1 - What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Cosmo - Three Years Ago

 

     Cosmo’s hand shook as he brought the cigarette to his lips. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep crying or just throw up all the champagne sloshing around in his stomach, but this balcony was suitable for neither. The lights from the city bobbed and blurred like dying stars. 

     “I just want”—he sniffled and took a drag—“I just want someone who will love me enough not to cheat on me. Is that really so much to ask?”

     Déjà leaned her elbows on the metal railing. There was glitter in her afro, and he vaguely wondered where it came from. “You know what I’m going to say.”

     “But I love him.”

     “And I love you, but if you keep going back to Antonio, he’s gonna keep cheating, and you’ll keep ending up here—standing on someone’s balcony during a party, drunk, with mascara running down your face.”

     He swiped at his cheek. “That’s harsh, darling.”

     “No it isn’t. Dump him.

     “I did.”

     “And this time, you don’t take him back. No matter how much he begs and cries and tells you you’re the most wonderful, beautiful creature he’s ever known.”

     Cosmo let out a sob. Only three days ago, he and Tony had gone to the theme park in Fairview, fed each other spoonfuls of gelato, and gotten lost in the fun house. A mannequin dressed in the most dreadful outfit popped up in his path, and he shrieked. Tony punched the thing on instinct and knocked its head clean off. He snatched Cosmo by the arms, pushed him against the wall, and said, I’ll protect you to the ends of the earth, gorgeous. No mannequin is a match for my love. And they laughed and made out and flipped a coin to decide who would take the giant stuffed alligator home. Cosmo lost, but Tony had let him take it anyway.

     He wiped his eye and his finger came away black. He should have worn the waterproof mascara, but he hadn’t planned on Tony breaking his heart at the party tonight. “I want to die.”

     “Don’t be dramatic.”

     “In case you haven’t noticed”—he gestured to himself, then lost his balance and dropped the cigarette—“dramatic is what I am. I feel things deeply. Can’t you see my electromagnetic field right now?”

     She hunched her shoulders and glitter spiraled from her hair and onto her lacy dress. “I can.”

     She’d told him his aura was what drew her to him in the first place. So vibrant that he shone in a crowd, radiating magenta and orange. Right now, he probably looked like cloudy paint water.

     “I feel things deeply. And at the moment, I don’t want to feel anything at all. I want to crawl into a hole and pull the dirt down on top of me.” He picked up his cigarette, which had burned nearly to the butt, and took a drag. A chilly breeze flung his curls into his face.

     Déjà sighed. “It hurts now, but just like any wound, it will fade. As long as you stop poking at it! Going back to Tony is self-harm, and I will not stand by and let you destroy yourself. Take out your feelings on your art; have a one night stand with some fun thing who also thinks you’re a beautiful creature—and let’s face it, everyone does—then let’s throw a party.”

     Cosmo blinked at the sliding doors leading back inside. A pop song throbbed through the glass. The lights doubled and bled together. “We’re at a party.”

     “Not like this. Bunch of snobs insisting they understand the meaning behind that turn-of-the-century floating snow shovel—”

     “Duchamp’s ‘Prelude to a Broken Arm.’” He steadied himself against the cold balcony railing. Cars rushed by far below, and his stomach lurched. Pushing back, he sat in a folding chair and hung his head between his knees. A glob of what looked like nacho cheese was smeared across the cap of his purple oxford. “It’s not hard to understand, given both the object and the title. You walk outside to shovel the drive, then slip on the ice and break your arm.”

     “That’s not art,” Déjà said. “I could put a hammer in a plexiglass box and title it ‘Prelude to a Smashed Thumb.’”

     “It’s Dadaism.”

     “It’s stupid. All I’m saying is we can throw a better party, in your honor, where we hype you up and send you on your way toward a brighter future without Antonio. Prelude to Cosmo finding the love of his life who will fuck the brains out of his pretty head, treat him like the queen he is, and never cheat on him.”

