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The Ledge

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I.

The music faded back in from interstellar space. It was coming at him from beyond the great static. Something dropped him from above — weightless consciousness — into where he was usually, where it was so cold it shocked his eyes open. Stevie Nicks, he remembered. Except the girl hovering above him in the bathtub full of ice was brown-haired. Her mouth moved and he heard what she was saying another heartbeat later. “Oh, fuck.”

His mind generated assorted thoughts. Chiefly that she was not who he had hoped he would see. Had he been hoping he would see — maybe if this was heaven. Then he would have wanted to see his mother. But nevermind he was probably already exiled from there for thieving. If it was Las Vegas which it was, it was Las Vegas by the color and shape of things, by the shadows in the corner of the room, he would have wanted to see —

His soaked jeans and t-shirt (he had taken off his sweater, earlier, when they had thought — they had been thinking they would have to shoot it, but there weren’t any needles) pulled him down into the freezing water. He sat up, teeth chattering, the girl embraced him. “Kotku,” he said with no voice. Into her hair which smelled like rosemary.

“It’s alright, you’re alright.”

His face was burning hot. “What — ”

“You keeled right over. Your lips were blue.”

“Gotta shock the system,” said someone sitting on the toilet seat across the room, puffing an acrid gas station cigar. One of her burly stepbrothers, he remembered. “That stuff’ll fuckin get ya.”

He wondered later what they might have done if he had died — really died.

“You’re crying,” said Kotku, smoothing his wet hair back from his face. “Are you alright?”

The burly stepbrother got up. “Coffee’s on,” he said. “Don’t let him sleep, K.”

She helped him up and sat him on the toilet seat and peeled the soaked clothes off. Eventually he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Things were spreading out again. He was getting lifted out of himself, like jumping into the pool backwards, until she slapped him.

“We can’t bring you to the hospital,” she said very seriously. “Our dad’ll fucking kill us. You have to stay awake, can you stay awake?”

He nodded kind of woozily.

“I can put you back in the bathtub,” she told him. It was more like a threat.

It was all he could to to shake his head. She got up to go in the other room and find some dry clothes for him and he stared at the fluorescent light until it seared a big white hole in his vision. There was a moth or something throwing itself against the light again and again.

“Borya,” Kotku said. She was right there again, holding sweatpants and one of her dad’s cop academy t-shirts. Had he his wits about him, and indeed later when he did, it would have been an affront to his morals to wear such a thing. But he was cold, and his hands were numb, not entirely because of the cold, so she scrunched it up and put it on over his head and pulled his skinny overcooked noodle arms through the gaping arm holes. “Why are you crying,” she said.

“There was a moth.”

“A moth?”

“Yes.” Something bubbled up inside his face like lava. “Trapped.”

She looked up and around the light. “I can’t see it,” she said.

“Probably it is dead now.”

“Maybe it got out.”

She gave him a weak kind of smile and then she held his wet head against her chest. She was warm. He cried more but not really sure why. There was enough of the drug still in his system that nothing hurt. His lungs burned, because, Kotku and her stepbrother would tell him later, the next morning, unslept, snorting cocaine and eating doughnuts, shortly after he passed out halfway through one line of smashed-up oxy he was taking four breaths per minute. It was almost funny, because he could feel something wrong but it didn’t hurt. It was just strangeness. He figured the same was true of his literal soul.

All this stuff, like her embrace, that her arms though thin and elbow-once-broken and hands kind-of-shaky felt strong, that though her own pupils were massively dilated given the quantity of pot she had been smoking she arranged his limbs and moved and held him and checked for his breathing and his open eyes with a nervous assuredness, almost confidence — all this was familiar from another side. Kotku threaded her little hand into his hair at the back of his neck where he felt not so cold anymore but feverish and itchy. He could feel his own heartbeat against her hand and in all his skin and in his ears, struggling with the warring chemical impulses of heroin and adrenaline. From whence this tenderness? She was not famously gentle.

“I know it’s hard,” she said. He could feel her voice vibrating inside her chest. “I know it hurts.”

At first he thought she was talking about overdosing. She would know, he thought, not unjealously. It’s hard to stay awake. It hurts to hold on while it pulls you away, like the tide… But then she said, “I know you miss him.”

--

He sat on the couch all night drinking coffee and watching the Simpsons and eventually Kotku’s brother came back from his security job with day-old baked goods from the supermarket. They sat outside on the veranda looking over the dust and eventually Kotku went back inside for the cocaine. “Sorry,” Boris told them after a while.

Kotku’s brother shrugged. “Could’ve been any of us,” he said. “Word of advice — ” Honking snort as the line disappeared — “don’t go first.”

A cloud moved across the sun.

“Do you want to go home,” Kotku said eventually. “I could drive you.”

--

She was fucking right, Boris thought as he walked back to his father’s house in the silent sunstroked dustblown streets. The missing was like that twisting blind ball of light. It was like looking into the sun. It was a big white emptiness like all the other big white emptinesses. This whole desert was an emptiness, as he had reflected on with Theo before. His presence as a Russian doll (ha!) containing demons only extreme fucked-uppedness could reveal had wrenched Boris from a life of suffocating boredom that he had returned to now to find it even worse than he remembered. Perhaps like tasting chocolate once and never being able to again. Maybe this was something worse than boredom. Like something having been written about by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Pasternak, his namesake, or so his father claimed: feelings requiring an epic novel. Maybe just a nice way to say depression. Suffocating loneliness. Heat death of the soul, etc.

Easy, from this place, to do stupid things. This place was already oblivion. Basically like a place actively being washed away by a chalkboard eraser. He began to understand why Theo was always wanting to lie down in the road. The road which in its great nothing untrafficked endlessness was basically like those ice roads in Siberia, which his father frequently told him about when he was only medium drunk and feeling — disturbing to think he could feel really anything human at all, especially this — homesick, Boris figured. Feeling homesick and perhaps remembering, at the sight of him in the door, ah! there is the child I fathered. There is my boy. Based on the slurred histories Boris had managed to cobble together, his father had been involved for some time in the illicit transport of goods, from his mines and from other sources. This was perhaps why he had had to abruptly leave the Ukraine for Australia, “even with your mother very pregnant as she was,” et cetera, et cetera. When the goods needed to reach certain ports or villages, they necessitated transportation on makeshift roads hacked into the barely-frozen rivers. “Borya,” he said, and his arm was around Boris’s shoulders on the couch, but the ash from his cigarette was puddling on Boris’s bare scabby knee, and Boris was fucking high, basically scared shitless, every muscle tense, there was no way his father did not feel it, but watching the meniscus in the fingerprinted tumbler of vodka get lower and lower one had to prepare for imminent violence, “You should have seen the mountains, yes? The fjords? Like nobody has ever seen before. And the towns. People living in shipping containers. Nothing to do but drink and fuck, eh?” 

Boris went upstairs into his room and was obliged to take the batteries out of the smoke detector to put them in the radio, because there was no power. The radio played Fleetwood Mac. He went into his closet with the flashlight he kept by his bed and looked up at the newspaper-wrapped package duct-taped to the ceiling for a few minutes, and then he sat down on the floor and looked at it some more, and then he thought about taking one of the green pills, though that exact thing had nearly killed him eighteen hours previous. Maybe swallowing it would be different and it would just take this away. The reason those kind of pills existed was to take pain away! Specifically the pain of dying people which was what he was! A dying person — yes, he almost said aloud, everyone who lives is technically a dying person, but I specifically am actively dying. Living does not feel like this!

He got his desk chair and shoved it into the closet and stood on it and reached up straining with the tips of his fingers (not even sure how he had gotten it up there, anyway, months ago, force of will, maybe, power of desperation) and touched the rise at the edge of the duct tape which was the corner of the painting.

Eventually he lay down in his bed and closed his eyes but couldn’t sleep. Dreams moved over him like storms for a couple hours until at last he came around just past midnight abruptly like he’d been struck, clutching his pillow tightly against him, ribs aching. The moon was in the room with him like another person, and logically he understood this wasn’t the worst, probably wouldn’t be the worst, provided he lived much longer, which was starting to feel unlikely, but he could not remember being lonelier.

---

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II.

The light was moving over him. Then faces. “Hey, kid,” someone said.

