Lola is whining. I open the door to the dark hallway so she’ll stop, so she’ll know I’m here. The sunlight reveals a brown present she’s left already, its odor mixing in with the faint smell of cigarettes. It’s hardening. I’m not going to clean it up. She’s not my puppy.
The open bedroom door illuminates the Husky’s crystal- blue eyes. They meet mine with a stare of innocence and relief that makes my heart tighten. “I’m here, I’m here,” I tell her, leaving the door cracked open behind me. Her soft gray fur disappears back into the darkness then emerges again in the kitchen. My boyfriend, Josh, is still sleeping as I walk to the bathroom. Our toothbrushes lay next to each other on the sink. I see myself briefly in the mirror before I grab my face wash from the cabinet. The pimples have started to clear up, a few scars left in their wake. After I cleanse my face, I moisturize, willing the tiny indents into smoothness, blending them into my cheeks and jawline. All the toiletries will be packed tonight and taken home. I have class tomorrow and my mom’s house is closer to Bronx Community College, much closer. The toothbrush can stay though. There are plenty at Mom’s.
Lola waits for me in the kitchen. The morning sun burns us through the window. It burns the glasses and beer bottles in the sink. The plants on the windowsill soak it up: a succulent and two cacti. They were here when Josh moved in and something tells me they’ll be here when he’s gone. They look strangely beautiful inside the white kitchen, next to the futon that was once white. His snores seep through the cracked door and carry down the hall. It’s just the two of us here today. His cousin, Lola’s owner, is probably still DJing from the night before. His roommate is gone too. The apartment feels like it’s just ours.
When Josh first moved to Rodney Street, I saw a home. His building is only four floors. A creaky, wooden staircase with a window on the first landing, one of those chain locks on the inside of the apartment door. It’s what a building in Brooklyn should look like, not like all the new, overpriced ones being built in bright colors with central air. I remember the light from the kitchen windows hitting me when I first walked in a few months ago. It shined through the plants. I saw clean countertops with a cozy sofa tucked next to them, a makeshift living room in an apartment lacking one. I thought maybe Josh would stake out a corner where he could set up his music board and laptop. This could be our home, I thought then.
But the vision I had of his apartment is not the reality now. Instead of a cozy sofa there’s an old futon crammed into the kitchen. The plants glowing against the window, so brilliant that first day, stick out now against the unmopped floor, the crushed up weed and cocaine on the coffee table. They don’t belong. Since he’s moved in, the apartment has become an after-hours hangout. He’s addicted to the fast-paced lifestyle, but we all have addictions of some kind. Maybe I’m addicted to challenges. I went back to school when I was twenty-four so I could be challenged. And being with Josh, although I consider him the most brilliant and spiritual person I’ve ever met, has provided me a new set of challenges.
Josh grew up in Harlem and I’m from Inwood, the farthest neighborhoods uptown where most people are either Dominican, like him, or Puerto Rican, or black. Where storefronts are advertised first in Spanish, then in English. Where literally on every corner there is a man or woman selling empanadas for a dollar. I know every winding hill, every backstreet, as well as I know the fading blemish scars on my cheeks. I know where to get the best weed before I take the A train downtown and transfer to the L to get to Josh’s apartment in Williamsburg.
Compared to Inwood, Josh’s new neighborhood might as well be another state. The people who live in Williamsburg aren’t from the area, including us. We are outsiders drawn to it, drawn to its seemingly magical community where parties continue through the morning and into the afternoon. There is always someone who will open up their apartment and set up a temporary DJ booth. It’s like spending a day in a hippie commune. People are open, discussing ideas, accepting you, even though they’ve never met you before. I’m used to women wearing tight dresses and heels back uptown, men cat calling from the street corner. In Inwood, everyone sticks to their own crew, claiming VIP sections at clubs. Sometimes there are fights. Sometimes there are gunshots. But in Williamsburg, there are people tripping on psychedelics, seeing the deep house music portray itself in bright colors. Others, like Josh, keep themselves going with bump after bump of powdery white substances. Some give him energy and boost his confidence, he thinks. Others just make him feel good. He has to test his product before he sells it.
Josh’s nights usually begin around three in the morning. Since my classes started, it’s impossible for me to keep up, to make sure he’s safe. I imagine the things he must see when I’m not there, the people he meets. I met two of them a few months ago. They seemed nice, a couple around our age, mid-twenties. He met them both around five in the morning at a party on Morgan Avenue (or was it Johnson?). I met up with them after I got out of class. It was past noon and none of them had been to sleep yet. We all met in a diner. They described their morning excitedly as we sipped coffee and shared fries. The girl had glitter on her eyelids and stick-on jewels on her cheeks. Her boyfriend was a marine with cuts on his hands. They each took turns telling the story, my eyes moving across the table. Josh’s beard, always growing out in patches, needed a trim. It made it hard to locate his dimples. He waved his hands around as he told the story; I noticed the left one was stained with dried blood.
“This guy was grillin’ me as soon as I got there,” Josh said. “I think he was mad cuz people were buyin’ from me and that’s, like, his spot or something.” His thick, square-framed glasses were missing. Without them, he’s nearly blind, his huge eyes squinting. Sometimes I jokingly refer to them as serial killer eyes. He continued to describe their morning. I tried to understand, tried not to be annoyed by the dazed conversation I was listening to.
“So anyway, I don’t pay him any mind and you know, I have a good time, but I get really tired, so I sit on the couch and fall asleep. Then I feel someone touch my forehead. At first I just ignore it, but then it happens again and when I wake up, I see this guy walking away! So I know it’s him.” He didn’t sound like himself. He didn’t sound smart. He just sounded high.