     He didn’t see anyone like that in his future. But an event was a great idea. No art show after-party. Not a birthday. Not a trite celebration where people attended to congratulate him for making it one more turn around the sun but in reality only came for the booze.

     There was only one way to shake loose of his life clinging to Tony and his counterfeit affections. It had to be a farewell, a send-off. And it had to be dramatic. The most grand display possible to demonstrate that there were plenty of people who loved Cosmo, even if a soulmate wasn’t in the cards.

     Every end was a new beginning.

     Cosmo needed to die.

 

 

***

Micah - Present Day

 

     Distorted synthesizer thumped through the dark studio. The bass wasn’t strong enough to rattle the frames on the walls, but it pulsed in Micah’s brain like someone prodding a bruise.

     Sweat dried to his forehead as he stared at the ceiling, one foot growing icy beyond the sheets.

     Faint lyrics drifted, Mark Almond singing about being desperate for love and attention.

     Someone was playing Soft Cell. Again.

     Groaning, Micah shoved off the comforter and donned his glasses. He snatched the broom from its habitual spot near the headboard and rammed it against the ceiling.

     Ximena had taken his complaint seriously, but the memo she’d taped to all their doors, reminding people to keep the noise down after nine, hadn’t been given the same consideration.

     Switching on the light, he rubbed his face and staggered into the kitchen. The clock on the microwave said 2:24.      After downing a glass of water, he dropped into his chair at the drafting table and blinked at stray pencil shavings.

After three weeks of the same songs, recycled through the midnight hours, the lyrics and beats were familiar enough that he should have been able to sleep through them. But it didn’t happen every night, and the volume fluctuated, so it wasn’t predictable enough to anticipate.

     Micah picked up a kneaded eraser and squeezed the gray putty between his fingers. His eyelids sagged. Snippets of song floated, and he questioned again whether it was really the upstairs neighbor. The sound almost seemed like it was coming from the middle of the front room. He’d pounded on other walls though, and the tenants called him an asshole and complained that he’d woken them up.

     A stretched canvas sat on a nearby easel, the half-finished landscape staring at him judgmentally. He hadn’t touched it in so long that the thick oil strokes were probably dry by now. He should have said no to it to begin with, but all his portfolio submissions so far had ended in rejections, and he needed any commissions he could get. When someone had asked for a painting of a field, it didn’t seem like a challenge. Blue sky, green grass, her grandmother’s barn in the background. But clouds were weird, and trying to paint tiny, thin stemmed plants was torture. The curves of a body, the way shadows fell on defined thighs or the tendons in a hand, was much easier to get right.

     The song changed, slinky synth and bright sax filling the room. He was never going to fall back to sleep with this going on.

     He poked through his pencils and selected an HB, then tore a sheet of paper from the drawing pad and set the materials to one side.

     As always, he started this guilty pleasure by opening his phone and scrolling through contacts. Sometimes he dialed random numbers. Those were the most fun, because the conversations could go anywhere, the calls lasting as long as he and the other person wanted. But most people thought he was either a pervert or a scammer. And starting the conversation with I’m definitely not a pervert or a scammer tended to be the opposite of reassuring.

     Customer service lines hardly ever worked. Those people only wanted to help him with his credit card, or his health insurance, or computer issues. But sometimes bored restaurant cashiers would humor him while they took his order.

     The sex hotline was expensive, but it was much easier to find someone willing to tell him whatever he wanted, especially this late at night. 

     He clicked the number and wedged in his earpiece.

     A sultry robo-voice purred: “Thanks for calling, lover. Our operators are aching to talk to you. What gender are you interested in?”

     “Surprise me.”

     “Hang tight while I find your perfect match.” There was a click, followed by legalese about call privacy and how much he was being charged per minute.

     A silky baritone entered his ear, drowning out the beats of Soft Cell. “Hey there. I’m—”

     “I don’t want to know your name. Not even whatever pseudonym you use. You can tell me pronouns, though.”

