I look for Scottie’s cab when I turn the corner onto our block in West Philly. I see lots of cars, glossy brand-new drug dealer cars, old rusty sedans that never move. I see the two big white vans that drive the crazy guys to and from the halfway house across the street. I see cars and the gas truck and bags of trash and a couple of surly teenagers sitting on a stoop, but I don’t see Scottie’s green and white cab anywhere.
My stomach drops. I’m just coming home from working at the restaurant to change and eat before my next job, and Scottie’s been out driving since dawn. The odds of us both stopping at home at the same time are ridiculously low. But sometimes it happens. On the days I turn the corner and see his cab, I feel a little thrill.
But I need to stop. I’m going to leave Scottie. I need to stop doing everything that keeps us a couple. My plan is not to force it. My plan is to let things between us get to such an empty and vague place that my leaving won’t hurt either of us. It’s like when I was a kid and had a loose tooth and I didn’t want my dad or anyone pulling on it. I’d just leave it alone and jiggle it every now and then and soon it fell out on its own.
I try to stop thinking about Scottie and park my lousy little Chevette and think about what I’m having for lunch. I’m wondering whether there’s mustard in the refrigerator for a grilled cheese.
There’s this guy standing at the front doors of our building. He’s wearing a blue gas company uniform. He looks down from the top of the stairs and he squints. “You live here?” he asks.
“Uh, huh” I reply. He looks so tall from where I stand, and he’s got his hands on his hips like there’s some problem.
“Gas leak?” he says. “Someone called in a gas leak?” he says in a deep voice. He has super short hair and a tiny silver hoop in each ear. I look him up and down. His gasman uniform fits him loose and sexy, and I like his boots. They’re dark green and scuffed like he’s been wearing them forever.
He waves his hand in front of me as if to rouse me from a trance. “Hello?” he asks, a thread of annoyance marring his sexy voice. “Can’t you smell it? There’s gas out here all over the sidewalk.”
Yes, I think, and what else? This block smells like garbage and cats and city slime. On Sunday mornings it smells like piss and spilt beer from these Spanish guys who party in their cars.
Today I smell all of it and yes, on top I smell something sweet. “Yeah,” I say, “I guess there’s gas. But how do you know it’s coming from upstairs?”
“Lady,” the gasman says, squinting harder. I dig the way his thick dark eyelashes fan over his narrow brown eyes like a web. “I said somebody called it in. It’s definitely coming from this building. Do you have keys to the basement? I have to get in the basement and shut the gas off.”
“OK, OK,” I say and straighten up. This isn’t the right time to flirt. “No, I don’t have keys to the basement. And my landlord’s away, in Boston. Where’s the leak coming from anyway?”
The gasman shakes his head. “I don’t know. I need to get inside though. I need to check all the apartments.”
I nod and we head upstairs to my place. The gasman climbs the stairs in front of me. I watch his butt—I can see a ripple through his loose pants, the muscles flexing all the way down to the back of his knee. Checking out another man is a good sign that I’m ready to be free of Scottie.
I open the door to the apartment and it’s a mess. On the kitchen floor are two piles of dirty laundry that I started to separate days ago. The cat box hasn’t been changed in weeks. There’s an unopened bag of potato chips on the kitchen counter next to the sink. I want to rip it open and devour the whole thing.
The gasman goes nuts as soon as he walks in the door. “Shit!” he shouts. “This place is loaded!” He runs behind the kitchen table and opens the window.
He’s right. The sweet gas smell is heavy up here. I hurry into the bathroom and open the little window, then head to the living room.
“I need to get into the apartments downstairs!” he shouts from the bedroom. “Do you have keys to any of them?”
I yell back that I don’t, but maybe Scottie does. He’s out driving his cab, but I can call his cell and get him home right away.
I go back to the kitchen and dial Scottie’s number, cleaning a pile of CDs off a chair at the kitchen table so I can sit down. Scottie’s got a bunch of cords and music stuff all over the other chairs. He hasn’t played in a band in almost a year and I get so sick of looking at everything. Scottie doesn’t answer, so I leave a quick message telling him to get his butt back to the apartment.
