I never knew you.
I never knew you but I knew your room, the one you let us use on the weekends like your brother’s breath knew the inside of my mouth. This was in my early days of university, when Baby and I had just met, when every weekend was a rave, I never slept, never needed to eat. At nineteen, living with my parents felt like homelessness, and walking, laughing out of clubs at seven AM on Sundays, I was always made all the more aware of this. It was only your room then in the basement of that red brick house in Chinatown that I felt comfortable. And once your brother and I were done fucking and he was snoring snuggly, body spread out on the bed, I would tiptoe around the place and investigate, naked, and often so, so high, completely outside my mind, but grounded down into the ten toes of my body. It was because of my newfound hypersensitivity, I think, from those little red or yellow or blue pills that made me see things differently, more clearly, I’d tell Baby, who would just laugh at me.
I’d only recently discovered the beauty of morning, its cold air in the newborn sky. I could have tried to sleep – Baby always did – but I never liked to on speed. Falling asleep really felt like a fall and then there would be the dreams, of bodies tangled up in a basement dance floor, cages rattling. So instead I held Baby in my arms with a beat going in my head – hmm bop bop – while my jaw contracted and I chewed on my tongue. All I did was think, think, listen to my body think out loud about why the world is totally fucked up, and why I should have been an actress, and how my childhood’s this great big balloon floating me up into the sky, just about ready to burst. And Baby always listened attentively, feeding me wine to help with my jaw, and kissing the oaky taste away from my lips.
“It’s nice of your brother,” I told Baby once, “to let us stay here.”
We were both naked on your bed kicking off the stacks of flyers and free newspapers bunched up in the corner where the walls met.
“Yeah, he’s a nice guy.”
“If we couldn’t come here then I’d have to go home.”
“I always wanted a brother, growing up. An older brother. Isn’t that funny?”
“You probably wanted someone to protect you. Everybody wants to feel protected.” And despite the highness, the sleepiness, Baby always knew what to say. “Come. Cuddle with me.”
He loved to hold me as he fell asleep and I would spend that time trying to match my breathing to his. Or else I’d just smile watching his nose, his lips, his eyelids, his cheeks, all of his face, for the slightest movement. Sometimes, he would surprise me when he’d still be awake and say, “Your heart is beating too fast.”
“It’s the speed,” I’d explain, “Or the M. I don’t know. We need to go back out dancing soon.”
Or else, he’d open one eye, caringly command, “Don’t chew on your tongue. It’s bad for you.”
But he always fell asleep, eventually, and all there was for me to do then, was nothing. I only had my eyes, my body to occupy me, because I didn’t want to sleep and it became a game for me to look through your room. It was a disgusting, dirty place, full of nothing but wrappers and crumbs on paper plates. The air smelled always of stale cigarettes. A full-size mattress on a metal frame was pushed up against the wall farthest from the door but with no fitted sheet, no sheets at all, only a heavy, brown flannel blanket we would cuddle underneath of.
As a bedside table, you used a powder blue ironing board. You kept an ashtray there, and another on your desk next to three notebooks you always had neatly stacked in the corner. They were one of the few colourful items in your room – blue, yellow, then red on top – those and the baggies of pills Baby didn’t know I knew you kept in the far back of your sock drawer. There were hundreds of them in there but only seven pairs of socks, only five pairs of boxer-briefs. Everything felt naked in your room, fluorescent, and full of dirt, and I had this image of you that is not unlike a kind of monster, with long dark hair, a black beard, and nails you never groomed. You scared me and you fascinated me.
Once Baby was asleep, I always found a quiet way to disentangle myself from him, to touch the ground with the tips of my toes, and bounce off the bed in search of you. One early afternoon, while Baby slept, I found a bottle of Xanax on your ironing board that was made out to Miranda Throop. It was a full bottle, which made me think it was meant for you all along, or that you knew Miranda, or that you knew Xanax, needed Xanax, or were going to see Miranda again. But then I found eight more bottles scattered throughout your room, each one made out to someone different. They weren’t really so hard to find, under your bed, on top of your dresser, and in your desk drawer, the other one, the one you didn’t lock. Then I understood you even more clearly, slamming your green-veined body up against the walls of your room, like a mad man from TV and in frenzy, gorging yourself on all of those pills – argh, argh – before falling into bed to sleep and to forget.
