If I had wine glasses, maybe I wouldn’t drink as much. I used to have some, but when they broke, I just never got around to replacing them. I’ve got those plastic stackable cups. They’re nice and big, but wine glasses might help me measure better.
I read somewhere you’re only supposed to have two drinks a day. Any more than that, and you should be wondering whether or not you have a problem with alcohol. Which is fucking ridiculous because everybody knows two drinks doesn’t do shit. But whatever.
Wine glasses would be nice for when I come home after work and make myself dinner. I don’t do that. I think about preparing real food. Meat and vegetables, spaghetti. I envision playing music while I cook. I make a salad, pour a glass of red wine and sit at the table to eat, like they do in the movies.
I’d need lettuce. And a table.
At lunchtime, I go for a walk. I stop at Jack’s, where everything they sell is 99 cents.
I buy a package of baloney and four dark blue wine glasses. I think they’re elegant, and they look like they can hold a lot. The sign above the shelf screams “GOBLETS!!!” in giant lettering.
The girl at the register wads up two of the glasses in newspaper and crams all of them into a flimsy plastic bag that says “Have a Nice Day.”
“Excuse me. Can I get an extra bag?”
She doesn’t answer. She looks mean, and I don’t ask again.
When the bag slices open on the stairs of the subway later that evening, three of the glasses shatter. The one that remains intact, I carry home. I peel the sticker off the bottom and fill it with box wine, right up to the top. So full, I have to take a few big sips before I can pick it up.
I carry that and a flat, ceramic plate into the other room where I can sit on the floor and set up my coke.
It’s okay, living in the basement. I listen to the sounds of progress coming from other parts of the house. Footsteps on the stairs, telephones ringing, water rushing through the pipes whenever the toilets flush. I feel remotely connected to what going’s on beyond the monotony of how I spend my time.
Michael lived in the apartment on the first floor. He had this girl hanging around a lot when he first moved in. Sometimes, I’d hear them having sex. Or fighting. Then she just stopped being here. I liked that he was alone. I didn’t have anybody either.
I asked one of my other neighbors about Michael.
“Steer clear of that guy,” Eddie said. “He’s no good.”
But what the fuck does Eddie know? He has no friends.
Somebody told me Michael was a deejay. He had hundreds of records. I watched him load equipment into the car at night and carry everything back in the house the next morning. I couldn’t believe this was a real job. It seemed more like fun than work.
I met Michael for the first time in the hallway where we lived. Some of his mail was in my slot, so I rang the buzzer and waited for him to answer.
“Mary. From downstairs.”
“What do you want, Mary from downstairs?”
“I’ve got an envelope addressed to you. I think it has money in it. Lots of money.”
He was smiling when he opened the door, just wide enough so I could see how young he was. He looked like a little boy who shouldn’t be home by himself.
“Thanks,” he said, “but this is junk mail.”
“It’s not your fault.”
We stood there for a long minute, not saying anything.
“I have a bunny, you know.”
I didn’t know.
He pulled the door a bit wider, so I could see. A small beige rabbit, nibbling at a Styrofoam cup and some other garbage left there on the floor.
“Her name is Jewel.”
“That’s beautiful.” I crouched down and called to her as if she were a cat. When she ignored me, I felt stupid and stood up again.
“She used to be Luna for a while, when she belonged to someone else. But you can write whatever you want on their dish and change the name. That’s what I did. I used a magic marker.”
He gestured toward an empty fish tank that took up the entire coffee table. The plastic bowl inside read “Jewel.”
“I gotta go,” Michael said. “So you’re gonna have to leave.”
He pretty much shut the door in my face. I could smell his drugs all around him. I wondered if Michael was retarded or just high.
Michael’s alarm clock went off at 6:30 pm every evening. The floorboards creaked as he padded around right above me. Some nights, he left the house for a little while and came back. Left again. I knew what he was doing up there. Same thing as me.
I obsessed about Michael. I hurried home from work, hoping I’d see him smoking cigarettes on the front steps. He ignored the doorbell and my attempts to visit. I climbed the fire stairs that separated our apartments and sat on the landing in the dark. From my side of the door, I listened to the endless flick of the lighter, the gurgle and popping sound of his burner. His cough.
“Hey, Michael. Michael.”
“I can’t right now. Not a good time.”
“I have a present for Jewel.”
