Jacob Foster (3)

The Siene beneath them was bracketed by an artificial valley of buildings, every conceivable shade of tan. The language all around them was unfamiliar and strange. Caught in the ebb and flow of tourism they moved from place to place with the ubiquitous crowds of camera wielding people no different from them. The first day was a whirlwind of luggage and metro stations with unfamiliar names. He could, with effort, draw upon a single solid memory: their hotel in the 4th arrondissement, pressed on all sides by buildings clotted in history.

 Even if it all becomes a blur, they will keep it safe in photographs. They point the cameras back at themselves, creating the proof they crave. Jacob Foster and Rajiv Sansotta have escaped. Together they have broken the shackles of the mundane. Jacob is grinning like a madman. The child playing soldier in the backwoods, running through the overgrown gardens amongst the blue bottle trees – he would never have imagined himself in gay Paree. It was a miracle. For a glistening moment, looking down the expanse of the greycapped river, hearing the cascade of voices and the rush of traffic, he felt free. All of history lay behind him and finally he had achieved that thing he had always longed for.

The city was beautiful and novel. And while Jacob Foster did not think himself an idiot, while he knew that this all was cliché, trite almost… while most importantly it had been done before… what mattered was that it had not been done by him. Maybe Jacob Foster could find himself here. In Paris.

Maybe it wasn’t too late.

 

The next morning the two wandered without plans, stopping when hunger or vague curiosity compelled them. They walked for hours along the riverbank. For the fog, they could not see the Eiffel Tower. Rajiv made a note of it every time they snapped a picture. They walked in silence through the Norte Dame.

-It’s a little better than the Basilica of the Assumption, I’ll give it that.

-A little. One assumes. Raja smirked. You know they still have services here?

-Well, yeah, it’s a church.

-Still odd. You’d think that places this old, they wouldn’t need to use. I mean I feel like they could keep it to look at but they’d have figured out something better to replace it.

-Like an iChurch or something?

-What?

-Nevermind.

Emerging into daylight, Jacob Foster stared out, blinking, into the unfamiliar world. He could not help but feel provincial, self conscious of his voice when he had to ask for directions that one time in the shopping district. Seven days and they will barely see a fraction of a fraction of it all. It will all slip away. It already is. Streetnames he grasped only for a minute are out of his head. Their names are unfamiliar on his tongue. Rue Mazarine. Qaui de la Tournelle. Boulevard St. Germain. Even Raja stumbles on them, flushed with embarrassment.

-Not so loud, Jacob teases. They’ll figure us out. They’ll know.

-Know what?

-Know we’re tourists. And then they’ll never stop trying to scam us. Have you noticed that they only come up to us when they hear us speaking English?

-Everyone here is a tourist, Jake. We’re waving around cameraphones and your shirt is a very American style of hipster. Neither of us speak a word of French. I think they just maybe can tell. But don’t worry. I know where we’re going. I have the map.

-Can I see the map?

-I’ve got this, man.

-Let me.

-We’ll I don’t see… Oh god you really don’t trust me? That’s hurtful. I’m hurt. Give it back.

 

They orient themselves along the Champs-Élysées for a lack of anything better to pick. It is straight and the triumphal arch is at the end, and the glass pyramid of the Louve at the other. It reminds Jacob of the National Aquarium, back home. Except they are the exhibit. Tomorrow they will wander wide eyed through the statues. Moorish swords and Ottoman rugs. Long dead faces of Egyptian kings.

 

They walked among endless rows of paintings. The Louve is a maze of culture. Rajiv is stunned into uncustomary silence.

-Well that was a museum.

-It was. Nice one though. They have the same thing stateside, don’t they though, don’t they? Museums, art. Jacob Foster could not help but feel a bit disappointed.

-What’s next on the itinerary? The Marquis de Sade exhibit?

-That’s not at this one. We’ll do that Thursday.

-I thought it was. Dammit.

 

Atop the Sacré-Cœur they paused for a cigarette, Jacob leaning against the balcony, Rajiv pacing idly. The city should have stretched out before them, but the grey expanse of clouds concealed any view. But if Jake turned around, he could see the Basilica. Another beautiful building. This place was clotted with them. After a while you became desensitized.

Raja handed him a cigarette and Jake leaned forward so his friend could light it. It was cooler here than he expected.

-Photo? Jacob pulled his smart phone out of his pocket. This would be a good one. One worth the remembering. Not like the one they took of the Eiffel, while jostling through crowds and gaping at the steel monstrosity.

-Sure. Raja stubbed out his cigarette and let it fall. I like it up here, Jake. Fewer gypsies trying to sell you things.

-I don’t know if they’re gypsies.

