David swung his backpack in place between his shoulder blades, then rolled his suitcases out under the awning of the arrivals gate. Cars and buses honked at each other along the curb. Pedestrians brushed by him in every direction. He breathed in deep, trying to relieve the ache in his head that had smoldered for weeks but a tentacle of exhaust snapped at his face and he coughed.
He leaned his bags, their wheels too small to stand, on his thighs, took out his phone, called his cousin Annalee. Sun peeked out from palm trees across the street and burned his eyes. A car drove off with its trunk hanging open. Annalee answered after four rings.
“Hey, I’m here,” he said, the final word squeaking out of him. A dog barked in a woman’s carrying case. A barefooted guy traipsed past, zipping up his pants.
“Oh,” his cousin said, seemed surprised that he was calling. His eyes ached like they’d been drained and filled with foreign fluid. “Well, it turns out I can’t get you. My friend had an emergency.”
“An emergency?” David’s knee slipped off of one of his suitcases. He caught the handle before the bag hit the ground.
“Don’t worry he’ll be fine,” she said, as if that was his concern.
David squeezed his nose. He rubbed his shoes on the pavement. A spine of sweat was forming under his backpack. What was he supposed to do now? A green cab screeched to the curb, skidded along the gravel, gusting burnt rubber.
“But how do I — ”
“You can just go to the apartment I got for you. The manager has your keys and everything,” she said, cracking her gum. “Well, good luck.” She hung up.
David tried to swallow but his mouth was too dry, his throat only clucked. He pinched his lips as the trunk of the green cab at the curb popped open like a coiled jaw. The driver walked around to the front of the car, smiled from within a murky beard.
“New arrival, no?” he said in an Eastern European accent.
David nodded, stepped forward, as if ‘new arrival’ was his name and the driver was displaying it on a placard. The man patted David’s shoulder and opened the passenger’s door, tossed his suitcases into the trunk.
David sat down in the stiff grey seat, clasped his backpack between his knees, buckled up.
The driver looked at him. “Address, my friend?”
“Oh,” David said. He took the slip of paper with his new address out of his backpack, told the driver where he was supposed to go.
“I can take you there,” he said, popped open a can of something in a red cozy in the cup holder.
They merged onto a tight lane of the freeway. The driver lit up a cigarette and cracked his window open. “You don’t mind,” he said. The wind whipped smoke into David’s face. Warm air steamed out of the vents.
He closed his eyes, tried to imagine himself settled into his new apartment, his head clear, his muscles tingling in a good way, his body ready to reset after a long night of sleep. But then his neck snapped forward as the taxi screeched to a halt. The seatbelt grabbed his chest. David squeezed his bag.
“Fuck you, fucker,” the driver shouted out his window. He stabbed his cigarette in the empty cup holder, took a gulp of his drink.
“What happened?” David asked, his vowels clinging to his throat.
“Cut me off. The motherfuck. Don’t worry, I’ll get him.” He stepped on the gas, skidded across the lanes.
David buried his face into his backpack. He felt the car rattling below his feet. He did not like this. He thought it would be better here, so far away, but he could still hardly breathe. He wrapped his arms beneath his legs.
He heard a deep laugh, the driver, felt a cold heavy hand on his shoulder. He peeked out from his bag. The car was not moving. They were parked next to a palm tree with trash sprouting from the roots. Squat grey apartment buildings pressed against his periphery.
“Awake my friend,” the driver said, sucked at his drink. “We’re here.”
He must have fallen asleep, though it couldn’t be so, his mind still ached. The driver came around and flung open his door. He dragged the suitcases over, stretched out his hand. “I don’t work for nothing,” he said. “You try to feed six kids.” The suitcases fell over on the curb. The man laughed, picked them up.
David thanked him, tried to chuckle, stepped out of the car and handed over two twenty dollar bills. The driver burped — it smelled like beer — then spit on the ground and sped away.
David forced a swallow, checked the address. This was correct, the mud-colored, pockmarked building in front of him. Sunlight illuminated a path of fast food wrappers and torn plastic bags towards the gate.
He tapped the number for the manager into the keypad next to the entrance. His suitcases dug their heads into his thighs and crunched his old keys, now to nowhere, in his right pocket.
Something incoherent bumbled out of the intercom. David held the button and said his name and apartment number. The gate clicked open.
Overstuffed mailboxes erupted across one wall of the arched entryway. A mural of a better-looking building gleamed on the other side. He stepped into the courtyard where swarms of black leaves crowned the surface of a small pool within a gate. A Hispanic man was maneuvering a long pole in the water, twisting an esophageal vine around the shaft. The leaves swirled. The man coughed into the crook of his arm.
