excerpt from "Glow" in Dust, Short Stories
My wrist looks like mold.
“Tye, see this?” I thrust my arm in his face as he exhales smoke into my eyes.
“Yeah, that’s disgusting,” he mumbles, pushing me away.
“You’re the one who did it.”
He butts his cigarette on the coffee table and flicks it across the room. It misses the trashcan by a mile. “What are you babbling about?”
“Nevermind,” I sigh. Of course he doesn’t remember. It wasn’t even while we were having sex. It was during an argument over his hair collecting dirt and dust and grime because he hasn’t washed it in months. Apparently “dreads don’t need washing,” but the dankness of unclean hair has started to seep into the pillows. I remember saying, “You’re as white as a picket fence and they look ridiculous on you anyway,” to which he grabbed my arm, twisted it back, and bit me as if thirsting for blood. I enjoyed the feeling of canines digging deep, but then my skin turned carmine red, purplish-blue, lavender, and finally green. Moldy-green. He’s right: it’s disgusting.
“What are we doing tonight?” I ask. “There’s that show at the TLA. You said Jesse could get us in free.”
He huffs like an old man, even though he’s twenty-four, and walks across the room. Maybe he’s going to pick up that cigarette? No. He scratches his head and lowers the blinds. It’s about time for his across-the-way neighbor to start getting nosey and we’ve always got something to hide.
“I’m staying in.”
“On a Friday night? Since when do you do that?”
He stares at me hard. It’s the look my mother gave when I’d tell her something true and she’d say, “Too many goddamn fairy tales, this girl has some imagination,” while drinking coffee and motioning wildly to whichever boyfriend was keeping her sane.
“Does everything have to be your business?”
“I was just wondering.” I pick up the pack of Newports on the table, but he’s smoked the upside-down lucky. Just when I could use some luck. I watch a baby cockroach dart across the floor. “What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing,” he says, peeking through the blinds. His fingers dance along the dusty aluminum panels. “Ryan’s coming over…I’m nervous about it, that’s all.”
“Oh.” The refrigerator starts breathing, reminding me I haven’t eaten all day. I fold my knees and press my chin to them. “You can talk about it, Tye. You don’t have to hide it like some big secret.”
He turns to lean against the wall, near our favorite tapestry.
Whenever we’re on acid, we lie on the floor with a flashlight shining up against the fabric of this tapestry. Its tie-dye swirls slip out of place and dance midair. I can almost see it now…the walls become water-colored, curious and new, and every particle of dust that drifts through the air is alight with a substance I cannot name. It makes me forget the dirty plates collecting fruit flies, the ninety-nine-bottles-of-beer-on-the-wall we never recycle, the flea-ridden bitch of a cat that hates me, the fact that his sheets sting and his pillowcase stinks. I forget the miniscule clouds Ryan forms when he does lines off Tye’s table—the only surface-area in this one-room hide-away.
Sometimes it’s too much. I’ll hold my breath, afraid that every swirl escaped from the walls will infect me. Afraid they’ll sit in my gut and manifest a beauty I could never keep down.
“Morgan, stop kidding yourself,” he says brusquely. “I can’t talk about it with you because you’ll either make some ‘Ry and Tye’ joke or burst out crying. I hate to kick you out and all, but this is my apartment. I want Ryan here tonight, not you.”
I’d like to say his words sting or bite or otherwise hurt, but they don’t. They settle into
a dull ache, collecting their own breed of dust in the empty lining of me.
“Whatever, okay? I’ll just go.”
I unfold my legs and stand barefoot on the floor. Chills scurry through my veins even though it’s August. I fumble through the pile of clothes at the foot of his bed, wedged between wall and couch. Amid his and mine and probably Ry’s, I find my tired pants that need a patching. I pull them on as he places one soft hand, dainty like a girl’s, on the back of my neck. I let him linger there and leave my pants unbuttoned, hoping he’ll slide his palm along my shoulder, over my nothing-breasts, down the rickety steps of my ribcage, all the way to my underwear. Maybe he’ll breathe into my ear and bend me over and tell me I need to stay for at least another hour.
Instead, he pulls away. “I’m worried about you.”
I button, then zipper, and push stray hair from my eyes. “Why?”
“For one thing, you’re becoming skeletal.”
Straight-lined like the boy I wish I were, you wouldn’t have it any other way. You like it, I want to say. “What are you, my mother?”
“No, your friend.”
The word sticks in my ear like a trapped bee. I want to shake my head and scream, You’re my friend today, my lover the next, and my dick older brother the week before.
“I’ve had a stomach ache for weeks.”
“So go to the fucking doctor. It might be serious.”
“I’m fine. It’s not like I’ve ever had an appetite.”
“Morgan, you’re impossible.”
He plops down on the couch and flattens the empty pack of Newports. He’s probably got another one stashed with his goods: hash in little plastic bags, marijuana plants I water twice a day because I like to watch things grow, dancing Dead bears to lick and peace-sign pills to swallow. Everything’s in the toolbox under the sink, though the plants grow in halves of two-liter soda bottles in the only functional kitchen cabinet; he installed florescent bulbs to give them artificial sun.
Zeppelin, the bitch-cat, is hoarding my flip-flop. I wrestle it away as she claws my hands.
