Van was just stepping in from a long trip that he didn’t plan or bother telling anyone about. A nice long trip away and he felt good to be back home in New York, even surprised to have ever returned. A blue plastic-wrapped pile of newspapers sat in front of the entrance, kicked hastily to the side. He picked up the closest to the top and made to unlock the door, but it just opened with the slightest touch. He never once living there left it unlocked.
It was pretty clear what happened. He thought of Paula, frantically calling him and leaving panicked voicemail, “just fucking pick up you selfish asshole.” There were at least a dozen such messages that he’d never hear because the phone sat dead at the bottom of a vast island of trash somewhere, no use. So just as with leaving, he didn’t bother telling anyone he was back – only a single soul rang, but no one came (no one he knew anyway) – and he certainly wasn’t about to bother flipping the bedroom furniture into its proper arrangement. Nothing was normal these past several months, so what was the rush now?
The mattress hung half off its frame and the knick-knacks balanced delicately on the edge of his fire escape sill. Some old pottery from a different sort of long trip to Arizona, one broken and evidently pulverized by their heavy black boots, along with various lighters, film canisters, a lacquered blue Elvis head (the stash box, untouched) and a toy figurine of the famous tic-tac-toe chicken from Chinatown Fair. Their methods were inscrutable, perhaps, but the cops really could’ve been a lot less courteous about the whole thing. The small mess was signed off by one Detective F. Rey (who left a card on the kitchen counter). A tiny bird had also paid a visit, riding the wind into the living room, dusting the couch with soil and leaves and one little speckled brown feather. More broken pottery, a dead sunflower wilting in the sun. The room took on a new warmth by his visitors’ recent presence and he had no plans of making it go away, this surprise near miss of a homecoming party.
Then he chuckled to no one and sang, Had I known you were coming, I’d’ve baked ya a cake. Ridiculous song, he thought, and then he felt weird suddenly that he couldn’t recall if it was of his own making or real.
After a short while, he sat in the long-shadowed afternoon light, reading the paper crosslegged on the bare floor, filthy, distracted again and again by the thought of what bad business they might have thought to find under the bed, like a cat maybe, curled up with a belly full of poison to take an endless rest. The dead giveaway that Paula made the call, remembering his favorite style of adolescent melodrama. He wasn’t much of a cat person, though, and Paula knew he would’ve preferred a more public act of nightmarish gore, alerting the neighbors to a festering goo of stinking remains, half fermented in his bathroom tub like some rank kombucha. He laughed again imagining his neighbors poking their eyeballs through the crack in the chain-locked door, smoking furiously while besmirching his crazy no good late-on-rent foreigner name. Ai ya, they’d agree: that one was human laap saap.
It was his idea that Paula move east. He had an extra bed and desk in the upstairs loft, and although they never lived together before, he thought the late nights he spent crashing on her couch or vomiting on the kitchen floor (he always mopped before passing out) cultivated some potential for peaceful domestic life. The thinking went that she had already tolerated him at his worst in college.
She wasn’t ever totally onboard, but Van persisted and ultimately won on the promise that he’d anchor himself down with a little freelance work with a magazine editor she knew (“no more missing persons stunts”) . Less compelling was the suggestion that a new job meant needing an extra hand tending to his irises. Paula’s literary career was just laying down slender tendrils in California but a few of her stories had been circulated around by some hot shot Woke Twitter people. New York could put her closer to the publishers and podcasters and plus, she’d struck out in love. The big Lithuanian poseur-actor she’d been dating recently threatened to bleed her with a broken wine bottle, which was a shade too dark even given her thing for mommying damaged guys.
Fuck it, she thought, and like that packed a truck to the mercurial son.
The apartment was beginning to look like itself again. It was full of photographs and plants, mostly cacti from a nearby store on Essex Street – The Cactus Store – that imported their prickly beauties from some obsessives in Los Angeles. The wares were sold in simple clay pots by their scientific names: copiapoa cinerea (the little pineapple size fella that looked like the bad sculpture in Beetlejuice), epithelantha micromeris crest (deceptively furry with flaming tongues on top), astrophytum hybrid (a moldy looking frog-headed thing), myrtillocactus cv. fukurokuryuzinboku (warty green dick). When he was broke, he stole the smallest ones, pilfered away into a canvas totebag while the stoned clerk busied himself giving Latin dictation lessons to the neighborhood’s normcore occupiers. He woke up early to deposit a check and pick up some Japanese-import fertilizer, then grabbed a coffee and returned home to repot some irises ahead of Paula’s arrival. She loved irises.
After running out of things to tidy up around the apartment, he smoked a cigarette and read a couple of articles from the Arts section of the Times. Halfway through a story about a local artist who impaled jack-o-lanterns on her neighbors’ fenceposts, he noticed a little pinch in his vision, like his eyes were pressing the words toward the centerfold. He closed them for a second, drank down a glass of water and took a long look around the room. I’m here, he thought, I’m fine.
The paper looked normal again, but the story seemed strange now, a little foreign – perhaps a different article? He thought maybe he lost his place and flipped back to the first page. The pumpkins stared back at him, mouth-agape and contorted into terrible expressions of torment. Little kids pointed and laughed in glee at their suffering. He flipped back, assured, but the article now read as completely incoherent save the rhythm and style of a pharmaceutical advertisement. It then occurred to him that the page was littered with the same overproduced image: shiny high cheekbones tucked under vintage frames, caressed by fingers tattooed at the knuckles with obscure symbols. He could only make out words and numbers on the page, but not meaning
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A little disoriented, it’s happening again, he thought, he tossed the paper aside, grabbed his camera and set back out down Rutgers Street toward Seward Park. The wave of dissociation blurred his senses in a wash of pastel, unreal, the thereness of things slowly slipping away like thick vapor above his head. His faculties grabbed hold of his surroundings, just enough to make them present again and he breathed deep, the vapor condensing again into something solid. It’s not happening, not happening, he repeated, struggling to focus on anything tangible, most immediately the cracked concrete beneath his feet.
Sounds sweet and lyrical brought him back fully. The Fountain Flute Man was out there as always in the late morning. He and Van considered each other friends by this point, though they didn’t speak much, considering they only had a few words in common. Zhoe sen, how are you? M goi! See you tomorrow. Van took a few black and white candid shots, which, by longstanding agreement in exchange for a red bean bao and coffee every once again, Flute Man didn’t mind at all. The flute played on and children played in the park. Hester Street Market was beginning to fill with its fancy looking expensive junk and top tier strollers. Cigarette smoked competed with wafts of palo santo and dumpling steam. Everything seemed to be in its right place.
Then his phone rang. She’d be there in a few hours.