The gasman storms out into the kitchen and heads out the door down to my neighbors’. Shit. I don’t have time to get all sunk into this. In forty-five minutes I have to be at my afternoon job on the other side of town. I’m starving and I need to get out of my stinking restaurant uniform and into something halfway decent. I guess I could grab something to eat on the way, even though I can’t spend any extra money since our phone’s going to get shut off next week if I don’t pay the bill.
The gasman comes back up to my kitchen and says we have to go back outside now. There’s a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead, which I find pretty hot. It wouldn’t be on many men, like Scottie for instance, but it is on this guy. I cross my legs and lean over the table, knowing my white waitressing shirt is hanging open a little.
“I guess a cigarette is out of the question,” I say.
“Funny,” the gasman says and smiles weakly.
I like being up here with him. I liked opening the windows with him and I want to keep him up here with me. I want to make him a grilled cheese with mustard and ask him questions about his job.
But he’s in no mood, I can tell. He’s trying to do his job. Smell gas—get outside.
“OK,” I say, standing up. “Outside it is. My boyfriend won’t call back anyway. He’ll just come straight home.” I say the word boyfriend with as little enthusiasm as possible, coolly, as though it’s a business arrangement.
Scottie is already pulling up to the curb when we get downstairs. He was probably coming home anyway, which means we could have had lunch together. Too bad.
I notice how dirty his cab is, big smears of mud all up the side and gray sludge on the windows. I’m always bugging him about it. He’d get more fares if he just
ran it through a car wash every few days. But Scottie says it doesn’t matter—a cab’s a cab. Besides, the car wash would mean a good forty bucks a month from his take-home.
Scottie crosses the street and heads right for the gas man, ignoring me. I can tell by the way he’s walking that he’s not too high. His body doesn’t have that caved in look it sometimes gets. But I won‘t know for sure until I see his eyes up close. They’re usually a medium green, but the dope makes them pale and speckled, like a marble.
“I used to have keys,” he’s telling the gasman. “I gave them back to our landlord though. Sorry. Just break in the basement. It doesn’t matter.”
Scottie comes over to me finally and puts his arm around me. “Hey, babe,” he says, and kisses me on the mouth. I can see that while he’s not high, he’s definitely done his stupid heroin today. Just like every day. He says he can’t drive the cab if he’s dope-sick.
The gasman is heading off to the side of the house. I give his ass another look. I like how solid his body is. How healthy. I like the fleshiness of his long thighs.
Scottie doesn’t notice me looking. I think about how when he first started shooting up again, I called him all the time and told him it was an emergency and made him come home so I could see him high. He’d come right away. I’d hear him stumble up the stairs, and I’d open the door and he’d just stand there, eyes half closed, slowly scratching his face. There was no emergency though. Scottie would come inside and sit down, smoke a cigarette and leave. He never asked why I called him. But after a few weeks he’d ignore me. He’d tell me later his cell’s batteries were low.
Scottie had been off heroin four months when we met. I figured he wasn’t a risk anymore, that he’d keep going to his Narcotics Anonymous meetings and he’d be OK. Life with me was too good to mess up.
But more and more that’s a bunch of shit. Our relationship began on a shaky premise and it’s only gotten worse. I should have left months ago. The fact that I didn’t is making me mean. When I’m not trying to figure out how to leave, I’m trying to figure out why I’ve stayed so long.
Getting Scottie was a challenge and keeping him’s been a challenge, and the truth is, he never was mine anyway. I met Scottie when he was still with Gayle, this fucked up sculptor girl I worked with. She had a body like Barbie and a really annoying laugh and she did way too many drugs, but we were stuck working the lunch shift together so we got to be friends. She’d tell me all about Scottie, how sweet he was, how good to her he was, but how she just wasn’t crazy about him. She’d dragged him into her drug mess and now he had a habit too and it kind of made her sick.
Scottie was in this awesome band called Catgut back then, and Gayle would get me on the guest list sometimes. I thought he was cute, but I was more interested in the drummer, this tall half-black guy with red dreadlocks down to his waist. Then one day Gayle and I stayed at the restaurant after work and sat at the bar getting smashed at happy hour. Gayle told me I’d be a better girlfriend for Scottie. I wasn’t a junkie and maybe I could appreciate him more than she could. She didn’t deserve him. I just laughed and told her she was drunk. But I started looking at Scottie. He definitely was sweet. I noticed how closely he listened when anyone talked to him, his head cocked and his eyes focused. He never got distracted. And I noticed how he treated Gayle, always bragging about her sculpture and always helping her on with her coat, like they’d just stepped out of some old fashioned movie. Gayle was right. She didn’t deserve him. Who knows—maybe she’d leave him and not care if he started dating me.