I did not ask why he didn’t just come home if he was tired. Instead I silently listened, holding his bloody hand. Apparently the night had ended with Josh getting in a fight and punching a door. Incidents like this had become the norm. A part of me wanted to criticize his choices, to use my words like a splash of ice-cold water on his face. But I held my tongue. I wanted to be supportive; more than anything, I wanted to be a good girlfriend.
He wouldn’t let me wash his hand when we got back to his apartment. He went to bed and I crawled in with him, pulling at his arm. He sank into the pillow like a stone. I forced myself to go to sleep, inhaling his familiar stench of whiskey and cigarettes. The smells comfort me in a way. If there wasn’t college or work, I could have been there at the party. I’d have had the energy to keep up. His hand would not have been bloody.
Lola has been sitting underneath the window. She pokes her tiny chest out and looks up at me.
“Okay. Let’s go for a walk,” I say. She wags her little, gray tail in excitement and runs to the door. She feels like my dog. Sometimes I pretend she is, like I pretend that this is my apartment where I live with my boyfriend, where we share our lives together, where his hands always come home clean.
Lola and I head to the dog run, which is through a chain fence, right next to the BQE. The highway towers above, close to Josh’s bedroom windows, the cars threatening to fly off and crash into him. I think about how much Lola would love Inwood, with its proper parks. You can actually hear birds and not just pigeons underneath your air conditioner. The busiest street is down a long, twisted hill with a mountain of concrete stairs, far from my bedroom.
Lola will have to make due with the dog run here on Rodney Street. It’s a dirt lot with a few small trees scattered about the perimeter. I’ve passed by it before and thought about taking her. Josh has only walked her once before, when we went up Metropolitan Avenue to get breakfast. I remember gripping Lola’s leash like a vise as huge trucks honked through traffic, people stopping at every corner to tell me how cute she was. In the run, the dogs are free, kicking up dust clouds that rise up to the top of the fence and disappear. Lola is excited, but she’s still so small. I grip her leash tight and slip through the big gap in the fence. All the other dogs hurry over to her, their owners clapping and whistling, calling out their names. Everyone surrounds Lola, petting her and asking how long I’ve had her, how long I’ve lived here. I let her off the leash and the other dogs chase after her like a shiny new toy. She loves it. She chases them right back, still too little to keep up, cowering every now and then in a small dust cloud.
Lola felt like a burden at first. Josh already had a roommate and a cousin who slept on the futon in the kitchen. But it wasn’t my decision. It’s nice to have another girl around anyway, even a puppy.
Josh has asked me to move into his place on Rodney Street, to make his room ours, but I can’t. Rent money is unpredictable with his line of work. He promised me the drug dealing was only temporary, that it would not become his life. He promised he’d go back to school or start recording music again. Maybe he forgot to promise himself.
Four years ago, he took me to his recording studio in the South Bronx. We had become friends overnight after meeting at a nightclub. We stayed up until nine in the morning just talking, deeper feelings developing very soon after. I waited in the main room of the studio for him while he worked. I had never been in in one before. He emerged from the recording room and walked over to me, leaning over my chair. “You wanna watch me work?” His hands moved over a massive gray board with endless buttons and knobs. Green, orange, and red lights flashed, moved up and down with the bass. A person behind glass sang into a mic. I sat on the couch, soundproof walls around me. That was before I went back to college, before our relationship became a blur of his long, hazy nights.
In the dog run, I crouch beside Lola and hold her to my chest. She licks my face and I speak to the other dog owners like I’m one too. Lola and I are both covered in dust when we leave. Glancing down Rodney Street, I can see the side of Rubber Tracks Studio where Josh took me once and bought me a pair of sneakers. Up a few blocks is McCarren Park, where we went swimming. It was a sunny day, kind of like this one. One of those rare occasions when we were both awake at the same time.
The upstairs neighbor is practicing the saxophone as Lola and I enter Josh’s building. It sounds like the honking of irregular horns, but it’s part of the morning ritual here that makes it feel more like home. Josh is sitting up on the dirty futon when we walk through the door. “Where’d you go? I was calling you,” he says. I think of all of the times I’ve called him and gotten no answer.
“I didn’t bring my phone,” I say. “We went to the dog run, it was really fun.” I want him to feel excluded, as I have so many times before. I’ve never sold drugs. I’ve never stayed up for three days. I’ve never come home with a bloody hand. I’ve stood by, observing as an outsider in his world.
He’s upset because I forgot my phone and took the only set of keys. He was stuck, he says, alone, with nothing to do. I thought he’d still be sleeping. I look down the hall and expect Lola’s shit to still be on the floor, but it’s not. The hallway smells like air freshener.
“You should’ve woke me up. I wanted to go,” he says, and I feel tenderness for him again. Today is one of those rare days. We’re both awake at the same time. Lola runs over to his feet. I collapse on the futon, my elbow resting on the back of it. Behind him, the sun is breaking through the window, outlining his head and neck with light. His cheeks are shaved smooth and I see one of the dimples, press my thumb into it. Right now everything’s as it should be. I’ll probably never move in, but I’ll stay tonight.
Miko Jeffries is a native New Yorker whose writing has appeared in the literary journals Thesis and Dovetail. She holds a B.A. in Humanities with a concentration in Creative Writing from the School of Professional Studies at NYU. She enjoys writing about astrology on her blog, Void of Course, and about her personal experiences.