There was some migraine-inducing mechanical wail coming from somewhere. “Pulse is okay,” said someone. Then somebody else pulled his eyelid open and put a shard of light directly into it. “Pupils still dilated.” The feeling of monumental goodness beyond the capabilities of human metaphor had dissolved into animal fear. He tried to reach up to tear the thing off his face that was on his face but his hands were held down.

“Be still,” said the first person. It was a severe-looking woman with her hair pulled back in a tight chignon, like a ballet dancer. “You overdosed.”

He strained his eyeballs toward the corner of his vision to see what was on his face and it was a greenish mask, like in movies.

“It’s oxygen,” said the EMT. “It’s helping you breathe. Just breathe.”

Cannot afford hospital, he tried to say into the mask. Cannot afford ambulance! Cannot afford to live most of all!

Information repossessed his brain. This was Los Angeles. He was living with some people under a tarp on Skid Row or otherwise on the beach, when they could get there, near LAX. These drugs were supposed to be good. They had come from someone trustworthy, or such had been alleged. Despite Kotku’s brother’s advice all those years ago he had not given up going first. First precluded the imminent devastation of there being none left when it came around to you. Perhaps he should have been grateful that they had called an ambulance, though it was also likely they had taken all his money and everything else he had holy mother of god including —

“Do you have identification?” said the EMT.

He shook his head.

“What’s your name?”

“Theo Decker,” he said for some reason, trying to get up but it was moving everything was moving —

The EMT looked up and over his head. “Keith, do we have — ”

A monumental syringe was passed to her and went right into the bruise in his arm where the earlier needle had left a kind of fluorescent maroon rip. Then a different holy nothingness.

--

“Mr. Decker?”

Boris looked up and cast his unruly vision all around the tiny white room desperately before he remembered he had given that name. Then he tried to erase himself into the bed. There was a nurse in the door who advanced on him, probably not meaning to seem like some kind of predatory cat.

“Do you remember what happened,” she said.

He nodded. She smiled kind of gently at him. Probably they were going to give him lots of pamphlets about Getting Clean none of which would explain how he was supposed to pay for this.

“Do you remember what you took?”

He shook his head. “My friends’ stuff.”

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

She smiled gently again. “I love your accent. Where are you from?”

Nothing place Australia where they mine opals, where we lived underground because it was so hot. Ancestor-memory-place Odessa, Nome, Alberta tar fields, lately California… “Las Vegas,” he said.

“Are you homeless now? How long?”

She touched his wrist, and then she turned his arm over in the rough bleach-smelling blankets. He noticed that she telegraphed her movements with extreme obviousness so as not to spook him like a startled horse. This was probably Protocol for Dealing with an Abused Child and as such she likely suspected he been through some even worse shit than he had actually been through. He understood he had to somehow get her to keep believing it if he wanted to get out of here alive. What did they do to people who could not pay hospital bills in America? It seemed unlikely it could be worse than the way he was already living, but there had to be something worse. In America there was no bottom. Even after death in this country your loved ones were still on the hook for your debts!

Somebody had taped a puffy cotton ball over the bruised blue vein in the ditch of his elbow to stop whatever bleeding, and the white swath appeared to leak the purply scratching tracks like ink.

“Nine months,” he said to the nurse.

“What about intravenous drugs,” asked the nurse, peeling off the tape inside his elbow. “How long have you been using drugs like this?”

It had started in Vegas, when he had worked out that it was really easy to shoplift insulin needles from any medical supply store, of which there were many in a city full of old people and plastic surgery clinics, and now that he knew his tolerance after the one Incident it was relatively safe, and anyway said tolerance grew over time, like whatever country singer shared Theo’s father’s birthday — spangly suits, Joshua Tree, Scorpio — Gram Parsons! Like Gram Parsons who died age twenty-six shooting enough morphine to kill three people.

Eventually he ran out of drugs, and then he woke up one afternoon to find that all his father’s things were gone, and there was a note on the kitchen table containing four hundred dollars in cash. He had remembered asking Theo to go with him to California.

“Maybe a year,” he told the nurse. “Off and on! Not all the time.”

A lot, lately, but she could probably tell this, looking at him. Have overdosed before on similar thing, he might’ve said. Felt similar in the memory of the feeling! No hospital then!

“It was an opiate for sure,” said the nurse. She was cleaning the wound inside his elbow, which was a purple-red spot in the middle of a bruise, like a storm lasting millennia on a gaseous planet. “A powerful one. They gave you a few rounds of naloxone.”

She put a band-aid over the torn skin. The action felt deeply metaphoric in its uselessness.

“What now,” Boris asked her.

“Do you use clean needles?”

“Yes, of course.”

She peeled off her blue gloves with immense care not to touch the tips of the fingers to her bare skin, not that there was any blood on them even!

“Have you ever had an AIDS test?”

Fucking hell. “No.”

“You should have one. I can send in the phlebotomist.”

“The what? Listen, I do not have any money — ”

“Honey, why do you think this hospital is called Good Samaritan?”

He was not in the mood for these bullshit platitudes. “I really need to get out of here,” he told the nurse.

“You really need to rest.”

“No, I need to — I think I have lost something important.”

The nurse studied him. “I know that this might be hard to hear, but — ”

“It is matter of life and death, this!”

“ — paranoia is often a symptom of opiate withdrawal, Theo.”

Withdrawal! He put the heels of his hands into his eyes, straining the wound inside his arm and the IV inside the other arm, which he hadn’t even noticed was there.

“Do you have anybody you can call?” said the nurse. “Where are your parents?”

Boris shook his head. There was nothing to say. He just kept shaking it. Eventually he put his hand over his eyes, because they were hot.

The nurse touched the bony rise of his knee in the blankets. “We’re going to take care of you,” she said. Boris bit his lip hard to keep something from coming out which tasted like a hiccup-sob. “I’m going to get somebody to draw some blood, okay? I’ll be back.”

He waited until the sound of her footsteps faded in the hallway. Then he carefully removed the IV from inside his right elbow and pressed his thumb into the blood spot in the healthy vein. Got up, bare assed in the crinkly hospital gown, shaky ankles and knees wobbling against the cold tile. The IV needle dribbled clear liquid into a little magnifying puddle on the floor. His clothing — ripped maroon corduroys and the Never Summer shirt — had been laundered for him and left, in a blindsiding gesture, folded neatly by the bed.

--

Last time he had been in a hospital — maybe two years previous. Not really a hospital, more like clinic on edge of town for poor and homeless people, where they had been trucked by the school nurse. It reminded Boris terribly of the place he and his father had gone to after his mother had had her accident, when there was no way she would ever wake up again, because her head was like some fruit, purple, splitting… His little hand held very tight in his father’s hand in the sterile hallways.

He and Theo were herded through the silent stale-smelling blue halls of this strange building floating on the desert into an exam room where another nurse was waiting. It had been a long time since Boris had had shots, having had to get all the American immunizations at once just about when he and his father had fled Papua New Guinea for Alaska, but he had no fear of needles, which felt lucky, later. Theo hated needles, which also felt lucky, later. This was a fucking big one. It was full of this golden goop and it looked like something out of a superhero comic, except it was being administered to them because of what the school nurse had called catastrophic vitamin deficiencies. 

“You go first,” Boris said.

Theo shoved him by the shoulder. “You go first!”

“If I go first, you will be too afraid to go second.”

The nurse turned towards them in her squeaky swivel chair. Next to him Boris felt Theo straighten up protectively as he did, like how you were supposed to do if you surprised a black bear, or was it a brown bear? Perhaps grizzly bear? Make yourself seem larger than you really were?

“Pants off,” said the nurse with an air of extreme consternation.

“Um — ”

“It’s going in your thigh.”

He thought of this whenever he muscled heroin there. Theo had looked away into a corner of the ceiling with his entire face clenched shut, hands in fists in the crinkly exam table paper. Boris, standing in his underwear in the corner, heart slamming, watching Theo’s bruised knees. How his toes curled so tight in the tube socks (his dad’s) that were full of holes. Must have hurt.

--

He walked from the hospital back to the encampment on San Julian, achy, sweating. For a while he sat and breathed and almost fell asleep in a doorway on Wilshire, weak and lightheaded with hunger, until a cop came by forced him out with a truncheon. He pocketed an apple from a fruit stand on Pershing Square and downed it in fifteen seconds, skin and most of the core included, then threw up. Then he was home — “home.” The motley crew of street kids he’d fallen in with since arriving at the Greyhound station with almost nothing nine months previous were scattered around the cluster of tents and tarps smoking cigarettes and playing dice. “No way, man,” said Roy when Boris rounded the corner, kicking a stone.

