On Monday, the neighbor’s kid is late coming over. When I hear her on the stairs, I call out, “Hey, you’re late. Nothing much is on.” Since returning from rehab five months ago, Syd’s been coming over to watch TV with me in my attic. Her parents asked me once if I’d mind keeping an ear open for anything going on. Seemed easier to tell Syd I had satellite dish and let things unroll from there. Except for weekends, she’s over here all afternoon. And except for Thursdays, when she’s seeing her shrink.
Syd tosses her bag onto her corner of the futon and snakes her hand into the open bag of Doritos. She’s got a nose ring sticking out of her face that wasn’t there on Friday. I want to ask about it but don’t because Syd’s the kind of kid that gets shitty when you ask too many questions. She takes the remote and sees what my TV’s been recording. “Oh, let’s watch this,” she says and begins the A&E show Intervention, one of our favorites.
Syd likes to bite her nails, giggle, and say, “I did that shit,” as we watch the addicts spiral down and the families cry and blame themselves. I like to get high and tell myself I’m not as sad as those people.
Syd plays with her nose ring and glances over at the notepad I tossed onto the couch when she came up. “What’s that?”
“New project,” I say glancing at it. “I’m supposed to be drawing up a marketing ad for that new burrito place downtown. Buddy’s Burritos. Heard of it?”
She shakes her head. “I stopped going downtown. I’ll just make bad decisions.”
That’s Syd’s way of saying her parents won’t allow it. She glances at the notepad. “Can I see?”
I hand it to her. So far, it’s just covered in a bunch of crummy sketches when it should look more like what will eventually be painted as a mural on the side of the Buddy’s Burritos building.
“What’s the theme?” she says.
“Yeah. You know, do they do a Southwest menu or is it like a Thai burrito place or a veggie place or what?”
“I dunno,” I say. “Southwest I guess.” I hand her the menu and a brief but melodramatic history of the franchise written by one of the owners.
She’s looking closely at one of the things I’ve drawn—a spindly cactus with a cartoonish cowboy trying to sleep in the tiny shade it throws. There’s a burrito tucked into his arm like a sleeping baby except it looks more like a massive joint. “Make this bigger,” she says, tapping the cactus, “like those fat round cactuses. I think they’re called Segourney’s—”
“Saguaros,” I correct.
“Whatever. A bunch of them, and leave out this stupid ass cowboy. The cactuses eat the burritos.”
“Cacti,” I tell her.
“Hmm?” She’s twirling her nose ring again, picking at some crust growing on the outside. It’s getting red.
“The plural of cactus is cacti,” I say again. “And stop messing with your nose. You’re making it all red.”
She flips me off, smiles and says, “Icepick did it.”
During that break where you learn how great these people were as babies, I roll another joint. “You pierced your nose with an icepick? Are you fucking nuts?”
She laughs again. “No, his name is Icepick.”
We’ve come to the point at which Syd is throwing out a carrot which she will retract as soon as I go for it, making me feel stupid and out of touch in the process, so I say nothing and pick up the lighter. I can never figure out the etiquette for this sort of thing, so I let my open hand with the pipe and full, green bowl hang there between us for a second.
“Nah,” she says, like always, “weed was never my thing.” She readjusts herself, tucking up her legs. “Weed’s not really the kind of thing you sell your ass on 82nd Street for, you know?”
Sometimes she says things like that, things that make me wonder what the hell she’s getting at. Her mother Diane once hinted to me that Syd had gotten caught up in some “fast things.” That’s what she calls the months Syd disappeared into the fray of homeless teens living around the Square and the ensuing year in rehab. But Diane’s the type of person to say stuff like that, like saying she needs to tinkle instead of take a piss. It’s hard to tell how bad it got. And you can’t really believe Syd either. One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue….”
Halfway through the second episode, I ask her, “What do your parents think about you coming over here every day?”
She spits a bit of nail onto the floor and shrugs. She says too quickly, too offhandedly, “Oh they don’t care,” which tells me they have no idea.
Around seven, she slides off the couch. “You know,” she says, “you should get married. What kind of life is this for a guy in his forties?”
“Still.” She takes a business card from her bag and hands it to me. “Did you call her yet?”
“For Christ’s sake, Syd,” I say, refusing to take the card, “I’m not desperate enough to ask your therapist on a date.”
“Oh come on, she’s desperate too!” she says and her voice is high and whiney. What must it be like to get this kid to load the dishwasher? “She’s really cool. You’ll like her. She wears a lot of leather. I think that means she’s into SM.”
