While Ian filled in the hole I sat on the dented hood of his Olds and looked at the city, and for the first time in a long time I thought about moving. By this point the DMT had worn off and the come-down was treating me better than the trip had—it instilled this clean kind of fear that put me back into where I was, where I had been living for the last three years. On the way out the lights looked pretty and they seemed to blink in and out, like Ian’s piercings did every time I looked back at him and tripped a step harder; now that I was here, out somewhere natural and real, they were embarrassing. Less of a galaxy and more of an anthill, and I was more of a mean little kid looking for something to destroy because I’d had my glasses broken or my nose bloodied at school that day. I wanted to stick out the steel toe of my boot and say newsflash, San Fran: my upstairs neighbor’s dead girlfriend doesn’t give a shit if you take eighteen-thousand megawatts a day.
I looked back over my shoulder right as Ian struck the shovel into the hard-packed Bernal Hill soil and stole my eye. At some point in our conversation it went from December 1972 to January 1973, but I didn’t catch it even though I had made it a point to.
“Fucking heroin,” he said, tough and exacting as ever, and then he reached into the ratty pocket of his army surplus jacket for a cigarette. He wasn’t crying but sounded like he had been, some time ago. “Reese, if you take one piece of advice from me, don’t even look at it.”
He lit the cigarette with the lighter he’d stolen from me the day we met, and then silently lit one for me. I knew what he was trying to do. He was trying to ask me something without asking it, and I knew how he lived. He was the only other real unrepentant down and-out I met in San Francisco; the place was supposedly crawling with them, but when I got there I found that most went back over the bridge to Marin or Piedmont or Alameda once the sun was up. Ian was from Dayton, Ohio, and he couldn’t go back there anymore than I could go back to Piccadilly Circus. If he passed out in the gutter it was in the gutter he stayed. We’d talked about this at some length the first time he took me to Pussy Heaven, which was what he called having a smoke in front of the building for reasons I still don’t understand.
“Hey!” He’d shouted at me from a distance of about two feet away while I was bringing my groceries in. As if there was anyone else he could have been talking to—it was about eleven o’clock at night on a Saturday—he clarified with a patently awful attempt at a British accent. “Oi, you, buzzcut in the ladies’ jeans. Do you want to go to Pussy Heaven?” He was drunk and I had gotten really good at avoiding drunken addresses by then, which was nine months ago. The absurdity of the request netted me, however, and I turned on my squeaky heel.
“Pussy Heaven,” he reiterated. The casual air he put on it twisted things enough that I felt like I was the one making zero sense, and I gawked at him for about a minute and a half before answering truthfully. It was the only thing I could think of. “I’m… not sure.”
“Yeah you do.” He’d perched himself on the flat plane of the stair’s railing, and he jumped off and hit the ground with a force that made my teeth rattle for him. He reached a hand out that I thought I was supposed to shake, but its arc went too high because he really meant to pull my lighter out of my jacket pocket. “Every bisexual in the city of San Francisco,” he explained with the special brand of confidence I imagine would have gotten him curb stomped in Dayton, “keeps his lighter in the left breast pocket of his jacket. It’s got to be some kind of, fuckin’, local edict.” He was still going in and out of the accent.
“How’d you know I was bisexual?” I said stupidly, and which I realized later was exactly what I was supposed to say. He wasn’t coming onto me, not really, but I would wonder afterwards… this time and other times.
He grinned, though, and took out a pack of Camels. “Second sight,” he murmured. His attention had been momentarily redirected to lighting two cigarettes at once. When the deed was done, he put one between his lips and put my lighter in his left pocket with as knowing a look as he could muster. “Now, I welcome you,” he announced the way the news announced Vietnam fatalities, “to Pussy Heaven.”
I didn’t know him but I knew of him, mostly from our gossiping landlord. He and Cindy, his dead girlfriend, lived upstairs because there were two of them and he made more money hustling than I had ever made working at the record store or selling plasma. I had seen him around in bits and pieces, mostly heel-to-calf from the four-inch window of my basement apartment. Many nights I’d looked up and seen the scuffed backs of his sickly-tan leather boots, the fringe eaten up, the heels reinforced with duct-tape, waiting for something—for friends or for a john or for nothing in particular, or maybe just going to Pussy Heaven alone. I knew the general shape of his face and his piercings, the shock of his waist-length hair, but it was the boots I knew best of all; I didn’t recognize him until I looked down.
I still introduced myself like a stranger, and then we smoked and talked and smoked and talked until the day switched and until Cindy leaned out the window and said if he was finished giving himself lung cancer she’d just made an absolutely dogshit Prague cake and needed someone to get rid of it. And his new friend was welcome to it too. It wasn’t friendship, not quite, but it was the first of a lot of nights—at some point I realized, through a mouthful of the best and only Prague cake I’ve ever eaten, that he hadn’t given me my lighter back and that I didn’t particularly care if he did or not. Let him have it, I thought. In exchange for however many nights like this.
Then this night.
