I Am Not Myself These Days, page 19
Plus, I have no where else to go.
I head into the bathroom to undress and shower, reemerging wearing Jack’s thick white robe. He’s finished in the kitchen, and I wipe up his mess.
“I’m going to bed,” I say, standing in the living room doorway. I’d forgotten Houdini was still here. He’s lying still next to the futon, arched backward in his normal hands-and-ankles-tied-behind-his-back position. Very still. His eyes are closed.
Jack’s flipping through The New Yorker on the couch.
“What’s up with Houdini?” I ask him.
“Resting, I guess.”
I step softly over to him and crouch down. His pale skin is slick with sweat, the sparse graying hair on his chest speckled with dirt and dustballs from the floor. In his struggles, he’s flipped his water bowl over completely and knocked it six feet away under the corner end table. The two-day stubble over his lip is coated with cocaine, and his right nostril had been bleeding at some point earlier and now is clogged with a large black scab. The trail of dried blood runs in a cracked black streak down the right side of his face before dissipating in a dark wide smear where his cheek rubs against the floor.
His stomach and back are bruised an angry red from Jack’s kicks.
“How long has he been out?” I ask, turning to Jack.
“I don’t know. A couple of hours,” he replies, never looking up from his magazine.
I’ve never seen Houdini sleep before. The whole point of his visits is to get as high as he can get so he gets his money’s worth of struggling against the restraints. I stare at his sleeping face. I want to put one of the throw pillows from the couch underneath his head, but instinctively realize this small comfort would ruin his trip. I imagine his bed at home, with six-hundred thread count cotton sheets, multiple lush down pillows, his soft heavy body sinking into his luxury mattress, his thick pink arm curled over his graying sleeping wife.
“I’m not sure he’s breathing,” I say.
“He’s fine. We’re just taking a break,” Jack says.
“Really. Come check it out.”
I softly place my palm against his chest. His skin is sticky with sweat and oil and hot to the touch. But instead of the soft even rising and falling of sleep, his chest almost imperceptibly vibrates, shaking and panting with silent breaths almost too shallow to feel. It seems more like a seizure than actual breathing.
Jack’s standing over me now.
I reach behind him and try to wriggle my fingers under his wrist restraint. I don’t know how to check for a pulse; I’m copying what I’ve seen on television. It’s not working; all I feel is the pulse of my own fingers pressing my fingernails back against the leather cuffs.
I lay my ear on his chest. It takes a moment to distinguish a rapid tapping from the rest of the whooshing and humming symphony coming inside. It sounds nothing like any heartbeat I’ve heard, any familiar restive two-beat liquid rhythm. I hear someone nervously drumming their long fingernails on his rib cage.
Jack stares down at me.
“I think he’s OD’d,” I say. “Call someone.”
Jack continues to stare.
At some point in the very near future one of us is going to have to act. Until one of us actually does something, it could be argued that nothing’s actually happened. This is what I’m thinking instead of thinking about what to do next.
“Go into the bedroom,” Jack says calmly.
Because a part of me thinks that he’s come up with a way to undo this moment, and another part of me believes that this is his mess not mine, I do exactly as he says.
Less than five minutes later, as I’m blankly staring at Mr. Rogers and King Friday discussing “hurt feelings,” Jack yells for me to come back into the living room.
Houdini is unbound and dressed in the rumpled lavender dress shirt and navy slacks he showed up in yesterday. He’s slumped, still unconscious, in the corner of the futon. Jack’s struggling to wedge Houdini’s impossibly shiny loafers onto his bare feet. Without socks, his clammy skin won’t wedge inside.
“Find his underwear and socks and stuff them into his bag—it’s in the closet by the door,” Jack says in an even tone, still struggling with the reluctant shoes.
His underwear is under a dining room chair, and I find one sock kicked behind one of Jack’s Mexican tin statues. I can’t find the other one.
“Ready?” Jack asks, pushing Houdini forward enough to wrestle his Burberry trench coat back onto him.
“For what?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer me. He finishes struggling with the coat and walks over to the house phone in the front hallway.
“Hola,” I hear him say before continuing in quick Spanish. To Pedro, I suppose. I decipher nothing except for the words Jack doesn’t know Spanish for: “elevator,” “garbage day,” and “wrapping paper.” He wraps up his conversation with a clipped laugh and “Gracías, adios.”
“Let’s go,” he says. “You carry the bag.”
Jack stands in front of Houdini, bends over and hugs his body to him, lifting slowly and awkwardly till Houdini’s on his feet, slumping his full weight into Jack’s hug. I think of the performers in the subway who dance and twirl with life-sized stuffed dummies attached to their feet. Only Jack’s partner is close to two hundred and fifty pounds and semiconscious. Jack struggles with his grip, pulling himself around behind Houdini, dragging him toward the door.
“Open the door.”
I grab Houdini’s leather duffel bag and sling it over my shoulder.
