I feel the burnout lurking...
James didn’t take a long time to come. He actually arrived sooner than he had estimated, but a combination of the liquor, the anticipation, and Alfred’s general horniness made the time feel like it was moving both ten times slower and two thirds as fast at the same time.
His arrival was announced by a text to Alfred’s phone of which Ellen was still in possession. Waiting, the two had slumped themselves on the living room couch. Ellen had almost fallen asleep despite the early age of the night – one of the underdiscussed casualties of day drinking and starting early.
“He’s here,” Ellen said, clicking off the phone. “Go get him.”
Alfred stumbled his way to the door and opened it. There was nobody there. He looked to the left and looked to the right as if he were crossing the street, not so necessary here as there were no cars to look for, and there was also no right to look for; their apartment door was on a corner of the floor.
“I don’t see him!” Alfred shouted back.
Ellen got up reluctantly and waddled over to meet Alfred. She also looked around and found the same lack of James. Her glasses had also fallen off when she was on the couch, and she could barely see anything, but she wasn’t really aware of that. She wasn’t wrong that James wasn’t there, but had he been there, she probably would have drawn the same conclusion.
“I guess he’s a liar,” Ellen said. “Or maybe the weird internet thing made the message wrong?”
Alfred squinted his eyes at Ellen.
“Spotty internet changed his text?” he asked in a slurred patronizing tone.
“Oh yeah...” Ellen replied.
She pressed her face against the metal door frame. It was cool against her cheek as she hugged the wall, trying to think but unable to do so very well in that moment.
“What are we going to do without cards,” Ellen asked.
“Ellen, the internet is back up, remember?” Alfred said.
Ellen jumped up.
“Oh shit, it is,” she said.
She pulled Alfred’s phone back out. She commanded Alfred’s thumb yet again and looked at the text, squinting.
“The internet is back on, and James is here!”
Alfred stared at Ellen unblinking, waiting for her to remember that they had already gone through that. Instead, Ellen grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the elevator.
“Wait what?” Alfred started.
The elevator came fairly quickly, that or both Ellen and Alfred blacked out any time that they had spent waiting. The two clambered into the lift and waited. They waited for about twenty seconds before Ellen came to and noticed the row of buttons to the right of the door.
“Oh shit,” Ellen said. “What floor do you think he’s on?”
Alfred racked his brain for an answer and, like an infant in a college-level mathematics course, peed a little out of anxiety.
“I guess we could ask him,” Alfred said. “Send him another text.”
Ellen gestured for Alfred to give her his thumb, but this time he just took the phone from her hand. Had she had had one drink fewer, she might have had issue with Alfred’s action, but she was comfortable. She leaned back into the corner of the elevator and closed her eyes.
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” she whispered under her breath.
“What?” Alfred asked.
“Sorry, what?” she replied. “What did he say?”
Alfred opened his phone and, to his dismay, found his phone yet again out of service. It was the kind of dismay one experiences during a really long and really bad day where many countable things have gone wrong, and another thing happens, but you’ve had so many at this point that you’re just like ‘okay, I guess this is happening to me now, and again’ and you try to play it off as something that’s totally casual that you can deal with, but part of you just gets a little extra broken. Also, you’re drunk and in an elevator.
“Oh shit, we’re in an elevator,” Alfred said.
“No shit, Shylock,” Ellen quipped. “Go fetch me a pound of flesh.”
“I don’t get service in elevators,” he continued.
Ellen pressed her forehead onto the wall of the elevator. She placed the weight of her body onto it and swayed back and forth, trying to balance, but enjoying the wobble.
“And I didn’t get good service that one time we went to that one Olive Garden, but you don’t see me complaining about it,” Ellen said, closing her eyes and beginning to hum. “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void.”
They needed to get out of the elevator to use the phone, and Alfred wasn’t sure if the door would open if they pressed the floor that they were on, so he reasoned that it was most appropriate to go down to the first floor. Obviously, it would be faster to go to a floor immediately above or below the floor that they were on, but Alfred didn’t feel comfortable bothering other tenants that they didn’t know.