A short Asian woman walked energetically from a dark corner towards David. “Welcome. Welcome,” she said, held out her hand. “New tenant,” she said.
“New tenant,” he repeated.
She led him around the pool, past the open door of an apartment that stank of fresh paint. It looked pretty big inside. David almost smiled. “I just got here today,” he said.
She pointed forward, led him up a flight of stairs alongside pots of plants. The colors of the flowers dulled with each step. “Almost there,” she said.
They walked up another flight, no plants, instead the tentacling hairs of vines. David’s backpack straps pressed down on his shoulders. The wheels of his suitcases clanged on each step like dragged limbs. Up another flight, this one unadorned concrete, without even a railing, and a last one, more of a shaft than a staircase, red metal, enclosed on every side with bars and grates. David had to crabwalk to the top.
“41,” the manager said in front of a door with that number on its face. Two more apartments were squeezed alongside, but that was the extent of the top level of the building. Over the railing, on the roof of the rest of the complex, David saw black tar trickling out of an exposed pipe. He smelled the fumes and coughed.
“You must have allergy,” the manager said, then disappeared down some back way.
He kneed his suitcases into his room and set his backpack onto the translucent skin-thin carpet. The apartment was maybe three times the width of his slight shoulders. The medicinal cream walls leaned towards each other like the cheeks of two frail ladies dancing. David walked along a serpent of grime to a compartment in the back containing a toilet and shower stall. He turned the corner to the kitchenette, ran the sink. A burst of rusty water sputtered out to a clear stream. He dipped his head under the faucet, let the water race down his throat.
He pulled a blanket out of his backpack and unfurled it on the ground. Then he lay down, closed his eyes for a minute. But his phone rang and yanked him back awake.
He rubbed his eyes. It was Annalee. “So sorry about that,” she said. “I’m free now.”
A loud crash like a kicked fence. The oven door had fallen open. “I don’t know about this apartment,” he said to her.
“Oh come on, it’s perfect for you. Just wait, I’ll be over in a minute.” She hung up.
He crossed his legs Indian-style on the blanket. Maybe she was right. Maybe this was where he belonged. It was better than the hotel at least, those cigarette-burned sheets, the ants crawling into the mini-fridge, the never-ending thoughts of his parents’ voices, their empty coffins, the burnt face and blasted flesh of his home a couple miles away. He squinted away the images, looked out his window at the mossy heads of swaying palm trees. He unzipped one of his suitcases, placed a stack of folded t-shirts into the cabinet next to the oven. He surveyed the apartment, eyed a spot that could work for a table and a couple of chairs, imagined a bed and a TV and a small couch. It could work.
A text from Annalee. “Give me another hour.”
Well, he couldn’t just sit here. He opened his backpack and took out a piece of paper with the number of a girl he’d graduated college with who’d moved here just last week, told him to call when he arrived. He dialed the number but she didn’t answer so he left a message, put the phone down. A streak of light bubbled on the wall. A cockroach sprinted across the ceiling. Outside. Here it was supposed to be nice outside.
He locked up his apartment and made his way down the tight stairs. He stopped at the ascending rattle of a wide-shouldered guy with a thick neck and bulging plastic bags in his hands. “You must be new here,” the guy shouted. “You 41?”
David said yes and backed out of the stairs to make room for him.
The guy barreled forward as if boosted along by the metal grates squeezing his shoulders. “Shit, I’m 43,” he said. “I’m Mike, you should meet my chinchillas. You can have any pet you want here. It’s awesome.”
“Oh cool,” David said as the man jumped the last step. He hopped back, afraid the guy might fall atop of him. “But I really have to buy some things. I don’t have any food.”
Mike raised his bags. “I can make you lunch.” He smiled and David’s mouth twitched. This man wanted to be his friend.
In Mike’s room, similarly sized but jammed tight with a big screen TV, couch, ottoman, full-sized fridge, boxing bag, weight bench, chinchilla tank and queen-sized bed, David did sit-ups at Mike’s direction, his head and feet knocking against the furniture bordering the slight floor space. “See, it’s all about keeping your back straight,” Mike said.
David nodded and caught his breath on the couch. Mike asked if he liked baloney sandwiches, which he did not, but he wanted to be friendly so he said yes. Across the room, three chinchillas stared from their tank, their tiny noses pressed against the glass. Mike handed him a sandwich, then fed bits of bread crust into the tank. He looked at the wall and said, “Sometimes I lie in bed and cry all night.”
