The apartment looked the same. Sunlight blazed
through the narrow windows onto the tan walls, airing familiar white
parallelograms laced with the curly shadows of ironwork. The sofa
sat flush against the northern wall, plump and brown like a sleeping
dog. The hardwood floors gleamed back the lazy reflections of
towering bookshelves and a monstrous flat panel TV.
Jake closed his eyes gratefully, inhaling the
welcome stench of home through his nose. There was the musty scent
of books and records mostly, but also a faint remnant of cigarette
smoke and intermittent whiffs of a neighbor’s cooking meat. His
eyeballs felt heavy – like large, cold marbles – and ill at ease in
their sockets. But the quiet was godsent. The only sound was the
constant swish of the oak trees outside, dotted by a nearby banging
gate and the apartment’s miscellaneous pops and clicks.
Occasionally, a car passed down the street, its motored whiz rising
then fading away.
He sank into the couch and let the calm wash over
him. Here was aloneness in all its glory. He should call Maya, he
knew, and take a shower and eat a sandwich, but the compelling force
of rest and solitude kept him pinned to the couch. His limbs were
like wet towels, sopped and heavy. Somewhere beyond the tomb of his
body, a pair of mysterious birds conversed in song. One, with a
deeper voice, let out a series of five chirps followed by a lengthy
solemn whistle. The reply came quickly: three short twitters and a
high-pitched whoop. Repeat.
He awoke four hours later. The windows previewed a
somber blue, their panes rattling slightly from a forceful wind
outside. The first evening of his newfound freedom had arrived. He
rose and lumbered over to the narrow bathroom. The bright lights did
not flatter him, but even without them, Jake knew his appearance was
shocking. Small continents of blonde patchy fuzz had gathered on his
face, unwilling – as they had been since puberty – to drift
together. The already marked droop of his brown eyes was accentuated
from below by pockets of gray skin, and his chin-length mop was
tangled and greasy. All in all, he decided, he looked like a cross
between Gram Parsons and a homeless man.
He rectified the situation quickly. After showering,
shaving and combing, he resembled – in a shadowy way – what he once
looked like. An intense hunger overcame him, surprising his stomach
with creaks and jabs. A weak walk to the kitchen revealed that his
mother had come the day before, leaving behind foods she somehow
still remembered were his favorite: raisin bran, English muffins,
pears and potato chips. The fridge harbored even more treats:
vanilla soy milk, a pint of three-bean salad and a six-pack of diet
He ate everything at once, rifling through packages
like an urban raccoon. He couldn’t wait for the English muffin to be
all the way down his throat before stuffing handfuls of chips in his
mouth, followed by generous forkfuls of three-bean salad. The food
was familiar, tastes from his teenager days: wolfing down food
before tumbling out the door with his backpack and skateboard,
whispering midnight kitchen raids with his friends while his parents
were asleep, after-school snacking before the rest of the family
returned from their evening-ending jobs.
That was when "getting in trouble" meant being
caught smoking in the abandoned bell tower at school, or pocketing
candy bars at the liquor store on Spalding Street. That was before
his mother understood what real trouble was. Before she stood in the
front row of a line of knee-high wooden benches in her faded navy
blue pantsuit with her tidewater-colored hair pulled back and a
pair of round, silver-framed glasses he’d never seen before slipping
down her nose; her slender, pale hands clasped and hanging with
their own weight, listening as the judge articulated in very clear,
simple words why her only son now stood before him. Jake had kept
his eyes on her the entire time, her pacific face absorbing the fall
of the judge’s thundering words.
He drank the soy milk straight from the carton, a
habit for which she’d always playfully reprimanded him, even when he
was halfway through high school, hulking above her 5-foot frame.
She’d had to stand on her tiptoes just to ruffle his hair. He should
have invited her up when she dropped him off this afternoon. After
all she’d done – paid his rent each month
so he wouldn’t lose his rent-controlled apartment, started his car
every few weeks, adopted his cat – it was
the least he could have done. But the idea of complete solitude had
beckoned; he’d almost bolted from the car.