The elevator dinged loudly as they arrived on the first floor, jarring Ellen awake again. The doors opened and they clambered back out. Sure enough, a few seconds out of metal-lined elevator shaft shaped service hole, and Alfred had service again. He made to text back James, when a knock sounded from further down the foyer.
“I think someone’s trying to get in,” Ellen whispered to Alfred. “I would tell you who it is, but I’m now realizing that I don’t have my glasses on.”
“Also, it could be a stranger, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you who a stranger was even if I could see them.”
The two walked closer and it became stupidly apparent to both of them that it was James. Apparent visibly for Alfred who had eyesight, and apparent cognitively for Ellen who had started to sober up a little bit from the standing and walking. Not like sober, sober, but sober enough to remember that they had invited over a guest.
James stood between the two sets of doors that one finds in most apartment buildings where you find all the buzzers and occasionally a stack of free newspapers. There were no newspapers in this waiting area, not because they were all taken or anything, the apartment just did not subscribe to any. There was a cork board though, so that was pretty cool for tenants with tacks.
As the image of James became clearer, Alfred noted that he was not wearing a green apron. He wasn’t expecting him to wear a green apron, but that was sort of one of his key identifying feature’s in the cache of Alfred’s mind, so it was a little odd to see him in new clothes. Instead of wearing a green apron, James was wearing black pair of pants that perhaps may have been the pants he had been wearing at Starbucks – Alfred wasn’t positive – and a tight-fitting pastel blue sweater that somehow didn’t make him look like he was attending an Easter Sunday church service nor something nautical. It was pastel enough to be considered pastel and not just muted, but saturated enough that it didn’t look chalky. Alfred liked it.
James was also wearing a backpack, which initially gave off school-shooter vibes to Ellen, but she decided there was a one in five chance he had brought Monopoly with him, and she was willing to take the risk, ‘take the risk’ here meaning ‘to plunge herself into a situation involving danger and whatnot’ and not ‘to purloin a copy of the board game Risk.’ Ellen liked board games. It was up there with soup in her books.
Alfred opened the door to the apartment and James walked in. He smiled dumbly and waved.
“I’ve pre gamed a little if that’s okay,” he said, giving his backpack a shake.
The clinking of glass on glass sounded from inside.
“You might need to catch up a little more,” Alfred replied, swaying on the spot.
James laughed. Ellen gave James a suspicious side-eye, momentarily believing that he had been pre gaming with Monopoly without her.
The three made their way back into the elevator, Alfred, then Ellen, then James. They stood quietly while the elevator carried them upwards.
“I was a little worried that you hadn’t gotten my text,” James said. “You know, with all the outages that have been going on.”
Ellen let out a chest full of air.
“Tell me about it,” she said. “I thought I was going to actually die.”
The elevator opened and the two led James to their apartment. They found the door to the apartment wide open. James stopped while Alfred and Ellen continued forward.
“Oh shit, did you guys get robbed or something?” he said.
No, we’re just terrible tenants, Alfred thought. No, we just don’t understand the basics of personal safety, Ellen thought. The two looked at one another.
“Persnickety latch on the door,” Ellen said, immediately regretting her use of the word ‘persnickety’. “We’ve got a window open right now, probably blew it open. The rest of the tenants are chill though.”
The three walked in to a very cold apartment. The heat from the cooking was long gone, and the cold from the outdoors had taken over in full force. The temperature was undesirable, but at the very least the smell of smoke had gone completely, so did the smell of ‘not super unclean but a little stale’ that had been lingering prior to the burning smell. Their apartment lined a busy street, so it wasn’t like the smell of fresh trees had taken up shop in their unit, but it was a clean pallet at the least.
“You can put your bag anywhere,” Ellen said, motioning around the apartment with a ‘definitely used to do musical theater in high school and it comes out sometimes when I’m drunk’ arm gesture sans jazz hand.
