Authors: Seth Dickinson
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“A coyote got my cat,” Nico says.
It took me four beers and three shots to open him up. All night he's been talking about the breakup, what's-her-name Yelena I think, and all night I've known there's something else on him, but I didn't
“Fuck, man.” I catch at his elbow. He's wearing leather, supple, slickâhe's always mock-hurt when I can't tell his good jackets from his great ones. “Mandrill?” A better friend wouldn't have to ask, but I'm drunk, and not so good a friend. “Your cat back home?”
“Poor Mandrill,” Nico says, completely forlorn. “Ah, shit, Dominga. I shouldn't have left him.”
He only goes to the Lighthouse on empty Sundays, when we can hide in the booths ringed around the halogen beacon. I expect sad nights here. But, man, his
Nico puts his head on my shoulder and makes a broken noise into the side of my neck. I rub his elbow and marvel in a selfish way at how much I
, how full of hurt I am, even after this awful week of dead bikers and domestics and empty space where fucking Jacob used to be. It's the drink, of course, and tomorrow if we see each other (we won't) it'll all be awkward, stilted, an unspoken agreement to forget this moment.
But right now I care.
In a moment he'll pull himself up, make a joke, buy a round. I know he will, since Nico and I only speak in bars and only when things feel like dogshit. We've got nothing in commonâI ride ambulances around Queens, call my mom in Laredo every week, shouting Spanish into an old flip phone with a busted speaker. He makes smartphone games in a FiDi studio, imports leather jackets, and serially thinks his way out of perfectly good relationships. But all that difference warms me up sometimes, because (forgive me here, I am drunk) what's the world worth if you can't put two strangers together and get them to care? A friendship shouldn't need anything else.
He doesn't pull himself up and he doesn't make a joke.
The lighthouse beam sweeps over us, over the netting around our booth, over Nico's cramped shoulders and gawky height curled up against me. The light draws grid shadows on his leathered back, as if we're in an ambulance together, monitors tracing the thready rhythm of Nico's life. We sit together in the blue fog as the light passes on across empty tables carved with half-finished names.
“I'm really sorry.” He finally pulls away, stiff, frowning. “I'm such a drag tonight. How are things after Jacob?”
I cluck in concern, just like my mom. I have to borrow the sound from her because
want to scream every time I think about fucking Jacob and fucking
I'm not ready for your life
. “We're talking about you.”
He grins a fake grin but he's so good at it I'm still a little charmed. “We've been talking about me
“You broke up with your girlfriend and lost your cat. You're having a bad week. As a medical professional I insist I buy you another round.” Paramedics drink, and lie sometimes. He dumped Yelena out of the blue, âto give her a chance at someone better.' The opposite of what Jacob had done to me. “And we're going to talk.”
“No.” He looks away. I follow his eyes, tracing the lighthouse beam across the room, where the circle of tables ruptures, broken by some necessity of cleaning or fire code: as if a snake had come up out of the light, slithered through the table mandala, and written something with its passage. “No, I'm done.”
And the way he says that hits me, hits me low, because I recognize it. I have a stupid compassion that does me no good. I am desperate to help the people in my ambulance, the survivors. I can hold them together but I can't answer the plea I always see in their eyes:
Please, God, please, mother of mercy, just let this never have happened. Make it undone. Let me have a world where things like this never come to pass.
“Nico,” I say, “do you feel like you want to hurt yourself?”
He looks at me and the Lighthouse's sound system glitches for an instant, harsh and negative, as if we're listening to the inverse music that fills the space between the song and the meaningless static beneath.
My heart trips, thumps, like the ambulance alarm's just gone off.
“I don't want to hurt anyone,” he says, eyes round and honest. “I don't want to get on Twitter and read about all the atrocities I'm complicit in. I don't want to trick wonderful women into spending a few months figuring out what a shithead I really am. I don't want to raise little cats to be coyote food. I don't even want to worry about whether I'm dragging my friends down. I just want to undo all the harm I've ever done.”
Make it undone.
In my job I see these awful thingsâthis image always come to me: a cyclist's skull burst like watermelon beneath the wheels of a truck he didn't see. I used to feel like I made a difference in my job. But that was a long time ago.
So I hold to this: As long as I can care about other people, I'm not in burnout. Emotional detachment is a cardinal symptom, you see.
“Did you ever see
It's a Wonderful Life
?” I'm trying to lighten the mood. I've only read the Wikipedia page.