-You’re right. One shouldn’t make assumptions. Especially when it comes to gypsies. They’re the worst but if you start assuming you know how they’re going to scam you, that’s when they hit you with the long con. I saw this tv show about it. Trust me.

-Ah right. The classic long con.

-Yeah. Its like a normal con… but it takes long…er.

-Want to go in? Jake laughed.

-But of course.

The next day, after seeing what was, in Rajiv Sansotta’s expert opinion, the best the Marquis de Sade exhibit had to offer – an enormous fish tonguing a naked woman in ecstasy – they found dinner at a little cafe, one of the better ones they’d stopped in. They drank overpriced wine and ate equally overpriced food, and Jacob Foster could feel the euphoria of the past few days slipping away. From their seats outside, they watched the crowds and Jacob found himself inventing stories about each one.

That man, with the tight-fitting peacoat – maybe he was an Irishman, on business in Paris. Maybe he worked for Google. Dublin had the European corporate office for Google. Jake knew that because he had seen it when searching for jobs. Secretly, the man in the peacoat was having an affair. He was never content.

That woman, in the dress and scarf, let’s say she was French. She was very self-conscious about the poetry she wrote in her spare time, and would never share it with the world. Her lesbian lover was from Algeria, and together they ran a charity which secretly helped Russian spies get into the country. Plausible? Probably not.

That child would never remember his vacation to Paris. He was way too little. But he’d have the photos, and like Rajiv he would always get to wave them around and prove that his life had always been interesting.

It was the interesting one beside him who like always dragged him from his daydreams.

 

-This is it, Jake. Escape. Maybe now you can stop bugging me about rent? I told you I earn my keep.

-Really? Jacob Foster asks, whirling around. Rajiv’s face was half-hidden in shadow, and unreadable besides. Is now the time?

-You’re right you’re right. Sorry man. Hey, what do you want to do tomorrow. In the afternoon I figured we’d…

That man… hmm… he’s an accountant for a major firm. Secretly, he moonlights as a male stripper. He is very good at both of these jobs. Shockingly so. Is it that hard to believe? He has the right build for it, but a certain intellectual air to him.

-Hello? Are you even,  listening to me?

-Not really. I was inventing, er, backstories for the people. Jacob confessed, smoothing back his hair, fiddling with his shirtcollar.

-Oh. I understand. Planning these sorts of things is always so boring. But it’s worth it, isn’t it? Seeing the world. Maybe when I go back to school, I’ll look into studying some place in Europe. Maybe you could come too. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?

 

It becomes hard to remember it all. Sitting in the hotel, feeling more than a little buzzed. The metro is a whirlwind of light and dark, apparitions and lights. They sip beers out of Raja’s backpack. Whole worlds glide past in dingy shadow.

Like everything else, Jacob will forget. It won’t be real after he gets on that next plane. Just a feverish dream. A drug that only works for a little while and leaves you wanting more. But how long will there be any more? If Jacob is honest with himself, he can realize he is nothing more than a passing object of interest to Raja. And one day Sansotta, like he always does, will vanish back into whatever alternate life he decides is the most welcome relief from boredom. It’s happened before. Jacob has been burned before.

Raja will leave again, in all likelyhood. He can see the whole timeline stretching out before him. He can see the warning signs. The flakiness of the past few weeks, the sudden desire to go to Paris. Rajiv will betray him again as he always does. Sure, Jacob knows how he can postpone that inevitable fact – not bugging Raja about the rent would be a good start. Not complaining about how Raja took the bigger room in their apartment. Letting him smoke inside. But it won’t last, and when it doesn’t, Jacob Foster knows he won’t even be angry.

Sure, he will for a time. He’ll be bitter, and he’ll spend more time with his coworkers, or Andrea. He’ll meet new people, even though he has no idea how to do that in the dying city he calls his home. But he’ll forget. He’ll meet up with Raja again, after a few years, just like last time.

He won’t want to be bound by the past, after all. And Raja knows that about his friend just as Jake knows that about himself. Jacob Foster will always be addicted to the narcotic of escape that Raja can provide.

 

Jacob Foster sat in the hotel room, finished off another beer, tossed it into the trashcan by his bedside, and lit a cigarette, staring out the window. The view was blind, just like in his apartment. The Parisian skyline was obscured by the adjacent building, giving them a view of ivysprawling plaster and red-framed windows.

-Have a good last day?

-The club was fun. Really, um… intense. Fun. That fucking cab though – I always forget how much the exchange rate is a bitch.

