I fell in love with high school senior. I was two years out of high school myself, I hadn’t graduated, I just kind of stopped going. I was nineteen, they were seventeen, and when they went to college, at Hampshire out in Western Mass, and I decided that instead of us breaking up I would move away from Cape Cod to be close to them. I got an apartment in Northampton with a roommate I did not know, who went to UMass, and I slogged through a winter and a spring and a summer barely working barely eating barely making rent, fucking and fighting in the dorm room and stealing food from the dining hall and going to parties where I was the awkward townie boyfriend and an entire year went by like this until we finally broke up.

And then I was just a guy who lived in Northampton. The idea occurred to me to move back to the Cape, but part of me didn’t want to out of some stubborn refusal to cede Western Mass to my ex, and the other part of it was that moving off Cape was such a thing for those that grew up there. From time to time in our scene in Yarmouth or Hyannis one of the gang would say they’ve finally decided to do it, they’ve made up their mind, they’re sick of all the drama and drugs and fucked up shit, or the tourists or the retirees or the rich fucks who block off the coast, and decide they were moving to Providence or Boston or Portsmouth or wherever. And the gang responds the same, it’s a yeah right, or sure guy because no one can ever really leave the Cape, its mystical pull part of some Puritan curse. And sure enough those people that move to Providence or Boston or Portsmouth, six months, nine months later they move back. I was determined not to move back.

It had been 18 months since I moved off Cape. I was on my 3rd job since moving, first I worked as a door-to-door knife salesman, and then K B Toys, which went out of business while I was working there, which was the 2nd time that had happened to me overall, and then as a janitor at the Hadley Mall, not for any of the stores at the Mall, I worked for the Mall itself. My roommate, Abraham, had moved out, he had become injured while doing a guerilla performance art piece, it was part of his History of Blues final, he climbed on the roof of one of the buildings on the UMass campus to perform a harmonica solo, but he didn’t get very deep into the performance when he fell off the roof and shattered both of his heels.

So I was in the midst of looking for another roommate, when my old friend from the Cape, Jason, contacted me. He had gotten my new cell phone number from my ex. I swore for the longest time I would never get a cell phone, it seemed like an intrusion of privacy and an easy way for the government to track you, but now I was glad I had one.

At one point Jason and I were really close, I had a deep friend-crush on him and wanted desperately to be his best friend. He was one of the coolest guys I had ever met, one of these guys who carries this quiet effortless cool around them like an aura, and at one point I was even the bassist in his band Dark Circles, even though I didn’t really know how to play the bass, but my step-dad did and I could steal his gear so I was in the band.

But there was always this barrier between us. A barrier that kept us from ever fully going there, friend-ship wise, kept our relationship from fulfilling its promise, which was that Jason had a heroin habit and I did not. And over time his using junk became worse, it became this thing between us, there were times when I couldn’t be around him, houses and parties he would go to where there were the types of drugs he did and I didn’t, freaky people I didn’t want to be around, and we drifted apart.

There’s something about friendships like that, the ones that never reach a certain potential, that are left unfulfilled. Like something unfinished, the itch of incompletion.

Jason left a message on my voicemail, his husky cigarette voice full of um and ahs, and I left a message on his voicemail, and then we did that for another round before actually talking on the phone, which ended up being a short conversation, the embarrassing intimacy of holding another’s voice to your ear. Jason said he wanted to come check out Northampton, see what it was all about.

The drive from Cape Cod to Northampton was only about two hours but could balloon up to four with traffic. Jason said he was going to start driving in the morning Saturday but didn’t leave the Cape until the afternoon, he was texting me. I had taken two days off of work for this visit and spent the day pacing around my two-floor duplex apartment, the final unit in a row of them on a dead-end street off of one of the main drags. I was scheming to convince Jason to move here, move in with me, walking up and down the narrow staircase in my apartment talking out loud to myself gesticulating wildly.

It was about six pm and I was downstairs in the small kitchen, about to make some ramen, I had opened the blue and white package and was forcing the brick of dried noodles into the too-small pot I owned and used for only this purpose, the edges of the noodles crunching and breaking off as I forced the brick down. I heard a car rumble and buck past my apartment, and skid into the unpaved gravel lot just past my unit. No one parked back there. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, so as soon as I thought it was Jason, I told myself not to think it was Jason, and half-filled the small pot with water from the tap, for an old apartment, we had pretty good water.