She leaves the card on my table and disappears downstairs and out the door. A minute later, I hear her front door open and then, through the tiny window in my upstairs room, I see the light in Syd’s room come on, her shadow passing back and forth. Syd paces when she’s on the phone, which is what she’s doing now, probably calling Icechest.
No fucking way, I say to her window and leave the card on the table when I go downstairs for the night.
* * *
One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue…”
But on Thursday, I’m sitting at a table in a bistro wearing a too-tight sports jacket and asking myself what made me come down to the Pearl. I remind myself of the leather and take a deep breath.
Mimsy, Mimsy, Mimsy, I say in my head. I heard once that if you repeat a name or a phone number or whatever seven times, you’ll have transferred it to long-term memory. I also heard that a child needs to be told something around seventy-five times before it sticks, which reminds me of how Syd’s mom is always exclaiming, “How many times do I have to ask you to pick up before I get home?” Seventy-five, Diana.
The whole time I’m waiting and drinking cocktails, I’m wondering why I agreed to meet a woman whose name makes her sound like the kind of person voted most likely to show up to my mom’s Friday evening book club. But when she arrives, she’s nothing like what I pictured at all. She’s young, short, and cute. Skinny but not athletic, her arms and legs like four cigarettes sticking out of her body, what my sister calls “skinny-fat.”
She sees the three empty cocktail glasses on the table and says, “Well, I guess you’ve been waiting a while.” She puts her leather jacket over the back of her chair and slides into her seat. Her skirt is leather and the chair is vinyl, so they stick together and make a farting noise as she scoots in. We both pretend not to hear.
When the waiter comes, she orders a bottle of wine. After her third glass, Mimsy reaches across the table, aiming to clasp my hand, but misses and grabs onto the side of the table, her cleavage almost landing in her pasta. “Do you think it’s bad boundaries to date the neighbor of your client?”
I consider things for a minute, decide that yes, it is bad boundaries—for both of us—and conclude to treat this like the “does my ass look OK in this?” question.
“Yes,” I say, “your ass looks great in that skirt,” and swallow the last of my fourth drink.
Mimsy looks at me a little puzzled and then laughs. “You’re weird,” she tells me. “Weird is good.”
As we’re leaving, Mimsy struggles to get her left arm into the left arm hole of her jacket and drops her miniscule purse in the process, the contents of which dump out onto the floor of the bistro’s lobby. I stoop down with her, hand her tampons and feminine wipes and a cracked tube of mascara.
I lead her outside and aim her in the direction of my car. She tries to pull away from me. “I’m parked that way,” she says and begins patting the pockets of her jacket to find her keys.
As soon as she pulls them out, I take them away. “You don’t need to be driving,” I say.
“Oh yeah?” She lurches toward me. “And who’s going to stop me?”
As I pull up to the light, I look over at her, waiting for her to tell me which way to go. Finally, I say, “Well, which way?” but she’s fallen asleep with her head against the glass.
So I drive us back to my place. I told her about the 70” flat-screen up in my attic, so of course she asks to see it. There’s a lot of other things up there too—an ashtray full of roaches, a glass pipe in the shape of a baby’s hand, and my college bong made from a two-liter pepsi bottle attached to a WWII-era gas mask. I’m excited to see what happens when she sees it, hoping it’s like one of those cartoon moments where the terrified lady runs screaming through the front door, leaving behind a cut-out in the shape of a flailing woman.
“Follow me,” I say and lead her through the living room, down the short hall to the small, cluttered spare room in back. I point to the closet and say, “In there,” and amazingly she goes right in.
Halfway up the narrow staircase, she turns and asks, “Did a skunk die up here or something?”
“Almost there,” I tell her and nudge the back of her thigh.
She stops dead in the middle of the room. I slide past and fall onto the futon, dig under a pillow for the remote.
“What. . .” —she starts. She picks up the gas mask and the Pepsi bottle nearly spills.
“Hey!” I say, “Careful with that. I’ll have you know that won an Honorable Mention at Hempstalk ten years ago.”
Mimsy places it back on the coffee table. “I had no idea,” she says. “You’d think I could have been able to tell.” She swivels her head back and forth, peering through the small dormered windows on either side of the room. “So which house is Sydney’s?” she asks. Then she says, “No, don’t answer that. We shouldn’t talk about Sydney.” When she says this, she flaps her finger from herself to me as though to remind me which two people are off limits talking about Syd.
