I’d left Nick once before. I remember when I left. 2006.
The walls of the Echo Park squat where he was staying were pressboard. Black. Brown. Whorled with hibiscus. Soot. Pressed hard into the board-box as Nick liked to call it. The dim dawn hid through a crevasse in the wall. A pigeon lived in the roof. Cooed reflections down.
Nick said, “Board-box is getting me down,” on the phone to me Thursday night. I was home with my parents in between years at CalArts. Biding my time until I could come back to Los Angeles.
I could hear him breathing over the phone.
“Are you coming down this weekend?”
“Oh certainly.” In my room in San Diego, I pushed my knees tightly together. Felt the adrenalin ascend with the sweet silky softness of him.
Into my love for Nick. His stubble. Long narrow pale arms. Girlish chest. Waist waifish from the hormones: estrogen, estradiol ralerate and spironolactone. Hands of a woman and feet of the same. I could be the butch this time. I carry stubby brown curves stuffed into jeans. Boots. Moving sideways into a five laid down on the bar. I always paid for the drinks. Nick was homeless and penniless when I met him. Like so many men I dated.
I left in 2006. I remember when I left. Too soon.
I was thirty years old then. Nick was twenty-two. I stared at myself in the mirror of the St. Cecil Hotel. Corner of Seventh and Main. Our evening paid for by me to get us out of the squat after the toilet incident. Gagging at Django’s coffee on the corner at five a.m. Lurching there over a single coffee. Breathing the fresh clean air. So, air, so cleanse me. So save me. So bring me forth that I may live again.
The purple clouds raced over the peaked roof. The door made of traffic signs hung half-open. We crept in past the exposed electrical wiring. The slats of sheet metal on the floor. Carlos shook my hand as we advanced past his room. Hard with callouses. We sat on the stoop outside in the evening. Nick bummed a cigarette. Soft maroon of evening sky. The blossoming Los Angeles twilight. The next day was the first time I left.
A later weekend in 2007, Nick shook those blue mascara-ed lashes at an elderly man selling raffle tickets at the FoodsCo. I tugged his arm.
Muttered, “Are we going?” They talked for twenty minutes. The silver fox’s goatee wagging. My boyfriend’s stubble so carefully waxed yet growing out again. Nick was a male prostitute after all. Perhaps he was feeling this guy out as a potential client. I had gotten used to it.
I watched the surfaces of the aisles. The walls of Tide. Frozen Lean Cuisines. The twelve-packs of beer. Jalapeno poppers. Fluorescent light.
I watched. Turned away. Browsed. My basket empty. My boots clanked against the water-damaged tile. I walked the length of frozen food. Stopped. Turned around. Counted steps until I ran up against the length of him.
“Let’s go, darling.”
He came with me.
I left. I remember when I left. I wanted to stay.
Nick and I sat in the squat in the dim heat of the afternoon. Drank Colt 45. Ate the remains of some Thai take-out I had bought. He ran the icy bottle against the insides of my legs. Panty-clad. My jeans were gone to the one hundred and twenty degrees outside. Thrown to the side of the thin mattress by the candles. Rows of bottles on the boarded-up window. I watched the shadow of his arm in the candlelight. The dark was seething. Not with insects but with memories of past inhabitants. The layers. The sidewalks walked. Rooms slept in once but never again.
I slept there three nights. Each night we held each other for the first few hours then rolled apart. The heat thrummed in the dank air. The smell of a ghoul or a tomb. The sweat gathering in the bedclothes.
At five a.m. on Sunday, I was roused by a smell so foul that I clawed at Nick.
“Oh, that. Carlos shit in the toilet. It doesn’t work.” He squinted. Lopsided. A scruff of black hair over one eye.
“I can’t be here.” I stared at the dark.
“Let me sleep.”
“You are coming with me. What time does Django’s open?”
“Five thirty, I think.”
Giving Nick time to pull on a dirty white shirt, I marched him cranky and resentful to the fresh dawn air of the coffee shop. We caught them taking down the chairs. Welcome light. Welcome smell of caffeine.
The tips of his bangs bobbed to the steam in my cup. I bent both hands around it.
Nick was long-gone by 2010. Ran off to Portland to another girl who could support him better.
There is so much more to say about Nick. There is so much more I haven’t said. His hands around my throat, “Do you want to die, Lena?”
“Do you want to go to the river?”
I never wanted to go to the river with him.
I would rather forget.
I opened the Ativan bottle, and rested the pill against my teeth. Considered taking only half, as was usual. Swallowed the pill whole. Two chalky milligrams washed down with tepid water from the sink. Gnats flew. I did not remember the river. I did not remember my throat. My throat was only water. Water from the sink. My throat was swathed with papaya lotion. It held a necklace with an octopus. I reached up and poured water on my face.