Joyland

Montreal |

My Last Summer in Washington

by Sarah Steinberg

edited by David McGimpsey

At first, I said moving to DC was like stepping inside a candy wrapper. That seemed right at the time but, then - not. A candy wrapper isn't necessarily humid or sticky inside. DC's summer was the wrapper with the chocolate melted in your pocket, all over your keys and your loose change. When I found out Washington had actually been built on a swamp, I imagined dark woods with simmering ponds, toads on toilet paper lily pads.

My boyfriend was understanding about how the DC heat affected me. He was from California, I was from Montreal.  He rarely rolled his eyes when he came home to find me listless in front of the TV, having eaten nothing, done nothing, said nothing out loud except the few times I told Judge Judy to go to hell. Jayce would just roll up his sleeves and get down to work, which was his style.  He picked up T-shirts from the floor, brought half-empty mugs to the sink. I followed him from room to room, complaining about how much I hated being cooped up all day and about the then-mysterious pain in my hands.

"My hands hurt, Jayce. They really really hurt!" If I said it enough Jayce would massage the joints in my fingers. When it was really bad I iced them or took Advil or drank whiskey or, of course, both.

"Sorry babe," Jayce would usually say, which is what he said when he found me laying in my underwear on the futon icing my hands with a bag of frozen peas. He'd come in from school and stood at the door, his messenger bag slung over his shoulder, beads of sweat pearling on his brow. I watched as one bead gained momentum, skiing down the slope of his nose like Peekaboo Street. It grossed me out.

"You’re so sweaty," I said.

I'd spent the day with the channel mostly tuned to TLC, watching marathons of What Not to Wear and Ten Years Younger, thinking stabby thoughts.  Why wasn't someone surprising me at my door? Why wasn't someone appearing out of the blue to fix my wardrobe and teeth, and send me to a therapist who would teach me how to love myself from the inside out?

The only break in the day came when our downstairs neighbour Wheeler knocked on the door.

"What happened to your arm?!" I asked.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see Wheeler's arm in a cast. One time, Jayce and I had seen him roll up to the apartment in an E-series Mercedes, an astounding trade-up from the Chrysler LeBaron he'd been chugging around in. He'd waved at us and then lifted a huge catfish for us to see outside the car window. We had no idea what to make of him, but we knew he had a wife and a three-year-old daughter and I'd heard him call them both Boo.  Plus he had a nice smile and he'd promised to get me an iPod cheap. He'd come to discuss the details of the iPod sale, so I put on a robe and stood in the doorway. We agreed on forty dollars.

Debra, who lived across the hall from me and who I had never seen anywhere except in the stairs or standing at the foot of her own apartment now came huffing up the steps wearing one of her bright sweat suits. She said good afternoon to me but not to Wheeler, pointedly ignoring him before locking herself inside.

"She don't like me," Wheeler said, shaking his head. "She don't even know why she don't like me."

He proudly declared he broke his arm skateboarding. "I was doing flips out there last week," - he pointed with his chin and the elbow of his broken arm in the direction of F Street, in front of the apartment - "And some dude comes ripping down the street, nearly drives me over. I tried to jump out the way…" he trailed off and shrugged, looking lost.

"What?"

I was sure I knew who it was.  I had seen the car with tinted windows powering down our street. I’d seen him blow through a stop sign at eighty miles-per-hour. In fact, I thought about that car frequently: how dark the windows were so that you had the impression the car was driving itself, relying on knowledge of DC far deeper than my own.

"Yep, just out there," he said again and nodded. I wondered whether Debra could hear us behind her door. I knew why she didn't like him - she'd said he was irresponsible, an actual "ne'er-do-well".  And she said it like that: "ne'er-do-well".

"We're getting an iPod," I told Jayce. "And Wheeler broke his arm."

"How'd he do that?"

"Skateboarding, I think. Hey, you want an avocado sandwich? And maybe later can we go out and get a drink?"
In the evening, leaning towards our drinks, the outdoors air was the same as indoors and the beetles were out. Beetles always appeared suddenly in DC, waves of little black ovals across the sidewalk and, then, under foot.

The tree branches hung low and I felt like they wanted to touch me, which made me feel very itchy. I heard a dog bark and I knew which dog it was - the one that belonged to the drunk lawyer. I’d seen him pratfall out of a taxi and walk on his knees into his brownstone. His dog was a pit bull who spent his squat life in the front yard, pacing or sticking his nose through the gate.

The dog that belonged to the drunk lawyer barked as we waited at the corner of H and 12th for the light to change. I saw three black guys get into a car parked in front of the Christian library - a ramshackle aluminum pod that no one ever went in. Their car made a rough U-turn and joined the rest of the traffic headed towards the Beltway and Anacostia, where I had never been and was scared to go.                

Mark, my friend, the bartender, poured a shot of Maker’s without looking down at the glasses. I loved to watch him do stuff like that. He was such a bartender: pen behind his ear, apron, white rag in his back pocket.

