She always seems to be posing for an Edvard Munch portrait: the splash of startled agony on her face, diluted milk skin, bowed slender appendages.
The roommate and I have often wallpapered over her personhood with explanations: mental illness, physical illness – so intoxicated with the fumes of our rational paste that we forgot our own illnesses. We are afraid: of her, for her, of ourselves, for ourselves.
Today (like every day) she is sitting on an office chair on an outdoor patio, near the front entrance of the apartment building. Just what is her occupation? Bouncer? Secretary? Gargoyle? I smile and say hello, as I do every time she is in her office. In response, her eyes widen like Malcolm McDowell in the eyelids-forcibly-pried-open part of A Clockwork Orange. Or Gloria Swanson in any part of Sunset Boulevard.
I am about to flee the scene of the kindness; I am about to close the thick curtains of disregard over my glass block sympathy; when her hand rises into the air like a periscope. Her mouth opens to reveal a dark graveyard with evenly spaced tombstone teeth and it says, “are you going out again?”
Doorman! That’s what she is. I didn’t know. “Oh,” I stammer, “No. Well, yes. In a little while.”
She leans towards me. “Would you buy me some cigarettes?”
“Oh,” I walk towards her, “yes.”
“I’ve been jonesing for a cigarette,” she says, trembling towards her concept of a standing position, then staggering like a zombie grandmother into her apartment. She reemerges carrying some crinkled bills. I ask her what kind.
“Oh. What kind?”
Later, I walk to the closest gas station and ask for Menthol 100s.
“What kind?” Asks the clerk.
“Any kind,” I respond.
“I’ll get you the cheapest.”
I am on the way back, when I see a squirrel running away from another one that’s not moving. I walk towards the one that’s not moving. He is dead, laying on his belly, appendages outstretched in every direction, just inches from the curb. So perfectly preserved; he must have been stolen from a taxidermist. Eyes like dark frozen lakes, reaching for something beyond his grasp. I look up and see the first squirrel run up a tree.
She is waiting for me on the patio. I hand her the cigarettes and recount, “he said these were the cheapest.”
Pause. We are uncomfortable, but we can’t move. I feel my voice sneaking out of my mouth like a teenager out a window. This is how it sounds: “I’d like to be your friend.”
She lights a cigarette. “I’d like that.”
You’ve done something beautiful that no one else here could/wanted to/succeeded after attempting. I half expect her to be shooting the breeze with you on our fake back porch most of the time when I come home now 🙂 That would be nice.
My. What a beautiful picture of frailty you paint.
Where do you live now?
Also, menthols are nice. I don’t REALLY miss the occasional smoke, but I did used to enjoy menthols.
And I’d be interested in the origins of the slang “jonesing”. Why not smithing? Or parmaning?
I would just like to randomly say that the tall lanky chap in the Burger King breakfast commercials reminds me of you. And it makes me smile.
I’m in awe of your ability to flesh out compelling portraits of even seeming strangers whom we walk past every day.
Oh, I do so yearn for an update my sweet.
The squirrel, my dear. The dead one.
Lovely, lovely. I feel bad for the squirrel (it can’t be helped — death comes for us all, rodents or not), and glad you made a friend.
Fragility is not something to fear, and yet I so often run from it. This is a good reminder, dear brother.