Mike turned his shoulders and David braced to be attacked by a hug, but then his phone rang. He stood up. It was his friend calling him back. He stepped outside of Mike’s apartment.
“Who is this?” she said. “I have a missed call.”
He cleared his throat. “It’s David. Didn’t you say to call? I was wondering how you like your new apartment.”
“David who?” she asked.
“From college,” he told her. His teeth clicked. He rubbed his eyes. “We bumped into each other.”
“Oh.” Voices rumbled in the background as she spoke. “I didn’t expect you to call when I gave you my number. I was just being polite.”
He squeezed his phone. They were going to be good friends. They were going to get to know the city together. This couldn’t be. “Didn’t you — ” he started to say, but she interrupted him.
“Sorry, I’m with some people,” she said. “I’m hanging up.” She hung up.
He kicked the railing. The black liquid bubbled below and pricked his lungs.
Below the roof he heard a scream and saw the curly head of a woman leaping from the third floor. David felt her feet pulling him down with her. He tried to back away from the railing but couldn’t move. His eyes dripped. He couldn’t breath. But he heard a voice at his shoulder. It was Mike, holding him from behind. “Don’t worry, the pool’s deep. Marissa, 31. She’s a champion diver.”
David wiped away his tears.
Mike offered him a supplement shake but he waved him off and returned to his room, to the blanket on the floor.
He lay down and closed his eyes but could only think of the time when he was five and his grandmother took him to Disneyworld for a week without his parents and it was fun for the first day but after that he cried, most intensely during the “It’s a Small World” ride, that song, still terrifying, and wouldn’t sleep until his parents sang to him, together, over the phone.
The doorbell rang. He scratched his cheek. He didn’t know he had a doorbell. He thought he saw a small man in a striped poncho begging for change at the window. He rubbed his eyes. But it was not a small man at the door, it was blonde and tall and skinny Annalee.
“So sorry I’m late,” she said, stepped into his room.
David ran his knuckle down his nose, leaned on the wall. “I hate this place,” he said.
She lurched over him. “Don’t say that.” Her tattooed eyebrows sneered over her brand name sunglasses. Her ribs poked ridges in her black scarf of a shirt. “I recommended this place for you because I was thinking about what’s best for you. You don’t need to be coddled right now.”
She perched atop his upright suitcase. He shouldn’t have listened to her, she hardly knew him. She didn’t care about what was below her: his old shoes, his mother’s earrings, his father’s ties. He forced himself to stand up straight. “Coddled? You’re the only person I have left and I trusted you and you brought me here.”
She slid her handbag off her elbow, stood up. “Look, your parents were great people. They really loved you, maybe too much.”
He itched his neck. “How can you say that?”
“Here, you wanted my help, you wanted to move on.” Out of her bag she pulled out a black pouch containing what looked to be a pair of tweezers and a tattoo gun. “It’ll hurt at first, but you’ll thank me later.”
“No,” he said. She didn’t know what he needed. She was not the kind cousin he remembered. “I’m not doing that. Get out of here.” He shoved her into the door. “Leave.”
“Push me again,” she said, hugging her bag to her chest. He thought he heard her moan.
“No.” He thrust the door open. “You need to leave.” She scoffed.
When she was all the way down the staircase, he leaned over the railing and threw his phone into the black bile. He had no one. He had nowhere.
The Hispanic man, who’d been at the pool, called up from the base of the stairs. The long pole was still in his hands. “Hi, I’m apartment 16. Want me to get that?”
David said no and rubbed his face but the man reached the pole into the black pool on the roof and scooped out the phone. He brought it up to David, drops of tar marking each step. David thanked him, invited him inside, wrapped the phone in a towel.
They sat on the blanket. The man rested the pole on both of their laps. David felt the cold wet metal between them, saw the man’s kind, sad eyes and decided to tell him about the fire, about the rubble that was his home. He took a picture of his parents from his backpack, showed it to him. The man opened his wallet, displayed a small photo of a boy. “My son,” he said. “Fell in the pool.”
“That pool?” David asked.
The man nodded at the picture, said that he was still searching for the bottom.
David listened to him breathe. “Can I get you anything? A glass of water?” he asked without thinking about the fact that he didn’t own any glasses. But the man said he had to get back down there.
“Can I come?” David asked, pushed himself up.
They carried the pole down all the flights of stairs. Together they stirred the water until the black leaves all flowed over the sides.
He climbed the steps back to his apartment. His legs were tired. He breathed the air in front of him and did not cough. He waved to Mike, his chinchillas on his belly. Then, he unlocked his door, unpacked his bags, leaned the picture against the wall, and finally fell asleep.