Jayce shook Mark's hand as he sat down at the bar to watch a Lakers game.

"Looks like your boy Kobe's in trouble," Mark said and Jayce laughed. Mark turned to me, and asked me how my writing was going.  Then he went back to the drinks, and Jayce watched the game and anxiously flicked his fingernails. I watched him for some time like that, and it felt pretty good, watching Jayce watch basketball, until he noticed and put his hand on my knee, and then Mark leaned over.

"What, you Canadians trying to take over or something?" he said to me theatrically, his arms crossed over his chest.

I turned around and saw a couple standing behind us: a big doughy guy with balding blond hair and round cheeks, and a woman with big tits, dark brown hair, and a plaid shirt that made me angry to look at. Plaid? In this heat? Mark shook hands with the doughy guy.

"Fuckin' Canadians, eh?" Mark said to Jayce.

Jayce and I turned around on our stools and Mark introduced them to us and we all glad-handed and I asked them if they were really both from Canada, even though I somehow already knew.

She was from Winnipeg, he was from Guelph.  He was a part-time professor at Marymount, and taught philosophy, and she was doing her M.A. They were new to DC but they liked it, sort of --  but it was, she said, "a little fucked up".

That was true enough. In summer, if you didn't know better, you might think the gunshots were firecrackers, but they were gunshots.

There had been seven shootings in the northeast the week before.

I knew the shitty places they'd grown up in well enough to feel a mild sense of superiority over them. Unlike them, I was half American. It aligned me with Jayce, who had never been to Canada, but most importantly, it made me separate from my past. I never had to answer for Canada or bore someone to death differentiating between "President" and "Prime Minister".  Then Emily told us they had air conditioning and Gil said they had whiskey (Evan Williams whiskey but whatever) and they invited us back to their place.

We followed them higher and higher into the DC alphabet of streets. At some point the street lamps stopped working and the colours of houses changed from Easter yellows and robin egg blues to whites and browns and then finally, they seemed colourless. Every home had a wire gate in front. The streets were very quiet except for a chopper off in the distance, a few cars that drove by slowly, the occasional black beetle crunching under our feet, and then later a round of shots. But everything passed by mildly and I knew the gunshots were far away. Very rarely the trees swayed in a breeze I didn't feel.

We climbed a set of old iron stairs into a dark apartment split into a big front room and a tiny kitchen in back. I inquired about the bedroom, but Emily said it was too messy to see. Gil hurried to get us drinks with ice in them. The place was smaller than ours but it was cool inside, and there was a big sofa in the living room and books on the shelves. I saw a banjo on a stand in the corner.

"Do you play? Jayce asked Gil.

"Play for us!" I said.

It was suddenly the only thing I wanted to happen. I didn't care if he just picked at it, I wanted to hear the sounds it made.

But Emily rolled her eyes. "Please don't play," she said to him, and then she turned to us and apologized.
"Sorry!" she said.

Were we were supposed to be embarrassed? I didn't know. I pressed Gil to play and avoided eye contact with Emily until he took up his instrument.

"They don't want to hear that," Emily said, but he plucked it off its stand and settled back on to the couch with a little groan.

"Gil." Emily said. It was a warning. He looked almost amused.

"Gil," She said again. God knows what was being intimated.

I didn't recognize the tune he played but it was fast and the sound of it filled the room.  Then the notes got faster, even a little weird, and it seemed to me that it sounded exactly right for a DC night.  I’d always thought the banjo was a little stupid sounding, but the way Gil played it I heard its depth: the towns in the mountains of Virginia, the fireflies, the front porches, the church weddings, the leaves that kept trying to attach themselves to me. The sound rushed into my heart where it swirled around with the whiskey. When he stopped, I saw that Emily was still staring a hole into him, mortified at what he had just revealed. Her look towards me said leave and now.

On the way home the beetles were sleeping, the sun was rising, the sky was pink. We walked quickly. Jayce was frowning.

"Are you OK?"  I asked him.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "It's fine."

When we got home there were police officers milling around the front of our building.  One cop, in plain clothes, told us that Wheeler had been shot and killed on our street. He was "sorry to bother" us; it looked like we'd had "a long night". Did we know Wheeler well? Did we talk a lot? Did he have a lot of people come around?

He had a wife and a daughter. He called them Boo. He broke his arm. That's all I knew.

We read about the shooting in the Metro section on Sunday and no names were used.  Later, as I was settling in to watch Sunday night TV, the pain in my hands so intense I didn't think I could pick up a glass, we got a visit from Wheeler's wife. She stood in the doorway, declined to come in, a baby with braids on her hip.

"Where will you go?" I asked her. She said she had a mother in Suffolk or maybe it was Manassas. "It’s different there," she said.  Jayce and I stood looking at each other, shaking our heads. "If there's anything, anything at all," we both said. Of course we’d be leaving DC in just a few weeks; planning our own escapes.