     “Alright, you got it. Pronouns are he/him.”

     “Mine too. How are you?” Tension unspooled from Micah’s shoulders and he relaxed into his chair. He sketched loose gestures onto the paper, building a boxy masculine frame. 

     “I’m good. I’m good. You lonely tonight?”

     “Yeah. Can’t sleep.”

     The operator’s chuckle rumbled through the earpiece. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but I plan on keeping you up. Want to know what I’m wearing?”

     Micah tapped the end of his pencil against the desk. “No. I want to picture you nude.”

     “Eager are we? Well, I’m at your service. What are you in the mood for?”

     The only problem with calling a sex hotline was the operators expected him to, well, want sex. He’d tried making small talk with them as he sketched, the way he used to with his life drawing models. They’d come to the studio and sit on a stool, lounge on the couch, or stand gracefully beside a chair, telling him about their favorite restaurants and pets and hobbies while he drew.

     But trying to ask an operator the name of their goldfish while they were faking an orgasm didn’t work very well.

     “Describe yourself, please. Give me details that I can picture.”

     “I’m Black. Twenty-three. Dark eyes, dark hair. Athletic build. Thick thighs and a bubble—”

     Micah sighed. “Is that the only script they give you?”

     “You don’t like twenty-something guys with thick thighs and bubble butts?”

     “I didn’t say that, but this happens every time I call. I want to know what you look like.”

     “This is fantasy, babe.”

     “I’d rather imagine a real person. All bodies are beautiful.”

     There was a pause, and the operator’s voice lost some of its gloss. “Not mine. Better to stick to the script.”

     “I’ll hang up.”

     “If I describe myself, you’ll do that anyway.”

     “I promise I won’t.”

     “I’m not anyone’s fantasy.”

     Sketches on the wall fluttered in the draft of the ceiling fan—there were downy lashes and sparse ones. Hooked noses and broad ones. Barely-there breasts and huge, sagging ones spidered in veins. So many curves, muscles, rolls, wrinkles. “That’s not true.” 

     The operator clucked his tongue. “I weigh three hundred pounds, and I’m going bald. Twenty-three passed me up a long time ago.”

     “I’m listening.”

     “I’ve got a big gut and flabby pecs.”

     Micah sketched broad shoulders, a wide chest, and rounded stomach. “Strong arms? Square jaw?”

     “You’re into this? Shit, man. Alright. Um. More round, I guess. I’ve got a beard.”

     “It’s good. I like details.” Micah blocked in the operator’s face and brawny arms.

     “There’s a long scar on my thigh from a car wreck five years ago.”

     “I bet you have nice hands. Wide palms. Thick fingers.”

     “I guess. Never really thought about it.”

     “Hands are my favorite. Keep talking, please. I like your voice.” He sketched the suggestion of veins winding across the backs of the operator’s hands, little shaded canyons between the tendons, and half moon strokes for knuckles.

     A deafening crash came from down the hall. Micah jumped. His heart rocketed into his throat and he strained for more sound, but the beats of “Tainted Love” and the operator saying something about his pinky finger made it impossible to hear anything else.

     He ended the call and slid off the stool. No one was in here with him. It was only something falling over.

    Even so, groping beneath the drafting table and finding the knife he’d duct taped there was an immediate comfort. He peeled it off, the handle gummy with tape residue, then padded past the kitchen. Something rolled across the floor in the dark hall, and he made a noise in his throat.

     No one was here. He was alone. He shook out his tingling fingers, then tightened his grip on the knife—just in case. 

     Switching on the hall light revealed a bottle of pills amid bits of something glittery. He peered into the bathroom.      “Oh god.”

     Shards of glass from the cabinet mirror littered the tile and sat at the bottom of the toilet bowl. The cabinet stood open, and combs, eye drops, floss, and a host of other things from the shelves scattered the floor.