But she keeps looking, probably trying to discern which of the houses meets Syd’s descriptions, so I say, “The green one.”
“They’re both green.”
Finally, Mimsy takes a seat beside me. She sits very rigidly upright, but I know she’s still drunk from the way she sways back and forth, like a stick stuck in the dirt on a windy day. “I haven’t smoked this in years,” she says and picks up a pipe, sniffs it, and makes a face. “You know,” she goes on. “I don’t really think weed is a problem. Only when users are too young or when their dealers push harder stuff.”
I ignore the term “users.”
“What does your boss think? Your mom and sisters?”
“My sister’s cool, but it’s not really something I talk about at work.”
“I see. So you’d identify yourself as functional?”
“Functional?” I turn off the TV and stand. “You know, I don’t need this from you or anyone else. Functional, my ass.”
“Wait.” She pulls me back onto the futon and kneels in front of me. “I didn’t mean it that way.” She gives a lopsided grin and starts to unzip my pants.
Sure you did, but I don’t say anything else.
* * *
On Monday, Syd shows up with a drugstore bag around her wrist. “Can I dye my hair in your tub?” she asks.
I heave off the futon and follow her downstairs.
Syd takes the box out of the bag and tears off the top. She dumps the contents into the sink. The picture on the box shows a teenaged rocker-girl with jet-black hair holding a purple electric guitar that matches the purple of her eyeshadow. Raven the box says in big black letters.
I sit on the toilet and smoke a cigarette while Syd clips the top off the bottle of grayish looking liquid, places her gloved finger over the hole and shakes. She glances from the corner of her eye, “How was your date?”
“What date?” I say.
“I know things.”
“Your nose is looking really red,” I tell her. “I think you need an antibiotic cream or something.”
“Nope,” she says, “Icepick says you have to let the body win the war.”
“Yeah well, tetanus is no joke.”
“You sound like my dad.” Now she’s standing bent over the tub mixing the dye into her hair. Her jeans, which she wears too low anyway, show the top of her ass and I look away sharply, focus on the pattern of mildew forming near the top of my shower and try to make out shapes. The only sound is Syd’s fingers working the dye in, the slick squish-squish of gloved hands on scalp.
While watching another episode of our favorite show, Syd and I get talking about the questionnaires the families fill out and read from during the actual intervention part. They always start, “Your drug abuse has negatively affected my life in the following ways. . . .” This is normally the least exciting part of the show because everyone is crying and sometimes the addicts run away, but they always come back, and they almost always go to treatment, so we’d just rather not watch the crying part and skip to the ending credits where the producers tell us how long the addicts stayed clean and what they’re doing now, where they’re living, et cetera. Mostly, they’re living with their parents again, doing what they were doing before the camera crews showed up and made promises about how beautiful life was going to be.
“If we were having an intervention for me,” I say, “what would you say?”
Syd thinks about this for a minute, smiles and says, “Well, I guess I’d say that I’m glad you’re mostly high when I come over because I don’t think you’d like me very much if you weren’t.”
“Aww,” I say, “that’s so sweet. You don’t get many of the ‘you should stay on drugs because’ speeches. But I’d still like you anyway, infected nose ring and all.”
“What would you say,” Syd asks, “at my intervention?” She has curled herself even tighter into the corner of the couch.
“I’d say that you are an amazing, beautiful person and I hope you never touch the poison again, because if you did, I’d throw a brick through my TV and sneak into your house to shave your head while you were sleeping.”
Syd laughs. We go back to watching our show and making fun of the people on it.
Before she goes, I talk to Syd about Mimsy. I tell her that Mimsy is pretty militant when it comes to appropriate boundaries, that I said I hardly knew Syd at all, we just wave sometimes passing by. I hint that things could get awkward for us both if Mimsy finds out. “Don’t worry, Steve,” Syd says, “If you can’t lie to your therapist. . .” and she gives me a knowing look and nods.
* * *
Mimsy refuses to come over until after dark, and even then she parks her car around the corner and slips in the back door wearing a dark hoodie and enormous sunglasses like some second-rate celebrity.
She likes to walk around my house picking up things, turning them over in her hands, and putting them back down again. On the mantle, she finds my sketch pad, the pages grey with smudged drawings that still haven’t formed themselves into the image my boss hovers around my desk waiting for.
