'm reading now is something Saskia gave me, an old book of sights to see in the city, with some historical information. The print is tiny and the translation is bad. It says things like, You are pleasing to see the statue. I'm going to learn the language and buy some novels soon. I want to read very long and old ones. They don't have to be great. I'm going to buy a chair that's comfortable, and when it's cold I'm going to set it by the window, and when it's warm I'm going to pull the chair onto my balcony, if I have one, and read outside in the sunshine, and listen to birds. I am also going to listen to the radio, and I hope my balcony will look over some trees and a street, one where people honk their horns at each other.
When is the last time you slept? I ask her. She doesn't know. Weeks, she guesses, maybe never. She pauses. I don't mean never, she says, just that it feels like never. She yawns. You're making me tired now, she says. Can I see the newspaper? I ask. She hands it to me. It's damp. I peruse the ads she has circled. I realize my mistake and hand the paper back to her. Saskia could have telephoned these places from my hotel room, or she could call them now, but she doesn't. It's the whole experience she wants. We shall sit in a café and have some coffee or tea and she'll make calls there, then plan our route. I like that we're not rushing anything, that everything is pointlessly ritualized. The bus is beginning to fill now. Bodies begin to push backward, and a man with a backpack bumps Saskia on the head. She rolls her eyes. That was nice of him, I say. The man turns around and gives me a dirty look, a look that says, Where am I supposed to go? So I give him a look that says, You could at least remove your backpack. Saskia, realizing I've become perturbed, says, to me, You must be used to lots of space. The guy mumbles something. I ignore it. I can't speak the language. I'd look like a fool if I tried to start an argument, and anyway it might be the wrong argument. The man turns back around and Saskia gets hit by the backpack again, so she quickly and quietly unzips its small back pocket. Revenge, she whispers. The reason the bus is getting crowded on a Saturday morning is that everyone is going into the center to shop, and to visit Christmas markets and drink and have cakes. The economy is bad, but there is only this weekend and the next before Christmas. The streak I wiped in the glass beside me has fogged up again, so I wipe it again. I realize we are moving fast now—we must be in a bus lane. This is a nice time of year, says Saskia, if you don't mind crowds. I say, Sometimes I like crowds. Good, she says, because it's going to be crowded. We cross a large suspension bridge, and the sound of the tires on the road changes considerably. The change nearly creates the sensation of floating. My ears pop. Saskia leans across me to wipe a larger streak in the glass. A long way below is the river, wide and black. The surface of the river is choppy, and snow is falling everywhere, in many directions.
We reach the other side, after a long minute, and the sound of the tires on the road changes back, and we are in the immediate outskirts of the center now. The buildings here are all the same. You walk along one street, turn a corner, and you are on the same street. This is what the foreigner tells himself. The longer I stay here, though, the more I notice imperfections in the repetition. I notice a laneway here or there that is small and winding, a shortcut. Or an alley that leads to a street that it seemingly shouldn't, which tells you that your inner compass has failed. Or you notice a little gateway that leads to a square. Or there's an old monastery. Or a man who always sweeps the sidewalk outside his shop. You begin to notice that no two buildings are really alike. You begin to see that what you suspected was perfect repetition in an orderly grid is apparent repetition in an imperfect grid, and after a while you learn that what you once considered monolithic is infinitely intricate. And from here you begin to understand the vastness of the place.
The bus stops at a hub for streetcars, trains, and buses that come in from the west, across the bridge. Is this us? I ask. Saskia is yawning again. The bus is really warm now. Everyone has been breathing, and creating heat. No, she says, we have a few more stops. The doors open and the bus almost empties. The heat is released with the people who alight. It is sucked immediately into the morning, and what's left in the bus is cold and refreshing space. Where are we going? I ask. Saskia says, A café with lots of students. It's…and she pauses, seemingly searching for the correct English word. It's the first time since I met her that she has paused for a word, and this makes me momentarily wonder at how impressive it is that she speaks English so well. Her accent sounds a bit British. Did you live in England? I asked her once. No, she said. But we study English here for a long time. I studied Spanish in high school and college, I said. Habla español?
- "Clever, entertaining, brave, it stretches the rules while following a man through one day of his life. I loved it."—Roddy Doyle
- "Exceptional--a book rich in ideas and poetry."—Hisham Matar, Man Booker Prize finalist for Country of Men
- "Imagine you're on a roller-coaster ... suddenly, without warning, it tips vertiginously, so quickly that your chest constricts and while you're there, suspended, momentarily, at the apex of this roller-coaster, you're aware suddenly of a kind of clarity, a totally new perspective on everything below. Greg Baxter's THE APARTMENT is a bit like this ... Full of unshowy wisdom and surprising moments of beauty.—Sunday Telegraph
- "Stunningly good."—Saturday Review, BBC Radio 4
- "Admirable for its scope, ambition and unashamed seriousness of purpose, as well as its willingness to take stylistic and structural risks."—Observer
- "Baxter's superbly elegant, understated writing explores the dynamics of America's relationship with the rest of the world."—The Times
- On Sale
- Dec 3, 2013
- Page Count
- 208 pages