-Don’t worry about it. I’ll cover it. I’ll get you back, um. Here. A shuffling of feet. Rajiv stuffed a crumpled fifty euro note into Jacob’s hand. Cigarette cocked in mouth, Jacob smoothed it off, folded it into his own wallet. Checked his phone on the hotel wifi. Ashed the cigarette into the beer can. He felt unaccountably tense and stiff, in spite of six beers, four jaegerbombs and a glass of red wine. No, no, seven beers. Still not at all drunk. Must be the caffeine. Feet sore from dancing.

He does not thank Rajiv for the bill. The next morning they bid goodbye to Paris, winding through the northern part of the city, a sprawl of industry. A woman plays guitar on the train, begs for money while the occupants stare forward pointedly.

At Charles de Gaulle they stumble blearily through lines. It is curious how actions repeated, locations revisited all pass in a blur. They might have spent a lifetime in Paris, the city prolonging their visit with novelties. Their second trip through the airport is a mirage and it is done before it is even realized.

Soon they are in the clouds.

This is not a closing argument

This is not a closing argument, (but I do want you to know why) 

In my own defense, I must cite precedent. “Tu ne peux pas arrêter le monde, Anselm;” my father always said. He was a stern man, the kind to smoke a pipe and scowl down its stained wood length. “Ne gaspilles pas ta vie.” He worked fields until the day he died and after university I never saw him, even when some tumor rotted out his tar-caked lungs. But I digress, your honor. Let me elaborate. My client, your tyrant, is not innocent. See him there upon the bench and how he sits with his face a mask of tasteless disregard. He would affect that truth does not concern him, nor the conscience of the world. But I know him more intimately than that: red was his favorite color, and he fed pomegranate seeds to his mistress, and she would pop them with a burst of flavored blood. Sanguine and sweet, I think he said, his face cut to a rare grin. I shuddered then, to think of it. There was no aesthetic to that grin. But then again, neither is there any in your honor’s spectacle, this ugly show of clumsy righteousness. Excuse me that insult, your honor, I am tired, I must confess. If I may approach the bench, you will see the bags beneath my eyes. My hands still shake with stress. I do not sleep. Thanks to the unceasing prosecution, I have seen the horrors that I defend with complicity, the red dirt heaped over mass graves. And I know, oh I know so well that the specter of death does not ever hide what hate lies in the eyes of partisans. I see it in life’s courtroom still. I knew what must be done but yet it was my task to weave empty tapestries of rhetoric and make the morality of this prosecution stop. Oh mon père I would make it stop. And it terrifies me but in an impossible heartbeat across so many of those long and trying days I would jettison the baggage of reality if I could, and see this sickening man instead as something governable, something within  the frame of our understanding. And perhaps forgiving him the show could continue, and a real trial could make sense. I do not forgive, of course. And regardless I must carry on the trial, against the world. The other day, in the marketplace some boy of the Resistance (Popular Front) raised his rifle, and bullets rained against bulletproof glass and carbon-fiber vests. As he died he screamed his hate for the world to hear, for cameras to capture. Even in the West they echo his sentiment – all who value justice want to see me suffer too. And yet the façade of some blind woman and her laden scales staggered onwards and I am consumed by a vision of his teeth scattered across the dusted street against the response of my bodyguards. A last causality of some dirty war I never saw on CNN until the day I got my client’s call and for nothing. And even if you, your honor, do not question the morality of my fucked defense then there is still nothing beneath it but a casual crocodile-smiling disregard for life. He didn’t match the price of children with the price of gems and palaces, of boxing-matches and racing-horses. And neither will you. So should that help? The world sits fat, satiated still, and so impossibly distant and yet still I feel blue eyes that bear displeasure on the opposite side of every western plasma screen. All this while, I cannot rest my father’s case.

“You cannot stop the world, Anselm; don’t waste your life.”

Hush

Hush

Hush little baby don’t say a word,
mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
and if that mockingbird don’t sing
well, I suppose I’m going to have some words with it
you see, mama is paying good money for that bird
and if it doesn’t want to sing, then it can most certainly be replaced
with diamond rings or any other frivolous thing.
and if the union of federated songbirds gives me trouble
for laying it off without due cause
then I’m going to have to contact my lawyers.
Hopefully we can settle this out of court.
But if my lawyers don’t provide a settlement to my liking
Well, I can slander the songbird; dredge up evidence of its extramarital affairs
And frankly, aren’t mockingbirds a bit old fashioned?
We have a new line of hawks coming out this Tuesday.
I’ll take you to the grand opening with me.
There will be lots of people to talk to! I promise.
You will like that, won’t you? Fine.
Will you go to sleep now?

Jacob Foster (cont.)