He was swarmed and embraced by the gang — runaways, abandoned foster kids, orphans, undocumented adolescents from Central America, escapees of attempted trafficking, teen drug dealers, itinerant weed farmers. Roy, the ringleader who had found Boris pickpocketing around Dodger Stadium, who wore glasses, who Boris slept next to in the tent and woke up confused sometimes, approached him last with a handshake and a slap on the back so hearty it made Boris’s heart skip. He was ushered into the tent like a visiting dignitary and installed in a pile of moldering pillows and blankets commandeered from dumpsters. Someone offered him a box of stale graham crackers and someone else a bottle of bad-tasting water, and Roy rubbed his back when he immediately threw up again. They could hardly do anything, because his body was so upset with him, probably more from the shocking effects of the opiate antagonist rather than the drugs themselves to begin with, but their efforts felt kinder than anything anybody had done for him at the hospital. After a while the youngest person who lived with them, Veronica who was maybe thirteen, from El Salvador, sat behind him in the pillows and wrapped her arms around his belly and put her head on his shoulder.

He tried to allow a sane amount of buffer time, though his entire brain was heaving along with his stomach. Then he said, “Have you seen my backpack?”

“Your backpack?”

Oh my god. His heart went… somewhere bad.

“Fluorescent yellow,” Boris tried weakly.

“We had to leave it,” said Elisa, who was sitting in the makeshift doorway of tied-back tarps, smoking a joint, watching for cops.

“Leave it? Where?”

He looked desperately to Roy. “We weren’t here,” Roy told him. “Don’t you remember?”

“Where the fuck were we!”

Veronica flinched and let go of him and went to sit with Elisa by the door. “Calm down, dude,” said Roy.

“First we were at Laura’s on Sunset Boulevard,” said Elisa, exhaling smoke. “Remember?”

Laura was this girl who had lived with them for a while and then started seeing this guy… a flash, they were in In-N-Out Burger, and then they were laughing in the street, Hollywood Boulevard, bloody streetlight, beers in paper bags on the stoop…

“She had some friends,” Nick added from his dark corner, where he was reading Kafka. “These… guys — we went to their house.”

“Where was it? What house was it?”

They did not exactly answer these questions. “It was Laurel Canyon,” Roy said. “They wouldn’t let us use the phone to call the ambulance! We had to drag you outside and down the street to the payphone.”

Boris had hoped for a single moment that these mysterious Canyon friends of Laura’s might have been old hippies, but old hippies would at least have had some proposed solution for a young guest overdosing on opiates between calling an ambulance and leaving him to die. He felt a stab of fear for the painting. Also something else, not quite a stab but not unlike one, which was a kind of terror-curiosity, otherwise as Bret Easton Ellis said, in his writing about Los Angeles funnily enough, the need to see the worst. Almost as he felt when Theo said, with air of doom, lifetimes previous now, “I need to show you something.”

“Where is Laurel Canyon,” said Boris.

“You shouldn’t go back there, man. It was, like, a really creepy place.”

“I have to get my stuff.”

Roy rested a hand on Boris’s shoulder. “We can help you replace it.”

Boris laughed with desperate terror. Is literally irreplaceable! he thought perhaps he should say. Is literally irreplaceable but of course I have lost it because of course I lose everything!

“They had more drugs than I’ve ever seen in one place,” Elisa said. She sometimes worked at an underground strip club across town so this was saying something. “Like, Scarface quantities of cocaine.”

So they were dealers, Boris thought. Perhaps they were importers or manufacturers. “And what happened?”

“You just did a shot, normal size for you, and you keeled right over, you know, twitching and everything.”

“You are sure normal size for me?”

“Yeah, like you always do, more than Elisa, less than Robin…”

Boris understood this meant either the drug had been really pure or tainted with something else. Given what the nurse had said he figured it was safe to assume the former. Therefore these people were serious drug traffickers. And they were now in possession of most important slash only real thing Boris had, which was not even his!

These people would not know what to do with serious art. When Theo had first showed him he hadn’t known what to do either. You weren’t technically supposed to touch it without special gloves, because of the oils in your skin, but if you had to handle it, it was like a vinyl record, by the palms, by the edges. Don’t even touch the verso, Theo had told him, which was what the back was called. He held it gently by the newspaper in which he had wrapped it and he placed it into the flattish turntable of Boris’s outstretched hands. He was so drunk the look of it was spinning, all color spinning. What so special about this, he almost asked Theo, bird in chains, cannot fly away, metaphor seems obvious, until he looked up and saw Theo’s face.

--

The next day, after a few hours of snatched and scattered sleep, he went out early to Union Station and picked some pockets, then to the customary pawn shop, then with thirty dollars in his pocket to the transit center where he was obliged to begin the process of taking approximately nine million buses across the most populous county in America to the neighborhood where they had somehow found themselves two nights previous. While he waited, sitting like a cat in a beam of sunlight through the high windows, he bought a pretzel and ate it as slowly as he could stand.

The bus across Los Angeles was somewhat less of a tour of American squalor and roundly shattered dreams than the bus across Las Vegas had been, but it wasn’t far off. Las vegas meant the meadows, and los angeles meant the angels, and just as there had been no meadows in Vegas so there appeared to be short supply of angels in LA. The buildings outside of downtown were low to preempt against earthquake destruction, and beyond the shaky shapes of the city the far hills were muted in haze. The bus hiccoughed through traffic and across the caged and culverted trickle of the river, snorting foul fumes, whilst Boris, sitting in the back in a moderately upright fetal position against the mounting nausea — it couldn’t have just been the overdose, he was beginning to understand; the nurse was right, it was withdrawal now, which might have signified something important to someone with wits about them — breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth like a yoga instructor. He got off on Hollywood Boulevard at the base of the canyon parkway, sprinted into an alleyway and puked. Then he went back to the bus stop to wait in misery for the next one that was heading up into the hills.

Laurel Canyon, Elisa had reminded him, was the namesake of Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, an LP that had been on the jukebox at the bar in Karmeywallag and the first time the young Boris had ever heard about Woodstock. From the bus, as any ritzy white neighborhood looked from public transit smeared and rotted by the groping of the poor, the adobe and the vivid bloody Spanish terra-cotta and the palms and the prickly pear seemed plastic. More like a dollhouse of late capitalism than the temperate jungle of folk music and polyamorous swinging than the music of the sixties would lead one to expect. This place is gonna burn, Boris thought delightedly, forehead against the vibrating window.

He got off the bus at the top of the hill — Roy and Elisa and Nick and Robin having meticulously reconstructed these directions from their fear- and depressant-fragmented memories — and walked west on Mulholland, shivering, sweating, counting breaths against footsteps then footsteps against breaths like a Radiohead time signature until he came to the street that went down to the park. Off the park was a row of scrubby pine trees in which he profusely vomited green acid, then he crossed the ten-foot gravel firebreak into what was perhaps the neighborhood’s only un-manicured yard — though to call it a yard, as any parceled outdoor space in an uncharitable drought-stricken desert where humans were not supposed to live, was a charitable interpretation. Time lifted him up into a funny floating nightmare at the sight of the blue-tiled pool set deeply into the suffocated crabgrass and parched old mud, which was scummy with blown dandelion fluff and beer cans and thin white ash from last week’s fire in Topanga. Funnily enough, he thought of Talking Heads “This Must Be the Place.” Perhaps they had been listening to that the other night, because it was always somewhere or another on the radio, or otherwise he had been listening to it a long time ago by another similar disgusting pool, similar ash-sticky mind moving with the stiff dry breeze. This must have been the place.

The house was in marginally better shape, and might have looked good from the front. A few shingles were loose in the synthetic blue siding, and in the last rain the gutters had overflown, streaking greenish algae down from the rafters. There was a big tear in the screen door on the cherrywood deck set above the pool — through it Boris could smell air conditioning, pot smoke, something garlic cooking. A stereo with good bass played Fleetwood Mac.

He felt something he did not understand, like being shocked awake in the ambulance cab all over again. Hand of fate waving itself in his face. Duh!

He went up the deck stairs to the screen door and knocked on the loose plastic moulding around it. It was dark inside, movement like shifting sand, and then there was muffled conversation in a Slavic language he couldn’t identify. His heart kicked.