The yellow phone that hung by the fridge taunted
him: a portal to his old life, holding inside of it the voices of
people who had once meant everything. They flitted like silhouettes
in his head. Even his memories of Maya were haphazard and trivial:
her habit of admiring herself in the reflections of restaurant
windows while they ate; the aroma of cigarettes and lotion that
surrounded her; something about they way she smiled – just what he
He called Patrick instead . . .
. . . who answered the phone with a grumble. He had been
doing something sedentary – napping, perhaps, or watching TV.
"Hey, man." Jake’s voice sounded bottomless,
reverberating strangely in this large space.
"Hey. What’s up? Who’s this?"
"It’s Jake, man. How’s it going?"
The phone scraped at the other end. A cover of the
receiver or a shift of position.
"Uh, hey man. What’s up? Uh . . . wow."
"What’s uh . . . when’d you get out, I mean . .
Jake stared at the kitchen wall. It was spotted with
small dents and dried paint globs. He’d never noticed. His throat
felt suddenly full, as if it were filled with wet sand. He couldn’t
"Uh . . . hello?"
"Well, uh, look man. Good to have you back. Fuck,
this is weird. I mean . . ." Patrick sighed. "Shit. Have you talked to
Jake blinked roughly at the sound of her name. He
heard a tinkling laugh from out in the hallway, an older woman’s
laugh – imperious and confident. He remembered Maya in the visiting
room. She wore oversized sunglasses and a bold cherry red sweater.
He thought, ‘Why would she wear a sweater that color here?’
"Jake, man. Are you there?"
"Yeah." He thought, ‘I want to talk to her.’ He
said, "I want to talk to her."
"She told me you guys haven’t talked in a while. I
bet she’ll freak out when she hears from you, man."
Jake laughed but didn’t respond. It was a cynical
laugh; it didn’t have any lightheartedness or charm, qualities he’d
pretty much abandoned. He toyed with the curly cord sagging from the
phone’s receiver, wrapping the small coils tightly around his
fingers until the tips turned a purplish brown.
The silence was killing Patrick. Jake was sort of
enjoying it. He could hear Patrick formulating, reneging,
reformulating. "Well, um, look . . . Greg’s band is playing at the Venus
Room tonight. I’m pretty sure she’ll be there. Y’know, if you want
to . . ."
Jake studied the dark brown knots in the floor. Some
of them looked like roaches.
For the next two hours, Jake sat stilly at his open
bedroom window. A confused wind – cold and angry one second, then
pleasantly balmy – brushed across his face. Not far away stretched
the infinite 101 Freeway coated with an endless snake of glowing red
brake lights. On all sides crouched colonies of houses – black, tan
and brick-colored rooftops tucked among scattered clumps of dying
Just below, the Beldens’ son squatted at the base of
a palm tree in the apartment complex’s brightly lit courtyard,
smoking a cigarette and talking on his cell phone. He wore a blue
Dodgers cap with the iconic white "LA" symbol, the bottom line of
the ‘L’ rudely cutting through the middle of the ‘A’. He smoked
deliberately, using his index finger and thumb.
The Beldens had moved downstairs from Jake a little
over four years ago. On their second day there they had knocked
timidly at his door asking about a possible bathroom leak, an
11-year-old boy in tow. Jake hated having strangers in his
apartment, but couldn’t think fast enough to refuse. He remembered
the boy stroking his dirty fingers across the rows of cheap
paperbacks, stretching his arm to reach the highest shelf he could,
successfully grazing a tattered stretch of Balzac novels, a shiny
row of Nicholson Bakers. The mother gazed at the boy tenderly while
her husband rummaged in Jake’s bathroom, bellowing echoing
discoveries to the disinterested trio in the living room.
Jake didn’t have much contact with the Beldens after
that. The boy was a teenager now, and Jake couldn’t remember his
He stared tiredly at the boy’s cap. All of those
endless nights crumpled up on his lumpy bunker, staring into the
yellow-stained gray ceiling, he’d imagined how he would feel when he
was released. At 31 years old, he knew, he could recover from the
loss of 12 months, try to make amends, spend more time with his
But he hadn’t imagined this infusion of nothingness.