The other bottles were made out to Christopher Jerome, Nicholas Francis, Yu Zung, Amir Razzaq, Daniela Paussini, Fred Karastamatis, Yoo Min, and to Baby. The one made out to Baby was a bottle of Percocet from a Dr. Leroy. But that was just that day; the names on the bottles continued to change from week to week. You must have known over thirty very sick people, or pretend-sick people, generous people, or greedy people. What a life, what a life, I couldn’t stop thinking, to be alone, surrounded by all these people that lived for you inside of bottles. The details that you never bothered to hide showed me what little hope you had for anything, for anyone. If I wanted to, I could feel myself sinking with you, down a long glass pipe, where sticky resin, like grease inside an artery, made us still and choked us.
One afternoon, I asked Baby, “Do you ever worry about your brother?” Baby was shaking his head, and I felt compelled to change that. “Because of the way he lives his life – it’s so dirty in here. It’s never clean. There’s not even a sheet to cover the mattress.”
“My brother’s fine. You’re high.” He meant this as some sort of rationalization.
“That doesn’t matter. Do you know someone named Miranda Throop? Or Nicholas Francis? Or Heather Samson?”
“Leave him alone. Stop snooping through his shit when I’m sleeping.”
“But don’t you think your brother needs help?”
“I think that I need a Xanax. Give me one, please.”
I picked up Miranda’s bottle from the ironing board, sticking the pill between his teeth. He swallowed it with wine.
“Do you want one? You should sleep too. It’s not good for you to stay up like this.”
“I can sleep when I’m dead.”
“Very funny.” His teeth were so straight, tinged purple from the Merlot we were drinking. “Well, at least stop snooping. Come cuddle with me.”
The pillow was dotted with brown stains, so I fit my head underneath Baby’s armpit instead and let his heavy arm fall over me. I really could have lived in your room forever, back then, just with Baby and the drugs and your bed, just our bodies and our words.
“I’m not snooping. I’m just worried for him. You should be too. He’s your brother.”
Baby wasn’t listening.
“I’m happy you’re here,” he said. I felt like I was glowing. “I’m happy we met.” His breaths slowed until I couldn’t match them and he fell asleep.
I’d only let Baby leave me for an hour, or two, no more, any more and my thoughts were shadow-monsters eating up the light, casting strange premonitions on all of your belongings as I peeked into your closet and turned the pages of your notebooks. I was tired too, but I never wanted to sleep. I always resisted. To wake Baby, I would roll my hot skin up onto his, and the slightest touch would make him hard, because of the drugs, and my body like a slinky, would coil, and recoil, coil, and slip him in, always gently. I did this while staring at the only poster that there was in your room. It was of a naked woman’s torso. Her white hands pressed black headphones onto her big breasts. I liked the idea of music beating against her heartbeat, of those two beats colliding on her skin. And then Baby would come, and deflate, fall out of me if I coughed, say, “That was a nice way to wake up.”
It was Baby’s idea, a few months later, to try cocaine. He liked it better than I did, I think, because he stopped sleeping so much in the mornings and started using up all of our time talking to me about life, about nothing special, and me too, I guess, I talked, and every time I opened a drawer of yours, he would smack my hand and tell me not to. The room never really changed, the filth was only maybe just displaced from here to there, like a game of Tetris. The garbage bin always overflowed. White powder dusted the tops of your notebooks.
One morning, I noticed jewellery under your bed. It was an accident that I found it at all. My body was folded over the bed, my head, hair, face dangling off the side, and Baby was groaning – god, your brother groaned so loudly on cocaine – and I saw those three necklaces, each of them inside their own plastic baggie. They were made out of silver or silver look-a-like. Afterwards, when Baby had finished and we were cuddling, I asked him if you had a girlfriend.