Two shadows appeared behind the torn screen, developing faces. They were severe men, arms protectively folded, one with the sunken skeletal face and shatterable frame of a longtime addict. The other was burly enough to quiet the tones of “That’s All For Everyone” from the stereo behind him against his massive bulk. Brains and brawn, Boris understood. Something deep in the animal mind could almost place them.

On żyje,” said the smaller man. Polish, Boris recognized — he lives. There was no surprise in the flat, wry voice.

Boris didn’t know how to say no thanks to you in Polish. Besides maybe that was purely English idiom. “Oto jestem,” he said. Here I am.

Jak masz na imię?” asked the big one.

“Boris Pavlikovsky.”

The skinny one’s face crinkled around the dark eyes. “Ukrainian,” he said.

Tak.”

“Kyiv?”

“Odesa…” Did it count if you had been conceived there, probably, but had never seen it? It just probably would not mean the same to them to say something like the truth.

The big one turned away from the door just enough to let Boris see his yellow backpack sitting where he must have left it on a ragged leather couch inside. Suddenly he remembered the junk had been particularly white. Almost like sugar… Maybe that ought to have told him something.

“You are tenacious,” said the skinny one, switching to English. Boris was not so desperate as to not notice this was a test. “Did no one ever tell you you ought not to go first.”

“I know limits usually,” Boris told them. Don’t look at the backpack. Don’t look at the backpack, don’t throw up.

“Maybe different kind of limit now,” said the skinny one, pointing at Boris’s hospital bracelet with a beringed finger. “You are white like sheet. Should have waited around the hospital for methadone.”

All Boris knew about methadone was the Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” “Rookie mistake,” he said, trying a smile.

The skinny one looked to the big one and the big one shoved the screen door open such that Boris had to quickly step back to avoid being brained by the frame.

“Come inside. Do you want a glass of lemonade?”

He stepped up into the air conditioning and into the rest of his life. Sometimes he wondered about the kids he had lived with on Skid Row. They probably thought he was dead.

---

--

-

III.

Not long after the incident in Miami, Boris was assigned to meet a contact in a Polish restaurant in a strip mall on the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia. He arrived twenty minutes late to find this person wasn’t there yet, so he ordered pierogis and drank vodka. At last someone sidled into the torn red leather booth across from him. “You must be Pavlikovsky,” said this guy in Russian. He was tall and his face was not particularly memorable except for looking like it had been beaten to a pulp more than once. “I am Gyuri.”

Boris put out his hand and Gyuri shook it across the pierogis. “Shall we order more,” Boris asked him, sticking to Russian though it was a little rusty.

Gyuri looked across the empty bar and made eye contact with the bored waitress. “They will bring more,” he said.

Perhaps also motivated by Gyuri’s intent eye contact, the bartender changed the radio, which had heretofore been playing muted eurodisco Boris assumed was unfortunately what passed for pop music in Estonia. Confoundingly given it wasn’t one of the album’s better-known singles the radio settled on Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News.”

Rumors,” said Gyuri, helping himself to a healthy pour from Boris’s carafe of vodka. “Greatest album ever made.”

“You think so?”

“You don’t?” But he was lifting his glass — “Na zdrowie.”

“I am Tusk man myself,” Boris told him.

Gyuri’s eyebrow cocked. “You are pretentious contrarian. When is your birthday?”

“April 25.”

“Hmm,” said Gyuri. “Taurus. Perhaps auspicious sign for a businessman such as yourself.”

“How so?”

“You must be careful that your hedonism does not kill you!”

“Hedonism!”

“You like… beautiful things, maybe you say, pleasurable things… Do you not? Fleetwood Mac?”

“You just said Rumors was best album ever!”

“I am observing objective fact. You are stubborn with taste for decadence. Not even worth arguing with you that Rumors is obviously superior album. Because I am Aries, we are at total stalemate.”

The waitress brought two more heaping plates of pierogis.

“One more thing I will tell you,” Gyuri said, scooping the trembling white dumplings hungrily onto his plate. “Marry a Cancer. Only way you will ever feel emotional fulfillment.”

Boris liked him but could not articulate why. “We have just met,” he said, “you hardly even know me.”

Gyuri grunted around a mouthful of mushroom pierogi. He had been vegan since age 14, when he had participated with his father in a mass culling of the family’s cattle, Boris discovered later. “Nice thing about astrology,” he said. “Allows for high level inferences. Helpful in this business.”

“But — ”

“Am I wrong? Anything I said? You enjoy good food, correct, music and drugs, nice clothes, nice product for your nice hair, you are stubborn, you are reliable and work hard, so Piotr said, and anyway if you were not, you would not be here. Maybe you struggle with your emotions, but same can be said of most men, and anyway you are bull so.”

Gyuri smiled. Boris tried to drag his own eyebrows back down his face to a reasonable position.

“We will be good friends,” Gyuri went on. It was clear that he truly believed this for some reason. “Have long friendship. Good placements for trust between us.”

He filled their glasses again with the vodka from the carafe and toasted their health and the radio moved on to the Stones’ “Miss You.” At first, Boris remembered later with some embarrassment, he did not think Gyuri would be right.

--

Gyuri served as Piotr’s middleman in Tallinn at that time, and for another few years after that until the delicate balance of power shifted and things changed and he was forced to flee Estonia in the night for Amsterdam, where Boris was in need of a fixer. When they met, Tallinn served as a functional waystation for the ferrying of drugs from manufacturers in Russia to clubs in Helsinki and Stockholm; Gyuri assumed management of the goods in Estonia and oversaw the necessary exchanges. This time the exchange was for guns instead of cash, so Piotr had sent Boris, who had overseen a few such deals before in Los Angeles.

After pierogis, they went around to the docks to wait for the Russians, who arrived precisely on time with a few crates full of homegrown amphetamines hidden inside stuffed animals. Gyuri tested the product, touching a spit-wet pinky finger to a crushed pill and methodically bringing the powder to his tongue. He grunted in approval, and the guns were revealed and observed. The Russians approved of their take and each faction packed their respective crates into their respective Cadillacs and went on their merry way.

The entire deal was so royally noneventful and what happened after so extremely and unfortunately memorable that later Boris only could recall passing Gyuri the joint they were sharing as they waited for the Russians, and Gyuri taking his hand, flattening the cup of it as he extracted the joint from between Boris’s first two fingers. “Hmm,” he said, inspecting the lines and calluses on Boris’s palm, “you have recently suffered a great loss.”

Boris was rattled. “This too!” he exclaimed.

“Am I wrong?”

Thinking of what had happened was not only embarrassing — devastating was probably the right word — but it was also embarrassing, especially because he was usually pretty good at what he did. Growing up as he had had made it very difficult for anyone to get anything over on him, which was a pretty useful trait for someone who worked trading and overseeing the trades of assorted illicit goods. He had been thinking that Piotr had probably sent him to Tallinn, to handle this nothing deal, as a kind of punishment, or a kind of demotion, because what had happened with the painting had proved that perhaps the easy stuff was the best he could do. Nevermind that it had been his idea to use the painting in the first place as collateral in trades that had brought in enough for Piotr to buy a small Bahamian atoll.

That feeling — letting the painting go — had basically been almost the same as shooting heroin. The whole point was to get as close as possible to the moment of total loss. Put this priceless thing in unforgiving hands; pray that you had calculated correctly; reap the reward tenfold or fucking die.

Maybe it was the pot, but he found himself wondering if Gyuri was right and he was doomed by his own Taurean penchant for wretched excess. Boris liked money; he liked good shoes, cheese and mezcal that could not be legally purchased in America, authentic vintage fur. Letting the painting go had been worth it until it wasn’t.

“No greater loss than anybody,” Boris told Gyuri at the Tallinn docks, closing his hand again.

“Are your parents alive?” Gyuri asked, taking a hearty hit from the joint and passing it back Boris’s way.

“My mother died when I was young. My father, I do not know. Probably he is alive. Do not know if he can die.”

“Siblings?”

“None.”

“Friends?”

Boris cocked an eyebrow. “You, now.”

“It is difficult to have friends. This life. Makes it hard. And Piotr — he is good man. Most of time. But not friend.”

Boris didn’t say anything, knowing Piotr to be a bad man almost all the time and certainly not a friend.