It was as if his body was being consumed from the inside by a slowly
expanding balloon. He ached to dive through the dark triangle of the
‘A’ on the boy’s cap, to get lost in its somber blue. There, he
could float in a sea of emptiness, where there were no washed-out,
heartsore mothers; no stoic girlfriends or husky tattooed criminals
rabid at the world; no disappointed fathers or apathetic prison
guards; no ravaged, keening families flailing with displaced grief.
The Belden boy stood suddenly and with a freakish
intuition looked straight at Jake’s window. "What are you staring
at, faggot?" he barked from below, flicking his cigarette weakly at
the high window. It slapped helplessly to the floor, emitting a
fluorescent burst of sparks. The boy strutted toward his apartment
door, his long white arms swinging like pendulums, continuing to
direct an angry glare at Jake until he disappeared from sight.
"Fucking baby killer," Jake thought he heard him mutter.
The boy’s exit left the courtyard empty. A light
drizzle fell, tinkering into the homemade tin foil ashtrays that
littered the courtyard. The lonely palm tree bent with the wind, its
spindly fronds threatening to tickle the building’s rooftop. The
scene depressed him. He imagined alternate lives spinning through
the world at this same moment, untainted by disaster and shame: a
middle-aged truck driver cruising down an empty highway chatting
with his wife on a cell phone; a young couple enjoying a private
dinner in their new home; a painter working to classical music in
his studio. A small twist in time, the shudder of a moment, and Jake
could have been any of those people. But instead he was himself, and
far away from him those lives kept whirring and his stood
A knock on the door interrupted. Jake reluctantly
dragged himself away from the window. "Who is it?" he grumbled.
The answer was a muffled female voice,
unintelligible. Jake opened the door. It was Mrs. Belden -- he
couldn’t remember her name either. She slouched before him with a
rounded hip jutting out, a hand pushing against the door jamb. Her
hair was an untamed mass of chocolate brown sprawling across her
broad shoulders. She seemed only a few years older than him, but he
couldn’t be sure. He did the math. Her shirt was roughly the color
of Pepto-Bismol; it sparked a brief childhood flashback – lost
before it registered.
"Hey," she said, louder than he expected. "I’m
Sarah, from downstairs. Do you remember?" She tilted her head
slightly, looking past him at the unpacked bags. His green army
jacket lay crumpled beside them.
"Uh . . . yeah, Mrs. Belden, right?" He scratched at the
side of his nose in an attempt to seem casual.
She laughed, showing a full set of yellowing teeth.
Jake’s eyes grazed her breasts quickly, then settled on her long
pink face. "Well, not for two years now." She wagged her right index
finger at him. "You’re not paying any attention."
"Well, uh, I’ve been pretty preoccupied I guess."
"I know," she drawled in a manner intended to be
sympathetic. She took a step forward, leaning her body into the
doorway. "I spoke to your mother while you were gone. I guess I came
by to see if you needed anything. Y’know . . ."
Jake didn’t know. He fiddled with the doorknob, it
was a gold mid-century piece he’d put in himself to style up the
"Look," Sarah said, tracing her hand lightly on
Jake’s chest, "I’m sure this isn’t easy for you. I know this isn’t a
fair comparison, but when I came back from rehab I just couldn’t
find anyone to connect with, y’know? And everyone treated me like an
orphan or something. Soooo . . ." She trailed off and looked at him
When she got no immediate answer, she clasped her
hands in front of her as if to signal that she could wait there all
day. The gesture reminded him of his mother.
Jake brought his fingers to his eyes and rubbed
vigorously. Women operated between the lines, and he had always been
incapable of comprehending that level of subtlety. Sarah radiated
loss and loneliness, but she was also unexpectedly confident. He
couldn’t pretend to ignore the entirety of her intention.
He opted for sincerity. "Thanks, I really appreciate
it." It came out insincere.
She was unfazed. "Of course," she murmured with a
knowing smile, turning back towards the stairwell. He thought he
smelled a whiff of whiskey. She paused and looked back. "And listen,
don’t bother about Marco. He’s just going through his ‘thug’ phase."
