The Boys and Girls Next Door

The boys and girls next door come over for the first time on Friday night. They are from Chicago and the youngest girl informs us that it is better than Milwaukee. An older sibling glares at her and translates for us, “no it isn’t, we like Milwaukee,” as if we rule the city and will banish them for treason.

The middle brother admits he likes to draw and we bring out white paper. There is trash talking and telling us to bring more; it is now a game of Pictionary and each is determined to win. One doesn’t draw at all, but keeps writing our names in different fonts and sizes, as if to commit them to memory. Mine says “boy” on the left side, “Ben” in the middle and “man” on the right. I quite agree with the placement.

When the pizza is ready, we become like flight attendants, giving instructions that they don’t quite listen to. We say: there is pizza with meat; with just cheese; these have marinara sauce; this has white sauce. They don’t understand the white sauce. We try to explain it to them. They don’t eat it.

After they lose interest in drawing, we are left to our own devices – iPhones and iPads. A housemate finds music videos of Willow Smith, who whips her hair into a fireball, dressed like Janet and Michael and dancing like neither of them. “Whether it’s black stars or black cars,” Willow sings, “I’m feeling it.”

One of the girls asks to “use it,” and on the way to the bathroom, passes the monolith photo album that also functions as a refrigerator. She sees a snapshot of Meldon, our former housemate. Mel is the type of phenomenal woman that Maya Angelou wrote about: smart, soulful, mischievous, gorgeous. “Why y’all friends with dark-skinned people?” The girl asks. “Why wouldn’t we be?” I ask back. “I don’t know,” she says.

As we reenter the living room, everyone is riding the roulette wheel of childish whims and YouTube suggestions, somehow arriving at Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” We all sing like we always will. I remember the people who said she didn’t have soul, and my mom, who said that to sing like Whitney Houston was her idea of heaven. As I watch one of the girls lean into my housemate for a hug, I think this might be something like mine.


The TV screen was thick with vultures – “news anchors,” “experts,” “friends” – circling her corpse, clawing for their carrion carryout. There will be no viewing at her funeral, I thought, there will be nothing left to see.

A co-worker sat in front of me, back to the TV. She was a fat anime character, eyes squinting smug stupid, magnified by glasses, and her sausage link fingers bloated white as she gripped a foot long sub and sunk her itching teeth into it. And so began her monologue, despite the sandwich’s preemptive strike.

“I’m not surprised,” she jabbed a thumb at the screen. “You saw the interviews, right? She kept saying she wasn’t doing drugs and then she’d get all crazy excited talking about how they used to roll up joints?” She grinned mayonnaise. “Come on. You’re not kidding anybody.”

“Yes,” I started. Like a bad actor, she paused with her eyes blank and mouth open, already ready for her next line, already ready to interrupt if I took too long. “But in the last few years she had made some changes and was -”

“Oh I’ve got nothing against her. She was really talented – ”

“Addiction is really hard,” I started again, “It’s a lifelong struggle, and you have to celebrate any amount of recovery – ”

But I was just a gunshot, and she was off and running again. The voice blabbered and the lips smacked and the teeth chomped and I smiled and nodded and looked across the room. There he was – the ’80s Robert Smith hair, the beautiful Egyptian nose, the jeans that held things I wanted to hold – I was mad about the boy, some boy, any boy, oh boy oh boy –

“She was always using. She never stopped using. She was only fooling herself…” Then she swallowed, and I snapped.

“One of my best friends is a recovering addict.”

Through two scopes I had a view to a kill. The target squirmed. “Yeah, yeah. I don’t mean, you know, that’s – yeah,” she nodded, stuffing her mouth with the rest of the sandwich, eyes darting at her cell phone. “Oh,” she said, “sorry, I’ve got to go to the bathroom before the end of break,” and her white ass wobbled away.

That night, at the gym, I was on the treadmill, keeping my pace, walking in place, not watching the flesh sculptures flexing, watching the TV. It was all about her. The talking heads talked and the bobble heads bobbled in agreement. The interview played and replayed. “Is it alcohol, is it marijuana, is it cocaine, is it pills?”…”It has been at times.”…”All?”…”At times.”…”If you had to name the devil for you, the biggest devil among them?”… “That would be me.”…”So, for the people out there who say, ‘we want to help,’ what do you want them to pray for?”… “Don’t pray about the drugs.”…”Why?”…”Pray for me. For my soul. That I’m stronger. No, man, I don’t care what anybody says or did or what they claimed I was. I know I’m a child of God. And I know he loves me.”