     What a mess. Micah hadn’t felt the bass from the neighbor’s music, but maybe the slight vibrations had been enough to shake the mirror loose. Ximena wasn’t going to be happy about replacing it. 

     The two a.m. synth pop was a terrible enough invasion of his privacy; the idea of letting maintenance people inside to install something sent electric panic racing through Micah’s limbs.

     He blew a slow breath through his nose. Ximena preferred someone present when maintenance was working, but surely she’d make an exception for him. He could make a day of it and visit the new aquarium, or catch a movie in that luxury theater that provided mystery boxes to be opened at certain points during the viewing. 

     If Ximena wouldn’t budge on the issue, he’d just do without. She could have the mirror installed when he eventually moved out. 

     Crisp xylophone notes and bursts of drums drifted through the front room. Micah collapsed back into bed and stared at the ceiling. Something hit the floor in the hallway and bounced away. More bass rattling the bathroom cabinet. Well, let the whole place fall apart if it wanted to—he wasn’t getting back up.

     He must have eventually fallen asleep, because morning light streamed through the window when he opened his eyes. After texting Ximena and cleaning up as much of the bathroom mess as he could, he pulled out the vacuum.

Bits of mirror sparkled against the baseboards, and Micah ran the vacuum hose along the edge. Half the toiletries that had been littering the floor were now in the trash—most of the pills and creams were probably expired after nine months, and it was easier to throw it all away than pick through.

     He shut off the vacuum and stopped before a prescription bottle that had rolled into a corner. Tobramycin and dexamethasone ophthalmic suspension. Instill 2 drops to the affected eye(s) 3 times a day.

     The shit had made his eye weep and created halos around lights, so it had been impossible to draw or paint. When he’d complained to Everett, he told Micah he shouldn’t be trying to draw after what happened anyway. Said he needed to relax, maybe watch TV instead. But art was how he relaxed, and he didn’t even own a TV.

     He lobbed the bottle of eye drops down the hall. It sailed into the garbage can with a satisfying thunk. 

     A knock came at the door. He froze. It was okay. It was Ximena certainly. She wasn’t going to push her way inside, and she would have told anyone with her that they couldn’t step foot into Micah’s place while he was inside.

He shook out his hands and stared at the knob, prepared to snatch it like a poisonous snake. The doorbell chimed and Micah gasped.

     “Stop working yourself up. Just open the fucking door.” Gripping the knob, he tugged it open enough to peer through. Ximena and two maintenance men stood on the balcony. A large panel swaddled in bubble wrap and plastic leaned against the railing.

     “Hey.” Micah pointed through the gap in the door to the wrapped panel. “Replacement mirror already? Don’t tell me you want to install some cheap generic thing in my bathroom.” With a shaky grin, he said, “It’ll throw off the aesthetic, and I’ll insist on having my rent reduced.” 

     Ximena recoiled, and the tote bag she held slapped against her leg. “Generic? Don’t insult me, mijo. I had an extra laying around from the last time this happened.”

     “The last time?” The building was old and maybe whatever adhesive was used to affix the mirrors to the cabinet doors was losing its hold after so long. That was bad news for everyone else.

     Micah glanced at his sweatpants and sandals. “Um, give me a few minutes to dress and I’ll head out.” The aquarium was only ten minutes away. But the parking was probably atrocious, and what if there were screaming, hyperactive kids there on a field trip? 

     It was too early for a movie, and there probably wasn’t anything good playing besides. Plus, buying anything at the concession stand would require at least two organs. 

     “How long do you think this will take? An hour?” He’d just nap in his car in the parking lot. Lord, he was still so tired.

     “No, no. Fifteen minutes. Promise.” She beckoned. “Come stand out here with me. It’s a nice morning.”

Her smile was warm, bunching her round cheeks, and all of the patience in it made Micah want to slam the door and lock it. How ridiculous he must look, afraid to let innocent maintenance people into his bathroom. 

