The crust of bread was the first present Tracy shared with me. The cloudy, rocking, and potentially explosive chemical was the second. After that was a mattress, from who knows where but looking clean enough and not stained anyway. I'd been in the apartment a week. I came home and the mattress was outside my door, leaning against the wall. There was a note pinned to the mattress. "Thanks for walking me to the hospital--I owe you," with a drawing of a smiley-face heart. "Your friend forever, Tracy," it said after that.
The fabric wasn't musty, didn't smell bad at all. Almost any mattress would work after nights sleeping on blankets folded against the floor.
I put my groceries in the apartment, then went back into the hall and tipped the mattress onto its side. I tried to push the mattress through my door, but it was wedged in the hallway, pressing against the wall and tight against the door frame. I went in the apartment and pulled on the mattress, then went back in the hall, moved past the mattress and started pushing from outside again.
Sonny was coming upstairs, hobbling his slow way with his bandaged leg stiff out in front of him. He stopped and he said, "Let me help."
I said, "That's all right." I didn't want him to put pressure on his messed-up foot.
But he said, "Out of the way. I'll get it." I saw then that Sonny was all compressed energy, held back only by the cast on his leg and scarred skin pulled taut. He was wiry and strong, and he wrestled the mattress into my apartment. Sonny was a cloud of turpentine and oil paint.
We put the mattress on the empty square where the last tenant, Jamie, had left the outline in paint of the shape of her own bed.
Sonny hadn't shaved. I could see that the hair of his beard growing in was mixed with gray. The hair on his head was mostly a caramel color, streaked between a darkened blond and sun-lightened brown. He reminded me of raw silk spun roughly, the color, creases and knots.
Tracy came out of her apartment at the end of the hall. She looked tired, maybe paler, but not hospitalized with meningitis. She said, "Hey, Brother, Sister." Sonny put a hand out to pull her toward him.
I said, "Tracy, how are you?"
She said, "Ready to party," and she laughed, stepping away from Sonny. She peeled a long strip of wallpaper off the wall in the hallway. She said, "I'll mail this to Jamie, when I find out where she went."
I said, "What's causing the headaches?"
Tracy shrugged. She said, "Man, they did so many tests! I had to get in this big tunnel, and be there forever." She used a thumbtack on a cork board in the hall and tacked the strip of wallpaper to the cork board, then picked up a stray black marker and wrote "For Jamie" across the cork board, with an arrow to the scrap of wallpaper.
I said, "You've got insurance?"
She said, "Yeah, like I'm a Teamster," and she laughed again. "They'll bill me."
Sonny said, "What'd they test for?" He put a hand on Tracy's head.
She shook him off again and said, "I don't know. Headaches, is all. They didn't find anything." She looked around my apartment. She hadn't been in since the first day. "Where's all your stuff?"
I said, "This is it." I told her the first night that I didn't have much.
"Good. Then you didn't already have a mattress." She said, "I wanted to get you something you could use."
Sonny said, "You need a table."
My table was two cardboard boxes with a piece of plywood I'd found in the basement now resting on top of the boxes; low enough for sitting on a folded towel on the floor. I didn't have chairs. But I had dishes and I had towels, and now I had a mattress. I'd just bought groceries, and that was like furnishing the tiny refrigerator part of the apartment. I started taking my groceries out of the bag, putting the groceries away. I had one Asian pear that I sat on the windowsill, and two small lemons. I had a piece of halibut wrapped in white paper.
I asked Sonny, "How big is your space?" He had three windows that opened onto the square of roof. I only had two. Beyond that, his apartment seemed to take up the rest of the corner of the building in back. Through the windows, his space looked crowded, with the square back of canvas and stretcher bars showing.
I had a box of wheat crackers, and I sat the box in the wide-open space of a nearly empty cupboard.
Tracy said, "He's got the best apartment."