Jack looks both directions down the outside hallway before dragging his slumping cargo down toward the service elevator. Pedro has sent it up to our floor already, and the doors open as soon as I hit the button. I get in, following Jack and Houdini.
The elevator descends directly to the garbage bay that opens onto Seventy-eighth Street. On our trip down, Jack rearranges himself again so that Houdini leans onto Jack’s right shoulder. Now he simply looks like a businessman who’s been out drinking all night.
Houdini starts mumbling. “Out. Out. Go out. On the steps.” His voice is thick. He says something like “house,” only drawing out the syllable: “howwwwwse.”
Jack slips his arm around Houdini’s thick waist.
Out on the street, the frigid wind swirls up my T-shirt, billowing it out and freezing my skin into prickly goosebumps. I hug Houdini’s bag close to my chest for more protection. Jack turns left. The river.
I jog around them, Jack’s tricep bulging and taut as he lifts Houdini’s weight high enough that his feet barely drag on the ground. It must be around five thirty in the morning and the streets are blessedly barren. Houdini’s mumbling more. It sounds like questions now. Or a sing-songing attempt at starting up a conversation. I pick up my pace, trying to gain at least half a block between us, trying to separate myself from the strange duo behind me. Though with no one else on the sidewalk, anyone passing immediately would connect the stumbling pair with the suspiciously underdressed guy tightly hugging a suitcase to his body.
This is not my mess. This is not my mess, I repeat over and over in my head, trying to crowd out any other thoughts. This is not my mess.
I reach a small park at the end of Seventy-second Street that overlooks the East River, but don’t turn around until I approach the metal railing overlooking the inky rolling currents of the water. Jack’s still a hundred yards behind, moving slower as his strength, built up over years of rigorous workouts, begins to reach the end of its capabilities. His solid muscle, refined and maintained to titillate for profit, now lumbers straining, taut, stiltingly toward the park. Houdini’s head is flopped down against his chest, bouncing along with Jack’s heavy steps, nodding a continuous “yes” as he glides down the sidewalk.
Not my mess, I continue as the pair approaches.
I try not to look at them, and instead absently scrutinize the bag I’m holding. Down next to the river, the wind is violent, coming from no particular direction. The early morning t
I continue to stare at Houdini’s bag. His luggage tag flutters in the wind before flipping up and coming to rest in the crook of my arm.
6–17 Pembridge Garden
Notting Hill, London W2 4DU
020 7229 5396
Houdini’s name is Donald. Don. I wouldn’t have guessed that name. But it doesn’t not fit. His wife’s name is Elizabeth, and his daughters are Dawn, Grace, and Penny. This I knew from our conversations. But I didn’t know “Don.” Is it Monday? What time is it in England? Are his daughters sitting in their school? Taking a test? Passing notes to boys? Is Elizabeth at lunch with her friends? Shopping for dinner tonight? Two dinners, one for the girls and a late one for when Don gets home, tired and grumpy and complaining about the New York office? What do they look like? I wish I had asked Houdini to show me pictures. Don.
From behind me I hear a cracking pop as Jack slides Houdini down onto a bench.
“Give me the bag.”
Houdini’s slouched into the corner of the green wooden bench, his head lolling to the side, eyes, open now, staring at nothing, still mumbling a conversation full of unintelligible questions that no one can answer. Jack places the bag on Houdini’s lap and pulls his arms on top of it to hold it in place. I place my hands on top of his. They’re hot and clammy and fidgety. His eyes are open, but they’re looking through me.
Jack’s halfway back up Seventy-eighth Street by the time I tear myself away from the babbling Houdini. Suddenly afraid of being spotted, I take off after him, half-jogging. He stays far ahead, taking long, determined strides, and by the time I reach the apartment, he’s already in the bathroom, door closed, taking a shower. I stand shivering in the foyer, reading and rereading the headline on the Times that was delivered outside our door during the fifteen minutes we were gone. Houdini’s Christmas gifts for me are still sitting in the white bag at my feet.
This is not my mess. I try to convince myself. I think of Houdini reading me a recipe for Sticky Toffee Pudding from the paper last fall, pointing out the differences between what he was reading and how his grandmother used to make it. I promised him I would try to make it for him one visit, and he laughed. I’d rather have gingerbread and custard sauce if you’re taking orders, he’d said. No problem, I told him. What will he think when he comes to? Will he remember I was there? My stomach churns, emptied of vodka, and filling with bile. I need to eat something. I need a bowl of cereal, so I can get ready for school, sit on the bus reading my homework, putting the finishing touches on my extra-credit report. I need to make people happy instead of continually making messes.
I change into jeans and a sweatshirt, grab a jacket from the hall closet, and head back outside.
Pedro waves to me in the lobby from behind his station.
“Busy morning!” he calls out, smiling.
“Lots to do,” I say back, trying not to seem like I’m rushing as the automatic doors slide open.
In the five minutes I’ve been upstairs, the city has awoken. People dot the sidewalks, clutching steaming take-out cups of coffee and briefcases. A group of four women in long black wool coats peer from the bus shelter, looking down York for the next bus. I duck into the phone booth next to the shelter.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
“There’s a man on a bench by the East River—around Seventy-eighth Street. I think he’s sick.” I hang up.
