I met the sisters through a roommate referral service, two dark haired girls with round faces, smiling in the doorway of the apartment. Dora was a touch slimmer, and Stephanie had a hoop through an eyebrow. Otherwise, they looked alike. The apartment, or flat as they called it, was a hallway with rooms on either side and a kitchen at the end. High ceilings, wood floors, walls smudged and gouged. I’d seen three just like it earlier in the day. Your room used to be the living room, Stephanie said, so now we hang out in the kitchen, or here. She waved at a nook by the fire escape. Washer and dryer hookups poked from the wall over a futon folded onto the floor, facing a small television. That’s it, she said. The tour had taken all of thirty seconds. So what’s your story? We sat at a small table in the kitchen, where I told them that I was a college student who waited tables. I liked a good party but knew when to keep quiet. I was clean. I was responsible. In short, I was born to be a roommate.
Well, Dora said after we’d talked for half an hour. She exchanged a look with Stephanie. Can you wait here for a second? They walked into the hall for a conference. A moment later they returned. Okay, Stephanie said, smiling broadly, you’re the one. If you’ll have us. She did a flirty, bashful sashay, swinging her skirt from side to side. Really? I asked, standing. Wow. Not wanting to seem too eager, I looked around the kitchen, as if this would be the deciding factor. It was funky and old. The linoleum floor was coming up around the edges, and the fridge had been made in the sixties. The only decoration was a poster of The Velvet Underground tacked to the wall. I’ll take it! I said, and Stephanie hopped and squealed. Dora and I caught her excitement, and they threw their arms around my neck and planted kisses on my cheeks, all three of us bouncing like cheerleaders. Wait, said Stephanie, halting the jubilation. Here we go, I thought, the catch. Dora and I, she said gravely, like to run around in our underwear. I hope you don’t mind. They held deadpan expressions for a moment and burst out laughing. No, I said, I can handle that.
I signed the lease, wrote a check, and they handed me a set of keys. You can move in early, if you want, Stephanie said.
Thanks, but I have to go back to Laguna for my stuff. I’ll see you on the first.
Cool, said Stephanie. Bob’ll be here by then.
Oh, did we forget to tell you? Dora asked. That’s Bob’s room over there. He’s the fourth roommate.
Alright, I said, imagining any number of ways in which this Bob wouldn’t be alright. Certain types of men bothered me, handsome men, hip men, men with money or muscles or height or all three, and when I was around them I’d begin to try too hard and end up acting like a jerk. I could feel it creeping in already, the jerkiness, and I didn’t want to be this way in my own home. But what could I say? I’d already signed.
You’ll love him, Stephanie said. He’s coming down from Seattle.
Great, I said in one tone, and great, I thought in another. But my misgivings dissipated as I walked out onto gray, dingy Lyon Street, my new street, under the gray San Francisco sky, my new sky. I walked toward a tall black man wearing a camouflage jacket, standing at a corner across from a store run by an old Chinese couple I’d bought mints from earlier. He followed my gaze to the store. Ain’t them chinks a bitch? he asked.
Hmmm, I said thoughtfully, and hurried by. His hair had a reddish tint, and his eyes, though angry, were as simple as a child’s. It occurred to me that, since finding an apartment, I was now walking without purpose. I didn’t stop to reconfigure though, not while being watched. Over the last two days in the city, I’d learned that you had to pretend to know what you were doing, especially when you didn’t.
Then I thought of somewhere to go. The sisters had told me about a bar where the actual Beats had hung out. I knew about the Beats, though I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading any of their work. No matter. Soon I’d be living their lives, a life of wine and squalor. I turned left and then left again to double back without seeming to double back. I caught a bus into North Beach, walked around some and found the bar. I ordered a draft beer and drank it at a table on which—who knows?—someone famous may very well have written a poem. I decided I could afford a second beer. This one I drank on foot, wandering around the place, upstairs onto a loft, trying to catch a spirit from the past, but I only found other tourists looking for the same thing and also not finding it.