Jake smiled in solidarity. "Kids," he offered
lamely. But she smiled back.
He stood in the doorway for minutes after she left,
soaking in the feeling she’d left lingering in the doorway.
He walked to the Venus Room, unable to bear the
thought of getting back into a car. The walk was quiet as he headed
toward Sunset, but on the boulevard everything was chaotic. A
barrage of honking cars stopped and inched, their restless occupants
gesturing and caterwauling. The sidewalk overflowed with bearded,
leather-clad biker punks; frosted lipstick-wearing blondes in mini
skirts teetering on their stilettos; heavyset loners with stained
shirts; Indian newsstand owners dressed in earth tones smoking and
discussing politics; towering, bejeweled black kids in all white
making after-party arrangements on their high-end cell phones.
Jake walked like a ghost through the commotion. He
tried to focus on what he would say to Maya, but images of Sarah
Belden kept flickering in between. Clearly, she was intrigued by his
situation, which he knew he ought to recognize as disturbing. But he
was also conversely interested in the simplicity of her lonely
desire. It felt familiar.
With Maya, things were always complicated. Their
meeting was simple enough – a party five years ago thrown by mutual
friends, he couldn’t resist brunettes with light eyes – but the
relationship grew messier as time went on. Beneath Maya’s veneer of
apathetic independence, Jake discovered, lay torrential jealousy and
a disfiguring dependence on men’s opinions. They fought constantly,
at home and in front of friends. But in the calmer moments, they
settled into each other with astonishing quiet.
After the accident, Maya calcified quickly. His
attempts to seek consolation fell like errant darts. She visited
only once, clearly discomforted by the institutional atmosphere, the
glowing white walls, the omnipresence of uniformed authority, the
lumpy, blue-collar visitors. The guards stared open-mouthed at her
beauty. Jake grimaced at his misshapen reflection in her black
sunglass lenses, while she asked stuttering, nervous questions about
the clothes and the food and fidgeted with her straight black
For weeks after that, every door slam of an entering
guard was a possible announcement of another visit. Months passed,
and he no longer started at the sound. His mother’s well-intentioned
letters were sad disappointments; he read them quickly – gobs about
visiting uncles and graduating cousins – scanning for information
about his so-called girlfriend. But his mother, always polite, never
said a word, even though he knew Maya’s silence was a slap in the
face to her too.
Jake approached the club’s entrance tentatively. A
couple of goth girls dressed in tight striped dresses and fishnets
lingered in front smoking cigarettes. A burly, bored-looking bouncer
loomed in the doorway. He eyed Jake wearily and asked for his I.D.
in a robotic voice. The bouncer wore an earpiece like a 1950s phone
operator, and all black clothing except for a skinny white tie
dotted with the club’s logo: a smiling planet in a top hat drinking
an oversized cocktail through a curly straw.
Jake pulled his license from his back pocket. The
picture showed a full-faced smiling young man with a close-cropped
head of sandy hair. The bouncer looked at it suspiciously. Jake
grinned earnestly in an attempt to resemble his former self.
The bouncer waved him through, wishing him a good
His eyes adjusted slowly to the darkly-lit room.
Inside was a potpourri of Los Angeles nightlife: rockabilly girls
with Bettie Page haircuts and rolled-up jeans, indie rock boys in
flood pants and Member’s Only jackets, a gaggle of hip Japanese kids
dressed in high fashion crowded against the bar. Jake scanned the
room quickly; he had come here only to see Maya, although he knew it
probably didn’t make a difference anymore.
The first band was still setting up, so the club was
blasting its own music: a band he didn’t recognize. People yelled
over their glasses into friends’ faces, or yielded and resorted to
people-watching. From various corners of the room came loud pockets
of laughter wafting over the crowd noise with enviable force.
Jake pressed his way towards the back of the club.
The Venus Room had acquired a row of vintage pinball machines since
Jake had last been there, which now lined the back wall beneath the
DJ booth. He instantly spied Maya leaning against an old Pinbot
machine, talking to a tall, sinewy blonde guy in a sleeveless Joy
She had cut her hair boyishly short, but there was
no mistaking the way she stood, the way she swung her drink back and
forth by two fingers, the way she tossed her head and playfully
slapped the guy in laughter. Jake stood and watched her, imagining
she would somehow sense his presence. But Maya was never so involved
as when she engaged in flirtation, and Jake knew he would have to
make himself known.
