Continued from last week’s edition..
My mom died six months after I was born. Pneumonia, an infection. I’m not exactly sure, I never really wanted to talk with my dad about it. I never really want to talk to him at all anymore. Weird, right?
But I wonder what it’d be like to talk to you about it. I imagine her dying is what killed you in the end. The anger at my dad and his failure to provide for her, but even more so, the self-hatred you had for letting her down, letting her die. But that’s not death for me.
Death is your head hitting the pillow knowing that you can’t dream anymore, but still grinning with glazy euphoria. When the last thing you see as you get under the covers is your famously dead uncle’s box on your night table, dusted with crushed k-pins the shrink is willing to dole out, another wintry bluster banging your window.
Or, it could be the dehydrated urine color of the streetlamp light reflecting off of the snow as you look down at your polished black shoes while people say goodbye to you outside of the church. But with a tone of envy that says, “He didn’t even know him and he’s just walking into all those millions.”
Or, when sometimes, in the middle of the night, you come to me.
But sleep won’t come. I coax it, I goad it with medication, but it never comes on my terms. Instead, I take a drag, blow the smoke out of my dorm window, and smush the butt into the ashtray that rests on my uncle’s empty box. I open it, like I had the past couple of sleepless nights. Your note is gone. I read it once and then lit it with a dying cigarette and watched it burn. I kept the box though. Now it’s filled with my pages, stuff that I needed to get down on paper.
I take them out to read over. They’re creased on the edges because they were the slightest bit too big to fit inside the box. Goddamn your golden ratio, couldn’t you have made it 8 ½ x 11?
“I hate making this walk,” I said.
“We do it to ourselves.” Pete adjusted his black beanie so it covered half his ears and left a visible patch of split ends curling down his forehead from right to left. He exhaled a breath of smoke and started to play with his septum ring, flipping it up into his nostrils and back out again.
“How are you getting along with that,” I pointed to his nose.
“It sucks. I hate it. It’s even starting to smell now.”
“That’s gross, you gotta wash it once in awhile.”
“I know, you don’t have to tell me. But I kinda like it. It reminds me that we all came from little stenching bacteria.”
“Why’d you even get it in the first place?”
“Just a willingness to do something,”
“You must enjoy living that punk persona.”
“No, it’s not even that. It’s all,” he paused to find the right words, “It’s all just a joke, it doesn’t matter. Everything that begins as a comedy eventually ends as a tragicomedy.”
I chuckled at his waxing poetic. “So what are you working on that you need a second helping of study buddies?” His body looked atrophied. I didn’t feel all that bad for him though—I’d trade skins in a second. But his tight jeans did make his legs look like you could transplant them as arms.
“People, places, concepts, ideas and how they all relate to each other, developing the ability to write it down for the teacher.”
“So, besides figuring out the meaning of your education, what exactly are you working on?” I was trying to work out how he was becoming my best friend since I had transferred here.
“Irish history since 1800.”
He looked up at the few stars that were visible in D.C. I looked at the concrete treadmilling under my feet.
We were both lost in our own heads.
“You know, after staring in the mirror for twenty minutes, alone, while she’s on the bed naked and asleep,” he stared straight ahead now, “you get sick of yourself. Knowing more about yourself than you want,” he said, looking at his reflection in the med school building we were passing. I felt this grating knot in my chest. I kept thinking how I wished I wasn’t a virgin, how many women you must have slept with when you were my age, and then how stupid that preoccupation was. How embarrassing it would be if Pete could read my mind.
“Who, Jess?” I took a drag and flicked the butt, aiming for the sewer. But it bounced once and landed on one of the grates, hanging on for dear life.
“Yeah, I think I’m done with her.”
I had no opinion on the matter. We walked and smoked for a bit in silence.
“You know,” he droned, “I’ve realized something about myself recently. How, in fact, I’m not really myself at all. I have no say in who I am. I am the mere summation of interpretations. I am an object to be molded and shaped at the whim of others. To do what is expected of me, and eventually to want to do what is expected of me. Otherwise, I’ll be wearing a black veil and chains, stripped of a face, and scorned on the scaffold of societal convention.”