 Jacob Foster (Part 2) 

At work he spends his time alternating between checking airline prices and debugging code. The dimly lit office screens backlight his closed eyes. If his workweek had a soundtrack it was the sound of petty office gossip and the noxious novelty ringtone of Jared in accounting. Jared sometimes checks on him, invading the silent sanctity of his cubicle, and once or twice they’ve gone for drinks. They probably will do so again.

Next friday came and went without a hangover, the week a sleepwalking blur of forms and code. Raja was out of town, the world silent for his curious absence. He left an “experimental” curry in the fridge with a note for Jake, and for once his squatter roommate earned his keep. The prophet of aimlessness was already out for the evening.

It would transpire that the experimental curry was delicious. Raja had always enjoyed cooking Italian and Indian, and sometimes he put on the pretension he learned from family, but Jacob knew the truth – he didn’t learn how to cook any of his signature meals until college, and only then from the internet. This fraud had never particularly bothered him until today, coupled with his roommate’s absence. He’d assumed they were going out, and had never thought to check. Pacing the apartment, he tried to recover from the unexpected blow.

-Why does that fucking bother me? He asked lowly of the audient walls, noting a long slow drip of water from one corner. He’d have to call about that. Tomorrow maybe. Or the day after. Office hours. The crushing poverty of the young white urban professional was more spiritual, more intellectual than anything else, even if they could use some extra money for beer. Imagine the future. They are begging in droves for wifi bandwidth outside the shelter. However much they get they will still hunger.

Jacob ate dinner and then stepped outside, searching for stars but seeing only the uniform clouds, the color of his ashed cigarette. There is nothing to do but watch television or surf the internet until tiredness claims him. A beer maybe, to help make liquid of his endless worries. Tomorrow maybe will be another day. And then in a moment he sees the future and recoils from it, a hiker ascending one ridgeline only to see another, even higher ridge ahead. A life is laid out before him each day no different than the last. See it all pass by and wonder what happened.

And yet his roommate for once held open a door. Imagine Rajiv Sansotta providing a solution. Europe beckons, the dream of exploring the world, he and Raja exporting their particular brand of insanity to its far corners. This would be fun. It would be an act of justified violence against the monotony of routine.

 

He did not know quite what prompted him to see Andrea the next morning. The change of pace would be nice, maybe.

It was not a long walk, thirty minutes past the still sleeping harbor, the restaurants still empty, the trash-strewn water the same as it ever was. Jacob tracked with blinking and hungover eyes the skylines, comparing them to his childhood notions of urbanity. They always felt lacking somehow, the edifice of his city more beautiful at a distance than amongst the teeming crowds. He waited for the light to change and he crossed Lombard Street.

Somehow, as a child, sitting by the gurgling creek out back, throwing stones into the water, the city had seemed thrilling. How could one be alone in a place with so many people? Even the glass buildings had then held a haunting beauty and standing on top of them as he surely would, he could hold a sensation of pride and achievement unlike any other. But that was an absurd childish notion. Jacob Foster walks the streets of the city as an island, surrounded by frozen tidal waves of steel and glass. He does meet the eyes of the faces coming out of the morning drizzle.

He could drive, but he begrudges this city its parking fees. The silence though, perhaps it provides a little too much time for reflection. Strange though. The city isn’t silent and yet it can be so quiet in its waterfall noise silence.

Andrea’s house. On arrival, as ever, he prepared himself for another of the great bullshittings, as Raja always called them, back in college. He had an expression between a laugh and something else when he said it, that thing Jacob Foster would come to associate with his charisma.

Andrea Rodriguez created beautiful things, and sometimes she sold them, to dentist offices and grown up versions of Rajiv. But with these things came the ceremonial preludes, alternating between excuses and justifications. Such was life in the presence of someone like her.

 

-Want to see what I did? You probably already know how this is gonna go.

Jacob Foster stubbed out a cigarette with a wry smile. He found himself smoking around her more often these days. Careful, or you could make that a habit. Not that I don’t come here half for the crazy lectures.

-So, Jacob, here’s the thing. Art is becoming degraded by a culture that um… has you know, forgotten itself. The mass consumption and technological… um. Reproducibility of media has made everything into something good if you just put your fucking feelings, your experiences into it. But we know that’s not what makes the greatest works. Detachment. Retreat. Those are what we need more of. The big picture… you can only see it when you’ve, eh, removed yourself. People’s personal fears and aspirations they make shit art because they’re too tied to the times to become timeless. That’s why I made this latest thing. Come and see. I like it. Maybe a bit too much.

 

It was a swirl of a swirl, an indescribable gouache. A heron looked out onto a sunless sea illuminated perhaps by the water, and perhaps by nothing entirely. You could lose yourself in the patterns, they way they drew together. The bird seemed to be melting or perhaps dissolving in stagnant lakewater. An allegory lurked in the shiftless edges.

