“I want you to know before I open the door that I’m not a Nazi.”
“Lil,” I say, “just open it.”
Lil is my nickname for Little, which is the rest of the world’s nickname for Lillian. In my head she’s Little but I call her Lil, and I don’t know what she’s talking about, if you’re curious, but I know she’s freaking out. It’s almost 2 a.m. on Monday night, which is probably the most appropriate time for freaking out I can think of, but even still. Nazis?
“I’ve got Popsicles,” I tell her. Or more accurately, I tell this to the door of her apartment. I’m shifting a clammy box of Popsicles from one hand to the other while I balance my cell phone on my shoulder. Guess who’s on the other line.
“You’ll think I’m evil,” she says.
“What? I don’t think I heard you right.” I wipe condensation from the flat of my hand onto my jeans. “There’s no reception. Your door’s in the way. My phone’s dying.”
I hit the end button and nudge the door with the tip of my shoe. It isn’t locked and swings open.
The apartment is dark. The only light is slanting through the blinds of the single window, probably from the Hasty Market across the street where I just was, buying the Popsicles. I close the door behind me before turning on the lights, and then fumble at the wall for a switch. There are muffled crying noises coming from somewhere to my right. I think. The sound bounces off the hardwood floors and seems to come at me from every angle. It sounds like crying does when the crying person is standing in an empty bowling alley. I mean, if you’ve ever experienced that personally. I haven’t.
I find the switch at last and there’s Little on the couch. She’s hunched over like her stomach is killing her. Her face is crammed into a pillow and her shoulders are shaking.
“Lil,” I say. “I brought the Popsicles.”
Her response is a pillow-gumming sort of moan. Tough call. I head for the fridge. It’s one of those newer fridges, which means Little’s freezer is on the bottom third instead of the top. This throws me completely. I almost give up and put the Popsicles in a cupboard.
“I should warn you,” I say, kneeling on Little’s floor as I shove the Popsicles between a pair of ice racks. “I had some wine after dinner. So I’m a little, you know, drunk.”
This is half-true at best. The thing is: I’m exhausted. Saying I’m drunk is an attempt to cover up how tired I am. It doesn’t work.
“I can’t believe I woke you up for this,” says Little into the pillow. “I’m such a fucking shit, it’s lucrative.”
Lucrative? I may have missed the last word, but for some reason it encourages me. I go and sit on the couch next to her.
“What’s so lucrative? You’re not a shit. What’s lucrative about it?”
“Oh,” I say. “Okay. But you know the main problem with my hearing, Lil, is your pillowface. You need your pillowface amputated.” I tug at one corner of the pillow, catching a few of Little’s hairs in the process.
“Gah,” she hisses. “Ow. Leave it.”
“Just a little amputation,” I insist. “You got any tongs? We’ll need calipers and some tongs.”
I’m trying to get her to laugh, but no such luck. She sighs. It’s a genuinely deflating sigh, as if every bit of air in her lungs is taking off for greener pastures.
Nobody says anything for a second, and then, you’ll hate me for this, but I yawn. I can’t help myself. Of course, this sends Little into another fit of guilt, and she starts sobbing again.
“Christ,” I say, “Just a second.” I yawn again. It’s completely involuntary. It’s like sneezing. “Just a second,” I repeat. I bang my fist on the floor for emphasis, and then wince because there’s a Scottish couple trying to sleep below us. I wince, also, because it may appear that I’ve lost my patience with Little who, it’s safe to say, is having A Hard Time.
And Little looks up at me, horrified. Not because of my yawing or apparent frustration but because I’m seeing her face for the first time tonight, and there on Little’s face is a giant swastika.
She dives for the pillow again but I’ve already snatched it out of her lap and I hold it at arm’s length so she can’t reach it from the couch. Then I hit her with it.
She covers her face with her hands.
“Too late!” I squeal. I’d rather not admit that I do squeal, on occasion, but I figure the situation warrants high-pitched talking at the very least. “I saw it! Nazika!”
That’s not meant to be wordplay, I’m just not very articulate, but it’s late, remember, and Little has a swastika on her face. It’s a wobbly breed of swastika, possibly freehanded with the aid of a hand mirror or the side of a shiny toaster, but a swastika nonetheless, reaching from her forehead to her chin with the arms meeting on the bridge of her nose. It’s not the good luck Hindu swastika, either. It’s tilted on end, going clockwise, and my friend Little’s face is the clock.
“I believe in people’s freedoms!” Little wails.
I nod. Okay.
“This,” she says, pointing at her face, “is just the worst, most poisonous thing I could think of.” She’s gulping on her words. “How I feel about myself.”