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s three necklaces under his bed. Does he have a girlfriend?”
“No. I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me if he did.”
“How come you never buy me necklaces?” I was only mostly teasing.
“I do. Those are for you. I bought those for you.” His lips made a dumb, ironic smile, and I dropped the subject, kissed him. Then he was inside me, and by the time we were our own separate people again, I’d lost my train of thought, and we each did another line.
The following Sunday, the necklaces were gone, and it looked like you had made an awkward attempt to clean some things up. All the wrappers had been tossed into the garbage can, which still overflowed, and the blanket was roughly folded on the edge of the bed. There was an enormous bottle of strawberry-flavoured Whey Protein Supplement where your laptop should have been on your desk, and three new button-up shirts neatly hanging in your closet. And I just knew this had to be about a girl.
Baby was running his fingers along my leg. He was pale with purple lips from the wine. Time sort of just drifted, got longer as our pupils got bigger, and then I was giggling, and dancing while Baby filmed me on his cellphone, and I spun around and around to a song that sounded like bubbles bursting in front of an engine roaring, waving my whole body like a white flag, surrendering to everything, spinning faster and faster.
“I feel like places are so special, or spaces, maybe. What do you think’s the difference between a place and a space?” I was in his arms. We were both staring at the blank wall ahead.
“You’re talking crazy.”
“Like your brother’s room. It says so much about who he is, I think, don’t you think? He seems so sad to me, so hopeless.”
“He’s just a slob.”
“But then, we come here too, and every moment that has ever happened in this room is somehow imprinted inside of it. That’s what I believe, at least. That it’s always going to affect the energy of the room. Don’t you think so, Baby?”
“What effect would that be? The only traces we leave in this room are plastic baggies and come stains.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I said.
We didn’t come back for two weeks after that day. You wouldn’t let us. And when you finally did, on the third week, we bounced on the bed like kids. I closed my eyes, panting, while Baby sucked on all of my skin. I had missed him. Without this space, there was never anywhere for us to go after the club except to the cramped apartments of friends. I could never have brought Baby home to my parents and Baby said his parents were insane.
I’d gotten high on lots of things that night, was too excited by the idea of morning. Baby was chain smoking cigarettes, to help calm his nerves, he said. Behind his head the paint on the wall was chipping. His eyes just kept shaking in their sockets from the M so I had to read his text messages to him, about after-parties going on in the city. I felt too fidgety to stay cuddled up by Baby’s side, and that was when I saw the camera on the ironing board. Baby was too, too high to notice me so I grabbed it to scroll through. I was looking for you, the monster-you, I mean, the one I had constructed out of your things and your filth.
“Does your brother look like you?
“I don’t know.”
There were no pictures of you that I could see, no pictures of people at all. They were all of scenery, of a lake and its shore, of brown sand mixed in with rocks and twigs. Some had been taken in black and white, and this kind of softened you for me, made me feel sorrier. There was one picture of Baby, I noticed, sitting in a sports bar, with flashy green football on the TV screen behind him. He was mid-way through a blink.
The next picture was of a girl, and the next one, and on, and on. In all of them, she had a small strand of hair French-braided back behind her ear. She was lying on your bed, her bra and underwear almost the same colour as her skin and she was feigning shyness, smiling and covering her face with a hand. And still, though only partially clothed, the braid was there, so perfectly intact, and I thought how with Baby, it could have never been that way for me. It made me believe what I already thought I knew about you, that your melancholy was also gentleness and kindness.
“She’s pretty,” I finally said, showing her to Baby. He pushed the camera away.
“Can you stop looking at my brother’s pictures?”
“This must be his girlfriend.”
“Stop looking at my brother’s pictures.”
Baby grabbed the camera out of my hands, and threw it across the room. It landed quietly on the carpet.