Ian joined me on the Olds, which wasn’t Pussy Heaven but merely smoking. He knew as well as I did that the time for fucking around was over. It was dark and I couldn’t see him, save for the glowing orange tip of his cigarette, and the smell of smoke mingled with the sharp, green scent of the trees and the clean air we were polluting. Pulling it into my lungs with each breath was very nearly too much—I could feel it inside of me, a tangible object with weight and dimension. I hadn’t been out in nature like this in… years, a decade, maybe. Not since I was a child, muddy and half-feral on the English countryside. I thought it would make me cry, but that would come later, once I was warm in bed and the dream of the night had melted away to leave only the misery.
Ian turned to look at me, which I wouldn’t have noticed if not for the swish of his hair against the back of his jacket and the crick of the rusty joint. He must have been waiting for me to say something, but I didn’t have anything to say.
“She’s Jewish,” he finally caved in a non-sequitur. “Cindy, is. Did you know that?” I did, but I shook my head no for his sake since he was already having trouble with the past tense. “That means I gotta bury her soon as I can, as… as a sign of respect. And I don’t need to tell you I don’t got that kinda money,” he attempted a wry smile—I could almost see the teeth, they were that white in spite of his habits. “It’s up to me, in any case, her parents don’t give a shit. She really does love it up here, she comes up here to… to think.” The suggestion of his teeth disappeared again, behind chewed up red lips. He was on something but I didn’t know what; it might have just been grief. “And to shoot up. So it would seem. What do you think about that?”
I thought it was a lot of words for a pretty thin excuse. But I also knew it didn’t matter what I thought, because what he was really asking was if I thought he did it. It was an ugly thing to say and an uglier thing to consider. Did I think that? I felt him drop the elbow he’d propped himself on and fall against my shoulder, and I almost cried out in fear—it was just that all I could see was the orange dot of the cigarette, which had gone from merely wavering between his lips to a swooping arc downwards like he was tumbling into the dark. In a way he was. The walls were so thin in the apartment, I could hear the way they fought just as much as I could hear the way they loved, on my masochism nights when I would stay up and listen to how they lived and the things they lived for… but I couldn’t do anything with those fractions of space and time above my head. I didn’t know him.
“You know, Reese,” Ian said, slowly—deliberately. He’d taken my silence whichever way he wanted. “You’re a really good friend.” The cigarette fell from his lips onto the dirt, and he rubbed it out with the heel of one of those boots and took away what little I could see of him.
He moved his shaking hand over mine, and I didn’t want him to cry but his head was against my shoulder and I could feel the wet on my neck, sick and warm. And all the while I tried to wade through the mire of what I thought, if he killed Cindy. It was like one of those logic riddles, or whether or not I believed in God. All you could say was well, it’s not that simple, and then however further you got with it was really only blueskying. He tried to sit up and his nose ring caught the hoop in my ear, so he stayed stuck to me with a momentary needle-prick of pain. I pieced his face back together in the dark—the piercings, the hair, the tattoos. The idea of him showing up to a courtroom was a sick joke; Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I mean, come on. Just look at him. Maybe that was my answer.
But mostly I let him cry and I looked at the shadow of the skyline and I thought about what he said, that I was a good friend. I loved him, but I didn’t want to be his friend. He was just a guy that I knew. And being Ian’s friend was turning out to be a tall order that I wasn’t sure I could afford. I kept thinking about that flat strike of the shovel in the dirt, the sound that had turned Cindy into a statistic.
I became dimly aware that his lips were moving against my neck: hovering over the vein there, vampirically, and sucking open-mouthed. Calling it a kiss would have given it an intentionality I didn’t want to assign him, didn’t want to have to incorporate into my place in his world. Cindy, I thought loud as I could, conjuring her. I was already forgetting details of her face. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I spoke into the dark, my voice thick with some feeling I couldn’t identify and just felt like blood. It wasn’t stop so he didn’t, not until I pulled away from him and off the hood of the Olds—my feet hit the ground hard enough that I felt the shockwave. But that was more than what I meant and the diseased, embarrassing truth gurgled out a second later. “Not here.”
His shadow turned to me and I tried to figure out if he understood what I was really saying—if he had seen the same mental collage of Pussy Heavens, nights when he had touched or not touched me. He used both hands to push himself from the hood of the Olds (tomorrow there would be two palmprint dents) and I lost him in the dark completely. Still I dragged my feet in the dirt and tried to follow, blindly, not knowing how close to the edge he had parked, only knowing there was an edge, and that maybe I would go over it and that would be fine, because I wouldn’t be the first to go tonight and then I never again would have to answer a difficult question and I would—
I heard the sound of the shovel being pulled from the ground and I screamed, ducked, covered my head. It was like a floodlight busted my brain open and I could see Ian, shovel over his head, swinging it down to decapitate me. So maybe that was an answer, too.
