He’s lighting up again. My stomach turns as the earthy scent envelopes me. Empty beer cans litter his desk, covering sheets of college-ruled, three-hole punched paper filled with his dark, heavy handwriting. His words are all apathy and detachment. I know better. Those sloppy lines tell elaborate stories more tightly woven than anything I could ever pen. Some words have angry slashes through them and phrases are re-written in the margins; his hands are splotchy with black ink stains.
Earlier he gave me Chinese sweets. I tried to refuse after he said the wrapper was rice paper and I should eat that too, but he insisted. Uncertain, I’d placed the sugar cube-sized blocks in my mouth. I ate three pieces of the candy, each a little bit minty yet slightly too bitter, the flaky paper sticking to the backs of my molars.
I’m Indian-style on the floor, my spine sore from leaning against the leg of his lofted bed. It’s cold, and my hands and nails are turning a faint purple as he watches me without seeing me at all. He lounges in a folding chair, smoke curling toward the ceiling above his head. My face scrunches into a frown, lips puckered. ‘You shouldn’t do that, you know.’ My voice cracks as it breaks the silence.
‘No, you shouldn’t do this,’ he responds, smiling lackadaisically. ‘Don’t ever let me catch you fucked up.’ He’s the big brother, always protecting baby sister, but I’m only half a year younger.
A long and weighty silence follows, but there is comfort in its familiarity.
He thinks I’m something special because I keep coming to see him. Every time his mother lets me in the house and I descend to knock on his bedroom door, my lips are pasted into a smile. He always looks surprised to see me, but swings the heavy wood inward without pause and steps back to let me in the room. He’ll smirk, raise one eyebrow, and ask, ‘How’s it go, Shirley?’
His girlfriend lives in Arizona. He keeps saying he’ll leave the Midwest and go to her. Each time I come I ask when he’ll go. There shouldn’t be anything keeping him here anymore, but today he shrugged again and said, ‘Soon,’ then turned away from me.
Now he stubs his joint out in a third grade ceramic ashtray on the desk, then slides out of the metal chair to the stained, beige carpet. In this tiny room, his outstretched feet nearly touch my knees. ‘You could be my twin,’ he says. I know he’s thinking back to the summer after sixth grade, the one where we sat on his front steps talking until eleven o’clock every night. Sometimes we held hands if the porch light was off. ‘We’re exactly alike,’ he continues. I want to shake him, want to shout that no, we are nothing alike, not anymore. Not in the slightest.
But I don’t make a habit of lying and he’s taught me everything I know outside the straight and narrow. ‘Yeah.’ Barely a whisper. ‘Identical.’
He inches across the carpet until our knees contact, brown corduroy to worn denim. His left hand reaches out to tug one of my corkscrew curls and a smile flashes across his face as the hair snaps back into place with a crisp boing. He drops his hand and gazes at it for a moment. His fingers find mine for the first time in four years and suddenly I’m leaning in and he’s clutching my hands and it’s the only thing keeping me from falling through the floor. Our foreheads rest against one another.
‘Hey.’ He smiles sadly at me.
‘I love you. You know that, right?’
‘I think so.’
He tugs on my hands and I finally let myself slip face-first into his chest. My left ear presses against his heart as I lay across his lap. I force my breath to slow until our chests rise and fall together. His heart beats seven times for every six of mine.
He rubs my hands until they return to a soft pink. I think back to the last time I saw him beyond the confines of this room, over a year ago. I ran into him on the town square at Fall Festival. He looked so out of place standing next to the funnel cake truck. I try to imagine him standing next to a cactus and decide to stay a little later tonight.