I park on the street and shut down the Mitsubishi rental. With the unlit cigarette at my fingertips, I wait. Procrastinate.
The neighborhood is quiet. 4:30, hot and humid but breezy. Damp spots on the concrete from a recent rain. Cicadas’ song is a buzz-saw crescendo all around, a gradual progression into a wild insect wheeze, followed by abrupt cessation. And then—reply in kind, passing from yard to yard and increasingly farther away.
This sequential buzz from one grassy lot to the next seems placid, but vaguely unwelcoming. No. Foreboding. Wait, no…. Conspiratorial.
No. This is the very sound of indifference to humanity’s plight. Cicadas in the brush have nothing to do with us. Their buzzing repartee among discrete lawns represents an entire society in a two-block radius proceeding happily without heed to humanity.
Somehow this thought is both eerie and comforting at once. I savor it, turn it over in my mind. I tap the unburnt cigarette on the Mitsubishi’s console next to me, as if to disengage the last length of imaginary ash, then slide the cigarette behind my ear.
For want of further excuse, it’s time to gather my bags and head up to the house. Vivian won’t be home until later, but her housemate Janet is supposedly here to let me in. Sheesh. I feel shy—what am I, five years old?
“Knock really loud,” Vivian told me over the phone earlier, “just in case she fell asleep in front of the TV. If she doesn’t get up, knock on the bay window with a key. If that doesn’t work, go around to the north side and bang on her bedroom window.”
Great. I breathe a sheepish prayer that this elaborate troubleshooting won’t be necessary, and commence knocking on the door. I wait. Knock again, louder. Nothing. I’m about to begrudgingly key-tap the window when I hear footsteps drum the floor from within. Locks clunk, the door swings open, and suddenly I’m facing a tall, athletic-looking girl in an oversized KU T-shirt. Tousled blond hair, couch-cushion pattern impressed upon her cheek.
“You’re Wil?” she says, blinking groggily. “Hope you weren’t waiting long.” She pushes on the screen door and grabs the handle of my rolling suitcase.
“No worries,” I say. I step into the house after her.
We enter the main room, which is set up for general college-kid entertainment. Stereo system in one corner. Cinderblock-and-plank bookshelves against a wall, full of textbooks, paperbacks, and magazines. Sofa and patchy La-Z-Boy co-dominate the middle of the room, facing an antenna-topped TV set; onscreen is an ancient Mork and Mindy. The bay window overlooks the street, letting in a meager amount of light.
Overall, the place would be pretty depressing—dingy eggshell walls, knobby taupe carpet, flesh-and-grey-blotch laminate on the kitchen floor—if it weren’t for certain distinct signs of life. Colorful throw rugs distract from the otherwise sullen palette. Band and art posters are Blu Tacked here and there. A bright green TV tray upholds half a sandwich on a red plate.
The Mork and Mindy laugh track glamorizes our passage across the room. I follow Janet’s barefoot shuffle down the main hall, passing doors on either side. She gestures to each and names them: “That’s my bedroom, that’s Sakura’s, that’s the bathroom, that’s Viv’s.” She pushes open the last door on the left. “This is yours.”
I step inside, let my backpack slide sleepily down my arm to the floor. Take a few more steps, and pivot in a full circle to take it all in. Twin bed in one corner, nightstand next to it. Closet with a sliding door, half open: some clothes are hanging inside, but they’re shoved back to make room for mine. An Elliot Smith poster graces one wall, Billie Holiday the other. Antique knickknacks are perched everywhere, ironic vintage décor balanced precariously between cutesy and kitschy.
“Actually,” Janet says, “this is Kate’s room. But yours for the summer.”
I love it. I absolutely love it. Nothing in here reminds me of home, nothing in here reminds me of the recent past. Nothing reminds me of myself.
“It’s cool,” I say. Coolly.
Janet gives me a sidelong glance, implying a skeptical, “You think so, huh?” But she says, “Glad you like it.” I think I’m picking up on deadpan. A good sign.
Janet lugs my suitcase up onto the bed. Next to the headboard, she twirls the wand at the window blinds. Sunlight brightens the room. “Viv and Sakura-san get home around five or so. Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m leaving. Gotta work tonight.”
“Oh. What do you do?” In the fleeting beat prior to her response, I try and guess, mind racing. She tutors athletes up on campus. Nah. She’s a manager at an outdoor-sports-stuff store. Hmm, no. She leads city bicycle tours. Yes, maybe that.
“I’m a bartender. At a complete shithole, I might add.”
I assimilate this new information, surprised. “Sounds like more fun than retail.” I smile. I know a bartender! Hell, yeah. Cheap drinks and the initiation of an instant social life, all in my near future. Already a plan formulates in my mind: I’ll just hang out at Janet’s bar every night, all summer long. Perfect.
Janet gives me the sidelong glance again, and adds a raised eyebrow. “Picture, if you will, your worst retail customer. Obnoxious, entitled, self-righteous as hell.” She pauses, her gaze trained on me. “You picturing it?”
“Now picture that same customer, drunk off their ass. That’s bartending.”
I nod, properly schooled. “Got it.”