The cold front that blew in the night before hangs like a purple frozen wall over Brooklyn. The sun, pale and pink, rises from behind it, feebly stabbing at the thin winter cold. The steam from a factory across the river puffs out into the sky, frozen white, not blowing, just expanding high into the air. I’m just walking. Just out walking. Going to walk along the river.
Far down York a siren begins its warbling crescendo. A staccato chirping when it reaches each intersection.
Hands in my pockets. Just walking.
I’m surprised at how not empty the apartment feels once Jack’s gone. Wednesday morning there was a large backpack sitting by the front door, stuffed with guidebooks, PowerBars, jeans, T-shirts, and a portable CD player. By Wednesday night it was gone.
In his absence, I realize that since Thanksgiving, Jack’s been like a special guest star on our own show—like a main character who’s had a contract dispute with the network and consequently only shows up sporadically for filming.
Aqua, of course, gamely carries on with the show by herself.
I spend the rest of the holiday season working each night, surprising myself with, if not sobriety, something far short of the walking cirrhosis poster child I usually am. During the day, I attack my advertising assignments with a ferocity that frightens Laura.
The apartment feels more like a waiting room than home during the short visits I make there between jobs. Mostly I just nap in the few hours I have before heading to a club or back to the agency. Every minor issue dealing with the future turns into a big black question mark on the front of my brain. There’s only three more rolls of toilet paper. Do I bother buying more? What’s the point of changing the burnt-out light-bulb in the front hall? Should I buy a whole gallon of milk, or will I be gone before it is?
Tonight, at Cheetah, we had a private party for the owner’s birthday. It wrapped up early and I’m home in bed before three. The prospect of five hours of uninterrupted sleep before having to be at the agency wraps me in a luxury of contentment that ironically makes it hard to doze off. I’m sitting reading magazines and watching Nick at Night reruns when I hear a key clicking in a lock.
I can’t think of any of our neighbors who have ever been out this late. Before I even hear the thump of his backpack hitting the floor, I know it must be Jack.
The light flicks on in the hallway.
Why is he back?
Jack passes through the bedroom into the master bath without acknowledging me. He turns on the water in the sink and starts splashing it on his face. I turn on my side and watch him. He scoops up handfuls of water and presses them tightly to his face, holding his hands there long after all the water has slid back down into the sink. Rubbing his fingers into his closed eyes and breathing deeply before returning his hands under the running water and starting again.
He’s so thin. When did he get so thin?
I get up to pee.
Standing at the toilet next to him, I pull down the waistband of my underwear and relax a steady stream into the bowl.
“Hello again,” he says in a defeated monotone.
“Trouble finding the airport?” I ask him.
“Didn’t get there. Got a call on the way. Party call,” he says through closed hands over his face.
I finish peeing and reach for the flusher. With my other hand I lower the toilet lid and sit down. He goes on splashing his face.
“And now?” I ask. I’m hoping he has more answers about what’s coming next than I’ve been able to conceive of in the last week.
“I’ll change my ticket and see if I can get out of here tomorrow or the next day.”
“Take a day to recover; you look like shit.”
He stands with his fingers pulling down his lower eyelids. He stands there a moment, transfixed at the bloodshot eyes staring back at him. If he hooked his thumbs in his lips and pulled them up into a smile, he’d be making the face my dad used to make to force me to laugh.
“I think when I come back you shouldn’t be here,” he says finally.
After months of wrestling with vagueness, I am as relieved at finally knowing what I
I reach over and turn the faucet off. There’s a sudden spasm of pain in my gut.
“I have to use the bathroom,” I say.
“You just did.”
“I have to use the bathroom,” I say euphemistically. He dries his face on a towel and wordlessly exits the bathroom. I get up, lift the lid on the toilet, and sit down again on the seat.
The pain in my stomach is growing stronger, and when I thump it with my fingers, it’s rock hard and echoes. Just gas, probably. The combination of alcohol and corset does strange things sometimes.
The pain intensifies, but I somehow feel relaxed. At least the sharp stabbing is a feeling. An honest-to-God physical sensation. I’ve been on autopilot for months. I haven’t allowed myself any joy or pain or empathy with myself, Jack, or anyone else. I’ve just set the cruise control to “autism” and sped on down the road.
Now at least I have physical pain to work with.
Eventually, my bowels relax, and I go. Looking down into the water I’m met with the most alien excretion I’ve ever seen. It’s actually glowing. Sparkling.
For the party at Cheetah I’d tried a new lipstick process. I’d painted my lips with a sticky gloss, then patted raw iridescent pigment directly onto them. The resulting effect was stunning, but practicality-wise the new look was a disaster. I had to pretty much reapply from scratch every time I finished a vodka, having ingested more and more of the pigment with every sip.
I open the door to the bathroom.
“Hey, come in here and look at this,” I call to Jack.