     Pulling away the slide chain, he stepped outside and nodded to the men as they carried the mirror into the studio. He squinted his left eye against the light.

     A cool breeze rustled his hair, and a dove made a soft coo-oo from a nearby tree. His place was on the second floor by the stairs that wrapped the outside of the complex, and it gave him a lovely view of the city. In the distance, the tops of buildings scratched the bellies of fat clouds, sunlight turning windows and peaked roofs into the brilliant facets of gems. He inhaled, and a little of the tightness in his chest eased. It really was nice out this morning.

     “The silicone won’t be cured in fifteen minutes,” Ximena said, “but they’re going to put tape around the edges of the mirror to hold it in place. Leave it for, like, three days, just to be certain, okay? I hope you didn’t clean up the mess last night. Sweeping at night is bad luck.”

     “So is breaking a mirror. And I’ve fulfilled my quota of bad luck for the last year already.”

     She patted his arm. “Yes, you have.” Her gaze hung on him, and he imagined how she must see him, with his blown pupil and the scars snaking over his cheekbone and through his eyebrow. Like this fragile, damaged thing that needed to be coddled. Or maybe she was remembering how he looked after returning from the hospital, swollen and stitched and covered in gauze.

     Holding out the tote bag, she said, “I brought you chicharrones con pico de gallo.”

     Micah sighed.

     “You don’t like it? Or you don’t know?” she asked. “I can’t remember if I brought you some before.”

     “You have, and it’s delicious. But you don’t need to bring me food anymore.” After he came home from surgery, she’d ordered delivery every night and had the driver leave it at his door, until he called to tell her that though the gesture was lovely, he couldn’t stomach anymore greasy burgers and congealed mac and cheese. She replied apologetically, I don’t really know what white people eat.

     After that, it had stopped being delivery and instead handmade tamales, pozole, and thick sheets of chicharrón with salsa. He hadn’t had the energy to protest then, since he spent most of the time laying in bed, hoping that if he didn’t move, he’d be absorbed into the mattress. But needing to give her the dishes back had motivated him to get up and wash them, sometimes tidying the kitchen a little while he was at it.

     But he wasn’t trying to assimilate into the furniture anymore, and he didn’t need incentive to clean, do laundry, or shower.

     Ximena pushed the tote bag at him. “It’s no trouble.”

     “Stop feeling sorry for me. I’m fine.”

     Parenthesis formed around her mouth. “What did you eat for dinner last night? Did you cook? Did you go out to a restaurant?” She shook her head and waved her hand as though erasing her last question. “You didn’t go anywhere.”

     “You’re worse than my grandma used to be.”

     “And I’m sure she’d be thanking me for saving you another day of eating microwave ramen from the back of your cabinet. You love my food. I love that you love it. I don’t have to feel sorry for you to bring you some.”

     She was lying, but he took the bag and peeked inside. “Thanks. I’ll bring your dish back later.”

     “I know you will. Is it quiet at night now?”

     “No,” he muttered. “Someone is still playing music in the middle of the night. Sometimes it sounds like it’s being piped directly into my studio. I can’t sleep.”

     Ximena pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay. Well, I’ve already talked to Randi, and she’s never home at night, either working or staying at her girlfriend’s place, so it’s not her.”

     “Which one is she?”

     “Directly above you.”

     No wonder pounding on the ceiling didn’t do any good. But if it wasn’t her, then who? “Maybe I need to buy a white noise machine or a louder fan.”

     “No. I’ll figure it out.”

     “Just ask them to show you their playlists. Whoever has Soft Cell set to repeat is your culprit. You can ask them when you’re installing more mirrors that have fallen down from crumbling silicone.”

     She shook her head. “This apartment is the only one I’ve had trouble with.”

     “You said you had to replace one of the mirrors before.”

     “Yes, here! Same thing happened to the last tenant. He said it fell by itself in the night.”

