Thursday, March 22, 2012

Afterlife

1.

Kiki and Arthur sat on the stoop at the front of the apartment building. Kiki smoked and Arthur kept her company.

Kiki wasn't her real name, of course. She'd chosen it around the time she ran away from her small southern town to start a new life here in DC. My friend Udo (not his real name either) had met her on a video-game message board when both of them were the only ones up late one night leaving comments there. They found the same things funny and complained about the same message-board members, and decided they were simpatico. So Udo agreed to let her crash rent-free on the couch in his one-bedroom basement apartment in Silver Spring. Kiki found a job at a tattoo parlor, started chipping in for bills, and decided to stay. That's how Udo came to find himself standing in his shower one day and hardly recognizing it for all the little black ninja rubber duckies and the pink exfoliating gloves in there, bobby pins and eye-shadow palettes scattered around the sink, washed tights drying on the towel rack, a black bra hanging from the bathrobe hook. Udo had never lived with a girl before.

I stood outside the door of Udo's apartment. Looking out from his welcome mat, there's a landing, then a short set of steps leading up to the stoop, so Kiki and Arthur were facing away and a little above me like players on a stage. Kiki sat cross-legged in pajama pants. Arthur, Kiki's childhood friend, had been visiting from their hometown. From his thoughtful tone, it sounded like he was philosophizing in his slow drawl, too soft for me to make out distinct words. The summer sky was blue and cloudless. They sat in the shade of a crape-myrtle tree that had been planted close to the building, its slim branches framing the scene in frothy fuchsia blossoms. A breeze ruffled the blossoms, Kiki's sideswept black bangs, Arthur's long brown hippie hair. I smelled flowers and smoke. I felt an ache for the fragile beauty in this world, the unnoticed richness in the most casual of scenes.

***

I was only supposed to be at Udo's for one night.

My boyfriend is selfless and brave.

He went with a group armed by the military to where they had last been seen. He was in Iraq twice, once during the last war and once working in intelligence analysis for a civilian contractor. He had a lot to offer and felt it was his duty to go. I understand why he did this, and I'm proud of him, but I miss him unbearably.

***

My boyfriend left when the problem was in another part of the world. It was a mysterious but small problem then; it was possible then to think about other things.

The night I went out with Udo, Kiki, and Arthur, they had been trying to get me out of my apartment. I was alone most of the time while my boyfriend was away. I had been moping around long enough, Udo and Kiki had said. I needed to be around people, I needed to be happy. We went to the nightclub in DC that I used to go to with them in the old days, before my boyfriend came home from Iraq last year. Before he came home, my boyfriend and I were e-mail penpals. We talked through IMs and on Skype. I tried for a while to keep up with the news about what was happening where he was, but the violence freaked me out, so I stopped reading it.

On those old Saturday nights, when my boyfriend was on the other side of the planet, I would go to this club with Udo and Kiki. The DJs there played industrial and "darkwave" music and everyone was dressed all in black with tattoos and piercings, corsets and fishnets, mohawks and eyeliner. Everyone had a gimmick – Udo always wore the same ratty hat he’d found in a thrift store 17 years ago; Kiki had silver metal studs dotting the flesh of her back. You’d meet people who believed in fairies and people who said they were Satanists, transgendered artists and cross-dressers in cat make-up. I would say one trait we all shared was acceptance of things outside the norm.

I had first met Udo at this club, when another guy friend had brought me there. Udo said he was in love with me. He had told me this pretty soon after I met him; he said it in a way that was light and playful, but I knew that he meant it. He knew about my boyfriend, so he never took it any further than that. After my boyfriend came home, I stopped going to the club – it wasn't really my boyfriend's kind of scene, and I wanted to spend all of my time with him. But I kept in touch with Udo, Kiki, and the others on Facebook and, in Udo's case, in long e-mails and phone calls.

The night Udo and Kiki dragged me out of my lonely apartment had started out like so many others in the old days. I drove to their apartment, and Udo drove us all into the city; he was always the designated driver because he never drank. In the car we listened to music: She Wants Revenge, the Depeche Mode song with the chorus "Let me see you stripped down to the bone." Udo takes the Metro to work and doesn’t have a car, so we took Kiki's car that has a little rubber bat dangling from the rear-view mirror and no a/c. We rode with the windows down, our hair blowing in the hot night air.