“I have lost many friends. Have lost many more friends than living friends I can count now. Is difficult, friendship, is it not? In our society? I have grieved — many years, for friends, friends of my childhood and from university…”

Where the fuck was this coming from? Boris took the last hit of the joint and twisted it out under the toe of his boot, praying that the Russians showed up soon.

“It is a special grief,” Gyuri said. “Special loneliness. Maybe you know.”

He used the tone of voice he used most of the time with Piotr now. Done talking about it. “Sure.”

It was a mistake with a man like Gyuri. “Of course,” Gyuri said. His voice was gentle and reassuring, but he had gathered the potentially compromising information he needed. He touched the back blade of Boris’s shoulder, and Boris mentally kicked himself. “Of course.”

--

If he was trying to hide the unfortunate fact of the interminable psychodrama from Gyuri he ought not to have done what he did next, at the underground club Gyuri proudly escorted him to “for celebration!”, where instead of seeking out fun party drugs and some attractive person to get his mind off things with a good hallucinogenic fuck, he went straight to the darkest corner, found the sketchiest-looking person there, and purchased from them some very impure heroin that looked like brown sugar, with which he went into the men’s room, in which every stall was occupied with people doing the exact same thing, and shot up. Gyuri came in, in a few minutes’ time, “just to piss,” so he later said when he told this story as he did all the time to most of their mutual acquaintances, “he is lying on floor — filthiest floor you could ever possibly imagine! Floor of warehouse club in Tallinn in the rainy season! You name it, is on that floor! Anyway he is lying on floor frothing at mouth, and I said Borya — ”

Gyuri did not at this time call him by this pet name; nobody did but Piotr, which Boris later figured might have disturbed him more than it did at the time; even his father had only called him Borya at a very precise degree of drunkenness which could not always be effectively calculated.

What Gyuri did say, if Boris was remembering correctly, was every Russian profanity in the book. Then dragged him out of the club onto the street; it was nearly dawn, raining…

“… will not bring back your great loss,” Gyuri was saying. Boris’s arm was around his shoulders and Gyuri’s arm was around Boris’s waist. The cobbled streets were scuffing the toes of Boris’s brand new black leather boots, because Gyuri was dragging him up the hill like a rag doll. “That thing is not going to be there for you in death, zhopa! That thing is gone! Get your fucking feet under you!”

Boris tried. He looked up; the streetlight wedged the screaming forever-burst of an exploding star into his eye. Beyond, the colorful bell-like pergolas of a Russian Orthodox church. He managed to put every part of both feet against the cobbles but then he started to drift away and Gyuri was going again and he stumbled.

“You have to try. You do not actually want to die. Trust me, you do not actually want to die.”

The city was bleary, graffiti-smudged, colorful rowhouses in the rain and the low clouds against the living night. Between blinks he drifted into these black dreams.

“Dear friend of mine — friend of childhood,” Gyuri was saying, “I am not sure whether he thought he wanted to die, or if he did not believe he could. Truly could be either. We had drifted apart by this time, because his political views were… it is generous to say untenable. He had some — very difficult family. Used to come to my house in the middle of the night, climb in the window. I am not ashamed to say, we would talk all night, fall asleep on the floor. We were only boys. He was one of those — maybe you have seen them on the YouTube. Climbing the old radio towers with no equipment. He drove his motorcycle through a red light, truck hit him. No body! Just incinerated. Red mist. Nothing. All of this — this tempting death, like him, like you… if you really wanted to do it, it could be very easy. The temptation is for another reason. Not saying I know what it is. But it is not actually wanting to die.”

They paused at the corner of a cemetery for Gyuri to bend low and yank Boris’s arm more tightly around his shoulders by the wrist. A rough touch felt around for the pulse in his neck. Then they moved on again.

“You, Boris, you would not be wearing this nice fur coat if you really wanted to die,” Gyuri told him. “So you are compensating. For what, I do not know. Maybe it is this thing you have lost. More likely it is that thing has become some other thing inside your mind. Things are only things. Even people… losing people sometimes more like losing a part of oneself, do you understand? It is the other meaning — the thing it means below the surface. That is where the horror comes. What the pain tells you. Is not good, what the pain tells you, but you need to hear. There is no real living without listening to what the pain says. Boris — are you laughing?”

Something was happening? Maybe it was crying. He could not stop shaking; his breath was shaking.

“Is alright,” said Gyuri, rubbing his back. “Laugh all you want. Means you are breathing.”

They went around the block three, maybe four more times until he could walk without being held up.

---

--

-

IV.

In the hotel elevator, he stared at himself in the endless mirror. Thin man (Bob Dylan chords) in black coat, with little white dog. His nose was red from coke. Eyes red from maybe something else.

Thunderbolt, people said, yes? Crack! The silhouette in the door… Basically would know him in any light. Even in pitch darkness. Time stopped and lifted up and rotated forty-five degrees then dropped again. A key went into a lock and twisted and a door swung open into some other place. In this other place it turned out Theo had not looked at that fucking painting in eight fucking years — this same boy who used to only need two bong hits before pulling that thing out and just gazing at it! — and was engaged to a woman. Both of these things equal parts disastrous and hilarious and completely disappointingly non-surprising. Theo had always been a genius of repression.

Boris, for his part, was a genius of nostalgia. When the most pivotal years of your life were basically a drug montage (swallowing, snorting, smoking, shooting) intercut with confusing half-drunk teenage frottage in the moonlit darkness and dragging your shitfaced suicidal friend out of the desert by the wrists, all set to the unsubtle tones of something like the Velvet Underground’s “White Light / White Heat,” maybe you were doomed to a semipermanent state of bewildered psychedelic reminiscence. And the best remedy for an onslaught of this, as everything, was heroin. Dimly Boris remembered crushing Xandra’s Vicodin on a plate with the base of a rocks glass to the tune of one of Theo’s silly New York indie rock bands, Animal something that he was always listening to basically because it sounded like kids fairytale folk songs just made by grown ass men, Boris tried to say, but Theo was like, what’s wrong with you, how do you not grasp the emotional resonance? He was trapped in his mind from that day, thirteen, like the bird, Boris realized eventually. Now you just put pen to nose and breathe in! Like you are very surprised!

Theo had got him into the Velvet Underground to begin with. What did he even listen to before? Fleetwood Mac and T.A.T.U.? The latter only because of his then-fixation on girls kissing one another? If girls could kiss other girls could he kiss another boy? Trouble was no other boys at school really looked all that kissable until. Until! They sat on the bed sharing the iPod one headphone in each ear such that you could not really hear half the song right, sipping beers. His shoulder pressed against Theo’s and their fingers brushed on the rapidly diminishing joint. The album would get to “Sister Ray” and Theo would skip it to go back to the start. Later Boris realized he was probably embarrassed of all the lyrics about blowjobs. Of course he was given he refused to return this great favor Boris was always doing for him!

“My mom said Lou Reed got electroshock therapy,” Theo said once.

“Electro — what?”

“They stick wires in your head to shock you, shock the bad thoughts out of you.”

“Like lobotomy?”

“I guess. Not permanent.”

“Does it work?”

Theo turned up the music —

I know that she cares about me
I heard her call my name
And I know she's long dead and gone
Still it ain't the same

He smiled down at Boris against his shoulder with a fragile softness that was tentative and uncharacteristic. Something was growing like a shiny soap bubble inside Boris’s chest. “Do you think it worked?” Theo said.

In his minute hotel room Boris put the dog on the floor where he immediately ran to the abandoned scraps of room service breakfast. Do Not Disturb tag on the door, shut and locked, curtains closed. He threw his coat on the bed and after some thought dug his phone out of the pocket, turned up the speaker, put on The Velvet Underground and Nico.

“You remember this music, yes, poustyshka?” He sat on the floor against the bed and the dog came running with a scrap of bacon hanging out of his yellowish mouth. He put it on the floor next to Boris and looked up at him and then hunched over it protectively. “Your ancestors were wolves, Popchyk,” Boris told him, gathering the dog into his lap, like an oversize breathing stole. The dog just looked at him with pathetic admiration, tongue lolling out of his pink mouth. “We almost killed you,” Boris reminded him. “We fed you steak and chocolate.”

That was all you had, the dog’s eyes said. I knew you were struggling as I before you struggled. You loved me and that was all that mattered. And we all survived and now we are happy and fat and fucking rich! Apology non necessary!