Two weeks later, I double parked in front of my new building. No one was home to help unload my stuff. The man in the camouflage jacket, our sentinel, I supposed, was watching from down the street. I locked my computer and CD player in the cab and lugged my stuff excruciatingly up the stairs. It took two hours to move my things, thirty minutes to park, and another fifteen minutes to walk back home. Damp with sweat, muscles throbbing, I fell onto my futon, surrounded by boxes, loose clothes and a dresser on its side. I stared up at ceiling cracks and a chandelier with bulbs like fake candle flames. Only one of four burned. Whoever had painted the room had said to hell with it and covered the chandelier in the same white paint as the ceiling. The window looked out at the fire escape and a brick wall. Ah, Bartleby! I drifted off, utterly content.
I woke to keys rattling. The door opened and closed. In the hallway I faced a man about my size—five ten with a medium build—dressed in a threadbare sport coat of pale green suede, loose trousers and Doc Martin shoes. His hair was short and blond, on the verge of spiking on top like a pineapple’s leaves. Bob? I asked. He was not what I’d expected, of course. Nobody ever is.
Who are you? His accent was British.
I’m the new roommate.
I thought you’d be a girl.
They didn’t tell you?
No. I got here this morning and saw your name on the lease. The girls are visiting their mum.
He actually said mum and it didn’t sound put on. He had a lined, handsome face, thin and pale. He held his shoulders in, as if expecting to be swatted.
Well, shit. How about a beer?
Bob was amenable. We walked a couple of blocks to a dark, smelly punk rock motorbike joint, a place where they didn’t bother to scrub the graffiti off the walls and tables. Something I should tell you, Bob said after the first pitcher. I wet the bed if I drink too much.
Oh, I said. Why do I need to know that?
Living together, the secrets come out. Might as well tell you know and get it out of the way.
Good point, I said, but I didn’t expose any of my own secrets. Instead I told about the commune I’d lived in as a toddler, and the step van into which we’d moved later. I told how my brother had been born in that van, after my father had freaked out on mescaline and fled, shouting to God, into the pines. I tended to present my father as either a hapless doper or a soulful surfer. I kept the truth, that he was a criminal on the run, to myself.
Bob had a story of his own. He’d been an orphan, a real life orphan.
You’re kidding me, I said. What was it like? Are there still orphanages?
Yes, and they’re awful. I ran away when I was thirteen.
Thirteen? On your own in London? What’d you do?
Trust me, he said, and polished off his beer, you don’t want to know.
Eventually an American family, who he’d since fallen out with, had brought him from London to Los Angeles. Over the last years, he’d developed a three-city pattern, moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle, and then doing it again. I asked why he kept moving, and he shrugged. I miss my friends. Besides, he smiled, after a few months, everybody gets tired of me.
The sisters returned from mum’s, and we settled in. Their friends were always stopping by, but the four of us were the heart of the place, the immediate family. We’d go to the punk bar and walk home arm in arm, laughing, happy to be drunk and together. Sometimes we’d come across a pile of clothes on the sidewalk. People were always putting clothes out to be picked through by the likes of us. I found a very cool stocking cap, red with black stripes. Everybody grabbed something. A week later we all convoyed to Walgreens for lice shampoo.
The sisters traipsed around in underwear, as advertised. It was all innocent fun, though Stephanie once offered me a blowjob if I ever needed it.
You’d do that for me? I asked.
Of course! she said, as if it were obvious.
That’s really nice of you, I said, but never took her up on it because I didn’t want to unbalance the thing we had. I never thought I’d refuse a chance at gratification, but here I was, sacrificing pleasure for a greater good. My new friends were making me a better person.
Sometimes we talked seriously into the night, speaking of dreams and fears, of God and fashion, possible ways our lives might turn out, the kind of men and women we hoped to find. And yet I never told them why my father was gone. I kept it misty and romantic. He just took off to surf somewhere and no one’s heard from him since.
Is he alive? Dora asked.
Oh, sure, I said. He’s just hiding out, escaping the whole consumer thing around here.
That’s weird. Seems he’d at least send a letter.
Maybe he’ll get around to it one of these days.