But he was only taking it and putting it in the trunk again. The lights came on in a yellow wash and I could start to put myself together again: Dirt, scrub grass, the fringe of his boots dragging as he walked back to the mound that curved only a fraction upwards from the earth. He did a good job, I thought. He might really get away with it. He knelt, put both hands over where her flat stomach would be.
“Shelo ted’u od tza’ar,” he said, in a voice I had never heard before—soft and low and somehow unbearably beautiful. “Until next time, Cindy. Jesus fucking Christ.” Then he stood and that was the end of the conversation. There simply wasn’t anything more to say, to me, to her, even for the sake of hearing himself talk. I didn’t put on the radio on the drive home; I didn’t look at him.
We walked into the lobby and stopped in front of the staircase, and I thought he would go upstairs but he just stood there looking at me with the unspoken question I had not had to answer since I left London. I couldn’t remember when but he had grabbed my hand, and was still holding it. We had both seen the police car outside the building and the one which had followed us, at the slow pace of a persistence predator, for about two blocks. Now the lights were on—red, blue, red, blue—but not the sirens. We considered them for a moment, wondering why it couldn’t just be one thing after another, why everything had to overlap. I wondered that, at least; tonight I had given up the hope of ever trying to unzip the back of his head and look inside.
“Now this is some shit you don’t want, Reese,” he said, his voice thick.
“Just tell them the truth,” I said. It was more a cough that turned the two things I was trying to say into zero.
“Just say how all of it went down, and you’ll be okay.”
“You really don’t want me to—”
“No,” he stopped me. “Go downstairs and stay up a little longer. I’ll… I’ll talk to them and I’ll get everything straight and then I’ll come back. Then we’ll scratch it out.”
This was not a euphemism I was familiar with, but he could have said anything and I would have understood—my stupid prize for the stupid game I’d been playing, for my silence. I kind of hated him, I realized, even as my stomach knotted itself up in worm wriggling desire.
I nodded and he smiled. He stepped forward and did something more gentle than I would have ever imagined he was capable of, something I had never seen him do even to Cindy; he kissed the corner of my mouth, lightly, barely the shape of love.
“And suppose it doesn’t happen,” he murmured there, “Happy New Year, Reese.”
Then he was out the door and he was gone.
I went downstairs, got into bed, doing what he had asked. Staying up so he could come back and I… what’s the use of being coy? So I could sleep with him. So I could get the thing I had hoped, in the dumb pervert corner of my soul, I was getting the first night he smoked with me and put his hand on my shoulder and talked all that nonsense about fuckin-local-edicts. The thing I had let him steal my lighter for. It was a shitty thing to want, given the circumstances, but there wasn’t any use in pretending the life I lived wasn’t coated with a thin layer of malignant slime. Not at this venture.
I lay in bed and I watched him, his boots there, through the little portal of my window where the world was. He stood in suspended animation, the red and blue still going, washing over him and me. Even the fringe held—there was no wind. Didn’t you ever see me? I thought wildly, all at once. I’ve been here all this time and you never… not even once? Didn’t you ever see me looking at you, wanting you, wanting what you stood for? Wasn’t I here? All this time—
He turned and was gone. A fluid motion so fast I only saw it in retrospect, the way I see it now. He left the frame and I was alone again, only imagining him, the way I had always done… the way I had done really until tonight, when I had for the first time opened the door I had been clawing at.
And I laid there, the red and blue washing over me. Soon even that was gone, and it was dark, and I was there with myself.
Well, I thought, I just have to stay up a little bit longer until he comes back. But my eyelids were already drooping and something vital was leaking out of me, into the air of the room and up the staircase and out onto the street where he was, wherever he was. When I woke up the sun was bright and my eyes were crusted with tears and I never saw him again, not even in passing.
If he did do it I guess she cursed him, because three weeks later they pulled Ian’s lucky number on the news and he kept good to the promise he’d once made me that he’d serve himself a bullet before he ever served his country. I found this out the same time I found out I was his emergency contact; I got a phone call from an old man who never knew him and two hours later I was in Walnut Creek, sitting in an office park, looking at a manila folder and a bunch of photos of Ian I had never seen before. Things that made him a person who lived outside the window of time our paths had crossed: a senior portrait, an ID, a baby photo. In the end I coughed up six-hundred bucks to mail him back to Dayton. I didn’t have any business burying him, not really. I was angry he had even asked. He left me the Olds, a pack of cigarettes, and my lighter.
I moved to Los Angeles two months later, which was almost the same, and I guess I kept on living. Working at a different record store, selling plasma at a different Red Cross. Wondering when I was going to get to the part of my life where something happened to me, and if maybe I could go back to Piccadilly Circus after all. That was a dream, of course, but all of it was. I didn’t think about Ian except when I drove his car and when I got the scare of my life seeing Blue Velvet for the first time.
But I also keep waking up in the middle of the night with my breath high and tight in my chest—scratch it out, I think, stay up just a little bit longer—and looking up into a different basement apartment window for him, for the fringe of his tan leather boots, so that I might catch one last glimpse of him before he goes somewhere I can’t follow.