I DIDN’T want to get up. The dream was a good one, and it was disappearing. I could still see his eyes, soft and brown. He was going to kiss me… my first kiss. That’s when my phone started to strum. I’d set it on the harp; the other rings were too jarring. I hated waking up. I especially didn’t like waking to fire alarms or old-time telephones or any of the other choices on my iPhone. I wanted that kiss, and it wasn’t going to happen.
I lay there in my tiny curtained-off bed, my feet hanging off the end. When I went for my school physical I was six foot one and one hundred and fifty pounds. It was seven months later, and I’d added at least an inch, but I was way too skinny. Not like the boy in my dream. He was… perfect.
I heard my sister, Alice, on the other side of our room. To be precise, on the other side of the curtain in our eight-by-ten excuse of a bedroom. Smaller than a lot of people’s closets. If I reached to the right and pushed my hand through the shiny fabric we’d pulled from a dumpster, I could touch her mattress. I lay still and let sounds creep in. It was the quietest time of the day, not yet light out.
I heard the click of dog nails in the apartment above, my gaze fixed to the rough spot on the ceiling where years of overflowing dog food and water bowls had caused a steady leak that melted the plaster. A chunk of it fell down a couple years back, along with half a dozen dried mouse carcasses. They were really small rats, but I called them mice to keep Alice from freaking. Mom was too scared to call the landlord or let the Section 8 people know just how bad a place this was. So I nailed up a drywall patch, bought a two-gallon tub of contractor’s compound, and following a book on home repair from the library, did my best. It wasn’t pretty, but this was an old building, and when the Section 8 inspectors came through last year they didn’t even notice.
The day the ceiling caved in, I’d stormed upstairs. I’d been furious: “What if my little sister had been in bed? She could have been hurt. She could have….” The adults upstairs didn’t speak English, and if possible, their apartment—which was the exact same as ours—was worse. In the room like the one where Alice and I slept, I’d glimpsed two sets of bunk beds. In front of one of them was an array of dog food bowls. I counted four kids in their kitchen, a small pack of Chihuahua mixes making a mess of their chow, and a woman in a torn housedress smoking a cigarette while washing dishes. All my angry words had choked in my throat. What was I supposed to say? At least now the dogs have bigger bowls and a broad strip of lime-green linoleum to put them on, courtesy of me… and Macy’s dumpster.
From the dogs’ clickety-clack I listened for Alice—not yet awake. Her breath was soft, but if I concentrated and pictured her blonde head and clear-blue eyes on the other side of our Little India curtain, I heard her. I wouldn’t move until I did. If she was breathing and she was in bed, she was okay. My day could start.
As to the other sounds, even at the quietest time, there was a lot going on—the East Village Symphony. Maybe that was pushing things, I didn’t know what kind of composer would call this music—a siren downtown, the hum of building exhausts, pigeons in the alley, and Nimby flitting in my ear, telling me it was time to get up. Maybe it was just noise.
And Nimby…. “Alex, get up. Alex, get up.”
Her tiny voice was an unwanted constant in my life and in my ear. I was good at shutting her out; I’d had sixteen years of practice. But not when I first woke up and not as I was dropping off to sleep. It’s like she was always waiting on either end of the Wonderful World of Nod. I spotted her out of the corner of my vision, six inches tall, orange-and-black wings with specks of blue and red on the tips—like a swallowtail butterfly. Her tiny black feet perched on my shoulder. She wanted me to look at her, to acknowledge her existence. I didn’t. I don’t, and I wished—every single day—she’d disappear. I used to yell at her to try and get her to shut up and leave me alone. And that made me look like a loon, and we had enough of that in this family.
“Get up, Alex,” Nimby sang. “You have school.”
She wanted me to respond. I didn’t. I pictured a brick wall inside my head, and I pushed her to the other side. I imagined her tiny red eyes welling with tears as her fragile wings beat against my mental prison. We went through this every frigging morning. And then she was gone, and it was time to start the day.
I skooched to the edge of the bed and my feet connected with the floor. I kept quiet, wanting Alice to get the extra half hour sleep while I got our world on track.