Udo parallel parked and we all hit the ATM on the corner, the one where I'd left my debit card once and spent the next hungover morning freaking out about it. We got our wrists stamped with the little spider logo that means we paid our cover charge and are allowed back in if we go out to smoke. I hit the ladies' room to check my make-up, then the bar for my first of three fruity cocktails. I chatted with fantastic characters: lovely Monica who had been born a male and volunteered her time to paint murals with inner-city kids at the zoo, Rex the Tarot-card-reading mystic who offered his services in a red-lit corner of the club each week. I danced with a linebacker-sized guy in a black kilt, and turned down a couple who invited me to go home with them for a menage a trois (this was the gossip of the night among my friends).

After the club reluctantly closed at 3 a.m., we traipsed two blocks to the 24-hour crepe place for our customary sober-up meal. Kiki and Arthur shared a melty strawberries-and-Nutella crepe. "Want to share it with us? We could share it... three ways," Arthur said to me with a wink, referring to the couple who had asked me to go home with them, and I flipped him off, laughing.

It was at the crepe place that we first heard about it.

A group bustled into the pastel brightness, chattering. One of the guys was checking news updates on his iPhone. Another guy in the group said something like, "Holy shit -- they're here."

You know how sometimes when something big first happens, you're able to make nervous jokes about it for a moment, and then it hits you?

The other three or four people in their group squinted up at the crepe menu and made their orders. They paid and sat down in a booth with their warm food.

My friends and I kept up the jokey banter for a bit, but there was a new tension. No one wanted to admit it but we knew what was happening.

In the car, Udo was the first to bring it up, obliquely: "OK guys, turn on the radio or listen to CDs? I'm leaving it up to you." We all knew there would be no music on the radio.

After what must have been a full minute of silence, Arthur said: "CDs."

We were like the monkey who wanted to hear no evil. Once you heard it, it was real. But until then…

In the passenger seat, Kiki rummaged in her purse for cigarettes. She reached into the back to offer one to Arthur; Udo and I don't smoke. Arthur took one, lit it with his dragon-decorated lighter, and breathed it in deep. Udo drove to the apartment; the plan had been for Arthur and me to crash there until we were sober enough to drive home in the morning.

Udo kept his eyes on the road but met my gaze in the rear-view mirror a couple of times. Kiki dozed drunkenly, her head lolling forward, her shoes off and her fishnet-stockinged feet up against the glove compartment, her arm hanging out the open window. A pothole or a loud part in the music would nudge her awake in time for her to tap burning ash off the tip of her cigarette, a spray of sparks out the window. I looked at Arthur's silhouetted profile against the changing scenery of the city as we drove. The nicotine was meant to calm him but each time he reached up to flick ash from the cigarette, I saw his hand shake.

Back at the apartment, Kiki took the couch and Arthur made a bed for himself on the floor. In a quiet voice, Udo asked me if I wanted to sleep in his bed with him. He was never insistent but he always asked. I looked at him for a long moment, then I asked if I could use his computer to check on how things were in the part of the world where my boyfriend was.

* * *

It was Kiki's idea to go for the vodka bottle when I started screaming.

Arthur held me down. For a lanky guy he was surprisingly strong.

"Drink, sweetie. Drink." Kiki held the bottle to my mouth as if I were a baby.

I don't remember where Udo was. I think he was holding my hand.

There were no more people in the part of the world where my boyfriend had gone. The Internet blazed with the news; there was no avoiding it anywhere.

I searched for a "list of survivors." I searched for his name. I didn't search for a list of the dead.

"Drink, sweetie. Drink."

* * *

When my boyfriend was in Iraq, I wore his watch that he'd left for me. It was an old-school analogue watch. The clockface had numbers on it that glowed in the dark. It ticked every second. I would listen to it in my quiet apartment at night or whenever I was worried about him. I developed this superstitious notion that as long as the watch was ticking, his heart was beating.

* * *

I woke up unable to stop crying. I crumpled in half and the sobs didn’t stop coming. Kiki told me to keep drinking, and I did. I passed entire days this way. Drink, puke, sleep. It took a while for me to realize that I wasn't going anywhere, and that the world was nothing like how it had been.

2.

I watched Udo peel an orange in the kitchen, in the smidge of sun that came in through the window at the top of the wall. The orange was soft and bruised; it must have been a few weeks old. We got it from the pile of rotting produce that someone had dumped in front of the raided Safeway down the street. Soon there would be no more oranges, no more fruit that didn't come in a can. And then there would be no more cans.