It’s hard to say why I didn’t come clean. Certainly they wouldn’t have judged. But something about the murder didn’t fit with what we had going. Bob was Oliver Twist. Dora and Stephanie had grown up shuttling back and forth between San Francisco and New York, vacationing in France and such. Their idols were the heirs of the Beats: Charles Bukowski, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Jim Carol, bands like the New York Dolls. They were city kids with tattoos and piercings, but not too many tattoos or piercings because they weren’t show offs. My father’s crime, a drugged-out shooting worthy of an article in the Orange County Register, seemed cheap by comparison, and I kept it to myself along with my former love of heavy metal. Or maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe I guarded the story of my father as people hoard treasure, living in poverty with a million dollars in the mattress. I didn’t want to share. Who knows?
I wasn’t the only one with secrets. Bob would sometimes skip our shenanigans and run off with a guy named Ken. We were never invited, and I began to wonder if Bob was secretly gay. He didn’t seem gay; he didn’t seem straight either. Dora’s private side wasn’t so mysterious. She wasn’t a drunk like us. She’d call it a night after two or three and was never around when the nights got weird. Often, she’d stay with her boyfriend, sometimes for days. The boyfriend never once came by, though this didn’t strike me as odd. Why would he?
On quiet, roommate nights, we’d cluster on the futon, hip to hip with someone spread out on the laps or on the floor out front, watching the tiny television. Our favorite show was Beverly Hills 90210, a program not to be consumed but to be commented upon. The dialog we supplied tended toward the filthy. Oh, Dylan, I’m sorry I scared you last night in bed when I stuck my finger in your ass. It’s okay, Shannon. I liked it!
We ate together. Three packages of mac and cheese in the pantry. A bit of garlic and onion. A hunk of real cheddar to augment the envelopes of cheese powder. Someone had fresh ginger. Whoever was cooking would throw the whole mess into one cauldron, to be brought back to the futon with spoons for everyone. We’d gather around and feed like puppies. On these nights, I could hardly contain my joy.
Stephanie had a talent for speed reading. I’d give her one of the novels assigned for class, The Story of the Eye or Venus in Furs, or an excerpt from the Marquis de Sade, the stuff the kinky professors at SFSU assigned, and a half hour later she’d come back and tell me that she’d liked it. Then she’d talk about all the parts. These were short works, generally, but a half an hour? It was a kind of superpower. You need to go to college, I kept telling her. Selling shoes is not for you. I know, I know, she said. One of these days.
When not playing with my roommates, I was studying, serving cake and coffee at a place called Just Desserts, or writing something I called poetry. Gunshots would wake me at night. I’d sit up, grab the notepad on the milk crate I used as a nightstand, and send my pen across the page, lines about how the shots rang out. These were city poems of the sort only a city dweller could write. I filled notebooks with them.
I wander the late-night Walgreens searching for Allen Ginsberg…
Now and then I’d read to my friends; they’d listen and tell me I was talented. For half a year I was happy.
Then I came home from class one afternoon and rummaged in the fridge for something to drink. Bob slumped on the futon watching television. Hey Bob, I said. He didn’t react, didn’t even move his eyes to me. I heard The Price is Right on television. Hello, I said, waving. He turned to me in slow motion, like someone under water. No recognition lit his eyes. He stared at me blankly for a moment and returned to the television.
Part of what I didn’t want to know about the early years in London was that that’s when Bob got addicted to heroin. I’d never tried it, or even known anyone who had. In my imagination, it was a drug that instantly killed or turned you into a delusional madman. In junior high, they’d shown us a film about a kid named Mario, not a bad kid, just kind of bummed out and lonely. Kicking around the streets one day, some guys offer him some “junk.” At first he says no but finally he says yes. This takes place in the east somewhere, in an unnamed city of brick buildings and alleys and dudes named Julio. I thought of it as Philly. Mario grows to like heroin aka smack. Eventually, he’s on the roof of the school for whatever reason. Ten stories high. Hey, Julio, check me out. I can fly. No, dude, don’t do it. But he does it, Mario jumps off the building and splatters on the ground and that’s the end. Lesson learned. Too late for him but not for us. Don’t do drugs.
I hadn’t related. Our junior high was one story high. The worst you could do jumping off was to twist an ankle. Now I learned that heroin wouldn’t make you jump off a roof. Bob never went to the roof anymore. He didn’t leave the apartment. Same with Stephanie once she started using. And Patrick, Rory, Ken. They were the new unit, the junkies, always sitting in front of the television but no longer commenting, no longer cooking or eating. After a while, they moved from the nook to Stephanie’s room to nod out in private.
