I woke up to the smell of burning toast and the screaming of the fire alarm. For some reason, my roommate Sandy had left two slices of french toast in the pan on the burner without turning it off. I never saw her again.
I leapt out of my bed, still in my underwear, located the problem, and turned off the burner. On the other side of the door, I could hear the disgruntled occupants of my floor exiting the building. The fire department would come. I would get a stern talking to from the fire marshall. I threw on a pair of sweatpants, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. No time for a bra. I hurried out of my apartment, down the seven flights of stairs, and into the chilly street. After everything that had happened, this was the last thing I needed.
Finding out your boyfriend is cheating on you is hard. Finding out he cheated on you with your roommate is worse. Finding out that you can’t find another apartment in all of New York that you can afford, and that you can’t officially kick out said roommate because you can’t afford to pay the full rent of the apartment you’re in is even worse. Perhaps the worst, however, is being scolded by a pimply fire marshall for the careless mistake of said roommate in front of everyone from your building, who you’re sure can see your nipples clearly through your shirt.
By the time the smoke cleared and I had gotten ready for the day, I was already twenty minutes late for a fifty minute class. I could show up and miss half the class, or I could wallow for a bit. I returned to my bed and ate a bowl of dry Captain Crunch while watching an Episode of 30 Rock I had already seen. After about five minutes I started laughing at a joke that wasn’t even very funny. The laughter gripped me around the chest, making it hard to breathe, and turned to sobbing over a couple of seconds.
I think it was the sobs that brought him.
When I had regained my composure and paused 30 Rock, I got up, changed into something slutty, walked into the kitchen, and he was there, waiting for me.
My first thought was that he would get my floors dirty. He sat on the couch I had bought–the one my boyfriend and roommate had most likely made passionate sex on–wearing a collection of the dirtiest rags I had ever seen. From the lopsided way they hung around his shoulders, I concluded they must have been sewn together by a seven-year-old. He reeked like rotten potatoes that had sat in a bag for a year. His presence sucked all the life out of me, chilling my body like I had just stepped into a walk-in cooler. I did not scream. I should have. If only I had.
Instead I stood, staring.
“You’re asking yourself: why do I even bother?” His voice bubbled from the washboard of his throat like noxious gas squirms its way through lava.
At first, I couldn’t understand the words, but after a few moments recognized them as the ones that had been stuck on repeat in my head for the past half-hour. Again, I should have screamed. I should have run, but I could not move. I could not speak. Something about the dark nail-heads of his eyes, or his intense slouch, immobilized me.
“Why bother living when living only makes you more depressed? It’s probably best just to end it all.” He spoke in a matter-of-fact manner, as if this should have occurred to me already. It had. “You didn’t have to turn off that burner. You could have let things take their course. You could have just watched 30 Rock until the entire building burned down.”
Finally, I could speak again. “Who–who are you?”
In response, he vomited on the carpet. A new scent reached my nose; it smelled of sour milk and blood.
“No! My poor carpet!” I cried, stretching my hands out as if that might help.
“What does it matter?” he replied. “You plan on getting out of here as soon as you can. Every moment is a reminder of how Sandy stole your man. You can’t survive another day in this apartment. You won’t.”
He knew everything I was thinking. He voiced my feelings better than I could express them myself. “Why are you here?”
“Every moment you’re awake you spend thinking about what you could have done differently, what could have prevented things from going the way they have. Perhaps you took him to visit your parents too often. It could be that you never gave him any head. Sandy probably did. It must have had something to do with the sex. Why else would he cheat on you?”
Even before I knew, I had been jealous of Sandy. She could eat as much as she wanted and never get fat. She never worked out and yet you could still see faint sketches of her abs. At the time, I was pigeon-faced and continually unhappy with my weight. I had thought the sex my boyfriend and I had was good, and about every other day should be enough for a person. What had I done wrong?
He cleared his throat, emitting a sound more sickening than his voice. “I’m not here to speculate. Walk with me.”
I was afraid he would extend his arm for me to take, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood up from my couch, leaving flecks of a black-something on it. I had stopped caring. He was right; I wanted to leave this damn apartment as soon as I could. What did it matter that the furniture got ruined?
So I followed him. Together, we walked out of the door and, contrary to what I thought, up the stairs. I had never been above the seventh floor, but he led me all the way to the eleventh, then to the roof.
