People are decent, up until the moment they’re not.
I kept thinking this on repeat, like a mantra that you’ve learned to murmur under your breath without consciously making the necessary connections between neuron and neuron, abstract electric impulse to formative command, from sinew to tongue.
You think you know someone, up until the moment you realize you can’t even know yourself.
He kept chasing me, following me more faithfully than Popchyk. Completely aware and unaware of the intrinsic neurotic energy behind it. I was high, desperate and anxious. He was high, meek and unconcerned.
He couldn’t understand my near-psychotic state, the imminent need to run away. Shit, he had seen horrors I couldn’t even begin to imagine but he couldn’t feel the reverberations. It was a pulsing inside of my skull, something akin to the tingling sensation you get when you can’t feel an extremity. Not quite unpleasant, yet completely uncomfortable. It makes you aware. Of what you are, and what you’re not. And of how utterly insignificant it all is. Of how a distant explosion, both in time and space, can still knock your breath out in an instant.
“Just one more day. One day.” He kept saying, almost in a whisper. He was so close to me, following me blindly, that I could feel his breath down my neck. The cocaine had turned his breathing edgy and I was still high enough to become teary-eyed for a second thinking that it might be the last time I noticed how he breathed.
Not that I cared, but I had almost grown accustomed over the past years to recognize his breathing in a closed space. I could pinpoint his mood by the way he puffed his breath out or took a deep breath in. I could close my eyes and know if he was asleep simply by counting his breaths. I could identify how funny he found something by paying attention to the breaths he took between laughter. Hell, I was sure I could know if he was lying simply by noticing the way he exhaled.
I wanted to shout at him, beg him to stop and do something about it. I couldn’t stand his sudden levelheadedness, his rational pleas for me to think about it and wait. Why did he have to choose this moment to be sensible? Out of all the adjectives I could think of Boris, “sensible” was by far the most surreal.
“I have to go, I have the money, I can’t stay here. Xandra will kill us when she sees we took all her money.” I suddenly realized I had been repeating words like this for a while, picking up stuff and throwing them in my bag.
He kept reaching out a hand towards me, only to drop it back down, like he was unsure if tugging at me would make a difference. I kept pulling away each time I noticed the movement, protecting myself by stopping any kind of interference in my quickened movements.
“Wait one day. Just one and I’ll come with you”, he said loudly, smiling.
I walked out the door before he could add more words to the sentence or before I could stop and stare at him in disbelief. I wanted him to come and he knew it. I knew he knew I needed him as much as he needed me. He knew I knew he couldn’t bear to be left alone as much as I couldn’t. We had grown accustomed to being wrong together all the time, while we laughed and convinced ourselves the world was the one that was wrong.
No amount of laughter, drugs or wasted time could mask our shared guilt.
I was guilty of dragging with me a corpse I couldn’t carry. He was guilty of dragging himself like a corpse. We both ignored the rotting smell between us, the desperation of tugging it all under the rug and pretending it didn’t release a stench like putrefaction. We had convinced ourselves the stain in the middle of the rug was an old friend, something to remind us of our long lost selves that whinnied and scratched at night and comforted our lonely existences.
Before I realized I had walked down the stairs, I was in the middle of the living room, staring down at Poppers. Sweet, lonely Popchyk. Nothing without us but a mass of bones and hairs. While I threw at Boris the questions (’Can’t you…?’, ‘Can’t Kotku…?’) I grew angry at him for just standing there all stoic and difficult. I grew angry at Xandra, stoned out of her mind upstairs and now almost penniless thanks to us. I grew angry at my father for suddenly deciding to end something that was almost a life. I grew angry at my mother for walking away for one last glimpse of that stupid Rembrandt before the world shook and thrashed in the blinding light. I grew angry at Mrs. Barbour, back in Park Avenue, worrying about her parties and social relations. I grew angry at Andy for having so much to do with his life and deciding to do so little. I grew angry at Pippa for leaving to Texas when she could have stayed and filled a whole room with breaths. I grew angry at Hobbie for locking himself in a basement and taking care of old things, except himself. I grew angry at all the doormen in New York that smiled and were nice to people because they were good people. I grew angry at the big wide blue skies of Las Vegas and the close humid clouds atop the skyscrapers of New York.
I grew angry at the bird caught in the painting inside my bag, unaware of being watched and yet too aware. Unsure of the cycle he kept repeating. Beating his wings and taking to flight only to be pulled down by the chain. There for all to see and yet too small to be noticed.
I saw Xandra upstairs by the banister in a daze, heard Boris’ reassuring words to her through a fog. I had walked out the house, sure and yet unsure of the way. Popchyk’s little steps painfully loud next to Boris and mine’s. Deserted house after deserted house. Stars and sand and the tug of a chain by my right foot.
What was I running towards? What was I running from?
I called the taxi on Boris’ phone while he stared at me, calm and surrounded by the electricity in the air, the lightning visible in the distance behind him. Somewhere, kids were waking up crying, taken out of dreams of popsicles and slides to be shaken by the sound of the thunder outside the window. Out here, too outside and too inside the real world, the sound barely reached our ears.
I shoved the phone into Boris’ hand and he shoved it back. He shoved the stack of cash I had given him (half of what I had taken from Xandra), and I shoved it back. He kept asking me to stay, I kept telling him I couldn’t.
Back and forth we rocked in the middle of street. He was painfully aware now, I was painfully numb. We had switched states. He was the waves crashing on the rocks and I was the pull of the tide drawing everything towards the darkness.
