I pull clothing from my duffle bag, pants and shirts. They’re clean enough but still unwashed, I think when I see a tiny salami slice oil blot on the sleeves of one consignment store flannel that was my brother’s before mine. I fold the garment gently with wobbly tremens in one wrist and place it with my other articles on an empty cubby shelf, making use of the otherwise rare room available inside sleeping Magdala’s modest apartment kitchenette.
I’ve lived here for what feels like months now, squatting for a precise length of time that is now unknown. And not once at any moment have I felt at home, but rather shot-down like some fated naval pilot marooned behind enemy lines and hiding in a foreign jungle full of hostiles. I fold my clothes and exhale a long weary sigh.
All of this happens in the passing bloodshot glance of Magdala’s roommate, Layla, emerging from her room having just crawled out of bed, coughing, to throw up in the toilet. I hear her groan, saying she wishes she was dead or asleep again – and I can tell it hurts too much for her to lay still. She’s been laid-up invalid all day, dehydrated and aching in some itchy surface slumber. She came home as usual after sunrise, alone; from bed, I’d heard the apartment door slam. “Backstage,” was where she says she was, “on the Bowery” – on the gloomy ant-less crust of Lower East Side curbs with their wind-blown sidewalk heaps fading with piles of unrecyclable debris, and roving faceless hobo street combers who stare you down with black hole mugs from the lifeless depth of hooded visages.
Layla is a little Egyptian girl with thin eyes and no flesh on her toothpick frame. She wears black spandex tights with everything she owns, through which I can see the vague knoll of her labial mound. It asks my head to think SEX, but my mind refuses. I watch her move wraith-like in a battered cotton t-shirt dress. “What a strange sense of fashion,” I reflect, thinking that in anyplace other than New York City, a person would have to do a double take and consider calling an ambulance if they saw Layla pass by all shriveled, hacking cement spun phlegm, helplessly covering her mouth with tobacco-stained fingertips as last night’s bags slope blue from her sunken sockets like hoary spiritual scars, bubbling through the bruised surface of the anemic skin of this 1950s drive-in movie zombie Cleopatra.
Layla takes two aspirin, but throws them up too. Nobody seems to care. Magdala is awake now, holding a sponge in one hand and a hairbrush in the other. She’s grumbling, tense-necked and tantrum-like, grousing at poor Layla – whose nose is running gush – to flush the commode. Layla, wobble-bodied, whimpers muted huffs from the pain pulse inside her skull and buries her drink sick head in the sink, into the sprite milk faucet gurgle.
The little stringy house kitten stirs, curling between Layla’s chewed-up heels and the floor, mewing, lamenting something to us all … but Magdala’s pester persists. “Not in the sink!” she broods, and begs Layla to go and ail alone in her pitiless room … but Layla doesn’t (can’t) move or speak … the kitten meows … I close my eyes.
It’s Saturday and the rain is hissing at the windows with a pattering wind. Upstairs, the Louisiana Tigers have made the gay neighbor cry (it’s Game Day, too). I can hear him stomping, scratching his shiny bald Woody Harrelson noggin, praying little Cajun wails into the television set. He squeaks “Fuck Bama” as he paces. His footsteps sound like thunder and shake the hallow drywall of Magdala’s apartment below, cracked in places where the arctic outdoor draft invades the building. I shiver.
Buses pass, trucks, loud hydraulics growl. They’re loaded down to the springs and scrape sparks against the salted city pavement that shoulder the burden of a million grazing human bodies, riding to or from Flatbush Avenue and Kensington along the scabbed wintry arteries of this weathering Breuckelen borough as one would in slow-motion on some Greenwood Cemetery trolley. I hear their feet splashing in the cold street, a mess of coffee-colored slop puddles, and picture myself out there, trouncing through them in the dead of night, wet and splattered, frostbitten, with my shoes loosely laced in the road sludge. I look along the endless rows of lone brownstone districts in the murky citronella flicker of old rain pooling in gloat and gloom of the Rockaway streetlight. And I think of other nights I’ve spent in similar conditions … in Nashville, in Chicago, in Cincinnati … I can almost feel the twinge of my clenched body shaking in the black trickle: the rigid endorphin-starved stiffness that becomes a man (me) grinding his teeth together down to the gummy roots on the lonesome night-time roads of drizzle, with no hope of a dry or full night’s sleep. My head swells and wearies with the image of it.