Kiki and Arthur were in a good mood because someone had come by in a truck selling batteries. That meant we could have music again; Udo had unearthed his old boombox that played CDs. Already every song meant something new. From the kitchen Udo requested “something ‘80s – David Bowie?” They played him an older one -- "Space Oddity," about the lone astronaut who loses contact with Earth -- before anyone had a chance to realize it.

"This is Major Tom to Ground Control... I'm stepping through the door and I'm floating in a most peculiar way… and the stars look very different today."

But no one stopped it. We just listened.

"Here am I floating 'round my tin can… far above the world… Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do."

* * *

We had waited too long to go to a better place. The others swore it wasn't my fault. I had been crazy that first few days, but they said there were other reasons they hadn't left. Uncertainty, procrastination, disbelief, misinformation, fear. A sense we had, having lived all our lives in a peaceful country, that nothing would ever really hurt us. Someone would take care of us – the government, our parents.

Many of Udo's neighbors had stayed, too. Most of them were Hispanic; I wondered if they hadn't been able to fully interpret the news, or if they were illegal immigrants worried they’d be locked up if they showed up for government services. There were extended families, aunts and uncles watching over children, men going out together in trucks for supplies. In the new world, they were richer than we were – they had one another, they were resourceful and resilient. They stayed away from us for the most part, out of habit. I wished I had learned how to speak their language before.

The streets were jammed with broken-down cars.

We heard about official centers, and I imagined something like the Superdome in New Orleans. These quickly filled up. Emergency vehicles came around to check on people for the first few weeks, sometimes bringing bottled water and supplies: flashlights, first-aid kits. One time they brought whistles that were meant to be used as distress signals, but the neighborhood kids ran around outside and blew them so often that the sound became commonplace.

The trucks came by less frequently and then stopped coming at all.

I borrowed clothes and feminine items from Kiki, and slept in T-shirts from Udo. We did our laundry in pools for a while, at apartment complexes and motels. We got used to the chlorine smell in our clothes. But people bathed in the pools, too, and without a fresh supply of chemicals, the pools got filthy and unhygienic and we had to find a Plan B. We went to a wide natural stream about two miles away. The scene at the stream was strange and exotic, like pictures I'd seen in National Geographic of women washing clothes in the Ganges.

The toilet, sinks, and tub ran dry. We couldn’t always brush our teeth, so we placed a new premium on Altoids and gum. We rediscovered toothpicks. “I’m going for a little walk” became code for “I am going to the bathroom.”

We made jokes about "The Lord of the Flies." One hot night we heard some of our neighbors down the street, roiling in the heat with no a/c, howling at the moon. Even though they were laughing, it was disturbing to hear such an animal sound coming from people, as if the world had all gone crazy.

I found myself relishing vestiges of civility. I flipped through Kiki's old fashion magazines and marvelled at the month printed neatly in the top corner of each one, at the soothing regularity of that.

We weren't like characters in a movie, where they're stranded on an island and summon up their inner reserves of ingenuity to build themselves a mansion out of bamboo stalks and palm fronds, with a garage-door opener and everything. We did stupid things, like feeding some of our food to the neighborhood cats, many of them orphaned when their owners fled for the government shelters.

When the money ran out, people reverted to the bartering system, as if we were living in an ancient civilization, as if we were in the Wild West.

I'll give you some of our candles if you give me some soup.

I'll take your laundry with mine down to the stream if you give me some booze.

Kiki lost a little weight as she had to make a choice between trading for food or trading for alcohol; we couldn't get her both, so some days she chose oblivion over sustenance.

I thought about this news report I saw once that featured interviews with survivors of Hurricane Katrina. A group of guys and girls in their 20s or 30s had holed up in an apartment together, alone in their new world of water. I think at least one of them had been armed. They had fashioned a pirate flag out of a scrap of bedsheet; they had spray-painted a skull and crossbones onto it.

There had been a girl trying to laugh, talking about their little club. She squinted in the sun and said into the camera, "We're a band of merry pirates." She had been trying not to cry.

* * *

One night we heard urgent knocking at Udo's door.

Udo, Arthur, and I conferred in whispers; Kiki had drunk herself to sleep on the couch.