“Hell is other people” was the only response I could think of, words not my own, ready for me to regurgitate, as I had been trained to do so well. Get to know him. Tell him I felt the same way. Tell him you, even though you’re a ghost, were the one who gave me that irrepressible desire to escape everything.
He turned to me. “You know what I’m talking about then?” He smiled. His pupils were black and bulging. I felt like they were little black holes that were sucking up everything I was thinking.
“I’m a transfer aren’t I?”
House 3037, the one with the kicked in screen door, and the chipped green door behind it. There were never any lights on. It looked dead. We knocked on the door, and waited there for a couple minutes, knowing not to knock again, that wherever he was he would hear it.
“Well hello, crackheads!” our hookup greeted us. “Anyone one need some study aids for their big bad tests?” The Prince was all smiles. I loved how he didn’t care about anything. I felt like if the cops were to come in the middle of a transaction, he’d laugh his way to the station, knowing his dad could get him out of it. He was Jordanian royalty or something, but more importantly he was The Prince and was not to be fucked with. There was only one time when I needed to be reminded of that, even though he had respected me more now than ever since you died—trust me, never again.
Pete cut in through the laughter, “Well no shit, it’s why we’re here right?”
“Right you are, right you are,” The Prince laughed, with his mouth open so that you could see all of the gold cavity fillings over his molars. “Come upstairs, and we’ll see if we can’t find something for you guys to eat.”
We stepped into his room. I hung back by the door and let my friend take care of the deal. I tried to look cool and calm with one foot against the door while I leaned back. But The Prince still intimidated me. Maybe because after he put his metal briefcase away in the closet, he came out completely naked.
“Don’t mind me boys, I’m about to freshen up. But good doing business as always. Now, go let yourselves out, you poor bastards.”
We went down the stairs, closed the door behind us, sniggering for the same reason.
“That dude,” he paused, lighting his cigarette for dramatic effect, “has a huge penis!”
My cigarette fell out of my mouth, as I inhaled my laughter. As I re-lit it, I couldn’t help thinking that it’d be easy being that confident if I were The Prince.
“The Prince’s prodigious penis,” Pete bellowed, gloating at the alliteration. “Guys like that make me think that the only worthwhile pursuit in this life is sex. Sometimes they’re hot, and sometimes busted. Sometimes you get genital warts, and sometimes you don’t,” drag, “but most times you do.”
“Thanks for that. Now I have an image of your warty pelvis burned onto my brain. Nice work.”
“C’mon, cut me some slack, I’m from upstate. Girls there are nuts.”
“I didn’t know that. I’ve never been actually.”
“Yeah, you should come some time.” I opened my mouth to answer, but he stopped me. “And by come some time, I mean come never. Dormant, where I’m from, is awful. Projects, drug addicts, factory workers.” Letting him talk about himself was easy. I couldn’t screw up listening and walking at the same time.
“I never grew up in a town, or went to a school where people were smart, or where it was encouraged to read or anything. No one’s parents had gone to college, mine included. My dad walked out and then died of a heroin overdose when I was in fifth grade, and then my mom realized she had a daughter and son whose mouths needed feeding.”
“What’d she do? If you don’t mind me asking.” The word heroin caught my attention. Caught yours too, right?
“Lunch aide. But now she’s the head receptionist at a dentist’s office, and doing well for herself.”
I couldn’t tell whether he was downplaying everything, or being melodramatic.
But we kept walking. I was heading back to the library to keep working, but as we passed one of the dorm buildings, Pete said that he was going to call it a night. We’d meet up for breakfast, go to class, study, and do it all over again the next night.
As he was about to go into the building, he ran down the stairs again and caught up to me.
“Wait up.” I stopped and turned to him as he jogged towards me, slowing to a saunter when he got close enough. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Listen, tomorrow, let’s forget everything. I wanna take you to Oak Hill cemetery.”
I was a little startled. I was just there burying my uncle. “I don’t know if I’m down for a cemetery late at night.”
“Listen, I don’t do this with many people. I want you to come with me. We’ll go at sundown, it’s beautiful, there’s some really great architecture too, unlike this place,” he said nodding his head towards his dorm.
“Yeah sure, that’d be cool.”
“Good.” Pete’s voice suddenly became a whisper.
I stood there watching him walk back until he disappeared into the dorm foyer, the torn soles of his shoes flapping with each step.