My shoes scraped against the loose, gravelly texture of the roof, but he made no noise at all as we walked to the edge and looked over New York. He pointed with a crooked, peeling finger to the ground below. “That’s where you want to go.”
“Then why didn’t we take the stairs down?”
He gave me a dead glance, one that squeezed my heart like its stress ball. “You know why.”
I did. “Look, I know what you want from me, but I won’t do it.”
“It’s not worth it. No one person matters that much. There are people who love me. Even if I’m unhappy, I need to consider how unhappy they would be without me.” Even to me this sounded weak. That was the kind of thing a guy with a megaphone should have been saying to me from below.
“And are those people enough to make you happy?”
I took a moment before answering. “No, but–”
“Let me ask you a question.” He laced his diseased fingers together. “When you’re playing a game, and you know you’ll lose, and you’re not enjoying it, don’t you want to stop playing?”
“Your life is a game. You’re losing. You’re not enjoying it. Quit.”
“It’s not that simple.” Maybe it was. It felt like it was, but I would not concede that easily.
I had no response. I could think of things to say, but my heart was not behind them. Argument by analogy is a logical fallacy, that’s what my logic teacher taught me, but we have analogies for a reason. I was tired of arguing with him. Even though he had been in my life for mere minutes, I felt as if I had known him for much longer.
“Go on. You know you’ll feel better, or at least you won’t feel worse.” His tone suggested he was encouraging me to indulge on a second slice of cake at a birthday party where the host doesn’t want any leftovers.
One last effort. “What about my mother? I’m supposed to Skype her tonight.”
“You won’t care about your mother. You won’t care about your boyfriend, or Sandy, or anything. Nothing at all will matter.”
I shoved at him, catching him in the chest and pushing him back a pace. “Go away! I don’t want to listen to you anymore!” Through my blurry eyes I could see the creases of my hands had become lined with ink-black fluid from his coat. I ran for the door back down to my apartment.
Before I made it, he appeared directly in front of me. Surprised, I slipped and fell to the ground, scraping my knee on the rough gravel.
“I will not go away, and you won’t stop listening to me until you end it all. It’s as easy as a quick jump.”
I could feel the sobs returning. I curled into a ball and clutched my knees to my chest, as if by scrunching myself up I could stop them from coming. I failed. Each sob shook all of me, starting in my chest and making its way out to my extremities.
“Look at you. This is what your life has amounted to: crying alone on the rooftop of your apartment building with a bleeding knee.” He mocked me, and I could not retaliate. I had lost all control of myself, and each word he spoke cinched my body tighter. “You are pathetic, and you know it. You have been entirely crippled by one man, a man whom you never really loved anyway. What more can you expect from this life? Maybe you’ll get over him. Maybe you’ll find another man to fuck and whisper to at night, but the whole time, you’ll know you don’t actually love him.”
Through the pain in my chest, I managed to scream, “Please stop! No more!”
“You don’t know what love is. You’ve seen it in movies, seen your friends tout it around like a gold sticker on an essay in elementary school, seen them fight each other over it. You’ve never felt it, and you know you never will.”
“Leave me alone!”
“No! I won’t leave you alone. You’ll never stop hearing my voice in your ears, never stop seeing my face when you look in the mirror, because I’ll be right behind you. The only way you can get rid of me is to do what I want.”
I leapt to my feet, the sobs making it difficult to stand straight. I ran as fast as I could to the edge of the building and jumped. I closed my eyes as I fell, not wanting to know when I would hit the ground. It’s funny how I had never fallen that far, but I still knew exactly what it felt like. My whole life I had dreamt of falling, and this felt exactly like that. Perhaps this was a dream. Perhaps, in a few moments, I would wake up gasping. There would be no burning toast, no angry fire marshall, no home-wrecking bitch of a roommate. My life would work the way it was supposed to.
When I hit the ground, I opened my eyes. I lay on the asphalt, unharmed. I stood up to find him next to me.
“Thank-you.” He took off his coat of rags and handed it to me. Underneath he wore nothing. His skin was as pale as an old, white bathtub. Along the veins of his wrists ran long scars. Even as I watched, the particles of his body drifted apart and lost themselves in the air.
Not entirely sure why, I donned the disgusting coat he had handed me. It attached itself to my soul, and pain shot like needles into my liver and encased my skin in ice. I tried to rip it off, but it wouldn’t come away. It clung to me like it was part of my body: a foul, extra layer of skin. The pain never relents, never lessens. Now I’m just like him.