Here’s how it happened:
They were all packed tight inside a tiny apartment. Lena, Milo, August and the others, all the girls in children’s shirts and all the guys in pants four sizes too big. They drank rum and Cokes first, sipping out of mugs, spilling brown liquid on the rug, laughing it up, “ha, ha.” Milo brought coke, more baby laxative than coke, but it was pretty good anyway. Lena saw ghosts in her peripheral and talked with feeling and eloquence about absolutely nothing. She liked Milo. He had an awkward kind of grace, like he knew how to stumble and fall in all the right places. His cheeks were the color of raw chicken.
At 2:30 a.m. Lena left with Milo and August, a skinny boy with a head shaved to bristle. They smashed bottles in the street and laughed. On the train, they took flash pictures of a homeless man—bright lights booming in the empty car—and laughed. As the train sped away, August ran with it and banged his skateboard so hard on the glass that the man sprang awake. Lena laughed at that too, but really, she felt bad.
Lena had sex with Milo first, then August. Then both of them at the same time. The room was like an indoor pool, all wet heat and chlorine. Rubber burned and bellies smacked and fans beat, futilely. For a long time, Lena looked out the window. Headlights strummed the window shades; a wind rustled leaves. Lena closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She didn’t really sleep but just lay there, arms out, breath held, like a dead person or the movie version of a dead person, thinking about Nicholas.
Nicholas Kristo lived in a three-room apartment in Brooklyn with his grandmother. He was dyslexic but thought of himself as well-read; really, he just watched YouTube videos and gave dirty looks and laughed, cuttingly, at everything. Lena and a lot of girls found him the most interesting of their friends. They watched him from across crowded rooms and sometimes even talked at him, but in the end it was Lena who got him, on a night very much like the one with Milo. Nicholas took her home from a party and sat with her in bed, and though the way he later told it, she’d been too drunk to fuck, what had really happened was he’d seen a childhood picture, on the bedside table, and realized how much the girl in front of him looked like the child. So he said, “I’m in the middle of a very interesting book” and went out the door.
After that, Nicholas and Lena saw each other only intermittently, and even then with a distance holding out between them. Conversation was a project they worked at. Sometimes he ranted, sometimes he laughed, but mostly Nicholas just sat, hands in his lap, thinking of things to say.
She took this as sensitivity.
The morning after the threesome, Lena sat on her bed while Nicholas paced between the chair and the window. There were house plants on the sill, prayer candles beside the bed. He asked if she knew Jordan Peterson and she said no, she’d never met him. “He writes about a lot of stuff. Hierarchy and chivalry and stuff.” He rubbed the leaves of her house plant to dust and she told him to stop. She told him it hurt the plant.
There was a basketball court across the street, and through the open window Lena could hear sneakers and voices and the steady throb of balls on asphalt. Fear of telling him first hit her stomach, then her lungs.
“He writes that people are just like lobsters.”
“Really?” Lena said. She was hearing but not listening.
“He writes that it’s because of hierarchies. Natural hierarchies. And brain chemicals.”
“I don’t feel like a lobster,” she said.
Nicholas had prepared a million arguments, but none to counter this. He looked at the Virgin Mary. A burn spot was where her face should be.
It was by the way Nicholas avoided her eyes that Lena was sure he knew. He told her that there had been saints in medieval Europe who would put nails in their hands just to be like Jesus. She told him about the threesome.
He didn’t know.
“Did you want to?” he asked.
She heard no before she realized she’d said it. Afterwards, she felt as though the word had been waiting there in her mouth all along, the way oil waits in fossils, or fire waits in kindling.
Nicholas went to the window and looked three stories down to the street. He wanted to curse the cars for still passing and the sun for still shining and the net for still rippling when the ball went in.
He had never thought of her as his girlfriend, but now he decided that he loved her.
“Did they know I’m your boyfriend?”
“Are you my boyfriend?” Lena asked.
He didn’t answer.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” he said.
He told her that Jordan Peterson writes very well about these kinds of situations. She had nothing to say to this.
He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t look at her. It wasn’t out of disgust but something else. He thought of Lena in the photograph. Finally, he said he was very sorry it happened and, eyes elsewhere, he put on his sneakers and left.
When Nicholas got home, his grandmother was watching the news. Nicholas sat on the plastic-wrapped couch and waited for her to ask him what was wrong so he could say nothing and storm off to his room. When she only sat there, he got up and slammed the door behind him.
The walls of his room were covered with Batman posters. There was an air mattress on the floor and an electric drum kit in the corner. Sometimes when Nicholas got frustrated, when the words lost their sense and the closeness of the room went to his head, he would put headphones on and sit before the drums and make lots of noise, silently, to himself.
Listening to the TV anchors talk in the other room, Nicholas cleaned his room and changed his clothes. He put on ripped jeans and a knockoff Supreme shirt to match. He put on Air Force 1’s, bone white, price tags dangling. From the living room, he heard stories of holdups, heat waves, babies in water. His grandmother needed her tragedy at 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. the way other less callous people needed spikes in their veins.
“You hear about the baby they found in the Hudson?” his grandmother said.
“I don’t wanna hear that. Don’t you think I’m miserable as it is without that?”