“What about you?” I said, rubbing my eyes. He smiled. “What’s up? Will I see you again?”
I wanted to shout to the stars to stop turning. I wanted to pull the lightning back into the earth. My mother was dead. My father was dead. Boris was smiling down at me, seemingly untouched by our parting. I was falling asleep while standing, drugs still coursing through my system. The painting was safely wrapped and tugged between shirts and socks. I was running away. I wasn’t being pulled by anyone and still, I had to go.
And Boris just looked at me, still smiling. Looked at me as though I was another moment he had experienced in the long list of moments that made his life what it was.
“Maybe,” he said, “Who knows?”
I tried to talk him into it, but I knew when someone wanted me and when they didn’t. He wasn’t convinced of it and for a moment I realized we had been inseparable up until the moment we hadn’t. We had laughed our heads off up until the laughter was gone. We had wasted our time together while doing nothing up until time had caught up with us and he had moved on. He had been there up until the moment he had found someone else.
“Look at you,” he said. “Falling over, almost.”
I tried to stop him from making me take the cocaine he so carelessly took out of his pocket. I tried to convince myself that he may not want the best for me after all. How could he? How could he draw a line of cocaine on the back of his hand, tenderly press one of my nostrils closed and tell me to sniff and still claim he cared about me? How could he do it all over again for my other nostril and still bare to watch me go off alone while he stayed for… what exactly? A crackhead girlfriend who accepted his punches as readily as I did? A line of kids in the school waiting for him to supply them with drugs?
He threw names at me, names I could barely remember the faces from, Skye, K.T. Jessica. Like somehow I cared what he did with the drugs and how much money he could make. Mentioned something about Kotku and a keyboard she wanted. Like I could picture Kotku doing anything but smoking pot and giggling stupidly.
I was desperate. I was babbling. Mentioning Brighton Beach, throwing all these preconceptions I had of the Russian community that I still thought lived and thrived there. Telling him about my mother’s fund for my education and how I could make it apply to him too.
And that was the tragedy. I still cared for him. I cared about his present and his future. I cared about him finding a place when he had no place and having something when he had nothing. My mind was racing with possibilities for us. We would go to school together and, who knows, maybe Andy would like him. Careless and unhinged as Boris was, he was charming and occasionally considering. We would walk the streets of New York and find little places to shoplift from. We would take the trains or the buses down south and he would love the Village as much as my mother had. He would strike whole conversations about capitalism and the injustice of any system of government with homeless guys and stoned vendors on the street. We would find the secret places around the city where you could get alcohol and cigarettes from immigrants too scared to say ‘no’ to minors. He would detest Park Avenue, I knew it. He would thrive in the alleys and backstreets, around prostitutes well disguised as locals waiting for a bus and dealers too high to care. We would swindle tourists outside Penn Station and people-watch inside Central Station. He would laugh at every mascot and impersonator in Times Square and marvel at the lights around them.
We would thrive. We would make the city ours. We would be free.
“Potter.” He said, interrupting the unaware babbling I was still producing. And I saw his eyes and saw something in them that I didn’t want to see. I saw a fire too strong to be put out, a determination too specific to understand. I saw him somewhere, doing and doing and doing so many things.
So many things without me.
He put both hands on my face and kissed me on the mouth.
And the lighting kept flashing somewhere, and the stars kept turning, and my mother and father were still dead and the bird was still flapping his wings against the wall. I was still high and anxious and painfully aware of him dropping Popper in my arms after having kissed him too. Had he said goodbye like this to everyone before me? Casually and almost cheerfully. Like it meant nothing but another experience in his life. Another “check” down his check-list. Unattached, unmoved. Unafraid.
“Good luck” he threw out, like a passerby in a casino. “I won’t forget you.” Like a kid to a little kitten he saw in a park, alone and motherless. Lost and desperate.
He said good bye to Popper in the same offhand manner. And as I walked to the taxi waiting for me, bag in one arm, shivering dog in the other, I knew that if I turned and stared at him he would stare back and smile. I wanted him to tell me everything would be alright, that my impulsiveness and desperation were traits I would outlive.
I wanted him to bark a laugh at me and say something offhandedly. Something simple and slightly childish. I wanted him to kick me in the leg and stretch his back while yawning and ask what we would eat today. I wanted nothing more than for him to light a cigarette and distractedly pass it on to me after taking the first drag. I wanted him to push me around to go lay down by the pool only to get more freckles down my back. I wanted him to ask me to cook something nice only to laugh at my stupid results in trying to make something as sophisticated as lasagna, which he pronounced as lat-za-nya. I wanted him wasted and smelling of pot, snoring by my side in the bed, carelessly dropping a hand in my chest, drooling by my shoulder. I wanted him to tell me it was ok to miss my mother. I wanted him to tell me we would go somewhere where no one knew us.
As the taxi drove away, I knew I wanted nothing more than for him to know I wanted him. In his moody days, in his violent streaks. In his impulsiveness and rare moments of wisdom. Him, with his thousand sad stories told as entertainingly as he could tell them. Him, with his silences filled with longing for a life he could glimpse outside the bus window. Him, with his ability to laugh at the worst and best of times.
Him, the only one who dared to tell me I was wrong when I thought I was right. The only one who cared enough. The only one who stayed enough time to care at all for me.
And through my fear, anticipation and doubt I still felt it, tugging at me. The chain at my feet. Dragging me down. Tearing me apart. And he was the only spectator.
The only one that dared look without trying to explain me or free me.
The only one that dared.