I had just moved to the city and was very alone. My apartment was tiny, but that’s what you got for the money. I worked nights at a hospital, so I bought heavy blinds and curtains for my three windows. Outside my bedroom window stood a rusty fire escape.
My first night of work was arduous and never-ending, so many sick people in one place, all of them calling out my name for water or painkillers (I was just an aide) or for death to arrive. I told them I would hold off death, and the nurses, mothers, and date-able ones alike, gave me the look: crazy boy.
At 5 in the morning I took a break for the Greek street cart for coffee, which was the best, but which made it difficult to sleep when I got home at 7:30. I had no real bed, just a king-sized mattress taking up the whole floor. I flopped around, cars beeping, dogs barking, babies screaming. I tried ear plugs, but I could hear my heart thump and I feared it would stop. I was nervous like that.
As I was finally drifting off, the window crunched, creaked, and slid open. Startled, I sat up against the wall as the shade lifted and the curtains parted. The woman brushed the blue paint chips from her oversized black T-shirt. She looked at me casually, with very tired dark eyes, like I was nothing new to her, an old acquaintance. She was tiny, perhaps less than 5 feet. Her long black hair did not look healthy.
I said, “How …”
“It’s the city,” she said. “Anything can happen. Now move over. I’m cold.”
She was asleep in a minute, a catch in her throat as she breathed. I thought it was a troubled sleep. I stayed still, because she looked like she needed the rest. Her body odor kept me awake. I had to gag a few times. I was sure I stayed awake all day, but at one point when I opened my eyes she was gone, the window open.
There was no sleeping. I took the bus to Home Depot. A man named Ralph helped me in window hardware. “This is heavy-duty. You probably have lead paint, too. Don’t eat it.” He tried to smile. I told him I was new to the city, and I must have looked incapable, because he offered to come over and help when he got off work.
He was huge in my room, sweating in the heat from the cranking radiator, out of breath just from drilling and screwdriving. When he was done, he admired his mustache in the shiny brass. He told me he was so tired.
“Tell me about it,” I said.
We slept side by side, waking in the darkness. He swung his tool belt and said farewell.
I felt safe and rested.
My phone rang. It was Steph, one of my terminal cancer patients. She was just 25. I was in love with her, thought I could save her and all that.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I told her I had slept with two people today and she was jealous.
“I’ve just puked.”
I told her about the smelly girl and big Ralph, how exhausted they were. “They were sent to me.”
“Tomorrow I’ll be sent to you. I will sign myself out. I am tired, too. I’ll sleep with you.”
She knew I worried that she could just die, at any time.
After I ate my chicken breast there was a knock on the door. Through the peephole I saw a woman with messy red hair, red lipstick, snow on her head. Her eyes were closed, head bobbing. I asked who she was, and she said a friend of Ralph’s, they worked her hard, she heard she could sleep here. I opened the door, helped her with her coat. She fell onto my mattress and was out. I crawled in. Her lovely lipstick brushed my neck.
I woke her up when I had to go to work, sent her into the night.
Steph was waiting to hear my crazy story. “Crazy boy, people sleep with you. Lipstick.”
I washed her head and recited a poem I’d been writing, about souls from another world. I held her head until she slept, something I was not supposed to do. Fuck it.
The next day she called from my fire escape. She had made it halfway. She was wearing what she called her prom dress. I carried her up and put her on my mattress. “Told you I’d be here,” she whispered. “I’m tired. They can’t keep me. But you can.”
She drifted. The responsibility crushed my lungs.
I whispered, “Wake up.”
But she wouldn’t.
I just closed my eyes. I dreamed of her wearing that dress in the snow, walking into the distance and growing younger until she was born again.
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