A coat check girl with deep pockets sits across from me. She’s excavating the night’s ticket stubs, dropping them on the table next to the double-wicked candle that conflates with the smoke of cigarettes. Everyone is sucking away, a room of great grown puffing children.
Eventually they coalesce around the kitchen window, blowing smoke at a single point outside. I watch this ring of cloudmakers, observing the way they indicate and curl their hands. We’re drinking in a corner of an apartment in the biggest tree house the world has ever known.
The obligatory: we took a train. You know the one if you know this part of town.
Why I’m here: I know someone who knows someone. Why she’s here: She knows someone who knows someone else. Let’s map it.
She’s playing catch-up, sometimes with a beer in each hand. Her hair is piled high. She’s got the kind of name that slips away each time someone says it. We’ll call her Stella after the bottle in her hand. I’m drinking three-dollar wine till I’m drinking something else.
What we ate earlier: Shepherd’s Pie.
One of the hosts made magic in a single pot. To brown the top of the potatoes, he finished it in the oven, which coughed fumes all the while, smoking up the apartment in an entirely new and forgivable way.
It is in the post-dinner lethargy that Stella enters, framed by a man and the host who’s gone to greet them. What she is really framed by is the door.
Upon sitting, she tells one of the hosts—the someone her someone knows—about her childhood: something typically American, religious, but without resentment. She’s sweet on the church—Presbyterian—or maybe her childhood. The one or the other or both.
To me she describes herself as a scrappy athlete who pinched at bra straps and skin. We swap stories. I inhabit the braggadocio too easily, falling back into old patterns, exhausting bygone storylines.
I don’t even want to fuck her. I evaluate, yes, in that way, but only briefly, and without real intent. You can trace a guy to her, if you listen carefully enough. He’s half-asleep in a chair. He murmurs things like, “Baby, can we go home?”
She always says yes and opens another beer. You may notice the boyfriend’s frustrated smile, a near-imperceptible curve, just before he dips into brief catatonia. This happens for bursts of five or ten.
An aside: I’ve got this bad joke of a nose. It’s not fit for breathing, much less sniffing out scents.
Stella’s got a false nose she can’t even feel. I tell her about being breathless on the stairs, about my fear of reconstructive surgery. I ask all kinds of questions. She says it was a sports-related injury. It was necessary.
When I think of her nose I think Potato Head, as in accessory. I think about swapping. When I think of my nose I remember phrases. I remember, “Smell the roses.” It’s just words now, like anything, but especially so.
The host Stella’s tied to puts on a record I’ve never heard. A man sings in Cash’s register, with a voice that’s known more cigarettes, or whiskey, or possibly heartbreak than any before it. He sings about monsters and he says, “I wish you’d die,” and soon I realize his malice isn’t directed at the scorned lover I’d first imagined. It’s directed at me, and that’s fine. I’ll be his knockaround.
“Well then,” he sings. “I’ll spit on you while you sleep.”
I don’t ask his name. If I know anything it’s that a song is only as important as the moment you hear it. When the next thing comes along it’s on to the next thing. Stella’s drinking something new.
“It’s an entirely different beer,” she says, holding an IPA.
It plays like a slogan, but there’s too much surprise in her voice. We’re all laughing.
“Pale ale,” mouths the host traced second most to me.
Stella doesn’t notice. She’s agog. She outlasts us. As with anything, we lose interest.
“I want to go downtown,” she says. “I want to see the lights.”
She sings to herself when we move on to other things. It’s all ba-da-da, like old school and odd inflections. I’m eyeing the couch that’ll be my bed when it’s empty enough to turn out the lights. My someone and her someone are already asleep in a private room. I take another beer. Stella asks for an opener and the hosts can’t find one anywhere. They make a show of it. I’m too tired to see what they’re doing and hand Stella mine. She salutes me.
“I remember stars,” I say.
No one is paying much attention. We’re all awake through some miracle—be it caffeination, adrenaline, or sheer force of will. Stella thinks on it.
“You miss the stars?” she asks. I nod. “But there are so many people here,” she says.
Her boyfriend stirs again. He smiles. “Tell him what you mean by that,” he says.
She nods to herself, putting seconds into the act. When she’s ready she sets the beer down and leans forward in her chair.
“You’ve got the energy of ten million people,” she says. “A million at any given time. Stars are… they’re just light, and watching them is like… it’s like watching a slide show from a… quadrillion years ago.”
Her boyfriend nods along but I’m not convinced, or following, really.
“But the Big Dipper…” I say.
The boyfriend comes awake with, “Ursa Major.”
I point at him. “Yeah,” I say, “What about Ursa Major?”
Stella remains unimpressed.
“But you’ve got Kodak,” she says. “And Coca Cola, and McDonald’s. Look anywhere,” she says, gesturing to the window. But outside the window is the back of a church, and up against the church, at night, you can’t see much at all. I know it’s out there, though, the neon wash, happily scrubbing out a thousand-billion years of starlight.
Stella sips, cannibalizes another beer. We’re all looking at our feet through, what, tiredness? Politeness? Embarrassment? I won’t ascribe feelings to anyone else. I could close my eyes and just stop being a part of this room. Stella’s boyfriend is actually asleep. She’s going on about the lights again.
“You know,” I say. “I’m going to bed.”
That’s fine. Everyone understands. Four AM is an understanding hour. Stella delivers a wordless goodnight toast.
I slink or slog into the living room and throw myself onto the futon. One of the hosts brings me a comforter.
“Thanks,” I say.
He goes back into the kitchen where I hear low-toned rumblings. I drift in and out of a pre-sleep, pre-dreaming, and trying not to fart, as is custom in my bed. From time to time I hear Stella’s voice picking up, or the opening of the fridge and a fresh beer. Those concession stand cups start parading through my dreams, like movie theater propaganda on an infinite loop. The cups become bottles, and the bottles march into Stella’s hand.
Eventually she does leave, boyfriend in tow, to see the lights, or sleep, or to crack, again, the seal on a bottle of something new.
After this the sounds of people walking through the house become manageable and I let the weight of my exhaustion smother me into the blank, un-dreaming sleep I know best of all.
In the morning I’ll pick up bottles that seem to stretch as far as railroad tracks. I’ll bag up trash and leave the dishes and take two eggs to the fire escape. There I’ll smother my breakfast, made in the mid-afternoon, with sriracha, and I’ll talk to friends, and regard the stained-glass windows from their second most impressive side.
When this is done I’ll hop the train, the one you know, and behind me cigarettes will be lit, or re-lit, and the afternoon will progress into night, and the same things, or similar things, will reoccur, ad infinitum, only with different people, and I’ll be somewhere new.
Craig Ledoux is a writer and visual artist from Keene, New Hampshire. He earned an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared in LUMINA, Black Heart Magazine, and The Onion River Review. He is the Editor in Chief of Madcap Review.