The morning air was chilly through my green scrubs—courtesy of the Cabrini Hospital dumpster. Give me a cool spring day over the miserable heat and humidity of our East Village hovel in July and August. Then it wasn’t the symphony of sound that greeted me in the morning, but the smell of slow-cooked garbage steaming through the open windows. It wasn’t bad today, or maybe like everything else in my messed-up life, I was used to it, and I shut it out.
I pushed through the curtain between our bedroom and the apartment’s kitchen/living area/demilitarized zone that separated Alice and me from our crazy mother, Marilyn. I glanced at the door to her room—no curtain there, but solid oak, with a lock facing into the kitchen. That was my doing. Because sometimes… I locked that door with my mother inside. I was sure that made me a bad person, but it was low on the list of things that would land me in hell… unless of course I was already there.
Our kitchen was basic tenement. A tiny sink—the only one in the apartment—then our combo bathtub/kitchen counter, and to the right of that a gas stove and an ancient refrigerator that Mom painted in a dense forest motif. Lots of woodland creatures with staring eyes and birds swallowing insects. There was a double window over the tub/counter, and across from that a table with three mismatched chairs. Next to that was the front door with a police lock that had a steel rod that ran from the lock plate to its hole in the floor. There were two other locks, both with deadbolts.
I started a pot of coffee—for me. I drank it black, and while it dripped, I pulled together our book bags. I laid them out on the kitchen counter, which was a piece of plywood I cut to fit over the bathtub. To be fair, it was a big tub. But who wanted to get naked in a place with no privacy?
I checked Alice’s homework. I scanned the sheets of her fifth-grade math and English to make sure she’d get full credit. I made a couple quick corrections, making my handwriting match hers. Then I made us each a couple snacks—peanut butter between crackers and a bag of carrot sticks for each of us. We got the free lunches, which weren’t bad. There was one juice box left in the cabinet, and I popped it into Alice’s knapsack.
I liked this time of day. Just me, Nimby locked away behind my mental brick wall. Alice safe in bed and Mom well sedated until sometime around noon. Through the bars of the kitchen window, I watched a pair of pigeons, and beyond them the building across the alley. Every window with a story, most of them darkened, all of them barred with security gates like ours. Every so often someone new moved in, and they forgot to put up gates, or they didn’t know. They got robbed, and it happened fast. The day after all their stuff was stolen and what couldn’t be carried got trashed, they got the gates.
As the coffee dripped, traces of my dream floated in my head—who was that boy? He was going to kiss me. What would that be like? Something about him was so familiar, but try as I might to remember the details, all I saw were those brown eyes, little flecks of gold and thick lashes. I couldn’t see his face, just those beautiful eyes and the feeling something important was about to happen—my first kiss. I was sixteen years old, and I’d never been kissed. I was also gay, which on the list of things that kept me up at night, barely registered.
I poured coffee into a mug advertising one of the antidepressants my mom’d been on—“Have a Zoloft morning.” I took it from her shrink’s office—Dr. Norman Katz. He said I could have it. Thought it was cute, me wanting it.
Taking a first swig of black coffee, I padded on bare feet to Mom’s door. It wasn’t locked. I tried to remember when I saw her last. She hadn’t been home for dinner or when we came home from school. Must have been this time yesterday; she’d been passed out in bed. Like instructions on the shampoo “wash, rinse, and repeat.” I turned the knob and pushed.
Mom’s room was the biggest of our three, and that’s because Alice was supposed to sleep in here—it was the only way Section 8 and the Office of Children and Families Services (OCFS) would approve this too-small apartment for the three of us. Boy children and girl children after age six weren’t supposed to sleep in the same room. It was a rule, and I was real good at keeping track of those.
Mom’s room was dark, the windows blacked out with drapes. One wall was covered with closets I’d knocked together out of two-by-fours and plywood I’d scrounged from some guy as he was taking down the window displays at an electronics store on Canal Street. In the middle of the room was her platform bed, which had a pullout trundle where Alice was supposed to sleep. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust. My brain pulled shapes into images. The unmade bed, blankets, and pillows, my ears straining for her snores. “Mom.” Looking at the mounds of bedding. Is she there? “Mom? Mom? Marilyn?”