Sonny leaned out my open window as though looking for something beyond the immediate view, the patch of roof, the alley and his old Duster. Maybe he was scouting for Joan of Arc moving down in the bushes. He clapped his hands against the upper window frame, one normal hand and one scarred with the pink stain. Without looking at us, he said, "I've been here 10 years. Lived in four different rooms."
Tracy said, "He's a painter, needs the light there." She said, "Mi sifrina, you should see his apartment."
I said, "I'd like to."
We went to Sonny's rooms through the building instead of across the roof. Tracy led the way down the hall and around a corner. She was moving fast, almost dancing, holding her arms out, until she ran into the wall--bumped the corner with her shoulder--and then walked more slowly, checking each step with her foot, as though the floor might not be solid. She touched one hand along the wall as she walked, balancing herself.
The hall was dark outside Sonny's door, the bulb gone from the hall light. He said, "Somebody always steals that," meaning the bulb. But when he opened his door, the room inside was brilliant with light. The room was lined with a row of tall windows all along the outer side of the building. There were no curtains or shades. The room was wide and open, with a ceiling that angled down on two edges where it traced the shape of the eaves with window seats.
And the room was full of red glass Christmas balls, each mirroring red globe on its own invisible strand of fishing line, the fishing line attached to the high ceiling and every bulb hung at a different height.
Tracy walked in a few feet and threw herself down on the black-and-white zigzag of zebra-striped sectional that cut through the middle of the open space. She said, "Watch out," and pointed to a three-legged coffee table made from a sheet of jagged glass. I stepped around it.
Sonny had an easel set up on one side of the room, on a drop cloth, with a partially finished painting of planets, outer space as a deep, blue-black infinity. There was a stack of more paintings against the wall, and all the paintings were of planets, outer space in different colors, made-up astronomy with geography visible, oceans and land in blue and green, pale dots tracing patterns of distant stars.
Tracy found a bottle of black nail polish between cushions on the sectional. She kicked off a shoe and started painting her toenails black, black against her white skin on the black-and-white sectional in the room's dazzling light. Without looking up, her chin resting on her knee, her dark hair falling forward, she said, "He makes a killing, selling those paintings."
Sonny said, "Tourists, down in the desert." He said, "People come through, they buy anything. I'm painting the solar system and they call it the desert sky." He said, "Look."
I followed Sonny across the room, followed his skinny ass, his worn jeans. He started flipping through one stack of paintings. I saw the muscle of his arm, the vein in the back of his wrist. I glanced at the paintings.
He said, "Tourists love that shit."
I said, "Really?" Sonny's teeth were crooked, a front tooth chipped at the corner; the irregularity of his teeth made his face that much more angled. On the side that wasn't scarred, his face was something like pretty, with dark eyelashes and a nice jaw.
He threw himself down on the sectional next to Tracy, sprawled and slouched. I saw how close he sat. She bounced as his weight hit the cushion, and she said, "Dammit." Black polish streaked her smallest toe. She said, "You got remover?" and started wiping the polish off with her thumb.
Sonny said, "Paint remover."
I couldn't tell if Tracy and Sonny had a thing going on or not.
I felt awkward standing, a possible third wheel. I said, "I've got to get going," although I had nowhere to go except my room, downstairs.
Sonny stood up and followed me when I walked to the door. He put his hand out, on my back, just for a moment. It was an awkward gesture; he'd gone out of his way to put his hand on my back. I was almost too far away for him to reach me. He said, "Come knocking anytime."
I didn't turn around. I couldn't tell if he was reaching with his better hand, or the scarred side. I only said, "I will," and felt a shiver, down my spine, where he'd put his hand.
In my apartment I turned on the oven, and the room filled with the scent of burning dust. I unwrapped the white paper and lifted out the halibut, fish that was heavy and hung over the edges of my hand. I broke an egg into a shallow blue-and-white enameled bowl and beat the egg with a fork. I put flour and cornmeal together in a second bowl and moved the fish from the egg to the flour. I only had a few dishes; the silverware was from the Goodwill.