“Do you like it?” I call from the kitchen, where I’m adding cheese and basil to a frozen pizza. “I’m going to make the cacti eat the burritos. Cut out those stupid-ass cowboys.” Mimsy’s head tilts to the side as she thinks. “I’m not sure anthropomorphizing the cactuses are the way to go,” she says, “They’re so prickly, and coarse, and phallic. Not what I want to look at while I eat.”
Mimsy goes upstairs to wait for the pizza. I walk to the foot of the stairs and call up to ask how the hell I’m supposed to get a whole pizza, two plates, and beers upstairs on my own. I hear my lighter clicking, and then she calls back, “You mind? I’ve got a three-day weekend.” But before I can answer, I already smell the sickly-sweet smoke drifting downstairs.
It’s not easy lugging all that food plus beers up those stairs and I make a big show of it when I take it up.
But Mimsy doesn’t notice. She’s lying on the floor with her shirt and jeans off, naked except for a pair of black tights. The toe-seam of her tights snakes around her foot and I want to bend down and straighten it out, make it run along the tips of her toes, but I don’t because her feet look strange in tights with no shoes. Like a fragmented sentence.
Mimsy wants me to eat the pizza off her stomach.
“Are you crazy,” I say, “I’ve just taken this out of the oven.”
“Oh, I bet it’s nice and warm.” She pats her belly again.
I set the pizza pan on the floor and place the palm I used to hold it on her stomach. She pushes my hand away, saying, “Eww, eww, it’s too hot.”
We watch TV while we eat, another Intervention, which is one of Mimsy’s favorites too. Often, I have to watch the same one twice, once with Syd and then save it for Mim. There is an intricate process by which I have to completely rewind the show so she doesn’t know I’ve already seen it. During pauses when one of us goes downstairs to piss, she gives advice on what the families should be doing differently. She takes a hit, then says things like, “This family, you can tell they’ve never bothered with rules. Now they want to tell their kid how to live and why should he listen?” Soon, she’s talking during the rest of the show too. Which would probably be annoying if I hadn’t seen it already.
The interventionists are never the therapists for the people they intervene on, probably because they have to fly all over the country, leading cry-fests in hotel rooms. Mimsy seems to like her job, but when I say so, she merely shrugs.
“It can be hard sometimes. A lot of therapists are former users which gives them an edge but also makes it hard when they have to hear how much their clients miss getting high. You wouldn’t believe how many of us fall off the wagon.” Then she corrects herself, “I mean, I’ve never been on the wagon, so. . . .” She looks down at the pipe in her hand.
“Maybe I should become a drug counselor,” I joke.
She hands me the pipe and stands. “This is cashed,” she says and goes downstairs to sleep in my bed.
* * *
Syd’s got a Band-Aid over her nose the next time she’s over, but from how it bulges, the ring is still in.
“It smells different up here,” she says.
I point to the candles placed about the room, one on almost every flat surface, including the top of the TV. “Mim says it smells like shit up here.”
“It does,” Syd says. “Now it smells like shit and apple pie.”
Once settled on the couch, Syd rummages in her purse, eventually finding a pack of cigarettes, lighting one and handing the pack to me. “I have two things to tell you,” she says. She readjusts herself on the couch. “Well, actually one thing to say, one thing to ask. First is, I sort of relapsed this weekend.”
I’m not sure if this is another carrot, but I take a chance and say, “What do you mean, sort of?”
She lets out an exasperated sigh and rolls her eyes. “Well, I went downtown to hang out with some friends.” She pulls her ankles up. “I thought everyone was clean, but, you know. . . .”
I try to hand her the remote but she crosses her arms. “So what,” I go on, “you did drugs or something?”
She bites off some skin around her thumbnail and chews on it. “Gawd, you sound like an after-school special. Did drugs,” she repeats. She goes on chewing, then finally, “Yeah, I did drugs.”
“You smoke crack? Shoot heroin? Snort cocaine?”
Syd shakes her head, “No, nothing like that. Just a little crystal.”
“Are you fucking nuts?”
Syd gives me a withering look, says, “Oh, go smoke a bowl already. Give yourself some perspective.”
“Fair enough,” I say. Syd is quiet next to me; it’s clear she doesn’t want to leave. How could she with her body wound around itself like a pretzel? “So what did you want to ask me?”
Immediately, the mood shifts. She drops one leg to the floor and hugs her other knee against her chest. The leg on the floor swings up and down giving me a brief glimpse of Syd as a real child, not this nether-region not-girl, not-woman. “Will you take me to get my eyebrow pierced? My dad won’t sign for it,” she touches the Band-Aid over her nose, “and I want it done right.”