“It’s the news. Everyone should know the news.”
“Change it,” he said.
She didn’t. So he came out and did.
“What is a colonoscopy,” said the TV.
“Jeopardy. You love Jeopardy,” said Nicholas.
His grandmother breathed through clenched teeth. “I need my pills.”
Nicholas went to the kitchen and set them carefully down on a paper plate, the reds and whites and blues, took a knife out from the drawer, and slid it into his belt. Then he brought her the plate and watched her swallow them dry. Calcium and zinc and vitamin D. He dared her to chew the fish oil, but she swallowed that one too.
“I need some money,” Nicholas said.
“You need a job.”
“Yeah, but I need some money right now.”
“Who is Rick Springfield?”
“How much you got?”
“Right now?” his grandmother said.
“Four hundred to Mary.”
“Twenty. In my drawer.” Nicholas got it. Then he went to the door.
“I’m taking a vacation,” he said.
“Bathroom scale blues, for six hundred.”
“It’s summer. I wanna take a summer vacation.”
“In 2007, ate sixty-six hot dogs and buns in the span of twelve minutes.”
“Your whole life is a vacation,” she said.
“Yeah, well. Love you, Grandma.”
“Who is Joey Chestnut?”
Nicholas left the apartment and stood on the sidewalk, not knowing what to do or where to go. The sun glared off the shuttered storefronts. The street was red and simmering. He got drunk. Stumbling and broke after three tall boys, he rode the F train to 15th Street. It was a long ride, and by the time Nicholas came out, night was smeared over the houses and trees. Gnats buzzed in the streetlights, and the air was rich, with moisture and heat, like cake.
Milo lived on a block of brownstones and plane trees. The brownstones looked like old, proud faces, and the sidewalk was shaky with the shadows of leaves. Under the stoop, out of sight of the street, Nicholas waited. He could see the traffic light on the corner, hear the scrape of shoes on the pavement near his head. With every sound, he reached for the knife to make sure it was there.
Nicholas’s hands were trembling and his heart was in his ears. He stood up, put back his shoulders, and practiced his deep breathing. Cars passed. ACs dripped. Five blocks away, the expressway echoed and echoed. He felt the knife’s hilt against his spine, the blade along his tailbone. He thought it helped his posture.
Shirt sticking, forehead gleaming, Nicholas went to the deli and bought a cherry popsicle.
He was sucking on the pop, red syrup down his lips, when he heard shoes up the steps and trap music through earbuds. Bass and snares. Nicholas came out from the stoop and stood at the little wrought iron fence, working the catch.
“Push up,” said Milo from the steps. “Then pull.”
A car drove past, arms out the window. Nicholas’s lips moved, mouthing “thank you.” He threw away the popsicle stick and went up the stoop.
“What’s good,” Milo said. “What’s up.”
Nicholas didn’t answer. He nodded, took out the knife, and mindfully, making sure not to splatter his sneakers, stabbed Milo in the stomach. Then he stabbed him in the chest. A breeze poured through the leaves, making a sound like static. He stood back. Milo was in the doorway, screaming, hitting buzzers, as his stomach bled down his legs and the blood spread, past his shoes, to a mat that read: Wipe Your Paws.
On the train home, Nicholas vomited and told himself that, after all, chivalry was not dead.
His grandma was watching Cops when Nicholas came in. She asked him what was on his shirt and he said it was cherry pop. Then he went to his room and shut the door and played drums with Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, three times, in its entirety.
When the cops came, his grandma at first found it exciting. Then she didn’t. Nicholas was still playing the drums. He played, too, in lockup, and in the interrogation room, with his legs for toms and the steel table for snares. He played drums all through the arraignment, and all through the hearings, as the lawyers shook hands, and the things they said made as much sense as the things he read, which is to say, none. Sitting in court, he heard his name, over and over, until it seemed to belong to someone else.
Nicholas hoped jail would be a good place to read. In the end, it was just jail. At Rikers he slept above a man with track marks down his arm and crosses on his face. Mornings, Nicholas ate breakfast, then paced, fists in his pockets, kicking gravel. Afternoons, he watched crime shows on a cracked TV. Law & Order and Criminal Minds. When there were fights he watched fights. He watched a kid from Forest Hills get his head beat in for changing the channel. His face looked like something from a horror movie. Nights, Nicholas jerked off and prayed to a blank ceiling with cracks running through it.
When he learned that the police didn’t believe Lena was raped, Nicholas tried to open his wrist with a plastic butter knife. When that didn’t work, he attempted, through prolonged eye contact, to provoke the jail’s gang members into killing him, but in the end just got punched in the face. In solitary, he tallied time into cinder block and stared. He stared at the door. He stared at the toilet. He found that the harder he looked at things the more he felt blind.
Then the sun receded, the room went with it, and Nicholas would stay awake in the empty darkness, listening to the fluorescents hum through the door and the planes come into LaGuardia. They passed with a sound that sucked the air from the cell, and in the vacuum he lay, arms over his chest, eyes shut, like a statue on the tomb of a saint.
Dean Jamieson is from New York City. He is currently studying Written Arts at Bard College. This is his first published story.