 

-I’m worried, uh, Jake. She confessed, laying a hand on his. He looked at the gloss polished patterns in her nails briefly. I’m worried that this is the peak. She pointed at the heron. What if this is the best thing I ever make?

He paused, sliding his hand off the table, scratching his chin. The boy who has never fled far enough wants, unaccountably, to stand and flee again. He is thinking of Paris, and Rajiv’s widesmiling face when he will buy the tickets.

-You’ll make something better. We can’t peak so young, right? There’s got to be more.

-Why not? Art doesn’t work at your- convenience. Neither does life. The artist eh, dies young and everyone gets real fucking sad cause we all know their best work would have been ahead of them. Or they don’t and we all wish they did cause they only made shit afterwards.

-You’re afraid of being the last one?

-Yeah, but also of dying.

-Who isn’t? Jacob snorts.

They sipped cigarette smoke on the balcony of her apartment, passing it back and forth. They could stare out across the muddled brown brick of rowhouses together and the cloud-draped sky and the sewergrey harbor. In the distance the factories and dockyards of Canton loom through the haze.

-Don’t worry.

-Huh?

-Its not just you Jake. The view is… objectively terrible. Used to be worse though. You um… acclimate to it over time. Maybe? Depends on the personality, I guess.

Jacob nodded, took back the cigarette. As he inhaled, he thought of college, of bumming cigarettes off Raja outside parties, of dreaming about the future. In some ways, he had to consider how little had changed since all then. From college they had slid seamlessly into their lives now. Almost accidentally.

-Have you eaten yet?

-Nah, you?

Head shaking, Jacob grins, in imitation of Rajiv. Let’s get out of here.

 

Rajiv Sansotta was waiting for them at Jacob’s apartment. He emerged from his bedroom, negotiating the complex ritual of smoking while shrugging on a new button down over his tanned skin. He smoothed back his hair with a gesture approximating unease. Cigarette cocked in his mouth he finished his routine hastily.

-Oh, Andrea! He said, his smile implausibly white. What a surprise.

-Hey how’ve you been? Keeping out of trouble?

-I suppose.

-Where were you? Jake asked, frowning.

-Out. Paul and his cousin came by. You know Paul’s cousin? A knowing glance.

-Oh yeah. She was fine. That was what everyone said, anyways. He was struggling to remember the exact details. A few hazy nights a few hazy years ago. These people all tended to blend together. Leave it to Raja to keep track, or at least pretend to.

Andrea and Raja caught up briefly while Jake searched the fridge for beers yet undrunk. Andrea  motioned to a cigarette. May I? Common courtesy was refreshing, Jacob thought.

-The damage has already been done, I suppose.

-Don’t worry though Jake, I’ll run down to the ATM and then the beer store. For tonight. Fells after?

-Fells sounds good, Raja. Andrea?

Andrea shrugged. Convenient for me, its where I live. Don’t envy youse guys paying the fare.

-Its not so bad.

 

Andrea returns from the bar with two coronas with lime slid through the mouth. Jake finishes his with practiced ease while she sips and they dance at first nervously and then with growing familiarity. Raja has rendezvoused with an acquaintance of his and they are chatting above the thunderous din of the club’s music. There is a pit of some kind in Jacob Foster’s stomach as he watches his friend.

He turns back to Andrea.

-We really should have met back up sooner. She has to nearly shout, even with her mouth close against his ear.

He nodded, half in time to the music. Yeah we should have. A man with all the coordinated grace and subtle elegance of a sweat-stained elephant shouldered past him and Jacob swore the man has left some sort of grease stain on his shirt just through passing contact. He twists away in revulsion. Tries to make it look like a coordinated move. Fails. Tries anyways. Everywhere there is something to remind him of this world he hates.

They are dancing still. Jacob fetches the next round, cans this time. Cold in his hand, in spite of the cloying humidity of the dancefloor. Too pricey. We should get more plastered at our houses next time, Raja.

-What?

-Nevermind.

-Huh?

-Neverfuckingmind.

Raja brightsmiling laughs, slaps him on the back, whirls back into whatever shadow and noise and color he has come from. He is gone amongst the crowd and in his place there is energetic movement and frenetic pace and all is spinning dancing blurring together the lines of light fragment and reform and he cannot keep the pace he cannot dance but his limbs his hips they sway with the music and the intoxication the wet looseness of his muscles ah this is the life. Jacob Foster has always loathed himself. Carless. Motion distracts him.