The imagined forgiveness was like a ghost of the forgiveness he wanted which was of course impossible, more so now, given Theo had probably gone to wherever he had the civics book hid and then screamed at the sky or taken a bunch of pills or something else bad. Boris kicked himself. He should not even have brought it up, but he had, and he had brought up the other secret too…

Probably the dumbest thing of all the dumb things he had done and said in a conversation so necessarily charged by the years-old betrayal that Theo had not even known about was to invoke the Thing, arrangement, situation, the problem, the nocturnal secret, whatever one would call it, which had never been invoked by means of words before, though it had happened all the time, to varying degrees, for six months or so. Perhaps had been a cheap shot. That was not meant to be spoken of. But also he had lied, because of course he had slept with other men since then. Maybe, as he probably should have fucking learned by now, lying was the real mistake.

It simply would not do to think in detail about basically any of this. He carefully maneuvered the dog from his lap in order to get up and get the drugs and works where he kept them in a vintage eyeglass case in his luggage, and then he was obliged to keep fending the dog off with his foot while he extracted a hearty helping of powder from the plastic bag and prepared it for injection. “You want attention,” he heard himself saying, sounding loud in the tiny room, but also from a long time ago. “Does he not give you the love you deserve?”

Theo was high and wilting into the couch. “Asshole. Obviously I — it’s just cause you give him chips.”

Otherwise they were sitting in the mirror of their primordial souls (he was monumentally stoned) attached at the shoulder and the hip in Theo’s bed, and Theo was holding that cursed yellow bag in his lap. One headphone in each of their adjacent ears was playing the Pixies “Wave of Mutilation.” Ceased to resist, given my goodbyes / drive my car into the ocean…

He was looking at Boris as he peeled back the fabric and the newsprint, and then he put it in Boris’s outstretched hands. The dog was curled up between them, watching this exchange with trepidation.

He saw very much famous stolen art in his life after that. He saw Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” in the basement of an abandoned warehouse in Riga, rolled up like a poster or architectural plans, laid out as collateral in a deal for about $2M worth of Kashmiri opium. That painting was certainly fantastic (after many years he was still partial to the Dutch masters, and not only the convenience store cigars of the same name) and it did give him a jealous glee to know he was one of the only people to have seen it since the theft in Boston in 1990, let alone that he got to have it in his apartment in Antwerp for a couple days while he waited for the cash, wondering if he could find his old cell phone and bring it to a mobile store and get them to extract Theo’s phone number, by now probably not his phone number anymore, from the ancient hardware. Potter, you will never guess what I have got!

Anyway nothing in all interim years quite as remarkable as that little bird. And he had lost it.

He sucked up the buttery liquid in the spoon with a clean syringe and flicked the side to settle the air bubbles out of it. Looked like a little more than usual but he couldn’t care. The dog was sitting attentively at his feet with his little head raised, waiting for something. “This is treat for me, Popchyk,” Boris said.

As soon as it hit it was immediately apparent he had made a mistake. Like wind out of desert — the towering cloud of dust advancing out of the sunrise. He retreated inside as the light changed, as an eclipse cutting half the sun, hearkening all the biblical plagues, to shove wet towels in the cracks under the doors, paranoid from coke, hungover, truant, heart in his throat, sixteen, Theo on the couch, what the fuck are you doing, Boris? Am trying to tell you something like this can really fuck you up, man, people drown, they say… And then it was on him, raking fingernails against the windows, and he knew nothing, saw nothing, remembered nothing.

--

The dust storms were bad in Karmeywallag some seasons of the year. Boris’s father was often away down the highway in Coober Pedy directing the excavation of opals in the deep mines there, leaving Boris and his mother at home, where his mother drank, while she was still alive, and then she wasn’t, and he was alone in the house, watching Australian TV he could barely understand. There were public access channels for children broadcasting animated programs that were meant to teach English and manners and social behavior, but Boris more often went wandering alone down the street to the bar with a wet bandanna tied over his face as he had seen his father and the miners do to watch soap operas with Judy and all the maimed old drunks.

Once he went to the bar but couldn’t push the door. Quickly there were faces in the windows moving things away inside and cracking the door open enough to let him in. They looked as though they had prepared for siege. They tried to explain something to him for a while in quick and impossible English and at last lifted him up into the window to show him the big black cloud, shifting and stirring toward them from the far horizon. In his desperation to leave the house he had not even noticed it. Perhaps he was six years old. Judy crouched to his eye level and pointed into the window, then she drew her raw red hand across her own throat. Then he was afraid, and she embraced him.

He told Myriam this story perhaps when they first met, in a confoundingly good Mexican restaurant in Minsk. Myriam had had a not dissimilar childhood in the old Silk Road cities at the edge of the Gobi desert. Her mother had similarly been involved in clandestine trade, and Myriam had inherited select among her clients upon her (alleged) disappearance on the steppes of Kazakhstan. “Bullshit,” she said. “You could have survived. You had wet rag yes? Find cover. Is not so bad.”

She had a persistent hacking cough that surfaced sometimes when it was particularly humid. Leaning against him in a back alley (she could not abide the appearance of weakness in front of strangers), spitting blood against the wet brick, lighting a cigarette when it was all over.

--

Something was making a soft and scared high pitched noise directly in his ear. Car door open in the street dinging absently into the desert night or otherwise perhaps heart monitor in a hospital? Except then it licked his face.

That motherfucking dog!

He forced feeling enough into his arm to push Popchyk away, but it seemed he could only move his limbs through a flood of molasses and the dog was spry for his advanced age. A rough paw scraped Boris’s cheek, then the cold little nose. Memory shocked him like ice water: the little bed, the surprise of morning…

He opened one eye. The dog’s tongue went in his nose. Am okay, he tried to say, but no sound came out. Nothing really had any definition or fixed form. The simulation governing reality was melting, like an overheating projector incinerating the film while the soundtrack went on, heavy-handedly spinning the Velvets’ “Heroin.” I don't know just where I'm going, but I'm gonna try for the kingdom if I can…

The dog barked just once directly in his ear then stepped quickly back like he knew he was in trouble. Boris turned over onto his back. It was like he kept forgetting to breathe because something soft and weighing nothing was sitting on his chest. Perhaps like a ton of feathers made of cloud. Eventually Popchyk dared to approach him again, and his little nose touched Boris’s temple. “Zalishte mene,” Boris managed. Evidently the dog did not speak Ukrainian because at this pronouncement he simply lay down against Boris’s face and whined some more.

Woke up in the night sometimes — beside him Theo was in a little ball. The dog between them or otherwise on Boris’s pillow with his chin on Boris’s forehead, lots of black and white curly hair, like Amerikaner cookie. Outside the no-sound was screaming loud. Silence ringing and ringing like a siren or the chime of some gothic bell that never stopped. He could imagine for a moment, getting closer to Theo in the tiny bed, so that his shoulder touched Theo’s back, finally feeling warm again, his heartbeat slowing down, that there was no one else still living in the world. Everybody else had died in some grand unimaginable disaster, except for them, because grief had made them strong. Funny because they lived as though they were only people in the world in world full of people! Somehow it seemed like if they were really alone it might have been easier.

He lay there on the floor for hours or years, just drifting. The pre-dawn streetlight was red-blue over the great nothingness. The dog curled up against his stomach and against his back and licked his face and barked in his ear on the edge of unconsciousness and sometimes he was sure he was in Theo’s arms or Theo was in his arms and his father was in the next room with some strange woman and they were lying there eyes wide open in the darkness listening to the thumps and bumps and to one another’s heartbeats, wondering, waiting… Sometimes the room developed enough that he could see Theo sitting on the unmade hotel bed, toes of his immaculate L.L. Bean deck shoes touching the faded carpet, looking down at him with maximal pity. He shuffled together all the words of apology he knew in every Slavic and Romance language and slurred and cried and drooled and finally puked against the itchy floor.

Theo pulled him onto his side by the wrist, folded his knees up, flicked his forefinger against Boris’s cheek. He liked this moment best, the frozen moment before one’s oxygenless brain dropped into denumbing freefall, where the kind of stillness and hesitation felt like the split second before orgasm. He did not normally do it in front of people, and later he figured he must have looked like a dead fish. White face, big bug eyes like a doll’s eyes, whole body still, like zombie, like mummy under glass. Eventually he realized he was laughing, and in relief Theo sat back against the couch, picking glue bits out of the fine hair inside his nose. Boris laughed hard enough that he started crying, and Theo’s face kind of changed shape back to drawn and concerned and many years older than he really was again, but when he leaned close again Boris pushed him away. “What’s so fucking funny,” Theo slurred. This was even funnier, because nothing was! Literally nothing about this was funny! He laughed until he had to stop because it hurt so badly, by which point Theo had joined him, rubbing his cheek against the couch, helplessly giggling.