The three of us agreed: play possum. Pretend we weren't there.

The knocking roused Kiki. She grabbed our only weapon, an aluminum baseball bat; we kept it by the door, which was either smart or stupid. Arthur wasn't able to hold her back before she flung open the door and screamed, "What do you want, motherfucker?" into the black, black night.

We were lucky -- it was a friend. Kiki dropped the bat with a rolling metallic clank and embraced him hard.

It was Donnie, who sometimes brought Kiki drugs.

3.

When I was growing up, my mom told me that people in heaven forget about their loved ones who didn't make it up there.

I had the typical kid retort: "How can it be heaven if you've forgotten the people you loved?"

And she would say: "It couldn't be heaven if you knew your loved ones hadn't made it."

I remember thinking that I would rather know than forget about them.

All of us have families. None of us can reach them.

It's something we no longer talk about.

It's something we try to forget.

* * *

There are many ways of forgetting. Kiki, Arthur, and Donnie play drinking games in the living room. At first it was with shots of Jagermeister that Donnie had brought, or other brand-name or at least factory-produced kinds of liquor. After that ran out in our area, people tried to make their own stuff, including us, when we were bored. We heard stories about people distilling their own alcohol, urban moonshiners, although we never really knew the details or whether any of it was true.

We tried recipes: What would Benadryl and canned coconut juice taste like? What about expired grapefruit juice and nail-polish remover? It was more of a gross-out game than anything, like trying Harry Potter jelly beans.

But what Donnie brought with him, what he had brought to Kiki for a while now, worked. It was guaranteed to make you forget everything for a while.

The night Donnie came to us, it'd been on a whim. He'd been high and out for a joyride. He came by for Kiki and decided to stay. He didn't look dangerous or even important; he was baby-faced and pale, like a computer programmer who stays up late playing video games, which is what he was. He'd kept his tattoos covered with long-sleeved shirts at the office where he'd worked as a software engineer. As a dealer on the side, he'd made decent profits, not because he was fearsome but because he was smart. Besides the tattoos, the only hint that he might be subversive was a dark look in his eyes, as if he might be dead inside. I’m not sure which came first, the drugs or the darkness.

After he came to stay with us, I'd find little dishes sitting around with swirls of white powder on them and rolled-up dollar bills. Sometimes he used rolled-up twenty-dollar bills; by then money had lost its meaning. Donnie had more valuable resources than most people now. He was one of the few able to get out on the road, able to get black-market gasoline for his big truck with the tinted windows. He could drive on all kinds of terrain. In our new world, he was a king.

He shared with us. He had been holed up alone in his condo in DC. He trusted us; we were endearingly ill-equipped for survival, a bunch of hiders with an aluminum bat we were mostly afraid to use. And he liked Kiki, so he tried to impress her with his generosity. I think it worked, but they never slept together. None of us did. We were planes in a holding pattern. We were motherless children, we were drunk or high or stoned out of our gourds. We were many things, but not lovers.

Udo and I didn't join the others when they got high or drunk. I used to drink at clubs, but not like this -- this sad, slow-death, memory-wipe kind of drinking. I drank to be transformed and transported, to overcome my shyness and dance -- not to numb myself but to do the opposite.

Udo didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs at all, ever. He was ascetic. He told everyone he had perfected the art of "crushing" -- engaging in satisfying imaginary relationships with people he never actually pursued in real life. He'd had a blog about this, and a small publisher in Canada had contacted him about turning the blog into a book. He told me he had been celibate for about a decade. He was waiting to be with his soul mate, and wouldn’t settle for anyone else.

His guru-like serenity was hard-won. He always wore a necklace with an obsidian pendant on it. He had mystical beliefs and said the obsidian somehow helped him deflect negativity – the stone soaked it all up, like some New Age super-sponge. In his adult life his friends were all misfits so his eccentricity didn't matter so much, but he had been misunderstood and rejected when he was younger. This was another commonality I'd noticed among people in our little scene.

So while the other three lost their minds in the living room, a single candle the only light in the basement apartment, shadows dancing on the walls -- Udo and I went for long walks.

If we were feeling virtuous, we took a load of laundry with us to the stream. The stream water was dirty -- it had been on an EPA watch list, back when there was an EPA and watch lists -- but it was the only place we knew of to go for water after the pools got gross. Other people were always down there, too. Some days there was a breeze, and you would see fabric fluttering all along the banks: flowered bedsheets, vibrant-hued beach towels, baby clothes. The clothes never felt very clean after you washed them there, but the ritual was comforting.