“When was the last time you went home? Honestly, I can’t remember.”
“Well that doesn’t surprise me,” I say, avoiding his gaze.
Hoisting my bag over my shoulder, I survey the clutter of the room. On the windowsill sits my bottle of pills—I forget which kind. Near the kitchen sink is my waterproof watch. On the bookcase, middle-shelf, there’s my copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a present from my father for my tenth birthday. It waits like an abandoned child between The Cannabis Grow Bible and a bathroom-reader of puzzles. I leave everything in place.
“Just do me a favor.” I grip the doorknob like I might fall through the floor. “Don’t fuck him while you’re tripping.”
Everyone fights to get the last word.
A thirty-minute train ride from downtown Philly to its northwest suburb, and another ten walking from the station to my block. Here it is. Home.
On the stone path, I stand rigid like a corpse. My house stares me down. I can almost see ghosts in the windows. I know they’re just smudges on the glass but they mock me, each window a gaping black hole sucking me inside. Gravity drags my bones.
Like Tye, I can’t recall the last time I was here. High school ended in early June and already I’ve lost my diploma. It’s been nine months since I met Tye and nearly two since I started waitressing at the diner on Chestnut. I can afford to pay utilities and chip in for food so his studio apartment’s basically half mine, except when he kicks me to the curb for a private night with his pseudo-boyfriend.
I stare harder; it’s like seeing a friend after years have passed, though I haven’t many friends so I wouldn’t really know. The hedges need trimming, the ivy’s grown tall, and the unused chimney’s missing most of its bricks. Detailed moldings border the windows and columns connect the awning to the porch’s railings. This wraparound porch, dating back to the Victorian era, was one of the main selling points of the house, aside from its oddly affordable price.
I give my old enemy a defiant glare and stride quickly up its steps, onto the porch’s tattered welcome mat. Luckily, no one’s here. The staircase creaks as I climb to the second floor, bypassing my bedroom and locking myself in the bathroom.
The tub still has its golden claws. The cabinets don’t close. The overhead light fixture’s painted pink. Salmon-colored tiles are cool against my knees, exposed through my jeans, as I empty the contents of my bag on the floor. Coins roll under the old-fashioned radiator and chapstick finds a hiding spot behind the toilet, with its pull-chain flush. I’ve got a few tank tops, dirty underwear, and a coupon for the drug store. Out of habit, I look through my wallet and find two measly bucks after train fare and spotting Tye for lunch. Not that it matters.
It takes a few minutes for the water to warm. I try to avoid the mirror with its baroque frame, but I catch a glimpse of a second bruise and must inspect. Tiny teeth marks, not yet green, on the tip of one shoulder. Another lovely treat from Tye. I sneer at the glass. My skin is dry, my gray eyes duller than ever. They aren’t the windows to any sort of soul.
It was one of those cold November evenings where the sun slinks low around the earth and you’re left shivering in sudden dusk. I hadn’t worn a coat because I hadn’t wanted to stop home; on that particular day, and on most days prior, all I’d wanted to do after school was head into Philly and get myself lost. Usually I’d wander South Street, lusting over albums I couldn’t afford. I’d add my green gum to the vibrant collection on the gum tree and dart in and out of shops.
That night, I bought tea with the dollar and change I had to spare and chain-smoked half a pack of cigarettes in quick succession, never needing to relight, right down to the upside-down lucky, though I forgot to make a wish. Balancing the near-empty cup on my kneecap, I spotted a boy sitting on the curb across the street. He wore a large knit hat and fingerless gloves. For a moment his face shone in the glow of a match. We locked eyes and he smirked, which hardly meant “come here” but I picked myself up and sat beside him.
“Can I bum one from you? I just ran out.”
He raised an eyebrow. “They’re rollies. Unfiltered.”
“That’s fine, quicker death.”
His eyes smiled. “What’s your name?” he asked, smoothing a flimsy piece of rolling paper with his thumbs.
“I used to know a dude named Morgan.” He looked wistfully at the absent stars, then scrutinized my face. “But you’re not him.”
“Tye.” He extended his partially gloved hand. “You look cold.”
“You look young, too.”
“How old do you think I am?”
He rubbed his chin and cocked his head. “Fifteen, sixteen?”
“My bad.” He offered a lit match, another short-lived orange glow, and we slipped into a rhythmic silence: short inhales and long exhales, ashing on our shoes. I took to glaring at a group of kids wearing studded belts and collars, who looked like they were making a memory.
Beneath our little cloud of smoke, Tye wrapped his palm around my knee.
“Hey Morgan, do you get high?”
“Occasionally.” Only if you count my mother’s sedatives.
“I sell, you know. Want to buy?”
“I don’t have any cash. At all.”
“Man, that’s all right, you look like you need a good time. You can owe me later. Is that cool?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t really care.
“Okay, let’s go to Addison.”
“What’s over there?”
“My apartment. Dirty, but it works.”
“Let’s go.” We walked at a clipped pace, and the air that slapped my cheeks felt clean, certain, no longer cold.
I told him he wasn’t my first and he believed me.
“Tell me something about yourself,” he whispered in the fragile afterglow, our bodies parallel like two half-moons. It was January. His body was naked and I was still wearing my shirt.