“Come.” He could barely keep his eyes open. He rubbed his nose. “I’m sorry. Come here.”
“I’m so high.” I breathed out, falling into him. His skin felt soft and tight.
I kissed him, and then it was all a blur of skin and moistness, rubbing, of licks and smiles, and things, all those things that made our mornings ours.
Baby fell asleep. I thought about how it couldn’t have been because of the drugs that I loved him so much. But I had to wonder about you, about why no one took care of you. And Baby especially, when he knew, and I knew he knew, because I told him all about you. Your fucked-up-ness was everywhere, here, on the half-blank walls, the half-empty notebooks, the half-filled bottles of prescription meds. Your clothes were never clean, the air sickly smoky, and burns were on everything. It was disgustingly obvious to me how you writhed, snorted, swallowed, and writhed, in this hopeless, hopeful way, to try to get at the something that would somehow make you feel better but never believing it would. How could a person live like that?
That’s what I asked Baby once.
“How can a person live like that?”
But he shook his head, and changed the subject by wiggling his fingers between my legs.
A few weekends later, the camera was gone, but I still had the picture of that girl behind my eyes, like a kind of shadow feeding me your story. I hoped she was treating you right. I hoped that she could help you feel better, happier. Baby kept saying it was the drugs talking, what I said about you, but it was your room, this place, the dirt, and the sketches in your notebooks that talked.
Then one Sunday near Easter, Baby told me that you didn’t want us using your room anymore. He was sitting naked on the bare mattress, and I was lying down, my head in his lap. It was because of that girl, Baby didn’t know her name, but he said she didn’t like the idea of the two of us, here, with all the drugs we did, or something like that. I felt so nervous I chugged my wine, and asked to do another line. Something damp and electric felt like it was running through me.
“What a stupid whore,” I said, conjuring up that picture of her feigned shyness.
Baby flicked my forehead with his fingers.
“Don’t talk about my brother’s girlfriend like that.”
“Have you ever met her?”
“What’s wrong with you lately? All you do is talk about my fucking brother.”
“Me? What the hell?” My voice sounded raised. It felt distant from me. “Where are we gonna go if we can’t come here anymore? How is this even gonna work?”
“Calm down, calm down.” But I was sitting up now, and the more he said it, the more I wanted to defy him.
“What a stupid whore.”
“She doesn’t like us doing all these drugs in his room, that’s what he told me. He’s trying to clean up his life. You can’t blame him for that.”
“Can’t you just talk to him, please? Please. Or if he met me, Baby, then, he would understand that we’re just spending time together. What we’re doing here isn’t wrong.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“But, Baby, answer me then. How is this going to work if we’ve got no place to go together? We won’t have any place to go.”
“Calm down.” Baby started to suck on his lower lip then he took my hand in his. Mine was gooey and clammy but he brought it up to his mouth anyway and kissed it. “Okay. I’ll talk to him,” he said.
We tried having sex, tried to disappear into it. I noticed there was another picture up on the wall now, a failed attempt at enlivening the room. It looked like it had been ripped out of an old calendar. It was of an ocean, waves of blues, and with the yellow sun setting on the surface. But we both just fell to each other’s side, eventually. Baby was grinding his teeth, staring up at the ceiling. It was white, granular textured, the kind that balloons at birthday parties rise up towards, rub up against then burst.
We were allowed back into your room the following Sunday. It had been a long night of strange drama between friends and when we got there, Baby didn’t want to talk. He took a Xanax and went to sleep. I watched him snore and pinched the skin on his cheeks, making faces with his face. Then I started to count the imperfections on the wall, like paint chips or cracks or dents.
When I heard the knocking at the door, I didn’t believe it until I heard it again. It was soft and tentative. I thought it was you knocking and I was sure that once you met me, once you saw that I was just a harmless girl, who loved your brother, then you would understand that we just needed a place to go, a place to be.