“Sorry,” I tell her, “but I can’t. Those things are practically legal documents. Besides, I think they’ll know I’m not your dad.”
“But you could be,” Syd goes on. Her voice is picking up in excitement, getting nasally and I can sense a whine imminent in the room. “I mean, you could have had me when you were, like, sixteen, you know?”
“But I didn’t.”
“Come on,” she goes on, “What’s the big deal? I’m paying for it, I just need your little signature. Maybe some initials.”
I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. “I said no, Syd. Why don’t you have Icebucket do it?”
“Icepick! Icepick!” She begins to unfold herself, starting arms first, then legs. Next she’s standing over me glaring at the eyebrows-raised, questioning look on my face. “You’re just like everyone else,” she says.
“That’s right,” I tell her. “I am just like every one of the other six billion people on this earth. How’s that for perspective?” I expect her to say something more, to go on begging me to sign the paper, or to maybe admit that perhaps she was a little over the top. But she doesn’t. Just grabs her bag and clomps downstairs.
* * *
The next day I hope Mimsy says something about Syd. I expect at least for her to look troubled but she doesn’t.
“How was work?” I ask.
“Fine,” she says, “long.”
“Anything interesting happen?” She doesn’t answer. “Tell me about your day.”
I offer her the pipe, but she shakes her head. I don’t know what to make of things because all appearances point to Mimsy being in the dark about Syd’s relapse, and Mim’s not one to play her cards close to the chest. One of her favorite things to do is recount her craziest client stories while we lie in bed, me smoking, her taking a few hits now and then. Sometimes I recognize which stories are Syd’s.
“Syd’s mom thinks she’s doing well,” I say. Just the other day, Diana popped her head over the fence to say, “Doesn’t Syd seem to be doing great? She’s like a whole new person.” Then she offered me rosemary from her garden, which I took even though I have no idea what you do with it. “She gave me some rosemary over the fence.” This doesn’t bring much of a response so I go on, “Just thought you’d like to know.”
“Have you ever tried to quit smoking?” she asks. “You know, permanently.”
I offer her the pipe again, but she still shakes her head. “I’ve thought about it,” I say jokingly but she doesn’t laugh. “Look, I could quit if I wanted to, if I thought it was a problem, if it interfered with something.”
“But it doesn’t,” she adds.
“No,” I say, “it doesn’t. I go to work everyday. I get my projects done on time and usually under budget.” I pat my belly. “I could lose a few pounds, sure, but who couldn’t?”
Again I offer her the pipe. “Come on,” I say, “something’s bothering you. This will help you relax.”
* * *
On Friday, the boss holds me over for a little cocktail hour with the Buddy’s Burritos guys. They wear goof-ball grins and exclaim over and over, “The cactuses eat the burritos. Who would’ve thought! A marketing dream,” they say. Plants and animals appeal to diners, they repeat. And the subtle pot reference, they crow, pointing at the joint-like burrito. Brilliant! What I’m wondering is, doesn’t anyone know the fucking plural of cactus?
When I get home, Mimsy’s upstairs with Syd. Mimsy and I weren’t supposed to see each other tonight.
Syd stands. “Sorry. I saw the light on and thought it was OK to come over. Thought you were home.” She looks at Mimsy who slouches limply on the couch. Syd gathers her bag and heads for the stairs.
“Wait,” I say, “don’t go. Intervention was on marathon this week. Watch it with me?”
“I have to go meet someone.” She starts down the stairs but stops after a few steps. “It’s not a comedy, Steve” she says, “These are people’s lives.” She casts a glance at Mimsy to be sure she heard, to be sure Mimsy knows where allegiances lie, where the demarcations have been drawn. I thought it was me and Syd all along, but that only shows how much I know.
This leaves Mim and me alone in the attic. She opens her mouth and closes it again, does this a few more times, like a fish just jumped from the bowl, lying on the floor, tired of flapping, just breathing heavily, wondering if there’s any way back where it belongs. She stands and paces the floor. She picks up a candle and holds it to her nose, breathing deeply, calming herself. Syd’s door slams and Mim’s eyes flash to the window facing her house, at Syd’s shadow pacing back and forth, and then Syd stops. And there’s the shadow Mim can see from my house, and the shadow Syd can see from hers, but where I am is just a whiff of nothingness in the corner of the attic, a swirl of dust and smoke and ash, and then gone.