She closed the window to the balcony and sat down on the couch with Alfred. They watched James set his bag on the kitchen counter. Ellen was waiting to see what board game he had brought. Alfred watched too, but less the action and more just James’s form as he moved, which sounds like a horny person activity, but was actually a drunk person activity. Alfred wasn’t really picking up on James’s identity or personhood as he stared, mostly just the colors and movement.
James unzipped his bag and pulled out a tall square bottle. A clear liquid sloshed around halfway down.
“What’d’ya bring?” Ellen called out.
She picked up her glasses off of the floor, now covered in dust, and put them on to see. James replied before her eyes focused.
“New Amsterdam vodka,” he said. “Red Berry. I know some people will knock the flavored stuff ‘cause it just tastes like sugar, but like, isn’t that the point.”
Ellen slowly placed a hand on her chest, eyes wide, especially so with her glasses on now. She grabbed Alfred’s arm with her other hand.
“Never let him go,” Ellen said. “You hold on and you never let him go.”
James unscrewed the bottle, sniffed the vodka, and took a quick sip, or at least the quickest of sips you can take when the bottle is half full. Like, if a bottle is completely full, the angle at which you have to tip the bottle is very small, so there’s not a lot of momentum behind the flow of vodka, but if there’s only about half a bottle left, you’ve gotta do your work in tipping the bottle, so it’s coming at you like the rushing waters in that one scene from Ratatouille where poor Remy is lost in the sewers, and you could obviously just stop it with your tongue, or control the flow with your lips, but then there’s the chance of backwash, and that’s just rude if someone else is going to be drinking the vodka later, and James was a considerate person. So yeah, he had a mid-volume sip, and it tasted good. Red Berry New Amsterdam tastes good alone, and pairs well with sprite.
“Do you have any cups?” James asked, looking at the cabinets.
Alfred could have easily given James verbal instruction, but he got up to show him instead. It allowed him on one front to feel powerful, holding the knowledge that others don’t have, like when you take someone to a restaurant they’ve never been to before, and on another front he got to be physically closer to James, serving the purpose of both spatial connectedness, and cutting down on the sort of awkward vibe he and Ellen had accidentally established by separating themselves physically on the opposite side of the apartment while their guest just stood in the kitchen by himself.
“They’re over here,” Alfred said, opening a cabinet.
There were some wine glasses and beer glasses and plastic cups and shot glasses, not many repeated kinds of glasses, but there was a certain ‘this was collected throughout the years by multiple people’ aesthetic to it. James picked out a pint glass and mixed himself a drink with the vodka and a bottle of Sprite he produced from his backpack. Alfred picked up his own drink from the counter, and the two went to join Ellen.
“So what brings you to FICTIONAL CITy NAME?” Ellen asked, beginning the interview portion of the competition. “School? Family? Criminal conviction?”
Ellen winked at Alfred, who was sitting next to James, so she essentially also winked at James.
“Moved here for undergrad, and staying for my Masters,” James said.
“Ooh, an educated queen,” Ellen said in light mockery, but not aggressive mockery; sitting on a Bachelors herself, she respected higher education but carried some resentment towards the people who were motivated enough and had the means to pursue it further. “What kind of Masters?”
“Earth Sciences,” James replied.
He turned back and forth between Alfred and Ellen as he spoke. Alfred wasn’t saying anything, mostly because Ellen was controlling the conversation. He was still invested in the conversation, so there wasn’t any kind of animosity in the air, the vibe was chill. Alfred listened on, smiled, and sipped, trying to walk the line of appreciating James’s face and not looking like he was staring too much.
“I took an ecology course as a gen ed credit in college,” Ellen said. “That’s as much as I’m going to be able to relate to that.”
“I was in that same ecology course,” Alfred chimed in. “We both got Cs.”
“I actually got a D,” Ellen said.
Alfred did a spit take into his own throat, which is to say he choked a little bit on his drink.
“I lied to you because I do that sometimes,” she said.
“Fair enough,” Alfred said.
James nodded on, genuinely enjoying the exchange.
“So what do you like, do in your program?” Ellen asked. “I once had a poetry class where our poetry professor told us we had to befriend a tree, name the tree, carry a picture of the tree around with us in our wallet, and then write several poems about our tree friend after a week. Is it anything like that?”