He stood beside them, as if to join in their
"Maya," he said so quietly it probably seemed as if
he said nothing.
She stared at him blankly at first, but the
recognition slowly dripped down her face. She didn’t seem completely
surprised, however. Patrick must have told her that he might show
"Hello Jake," she said carefully, glancing briefly
over at the tall blonde. "It’s good to see you again." Her tone was
cold, too casual.
Jake felt a welling of anger, but remained composed.
A smattering of laughter exploded at his back. "Well, if it’s so
good, how come you never came and visited me?"
She sighed. "I really didn’t think you wanted to see
"Yeah, I was so busy in there and, to be honest, I
was kind of embarrassed of you in front of all those cool people."
Maya looked at him seriously. "I’m sorry, Jake. I
just didn’t know how to . . . be around you. It’s just . . . everything’s
just weird. I couldn’t stop thinking about that little kid."
"Well, neither could I."
"I know. I’ve been shitty, okay? It mixed me up
too." She looked around her. "I just can’t do this right now."
"Well, that’s just cool. Thanks for all your
Maya pretended to be wounded by his anger, but he
knew she secretly hoped it signaled a quick end to their
conversation. Unexpectedly, her eyes flooded with tears.
Jake felt a large hand clap his shoulder. It was
Maya’s companion. He quickly inserted himself between her and Jake.
"Alright buddy," he breathed into Jake’s face. "I think that’s
The guy was easily two heads taller than him, but
Jake wasn’t intimidated. He had long ceased to be scared of men.
When he’d first arrived in jail, he imagined daily brawls in the
lunch hall, gang rapes and knife fights over cigarettes –
impressions derived from TV. But in reality, prison was quiet and
sad and boring. Guys with cannon-sized biceps and prison tattoos
spent most of their time playing cards, doing pull-ups and railing
about government conspiracy. The toughest guys, Jake knew, were the
ones who talked to nobody.
He brushed the guy’s hand off roughly, his
fingertips grazing Maya’s arm in the process. The guy reacted
quickly, giving Jake a hard shove in the chest and sending him
stumbling backwards into a group of girls who shrieked and exploded
like a starburst, leaving him standing in an empty space. One of the
girl’s drinks had spilled; he could feel the cold liquid spreading
across the back of his T-shirt. He regained his balance and looked
at Maya. She had her hand pressed against the guy’s chest. "Greg,"
she said. And then she mouthed, "No."
Greg nodded and looked at Jake apologetically.
"Listen, man, this just isn’t the time and place. Okay?"
Jake felt the swish of the crowd closing back in
around them. The body heat became suddenly oppressive. He pressed
his hand against his forehead, feeling dizzy. He wanted to be
anywhere else but here.
Greg leaned toward him. He seemed genuinely
concerned. "Hey, are you alright?"
Jake nodded, but he could feel a volcanic nausea
spiraling upward from his belly. He spun quickly and violently
elbowed his way through the throng, eliciting angry objections along
the way. He burst through the flier-covered doors of the club, and
ran for minutes through the cold air, slowing only when he reached
The winds had grown fiercer; store awnings flapped
like flags and the trees trembled. Jake took cover under the hood of
his sweatshirt, shying away from passing revelers. The fury of
lights and sounds rattled him. Even the quickening of his own steps
made him panic. It wasn’t until he rounded the corner of his own
street that he began to calm down.
The block stretched dark and silent before him,
broken by the warm lights of his building’s courtyard. Jake ascended
the stone steps gratefully. Marco Belden and three of his friends
were in the courtyard, sitting in a semicircle around a boom box
playing hip-hop music. Marco jerked his head at Jake’s arrival; his
friends turned and gaped. Jake ignored them. He was exhausted.