My shoulders jolted when there was a knock on the front door. I set the pot on one of the back burners without turning anything on, went to the front door, where there was a silhouette through the frosted glass. I snapped the big padlock and the door half opened by itself, like it is wont. Jason was there standing on my small concrete stoop, full and real and in-person.

He looked pretty much like he always did, his simple black clothes, black baseball cap, black leather jacket, black t-shirt and jeans. Scuffed up skateboard sneakers. He had an oval face fuzzy on the lower half with blonde stubble and frosted blue eyes. He hadn’t changed. I mean, it hadn’t been long since I moved away from the Cape, just over a year, and I supposed I probably looked the same with my long hair and worn-out thrift shop 70s clothes, but time was funny, I thought of Cape Cod as my old life, so much had happened to me, and yet, nothing had happened, and here Jason was, alive and just the same.

Jason stepped through my door, and we had a quick, guyly embrace. I whispered-muttered a greeting, I could barely speak. Jason had a canvas gym bag over his shoulder, and I told him to toss it on the couch. He was excited by my apartment and asked for a tour. I didn’t think much of my apartment, I associated it with the constant terror of rent, but it was objectively kind of nice, maybe too nice for me. Three bedrooms, one bedroom on the first floor and two on the second, we leapt up the narrow creaking stairs, the 2nd floor had slanted ceilings, and even in the non-slanted parts the ceiling was low, just barely clearing six feet. Since Abraham had moved out, I had taken the big bedroom on the 2nd floor, Jason stuck his head inside, saw my mattress on the floor and record player and typewriter on my red milkcrate and nodded and said, “sick.” 

We went back downstairs while I told Jason the story about Abraham breaking his heels from falling off the building, and Jason laughed hard, and it was all very regular, Jason and I shooting the shit telling stories about the weird characters on the fringe of our lives like we do. I tried not to mention it, I wanted to warm up to this, but the conversation was naturally going this direction, and told him, “I have less than a month to find another roommate.”

We were standing in the kitchen, him leaning against the fridge and me leaning against the stove. I was looking down at the curled vinyl floor and tucked some of my long hair behind my ear. Jason’s face was also tilted at the floor. He nodded again, a fast sharp up and down nod, like almost a military nod, not that Jason had been in the military, but he had that masculine quality I lacked. He didn’t say anything else. Maybe the seed was planted. He pushed his weight off the fridge and looked out the rectangular window of the old wooden back door, which led to a small open breezeway, full of trash and wine jugs. The sun was still out but beginning to set, a soft gloom in the alley behind the apartment.

Looking at his back, the leather jacket he was still wearing, I wished I knew how to host, proper. I didn’t have anything in the house to offer, no beer or coffee or anything, only owned one cup one plate etc. I asked Jason if he wanted to chill after his drive, but he said he wanted to stretch his legs, smoke a cigarette at least. We left the apartment to check out Northampton. For once, everything was going according to my plan.

Northampton was kind of a hipster wonderland, it had everything you wanted, nothing you didn’t. It was a city-in-miniature, a walkable main street spance filled with books stores record stores coffee shops bars music venues movie theatres, one sushi place, two Indian places. It was a college town, Smith took up the west end of Main Street, and there were four other colleges within bus distance, my exes school Hampshire in Hadley and Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, UMass and Amherst in Amherst. It was a college student’s playground.

I told Jason all this while he puffed on his Camel Light while we walked down Pleasant Street, past infamously sketchy dive bar Silent Cal’s, and the crowd lining up to see the show at the Iron Horse, which got some pretty big bands to play, the Decemberists or Devendra Barnhart or Animal Collective, because they could do a whole string of college shows here. Cape Cod famously lacked people in their twenties and thirties, everyone was a teenager or forty or elderly, because the twenties and thirties were the move away years, before you got pulled back. Seeing young, attractive American Apparel wearing young people in the wild and on the street was a lot for guys like me and Jason.

We ran into another crowd lining up in front of the Pleasant Street theatre, a single screen movie house that mostly showed independent films. They were still playing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from last month. Jason tossed the butt of his cigarette into the street, and we stopped in at the video rental place owned by the same people that owned the movie theatre. Jason and I split up and walked through the aisles quickly, it was all stuff I had seen before, but also, I think we were building up too much excitement. We cut out of the video store fast.