I covered Baby’s body with a blanket and dressed myself in Baby’s sweatpants and my zip-up sweater. I opened the door, but it wasn’t you, standing there. It was her. It was your girlfriend in a pair of blue jeans and a black peacoat. There was pink gloss on her lips. Silver earrings dangled from her ears. She had eyes close together and was making a face like she was trying to swallow her own lips. I recognized her easily because of that perfectly tight French-braid on the right side of her head.
Inadvertently, uncontrollably, I moved to the beat of no music.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“He’s not here,” I said. She blinked fast and kept her lips very still. “I’m his brother’s girlfriend.”
I put my hand out to shake hers though it shook on its own.
“You don’t live here,” she said.
I let my hand drop. She stared, did an up and down with her eyes, just stared at me. I didn’t even know how to French-braid hair, how to tangle it up so tightly, so still that it never moved. The braid made her look serious, and the sucked-in lips made her look dumb. If I didn’t already hate her, I thought we might have exchanged a few nice words about understanding what it was like to love and be loved.
“You don’t live here,” she repeated.
“I know, sorry, sorry…” I said, trying not to fidget, but failing so completely. “I know you wanted us out.”
“He’s in there?” I could see her eyes searching for what was behind the door, but I stood in the way.
“Yeah, his brother is. We’re sleeping.”
“Bullshit,” she said. The word coming from her lips surprised me, and her too, maybe, because her eyes blew up wide for a second. I touched my face, my lips. Her eyelids kept flickering now like a light bulb about to burn out and she played with the knuckles of one hand with the fingers from the other. Her nails were shiny and white. Behind us, softly, Baby breathed.
“I’m going to call the police,” she finally said. She was shaking like me. Her purse fell off of her shoulder and hung awkwardly from her wrist.
“We’re not doing anything wrong,” I said. I almost shouted.
“You need to go or I will call the police.” She had a voice that was as sharp as light.
“We have permission to be here. His brother gave us permission to be here.”
“I swear,” she said. “If you don’t go – ”
“I can’t go.” I was shaking, moving.
“Please,” she said. “Please go.”
“I have nowhere to go.”
I watched her squeeze one hand hard inside the other. And like she understood, she stared past me at the wall where Baby lay sleeping and let out a sigh that seemed to swallow and control her. She moved her hands up towards her ears and patted her hair, that braid.
“He’s been trying so hard to get better. You know that, don’t you or do you not care?”
“Never mind. Never mind. If you’re still here when I come back though.” She stopped herself. “I’ll be back later.”
She turned, left. I heard her walk up the stairs, and then the front door opened, the door slammed shut. And I stood in that doorway, naked underneath all of my clothes, with Baby snoring in bed, and I couldn’t for a second think of what I’d do when she took away our room, and you would let her.
I closed the door behind me quietly. You were still sleeping. I felt so sorry for you, with your knees drawn up to your chest and your neck folded towards the center of your body. I understood everything now. Bits of blood caked the inside of my nose. I flared my nostrils to air them. You were still snoring. You were always sleeping, Baby, and I had to do something, something about it. But I couldn’t think of anything, I just stared at you, until it felt like my legs were not my legs, and moving them was mechanical, up down, up down, one foot at a time. I didn’t know what to do, about your hopelessness, about your dishonesty, except that I should have known all along that there was no you, just this room, this space I loved to live inside of like a tired dream.
I thought of emptying the garbage on your naked body. Dumping the ash tray on the ground and smearing it. I didn’t. I gathered my things. I never brought very many, just a toothbrush, my purse and my shoes. The space felt stupider, more vulgar, now that I knew that it was your place and I had to leave.
I took some pills, some blow, some cigarettes, and one last look at you, I took, and carry with me still. You were folded into the foetal position, eyelids closed and fluttering from a dream. I shut the door too loudly, hoping it would wake you, and I waited there, but you never came. So I left to ride the streetcar, so high, too high to go anywhere. I had nowhere to go. It was a screechy ride, and the sun was bright, and I fell asleep with my head against the cool glass of the window.