I cooked a lot when I lived with Matt. I had this idea that by cooking and keeping things clean, by paying bills when they were due, he'd learn from example. Toward the end, his sister would come over to tell me it was my fault he was drinking and not working and sleeping half the time who knew where.
The first night I slept in the car I had to get used to being alone. I was in transition. I'm not religious, but I kept thinking of Jesus, the Assumption, Jesus saying, Noli me tangere. Don't touch me. Jesus, between flesh and spirit, was in transition too.
I needed to move around without my past self, without Matt most of all. I had to get out of our old neighborhood.
Sometimes, living with Matt, I'd wait up for him to come home. I'd call around. In the early morning I'd call the police and ask if anyone like Matt had been hit by a car or picked up somewhere. This is the psychology of addiction, because there was a reason we stayed together, and the reason was mostly about memory and the slim windows between binges when things were good again.
I put the cooked halibut on a cobalt plate. I had a bowl that matched, and I filled the bowl with orange slices because I liked the colors, blue and orange, together. I turned on my radio that sat on the table near the open window, finding a classical station and keeping the sound low. My new apartment was nearly empty, but everything was mine. The floor was paint-splattered, but easy to sweep. The paint on the floor made me think of Sonny's skin. I covered part of the plywood table with a green stretch of towel.
I didn't even buy the halibut in a regular store. I bought it in a specialty market. Everything in this market was meant to be especially nice. "All of our seafood is never frozen." That's what it said on a sticker in the deli case. The meats were red and marbled with white lines of fat. Vegetables were piled in deep-green bins under blue lights, and were always damp with a spray of water. The fruit, most of it, was wrapped individually in pieces of colored tissue paper. Oranges were wrapped in a deep-purple paper that made their skin glow as if lit from inside. I asked the woman behind the counter about the fish. I asked her why ahi tuna was so dark. It looked like roast beef.
"If it's any other color," she said, "You wouldn't want to eat it."
I said, "And what about the halibut?"
She said, "Halibut is the filet mignon of seafood."
I was eating my filet mignon of seafood, the halibut, at my plywood table when Tracy came by. She sat against my windowsill, taking her perch in the furniture-less room. I kept eating.
I said, "So, are you and Sonny involved?"
She started changing the station on my radio, turning the radio into a stream of static. She said, "Involved?"
I said, "Yeah. Some kind of relationship."
She said, "He's a friend." She turned the radio up louder, to hear a station she couldn't get anyway.
I said, "That's all?"
Over the static of the radio, she said, "Honey, if you mean romance, I haven't had anything like romance last longer than a pack of smokes." She clicked the radio off entirely and pulled out a cigarette. She said, "He's a good guy, but I've got my own life."
I didn't ask Tracy about her own life. I didn't even ask her not to smoke in my room. I liked something about Sonny. I liked his room, and his interest in painting.
Tracy swung her legs, banged her heels into the wall below the window. She said, "Guess what?" And then I realized she'd been waiting to tell me something. She said, "I'm pregnant."
Her eyes were glassy. She looked tired, but she was smiling.
I said, "Is pregnant a good thing?"
She said, "Who knows? It's a baby."
Some kind of baby. I said, "You shouldn't be smoking, pregnant," but Tracy only shrugged.
I said, "Who's the father?" I imagined a sturdy and thick baby Tino, or a scarred, tawny little Sonny, the product of a romance lasting the length of a pack of smokes.
She said, "What's it matter? Who's my father, anyway? It's my baby." She said, "Sonny knows about it, but don't tell anyone else. It's between you and me. Tino likes to think I'm all into him, and he's deranged enough already." She said, "I need time to think it out." She was smiling as she said it, exhaling out the open window.