“I can’t say I’ve befriended any trees,” James said after a long draw from his glass. “Most of my classes are about coastal geology and volcanology.”
“Oh my god, you’re getting a degree in volcanoes?” Alfred asked in awe.
“My high school counselor never told me you could get a degree in volcanoes,” Ellen said.
“It has more to do with like, reefs an-”
“Have you seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?” Ellen asked.
“Yes,” James said.
“I feel like you would like it,” Ellen said. “There’s a volcano in it.”
The lights in the apartment flickered and went out for less than a count of five. They turned back on soon enough that none of the clocks – on the microwave or the DVD player they never used – actually reset.
“We’ve angered Kali Ma,” Ellen said. “I shouldn’t have mentioned the Temple of Doom…”
James stared up ahead at the lights for a moment. Long enough that when looked away there was a little floaty in his vision.
“Do you think that’s related to the service outages at all?” James asked.
“I don’t think so,” Ellen said. “All the tweets are saying it’s Russian satellite interference or something. I don’t think our lights are linked to the satellites in any way.”
Ellen and Alfred took their own turns looking up at the lights, making the same mistake as James and burning spots into their vision.
“I’m not buying that,” James said.
“Why not?” Ellen asked.
“I’ve seen enough hoaxes out there to not really believe something unless I see it myself,” James replied. “Like, how many times have we heard Russia be blamed for random conspiracies. Sure, it’s not out of the question, but I’m not going to believe the Russia route unless I actually see something. With these two guys here.”
James pointed to his own eyes while Ellen gave him side eye of from her own. She grabbed Alfred by the arm and pulled him over to the kitchen ungracefully. Alfred complied in physical movement but not in spirit of the mind.
“I’m getting Flat Earther vibes from him,” Ellen said. “I’m not letting you sleep with a Flat Earther.”
“The earth is round, and that’s absurd,” James shouted from the couch.
“Excuse me, this is a private conversation between roommates,” Ellen shouted back before continuing to speak to Alfred at the same volume as before. “Or like an anti-vaxxer or something. What if he has pertussis? I’m not letting you bring pertussis into this apartment.”
Alfred laughed. Not at pertussis or the anti-vax movement or the pain of those suffering from disease, but at the fact that Ellen was the one to invite James over, and that Ellen had finally dipped into her well-documented paranoid stage of drunkenness. It wasn’t common – certain variables had to be at play including rate of consumption and time period of consumption – but every time it happened it was like the first time she tried smoking a joint. Everything was out to get her, and the only safe place was her room. Alfred made eye contact with James and smiled, trying to communicate this message with his face.
“Vaccines are an essential part of public health; the anti-vax community is a toxic and dangerous threat to all communities, and my manager would not have let me work today if I had pertussis,” James said, smiling back. “I would not be getting a science degree if I thought like that.”
“You tryna run for president or something?” Ellen snapped.
James didn’t respond. Ellen shot her eyes back and forth between James’s face and the bottle of Red Berry New Amsterdam. She caught a view of Alfred in her periphery.
“I’m going to pee,” she announced. “I might also shower afterward. Does anyone need to pee before I shower?”
Alfred and James declined, so Ellen walked away, winking at Alfred as she did. The door to the bathroom clicked shut, leaving James and Alfred alone.
“So…” James started. “I can leave if you think that’s the best.”
“No no no no no, please stay,” Alfred said, immediately regretting his words because now he felt needy and he didn’t want to seem needy. “Ellen’s just being drunk Ellen. It’s her way of showing she cares, or something. I’m not sure. I’ve known her for years, but I haven’t really figured her out yet. I don’t think that’s something you can do with her. But that’s why I like her.”
James made a smile followed by a brief look of concern. Alfred waved his hand hurriedly.
“Oh no no, not that way,” he said. “She is very much so lesbian, and I am very much so gay.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “So is this how she’s like with every guy you bring over? Or I guess, guy she brings over for you?”
“Not always,” Alfred said. “But I won’t pretend that I haven’t noticed trends of behavior.”