Bob came upon a used Chia Pet, one without the seeds or whatever it took to grow the plant that represented wool. He cut old socks into tiny white squares and glued them, using tweezers, onto the bare Chia Pet. He was going to give the finished product to someone for Christmas, he said, but really it was just a way to keep his hands busy when he was high. We drank coffee one morning, the only time of day I’d see him straight. He worked in a shipping warehouse and shot up as soon as he got home. I asked him what dope was like. He looked at me carefully and didn’t answer my question. Don’t, he said instead. You can do anything you want. You’ve got college to finish. I’m already done. Don’t even think about it.
You’re not done, Bob.
Yes I am, but that’s not your problem.
I chuckled as if he were joking. I didn’t know what else to say. Bob stood. He had to go to work.
Bob stopped getting high with Stephanie and the others, preferring to keep to his room. One afternoon, I heard Stephanie and Patrick talking, a sign they were straight. I knocked on her door and she told me to come in. The lights were off and candles burned. We sat on her bed listening to Nirvana with the volume down, something like old times. I put the same question I’d asked Bob to Patrick and Stephanie. What’s it like? Patrick, a former professional BMX bike rider, thought hard about how to answer. It sucks, Stephanie said, cutting him off. Obviously she was lying. Obviously heroin didn’t “suck.” Otherwise, why would everyone keep doing it? My heart began to pound. My hands were sweating. This reaction came before I’d even decided to ask what I was about to ask: You don’t get addicted by trying it just once, do you? I’d been one of them before, and now I wasn’t. I wanted things to be the way they were.
Everyone says they can do it once in a while, Stephanie said. They think they’re cool if they only smoke, but they’re wrong. You’ll get a habit. No way. Don’t do it, not even once.
I nodded my head, taking this standard advice, but behind Stephanie’s warning, I detected something else, a hidden pride, superiority even. She’d gotten herself hooked on junk, just like her heroes, and I, the college student, wasn’t invited to go with her, not unless I was ready to go all the way. I wasn’t. My pulse slowed as I realized that I wouldn’t beg, that my pride would keep me from doing heroin. I left them and returned to my room.
Stephanie must have been upping her doses, because she started “going out.” “Stephanie, Stephanie,” I’d hear from my room, where I stayed all the time now, and then the water would run in the tub and soon the paramedics would come stomping through our flat and wheel her away on a gurney. A couple of days later, the same thing. “Stephanie! Stephanie!” The tub. The ambulance.
I walked by the camouflaged black guy on the way to the store for toilet paper. He was familiar to me now, the local crack dealer. There was a guy just like him every few blocks. You one of them, ain’t you? he asked, pointing to our building. I didn’t answer. I seen the ambulances. You all crazy muffuckers, he said, laughing.
Stephanie went out again. I stood in the doorway of my room as they wheeled her by. The paramedic smiled as he passed, a smile I couldn’t read. Perhaps he wanted me to know that he wasn’t judging anyone here. Perhaps he was amused by us. Maybe this smile fended off pity. Surely, he saw a lot to pity in his line of work. Or he just wanted me to know that Stephanie would be okay. Her face was covered by a clear plastic mask, and she rolled down the hall and out. I closed my door and sat on my futon, agitated. I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to stay. I took out some reading material I’d recently gotten into, pornographic comic books. Sexy half-cat half-woman creatures with big furry tits and round furry asses under fluffy tails bouncing up and down on very large erections and the like. I tended to masturbate in times of stress.
I was getting going when someone knocked on my door and it opened. Just in time, I stashed the mag and pulled down my shirt, pants undone but not slipped past my hips yet. Dora sat beside me, just about touching the comic book under the cover. My fingers were sticky and the room smelled like sex. Dora was too upset to notice.