I didn’t have to wonder long because one night Gayle shot up too much coke and had a heart attack right there in the front seat of Scottie’s cab. I went to her funeral and saw Scottie standing in the back of the church. He left before it was over. People said all kinds of things about him after that—like he could have tried to save her life, he could have taken her to a hospital sooner. Scottie quit Catgut and disappeared. Someone said he was homeless, living out of his cab and shooting drugs around the clock.
Then in the spring I saw him in the magazine aisle of Tower Records. He said he had forty days clean and still missed Gayle like crazy. But he was getting better. We went down the street for coffee and I listened carefully as he told me all about rehab, all about recovery. When he talked about Gayle his eyes filled up.
It seemed like I ran into him all the time after that. I got his number and started calling him to meet me in the park. We’d sit side by side on a bench and eventually our knees were touching. Scottie’s hand was quivering when he put it on top of mine, and I remembered reading somewhere that grief made some people long for sexual release.
The thing was, I knew Scottie was confused at first, not sure whether it was me or Gayle he wanted, but I also knew he’d want me in the end. I’d make sure of that. And Gayle approved, right? Maybe she’d had a sixth sense that day we got drunk. Maybe she knew somehow that she was going to die and that her boyfriend should end up with me. So I got Scottie and he seemed to like me, to love me even, but I kept a close eye. I knew his past was always there.
In our early days I’d watch Scottie sleep. I’d watch him squeeze his eyes tightly and grind his teeth. I had to win him from the abrasions of his dreams. He had to want only me, not a needle or a corpse. I got attached. I knew then that I loved him, even though I wished I didn’t. It made me cruel. I’d pick on Scottie, at first in a teasing way, then seriously. His clothes, his band, his bathing habits. I couldn’t seem to stop, even though I could see how it hurt him. I moved in with him anyway.
The apartment was my prison. All our things existed together, and in the kitchen I could no longer remember which utensils belong to me and which belonged to Scottie’s dead girlfriend.
I thought for awhile that if I was happy with our apartment, I wouldn’t mind everything else. So I decided to redo the living room. I painted three walls cobalt blue with a sponge. I liked the way it looked, but I never painted the fourth because I went back to thinking I had to leave. I spray painted the refrigerator red and left a splash of bloody dots on the wall behind it.
Then Scottie’s sleep changed. He moved less and breathed more slowly. At first I thought I’d won. He’d forgotten about Gayle and heroin and was living only with me. But something told me that was too easy. Something else was going on.
I had a feeling about his backpack. I went right for it one morning, unzipped the outside pocket and there it all was, wrapped in toilet paper, syringe, bloody Wet-Naps and my spoon, my own fucking spoon, all nestled in as if they’d always belonged there.
I went nuts. I cried and then I told Scottie he was a piece of shit. It was something he was doing just to hurt me. I thought maybe I deserved it, for loving him for the wrong reasons. I begged him to quit. I knelt on the floor at his feet and he just sat there, looked at me through eyes half-closed and nodded away from me.
Then I just got used to it. It went from being this alarming, life-threatening thing—junkie boyfriend—to just a drag. I’m embarrassed by it much the way I’d be embarrassed if he were into NASCAR or bowling. It’s been months now, with him in the bathroom searching and poking at veins long gone and me standing in the doorway watching without feeling much. He is humiliated. He sits there on the toilet seat with an old belt between his teeth, his stubby fingers gripping the long thin syringe, poking and struggling. Time doesn’t move then, for either of us. I feel like he will always get high and I will always stand there.
Today I’m glad he’s at least sort of straight. I want him to get in the driver’s seat with this gas thing so I can get lunch and go to work.
“ The guy has to get in,” I say to him, nodding nonchalantly in the direction of the gasman. “I called ‘cause you have keys to Sharon’s.”
Scottie shrugs. He takes his baseball cap off and pulls his red and blonde curls forward, combing them with his fingers. His hair is greasy. “I did have keys,” he says, “but Sharon made me give them to Harry.” Our building is a revolving door of everyone’s new boyfriends and girlfriends. I’ve been here the longest, eight months, so I no longer feel like a visitor. It’s my building too.