Turn back to Andrea now – she is incredibly close to him, and her lips brush against his – unexpected. He half pulls away. The club is a blur, and he feels a sudden compulsion to run.

-Cigarette?

-Yeah, it’s about that time. I think.

They stumble out into the goldorange lit street, past the bouncer and looking out into the harbor they light their cigarettes and smoke. Escape from the noise and crowd was a blessed reprieve. Everything settles. She wraps her arm around him as they stumble the step. Cobblestone strikes feet. He rises, brushes his pantleg cursing. She smiles. Watch yourself Jake. There is some intent lurking behind her eyes and there is something he wants to say to her.

There was no chance to think in there. None at all. Everything was just a drunken blur and a money sink. Fucking hell. What was Andrea saying? He tried to focus on her, and realized she wrapped her arms around him. His ears were ringing.

-Want to… um… get out of here? He thought she asked. Unexpected. Confusion. Say what should he say? He said nothing but at that moment Raja stumbled into the street. His eyes were alight with glassysmashed recognition upon seeing Jake.

-Foster my man. Paris. Let’s fuckin’ go. Right now. Right here. Andiamo motherfucker.

 

In that moment he could see his life stretching out before him, leading away from the child in the backwoods and onwards and onwards more of the same. He couldn’t forsee any escape. The only reason that was not a source of utter terror because he still had time. A drowning man he might have been but he could tread water for a long time. But time and strength had this way of slipping away, dying and being forgotten like another weekend with Rajiv. One day he could wake up a decade later still in the same little apartment with the same friends in the same city. Paris is his only hope left.

 

-What? Andrea said, and Jacob Foster stumbled away from her, helping his friend to stand.

Shit.  Um I gotta help him. Ya know. Lets get you home, Raja.

-Well, stay in touch Jake. She smiled again, kissed his cheek, turned to leave. He watched her for moments and then the tide of the crowd pressed in and he turned to leave, lifting Rajiv Sansotta and pressing his cell phone to his ear.

 

Jacob Foster won’t stay in touch.  The next day he and Raja will sit down. They will plan their flights and their itinerary, find a shortlist of hotels. Andrea will text him. He will forget to reply. That Monday, he will ask his boss for time off.

 

Escape will become a certainty.

Jacob Foster

Jacob Foster (Part 1) 

Jacob Foster awoke with a headache, the light of the midday sun streaming through his dilapidated apartment window. He stared, uncomprehending for a brief moment. His view was blind to the urban world beyond, nothing but the motionless interior courtyard of the complex confronting him. He wasn’t lucky enough to get the street-view bedroom. All he saw across from him was identical apartments, facades of concrete and pale shuttered glass in the style of the late eighties, early nineties. Piled on top of it carelessly was a more modern style, opaque blue plate that reflected the sky.
-Awake yet? Rajiv Sansotta called from the adjacent kitchen and living room. As a kid did you sleep this late, or only when you became a drunk? Sharp voice, an affront to the ears. Deliberate accent.
Jacob Foster burped and the world spun. He thought stomach acid rose within his gut. Fuck his housemate. Fuck the eternal livers of the Sansotta clan, wherever they were from originally. A mutt in every sense of the word, but a hardy one. Well kept.
-I’m awake. Stumbling naked to the kitchen, he leaned across the corian bar. Coffee? House blend or did you make hazelnut again? We have soy?
-Just milk.
Sansotta, long awake, was already dressed, white buttoned down and kakhi trousers. An old-fashioned look, ironically professorial. He handed a steaming dark mug across the bar with an affected flourish. Jacob brought it to his lips and recoiled from the heat.
-The least I can do. Sansotta declared. He grinned and rocked back on his stool, loafers sliding across paintpeeling polish.

Jacob set down the still scalding coffee, retired into the bathroom and ran the water until it was lukewarm. He splashed his face, regarded the dripping image in the stained mirror. Thin and naked he stood, paleskinned with darkringed eyes like kohl stains. Sometimes, he thinks there is something ancient in his face. Without knowing why, he scowled into his reflection. He smoothed down his brown hair, contemplated the merits of a shave.

Not today. Tomorrow maybe. Programmers, Rajiv once mockingly said, didn’t need to look tidy. Computer screens are easily impressed. If you tell them to be.

He wrapped himself in a towel and re-emerged. He picked up the coffee cup and looked into its abyssal depths. He couldn’t be sure it was the right time, but the question came anyways.
-How long are you here for?
-Until I decide what to do. What do you think that should be, Foster? Med school again? It seems too much to be honest, but father…
He rarely spoke of papa. It was a presence dangling, an abstraction, a god rarely prayed to for the presence of other favorable saints. Jacob Foster did not speak of his father either, for that matter. Jacob did not speak of home, and he never prayed. God was man’s greatest invention since fire. The world was not full of intention but aimlessness. Rajiv Sansotta was its prophet.
-I meant what are you doing today? But that works too I suppose. I say go back to school.