I don’t know what to do, she said. Her sister had just been taken to the ER for the third time in a couple of weeks. She needed consoling, but I was too ashamed to touch her with my sticky hand, too afraid to move or the blanket would fall away and show my dirty hobby, my shirt would ride up and the truth would be revealed: as my dear roommate was being carted away, perhaps to die of overdose, maybe already dead in a wailing ambulance; as her devastated sister, my other dear roommate, sought friendship and understanding from the only other non junky in the house, I was busy with perverted fantasies about made up sex creatures that weren’t even human. Dora reached over and hugged me. The comic crackled under her hip. I feel so bad for you, she said. You’re just such a good guy. You don’t deserve to have to deal with this. I patted her gently on the back. Thanks, I said, a totally insufficient response, but I had nothing else.
She smiled and looked me in the eye. Anytime you want to talk, she said, and left. I didn’t know what to do, so I finished what I’d started and lay there on the futon, messy and staring at the familiar cracks in the ceiling, the chandelier, now with four functioning bulbs throwing light on everything. Sick. This whole world. I didn’t write a poem about it.
I gravitated toward people I knew from school, upstanding kids I’d never see in underwear, who wouldn’t touch me except to shake my hand. This suited me fine. I hardly saw Bob anymore. He was avoiding all of us, ashamed, I figured. Soon he’d jump back onto the three-city pattern, head to Los Angeles. I saw how it worked for him, addicted as a young teen, no way to escape. All he could do was change cities and friends every now and then, pretend to start over.
When the lease was up, the landlord told us to scram. He didn’t need a bunch of junkies in his building. Stephanie, Bob, Patrick and Rory found a new place together. Dora moved in with her boyfriend. I returned to roommate referral. Now and then I’d see someone from the old gang on the street, and my heart would race; we’d embrace and chat a bit before going our ways, leaving me wistful. Then I heard that Bob was dead. He’d killed himself.
He did it the way you hear about. Ran a hot bath. Got in. Cut his wrists. The twist is that he changed his mind after a while, must have gotten scared once the body began to cool. He climbed out of the tub. Dialed 9-1-1. I’m dying, he may have said. Hold on, the operator may have replied. The paramedics came, maybe even the smiling guy I saw wheeling Stephanie out of the flat. No matter. Bob was gone.
Stephanie hosted a wake. She was gaunt, and her skin had gotten bad, but otherwise she seemed more confident than before, full of manic energy. The old gang was there, plus several people I’d never met. He really liked you, Stephanie told me, and respected you too. I took this the easiest way, as a nice thing to say, but I couldn’t help wondering why she felt she had to say it. I’d never doubted our friendship. I liked him too, I responded. Nobody was drinking. It was eleven in the morning, an hour chosen, I realized, because most of the guests would be nodding by nightfall. We all sat around a living room, staring at four candles melting in the non-functioning fireplace. It’s hard to believe, I said during a lull. He was here just the other day, and now he’s not.
It’s easy for me to believe, Stephanie said. You don’t know how lonely he’s been. Nobody could talk to him anymore.
He left behind clothes, curios, a couple of pieces of furniture. He had no family, so Stephanie suggested we divide his belongings between us. Everybody take something to remember him by, she said, and led us into his former room. Please, no arguing. That would just be too tacky. We’ll donate the rest. What about his green jacket? I asked. I’d borrowed it before, and it fit perfectly. I figured that wearing it would be a way to honor Bob, but I was also imagining telling Bob’s story to anyone who asked about the old jacket.
That’s mine, said a woman I didn’t know. She was about thirty, had a plain, wide face, wore her spiky hair shaved close on one side and dressed like a hobo.
Julie’s got dibs on the jacket, Stephanie decided. Julie was Bob’s longtime on-and-off girlfriend, Dora explained to me in whispers. I’d never even heard of her, and now felt stupid to have presumed to take something that personal.
How about this? I asked timidly. It was one of those Mexican Day of the Dead scenes, a palm-sized barroom in which two skeletons shot pool.
Of course, Stephanie said.
I slipped it in my pocket, and then retreated to the bathroom. Washing my hands, I couldn’t help staring at the tub. A dark rust stain bled down from the faucet to the drain, but of course there was no sign of blood.
I returned to the living room, where the others were sitting. I have to go, I said, and Stephanie came to me. Dora had already left. The others ignored me.
I know, Stephanie said. She hugged me tight, and I felt her ribcage against me. I showed myself out, down a long, dark stairway. I pushed open the steel security door and stepped into light so bright it hurt.