“It’s cool anyway,” Scottie continues. “I’m glad you called me. You shouldn’t have to handle this alone. Besides,” he smiles, “I like getting to see you.” I smile back and it feels like shit.
We walk back across the street to lean against the cab and smoke cigarettes. In a minute, the gasman comes out of our building and runs towards us, flailing his arms.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” he yells.
Scottie and I both fling our cigarettes.
“No, not that,” the gasman says. “I mean the basement.” He’s standing there out of breath, and he’s got that sexy sweat again. “Somebody’s made a fucking bomb in the basement of your building—the whole thing could have gone any second! The whole block! Fuckin’ A—that’s the closest I’ve come to biting it since I took this job. I just hope I turned it off all the way. Everything down there is so mangled I could hardly see.”
A bomb. This makes me want to giggle, but I don’t. I sweat a kind of prickly sweat. Scottie stiffens—it’s like the heroin leaves his body all at once and now he’s totally straight.
The gasman goes to his truck to call the fire marshal. Scottie follows him to get the whole story, leaving me standing by the cab. He’s walking on the balls of his feet now, alive and alert. He stands at the door to the gas truck, his arms crossed above his head, leaning on the truck’s door. I can only see the back of him, how his body is tensing and shifting as he hears the gasman talk about what he saw in the basement.
“It’s true,” Scottie says, coming back to fill me in. “Somebody made a fine little bomb down there, cut open a gas pipe next to the hot water heater, busted the little door that holds the flame. It was all set up. It would have exploded.”
He holds me close and cups the back of my head with his hand. In a movie I would rest my cheek on his chest, but because we’re the same height, I can’t. I hang my chin over his shoulder for a minute. I can tell he’s trying to be protective. Part of me wants to like it. Part of me wants to be really scared about all this and just stay pressed against Scottie and let him take over.
But I’m not scared. A bigger part of me wants to just laugh. The whole bomb thing sounds too ridiculous. Nothing that dramatic ever really happens. It’s more likely that Sharon just let everything go to shit in the basement, let it all fall apart until by chance it resembled a bomb. There’s no bomb. There’s no intrigue, no reason for Scottie to save me.
But Scottie believes it. He’s hyped now, pacing the sidewalk in his giant black sneakers. “It was fucking Andrew,” he says, and I can tell he’s working up a good macho mood.
Andrew is Sharon’s ex-boyfriend, and he still owns half our building. He wants to buy her out but she refuses. So he does shitty things like getting the lights in the hallway shut off and having Sharon’s car towed.
Scottie hates Andrew. He’s sinking his jaws into Andrew as the bomber, and he’s not letting go.
“Fucking asshole,” Scottie says, whipping his baseball cap out of his back pocket and sliding it backwards on his head. “That’s it, that’s the last straw. We’re out of here.”
Scottie says “we” and I get that same prickly sweat as when I heard the word “bomb”. It clicks in my head that this is it. My big chance to be free. All I have to do is interrupt and say I don’t want to move in somewhere else together. I want to leave. I never thought it would be this easy.
I look around the street, big old buildings that used to be beautiful but are now half abandoned, bags of trash put out three days too early. It’s spring already, but you can hardly tell here because nobody on this block plants flowers. There isn’t even grass in most yards, just a muddy square. Except for the few trees with little leaves sprouting, it could still be winter.
Suddenly this whoosh of faintly warm air moves past me. It reminds me that it will soon be summer. I feel buoyant. I see how possible anything is in my life, any change, and I know I will soon be moving. I want to smile. But I know I need to stay cool and not let Scottie see how giddy I am.
So I am still. I watch Scottie pace some more and cuss about Andrew. I want to catch his eye. I want him to stop a second and take notice of me, see that something’s different and it will never be the same.
But he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t notice. The gasman comes back from his truck and says the fire marshal is on his way to make a report about tampering with the gas line, which he thinks is a felony. He and Scottie are talking, legal stuff, pressing charges, police reports, and I’m just standing there.
I should open my mouth, even though Scottie wasn’t looking at me, and just say it. But I don’t. This will be a summer just like last summer, Scottie and me sweating to death up on the third floor and me dreaming of a way to fly. It was childish of me to think I could get away without a struggle.