* * *

My way of forgetting is to live in a daydream world most of the time. I imagine being with my boyfriend. I have silent conversations with him. I pretend he’s here with me. I do this especially at night.

I didn't know what Udo's method was, but it kept him more stable than any of us -- maybe we should have all worn magical obsidian pendants. He said: "It could be worse. I love the people who are here with me now."

Arthur was teaching Kiki yoga, how to find her quiet center. They would sit on the lawn like Buddhas and breathe deeply. Breathe, sweetie. Breathe.

4.

There was only one time I took anything Donnie had to offer.

I saw things.

I saw my mother in heaven, strolling along the edge of a pale celestial sea. She had forgotten about me.

Baby clothes floating on the stream, on their way to the ocean, where a sort of patchwork quilt of baby clothes, a baby-clothes graveyard, drifted on the wavy surface of the water.

I saw my boyfriend as an astronaut, alone and floating in outer space. He was trying to communicate with Earth.

* * *

Laws and enforcers can vanish like mist. In chaos, we are what we are, good or bad.

* * *

One day that dry summer, it rained -- a cloudburst. We ran out in shorts and T-shirts, barefoot in the grass, frolicking. It was good to feel clean water on our skin again. We played for something like fifteen minutes before anyone even thought to put out pots and pans to catch the water.

The stars were so bright after the electric lights went out -- that was one good thing, one magical thing, and we clung to it. We made a ritual of sitting on the lawn every night for the show, making up new constellations, praying for aliens to come.

When my only pair of contact lenses got ragged and unusable, Udo offered me his glasses, but his prescription was nothing like mine; Kiki and Arthur had good vision, and Donnie had gotten Lasik years ago. I'm extremely near-sighted and functionally blind without contacts or the right glasses. Without them, people transform into amorphous blurs. Everything is fuzzy. Udo took my arm and led the way on our walks, narrating the scenery for me, leaving out everything that was rotting.

The first night I couldn't see the stars was the first time I truly felt the world was coming to an end.

5.

Four months.

Donnie was the only one who had heard anything recently, and that was just word-of-mouth.

Each night we burned only one candle. We were running low.

He told us about people who were sick and dying, and people who were sick and not dying.

He told us about the brave people who had tried to help, and how sad it was, what had happened to them.

* * *

It ticks every second. Every second, it ticks.

* * *

"Sleep with me tonight. You will never see him again. Sleep with me. I love you."

* * *

It was the end of summer; you could tell by the slant of the light, the cool snap in the air. It made you think of football, back-to-school, Halloween. These things had been cancelled, probably forever – still, it felt like maybe they were happening somewhere, just not here.

Donnie was running out of what he had. He was going to get back in his truck and drive to a friend's house for more. Off-road, taking the shortest route, the trip would take days, and nights.

Kiki and Arthur were thrilled to go along. Udo and I were more cautious. We knew that to go out now was reckless to the point of being suicidal, even if you had a gun, which Donnie did. Guns were powerless against some things in our world.

But we were all slowly dying at the apartment. We were out of everything but each other.

Kiki and Arthur packed what mattered most to them now. They weren't coming back. Why would they?

"Stay with me," Udo said. His face was close to mine so I could see him.

I didn't have my boyfriend's watch with me; it was back at what had been my home, my apartment in Fairfax. I hadn't worn it to the club that night. But it was out there somewhere and it might have still been ticking, even if he was no longer as he had been.

* * *

Donnie's truck bumped over rutted ground, veered lopsided over ditches, flattened man-made debris in our path. We left at dawn to get the most daylight driving hours. The sky slowly filled with light, and I closed my eyes. Udo had walked back into the apartment before we'd fully pulled out of his sight. I could see the blur of him go back inside.

"Stay with me. You will never see him again. I love you."

Udo was from upstate New York; he had told me about his Cub Scout "survival initiation" in the woods, about driving on ice and persevering in cold beyond anything I'd ever known. A hard winter was coming. He said he would be fine, but he would have told me that no matter what.

“No.”

Donnie's truck filled with sickly sweet marijuana smoke. I couldn't see what was in front of us. Heaven is a place where you forget your loved ones who didn't make it.

No comments:

Post a Comment