“Something that hurts people. Even to look at.”
“I’m just amazed the tattoo artist went through with it.”
“Funny,” she mutters. Which is fair enough. Now is not the time for comedy, I know, but in less depressing circumstance that might have gone over well. No? You try.
“You understand, right?” Little’s eyes are wide. “I can’t go outside anymore. I don’t want people to see me. I mean I know I probably do, in my subconscious or whatever, I realize it’s a cry for help, I’m not stupid. But I’m a fucking idiot.”
“What did you use, a sharpie?”
“A Mr. Sketch,” she mutters.
She looks at me like I just hit her with the pillow again.
“I know,” she says. “I scrubbed at it for fifteen minutes before I called you. Do you think rubbing alcohol would work?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “but I know a place with some in stock.”
Ten minutes later I’m back in the Hasty Market (altered on a bi-monthly basis to Nasty Market with black spray paint), picking out a dust-covered bottle of isopropenol from the tiny pharmacy section. The cashier working his graveyard shift stares with mild alarm through the storefront window. He’s watching Little, who waits on the corner with a woolen scarf wrapped around her head. She looks like the invisible man crossed with the Elephant Man but less like a man than either of those; plus she’s got a baseball cap on. The disguise was my way of not leaving her in the apartment alone.
“That your friend out there?”
The cashier is asking me this.
“Yeah,” I say, handing him some money. “Best friend.”
“Pretty scary,” he says, and chuckles.
“She’s going through A Hard Time,” I say. I don’t know why I say it.
“No kidding,” he says. And I think: he doesn’t care, but then I meet his eyes for a second as I take my change and I guess maybe I’m wrong. I thought he meant “no kidding” like “yeah right” but his expression is, in actuality, not kidding.
It’s this weird little moment between me and the Nasty Market guy that almost betrays Little’s trust, because as I take my change I feel a sudden and pressing urge to tell this guy about everything that happened last summer, with Little learning through Facebook that the guy she broke up with a year and a half ago went and killed himself, and how that spun her into this dark place of not wanting to leave the apartment and never drawing anymore (she’s a graphic designer, or was) and her doctor giving her medication that isn’t working or isn’t working fast enough, and now this thing with the swastika and for Little, that’s like cutting herself, except she wouldn’t feel about cutting herself the way she does about drawing a swastika on her face. Or maybe cutting is the next step, I don’t know. What comes next is the biggest, scariest question I can ask myself about Little.
But I don’t tell the cashier any of this.
Outside I say to Little, “let’s not go back to the apartment right away. Let’s get some air.”
I sort of intend to get her walking but we’re both tired and we end up sitting on the curb near the Heritage Hall where no cars are parked, hands stuffed in our pockets for warmth.
“I don’t want to kill myself, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Little says from under her scarf. “I know people are worried.” I can see her breath in tiny clouds that vanish instantly, and I realize I can see mine, too.
“I’m worried,” I say. “But I’m not thinking that.” The cold air is doing good things to my brain, clearing it out.
“You don’t think I’m Nazi? Or Ted Bundy or something?”
“Only because of the swastika,” I tell her, “Not in the other ways, really.”
“I’m such an asshole,” she says. She rests her huge, wooly head on her knees and the baseball cap falls into the gutter.
“No,” I say. I pick up the cap and brush it off. “You’re just sad.”
I think she starts crying again, at this point, but not like before. It’s quiet crying, I think. It’s hard to tell.
“Being sad,” I say, “isn’t you, Lil. Being sad is just going through you.”
She doesn’t answer.
“You weren’t always like this.”
“I was,” she says.
“You aren’t,” I say. I put the baseball cap on. It’s a little loose around my head, but only a little. “You won’t be.”
“How can you know? You can’t know.”
I don’t answer for a long time, because she’s right, but there have to be some things I know.
Maybe I should stay over at her place tonight, I think. Maybe I should stay for a while, just until the ink fades or the medication kicks in. I can rent us movies, old Disney cartoons, so Little can lecture me on why Steamboat-era Mickey’s design is timeless while Goofy is a dated mess. Or I’ll go shopping for healthy things, fresh fruit and stuff to make soup with. Healthy soup. Little won’t eat chicken. Who needs chicken? She needs company. I can be that. She’s my best friend. I know her.
“I know you,” say.
She doesn’t contradict me, so I’ll take what I can get.
From up the corridor of Main Street we can hear the howling of an ambulance. The siren’s volume peaks as it reaches Broadway, getting as close to us as it ever will before curving in the direction of downtown, still trailing sound in little bursts before fading at last into the background noise of the city, and away.