"Stay away from my mom, yo," Marco said to Jake’s
back as he climbed the stairs to his apartment. "You know I’m
Once upstairs, Jake couldn’t relax. The apartment
felt comforting before, but now it seemed to belong to a stranger.
He didn’t remember the Spanish tapestry on the wall, for instance,
or ever buying any of the coffee table books that gleamed on the
side table. A collage of photos stuck to the fridge showed him in a
series of poses with assorted people, some of whom he couldn’t
He moved into the dark bedroom and sat by the
window, prying open two slats of the blinds with his fingers. Down
below, Marco and his friends were sharing a joint. One of the boys
let out a loud laugh that echoed in the courtyard.
Marco got a call on his cell phone and strayed away
from the group. Moments later, he silently beckoned to his crew, who
followed him down the stairs and out onto the street like baby
Jake backed away from the window and collapsed on
his bed. Light from the courtyard slipped through the blinds. An
imitation Calder mobile hung from his ceiling, throwing fin-shaped
shadows onto the wall. From downstairs, he could hear the snaps and
cracks of a war movie on TV, accompanied by a brassy soundtrack.
Logically, he knew he should be depressed. Hard as
he tried, he could no longer even conjure up a positive memory of
Maya. She was right to move on. The accident had obscured
everything. He would never again be the funny guy who’d gotten too
drunk at Patrick’s birthday party and did five consecutive George
Michael songs on karaoke, or the surprisingly erudite guy who had
read all of Roland Barthes and written his senior’s thesis on Walter
Benjamin, or your best buddy or a hot guy or a good chef. No, he was
the guy who, 16 months ago, left his friends at a dive bar on a
grayish Saturday afternoon after celebrating a colleague’s thesis
defense and, rounding a corner too quickly, drove his car up onto
the sidewalk right where a small 4-year-old boy stood clutching his
mother’s hand as they waited for the light to change. And that was
all he would ever be.
Jake wandered into the living room to seek
distraction. Somehow, it was harder at home than he’d expected. In
prison he’d been guilty of an "accident," not like Sidney, who had
whacked a Korean liquor store owner across the face with a metal bar
for $50, or the guy they called Magazine, who’d apparently carjacked
a woman’s car and then pushed her out into the middle of rush hour
traffic on the 170 Freeway.
In there, Jake had been small fry – not part of the
spin cycle of felonious activity. But sliding back into the normal
world would be difficult. ‘It will take time,’ his mother said
before she dropped him off. ‘Just take things one day at a time.’
But she didn’t understand the rush of release – the need to have
everything you’d been imagining for months on end to happen
instantaneously, the urge to make up for all the time lost. If you
acted fast enough, he had foolishly thought, it might be like you
were never gone at all.
From downstairs Jake heard the channel change. A
burst of canned laughter followed by the muffled lilts of a sitcom.
He thought of Sarah Belden, alone watching television under a
blanket while her teenage son swaggered through the neighborhood
looking for trouble. He remembered her hearty laugh and the trace of
her fingers sliding down his chest.
He opened his door to the hallway and crept quietly
down the carpeted stairs. They were filthy with mystery stains and
cigarette burns. The TV sounds got louder. He paused at the bottom
of the stairwell, his hand resting on the cool wood of the banister.
Sarah’s door was identical to his, except taped to it was a cartoon
of a one-legged pirate with an eye patch and the words ‘Careful, all
ye who enter here.’
Jake approached. A faint smell of coffee emanated
from the apartment, mixed with a fragrant odor that smelled
something like honey. He knocked halfheartedly, too faint to be
heard over the din. The second time, he knocked boldly.
The door opened quickly. Sarah stood in a pair of
white silk pajamas covered in Chinese characters. The TV let out
fluttering flashes of light in her apartment, a strobe of shadows
danced across her face. He noticed that her eyes were pale blue, a
color that reminded him of Lake Mead where he used to water-ski as a
kid. The memory made him feel pleasantly tired. He felt his eyelids
weaken. ‘Tomorrow,’ he thought, ‘will be nothing like today.’
Sarah grabbed his left hand and drew him into the
living room, closing her thick red door behind them.
is a fiction writer and journalist who divides her time
between Los Angeles and Portland, OR.