“What’s wrong?” Magdala asks. She always asks “What’s wrong?” – as though not to insinuate “Are you alright?” but rather “There’s something wrong with you.” “Nothing’s wrong,” I (always) reply. I repeat myself, hoping she’ll stop and redirect her zigzagging interest onto something else. But instead, with heavy purple eyes, she squints at me, nodding with an air of condemnation as she deciphers the tone of what I’ve just said. “Nothing’s wrong.” This makes me more guarded and distrustful. I watch crow-foot wrinkles emerge in the corners of her eyes, and the iniquitous look she gives strikes me as shrewd and conniving. I picture her as a sallow-faced ghoul in the thorny but still seductive façade of some Cruella de Ville character, planning the unremorseful slaughter of one-hundred-and-one little blameless Dalmatian puppies. I can see that all of this is the result of some latent Electra complexion dating back to a time in Magdala’s past that I can sense but not decipher. Evidence of penis envy is everywhere, surrounding me like some emaciated, bone-hungry python: a mountainous ashtray, annals of celebrity-faced style magazines and Us weekly pages crumpled by cheap wine and dried tears, defaulted credit card statements folded with dog-ears piled high, and the faint angel-dust markings on each and every countertop with its welcoming sparkles blending (now) inseparable from paw-tracked kitten litter, saliva residue, and the mold yeasting in the unseen regions of the room.
Magdala stares at me intensely, as if planning my demise. Her gaze alone asks to suck my soul from my body like a ferocious Carolina riptide. Poor Layla, gargling, spits mouthwash from her sad chapped lips, cracked across her teeth like shattered Dyker Heights tenement windows keeping glum sentry over murky Gravesend Bay. I watch her as she pins her hair back at the base of her neck, where she’s tattooed with a small Sphinx silhouette. Our eyes meet in the mirror and she overhears me say to Magdala, over and over, “Nothing’s wrong.” Layla averts her eyes and nods as if to agree with me, but with no words to speak, affirm and make me or anyone else believe that “Nothing’s wrong.”
Magdala leans over the kitchen counter to crush the Adderall she needs to get the chores done, which are then done, redone and re-redone – and so on until the stimulant fuels wear off. The place is a mess, with dishes stacked high like miniature spaghetti-tinged Towers of Babel that clamor shrill in the sink’s hollow belly when they tumble over in the fizzy slosh of the running spout.
She looks awkward and frail. I can see an asymmetry in the sunken hocks of her vanishing ass as she kneels slowly in a prayer-like fashion before the sink cupboard, reaching for bleach and Windex bottles in plastic baskets of cluttered soap jugs, scrub-brushes, garbage bags and dime-store disinfectant wipes. All these dangerous Jekyll and Hyde materials of corrosion strike me as odd, lead me to think how one normally comes by these things in some well-endowed university science lab – not in some low-ceiling railroad apartment. “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN,” I tell myself – knowing that, when combined properly, these concoctions become the basic ingredients of any effective homemade bomb. I watch Magdala, thinking she’ll explode – if not now, then soon.
When she cracks open a flagon of Clorox, I breathe in the wafting fumes. The aroma washes over me and I drink it in sips from the indoor ozone. The smell jolts me, my hair stands on end and I inhale another breath and swallow. It burns and I feel confused, thinking I’m high too …
“It’s supposed to sting,” I find myself thinking in my mother’s voice, remembering childhood at home with a bloody scrape on my leg and her soft touch warming me. The sanitized fragrance of antibacterial salve transports me to another place in time, and pins me there. “But it stings,” says my imagination as the caustic tang invades my eyes and lungs … then deeper, with the temperature of some white-hot flame behind my ribs. The scent speaks to me in a soft familiar tone that makes my mouth water: “The germs inside our wounds can multiply and infect, and to heal we must allow the burn.”
And as if faced with some awful truth, I watch Magdala and the stilted way she stands. Her cat-scratched legs stretch in the middle of the kitchen as she scrubs an empty week-old rice plate. Like a bulimic, I think, locked inside a ladies’ room stall at a restaurant; or any room – a bathroom, a bedroom, or a Cherokee wigwam creek-side on some Appalachian hill, where starvation only occurs in either the dead famine of winter or in the throes of some religious rite of passage. Which, I know, can’t be as bad as modern civilization’s own skin-deep incarnation of (self-inflected) starvation that she – a young woman – is forced to subdue and die to in her dreary apartment cell-block on a grey grassless planet.