I was explaining all this stuff to Jason like I was an authority on Northampton, but the truth was I wasn’t that familiar with the place I lived, I mean anything worth doing cost money, the thing I perpetually had slightly not enough of, and so barely spent any time in any of these places, my near-poverty a barrier that kept me from experience.

It was similar to my relationship to Jason, I had a friend-crush on Northampton, the possibility of closeness unfulfilled.

But maybe there was a chance now, maybe Jason was a part of it.

It was an energic spring night, and Main Street was full of people, endandered by the light still being out, the ruddy haze of sunset falling behind the brick buildings of Smith. I pointed out the Haymarket Café, closed now but maybe we could go in the morning, and then we went into Thornes, which was still open because it was the weekend. Thornes was a mall, but it was also like a department store. A department store from the 1940s, its different stores built into open rooms along its T shaped interior, a wide staircase at the joint, three stories of wooden floors that creaked loud when it was half-empty, which it was when Jason and I ran around it, our hips pumping, feeling giddy and young. We cut through Harrell’s Ice Cream to go to Raven Used Books, looked through the stacks while Jason asked me for the million time if I had read Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, he used to ask me that once a week when we lived on the Cape, and I still had not. At the time I was in my Beat phase, and I was reading The First Third, the autobiography of Neal Cassidy, and I couldn’t help feeling the Beatnik-ness of our specific moment.

After Raven we went back into Thornes and into the basement to Dynamite Records, and we each picked out a record that we would buy if we had any money: for Jason it was a record from this Japanese metal band Boris, and for me it was Neutral Milk Hotel’s first album On Avery Island. We both sighed loud and put the records back.

On the way back to my apartment we stopped at this pizza place Nemo’s, which had saved my life on more than one occasion. Nemo’s sold a floppy New York style slice of pizza bigger than your head for two dollars and seventy-five cents. That’s not a metaphor, it being the size of your head, this slice was twelve inches wide at the crust, it was that big. I’m not sure how Nemo’s made their money back on these slices, I guess simply because they sold so many of them. Jason and I stood inside the single room pizzeria, took the slices to go in thin white cardboard boxes, each holding our own.

As we left Nemo’s there was a group of crust punk kids gathered around Nemo’s single wooden table, sitting on different levels, some on the bench a few on top of the table and one sitting on the ground. They wore dirt colored dirt covered layers of clothes and the entire group was focused on the one kid sitting on the ground, he was a teenager, we caught them mid-conversation, and the kid on the ground was telling the others he was considering suicide. Jason and I stood for a second and listened, they didn’t seem to mind or notice us standing right there, a foot or so away, listening. It was like we were invisible to them, and they kept talking. There was a teen-age girl sitting on the bench just above the kid on the ground, kind of looming over him and she repeated, “that’s so selfish, that’s just so selfish.”

He was looking forward, towards the street, past Jason and I. He was wearing army green wool gloves on his hands, and shook his hands in the air, “I know, I know. I just can’t figure it out. It’s not that I want to die, but I can’t figure out how to avoid it.”

Jason and I walked on, back to my place. Neither of us talked about what the kid said, walking quickly to my apartment before the pizza got cold.

We sat in my living room, a few minutes of quiet while we ate pizza. Jason sat on the hardwood floor, his back to the first-floor bedroom the pizza box next to him, his knees up, leaning back on one hand while he ate the slice with the other. I sat on the couch facing him, a little bit above him. Halfway through the slices Jason started asking questions, asked me about my ex, how we broke up, how things were between us now. I didn’t want to but told him the very long sad story, my pizza starting to get cold. By the time I finished, he was sitting on the couch next to me, the both of us facing the same direction, looking at the blank wall across from us like there was a TV there. The pizza was gone, two empty, dirty boxes askew on the floor.

Jason filled me in on everything that had happened to him since the time we had been close. He spoke to me candidly about his habit for the first time, his voice deepening and taking on a rarefied air. I snuck looks at the side of his face. Jason was a handsome man, and when he opened up it could be powerful.

He had OD’d on his parents’ kitchen floor, his mother had found him, legally dead. Later revived at the hospital. His family sent him to a facility to kick his habit, which he did for a few weeks. He started using again, and his family disowned him. He began living with this woman, it wasn’t sexual, they just used together, they would get high side by side, and Jason told me that the feeling between them as they lay there was stronger than sex.