“Great. And one more thing, there, Wil. No smoking.” Her gaze flicks to my ear, to the perched cigarette.
“Oh, that.” I scrabble for the cig, slip it into my backpack unceremoniously. “I quit. Recently. I don’t smoke. Actually.” The words come out with the measured precision of a well-recited poem.
“‘Course you don’t.” Janet shrugs, smiles. Mild sarcasm. Okay, she’s messing with me—not bad, but a little bit. What now? Consequences loom large, imminent. I can react further, get serious, insist on my veracity. I can laugh, play it off, be cool. Or maybe I’ll just switch the topic. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” she says. Heads back down the hall, slips into the bathroom.
On my own in Kate’s room now, nearly without exception. It’s just Elliot and Billie and me—me, identifying at the moment as a personification of my own social awkwardness. It’s all fine, I think, mollifying myself distractedly, unzipping the suitcase on the bed. I unpack my clothes. Shorts, jeans, band T-shirts. Subhumans, Crass, Black Flag. Nothing precious, but I hang them anyway, since Kate went through the trouble of making room in the closet. I have a little more work to do, but soon Bartender Janet and I will be great friends. I decide this. Commit to it.
On the other hand, my acquaintanceship with Absentee Kate will never develop past the shared-closet stage. It’s strange to settle in amidst someone else’s personal stuff, and yet to have no idea what the person even looks like. Certainly, Kate’s vintage taste shows in much of her décor, just as Vivian had foretold over the phone. Beaded shawls and colorful scarves hang over the window in lieu of curtains. A beautiful swatch of patterned silk covers the surface of the nightstand. Alongside more modern trappings—CD player, digital clock—her myriad knickknacks grace every surface. Vases, perfume bottles, tinted glassware in animal shapes. I kneel down to look at the spines of her books. Crime novels, organic gardening books, Sylvia Plath, a couple of 50’s-era cookbooks.
So, my mystery hostess, I think, leafing through Plath with savvy. You’re girly, you’re fashionable, you like Elliot Smith, you read. We would bond over books, I guess. That’s about it….
Or is it?
I get nosy. Go through the drawers, poke deeper in to the closet behind the dresses. More clothes, more books. Storage boxes, big and small. I don’t dig through the boxes, though—better save some for later.
When I hear the front door open and then slam closed, I realize I’m alone in the house. I plop down onto the bed with my empty suitcase, and stretch the last of the travel-weary confinement from my limbs. Staring up at the popcorn ceiling, I’m amused by the thought that wherever I may roam, there will always be a popcorn ceiling in any place that I call home. It’s like looking up at the same moon as one’s lost love far away: I merely look to the popcorn cottage cheese above me, and I connect with my own geographic history.
I roll onto my elbow, face the window, and lift the blinds a few inches. Outside, the backyard is shaggy but green. Dandelions dot the lawn all the way to the alley beyond. Dumpsters, carports, sheds. The alley is busier than the street: kid walks a dog, dude with band equipment loads up a Jeep, a mom jogs with one of those athletic baby stroller things.
I roll onto my back, meet Elliot Smith’s melancholy poster-gaze from across the room. He’s taking inventory, sizing me up, yet he seems to withhold judgment at this point. “I’m not so bad,” I promise him. “You’ll get used to me.”
I’ll get used to this. The house, the yard, the alley, Kate’s room: all will be familiar soon. But for now, and for a limited time, everything around me is new. Sometimes, in places that have become deeply familiar to me, I try to see with the same perspective as that very first time. I attempt to relive that initial sense of new. My dorm room, Mom’s house, even my childhood home before the divorce—even back then, I would occasionally sink into a carte blanche reverie. Focus on the furniture and wallpaper, which was otherwise just an everyday backdrop. Really notice the books on the shelves, pictures on walls, decorations along the mantle and windowsills. I would ask myself, what does one’s sanctuary reflect about one’s identity? What aspects of one’s private space might make an impression upon a total stranger? And what sort of stranger might that person be, so impressed?
Furthermore. Is there grand significance behind such a semiotically-charged exchange? Perhaps something metaphysical, even? Or is any sense of numinous connection merely an illusion, just another representation of the great universal high indifference?
I squirm around, next looking up at Billie Holiday, who sings into an old-school Shure microphone on the wall over the bed. Billie barely notices me at all: she is in the zone, replete with euphoria in the expression of her art…. I’m envious. I know that feeling. I want to feel that. I jump from the bed, grab my backpack. Grapple for pens, pencil, my notebook. Words begin to rush through my head already, eager for escape onto paper.
As I pull my notebook free from the pack, the spare and unburnt cigarette catches the ride, trapped between pages. It falls to the floor at my feet.
I pick it up. Turn it over between my fingers. A strange compulsion overwhelms, to smoke it here. In the house. Alone. In secret.
In a dark spirit of villainy.
At the window, I raise the blinds. They collapse at the top with a zzzzzip. I lift the window sill as high as it will go, warm and humid air pushing through the screen like something alive and breathing.
I place the unlit cigarette to my lips. I think about Eddie, for the first time since I got here.
Consequences loom, I think. I remind myself. There are consequences to everything.
In the little overgrown yard beyond, cicadas make a glorious racket.