I clicked the switch and the overhead light flooded the room. Dozens of faces stared at me from the walls and from on top of my do-it-yourself closets. But from the bed, nothing. No sleeping Marilyn Nevus. With coffee in hand, I thought this through. She hadn’t come home last night. I last saw her… did you really see her? I swigged coffee and heard Alice head into the small closet that contained our toilet. “Did you really see her?” Liking the sound of my voice, something real to hang on to in the craziness of Mom’s room.
Her artwork was everywhere. Framed, unframed, hanging one on top of the next. Our apartment was tiny, but the ceilings are ten feet, and every inch of her room was covered with her insanity—her schizophrenia. Paintings and collages of mythical creatures—ogres with names scrawled on the frames—Gork, Gehrmond. Winged fairies, self-portraits of Marilyn, weird mosaics pieced together from psych pills she refused to take. Along the far wall was her worktable, an old door laid across some salvaged metal filing cabinets. The table was pretty cool, all covered in layers of paint and glue, like the pictures on the wall had melted onto it. Which I suppose was kind of true.
“So where are you, Mom?” Wondering how much it mattered this time.
I didn’t hear Alice come up behind me.
“There’s a note,” she said.
I turned and faked a smile. Alice looked up at me, her blue eyes wide, her corn-silk-blonde hair mussed from bed. She held a piece of paper ripped from one of Mom’s journals. “What’s it say?” I asked.
She read, “Had to go. You’ll figure things out…. M.”
“Okay, then.” I searched Alice’s face, wondering how she was taking this. “You all right?” My own emotions were too knotted up to name—anger, resignation, sadness, numbness… or “E,” all the above.
She shrugged. “Where do you think she is this time?”
“No clue. But she’ll come home. She always does, right?”
“Sure.” And she pushed past me into Mom’s room. She walked to the worktable and looked at the most recent creation in her series of pill art. A half-completed composition of an ogre. The detail was amazing, all the pills coming together like brush strokes. Alice gently brushed her hand across the surface. “I bet we could get money for some of these.”
“The pills or the art?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Yeah, don’t think selling pills—art or otherwise—is smart.”
“She used to sell things,” Alice said. “Didn’t she?”
“Long time ago. Do you even remember that?”
“I think so. I remember rooms with white walls and paintings… and big windows looking out on the street.”
I touched the back of Alice’s hair and smoothed it down. “That’s right. You would have been tiny. She had shows, and the prices on her paintings—serious money, thousands. Some of those on the top are what she used to do.… That one.” I pointed to a long canvas of a busy sidewalk. It showed people in a hurry, only the closer you looked at it, you realized things were weird. The ears were too pointy on a baby in a stroller, a lady with shopping bags had eyes the color of fresh blood—like Nimby’s—a dog chased a rat down a sewer grate, but the rat had eight toes per paw, and the dog had three.
“I like it,” Alice said. “It’s like those puzzles where you have to find the hidden things. But that’s my favorite.” She pointed to a painting of the two of us. In it, I was eight, and she was three. Light and dark: her, blonde, fair, and blue-eyed, and me with hair the color of a crow’s wing, olive skin, and green eyes. The day I learned the basics of genetics was the day I realized Alice and I had different fathers. No clue who they were.
“Come on,” I said. “We need to get going.”
“Are you going to look for her?”
“Not now.” I pulled down a box of house-brand Frosted Flakes and got the milk from the fridge. I sniffed—still good but not for long. I made a mental note to hit Gristede’s after school. I checked my wallet to see how many food stamps we had left for the month. Less than twenty bucks, and ten days before we’d get more. Not critical. “It’s Tuesday. We’ll hit the food bank after school.”
Alice poured milk into her cereal. “Why don’t we put one of her nonpill paintings on eBay? She’d never notice.”
“Probably not… it’s not a bad idea. Maybe one of the old ones….”
“You’re not the only one with a brain.” Alice smiled; it looked forced.
“I know.” I could see she was worried. “We’re doing okay?”
“We are,” she said.
But we weren’t, and we knew it.