That night, I took a second sandwich down for Joan of Arc. I took a cup of iced tea. I put the sandwich and the tea again in the passenger's seat of Sonny's old Duster, and then I saw Joan in the bushes. He was scratching his head. He was scratching the way a dog would scratch--hard and fast and shaking his curls. He was so dirty.
I half whispered, half called out, "Hey. You need a shower?"
He looked, but didn't answer. I said, it again, "A shower?" and pointed inside. What would his shower cost any of us in the building? We shared bathrooms between so many already. Joan stood still and quiet. He wasn't coming any nearer. It would only be his feet touching the already dismal shower floor, the dirt and bugs of him washing down the drain.
Joan stood still, as though he believed himself camouflaged by the bushes. He was looking right at me.
I left a brick in the basement door, keeping the door open just far enough to stay unlocked. I went upstairs and took out one of my few towels. I used a serrated knife to slice my soap in half. I put the clean towel and the slice of soap in the basement bathroom, hanging the towel over the shower door.
The day Matt showed up unexpectedly in the conference room where I worked, the door closed behind him, made the room feel like a phone booth, a place to get a string of photos taken, a fist of adrenaline and noradrenaline tight in my stomach--I would've been my own best stress-induced memory study.
Matt was moving in slow motion, but I was moving slower. I couldn't get up. I had folders on my lap. The walls were white, but close. This is about dilated eyes; this is pituitary in action, wearing out kidneys with a chemical adrenal rush, working the pancreas closer to diabetic. Matt sat in the chair meant for a student, somebody named Marvin, the name on the file on top of the stack I held on my lap. My chair was against the wall.
The hypothalamus coordinates fight or flight. I didn't move, didn't turn off the tape recorder.
Matt said, "I've been looking for you for over a week." He wasn't even allowed on campus.
I said, "They'll call security. I'll lose my job if they think I brought you here."
He said, "You have to come home."
I'm not good at talking, not like that. I needed a script, the letter I'd been trying to write. I said, "The apartment's yours, now." The tape recorder running was a low whisper, not meant for recording me and Matt, me trying to stay clear of Matt, but instead student responses. I was halfway through my pile of folders when it was Matt next in line. The studies were about sorting memory, long- and short-term, retention and anxiety, the hippocampus and its chemical translators.
Matt said, "I can explain."
The limbic system is almost the same in all mammals, connecting to the cerebrum, meaning connecting reason and emotion; Matt was tapping into both. Matt's hand on my hand, his hand around my wrist. Matt had just shaved, just patted his wind-burned bicycler's face with olive oil. I imagined the oil on his skin as something between us, helping me keep a distance.
He said, "It was one time. A mistake."
I'd had enough of Matt's mistakes, my mistakes--Matt was my own personal source of scandal fatigue--but then there was also Matt's hand on my wrist and me unable to say, Noli me tangere, unable to really mean it. It was the room too small around us. I said, "Don't show up at my work." If security saw him, he'd be escorted out; the police might be called.
He said, "Where else can I find you? We need to talk."
Matt was holding my arm in a way that felt more like parole. A way that wasn't about trust, wasn't about words. His age was showing in a tiredness around his eyes. I said, "You haven't been sleeping?"
He said, "How could I sleep?" He said, "Normal people don't just disappear. I've been worried."
I said, "Normal?" like what did this mean?
I read once of a man who remembered everything--maps and streets and nonsense, long tables of numbers and words. He could recite phone books he'd seen years before, names and numbers forward, backward, and diagonally. He remembered in images, as a permanent movie of all he'd witnessed, a rolling stroll of cluttered billboards. His memory was what they called synesthetic. He mixed sight and sound, touch, taste and smell. He knew rough colors, cold sounds, the salty taste of a piercing country fence far in the distance.
But this man for all his brilliance couldn't hold a job. He couldn't think quickly, was always lost in memory, incapable of logical thought. With his infinite memory, he couldn't grasp concepts like infinity, couldn't pace himself through time. He was all about tangents.
There's a value in forgetting.