-Hardly can call this a ‘leave of absence’ anymore. And maybe they’ll give out one of those grants… eh… a stipend.

-You can pay me rent then. Heartlessly Foster laughed.
-Rent? I think I earn my keep. Sansotta jabbed a manicured thumb at the bottles piled in the sink. He was, if nothing else, capable of consumption. Consumption. Unbidden, Jacob imagined his old friend choking on blood and bile and found the picture strangely comforting. To see a sign of humanity in him. I provide a good time, don’t I, Jake?
-The best of times. ‘Jake’ replied insincerely. The worst of mornings. Pour a beer over my grave, will you?
-Already plan to. But yeah, speaking of which. I was thinking of going on a trip. Europe again, maybe. My aunt is spoiling me again, and it would be a cruel thing, ya know, a dick move even, if I didn’t steal you from this place from time to time.
-You have aunts?
-One. In Belize. An expatriate with a wealthy dead husband or two. My mother calls her a spider. Not in English, obviously. You’ve met my mother, haven’t you?
-She’s nice.

Midday. Jacob washed himself quickly, while Rajiv paced about the apartment, idle but with a repressed energy. For a time he sat at his laptop, and then he flicked on the television and then flicked if off again. The two men found themselves sprawled on the couch.

The sun silvered a random, lone cloud, and the world was cast into momentary shadow. Jacob blinked for the sudden intensity of the dark. His coffee was empty. Outside the world is already in motion. Cars and police sirens. This is their city, brick and glass and rust-belt sprawl. There are pedestrians now, walking down shaded boulevards and driving past elaborate murals, the greek delis and strip clubs. Johns Hopkins and UMD. Removed from all that they have the luxury of forgetting, the boarded vacants and crumbling neighborhoods. All that is tarnished becomes hipster again.

Silence passed between him and Rajiv, and he wondered if the man would ever answer his original question. Probably not. Rajiv’s thoughtlessness with money always made him feel sick somehow, but he couldn’t make his friend ever see that credit cards weren’t bottomless, that they connected to a bank account somewhere, in Giuseppe Sansotta’s name. He recalled how they met incidentally, at a private university that one of them had worked to get into. It had never used to bother him. Why would it, in a time before the reality of loans sunk in? There would always be a gap, and it would never be wholly broken.

Sansotta had nothing to run away from.
Escape. That was the way Jacob Foster thought of home, of family, of the whole dilapidated world left behind. The beating heart of this city by the bay would be his new world. There was something beautiful and bizarre in it, something he loved and loathed. Rajiv had lit a cigarette, coughing lightly.
-I’m never going to get my deposit back at this rate.
-Sorry. But fire… one of mankind’s…
-I know.
-Right. Your line, not mine. He stubbed it out, looking quite like a caged animal. I’ll go outside.
-You do that.
-Rachel wants to get lunch. You haven’t seen her in a while have you? He waved his phone, as if that made something clearer. Remember? From college days? Obviously he remembered. Obviously they both did. The ritual was more important than the words. The deceit of it all.
-Eric will be there.
-I’m still going to go.
-You should do that. I’ll pass. My stomach. Jacob made a face. Sansotta laughed.
-Right right. Can I borrow the key?
He had already snatched it out of the ceramic, jingling it. Hand grasping the door, twisting.
-I’ll need it. Jacob said quickly. Rajiv tossed it, arcing uselessly across the high ceiling of the living room, landing amongst the couch’s disarray of clothing. Apologizing, Sansotta danced out of the room and into the afternoon.
Jacob wandered back to bed, feeling the first morning coffee shit preparing to escape. His head still pounded. So this was escape, eh? Living with fucking Rajiv Sansotta. Rotting away. Nine to five. No milestones left. Nothing to achieve. See the lost child of the backcountry. Already in him brews a shallow discontent with his circumstances, with church potlucks, and with fox news. He sits in the crotch of a spreading oak tree, looks out across the hills and cliffs and blasted mountainsides and wonders what the future holds. He prays because he does not yet know doubt.
Escape is a certainty for the boy.
He will become an astronaut. He will be the first in his family to go to college. Perhaps in New York. He imagines buildings like cliffs, streets like gutted canyonscapes. He doesn’t go to college in New York. He has no family anymore, when his grandmother passes. He spreads her ashes across the beaches of Carolina, where she wanted. The bus ticket costs his savings. This all happens in a single moment, all history compressed by the frailty of his memories. Home is a dim memory of an old paintpeeled house and a yard littered with gnomes and blue bottles. Fucking gnomes.
Sansotta is born on a boat somewhere, silver spoon already dangling between pudgy fingers. He is thin now, out of choice and tedious exercise. Life for him has always been an unwilling decision. Jacob Foster felt antipathy rising as a tide in his gut. No, that was vomit. He heaved coffee across the white carpeting and cried, though he could not tell himself why. Maybe it was just an automatic reaction. Either way it makes him uncomfortable, as he pressed carpet-cleaner into the vast ruin he has created.
Sansotta did not return until late. Jacob Foster spent his day watching television, making jokes about the names of newscasters to the audient walls of his apartment. When his stomach settled, he ordered Chinese and ate greedily. General Tso was a gracious man, for he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten chicken recipe to the west. He should be honored more highly. They should build temples to him. His is the true religion.

