He grew up around the scent of smoke and yellowing paint. His dad used to take him out into town in a rickety Ford borrowed from the office for a day, smoking Marlboro Golds. Before each trip, they’d stop by the bodega near their apartment for a fresh pack. It wasn’t until later in life that Rob realized how much of a luxury those instances were, his siblings would buy him a pint and tell him of how they weren’t afforded nearly as much fatherly attention as they felt they deserved. This just made him think of how much of it he wasted.
Rob pictured the man being wheeled off in that ambulance with a carton of smokes in the hand they placed the emergency IV. He would go through at least two of those cartons a month. All Rob could really do at the time was watch them leave from the creaky balcony, painted a rusted green.
It’s eleven and the sun is being dampened by a bout of mid-April showers. Beth and Karen are sitting at a cherrywood table on the second floor of a coffee shop, a few steps away from a screened window.
The rain cuts through it and covers nearby tables in a soft cloud that nudges against the creases of Beth’s brain. She was only halfway into sleeping off four Old Fashioned’s downed under low-hanging indigo lights. You can tell from how her hair tangles from a makeshift bun and her glasses drooping down a bridge of caking foundation. Karen, sitting across from her, takes her right middle finger and starts picking away at its nail polish with her left thumb.
"I said he was selfish and I said he was weak." Karen’s left leg rattles under the table, the flat sole of her shoe flapping helplessly against her heel and the ground. It matches her cadence. "Because I sure as hell never considered calling it off, and I sure as shit didn’t put myself through the wringer." The words fell out of her with half a stutter.
"After that, I wanted to leave but he grabbed my keys and said, ‘You know what? Think of the thousand more things you’d want to say to me and give me just one word of it.’" An apostrophe forms on the right side of her mouth. "So I called him a cunt."
Years, years ago I had a crush on a girl named Jennifer. It was right around the time text messaging was gaining traction. “hey rylan,” she texted me one September night, “whats up??” A few weeks before that, my sister crammed her life into a few boxes and shipped them to Australia. She sold half of her furniture and gave the rest to my mom, who I was living with at the time. My room became the new home for her queen-sized Sealy mattress, and my old twin bed was exiled to the garage. “It feels weird lying on this bed,” I wrote back in double-checked grammar, “It feels lonely.”
"what do u mean?" she sent back.
"There’s too much room here that’s meant for someone else."
Now, it’s four in the morning and it’s too hot for me to sleep. I stare into the myopic noise of the ceiling, pale from my laptop cracked open and my blinds barely shut. I’ve had my contacts in for the past three days and it’s starting to show. It’s been two weeks since I moved into this apartment and its only real amenities are a single lamp and an inflatable mattress. The pots, pans, and cutlery in the kitchen aren’t real until I set them loose from their plastic. There’s a rattle that’s coming from my phone. I break it from its USB tether and the glass feels foreign to my thumb. “I know you’re one of those people who doesn’t sleep til 5,” a text message reads. It’s from Martha.
I met Martha in a corner underneath some stairs, at a rained-in house party. Shoes squeaked past as we talked about poetry. She wore thick Ray-Ban glasses that drooped and bisected her almond eyes, her hair had one large red thread running through the black. It was a shock against the eggshell plaster of the walls. Her voice tasted like cream cheese and it wasn’t long until we barreled past the pretension and yelled at each other about pop culture over the club bangers crashing their way from a cheap speaker system.
We moved to the party’s single couch as soon as the couple eating each other’s faces decided to move further. She told me she drove an Aztek, like Walter White from Breaking Bad. She didn’t know that Ziggy Stardust and David Bowie were the same person, but she knew the names of everyone in Animal Collective. We bonded over crying, drunk and alone, to the disillusioned melancholy of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”.
At 9:17 PM on a Friday night, she wakes up jetlagged from a nap, thinking about infinity. A former teacher once sat in front of her Calculus class, fingers softly trembling on the overhead, and spent twenty minutes talking about the concept. “Beth,” her note-fiending friend would say, “is it just me or do you think Mr. Wells was baked when he first learned about this?” The teacher went on talking of countable infinities. Infinities that are greater than other infinities. She catches them in the slats of street light on her wall.
It’s past dark in a city where the sun waits for primetime television before it sets. Outside sounds like ten-year-old trucks spraying mosquito repellent, but it’s more likely hums from the neighbor’s sound system. 9:42 is just under a half hour past kidding herself into some more sleep. She fumbles for the lamp switch and singes her corneas turning it. It’s enough pain to wrestle her from her wrinkled, rouge-tinted covers.
The bedroom door hasn’t been closed since she’s moved into this apartment. It just hasn’t, and she’s been there for years. Never needed to. Even when she’s had guests fly in from the backs of beyond only to crick their necks on her Ikea couch, even when she’s brought home someone special, someone significant, or just someone to use for a night or several. She walks out of the door, passing the dust gathered behind it in the shape of an isosceles, and into the bathroom.
“You are the woman, you realize that right?” Liam says, gripping a tallboy of Guinness and nestling a Marlboro Seventy-Two between the middle and index fingers of the same hand. The smoke sinks into his hair’s grease and the soupy summer air, standing underneath the light of a green house’s wooden patio. He takes a belabored drag, stifling a cough. Bits of it escape his clogged nostrils.