I don't believe there is such a thing as forgiveness, only newly acquired levels of compromise, understanding and misunderstanding, and I'd acquired enough. That's why I packed my clothes, put on the lucky dress, stole Matt's $40 whiskey, and said goodbye to Matt in my mind only. I left when he wasn't home. We never talked about the needle I didn't need to know more about anyway.
I felt Matt's pulse in his skin next to mine, and a pulse seemed a necessary, dangerous thing. Matt said, "Where are you staying?"
I said, "I have a place." And I thought, not just staying, but living. The apartment was at least temporarily permanent.
He said, "Do you have a phone?"
It was true when I shook my head no.
I wanted to control the molecules of memory, to make my own decision of what to store long-term and erase the easy recall of everything I'd loved about Matt to begin with. There's nothing evolutionarily successful about retaining the memory of sex without remembering an accompanying danger, a failure to recognize love without shelter.
He said, "We were doing okay until the fentanyl baby thing."
I said, "The fentanyl baby thing was a byproduct. We weren't doing okay--you weren't doing okay." I said, "Jesus. You don't shoot up out of a biohazard bag."
He said, "I only did it once. And I saw the patient. This little old lady--she's not going to have anything."
I said, "She's got something, or she wouldn't be in the hospital."
Fentanyl was for cancer patients mostly, sometimes heart patients too. It's a pain-blocker, keeps the patient awake but sedated. Matt had been saving the ends of the anesthesiologist's IV drip; fentanyl was medical quality, cleanest high there was.
The fentanyl baby was what I thought was pregnancy but was only extended PMS, and came after looking at too many pictures of deformed births. The hospital's research lab keeps a book of photos like a family album, with baby pictures under plastic--a family of deformities, some that lived and more that didn't. One is the story of a woman who took a vitamin A-derived acne pill for two months. Eight years later her skin was still perfect, but she had a baby whose head didn't grow together.
If you need medications, I'd say, have your kids first.
Now I said, "Matt, you're a biochemical waste site."
It wasn't just the fentanyl I was afraid of, but everything else too. With one drug, the fear is deformed genitals in a boy. I was yelling the day I told Matt, "I can't love a baby with deformed genitals, even if it is mine."
Matt had said, "Hey, it's not like they define the term deformed." He said, "We don't have enough information."
I wasn't interested in a margin of error. With muscle-relaxants, you get anything from a depressed autonomic nervous system to maybe increased ribs, if you're a rat anyway. They don't know. Skeletal variance, they call it.
But why does the body have opiate receptors if we're not supposed to use them? Specially tailored Valium receptors are just waiting for the chain of Valium ligand, waiting to bond and react, that soothing sense of rightness in an attraction resolved, a calm we could call love.
I said, "Don't tell me it was only the once. You were already on suspension."
I didn't believe the rumor when Matt was first called into the office. Suspended pending investigation into reports of inappropriate use of a biohazard container. Somebody reported seeing Matt taking something out of a container meant only for disposal. Matt's line was that it didn't happen.
But then there was a little boy, a week later, saying he found a dead man in the bathroom on the third floor. That's what the boy said, "a dead man." Security found Matt, found the syringe, the fentanyl. Then they called me to ER.
Matt was swollen and blue-white. He had a phone number written in pen on his arm. I leaned close and it was my work number on Matt's nearly dead arm. I wanted to scream, to scribble it out, to spit on my hand and wipe the numbers away.
When I first met Matt, when Matt started coming over, I even liked it when he put my dishes away wrong. I'd find the Saran wrap in with the baking sheets, bowls stacked with plates, all of it proof that he'd been there, in my space, and I liked it. Now I could only breathe after Matt left again. He left after I promised that I'd call. He left before security could escort him out.
I left work after Matt left my work. I told the student waiting next in line I wasn't feeling well, and that was true. I was overrun with chemicals, with my own response. I was shaky and needed to go home.