Beck sounding tinny on Theo’s iPod in the cranked-up headphones: Something’s wrong cause my mind is fading / and everywhere I look there’s a dead end waiting…

--

At dawn he was in the bathroom intermittently puking and shoving his head under the cold shower. Popchyk slept under the sink in a fluffy white pile or otherwise curled up in his lap or otherwise fled into the other room in fear at the sound of him retching. Light developed across the floor, first blue-pink then yellow, like the progression of a bruise, and at last it touched the mirror, and the mirror touched it to Boris’s face. The dog looked up with love and concern into his eyes, and as such he remembered he was going to have to bring the fucking dog back to Theo, who had not looked at the painting for eight years.

He struggled to his feet. The room looked like he’d hastily covered up a murder, and he made a mental note to leave a monumental tip. The dog was leaping and weaving around his unsteady legs. His phone on the dresser was at 1% battery and showed numerous messages from Myriam and one from Gyuri: don’t do anything stupid.

Of course not, he replied, even though he had done basically every conceivable stupid thing. Can you pick me up 10 minutes?

Outside, East Village trash smell slowly turning his stomach like a crank, he guiltily watched the dog shit (there was nothing to pick it up with) in a planter clearly marked PLEASE CURB YOUR DOG. Gyuri arrived presently in the tank-sized black Escalade. Boris lifted the dog into the car, then, more awkwardly, himself. He felt like he’d been run over. Popchyk put his paws on the divider compartment into the front seat and sniffed Gyuri’s jacket pockets, in search of treats, and then returned to Boris to mill around him with concern, likely at the lack of treats. Boris looked up and accidentally met Gyuri’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Fuck. “You look dead,” Gyuri said, eyebrow shifting up his forehead.

“Yes well, almost was, if not for dog.”

Popchyk lay his little body down across the seats and put his chin on Boris’s thigh in order to gaze up at him with the big dumb eyes conveying extreme pity and longing. Boris put a hand on his back, which was soft, and inside which one could feel the quick little heartbeat, as he recalled explaining to Theo when they were teenagers, just put your hand here, yes haha, like a hummingbird! So small! Lying in that little bed together, and Theo trying to pretend he was not crying. Trying to say something like, is no shame because I have nightmares too and only reason you do not see is because something happens and I wake up except can’t move and my father is still there in corner of room!

He put a hand over his eyes, wondering if it would just look like he had a headache or something, and Gyuri pulled the car aggressively out into traffic, generating a symphony of taxi honks. “Myriam wants to see you,” Gyuri explained. He sounded like he felt bad about it. “She said it was urgent.”

“We need to bring the dog back,” Boris said regretfully. It would not really go over to steal some other precious symbolic item from Theo at this juncture. “It will be quick.”

Gyuri peered into the rearview, nearly rear-ending the yellow cab in front of them, and made some inferences. “I can bring him inside,” he offered.

For a second Boris considered it. “I have to do it,” he told Gyuri eventually, regretting every word. “Unfortunately.”

He put his forehead against the cool window. The thin needle rain and subway smoke against the city’s palette of browns and grays evoked something historic and painterly, like the paintings of the Ashcan School or the songs of Television and Richard Hell.

Gyuri dropped the worst possible conversational bomb into this reverie. “When is your friend’s birthday?”

Boris’s jaw dropped. The gall! “We are not doing this!” he practically yelled. “I am not having this right now.”

“Borya, is just a question, harmless you know, just for personal knowledge.”

“I don’t know,” Boris lied. “Near American Independence Day.”

It was July second. Monumentally crossfaded, they climbed into the hills in the cool night darkness with the snakes and salamanders to try and make out the ghost flares of fireworks from the distant city. Boris was grumbling, no doubt incoherently, about patriotism being inherently nationalistic until Theo turned on his heel, stumbling over the scrubby mesquite, and socked him in the mouth.

“Hmm,” said Gyuri.

“What do you mean?”

“I just said hmm.”

As they approached Theo’s block it seemed the dog began to understand what was happening, pacing joyfully between Boris and Gyuri and standing on Boris’s lap to look out the window, covering the clean glass with smeary nose prints. What must he be thinking at the sight of familiar neighborhood in unfamiliar company? We are all going home together again finally?

Gyuri was watching him intermittently in the rearview like a mental patient through the tiny glass window into a padded room. Facing Myriam after this was going to be another kind of trial entirely, but all that was provided he survived the next fifteen minutes. He couldn’t possibly kill me in front of the dog, Boris thought inanely as Gyuri pulled up to the curb in front of the antiques shop. The dog would not possibly let him! Dog presently with paws at the window and tiny stub tail moving in a blur. He looked to Boris with undisguised elation. “It is not how you think,” Boris told him, scooping the soft little body up under his arm, wrestling the door open. Forcing the unruly skeleton toward another gladiatorial oblivion of his own making, again, again, again.

--

Afterward, he made it halfway down the block before he let himself relax his shoulders. Gyuri was waiting at the corner, window down, smoking a fragrant clove cigarette.

“Something will cheer you up,” he said as Boris climbed in, turning up the Fleetwood Mac satellite radio channel. It kicked into the middle of some live recording of Stevie doing “Angel”: I’ll track a ghost through the fog…

---

--

-

V.

The sun came up really fast, all at once, or else it went entirely away; there had been all-colors, total shocking snow-blinding white, and then there were just a few, and most of them were on Theo’s face. In tandem with the development of color was the shocking realization that he could not remember the last time he had breathed oxygen.

It fucking burned! Like it hurt to be alive — this alive, so suddenly! It was shivering hot, like molten glass.

“There you are.” Theo’s hands were on his face — familiar, this, in reverse of course! “There you are, there you are,” Theo was saying, just kept saying, his voice was kind of tired, hoarse, weak with relief; his thumb swiped Boris’s cheek under his eye, and Boris lunged forward and kissed him. Chorus of angels et cetera. Time opened up into a shared hallucination of almost ten years previous where they lay together in the dust and watched the sky burn… He dared unbalance himself against the cold tile in order to grab a fistful of Theo’s white oxford shirt inside the collar of his rumpled suit.

“Obviously am here,” Boris said, pulling away. Theo’s mouth was very red and his glasses were crooked on his nose. They were both breathing hard now: he had only ever wanted them to be the same. “How did you do that?”

“I have naloxone,” Theo said bewilderedly. “Narcan. I took a class.”

“There is a class?”

“They don’t just give you — “ he picked up the implement from the floor in order to gesture admonishingly with it — “fucking needles to punch into someone’s thigh like candy over the counter!”

“You did this for me?”

It was very bright behind his head. The light was a spark against his lower lip. He looked away, pursing his mouth. Which meant yes.

“You said you weren’t going to stop,” Theo said. “So.”

He looked down as though just realizing they were in some not-entirely-new physical predicament. Good luck getting out of this one, Boris thought vengefully, tightening his grip in Theo’s collar. He was so very put-together on the outside these days that the one loose button made him look very undressed, like an overwhelmed Victorian suitor.

“Your hands are cold,” Theo told him.

“Was very big dose. Maybe cut with something? You probably should be ready to do that again.”

“Again?”

“Yes, to stab me with that fucking thing again!”

“You can do it multiple times?”

“This was not in the class? Yes!”

There was never much blood in his face, but more seemed to drain from it, as from an old photograph. “How will I tell?”

“How did you tell five minutes ago?”

“You weren’t answering me and then I came in here and you were lying on the floor not breathing.”

This seemed overdramatic. “Is not not breathing, is breathing less.”

“Semantics!” Theo yelled. “Less is also very fucking problematic, Boris!”

He took a deep steadying breath. Boris could not look away from him. This had probably happened before, when they were teenagers. Everything spinning except for Theo like manifestly reluctant focal point on which the world — his world! the whole desert-world — turned.

“Has this happened before,” Theo asked him, trying very hard to sound calm and collected. Perhaps for the sole purpose of rattling him, which was perhaps his very purpose on the planet of Earth, Boris held up his open hand to show five.

Theo’s eyes blew up comically further behind the fingerprinted horn-rims. “You accused me of wanting to die!” he announced, echoing in the tiny tiled room. “Jesus Christ!”

