Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Nikki Bazar


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 Coke.

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 couldn’t remember.

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."

"Yeah. Wow."

"What’s uh . . . when’d you get out, I mean . . . back?"

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 answer.

"Uh . . . hello?"


"Well, uh, look man. Good to have you back. Fuck, this is weird. I mean . . ." Patrick sighed. "Shit. Have you talked to Maya?"

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.

"Who’s Greg?"



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 trees.

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 name.

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 family.

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 motionless.

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 place.

"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 expectantly.

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 ponytail.

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 night.

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 Division shirt.

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 conversation.

"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 up.

"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 me."

"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 support."

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 enough."

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 Sunset.

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 watching you."



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 recognize.

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 chicks.

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.

Nikki Bazar is a fiction writer and journalist who divides her time between Los Angeles and Portland, OR.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.