“What?” Karen catches Liam’s declaration as only a drunken murmur. She’s busy checking on Jim, passed out shirtless on the iron bench closest to the door. His legs hang off the armrest, mosquitos catching themselves between their hairs. She checks if he’s still breathing, unable to distinguish his half-snores from the buzz of the nearby air-conditioning unit.
Her hair and clothes are still damp from rescuing an inebriated Jim from drowning himself in the house’s pool. Seeing his burgeoning gut rise, then fall, she takes her drink from the table next to the bench, finishing it to wash the chlorine from her tongue. She then approaches Liam, busied by a nicotine trance. He turns to her, throwing what’s left of his cigarette into a smoky mason jar. She looks up at him, auburn bangs grazing eyebrows.
The three stop at an intersection, yielding to a set of headlamps. Liam’s legs beg for a jaywalking ticket. Jake is to his right, scratching through his curls with one hand and reaching into the pocket of his blazer with the other. It produces a pair of gloves, which he slips on. To Jake’s right is Karen, who for a brief moment glances across the sidewalk, eyes apologetic.
“We-we’re lost, aren’t we?” Liam asks, his words stumbling.
The wind picks up, seasoned with snow. The closest streetlight casts their shadows onto the dirty pavement. On the other side of the street is someone shivering on a bus stop bench, in a dark too thick to be safe. Jake is the first to start across the intersection, followed closely by Karen, who looks back at Liam. This time, her eyes linger as much as his. She knows he’s waiting for the right moment to grab hold of her arm, so that Jake walks just far enough ahead for them to spend a few seconds in each other’s company. Liam extends his hand and taps on her shoulder.
“Slow down, why don’t you?” Liam mumbles.
“My friend Sarah told me that they were doing an opening just down this block.” Jake says, looking at a shivering Karen and adding an “I promise”. He starts guiding the group further down the sidewalk, checking his phone every few steps. “She says she knows the owner,” Jake continues, “…and that he’s a bit of a prick! But hey, free drinks, right?”
Karen lets out a chortle. “Yeah. Sounds like a fun guy, too.” she says, as Liam trips over a crack in the uneven pavement. He reaches out a hand and grabs the sleeve of Jake’s coat, who shakes Liam off as soon as he regains balance. “Are you alright, there?” Karen asks.
The three of them started the night at a dinner only two of them were invited to. In a blur of tablecloths and receipts, he and Karen were staring at The Soldier, Liam fresh off of his third cigarette and Karen’s moment of weakness. The smoke from earlier that made its way between the fibers of his dry-cleaned shirt is still odorous in the streets.
“Ah, here we are.”
Flecks of snow start to collect on Liam’s coat, between the strands of Karen’s hair. The building they’re standing in front of lacks the air of a gallery opening; the lights are dark, the door is bolted shut. There’s a man in a bright red scarf smoking a cigarette nearby. “Whatever you’re looking for’s closed,” he says. Liam checks his watch. It’s nearly two.
“I guess we should call it a night, then.” Jake says. He turns back to Liam and Karen, whose coats and shadows entwine on the sidewalk. “Yeah, let’s all go home.”
Liam’s gripping the puddle of ice in his glass. There was a certain inevitability that hid behind their conversations, that both of them were waiting to be bold enough to say they loved the other still. He wants nothing more than to release what’s been welling in the depths of his throat and chest. The acid burns the bottom of his throat. Karen looks up at him. “We’ll meet you outside, okay?”
“Can I get in on that falafel?” Jake asks with a smile, as he and Karen walk towards the door. His teeth are jaundiced, crooked. The Soldier looks on, watching Liam as he’s left behind, his painted gaze all the more unnerving in an empty gallery. Karen’s eyes spell disapproval towards Jake’s attempt at humor.
Liam tries to follow Jake and Karen, each motion throwing his ten-second conceptions of balance into an entirely new direction. The metal doors close before Liam can go through. His hand meets the cold as he uses the weight of his frame to push through the exit.
He trips through the orange hallway and outside, greeted by the wind and hints of snow. He calls for Karen, watching flurries spiral towards his body and try their best to accumulate on his wool coat. They’re shaken off as he reaches into his suit for a cigarette, which lingers unlit between his lips. His lighter remains in a pool of butane ten feet away. Jake is close to the street, trying to gauge if a taxi was worth it.
Karen appears beside Liam, her hands in her fur coat, which she collected as Liam was on his third whiskey. “Come on!” she says, grabbing Liam’s arm and pulling him in Jake’s direction. “I don’t know if there’s any carts out right now, but I meant what I said about that falafel.”
Liam laughs, ignoring the increasing difficulty to stand. He rubs his eyes on his sleeve as the wind mocks his cheeks, slicing them and slapping him into submission, preparing him for the rest of tonight. Karen lets go of him and he reaches back for her, catching the skin of her fingers as they walk away. A yearning wraps around him, numbed, his vision a disorienting loop. He’s left with nothing more than the warmth lingering in his pockets.