It wasn’t much of a gift. Two soggy paper plates, filled with chunks of fruit and stapled together. Leftovers from a staff meeting at my job. Nobody seems to mind that I bring the extra food home. I always ask first. They’re only gonna throw it away. Sometimes, they have pizza, bagels and spreads. I take that too, for myself and my son, when he comes over. But he doesn’t like cream cheese, just butter.
“It’s strawberries,” I said.
“I don’t need your help,” Michael whispered.
“I’m not here to help.”
He undid the deadbolt and slid his hand through the opening. “Give it.”
I did. Then he closed the door and locked it. I kept knocking until he let me in.
Within a week, we were smoking crack together whenever we could. I called out sick from work a lot.
“Kirin has chicken pox,” I told my boss. “In his throat and the crack of his ass.” That’s where I had them when I had them, eight years ago. And it sucked.
I left elaborate stories on her voicemail. “The doctor says Kirin has diabetes.” I’d leafed through the symptoms in a booklet at the checkout when I went to buy beer, Diseases of the Human Body. “The poor kid’s been so hungry, and he can’t hear what the teacher’s saying. I’m gonna have to take him to get glasses, too. But don’t worry, I can do that over the weekend.”
When Jason called, wondering where I was on the weekends I was supposed to pick up our son, I started hiding. I deleted his messages without listening to them. I unplugged the answering machine so he couldn’t scold me. The phone company disconnected my service when I threw away the bills.
“Why don’t you ever see your kid?” Michael asked.
“He lives really far.” It sure seemed that way.
“You must miss him.”
“I do.” I really did.
So many times, it felt like I was dropped into the middle of a discussion Michael was already having with himself.
“I went to rehab, you know.”
I didn’t know.
“It was my mom’s idea. She thought I had a problem.”
“I used to. Maybe. It’s all good now.”
Michael had trouble paying his rent and put the glove on me for a loan.
“Just two hundred dollars,” he said. “I’ll get it back to you in three days.”
“I ain’t got that kind of money.” It wasn’t a lie. Plus, I knew he’d never repay me. Every penny he made, he spent on drugs.
“So, you wanna fuck?”
I was relieved when he asked. Maybe that meant he wasn’t mad. I didn’t want him to be mad. I didn’t want him to make me leave.
I guess I said ‘yeah.’ I meant ‘yeah.’ But neither of us moved from our places on the couch.
I guess I thought Michael and I were a thing, a thing that if I just worked at a little harder, might not be so bad. But being together was never good. When I could be still, I let him climb on top of me, press into my willingness with what little focus he had. Sometimes, he cried. He rubbed at his eyes like a toddler, reluctant to nap.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into my neck. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
Jewel’s cage was filthy and the smell so awful, we carried it onto the back porch and left it there. She roamed from room to room, as if she were searching for something she’d misplaced.
Whenever I sat on the toilet, I stared at little holes along the baseboard that kept getting bigger and bigger. Small drifts of powdery plaster collected in front of these breaks in the sheetrock.
“Should she be eating the wall?”
“Not really.” Michael said. “Maybe she’s hungry.”
“I think she is.”
But we ran out of food and didn’t buy more. We talked about it, though. All the time. Jewel ate candy wrappers and cigarette butts. She threw up everywhere.
Dead animals are scary. In lots of ways, they look like they’re still alive, but you know they’re not. And even if you are in a position to help them, you can’t, because they’re already gone. It’s too late. But I should have known something bad was gonna happen. I hate that I kinda did.
Jewel lay sprawled in the kitchen, a frayed extension cord still dangling from her tiny mouth. I nudged at her lifeless body with my shoe, but her face was stuck to the floor, dried blood caked into the fur beneath her chin.
“Michael, something’s the matter with Jewel.”
“She’s asleep,” he said. “Don’t touch her.”
A week later, Michael died in his car. He was going back to work, a sweet sixteen party in Flushing. But first, he went to score some straight coke. He was trying to put some distance between himself and the crack. His heart stopped, right there in the parking lot of the venue. My landlord told me.
Michael’s mother and another lady cleaned out the apartment. I could hear them crying as they crammed all his shit into garbage bags and piled them into a minivan. I hid in the closet when they came to my door.
“We know you’re in there. Please talk to us,” one of the women pleaded.
I was afraid. And way too high to have a conversation with them about their dead child.
The next morning, I saw Jewel’s empty fish tank on the curb by the driveway. When I got home later on, it was gone. Just like Michael.