Jason sighed, sank into the couch, the back of his skull resting on the couch-back, looking at the ceiling. He reached into the front pocket of his leather jacket, took out a Camel Light, put it in his mouth.

“I mean,” he said, the tip of the cigarette bouncing wild with the movement of his thin lips, “we also had sex.”

We went out to the concrete steps in front of my place, sat side by side on the top step, hips and shoulders pressed together while Jason smoked. Dusk had fallen, the soft orange streetlights blinkering on. Clouds of tobacco washed over me when the air took them. Eventually things with the woman got worse, Jason told me, her using became heavier, she lost her place, then went to lock up. His voice hung before us while my eyes moved over the gravel parking lot in the dark, but also, I felt his voice in my body, could feel his words where our torsos came into contact. He went back to rehab. Kicked the habit for a 2nd time, when he got out of rehab, he joined NA but he hated it, it was mostly people getting together to brag about how much fucked up shit they’ve done. Jason was on some prescriptions now to deal with the withdrawal symptoms. He and I stood up and went back inside.

In the living room I sat on the floor, and he sat on the couch, the reverse of our earlier positions, Jason floating over me, leaning forward on the couch his elbows on his knees, hands folded together. His frosted blue eyes were looking down, his gaze landing just before my feet.

“I can’t hang out with the same crew on the Cape, I mean, there’s a lot of people I have to avoid,” he stopped and rolled his lips inward, pressing his mouth together. He started again, taking a different tack, “my councilor says I should be visualizing my future, thinking about what will make me happy, but that’s just the problem. Heroin makes me happy. If I do the thing that makes me happy, I would do heroin. I’ve experienced types of joy that I think just aren’t available to most people. So that part of me is forever broken. The happiness thing. Happiness as a decision-making process. I have to avoid that now.”

The idea of broken happiness hung in the room for two, three breaths. I absent mindedly thunked my sneaker on the floor, bouncing my rubber heel on the wood where Jason’s eyes fell. He looked up. My long dirty hair hung down across my face.

I said, “I think where I fucked up with Alex was that I avoided the hard conversations for so long, I didn’t face how I felt, and ended up acting out. But the breakup has brought a lot of clarity, and what I’ve learned, not really learned I guess, but remembered, is to follow the pain. To think of the most difficult thing, the most painful thing, and moves towards that. Like a path. That’s what’s led me out of all of this, following the pain.”

Jason breathed out, and left his mouth open, shoulders sinking. His eyes were on the floor again. He lifted the brim of his black baseball cap and wipe the back of his hand, the part behind his thumb, across his high forehead. Tucking the cap down, he sat up, lifting his shoulders. He made his voice loud and hollow, like a baseball announcer, twinge of a Boston accent, “life is suffering huh? What is this some Schopenhauer-deep-hippie-beatnik-bullshit? You Gary-Snyder-regurgitating-Zen-koans at me?”

We both snorted. Jason had broken the fragility of the moment. The framework that had allowed us to be vulnerable, allowed us to talk about ourselves.

I held a finger in the air, let my eyelids lower, my haughtiest face.

“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous,” I said, quoting Captain Beefheart.

“Fast and bulbous, tight also,” Jason quoted back at me, and we both laughed.

We left the dangerous world of talking about our feelings and returned to the relative safety of books and music. The living room of my narrow duplex was less stiff. We both stood up, went to the kitchen, paced around. Kept talking about bands and writers, movies and TV shows and poems. It allowed us to talk about ourselves but indirectly, approach the volatile sphere of the self with glancing blows. Went out to the steps so Jason could smoke another cigarette, came back inside, kept talking, descended into the world of memory, the final stage of the congress of friendship, reminiscence.

Jason and I talked until late, until our voices were loose and slow, conversation aimless. There was a bunch of Abraham’s stuff in the first-floor bedroom, including his old futon mattress, and I set Jason up to sleep in there. Jason closed the door while I was on the first step of the stairs, and I wanted to keep him there, if he could just stay in that room, inching towards my dream, the two of us living here, potential fulfilled.





Brian Stephen Ellis

Brian Stephen Ellis is the author of four collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Often Go Awry from University of Hell Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon. He recommends donating to the Warm Springs Community Action Team.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, October 20, 2022 - 22:10