“Is not wanting to die!”

“What else is it?”

Gyuri’s voice, for a second, from the past — you are compensating…

“Is just me,” Boris told him. Was it lying if you didn’t know the truth? Could you be forgiven for lying if you hadn’t yet managed to admit the truth even to yourself but you knew what you were saying wasn’t the truth? “Is addictive personality. Like you! Like my father — you remember.”

“You aren’t like your father.”

“That is really very incredibly charitable of you.”

“Have you beat somebody to death with a pipe wrench?”

If things were normal he wouldn’t have answered this. At least he would have covered his face with his hands. “Not with a pipe wrench,” he said.

Theo digested that and filed it away under ignored. “Boris,” he said, “why do you do this to yourself?”

“Why do you? You do it too!”

“I don’t inject!”

“Is the same shit, Potter!”

The answer was extremely obvious but neither of them could say it. There had been plenty of opportunity to say it over the past decade, but that was part of why they hadn’t spoken to each other for eight of those years. Someone had to do something to get them both out of this fucking purgatorial Hell world, so Boris decided he would valiantly try. Naloxone chopped everything off the opiate receptors in your brain, he knew, even the natural equivalent synthesized by your body. This moment was pure real. Way too fucking real. Hence maybe bad idea. Also maybe perfect?

“You know this — my mother died, Australia, I was four, first memories, you know? Before that really, like she was not there.” He coughed. His heart was racing, talking was difficult. Theo muscled him up by the collar against the cool bathtub. “She was worse than my dad. Worse than me. Worse than you! Worse than… basically worse than anybody I have ever known. But maybe this is all relative because I am child seeing her do all this and is very new to me, then, you know. Anyway she died — you know this. It seems like this is what mothers just do. Drink selves to death. And my father — it seems like this is what fathers just do! It is, I know you do not believe me but I know that they loved me. The love was in there somewhere. But it is a have-to kind of love, parental love, you know. Anyway they were no good at showing it as they say you are supposed to. Playing Mozart for the baby and et cetera. Was very by myself. Just my father but him not really — Very alone, but you also know this, when you don’t know anything else really, is easy to be alone. But then you, you were just there, and, I am getting to it I promise, well to make it simple you are also lonely motherless boy. And we are both lost in the desert like biblical metaphor.”

“Oh my god,” said Theo.

“Yes, he was not there. Proof if he exists he has sense of humor.”

“Boris, what are you even talking about?”

“We were basically like those feral children raised by wolves clinging to each other in the cave. You know what I mean?”

“In the cave? What?”

Something on his face telegraphing his semipermanent expression of do we have to talk about this and something else, like a watchful openness behind the eyes, like what he looked like when he saw the painting again.

“Theo,” still hard to really say his name, the th being uncaptured in the Cyrillic alphabet, though Boris could hear what it was supposed to sound like in the back of his mind, did all the time, if he was being honest, “suspend your fucking disbelief for the metaphor please. You were first and maybe only person in the world who ever — you know!”

“I don’t know!”

“Loved me! Who I loved. Maybe. Feels a little… bad reproduction of real thing.”

“It felt like being marooned astronauts,” Theo said.

“Yes, there you go. You are artist among us. Maybe it was also a have-to kind of love. But it was — listen, carrying you out of desert, making you throw up when you had too much, holding you back from jumping and that, was not so much for you really, I am sorry to admit, mostly for me, prospect of living without you kind of unpalatable.”

“We didn’t speak for eight years,” Theo reminded him drily.

“Yes, well. I had the painting. Do you remember showing it to me? We were sitting on your little bed. Basically is you. Is like symbol of itself. Here is the rub as Prince Hamlet says. How could I treat you so badly when I wished you only well, as I have said? What is wrong with me? I do not know. I do not really want to know so. What is best for not thinking?”

“Valium,” Theo said with monumental earnestness. “Honestly just take benzos.”

“Those can kill you too!”

“Yeah, coming off them if you don’t titrate. Or I guess you could OD. But you’re not going to get fentanyl in them.”

“Potter, believe me when I say they can put fentanyl in anything and besides this is not the point.”

“What is the fucking point?”

“That I know why I do this but the reason why is I do not know why I do this to you when we were kids! What it says about me like maybe I am bad person to core. Obviously!”

Theo sat back on his heels. He looked pale and incredulous. “You really don’t know why you did it?”

Way deep in the back of his mind something slowly raised its snakelike head from the chest in which he customarily kept it tightly locked and hissed, you know exactly why, zhopa

“Well why did you kiss me?” Theo went on, face reddening.

Even after many years the perfume of not supposed to talk about it that pervaded everything at the scantest mention of their physical intimacy was recognizable once more in the air. “You brought me back to life,” Boris reminded him. “Can I show gratefulness — “

“I mean in Vegas — the night I left. Remember?”

“Of course I remember,” Boris said, though not for lack of trying.

More dangerous treading now. “Why did you do it,” Theo said.

He remembered something suddenly which had not been entirely forgotten but which had been confined somewhere: Theo with great gentleness and trepidation like the landing silence of a small bird kissing his bruised-shut eye and the join in his broken nose where he could feel his own heartbeat — no pain, because they had taken some of Xandra’s pills and chased them with a lot of vodka — and then his lower lip which was shredded against his mouth which was full of blood and tasted like spare change and chlorine. One headphone in each ear, ringing with drunkenness and early concussion and percussed by the soft little kissing sounds, blasting the Pixies: With your feet in the air and your head on the ground / try this trick and spin it… They lay together in the little bed kissing each other until they fell asleep. In the morning Boris would espy in the dreaded toothpaste-flecked mirror, his face all-over blood, Rothko painting fog-color reds and purples, that his father had broken three of his teeth by means of toe of boots to mouth. Theo came in eventually to kneel next to him beside the toilet like another penitent before the altar of a martyred saint and between heaves Boris saw the red-brown smear of his own dried blood against Theo’s jaw. His heart kicked still more stomach acid up into his throat, but they never spoke about it.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I don’t know either,” Theo told him. But for the red around the hazel eyes he looked kind of bewildered and pale, like he had come in from a long time somewhere cold. His hands shifted from Boris’s collar to his face again and they were rough but warm. “I really don’t know either.”

They were like magnets. Theo bypassed all flirtatious tender pleasantries and pried Boris’s mouth open with his mouth. He tasted like an entire pack of menthols — forest fire and hot mint — and Boris threw himself into it, gleefully onto the smoldering ashes. It had been a very long time since desperation had led them to attempt to climb inside each other with such aplomb and violence and those memories of course had been consigned to locked file cabinets, keys swallowed, or otherwise to the erasing whims of whatever bevy of intoxicants they had used to engineer their own tandem forgetting. Uncertain still: was this collateral damage among all the bad stuff? Was this the bad stuff? Was this the stuff so good it could only be bad? Theo’s hands went to his neck and then halfway down his back, pulling the hem of his shirt out from the waist of his jeans, and then he felt tentative fingers against his bare skin, slipping up his spine…

Something seized his mind: a vision, or else a dream from very long ago; they were walking together in the street, snow, lights, laughing, together and untogether — he drifted into it, and it was too bright to be real —

Theo separated them like the yolk and white of an egg. His eyelashes against his cheek magnified by the thick lenses. Old times. New times? His fist in Theo’s shirt was loosening, going numb. “Boris?”

“Don’t let me sleep,” he said against Theo’s mouth. The light was falling upwards weightlessly just above him and he felt it lifting himself out of himself like floating on one’s back in the ocean in the rain… “Are we dreaming?”

“We’re not — Boris — ”

He was floating in the pool, staring up into the roiling black sky, ears underwater to drown out the sound of Theo lying on his back on the adjacent steaming concrete — in basically the first rain ever, like the biblical flood, the first and perhaps the only rain in all their friendship to date, in all the suffocated years — singing really loud, really shitfaced, “Dry the Rain” by the Beta Band, probably because it was the first song he had thought of with the word rain in it. Underwater his shouting was kind of warbly along with the hypnotic whooshing of the pool jets: walked in the corner of the room / junkyard fool with eyes of gloom / I asked him time again / take me in and dry the rain…

Eventually Boris thought maybe he fell asleep. Something struck him — hail? He opened his eyes; there was a flash of light and thunder, and Theo was calling his name, reaching across the water for his open hand.

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