The first thing you do when you walk into my apartment is go to the bathroom to wash your feet. This takes longer than I expect but you’re very drunk and you’re breathing hard not just from the smoking or the stairs, but also from the singing.
You are uncomfortable in your work shoes, but more uncomfortable with the way your feet smell in an apartment that is not your own. You will not risk it. There is a process. You need to take off the shoes and the sheer black socks too. They’re damp with the cold but also with your sweat. You can never keep from sweating even on the first really cold day in early December.
I hear, behind the closed bathroom door, the water turning on and off and I hope you don’t puddle the floor like you do sometimes. When the faucet is shut, I hear you trill something familiar, The Pointer Sisters? Not the lyrics, just the melody in oohs and coos. You squirt liquid hand soap in the tub, since when you tried to use the sink last time, you fell and almost hit your head on the toilet. When you come out your feet are clean and dry, and I smell lavender. Your pinky toe nails need attention. They curl over, uncut. Your feet are the smallest part of you.
You’ve always been big. You showed me that video your mom had done at the mall in Bayonne—an early iteration of green screen—where you stood in front of a staticky rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge, like you’ve just jumped off of it and landed standing in the river. On the little TV at your mother’s in Jersey City, you looked uncomfortable. What were you? Eleven? A zebra-patterned t-shirt and shorts set—watered down new wave—from a department store’s husky section. Your skin looked stretched across a growing frame. A boy awkwardly looking at the camera forced to be there by a well-intentioned mother. But it wasn’t that simple. There was a hint in the way you connected to the lens. You didn’t mind being in front of it. There was a reason to be there, it was just the wrong time. You couldn’t be something good if the first thing people thought when they saw you was something bad. On the screen, I saw your hope. That your body was just temporary.
You’ve told me how it feels to have people look at you and immediately only one word comes to minds. We’re all reduced to one word, I rationalized. And you asked what I thought that word would be for me and I paused and guessed girl?
There’s nothing wrong with being a girl, but fat is something you’re always trying to change. I’m something no one wants to be.
You had the same face then that you do now. I can’t help but put you in present tense. This is all the past.
The last time I saw you was in your casket, so strange to see you there, in a suit, just like at work, except your eyes are closed and all these co-workers sit on folding chairs watching a slideshow projected above you. We look at the dead you and the captured-living you at the same time.
I haven’t seen these people since I left the job, fired really. I don’t work, just take the baby to the park and push the stroller and listen to podcasts, needing to hear people talk, not sing. I came for you because I hadn’t talked to you in awhile and I kept meaning to. I hadn’t heard you sing since that last night at karaoke.
You still have the look of an alter boy with a strangely dated pompadour. Your cheeks are still as red as ever. Are you even thirty now? A few days before, your father told me you couldn’t breathe and you went to the doctor and they questioned you: Why are you here? They told you that you should be in the E.R. They called the ambulance and you died inside of it while it was in motion, the sirens blaring down Newark Street.
Forget this place. Let’s hear you sing.
In our private karaoke room, we bring a tower of plastic cups from the office kitchen and screw top wine from the liquor store. I buy a bag of chips at the deli.
You sing Jolene and you sound like Dolly.
You sing Cabaret and you sound like Liza.
You sing Complicated and you sound like Avril, over-enunciating all of the words to make fun of her voice. You’re funny too.
You have the song binder in front of you and while you scan it, you fold a foot up on to your knee to rub it through the leather. They hurt you and you have that look on your face like you want to sing some blues, some man-done-me-wrong shit. That body you feel trapped in, you know a song is its escape route.
We finally sing a duet. It’s one of the only times you sing a man’s part. You are Eminem and I’m Dido. I never know any of the words you sing, I have to read along, but my part, I can close my eyes. It’s not so bad, it’s not so bad. You say I sing well, but I’m always just under the note. And flat. But we are not here for me.
I take the binder, open it up to a random page and let my fingertip fall. I plug in the code and wait for whatever song comes. Sing yourself out. It doesn’t matter what plays, your voice is a skeleton key. When it’s over, we’ll make our way back to my place and you can clean yourself up and sleep.
Melissa Ragsly’s work has appeared or forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Small FIctions, Iowa Review, Epiphany, Hobart, and other journals. She is an Associate Editor for A Public Space and a Program Coordinator at the Authors Guild. More can be found at melissaragsly.com.