I’m hungrier now than ever. I go over and look in the front of Scottie’s cab for a bag of chips or something. There are a lot of empty Mountain Dew cans. On the floor by the gas petal are a few empty dope bags. If I open the covered coffee cup sitting in the empty cup holder it will have water in it, not coffee, so Scottie can shoot up while he’s driving.
I look at my watch. I’m going to be late for work soon. Maybe I should call and say I’m not coming. I’ll tell them I’m having car trouble. I look over at Scottie. My fate. He’s standing next to the gasman. He’s a part of me, like my flesh, but I don’t know how that happened. I think of washing the clothes he’s wearing: the gray sweatpants with the drawstring that kept getting lost until I tied three knots in the end, the black T-shirt with the name of some cheesy nightclub written in flaking red paint. I always wash his clothes. He never washes mine. His clothes are always of soft cotton, often frayed. They are loose, especially now that he’s back on drugs. They smell like Downy and cigarette smoke, and when he’s pressed against me on the couch I can feel his bones through the softness. He’s always warm. When I hold him I get sleepy and sometimes I want to take a long nap with him and never be apart.
“Hey Scottie!” I shout. “I’ve got to get to work! I’m late!”
“Huh?” Scottie yells back. “No. No way, you can’t go.” He looks at me like I’m crazy. “The cops are coming and you have to give a statement and all that.”
Scottie doesn’t know about anything. He doesn’t know about the whoosh of warm air that almost set me free and left him alone. He’s just standing there waiting with the gas man, waiting for the cops, waiting for his regular life to start back up so he can move to a new shitty apartment on another filthy block, so he can keep shooting dope and be with me.
Scottie comes over and cups my face with his hands. His eyes are level with mine. “Aw’ babe,” he says. “You’re scared. I know you’re thinking how you could have come home a few minutes earlier and gone upstairs and blown up.”
I chuckle and a little snot comes out my nose. I never for a second thought I’d blow up. This block and this life will always be the same. I move my face out of Scottie’s hand and wipe my nose on my sleeve.
“We’re going to get through this,” he says. He hugs me and I realize he thought from the snot that I was starting to cry. I pull back and look at him.
I can’t deny that I love Scottie. In the almost year we’ve been together, I’ve become so used to him, all his ways. Even though I know I’m not meant to spend my life with him, leaving him will be hard.
I decide I should call the store and tell them I’m not coming in this afternoon. I’ll take Scottie’s cell and go around the corner to call. That way I can get something to eat. When I tell Scottie, he peels a twenty off a thick roll of bills in his pocket.
“Here babe,” he says and kisses me on the lips. “Get whatever you want.” I know he likes the gasman seeing him give me money, even though in reality he owes me because lately I pay all the bills. His money goes to heroin. I wave goodbye and Scottie goes back to talk to the gasman. I start walking away and turn back to look at them. Scottie looks so young next to the gasman, like a high school kid with his low-slung sneakers attached like big erasers. He doesn’t look like the boyfriend I thought I’d have at twenty-seven.
As I walk down the street to the 7-11, I smell cat piss and rotten meat. Maybe Scottie and I could work it out if we lived someplace better. This neighborhood is dragging us down. Maybe these smells and this garbage made Scottie start getting high again.
I know I’m pathetic. I’m selling out. I guess it’s the way I am. I take a lousy situation and make the best of it. I kind of hate myself when I see a picture of Scottie and me with a little house outside the city where I have a garden, of all things, and a hose outside so Scottie can wash the cab himself.
When I turn the corner away from my building, away from Scottie, there’s a deep rumble in the ground, and the sound of the explosion makes my heart thump wild and hard. I feel it in my stomach and out through my arms and legs. I stop right there on the sidewalk and listen for something else: Scottie yelling for me, my cat screaming as he flies through the window, the sound of car alarms going off for blocks. I hear none of these things, just my own heart beating in my ears, and I’m thinking there’s no apartment. I don’t live with Scottie anymore. Something has changed, really and finally, and even though I did nothing to deserve it, I am free. It was easy.
Julie Odell is an assistant professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she is a member of the creative writing faculty. She is the faculty advisor of the award-winning student magazine Limited Editions. She has published short stories in the Berkeley Fiction Review and the Crab Creek Review, and is the recipient of a 2004 MacDowell Colony fellowship.