     “That’s… odd.” He chuckled. “He wasn’t tormented by eighties music at two a.m., was he?”

     “Not that I remember. But he was weird. And his sculptures were”—Ximena wrinkled her nose—“grotesque. Garish.”

     “He was an artist too?” This neighborhood was called the Artists’ District for a reason, but he’d met plenty of people here who weren’t. Or they wrote horrible poetry, which was worse.

     “Yes, of course. But his art was not tasteful like yours. It wouldn’t surprise me if he broke the mirror in the bathroom on purpose as part of some experimental, artsy thing.” 

     Making garish and grotesque art to channel complicated feelings wasn’t any worse than what Micah was doing—except that he was able to hide his peculiar habits from everyone but his phone company.

     Ximena peered at her reflection in his window and tucked loose strands of steely gray hair back into her updo. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be saying such things about the dead.”

     “The last tenant died?”

     “Yes. I came out of the office one day to see people moving furniture out of his place. They gave me an invitation to the funeral, but I didn’t go.”

     “Damn. What happened to him?”

     “I don’t know.” She waved her hand. “There was an obituary, but they never tell you in those things. Shame, though. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.”

     The door creaked open and the maintenance men walked out. “All done,” one of them said. “Hey, your art is really good. Do you draw those from live models?”

     “Dead ones.”

     The man blinked until Micah said, “That was a joke.” Maybe not a very good one in light of the previous topic. “And no, not those ones, but I used to. They’d commission me to do their portrait.”

     “Some of those women you’ve got up there are super hot.” He whistled. “That’s a sweet gig. They pay you to look at them naked basically. Wish I knew how to draw.”

     Micah pursed his lips and hoped it resembled a smile. “I appreciate you stopping by this morning.” He nodded to Ximena. “Thanks for the chicharronnes.”

     He carried the bag inside and set it on the kitchen counter. As he reached in for the food, the front door swung open and the maintenance man stepped over the threshold and onto the carpet.

     “I forgot the silicone.”

     Micah screeched, and his heart caught in his throat. No no no. No one could be inside with him. 

     Get out!

     Get out!

     A dark vignette encroached on his vision. His limbs went rigid and the oven handle scraped into his side. Though his mind screamed at him to flee, or to grab a weapon and fight, he was paralyzed. He couldn’t even tell the man to leave, the words drying up in his mouth.

     A hand—Ximena’s—snatched the man’s shirt sleeve and yanked him outside. The door slammed shut and she shouted. “I’m so sorry, mijo!”

     Breaking from his cemented position, Micah rushed to the door and threw the deadbolt. He trembled, nerves short-circuiting and terror pumping through his veins. Sinking to his knees, he pressed his forehead against the grainy tile. His chest quaked, dust bunnies and a pencil shaving stirring from his frantic breath.

     Footsteps clanged down the stairs outside, the maintenance man’s mutters of “I’m sorry” standing no chance against Ximena’s sharp admonishments. 

     Shame plunged into Micah’s gut amid the other mess of signals his body was sending him. That guy didn’t mean any harm. He didn’t deserve Micah’s reaction. Micah didn’t deserve Micah’s reaction.

     He balled his fists, intent to take this energy out on something, but he’d already stomped on half-painted canvases and flipped over his drafting table after returning from the hospital and it hadn’t solved anything.

     Pushing to his feet, he ran his hands through his hair, slapped his cheeks, and walked to the bathroom. The new mirror looked exactly like the old one, save for the strips of tape on each corner.

     The silicone sat on the toilet tank. He could return it with Ximena’s dish later, and maybe he could get the maintenance guy a six pack next time he went shopping.

     A shadow drifted in his peripheral vision, and he tensed. Great, now his body was in overdrive, imagining intruders who weren’t there.

     Everyone left. He was alone. He’d locked the door.

     Even so, he peered down the empty hall. When he turned back toward the mirror, he gasped. Written across it in cheery pink was the phrase:

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY