“Will you play me another?” I asked, tossing a bundle of hundred dollar bills into the empty guitar case set in the middle of the room. It was maybe late afternoon. The waning sunshine pierced between the slate grey and stale curtains, to his tastes, but also had a lightly-woven black pattern, to my tastes. The guitar case was ivory with a black velvet lining; it at least looked expensive.
“I guess, only because you asked nicely,” Brett said, balancing his words perfectly through his cigarette. He sat on recliner we had found in a custom furniture store and rested one leg higher than the other on a stool we picked up in a house down the street, giving him a sort of “John Wayne” appearance as he held his guitar. He tossed his cigarette in the bin next to him and lighted a fresh one before starting his next performance. I complained at first about the smoke, and his health, and the smell on the furniture, and my constant exposure to it, but if either of us had cancer no one would be there to bother and screen or treat us.
“What the fuck about your painkillers?” he’d say. “You’re gonna run out. Not every fuckin’ pharmacy in the city has prescriptions for you to raid.”
In a backwards way, he showed his concern through arguing and criticisms, although I suppose I did the same.
“You can’t mix that shit with alcohol,” he’d say, in a distant and somewhat detached voice, holding a bottle of whiskey. I could never tell what he was thinking.
“Says who?” I’d counter.
“Yeah, that matters.”
Adjusting wasn’t easy for us at first. It would have been a lot easier had we worked through our dependencies beforehand, but our dependencies made it a hell of a lot easier to get through.
“God led humanity to invent this shit so that we’d cope,” I’d say.
“You don’t believe in God,” he would respond. He claimed he didn’t either, but I questioned that in the back of his mind, he held that faith from his childhood. For his sake, I hope he did. Anything to cope. Mix it all. If one of us dies, the other can live it out in peace, we’d say. Although truthfully, I’d probably commit suicide.
He breathed in a drag of his cigarette, and strung a chord, following it up with a relaxed flow of notes that reminded me of indie artists from when we were teenagers.
“Are you feeling them yet?” he asked through his cigarette.
“Yeah, I’m getting there.”
“How’s your arm?”
I had a deep gash on my left arm from trying to break into a non-threatening window. Rich side of town. Rich houses had the good shit. He had to get into it for me, and clean the wound up. A legitimate reason for meds, I guess.
“It’s better,” I lied.
“Liar,” he said, not even looking up. “Take another and go to sleep.” He was strumming a series of chords now. I’d been laying on the same couch for several days, afraid to remove the bandaging. We both pretended it wasn’t there, and he only seldomly asked about it. The song became a slow trail of a melody, clearly reaching an end.
“No more,” he said. I was feeling it now. I felt the cushions of the couch embrace my body. How relaxing it felt against my neck, back, legs.
“Please?” I asked quietly, tossing my last bundle of hundreds and missing the guitar case. He looked at me with the blank expression he seemed to always have.
“Alright.” He lit another cigarette. I only heard the first few notes before falling asleep.
It seemed that married couples often felt trapped with each other. They stayed for the kids; they stayed for finances; they stayed for convenience. The good ones maybe were lucky enough to stay in the trap for love. We weren’t romantic with each other, but we may as well have been fucking married, and we stayed with each other out of necessity. I had to learn to deal with Brett’s sarcastic insults, and he had to learn to deal with my mood swings and neurotic perfectionism. We lived through the ultimate marriage counseling, I guess, because at no point was it an option to separate. We’d die together, whether we liked it or not. “Noland, these curtains are fuckin’ gay” he said when I found a thermal set of curtains that would keep it cooler in the summer. “Brett, what the fuck?” I said when he suggested not having curtains at all. “Instead of shooting down every pair I show you, help me out. What do you like?” I asked.
“Who cares? No one will see,” he whined.
“Then why do you turn my suggestions down?” I asked.
“Because they’re ugly as fuck.”
“Fuck you,” I responded, genuinely irritated.
“Stop asking; it’ll never happen.”
This was the bed that had been laid for us, and we’d have to sleep in it whether we wanted to or not. And eventually, we found a pair of curtains that neither of us really liked but didn’t hate either. He pretended to not care how the curtains looked, but I knew he did; he was an asshole because I needed him to be, and I was high maintenance because he needed me to be. Or maybe that’s rationalization, because again, we had no choice but to compromise with those shitty curtains.
My arm healed after about a week. Brett pointed out how cliché and pathetic it would have been had it become infected and killed me, some kind of ironic poetic just, or some shit; he doesn’t know, I’m the one who was into books. Eventually, he demanded to look at it, to remove the bandaging, to know if he’d need to amputate my arm (I didn’t take this as a joke). I woke up one morning with him looming over my couch. I had been laying in it for so long that I could feel the springs beneath the cushions pressing upwards, begging for relief.
“Let me see it,” he said. His characteristically detached expression had just a hint of seriousness.
“Fine,” I responded, as if I had a choice. I didn’t want to remove the bandage. For some reason, knowing there’s not an entire medical health empire that people claim is trying to kill us for a profit to safety net you just in case, makes any sort of injury terrifying. We didn’t really get sick, as there weren’t any carriers to spread viruses. I imagined that somewhere, maybe there were the last two little cold viruses, stuck together out of necessity.
“Don’t look at it,” Brett said, reaching over me. My arm was pressed against the couch’s backing. I lifted it, and he cut one of the strips of bandaging with his pocket knife, and stuck it between his teeth while he unraveled the bandaging with both hands. I wondered why he thought he may still need it.
I could feel the compression lighten, and the air start to reach my skin. I did as he said, and stared past his leg, at the window on the opposite side of the room by his chair and stool. We framed a poster of a musician we both had liked, although the only way we could hear any now was to perform it ourselves through our own memory. Our “garden” was slightly visible through the window, on the side of the house next to the street. We had torn down the fencing to try and nurse plants that would survive around the entire bordering of the house. I hoped it pissed off the neighbors.
I felt the last of the bandaging come off, and glanced at Brett’s face. He still had the pocket knife in his teeth, and he turned his head at me with slightly squinted eyes. He stood up and pulled the knife out of his mouth, and swung his arm. “You’re so dramatic!” he yelled as he side stepped away.
“Is it bad?!” I asked, afraid to look. His mouth fell open and he put his hands on his hips, and hunched forward.
“Does it hurt?” he asked, glaring me down.
“No, but I thought maybe if-”
“Fuckin’ look at your arm” he said. I did, and the gash where the glass had carved into me had shrunk into a clean, tightly sewn line. “I played music for you and hunted down your pills. Did you just want attention?!” he asked, widening his eyes further. I fought back a laugh.
“I didn’t know-”
“Yeah. You didn’t know. Because you wouldn’t look.” The situation was stupid, but I didn’t feel guilty for annoying him. Annoying Brett was great for coping.
“Well since you’re not bedridden anymore, take a shower. We need groceries.”
To satiate any curiosity, we didn’t talk about how things were before; who we knew, who we lost, or what we had planned. We didn’t talk about what happened. Because that we make us ask ourselves why we lasted, and then make us realize that we’re just waiting for death, which is what we were doing before I guess, but it seemed so much more real. We didn’t talk about how Hollywood got it wrong and that gasoline actually degenerates really, really fast, and no kind of automobiles work (although Brett knew this, and tried his best to seal gasoline to buy us more time–he was a science person). They don’t tell you that piping starts to explode and buildings and structures like to start falling apart when they have no maintenance, and you have to be really, really careful about where you go. We were just so lucky to be far away from any oil refineries or nuclear plants that had probably erupted long ago. Although this what Brett was good at–he seemed to be good at everything. It was good that I was his only option for a companion, because I wasn’t good at much–so our housing choices and where we went to raid or salvage were largely left up to him.
Our relationship probably seems pretty bad, like we’d been defaulted together. Maybe it is like that, although we don’t exactly have any other interpersonal connections to compare it with. But I’ll try to give some insight, and maybe the judgment of that won’t have to be left up to me.
Brett always had a way of managing his dependencies, and I never was able to understand it. If he was forced to give something up, he’d be able to do it. Although, he had to have a pretty damn good reason. Me complaining about health and the smell of cigarettes wasn’t a good reason. Running out of stock of something is.
It must have been in the summer, because I remember that the heat was bearing down on me in a certain way, the way when it feels like it’s actually weighted. I could feel the rays coming in waves every few seconds, and the asphalt was fighting back against the heat by pushing back upwards in protest, sandwiching me between them. I remember how fucking loudly our steps on the concrete echoed. We hadn’t been talking, which was probably a good thing. I closed my eyes and felt my heart pounding, and each beat forced out more sweat. The sweat was pooling on my forehead and felt cold. We were on our way to a small neighborhood in town that we hadn’t visited yet (one of the few new spots left) to see what we may be able to find.
“What’s wrong, Noland?” Brett asked. He asked this a lot.
“Nothing,” I responded quickly.
“Liar.” We were taking a very, very long route around, avoiding large buildings and the ruins of old businesses. A couple small cafes and gift shops were to the left, somewhat far from the road (a Brett strategy) and clusters of trees were to our right. I didn’t respond for about thirty seconds. I was digging my right index nail into my palm, listening to my heart beat.
“I’m going to figure it out,” he said.
“I’m fine,” I said. Even I heard the defeat in my voice.
“I’m gonna find what’s bothering you and I’m gonna fix it,” he said. I glanced over at him. He had a self-serving smile on his face. I felt a sudden burst of emotion and adrenaline come upwards into my chest, and I pushed it back down. We had so long to go. My senses became more and more heightened, and I felt a rush of adrenaline every thirty seconds or so.
“I’m not gonna put up with this. You’re being too quiet and pissy.” I took a deep breath in, and didn’t respond to him. We kept walking.
“I don’t–” Brett started.
“Please, shut the fuck up,” I said, letting the emotions bubble up from my chest to my mouth. I immediately felt guilty.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked. I felt him looking me, and I ran my fingers through my hair and clutched at my scalp.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I said. It was quiet for a couple of minutes again. I wanted to apologize. I felt so many emotions. I just wanted to leave, although the only place it felt appropriate to really separate was at home, and we typically stayed in the same room even then.
“Do you want to go back?” he asked eventually. He was pissed, I thought. Looking back, with my even more disgustingly psychic knowledge of him, he wasn’t.
“No, I’ll be fine. I’m sorry,” I said. He didn’t respond. We were coming up to what used to be a traffic light. Half of the steel beam still shot upwards and the road intersected. The road to the right lead to a decently sized intersection, with two lanes of traffic going in either direction and numerous businesses and complexes. Somewhere we’d definitely avoid. We were silent as we came up to the light; I started walking through it, the plan had to been to outskirt town to get to the opposite side. He started to veer right.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m going to the fucking Walgreens so you stop bitching,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone. His words hit me in waves, like the blistering sunlight, and the meanings rose from beneath me like the heat from the asphalt. I stopped, and he turned around to face me.
“Please don’t. I’ll be fi-”
“Then stay here; I’ll be back in a while. I can’t handle you like this,” he said, walking backwards and outstretching his arms.
We ended up finding several ridiculously large prescriptions that were clearly for prescribed addicts. We also picked up some and vitamins and salvageable food, and completely raiding their cigarette and alcohol stash while we were there. We got back as it was getting dark, although the only thing that was to be avoided with the night was the temperature drop.
Jonathan is an aspiring writer, currently completing his Bachelor’s degree at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and trying to not let his pesky courses get in the way of his what’s really important, his writing.Music that was inspirational: “Peaches” by In The Valley Below,”Funeral Pyre” by Phantogram