Knocking at the door. It had never been locked, and the squatter housemate let himself carelessly in.
-Still where you were. Want a beer?
Sansotta came with a phalanx of friends, deploying strategically across the bare apartment. Rachel. Eric. Others whose names he does not recall. The Companions of the King took their places. They were sworn to drink him out of his father’s allowance, and would they ever complete their job with alacrity.
-Watching CNN? Did they ever find out what happened to that actress? My bet is that her boyfriend gave her those pills.
-Which actress, Raja? A girl’s voice, heavy with fake curiosity. Rachel twirled blackcurling hair.
-I don’t… huh. Sansotta scowled, his saturnine face a theater mask. She was on the news yesterday. You remember her, Jake?
-We didn’t watch the news yesterday.
-But you know who I’m talking about.
-No.
-Did her name start with an A?
-I don’t know.
Eric slumped down on the chair, beer outstretched.
-Want one?
-Nah. Stomach still squirrelly. Jacob Foster said. What the hell had Sansotta been talking about? He never watched the news. Who did these days? Was it a joke of some sort? He and Rachel always cultivated little secrets like that.
-I’m not surprised. Eric commiserated. He was so normal by comparison. His backstory not tragic, his life suburban and calm. He drove an old car he had bought himself. Rachel and he had dated since highschool. Sansotta despised him, but only in a quiet, long-simmering way. Jealousy, though he’d never admit it.
-I’ve decided by the way, if you’re coming.
-What are you saying, Raja? Rachel laughed. Jacob made a note to ask her how work was going. She worked at a vanity press in D.C. She commuted into the city from an apartment in Laurel. Eric kept trying to get her to move somewhere safer, but neither had the money. Their dreams deferred, Jacob always wondered what kept them sane.

Eric grinned, opened his mouth to speak but Raja stepped into the moment, oblivious, and put Jacob on the spot.
-Jake. You and me. You simply have to see Paris before you die.
-This is about you spider aunt and her frequent flier miles?
The prophet of poor decisionmaking shrugs. No Jake. About Paris. I know you can take off work. You don’t use your time off anyways. Come with me.
-Before he dies? Rachel furrows her brow. Are you planning something? A little late to the mark, Rache. Your Raja has probably forgot he ever spoke that line. He forgets the past as readily as Jacob does. Neither wish to be bound to it.

They talked long into the night, turning on the orioles game, ignoring the fact that they are nearly adjacent to it. Jacob finally relented and drank a beer. Then six more. Eric, who he’d never known to be a heavy drinker, kept up. Raja and Rachel were sprawled out on the couch, engaged in some esoteric debate about nonsense. And then slowly the tables turned. Raja retreated to bed.
He passed slowly into sleep, wondering drunkenly why Rajiv snuggled next to him on his small bed. It was a two bedroom apartment… was the traffic too loud? Then he heard Eric and Rachel moaning softly from the next room, and rolled against Rajiv inadvertently.
His former friend opens his eyes.
-Paris? Now?
-Fine.
-Good. It’s beautiful. The buildings are all these marble colors… like sand. It seems like it must have been arranged.
-Do you ever sleep?
-No. I just wait for the fucking dawn. He laughs a little too loud. The motion in the next room stops.
-Fucking dawn? We’ll probably hear that too.
A sharp exhalation of breath.

The next morning, past Light Street the stadiums were silent. Brick tenements heaved and sagged in the summer sun. The pavement was a boiling mirage. Children lined up outside the aquarium. Bartenders in Fells Point began the morning cleaning. The world spins on thoughtlessly. A cavalcade of commuters rode past, and the city began to drone and roar. Two bodies moved against each other in the passionate ecstasy of belonging.

Jacob Foster will leave again. Just a little further this time.