“Yeah.” Oops. “But I thought it kind of missed the point. What ifâ” He makes an excited gesture, pointing to an idea. But his eyes are still fixed on the mirror surface of the table, and when he sees himself his jaw works. “What if his angel said,
Oh, you've done more harm than good; but we all do, that's life, those are the rules, there's just more hurt to go around
. Why couldn't he, I forget his name, it doesn't matter, why couldn't he say, well, just redact me. Remove the fact of my birth. I'm a good guy, I don't want to do anyone any harm, so I'm going to opt out. Do you think that's possible? Not a suicide, that's selfish, it hurts people. But a really selfless way out?”
I don't know what to say to that. It's stupid, but he's smart, and he says it so hard.
He grins up at me, full-lipped, beautiful. The lighthouse beacon comes around again and lights up his silhouette and puts his face in shadow except his small white teeth. “I mean, come on. If I weren't hereâwouldn't you be having a good night?”
“You're wishing you'd never known me, you realize. You're shitting all over me.”
“Dominga Roldan! My knight.” There he goes, closing up again, putting on the armor of charm. He likes that Roldan is so much like Roland. It's the first thing he ever told me. “Please. You're the suffering hero at this table. Let's talk about you.”
I surrender. I start talking about fucking Jacob.
But I resolve right then that I'll save Nico, convince him that it's worth it to go on, worth it to have ever been.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I believe in good people. Even though Nico has what we call “resting asshole face” and a job that requires him to trick people into giving him thousands of dollars (he designs the systems that keep people playing smartphone games, especially the parts that keep them spending) I still think he's a good man. He cares, way down.
I believe you can feel that. The world's a cold place and it'll break your heart. You've got to trust in the possibility of good.
I dream of gardening far south and west, home in Laredo. Inexplicably, fucking Jacob is there. He smiles at me, big bear face a little stubbled. I want to yell at him: don't grow a beard! You have a great chin! But we're busy gardening, rooting around in galvanized tubs full of okra and zucchini and purple hull peas. Hot peppers, since the sweet breeds won't take. The autumn light down here isn't so thin as in New York. I am bare-handed, turning up the soil around the roots, grit up under my fingers and in the web of my hands. I am making life.
But down in the zucchini roots I find a knot of maggots, balled up squirming like they've wormed a portal up from maggot hell and come pouring out blind and silent. And I think: I am only growing homes for maggots. Everything is this way. In the end we are only making more homes, better homes, for maggots.
Jacob smiles at me and says, like he did: “I'm just not ready for your life. It's too hard. Too many people get hurt.”
I wake up groaning, hangover clotted in my sinuses. Staring up at the vent above my mattress I realize there's no heat. It's broken again.
The cold is sharp, though. Sterile. It makes me go. I get to the hospital on time and Mary's waiting for me, smiling, my favorite partner armed with coffee and danishes and an egg sandwich from the enigmatic food truck only she can find. For my hangover, of course. Mary, bless her, knows my schedule.
Later that day we save a man's life.
He swam out into the river to die. We're first on the scene and I am stupid, so stupid: I jump in to save him. The water's late-autumn cold, the kind of chill I am afraid will get into my marrow and crystallize there, so that later in life, curled up in the summer sun with a lover, I'll feel a pang and know that a bead of ice came out of my bone and stuck in my heart. I used to get that kind of chest pain growing up, see. I thought they were ice crystals that formed when we went to see ex-Dad in Colorado, where the world felt high and thin, everything offered up on an altar to the truth behind the indifferent cloth of stars.
I'm thinking all this as I haul the drowning man back in. I feel so cold and so aware. My mind goes everywhere. Goes to Jacob, of course.
Offered up on an altar. We used to play a sex game like that, Jacob and I. You know, a sexy sacrificeâisn't that the alchemy of sex games? You take something appalling and you make it part of your appetites. Jesus, I used to think it was cute, and now describing it I'm furiously embarrassed. Jacob was into all kinds of nerd shit. For him I think the fantasy was always kind of Greco-Roman, Andromeda on the rocks, but I always wondered if he dared imagine me as some kind of Aztec princess, which would be too complicatedly racist for him to suggest. He's dating a white girl now. It doesn't bother me but Mom just won't let it go. She's sharp about it, too: she has a theory that Jacob feels he's now Certified Decent, having passed his qualifying exam, and now he'll go on to be a regular shithead.